Brutalized in China

The Vagrants

by Yiyun Li
Random House, 337 pp., $15.00 (paper)
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Li Zhensheng/Contact Press Images
People in the Songhua River commemorating the first anniversary of the seventy-two-year-old Mao’s swim in the Yangtze to demonstrate his vigor as the Cultural Revolution was beginning, July 16, 1967

She wonders if this is what people call falling in love, the desire to be with someone for every minute of the rest of her life so strong that sometimes she is frightened of herself.

She” is Granny Lin, a fifty-one-year-old Chinese woman who has fallen in love, for the first time in her celibate life, with Kang, a boy of six at the boarding school where she has a low-level job. There are many moments like this in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Yiyun Li’s first collection of ten stories. Much that happens in these lapidary masterpieces, which Ms. Li wrote in English, could happen anywhere, although much else could happen only in China, which she left for the US in 1996 at the age of twenty-four.

I often approach recent Chinese fiction, xiaoshuo, or “casual writing,” fearing that here again the author and publisher may be trying to cash in on Western curiosity—perhaps amazement—about the ways Chinese have sex, use drugs, can be gay, and even fall in love. The result of this condescending attitude is a quantity of low-order work that usually drops from sight after a few months. In the quality of its fiction China is far behind Vietnam, where several excellent novels have appeared since the 1990s. (I reviewed three of them—The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh, and Novel Without a Name and Paradise of the Blind, both by Duong Thu Huong—in the September 21, 1995, issue of The New York Review.) Some recent Chinese exceptions are Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem, Ha Jin’s earlier novels, and Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma.

Yiyun Li’s stories are dark and menacing; there is a pervasive sense that something awful is just around the corner. The horrifying aspects of Chinese political life, including execution, persecution, humiliation, and corruption, are treated almost glancingly, no more important than private jealousy, sexual longing, and the inhibitions that stop conversations before they get started. Only “After a Life,” a moving story about an elderly couple with a badly handicapped child, has a happy ending, which feels unlikely and inappropriate.

Immortality” is about a baby born with Mao’s features in a town long famous for supplying the imperial court with eunuchs. Mao, the “the dictator” in this story, is so dangerous while alive that

illiterate housewives who have used old newspapers as wallpaper and who have, accidentally, reversed the titles with the dictator’s name in them are executed.

For the people in the town, “we do not know if it is a blessing or a disaster that a boy with the dictator’s face lives among us.” Old people murmur that “there are things that are not allowed to exist in duplicates.”

But the look-alike goes …

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