There’s an awful lot of past in China but it doesn’t always sit easy. It’s not so much the past is another country in China, it’s more that the terrain is tricky, and the maps keep changing. In imperial times, each dynasty would write the official history of the one before, emphasising when the other lost the right to the mandate of heaven. Mao was an avid reader of Chinese history, but he wanted to erase China’s “olds” to usher in a new China. Now under Xi Jinping, China’s past is back, so long as it burnishes the past and doesn’t undermine the Communist Party. Confucius is back, Tiananmen Square is out.
This unresolved past has become a theme in recent fiction from China. In Ma Jian’s China Dream, his corrupt official comes to a sticky end when he can no longer distinguish between the factions of the past and the official version of the present. Now journalist, essayist and short story writer Te-Ping Chen has taken it on. “The past is a sensitive thing,” she has written in an essay.
Her acclaimed debut collection of short stories, Land of Big Numbers, grapples with the issues of the past both personal and political.
In her title story, a young man despises his parents’ poverty in a booming China only to discover his father had been blacklisted from his job as a taxi driver after supporting protesters at Tiananmen Square. In another, Hotline Girl, a young woman who has carved out a good life in the city as a telephone operator for the government’s complaints hotline finds herself confronting an old boyfriend from her village, who is both disturbed and disturbing.
A wife in “Field Notes on a Marriage” asks her husband to tell her something she doesn’t know from his past; it leads to a story of jealousy and murder, leading to suicide. Sometimes, the past is never confronted. The young couple in “Beautiful Country” focus relentlessly on the beauty of the present on a hiking holiday while discussing their future, so they don’t have to deal with the man’s past infidelity.
Land of Big Numbers has ten stories mostly involving ordinary Chinese trying to get ahead in modern China, but also several featuring Chinese-Americans.
Most are closely observed slices of life but two are fable-like, the most successful being “Gubeiko Spirit”, the story of a trainload of commuters trapped in a station when their connection fails to arrive and they end up staying for months, organising themselves into work parties, reading the headlines about their positive spirit and steadfastly refusing to escape.
Time and experiences separate the generations in Chen’s stories. The young man in “Land of Big Numbers” wants only to get rich in his China Dream while despising his state job, never suspecting his parents’ moment of political activism. Whereas in “Lulu a father cannot comprehend that his daughter, with all the chances of getting ahead, could throw it away on her idealism.
Chen, who grew up in Oakland, California, part of the Chinese diaspora in America, went to China as Beijing correspondent for the Wall Street Journal from 2014 to 2018.
She has spoken of how she started writing fiction, wanting to capture ordinary people’s experiences in China, while much of her journalism was centred on the state or the economy. Her characters feel well-rendered, from a peasant-inventor building an aeroplane (a story sparked by a newspaper article) to a lonely flower shop assistant in Shanghai, imagining love with one of her wealthy but oblivious clients. Often her women are young and hard-working, making a go in the city. Her men are often lazy or bad. It is interesting to see the way her journalism and fiction interact; as a reporter she loved covering the Chinese stock exchange, with its old-fashioned trading halls, small investors and “a giddy, nearly casino-like atmosphere”, but her short story is of a feckless young man, desperate to get rich like his friend, constantly studying numbers on his phone, while embezzling his government department funds.
One of Chen’s strengths is being able to give the impression of changes unfolding over time in only a few pages. The twins in the opening “Lulu” slowly change trajectory, as Lulu moves from bright, committed schoolgirl to anti-Party activist, while her twin shifts from slacker to chef to minor success. It unfolds at a pace that never makes the change of trajectories seem forced.
But perhaps the best thing for a Western reader is her depiction of how contemporary China works. There is wealth but life is unequal. Villages are abandoned for a shot at a better life in the city. Chen is very good at pitching the place of the Party and its Chinese characteristics. The Party is a hovering watchful presence, but not always despotic. In one fable-like story it moves to clamp down on a fruit which taste of “possibilities”. Some people like Lulu are captured by the police, jailed and silenced and a father is punished for supporting Tiananmen protests, but elsewhere in this Land of Big Numbers, people are left to pursue their China Dream, as they can.
Te-Ping Chen, Land of Big Numbers