A novel of today’s China

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Ma. Isabel Ongpin

A WORK of fiction, a novel, that came out last year and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is worth a read for much-needed knowledge about contemporary China and its people. Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2016) was written by Madeleine Thiem, a Malaysian Chinese writer. The title seems to be a line from the “Internationale,” the anthem of left-wing revolutionaries. Maybe this is the Chinese version.

The novel begins with the Chinese war against Japan as this country too, along with Western powers, tried to impose itself on China. There were a number of factions involved on the Chinese side, most important of which were the nationalists grouped in the Kuomintang party led by Chiang Kai-shek and the communists led by a communal leadership (Politburo, Red Army, etc.) and ends with the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The protagonists comprise three generations of a musical family who would naturally belong to the intelligentsia, a rather uncomfortable class in a Marxist society as it turns out, with the advent of the Cultural Revolution.

But let us not get ahead of the story. The family consists of two sisters and their husbands, all musicians. The husbands are drafted into the war and the sisters are left to fend for themselves and their infant children as itinerant musicians who sing in teahouses for the few coins they can get to keep themselves alive. Interesting to note that despite war and scarcity, instability and uncertainty, the poor patrons of teahouses can part with the coins to give them a living. It tells something about Chinese culture and its generosity for the arts on whatever level of society and in whatever eruptions in life.


When the communist faction under Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai and others of the communal leadership win the war against the nationalists (after the Japanese are defeated), they decide to change Chinese society to conform to their Marxist principles. Thus, they embark on painful and costly projects of social engineering with the goal of changing society overnight.

The landlord class is ousted from agriculture, the communal farms take over and the upending of the order of things results in a huge famine where 32 million people are said to have starved. This is soon followed by the Great Leap Forward where every town was commanded to have a steel mill in its backyard. Again, this resulted in chaotic melting of anything metal in the community, a total focus on steel work and not enough on anything else.

After a few decades when these events are absorbed and finally a semblance of the new order settles – education for all children, work for all citizens, one party system and a permanent leadership class brought in from recent history. But the internal tensions within the leadership class culminate in the Cultural Revolution where whole populations are moved to the countryside, schools and cultural institutions are trashed, intellectuals are persecuted and chaos once more finds a home in Chinese contemporary history

All of these impact on the characters over time and through the various stages of their lives.

This is a saga and we have characters and their progeny coping, adjusting, conforming to what befalls them. They become victims of history but in time a good number react to become rebels of their time.

The settings are Shanghai and its world-renowned Conservatory of Music, Beijing and its hutong, the deserts of the western China, the little towns (Cold Water Ditch) where city folk are exiled and finally the center of China, Tiananmen Square.

What we see from afar is that a country as impoverished and troubled as China was in the late 19th century, comparatively speaking, was in the course of a few decades of the 20th century able to bring millions of absolutely poor people to a viable life removed from food scarcity, lack of shelter, no opportunity for education, inability to clothe or medicate themselves, to levels high up in the economic spectrum. It is unprecedented in world history, a nation managing to uplift a huge population, the biggest in the world and in history from poverty. In the process, achieving parity with the most powerful of countries, earning its place on the table of international politics and everything that comes with that.

But there was a cost, a large, cataclysmic price in suffering by its citizens along the way. And this is what this novel depicts – families separated by State dictation, intellectuals persecuted, cultural institutions and artifacts deliberately destroyed, lives forever altered, worsened, lost.

There may be bitterness, anger, desperation but there is also resilience, ambition, hard work and an underlying ability to cope with life, make something out of very little.

In time, the intellectuals come back to fore in the students, the workers, the ordinary public that has food, shelter, clothing, medical care, travel, entertainment—but all these are no longer enough.

Now, freedom of expression, human rights, majority rule, a change of governance rises and demands from these conditions. This was expressed at Tiananmen Square in the year 1989 when millions of students, workers, citizens converged to stand up for liberty, democracy, human rights.

China is a large country with a huge population made of up many ethnicities, whose governance is a task of unimaginable proportion compared to other countries. From its past of warlordism, the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions and much more, one governance error usually interpreted as being indecisive, soft or maybe even mistakenly humanitarian, can lead to chaos and fragmentation.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing depicts the dilemma. China is a country no farther than a four- hour fight away. Do we really know it, understand it, feel for it? We should.

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