FEBRUARY 25, 2021
IN MAY 1989, not long before the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, the acclaimed novelist Yu Hua, then in his late 20s, bicycled one cold night back to the institute where he was studying. He had spent the afternoon among the swelling crowds — students in their thousands but also young mothers, attentive old men, vendors giving away their wares for free. There were intimations that the army was going to move on Tiananmen, so groups had spontaneously begun blocking intersections and exits. Approaching one overpass, Yu, who would not go on record about his 1989 experiences until 20 years had passed, saw a sea of unarmed people swarming it, singing, “steadfast, confident that with their bodies alone they could block soldiers and ward off tanks.” In this understated yet shattering essay titled “People” in China in Ten Words, a 2011 collection translated by Allan Barr, the writer puts his finger on why Tiananmen was a watershed. That seemingly impregnable mass brought home to him the living significance of a jaded cornerstone of Chinese life — the people.
In the decades since 1989 and the waning of political fervor, “the people” has become a meaningless expression or a cynical one, “nothing more than a shell company, utilized […] to position different products in the marketplace.” The loss of that collective moral stamina to try and enforce change forms the unstated background to Te-Ping Chen’s acutely observed stories of forsaken men and women in Land of Big Numbers. The collection, the debut of a Chinese American author who has earlier reported from Beijing for The Wall Street Journal, is very much illustrative of contemporary life in the land of the title — the still shocking newness of China’s highways and high-rises, the pockets of resistance to the profound dislocation caused by economic upheavals, the deadening drudgery of office and factory work contrasting with the lure of easy money, and, most strikingly, the memories of that other country out of which this brave, new one has emerged. “Memories,” though, is perhaps too exorbitant a word for the furtive and fleeting association with the past that dogs many of Chen’s characters.
In “New Fruit,” a woman regarded a busybody by her neighbors is redeemed thus: “What other people saw as a gossip’s instinct was really a fierce desire simply to notice things, to see the possibilities in things and what they meant, whether it was a certain expression that flitted across a neighbor’s face or a flock of starlings on the roof.” Pang Ayi’s hunger for life, which can only express itself as gossip, briefly finds fulfillment through the wondrous effects of a magical fruit, and then must be tamped down again. This thwarted desire is evident everywhere in Chen’s stories, even if her characters are not out of the ordinary. In fact, taken together the have a textbook representativeness about them — the hard-bitten yet vulnerably lonely and overworked migrant worker in the big city; the ambitious, successful yet always uneasy immigrant to America; the older man or woman with a safe and humdrum job who wants nothing more than “chide bao, chuan de nuan — to be full in the belly, to be warmly clothed”; or the restless student who questions the rampant excesses of the government and is brutally put down.
Not that there is anything facile about Chen’s characterizations. She knows her protagonists as people even as she is able to render their stories into parables about the country. One obvious theme is flight. Young people desperate to escape crowd these stories — run away from the deadbeat small town, avoid the farming their parents have always done, get out of the measly government job, make quick money or study hard enough to be able to emigrate. This antipathy to their antecedents makes these characters homeless in more than a physical sense. In “Field Notes on a Marriage,” Gao, a young university scholar of German married to a colleague at an American university, has no wish to return to the Chinese hometown he left as a teenager; visiting it from the United States, the narrator of the story finds it yields no clues to Gao’s childhood: it’s not just the school or apartment building that’s gone but also the idiom that gives value to the past. To be provincial implies one has come from nowhere. And so the past, when it returns, can take horrifying forms — as in this particular story or in the figure of the witless but menacing boyfriend left behind who reappears to harass the aspiring urban sophisticate in “Hotline Girl.”
On the other hand, there are those who refuse to be reduced to their provincialism, and several such impassioned figures appear in Land of Big Numbers, sometimes as everyday heroes — like the irrepressibly cheery village inventor in “Flying Machine” — but more often as resisters glimpsed in passing, people who don’t want to be remade, who see through the trade-off: a better life in return for rootlessness. A protesting man stands outside government offices for years, with “sneakers so worn they flopped open like petals around his ankles”; an old woman about to be evicted from her farmland appeals to a young man — “[y]oung people must have a conscience” — who has been secretly siphoning off government funds to put on the stock market; a villager forcibly relocated to the city has difficulty finding work and becomes obsessed with collecting and carving gourds.
Perhaps the most stunning picture of this desperate resistance appears in the story mentioned above where the visiting American woman notices off the highway, amid the debris of large-scale demolishment, a single concrete house, the earth scooped away from its base so that it looms precariously above the deserted landscape, the owners refusing to leave and therefore unable to even step out because, if they did, the building would be immediately taken down by developers. “It looked like an odd art installation, or an image from a surrealist painting: a city melting into a puddle, a single house floating on its remains.”
In the story of the magic fruit, the people in a small community are at first unexpectedly elevated by eating it but then, the following season, this strange hybrid starts to have the opposite effect. Shame, guilt, misery replace the euphoria; an elderly man recalls his calligrapher father being made to wear a placard that said “Bourgeoisie” before being stoned to death, while another elderly man, Lao Song, is approached by a stranger who confesses to being among those whose ridicule and violence caused Lao’s father to kill himself. The Cultural Revolution has, of course, been a staple of Chinese literature, shaping if not deforming lives in the works of writers as different as Wang Anyi, who is best known for her realistic evocations of life in Shanghai, and Nobel laureate Mo Yan, a writer associated with earthy and exaggerated tales of rural life. What makes it particularly poignant here is the reader’s realization that the generation involved directly in the affairs of that era is passing on and its legacy — often unacknowledged as this story shows — now increasingly belongs to those who were children then. (So also Yu Hua, who wryly describes in China in Ten Words what it was like to grow up in an era of street fights, public shaming, and competitive loyalty to the Leader.)
“If you want to understand your own country, then you’ve already stepped on the path to criminality,” says a young character called Lulu in one of Chen’s stories of that name, an insight that goes to the heart of the book. What’s at stake is not just accounting for the Revolution or, as suggested by the title story, for Tiananmen Square, but the very idea of history. This is a society, Chen suggests, in which living with an awareness of history is itself suspect; what results are characters who have either eliminated the past but who — giving in to the bright lights, big city aspirations of new millennium China — have nothing to fall back on, or those who are haunted by what they have not succeeded in forgetting.
I can’t help viewing Land of Big Numbers alongside Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, Yiyun Li’s marvelous 2010 story collection, which explored the more subliminal effects of this history. An author born and raised in China who has made her career in the United States writing in English, often about the country she left behind, Li writes stories that feature individuals defined by a nameless sadness, whose lovingly detailed interiority gives them great distinctiveness. But often there is also an external aid, a map which helps gives contours to the melancholy — that is, literature, music, painting. The political becomes subjective and diffused; there are no obvious lessons about China to draw from Li’s stories, even though the people in them, she takes care to remind us, are subject to the same old and new impersonal forces. This then is the magic fruit that unlocks character in these stories: reading Dickens or D. H. Lawrence, Tang Dynasty poems or anachronistic romances, dreaming of becoming an accomplished pianist, or listening to classical music as one grieves. A lonely girl called Moyan is mentored by a retired professor who reads out from the English classics to her every afternoon. “Professor Shan […] refused to let the mundane into her flat. Instead, we read other people’s stories, more real than our own; after all, inadequate makers of our own lives, we were no match for those masters.”
Li, writing out of that old Romantic belief in the riches of inner life, appears to set no store by “the people.” And Te-Ping Chen’s only story in which people come together for a cause, “Gubeikou Spirit,” turns out to be a satire about the emasculation that results in voluntary submission to authority. But it would be simplistic to see China as having merely flipped from communism to capitalist individualism. Yet again, Yu Hua helps to provide nuance. For all its recent go-getting culture, China’s economic miracle is not the obverse of its communitarian past; behind the former, he writes, “there is a pair of powerful hands pushing things along, and their owner’s name is Revolution […] within China’s success story one can see both revolutionary movements reminiscent of the Great Leap Forward and revolutionary violence that recalls the Cultural Revolution.”
That strangely solitary house of Chen’s story, with besieged but unyielding owners who must let down a bucket through their window so food can be sent up to them, is one poetic image of the effects of the revolutionary violence that has made the country rich. Chen’s stories abound in such telling images — the extraordinarily high human costs of creating the new China, so reminiscent of those that have been paid before.