Madeline Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier this year and for the Man Booker in 2016, is a complex novel about family relationships set against periods of political and cultural upheaval in contemporary Chinese history, including the Land Reform Campaign, the Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen protests. The novel is written from the perspective of a ten-year-old overseas Chinese girl named Jiang Li-ling but also known by her English name, Marie. The plot traces Li-ling’s transition from adolescence to adulthood, dipping in and out of different periods in Chinese history throughout the narrative while following the lives of multiple characters linked to Li-ling’s family. By the end of the novel, Thien reveals how these characters are all intricately connected to the protagonist and weaves a web that explores Chinese history through the lens of these personal connections.

The story begins with the arrival Ai-ming, a student protestor at Tiananmen fleeing from the brutal implementation of martial law in 1989. The mysterious circumstances surrounding Li-ling’s father’s suicide in Hong Kong are a constant source of tension within this young adolescent who is just beginning to navigate her transition into adulthood. The arrival of Ai-ming ignites a desire within Li-ling to understand more about her father, his family and his country. Ai-ming represents one side within this multi-faceted story. Ai-ming’s own father, Sparrow, was a musician who had tutored Li-ling’s father during the tumultuous period of the Cultural Revolution. As a Chinese native from Beijing, she becomes a catalyst in fueling Li-ling’s longing to come to terms with her family history and gain a stronger sense of self. Unable to read or speak Chinese to an adequate standard, Li-ling’s relationship with Ai-ming initially grows from her desire to learn more about the Chinese language. Through the relationship between these two characters, Madeleine Thien cleverly navigates themes of identity and transition. Though this coming-of-age experience is initially set within the context of the individual, this personal process is magnified through the history of China’s transition into a modern nation-state under the Chinese Communist Party.

The story is multi-layered and shuffles between the present and certain key periods in Chinese history, including Liberation (1949), the Land Reform Campaign, the Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square protests. The narrative is interwoven with several musical elements: references to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, not to mention Communist Party classics such as “Without the Communist Party, There Would be No New China” (mei you gongchandang jiu meiyou xin zhongguo 没有共产党就没有新中国). Thien peppers the narrative with Chinese vocabulary, including the characters, pin-yin, and tones in order to emphasise the visual and melodic qualities of the language. In keeping with the central theme, the novel is structured like a piece of music: Part One is composed of eight chapters in sequence, while the eight chapters in the following Part Zero are in reverse, starting at seven and ending at one and finally finishing off with a coda.

Moreover, the title of the novel itself is a reference to a lyric in the Chinese left-wing anthem, “the Internationale” (bu yao shuo women yiwusuoyou不要说我们一无所有). Thien uses the premise of music and artistry as a lens to examine certain contradictions within contemporary Chinese history since liberation in 1949, including defining the boundaries between art and politics. Ba Lute, father of Sparrow, ironically chastises his son’s tastes for Western “bourgeois” music, reminding him that art is primarily a vehicle for politics that serves the Party and the revolution first and foremost: “I’m a machine for the Party and I’ll perform on my deathbed if necessary. Old Bach understood that music serves a greater purpose, but don’t I know this, too? Doesn’t Chairman Mao?”[1] Thien therefore sheds light on the personal struggles of these musicians as they try to navigate the line between using art as a mode of individual expression and using art for the sake of the collective, a debate which emerged within the Chinese Communist Party during Mao’s famous Yan’an Forum on Art and Literature in 1942.[2] This serves as an interesting historical parallel for Li-ling, a young person still coming to terms with her individual identity.

In addition to these musical themes, Do Not Say We Have Nothing explores the very practice of writing stories and record-keeping. Thien emphasises the musical nature of stories, with their “leaping and turning” narratives and their power to ignite the imagination. In one of the many relationships within the novel, the character Swirl forms a relationship with her later husband, Wen the Dreamer, through his multi-volume epic chronicling the fall of an empire, and there are also frequent allusions to the Book of Songs and the Book of Records, both of which are part of the classical Chinese literary cannon. An elderly copyist named Old Cat states at one point “All we have on this earth, all we are, is a record […] I have devoted my minuscule life to the act of copying.”[3] This dimension of the narrative touches upon a key point in contemporary Chinese history: the destruction of tradition in the wake of revolution. Shortly after the launch of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the Campaign to “Smash the Four Olds”—Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, Old Ideas—was initiated. Anything perceived as traditional, bourgeois, or feudalist was destroyed, including invaluable works of literature, art, sacred temples and ancient tombs.

In the midst of this tumultuous period in Chinese history we learn more of the relationship between Ai-ming’s father, Sparrow, and Li-ling’s father, Kai. Both Sparrow and Kai are aspiring musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory, who engage in counter-revolutionary acts by listening to western classical music and composing symphonies. It is the older generation’s focus on writing music that animates their story to Li-ling, as she discovers it many years later. The turmoil of the Cultural Revolution and the deliberate destruction of traditional culture provide a historical backdrop for the narrator’s own internal struggles as she uncovers more of her complicated family history.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is an ambitious work. Its narrative seeks to illuminate the struggles of one individual through multiple characters across periods in modern Chinese history. As the story plays out, Thien presents this period piece by piece. Through this arduous but rewarding process, we uncover how each element is interconnected in Thien’s grand symphony, which seeks to transcend time, distance and cultures. Thien’s thorough research into contemporary Chinese history and politics is impressive and serves the core themes of her novel well. Not only is the story itself captivating but it is also informative to those without much knowledge of contemporary Chinese history. At times Thien’s work seems to travel the well-worn path of demonising the Chinese Communist Party for the destruction of art, individuality, creative expression and human life. At one point Ai-ming reveals “When I was little…the radio played only eighteen pieces of approved music […] We called them the yangbanxi, revolutionary operas.”[4]

However, rather than a vilification of a repressive regime, it seems more accurate to read Thien’s work as a testament to the human spirit and its inherent creativity, as it survives and grows in the most chaotic conditions: “Don’t ever try to be only a single thing, an unbroken human being. If so many people love you, can you honestly be one thing?”[5]

 

[1] Madeline Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, (Knopf Canada: 2017): 187.

[2] Eric Abrahamsen, “Chairman Mao, in Their Own Hand”, The New York Times, 6th June 2012, https://latitude.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/06/chairman-mao-in-their-own-hand/

[3] Madeline Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, (Knopf Canada: 2017): 552.

[4] Ibid. 84

[5] Ibid. 1077