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 to Beijing, where he enjoys years of fame and riches as a Mao impersonator in movies. After resisting relations with women, he is nationally disgraced for being photographed with a prostitute and returns to his hometown, where his mother has died of shame. He visits her grave, and there, in an echo of the town’s tradition of supplying court eunuchs, he castrates himself. His sexual organ vanishes, “to whose mouth we do not want to imagine,” unlike the great eunuchs of the past who saved their organs in silk bags and were buried with them in their venerated old age. The townspeople worry about the eunuch with “a long barren life ahead” who “sits in the sun and watches the dogs chasing one another,” and their reaction reveals a China few witness:
With his male root forever missing, what will we put into the silk sack to bury with him? How will we be able to send a soul to the next world in such incompleteness?
“Son” is about Han, who after ten years returns from the US, where he has become a citizen. A homosexual, he worries about meeting his mother at the airport because he fears she will be holding an album of marriageable girls for her zuanshi-wanglaowu, “a diamond bachelor,” an American citizen who earns American dollars. But rather than pictures of eligible women, his mother gives him a cross on a gold chain. Solid gold, she tells him. He teases her:
That sounds like the path we took when we joined the Communist Youth League. Our faith in communism is as pure and solid as gold.
Han tries to visit Internet sites to flirt with men, but the police have blocked the sites he chooses. He tries to visit another site, The New York Times, to read about underground churches in China, but that, too, is blocked. Han teases his mother some more, claiming that she has substituted the church for the Party. “Maybe someday you will even come up with the old conclusion that God and Marx are the same.” When this has no effect on her, he reminds her that she and his father took away and burned his Bible, a present from his best friend when they were thirteen. “They were in love without realizing it; innocent boys they were then, their hands never touching.” He reminds her, brutally, that his father—Baba—ordered her to destroy the Bible, “and it was the communist god you both worshipped. And now Baba is gone, and you’ve got yourself a new god to please.”
Eventually, he confesses to her that he is gay. “A shock, right? What would Baba say if he knew this? Disgusting, isn’t it?” She tells him she had already guessed. She touches his head as she did to reassure him when he was a child. “God loves you for who you are, not what others expect you to be.” Han the joker, the tease, is speechless. This is a story not so much about religion as about a long-parted mother and son finding each other. The terrible Maoist days lurk in just a few sentences.
In “Love in the Marketplace,” Sansan, a teacher, is known to her students as Miss Casablanca because she repeatedly shows that film to her classes. This is ostensibly to teach them English, although many of them can’t manage the dialogue. But the film means more to her: she was betrayed in a love affair.
Her mother sells boiled eggs outside the railway station, where a man appears and writes these words in blood from his finger:
Give me ten yuan and I will let you slice me once wherever you like; if you finish my life with one cut, you owe me nothing.
People laugh at him. Sansan’s mother gives him ten yuan and tells him to find a job. Sansan caresses the man’s arm:
She finally meets someone who understands what a promise is…. They will always find each other. Such is the promise of life; such is the grandeur…. She points the knife at the man’s shoulder and slices, slowly opening his flesh with love and tenderness.
A shocking scene that is also moving and convincing, proof of Yiyun Li’s power as a writer of short stories.
It is that very power that is lacking in Yiyun Li’s novel The Vagrants, although the story is brutal and frightening. It is set in 1979 in the small town of Muddy River. A young woman, Gu Shan, twenty-eight, once a ferocious Red Guard, was capable, twelve years earlier, of kicking a pregnant woman in the belly so violently that her daughter was born handicapped. Gu Shan’s aged father, a mild, devoted, disappointed schoolteacher with a “bad class background,” remembers that
Since the age of fourteen, Shan had been wild with passions he could not grasp, first a fanatic believer in Chairman Mao and his Cultural Revolution, and later an adamant nonbeliever and a harsh critic of her generation’s revolutionary zeal.
Shan began to doubt Maoism and Mao himself and confessed her misgivings to a boyfriend—who turned her in to the authorities. She spent ten years in jail, was retried, found to be unrepentant, and sentenced to death. The people of Muddy River, including primary school children, are mobilized to denounce her and witness her execution. Her throat has been cut so that she cannot cry out—something well-known to have happened during some Cultural Revolution killings. Her parents are forced to pay for the bullet that will end her life—another notorious detail. After she is shot, her kidneys are removed for transplantation into a high official who is ill. Her dead body, left in waste ground, is raped and further dissected by an unhinged local man, who stores some of her body parts in formaldehyde.
The Vagrants has been enthusiastically received. In TheNew York Times Book Review, Pico Iyer wrote that “Li’s novel is not easy or enjoyable to read, but what it has to do and say is serious business.” True enough—and this story is indeed largely true. It had already been told concisely and factually by Yiyun Li herself when she first published it in 2003 as an essay called “What Has That to Do with Me?” in The Gettysburg Review. The original true story is the basis for The Vagrants, but the 2003 version takes place one year earlier without the dialogue and the added characters.
In her brief essay, Li says that she has tried to imagine the motivations and feelings of the men who ripped out the executed woman’s kidneys, the local official who received them, the man who informed on her, and the janitor who defiled her dead body. “I want to interfere with history,” wrote Li, years before she published The Vagrants, “making things up at will, adding layers to legend…. The scenes always move me, as they are the central scenes for a hero’s story.” In one recent interview, Li says that her novel is “loosely based on two real executions,” and in another she says that when she was five or six she attended denunciation ceremonies leading to executions, which she didn’t witness. “I don’t think when you’re young you’re troubled by those things.”
Perry Link, a leading scholar of Chinese literature, has pointed out to me that traditional, and even some modern, xiaoshuo stories are intended to sound as if they were true, historical stories. The problem with reading The Vagrants after reading “What Has That to Do with Me” is that what is essential in the novel is the actual series of reported events. The significance of the factual account was summed up eloquently by Li in her essay as an example of how “in our country, one’s story does not end at one’s death.” She grew up, she says, reading accounts of Ping-Fan, depurges, about people once executed as “counterrevolutionaries” who, readmitted to society, were “celebrated by grateful family members in tears.”
Li’s own account, in The Gettysburg Review, of the execution and the horrible events surrounding and following it is powerful and moving. But it seems to me that in The Vagrants she has not turned her previous factual account into fiction as powerful as her short stories, although some of the characters in the novel are interesting, if predictable. We only learn about Shan herself as she is described by her parents. Nor do we hear directly from the other major character, Kai, who is the same age as Shan and as a child was in a class taught by Shan’s father, Teacher Gu. Later, she and Shan were rival Red Guards. Kai is now a model of political correctness, good-looking, and a famous news announcer, admired by all. She is married to Han, a careerist son of careerist parents, and their marriage is supposedly a perfect political union, although we learn that Kai is a discontented wife and mother.
Han is weak but vaguely goodhearted. He comes upon Shan’s old mother burning her daughter’s clothes so that she will not go naked to the next world. He orders the police to douse the burning clothes and says to Mrs. Gu, “Our way to send your daughter off is not only the most correct way but also the only way permitted by law.” He asks the police to escort the old lady home and they praise him for his generosity. What Han doesn’t know is that Kai has come to believe that Shan is innocent. She has gotten in touch with a small group of dissidents, led by the fatally consumptive Jialin, who plan to demonstrate against the execution, even possibly stopping it, and get as many people as possible to sign a statement of protest.
There is much telling detail here. Gu Shan’s parents are shunned by neighbors, fearful of any connection with the parents of a condemned “counterrevolutionary.” They worry about where she will be buried and who will do the burying. When Gu Shan’s father asks an aged couple, the Huas, kindly refuse collectors who take in unwanted children, to bury Shan, he is gently and painfully rebuffed. After all, “Old Hua and his wife had been among the ones Shan had whipped and kicked in a public gathering in 1966.” It is a genuinely poignant scene:
“We will help you with anything else.”
“Yes, I understand….”
“Bring Mrs. Gu over for a cup of tea when she feels like it,” Mrs. Hua said. She hesitated and added, “We’ve lost daughters, too.”
The atmosphere becomes menacing when the people of Muddy River hear about what Li calls
the democratic [usually democracy] wall in Beijing…where people could express their opinions freely; in the past few weeks many had posted comments requesting a more open and democratic government.
Leaflets appear in the town stating that the wall “had begun a new page in the nation’s history.” Why was it, the leaflets demanded, that ordinary people never heard about what was going on in Beijing? And why could people “not speak their minds without being put to death like Gu Shan?”
No one in Muddy River knows how the central government will react to the Democracy Wall. It could end a lot of careers, Shan’s apparatchik husband and his parents fear, and even lead to punishment for the man who was given Shan’s kidneys. (There was similar confusion in many Chinese cities during the uprisings centering on Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989.) As a result,
Offices became minefields where one had to watch out for oneself, constantly defining and redefining friends, enemies, and chameleons who could morph from friends to enemies and then back again. With their fates and their families’ futures in their hands, these people sleepwalked by day and shuddered by night. What would they do about these leaflets that only spelled trouble?
But then Beijing makes its decision: there is “a drastic turn after a late-night meeting, with the democratic wall now defined as an anti-communist movement.” The man who received Shan’s kidneys will now come to Muddy River to deal harshly with those who called for democratic change; he is likely to be promoted to the central government.
Han’s parents, who know about Kai’s connection to the democracy movement, order their son to divorce his wife at once. “We need to think about protecting ourselves.” When Han protests that Kai is his wife, his mother replies, “She won’t be after tomorrow.” Han’s father tells his son that he must make it clear that he knew nothing of Kai’s secret activities until it was too late:
Also, write a sincere self-criticism. I mean flesh-and-blood sincere, blood-and-marrow sincere. Dig and dig into the real depths…. Ask for punishment—now this is tricky—ask to be punished in a way that means really it was not your mistake except getting married to the wrong person…. Say you want to put your life in the hands of the party so you can demonstrate that your life is a worthy one.
When Han asks what will happen to Kai, his mother replies, “What will happen to her is not our concern anymore.”
Li then describes two elderly retired engineers discussing the recent events in Beijing and Muddy River:
The men had both escaped unscathed the various revolutions in their lifetimes…. Neither of them had any expectations, nor did they take a stand…. They took their seats and coolly watched from a distance. For every poor soul who was dragged down by this, the two wise men contemplated, there would be another one up for a promotion…. Neither bothered to take up his own past, as both understood that to be safe and sound in their age, they had had their share of bodies underneath their feet to keep them afloat, and those stories were no longer relevant, their shame and guilt absolved by old age.
Soon there are disappearances. Gu’s wife, who had joined the protest movement, has been taken away. “Teacher Gu knew that she would not come home for dinner, or, as far as he knew, for the rest of his life. They all disappeared in this manner.” His first wife had left him suddenly because she was a Party careerist and he had a “bad class background.” His daughter, Shan,
had been reading a book in her bed when the police came for her, close to bedtime because that was when all the arrests were customarily carried out…. In the end Shan had been dragged away, leaving the dog-eared book by her pillow…. They all took their exits so easily…. Would they have a moment of hesitation and think about him, when they saw his face between two tree branches, or heard him in an old dog’s coughing?
Other characters, barely connected to either Shan or Kai, seem increasingly irrelevant, sometimes annoyingly so, because while they each might have made a good subject for one of Li’s short stories, in the novel they have to bear some relationship to the denunciations, execution, throat cutting, kidney removal, and necrophilic rape. The connections seem forced. For several pages a little boy looks for his dog and accidentally makes it appear that his drunken father is a counterrevolutionary by forging his signature on a petition for Shan. A handicapped girl of twelve, the one whose mother had been kicked years before by Shan, longs for affection and falls into the clutches of a young pedophile, Bashi, nineteen, son of a Communist hero; he masturbates a lot and has a connection with the missing dog and with the creep who ravaged Shan’s dead body.
The central narrative of The Vagrants was better told by Yiyun Li as a factual story six years ago in The Gettysburg Review. Still, some characters in her new book—which has the subtitle “A Novel”—and their fates hold the reader’s attention. Li obviously has a number of views she wants to get across—about life in Communist China, about treachery, loyalty, principle, and expediency. She handles such matters brilliantly in her short stories because there she is not laboring to make a point. She is at her best in the one deftly entitled “Death Is Not a Bad Joke If Told the Right Way.” Li repeats this phrase near the end of the story, and adds, “yet I do not see a right way.”