For a while, I got tired of reading Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The novel spans so many generations, and I became confused about who is related to who, how they are related, and why any of it matters. When I got to the part about Sparrow, Kai, and Zhuli during the cultural revolution, I thought their characters were so subdued and bland; I was almost bored to tears. However, I soldiered on, because as a Taiwanese Canadian living in Hong Kong, modern Chinese history fascinates and horrifies me at the same time. Slowly and unknowingly as I continued to read, the book engrossed me as I became more and more attached to specific characters, especially Sparrow, the Quiet Bird.
The book starts in 1991 when Marie met Ai-Ming in Vancouver. Marie is the daughter of Kai, an accomplished pianist and an old friend of Sparrow, a talented composer who is A-Ming’s father. When the reader first meets Ai-Ming, she had just fled China due to her activities during the Tiananmen Square protests. She found refuge in Marie’s home and was planning to seek political asylum in the United States. Through Ai-Ming’s storytelling, the reader, along with Marie, discovers the tragedies of the Great Leap Forward, the Culture Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square massacre presented themselves through a story that spans three generations.
Threaded through the whole book is the story from the Book of Records, a collection of hand-written manuscripts passed from husband to wife, from parent to child and from friends to friends, a novel within a novel that was amended and updated each time it was passed to a new steward. At time confusing, the Book of Records blurs the line between fantasy and reality. However, it is a book with no ending. As an unfinished book, it provides hope for the characters in the book, and in turn, enables the reader to imagine multiple, alternative, and perhaps more positive outcomes.
How many of us, Chinese or Taiwanese or Hong Kongese descendants in North America, understand the horrors of the Communist Party of China (CPC) inflicted on its citizen for the latter half of the 20th century? How many of us know about the starvation and death millions of people during the Great Leap Forward, the purging of the members of the intelligentsia class during the Cultural Revolution and the massacre of thousands of civilians in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests? Through Thien’s powerful and direct narrative, we learned the horrors of living under Mao and Deng in China–through modern history, the CPC dictated where people lived and worked, suppressed desires and aspirations, tore families apart and murdered their citizens.
One of the most vivid imagery in the book was how the residents of Beijing collectively gathered in the city, physically blocking the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to reach the Tiananmen Square, where thousands of university students were protesting. Thousands if not millions of people lost their lives on the night of June 3, doing what they thought was right. In the end, all was futile: “Street by street, no matter how many Beijing residents stood on the road, the People’s Liberation Army was forcing its way into the centre.”
Sparrow witnessed a the PLA soldier thrust a bayonet into a teenager on the street. He went to comfort the boy as he lay dying. “What had any of them done that was criminal?” He asked, “hadn’t they done their best to listen and to believe?” I imagine his question captured millions of Chinese people’s sentiment during the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests. So many lives lost and destroyed, and for what?
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is an epic novel is intricate and touching. It’s a heartbreaking read, a portrait of the struggle of millions of Chinese people who have suffered, physically, emotionally, and psychologically under a regime. Perhaps it will provide a glimpse of why someone like me is terrified of China’s growing power and influence in the year 2018. If they could be cruel and ruthless to their citizens, what would they do to the rest of the world as they gain more control of the world’s economy and wield their influence across the globe?