Write bilingually, English (My Adoptive Language) and Chinese (My Mother Tongue)

Language is not merely a tool, but a mindset. To translate, in a way, is to rewrite — Fan Wu 



I wrote poems and essays when I was in China, but I never tried fiction. After graduating from Stanford University with an MA in Mass Media Studies, I found employment at Yahoo!, an Internet company, working in editorial then in market research analysis. When I started to write in English in 2002, I was inspired by the short stories by Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, and William Trevor. I would work long hours in the office, and then go home to write. I had intended to write a short story as my first creative writing attempt in English, but the story kept growing and growing until three years later it became a 80k-word novel, FEBRUARY FLOWERS.

Since the day I decided to write creatively in English, I have been torn between my mother tongue and my adopted language. After my first book, FEBRUARY FLOWERS, was published in more than a dozen countries, I, fearing losing my ability to write in Chinese, translated the book into Chinese myself for my Chinese publisher. My fear was so strong that I wrote my second book, BEAUTIFUL AS YESTERDAY, in Chinese, and then translated it into English for its publication in the U.S., the UK, and some other countries. 

To this day, I still translate my own writing between the two languages. That’s why Nobokov’s “Speak, Memory”  is so dear to me as he describes wonderfully the excitement and the anxiety of living in two languages and two cultures.

In the book, Nabokov says, “For the present, final, edition of Speak, Memory, I have not only introduced basic changes and copious additions into the initial English text, but have availed myself of the corrections I made while turning it into Russian. This re-English of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place, proved to be a diabolical task, but some consolation was given me by the thought that such multiple metamorphosis, familiar to butterflies, had not been tried by any human before.”

To me, language is not merely a tool, but a mindset. To translate, in a way, is to rewrite. 

Excerpt from my second novel, BEAUTIFUL AS YESTERDAY, a story of mother-daughter relationship set in the present-day San Francisco Bay Area. 

She sometimes wonders whether, if she had lived in the United States since she was little instead of coming here as an adult, she would still have so much attachment to China. It seems to her writers always identify more closely with the cultures where they were born and raised. Jewish writers write the best about Jews, and Asian-American writers tend to focus on Asian Americans’ lives, while black writers such as Toni Morrison and James Baldwin are masters in depicting the black experience. A famous writer whose name she has forgotten once said that literature is the extension of a keen nostalgia about one’s ancestors. Maybe it is true. 

“Or is her problem the language? Which language to choose, Chinese or English? She remembers a story from Autumn Flows, written by Zhuangzi, the most renowned Chinese Taoist philosopher.

In the story, a person from the Yan Country admires how they people in the Zhao Country walk, so he travels there to imitate their walking. By the time he needs to rerun to his own country, he has forgotten how to walk like a Yan person; meanwhile, he cannot walk like a Zhao person, either. So he ends up crawling back to Yan.

In the back of her mind, Ingrid fears she no longer has a first language: she has lost intimacy with Chinese, yet she’s still learning English despite the fact that she speaks with only a slight accent and has begun to build her name in the business translation world. When she writes in English, especially creatively, she sees her limited; the words seem to be floating on the surface of the water, instead of being part of the water.” 


Mandatory military training for college students after the 1989 Tiananmen Square Crackdown

I went to college in the 90s, one year after the Tiananmen Incident. At that time, it was mandatory for first-year college students to go through a military training provided by the army.  I had thought about applying for Beijing University, but decided against it because the military training there lasted one whole year.  I later chose Zhongshan University (Sun Yat-sen University) in Guangzhou, one of the most developed cities in China, where people tended to eschew politics, and started my campus life with a required one-month military training.

One of my recent short stories, “Nobody’s Talking About Falling in Love,” is inspired by that one-month experience of my life.  A story about the friendship between an eighteen-year-old college student and a sergeant. It’s included in a well-reviewed anthology: “One World: A Second Global Anthology of Short Stories.”

Here is an excerpt from “Nobody’s Talking About Falling in Love.”

“The girl was tall and plump, a first-year college student . As required by her university, she and other first-year students had to complete a one-month military training program before school started, in which no other classes would be held except those on ideology and Party history.

It was the third day into training. Her grass-green army jacket – in the biggest size for female students – was tucked into a brown belt and pinched tight on her shoulders and chest. Her pants fitted at the waist but stopped an inch above her ankles. She was the first in her row, arranged from tallest to shortest. There were ten rows in total – all girls – on a campus basketball court, forming a square: Unit 8. In training, boys and girls were separated, boys in odd-numbered, girls even-numbered units. Boys from her class were in Unit 3 and trained at an outdoor stadium. At the end of the program the students would be graded according to performance. If they failed, they’d have to attend next year’s training with freshmen for that year and, later, might have trouble getting a diploma.

It was a hot summer day. The girl and her classmates sweated profusely under the scorching sun but dared not wipe their faces. She looked down and saw beads of sweat on her nose. No doubt she’d get tanned or even burned on her face and neck. A few days earlier she’d had her hair cut to the bottom of her ear lobes to meet army requirements, so it wasn’t long enough to protect her neck. Also, she’d gotten up too late this morning to apply sunblock. She raised her left shoulder slightly to scratch an itchy spot on her cheek, briefly easing her shoulders and bending her knees, but repositioned immediately into attention under a soldier’s gaze – on each corner of the square stood a fully uniformed soldier at attention.

Their sergeant was giving a speech. Tall and barrel-chested, he stood with his feet apart at shoulder-width, his hands behind his back, his army cap covering his forehead and shading half his face. He was said to be a model soldier and the toughest instructor.”

To read the complete story, please visit One World Two at Amazon.

Coming-of-age story on a Chinese university campus

After graduating from high school, I left Nanchang for Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province, and studied at Sun Yat-Sen University, majoring in Chinese Language and Literature. It was in early nineties when China, in the wake of Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown, quickened the pace of “Reforming and Opening up”, especially in the southern Pearl River Delta region. Instead of immersing myself in the study of classic and contemporary Chinese literature, I spent most of my time reading translated literature from around the world. My favorite writers at that time included Hemingway, J.D. Salinger,  D.H. Lawrence,  Emily Brontës, Stefan Zweig, Yasunari Kawabata, Gabriel García Márquez, Milan Kundera, Marguerite Duras, and Albert Camus. 

February Flowers - US

My first novelFebruary Flowers is a coming-of-age set on a university campus. When the book was published, I did a multiple-country book tour. During the tour, I was asked a lot what it was like to be a college student in China. Here’s an excerpt from the book. Though I didn’t give the University a name, its inspiration is my alma mater, Sun Yat-Sen University (Zhongshan University), located in Guangzhou.


      The University sat alongside the Pearl River – a big compus, separated from the outside by a high brick wall. The main entrance looked over a long, wide road lined with tall palm trees. Between the trees, flowers blossomed all year round. At the end of the road was one of the university’s oldest buildings. It had a multilevel green tile roof, brick walls, and a copper-studded double door. It was now used as an auditorium, where admission and graduation ceremonies were held. These kind of old buildings could be seen everywhere on campus, some hidden by luxuriant trees. Most of them were office buildings, like the one occupied by the Admissions Bureau behind the Bell Tower. 


       The shabbiest buildings on campus were the undergraduate dorms. Most of them were white, rectangular, made of cement blocks. On each floor long, external hallways went straight from one end to the other with nothing in between. All the rooms were identical – a square open space with one double door and one window. The door and window trims were brownish and looked like they hadn’t been painted in years. In the middle of each floor was an eight-sink washroom and a bathroom with cold water only, so students had to go to the public bathhouse next to the canteen for a hot-water shower. The toilets were the squatting kind and some of the doors were missing. There was nothing interesting about these dorms, let along romantic. They were said to be styled after Russian steelworkers’ accommodations of the fifties. It was probably joke but I had no desire to investigate further. 

       West Five was one of these buildings. It didn’t become all female until two years before I came to university. From that time on male students were no longer allowed to enter the door and a high brick wall surrounded the whole building. The only entrance was through an iron gate that had a duty room built on one side of it. Two women in their sixties, both called Dama – meaning “old auntie” – took turns managing the duty room and the only phone in the building. The phone was connected to a speaker installed right above the doorframe of each dorm room. If someone asked for one of the girls, the Dama on duty would dial that girl’s room number and pass on the message. 

     Every day before dinner a crowd of guys would wait outside the duty room and keep the Dama busy dialing room numbers and passing on messages. The girls who were called would meet their boyfriends outside the duty room and disappear with them beyond the brick walls. Then, a few minutes before the gate was locked at 11pm every evening, another crowd would gather. After saying goodbye to their male escorts, the girls would go back to the dorm. The crowd would reach its peak on Friday and Saturday nights, when the queue extended well beyond the iron gate. Some of the guys clutched bunches of flowers, stuffed animals, or gift boxes. Doma’s voice would become hoarse and impatient, yelling room numbers and names in a never-ending stream. West Five would be transformed into a huge dressing room, with dolled-up girls swinging down the stairs, the air filled with a heady mix of perfume, lotions, and nail polish.”  

To read “February Flowers”, please visit here.


Journey from a state-run farm to a booming metropolis

If there’s anything I miss about China it’s this kind of neighborhood scene—chaotic, yet full of life – Fan Wu 

My parents moved to Nanchang, my mother’s hometown, in mid-80s. My mother gave up her career as a biologist and became a librarian, while my father taught at a high school. Both retired, they still live in Nanchang. 

After college I went to work in Shenzhen, China’s first Special Economic Zone, now a major financial powerhouse with a population of 15 million. Here is how Old Hu, a fictional character in my latest book, “Song of The Daisies,” describes the city: “It (Shenzhen) was a fishing village not many years ago but now it’s as prosperous as Hong Kong…Yeah, they say it’s an Economic Special Zone, a perfect blend of socialist idealism and capitalist practicality but to me it’s just greed, nothing more.”

But for the 16-year-old heroine in my story “Jade,” Shenzhen is a dazzling world, a beautiful mirage, packed with  skyscrapers and luxuriously decorated boutiques, where a special entry permit was required. 

I lived on and off in Shenzhen for three years and had varied jobs. 

Street view, Nanchang
Street view, Nanchang

Here is how Moli Yang, the protagonist in my new novel, “Song of The Daisies,” describes her hometown:

“Whatever renovation the city has done has only made it more crowded and messy. After getting out of the taxi—roadblocks prevent it from going further—I follow the map my cousin Weiming has drawn, traversing an old railroad, then a tunnel where unlicensed vendors occupy narrow walkways on both sides, selling batteries, foldable knives, knock-off purses and shoes, women’s underwear and stockings, toys, children’s books and rat and cockroach pesticides. 

Morning excises on a Chinese street, Nanchang
Morning excises on a Chinese street, Nanchang

Beyond the tunnel is an alley full of small shops and restaurants where customers eat at outside tables. It is hot, over 35 degrees Celsius. When I reach the end of the alley I see a huge oak tree growing inside an occupied house. Beneath the tree activities thrive: squatting young people play poker, an old man carrying a radio sings a dirge-like Cantonese opera, people have their hair cut and ears cleaned for two yuan, a man applies sandpaper to a cracking wooden table, girls wearing red scarves jump ropes, several men play pool, a young woman sorts out a pile of vegetables while a grey rabbit munches on the rotten leaves she has discarded.

I can’t stop looking, as if I were in a theater. If there’s anything I miss about China it’s this kind of neighborhood scene—chaotic, yet full of life.”

Growing up on a state-run farm in post-Cultural Revolution China: Red Harbor

Chinese Fishing Boat Boyang Lake
Chinese Fishing Boat Boyang Lake

Several years ago, I visited the Red Harbor farm where I was born. My parents had been sent there in the 60s and had lived there for more than twenty years.

In its heyday, the farm was a thriving community, boasting eighty thousand residents. In the late seventies, people started to leave, returning to where they had come from.

Despite property and isolation, I loved the farm and those carefree days when I roamed the fields and woods like a wild animal with my friends.

Chinese state-run farm house
Chinese state-run farm house

These photos are from the trip. The farm now houses several jails, whose wardens commute daily to a nearby city where they own a condo in a high-rise complex. 

Many of the places I remembered as a child, though abandoned and in ruins, still exist, including the Ice Cream Parlor, grocery store and the apartment  where we lived for many years.  

Flannery O’Connor said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough informaton about life to last him the rest of his days.” To this day, I dream of the farm now and then. 

Ice Cream parlor on a Chinese state-run farm
Ice Cream parlor on a Chinese state-run farm

Here is the excerpt from my short story, “Ya Ba – A Mute,” published in the Redivider Journal and nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

I did know a boy who was a mute when I was living on the farm. He was my next-door neighbor’s only son. Bald and skinny, he smiled a lot and liked to play pranks on other kids.


Left-behind children (Liu Shou Er Tong) in a Chinese village
Left-behind children (Liu Shou Er Tong) in a Chinese village

        “It was early summer – time to pick raspberries. “Let’s go to the orchard next to the river,” I suggested.

        “My baba will be back in two hours. Do we have enough time?” Third Root said.

        “Trust me,” I said impatiently and yanked the basket from him. Wearing it like a hat, with it covering half my head and only allowing me to peek through the space between the twigs, I leapt towards the riverbank. I was so familiar with every road, every house on the farm that I could smell where I was even if I were blind.

        We raced along a potholed dirt road used mainly by tractors and cows, trotted through a dried-up swamp, and climbed the riverbank, extending more than ten li – all the way to the New Start Farm, where a heavily-guarded jail was stationed. In front of us, the Bo Yang Lake stretched its full length like a giant white dragon, which, according to my baba, would eventually merge into the Yangtze River at a city called Nine Rivers. Smelling the diesel from the passing fishing boats and hearing the humming of their engines, we chased each other along the riverbank. In a short while we arrived at a Mandarin orange orchard, where a dozen leafy raspberry trees grew alone the fence. Cheering, we dashed towards them… 

(To read the complete story, please write to me.)


Three Sisters by Bi Feiyu – Book Review




To contemporary Chinese writers, peasants’ lives have special charm: They comprise the majority of the Chinese population; they endure more poverty and social injustice than their city counterparts; and most importantly, their conditions and fate largely decide those of the country.

The book list is long: Mo Yan’s “Red Sorghum,” Lu Yao’s “The Ordinary World,” Yu Hua‘s “To Live” and Han Shaogong’s “A Dictionary of Maqiao,” to name just a few. And now we have the novel “Three Sisters,” by the novelist and screenwriter Bi Feiyu.

Set in rural China in the 1970s, Bi’s story tracks the lives of three sisters – Yumi, Yuxiu and Yuyan. The book is divided into three parts, each centering on one of the three women.

Yumi is calm, determined and authoritative. She cares for her seven siblings and her submissive mother. She resents her father, the formidable Village Party secretary, who sleeps around without shame or guilt. When Yumi falls in love with a potential aviator, she dreams of a changed life. But her dream is derailed when her father loses his position and party membership after being caught sleeping with a soldier’s wife. Despairing, Yumi asks her father to find her a husband; there’s only one condition: “He must be a man who wields power.”

As Yumi’s only village rival, Yuxiu is pretty and passionate, a seductive “fox fairy.” But before she can benefit from her beauty, she becomes the victim of a gang rape, carried out as revenge against her lascivious and now powerless father. Unable to stay in the village, she goes to town to seek the protection of Yumi, now wife of an aged deputy director named Guo. While Yumi does what she must to meet Guo’s sexual needs, Yuxiu tries to secure her future by learning about bookkeeping, by pleasing Guo’s ugly and vain daughter, and later by seducing Guo’s estranged son.

Compared with Yumi and Yuxiu, Yuyang is homely, clumsy, stubborn and taciturn. Yet she succeeds in getting into college, if only because she “could commit page after page of her textbooks to memory.” She is realistic, knowing that “she really didn’t amount to much; she was like a squirt of urine in the Yangtze River.” At the same time, she’s ambitious, serving as an informant to Wei, the head of a security team. Her job: give “a weekly written report to Wei on any and all anomalies” on campus.

But her fate isn’t much better than her sisters’: Her brief encounter with love is a disappointment; she’s disdained by her classmates, not favored by her teachers and sexually molested by Wei. Facing these adversities, she still feels that she has “come out ahead” because she now has Wei’s promise of keeping her in town.

Bi’s compelling and unsentimental book tackles myriad subjects, such as power and corruption, love and betrayal, civil duty and personal sacrifice, and conflict between the rural and urban worlds. It draws a meticulous picture of a transitioning village in ’70s China, and in so doing, Bi has created memorable characters: not just the three sisters, but also the villagers and townspeople.

“Three Sisters” has its structural problems. While Yumi’s and Yuxiu’s stories are skillfully interwoven, Yuyang’s story seems detached, almost as if Yuyang were an afterthought derived from her two sisters’ stories. Partly because of this, the book seems unfinished. But one may overlook these flaws, thanks to Bi’s intimate knowledge of his characters and his masterful storytelling.

Despite the cruelty and suffering, there is hope in Bi’s book, which lies mainly in the three young women’s defiance of life’s privations and their determination to find a new future for themselves against all odds. In this sense, they transcend their depressing conditions and, ultimately, inspire the reader.

Pearl of China by Anchee Min – Book Review




Since “Red Azalea,” Anchee Min has populated her writing with strong-willed though sometimes cruel heroines such as Madame Mao and Empress Cixi. In her latest book, “Pearl of China,” she creates a fanciful yet believable world for the Nobel laureate Pearl Buck through the voice of an imagined Chinese woman, Willow Yee, whose unwavering friendship with Buck has endured the test of turbulent times in Chinese history.

Born in poverty, Willow ekes out a living by stealing. After she befriends Pearl, an American missionary’s young daughter who eats with chopsticks and wears a crocheted cap to conceal her blond hair to look Chinese, she is exposed to education and Christianity. This process turns her into a reputable journalist and a great admirer of Pearl’s writing about China and its peasants.

Her friendship with Pearl continues and strengthens despite their brief romantic rivalry and long separations. During the Mao era, Willow’s devotion to her childhood friend, now living in America and being condemned as an “American cultural imperialist” by the Communists, destroys her marriage and family, and causes her to be thrown into a labor prison. But as soon as she has a chance, she embarks on a journey to visit her friend’s grave in the United States.

Willow Yee is the real protagonist of the book. Through her eyes and thoughts, Pearl’s life evolves via many personal defeats and triumphs. Like Min’s other books, “Pearl of China” is charged with high drama involving a deprived childhood, an arranged marriage, abuse and extramarital affairs, love rivalry, war, political scheming and struggling, and mindless violence and torture. Though some circumstances feel contrived, the overall story advances rapidly, spanning 80-plus years of China’s history from the Boxer Rebellion, the Japanese invasion, the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists and the establishment of the Mao era to the Cultural Revolution and China’s opening to the West.

Min skillfully blends real historical figures such as Pearl’s missionary parents, the renowned Chinese poet Hsu Chih-mo, Chairman Mao, Madame Mao and Richard Nixon with fictional characters to authenticate the story’s social and political context. This, in turn, lends more credibility to some of her fictional characters, especially the courageous Willow Yee and the canny, pragmatic Papa Yee, who busies himself converting poor peasants to Christianity.

Min’s imaginative powers are at their best when depicting Willow and Pearl’s childhood in a small town, Chin-Kiang. Their interactions with the townspeople and their fascination with the popcorn man and operas are enjoyable reads. Compared with these, the latter part of the book sometimes seems vapid and undeveloped. Min’s sparse and blunt language, though somewhat conveying the brutality of events such as the Cultural Revolution, undermines the potency of what could have been a much richer account. And the description of Willow burying her husband’s abandoned body bears a marked resemblance to the title story in Xianhui Yang’s 2000 collection, “Woman From Shanghai,” a book about life and death in a Chinese gulag in the 1950s.

Though “Pearl of China” provides a quick glimpse into Chinese history in the 20th century, it often falls short in exposing the magnitude and complexity of certain pivotal historical moments by rushing through event after event. Wooden and sketchy statements, such as “He (Mao) didn’t want to be stretched too thin, so he claimed a nation and named it the People’s Republic of China,” may offer a convenient background to readers, but they greatly diminish the book’s literary merit and historical power.

Such flaws aside, the book presents a welcome addition to Min’s long list of strong female characters, and pays worthy homage to Pearl Buck’s legacy, particularly when it concerns her days in China and how she has been received there over the years.

A Good Fall by Ha Jin – Book Review




Multiculturism is a luxury, especially to immigrants, to whom being assimilated and accepted in the adopted land is often a far cry. The melting pot in Ha Jin’s new collection, “A Good Fall,” resembles a simmering Chinese hot pot, where varied ingredients complement each other in flavor, yet each keeps its distinct taste, rather than a smooth and well-blended broth.

All 12 stories in the collection unfurl in the United States – mostly in New York – and explore Chinese immigrants. His characters span a wide range: men and women, young and old, intellectuals and blue collars, rich and poor. Despite contrasts in status and background, these people, unmoored and often lonely, face equally the precariousness of life and clashes between the past and the present, familial duties and personal desires, and the Chinese-ness and the American-ness.

For some of Jin’s characters, taking root in America is the top priority. In “Shame,” Mr. Meng, a Chinese professor, decides to stay in the United States illegally because he believes “a human being should live like a bird, untrammeled by any man-made orders.” To earn a living, he becomes a busboy and, when tracked down, he escapes to Mississippi, resolving to “live in complete obscurity, dead to the world.” In “The House Behind a Weeping Cherry,” a garment worker and his lover, a prostitute, run away from pimps and gangs, dreaming of starting their life anew.

Some other characters are more socially and economically established yet cannot seem to shake off their cultural baggage. In “Choice,” when Eileen Lin must choose between a lover and her jealous daughter, she picks the latter because she simply cannot let her down. A similar dynamic plays out in “In the Crossfire,” in which Tian Chu sacrifices his lucrative accounting job to stop the endless squabbling between his carping mother and his wife, instead of confronting his mother, who once shouts at his wife, “Don’t ever talk back to me in front of others!”

In tackling the cultural awkwardness immigrants often experience, Jin is straightforward at times, subtle and ironic at other times. In “An English Professor,” Rusheng agonizes absurdly over the misspelled word “respectly” in his report to the college tenure committee. Dreading humiliation among his colleagues and the Chinese community, he considers becoming an encyclopedia salesman, even a monk. When he finally gets tenure, he goes berserk. Is he simply paranoid or do apprehension and uncertainty haunt the edges of an immigrant’s subconscious? In “A Composer and His Parakeets,” the love-deprived and lonely Fanlin seeks comfort in a dumb parakeet. When the bird dies, Fanlin’s grief inspires him to write an emotionally fraught opera.

Although Chinese-ness rules throughout this collection, Jin emphasizes Americanness, a seeming homage to his own 24 years of observations and ruminations as an immigrant. His characters, regardless of their miseries and misfortunes, are eager to negotiate with the threatening situation and to take advantage of the newly discovered freedom in America at all levels – financially, politically, socially and psychologically. The narrator in “A Pension Plan” says, “I’m not sure if I’ll be able to learn enough English to live a different life, but I must try.” Her statement echoes the author’s sentiment in a 2000 interview: “When I made the decision to write in English only, I was determined to travel all the way, no matter how tough, how solitary it was.”

In embracing Americanness, Jin occasionally stumbles into pedantry, heightened in the title story when the protagonist is told that America is “a land ruled by law, and nobody is entitled to abuse others with impunity,” and also in “Temporary Love,” when Panbin, preferring a Ukrainian woman he barely knows over his old lover, declares that he won’t date a Chinese again because “every Chinese has so much baggage of the past,” too heavy for him to “share and carry.”

“A Good Fall” is a departure, in terms of setting, from Jin’s three earlier collections, which focus on the Chinese people before the 1990s, when China strengthened its openness and reform efforts. But his masterful storytelling persists – meticulous, droll, convincing, populated with memorable characters – not to mention the indelible portrait of an immigrant life he gives us. What is also consistent is his prowess to study and reveal, often with heartfelt humor, the compromised and damaged heart and soul, and the impact of time and history on ordinary people.

Woman from Shanghai by Yang Xianhui – Book Review




“If I can keep an honesty it is all I can expect of my poor brain,” John Steinbeck confessed in a posthumously published journal. When Xianhui Yang embarked on a journey in 1997 to interview, over the course of five years, nearly 100 former “rightists” from the Mao era, he shared Steinbeck’s faith and modesty.

Set against one of the darkest and least known tragedies in China’s modern history, Yang’s “Woman From Shanghai” is a collection of 13 stories based on his interviews with the survivors of Jiabiangou, a forced-labor camp in China’s northwestern desert. The incarcerated, most of them scholars or senior government officials, were condemned for various reasons: dissenting views with the party, confrontation against party officials or simply nonproletarian family backgrounds. Between 1957 and 1960, they endured hard labor, humiliation, torture and starvation. Out of the nearly 3,000 inmates, only a few hundred outlived the camp.

Starvation and death permeate the stories. To survive, the prisoners ate weeds, rats, worms, tree bark and countless other inedibles, including a lethal “gluey soup” that blocked the intestine. In “Manure Collectors,” Chen and his teammates devour peas found inside piles of horse dung. The desperate conditions even triggered cannibalism. Death became an everyday experience.

“Most people died quietly, in their sleep, without a single moan or any sign of struggle,” Yang writes.

Death, however, didn’t extinguish the yearning for love and dignity. The protagonist in “The Love Story of Li Xiangnian” escapes with the sole intention of seeing his girlfriend. “Jia Nong” describes a group of female detainees’ pampering of a child born in the camp. When Chen, in “Manure Collectors,” buries a dead newborn for a dispirited mother, he builds a little tomb, because “deep down, he felt strongly that this had been a life, a person.”

The title story, easily the most emotional account in the collection, depicts a wife’s love for her convicted husband. The Shanghainese woman travels across half the country only to be told that her husband has recently died from starvation and was buried hastily without a tombstone in the desert. She stubbornly looks for his corpse, eating and drinking nearly nothing for days. When she finally locates his body, it resembles a mummy, with the flesh hacked off.

Determined to bring her husband home, she has the remains cremated. The image of her carrying his charred bones with her to the train is haunting: the chilly desert wind blowing, her green scarf fluttering, she almost disappears beneath the huge bundle.

Born in 1946, Yang worked at various jobs on a military-style collective farm for 16 years before dedicating himself to writing. When it was first published in China in 2000, Yang’s collection had to be disguised as fiction to evade censorship. But this didn’t prevent it from becoming an instant sensation, shocking the nation with its astounding frankness about a history little known to the public and still systematically suppressed by the government. It was hailed as China’s “Gulag Archipelago.” Although it is debatable if Yang’s book equals Alexander Solzhenitsyn‘s in magnitude and historical significance, it undoubtedly established Yang as a prominent writer in China.

Solzhenitsyn dedicates his book on the Soviet force labor camp system to “all those who did not live to tell it.” Yang dedicates his collection to “those who now lie under the vast desert sand.” Told in stark, spare yet deeply compelling prose, infused with unsentimental compassion, “Woman From Shanghai” stands out amid the voluminous literature and testimonies about the persecution in Mao’s labor camps. It exposes torture and dehumanization, but is also a powerful rumination on hope, love and humanity.


Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li – Book Review



In certain Edward Hopper paintings, several people stand or sit in the same room, each looking in a different direction, absorbed in private thoughts. Despite physical closeness, they’re estranged, their minds far apart, their intentions and ruminations unknown to each other.

That will be the reader’s first impression when opening “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” Oakland author Yiyun Li’s appealing and lucid new collection of eight stories and a novella. The book is saturated with widowhood, loneliness, illness, divorce, grief, death, privation and deprivation. “Welcome to the land of the unfortunate and the deserted,” as a character in “House Fire” summarizes her own fate without self-pity.

 In “A Man Like Him,” retired Teacher Fei’s only companion is his elderly mother, whom he cares for. His disgust for a girl who accuses her father openly of adultery drives him to seek support and sympathy from the wrongly accused. In “House Fire,” six old women, motivated by the failed marriage of one of them, form a detective agency to declare war against extramarital love. While handling a new case, each realizes that she is vulnerable, subject to injustice and unfavorable circumstances “in this treacherous world.” “Souvenir” describes a chance encounter between a young girl and a widow, two perfect strangers, both with too much grief in their lives.

Despite the bleakness of Li’s book, it radiates love, passion and kindness, however trivial and intangible. The piece that voices human warmth most effectively is “Kindness,” the novella.

The narrator is Moyan, a 41-year-old math teacher, who lives alone in a derelict Beijing neighborhood. Moyan’s reminiscences often take her to her spiritually deprived youth. As a girl, she was acquainted with Professor Shan, an old and eerie teacher who read her English books by Dickens, Lawrence and the like. She also came to know Lieutenant Wei while she was in forced military training at college, an aftermath of the Tiananmen protests of 1989.

Both Shan and Wei attempted to reach the young Moyan’s heart, noticing her solitude and silence, but their persistence in seeking her friendship failed miserably. And Wei’s somewhat innocent question to Moyan, “Tell me, how can we make you happy?,” remained unanswered until many years later, after both Wei and Shan have died. Only then has the much older Moyan assumed a new perspective about herself, her past, her nonbiological parents and the people who have crossed her path at various stages of her life.

The title story is yet another revelation of the compromise a person must make for the sake of kindness and love, either out of civil duty or a force beyond conscious awareness. In the story, a widowed zoology professor wants her favorite student to marry her son. All three are loners, each with a secret that cannot be shared, and they know that they “would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.”

By exploring her characters’ innermost worlds, Li sometimes depends too much on fate’s random and mysterious aspects. This can create suspense but can also make certain stories and characters seem contrived and less convincing. “Sweeping Past” describes a woman’s alienation from her childhood best friends because her once-well-intentioned proposal has resulted in a senseless rape and killing. In “Prison,” a middle-aged couple, after their daughter’s death, find a poor country woman, a dimwit’s wife, to serve as the surrogate mother of their fertilized egg. During the pregnancy, the woman threatens to break the contract if the couple don’t give her money to buy back her long-lost son. “The Proprietress” is a story of an affluent and strong-willed businesswoman adopting unfortunate women and kids so she can “reconstruct” them.

Despite its flaws, Li’s collection well deserves a celebration with its sophistication and honesty, which often derive from a deep understanding of the history, culture and politics of China, and of their impact on ordinary people. Li has cited William Trevor as one of her biggest influences. Like Trevor, she tends to write about loneliness, bereavement and compassion; also like Trevor, she sympathizes with all her imperfect characters, even the worst and most difficult ones. This quality can be seen in “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” and in Li’s earlier works, her debut short-story collection, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” and her first novel, “The Vagrants.”

Reading Li recalls an experience of brooding about the past – painful, disturbing but accepted and rationalized with a mixed sense of wonder and helplessness – near a pond at sunset. Yes, sorrows may arise during times of reflection, but it’s impossible not to fall in love with the privacy and tranquillity of the time and place.