As expansive as China itself, encompassing seven decades of its painful reincarnations, its epic pain and loss, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a masterpiece. In 2016 when she published it, Madeleine Thien ascended to the ranks of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Barbara Kingsolver, Umberto Eco, Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez and Victor Hugo.
I have as much hope of writing a symphony as describing the sweeping impact of Thien’s astounding literary novel. The best I can do is strum the themes that resonate so deeply within it. Key to its impact is that Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a story of my contemporaries — Sparrow, Wen the Dreamer, Swirl, Zhouli, Big Mother Knife, Old Cat, Ling and Jiang Kai – like me, are children of the mid-20th Century.
While I rose up into America’s middle class with my Golden Age parents, my Chinese counterparts, Wen and Swirl were cast into a lifetime on the run for being radical freethinkers. The Party forced Sparrow, a composer who exhaled music with every breath, to choose between his life’s work and his family. And Zhouli, the sweet young violinist who committed every ounce of her strength and focus to the purity of her violin, suffered the pain of the Red Guard ripping it from her grasp. While Big Mother endured family loss and betrayal, the shattering of her children’s dreams and her husband’s pride, my mother watched her children thrive, her opportunities expand and her husband achieve a gold-plated pension.
For me reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing was a slow awakening, not unlike my young adult years. I began reading it while spending a lot of time in bed fighting a nasty winter virus. At first my mind swam with the themes and characters. I grew dizzy with the shifts in time and place – from Canada in 2015 to Shanghai in 1963 to 1989 Tiananmen Square – and challenged by the character’s overlapping lives and timelines. My mind matched the slow wheeze of my congested lungs. But by the time I hit page 154 I’d began to breathe the story in like a cyclist cresting a mountain top –
Sitting with Sparrow on the roof of a train with hundreds of others riding out the Party’s broad brushstrokes of mass relocation, Jiang Kai was flirting with a girl next to him:
“This comrade,” he told her, “is our nation’s most celebrated young composer! Believe me, you’ll remember this day for the rest of your lives.”
“Sparrow ignored him, tuned his erhu and swept them into ‘Fine Horses Galloping,’ which got the boys whooping and the girls singing. He remembered . . . back when he first imagined that all the world was a song, a performance or a dream, that music was survival and could fill an empty stomach and chase the war away.”
From that point on the music – the music that described and transcended so much tragedy – wed itself to the story and together they seeped into every pore of my being. Thien supplies an apt metaphor for her story’s transformational power. Allow me to explain.
Sparrow’s best friend (and secret lover), the great pianist Jiang Kai abandons him and eventually escapes to Canada where he marries and has a daughter named Marie. When Marie is a teen, Sparrow’s daughter, Ai-ming, seeks refuge with her family, fleeing China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising. Two decades later, years after Ai-Ming returns to China, Marie, an accomplished mathematician, goes looking for her. Her starting point is Tiananmen Square, which she thinks of as the ‘zero point.’
“Zero is a definite point from which measurements are taken along a line, in one direction positively, in the other negatively. Hence the zero point is the location on which all others are dependent, to which they are all related, and by which they are all determined.”
It’s not that I was entirely ignorant of Chinese history prior to reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing. I was aware of Mao Zedong’s rise to power after WWII, the Great Leap Forward in the last 1950s and early 60s, the Cultural Revolution from the late 60s until the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976. But, during these sweeping changes in China, I was still coming of age, a stoned college student protesting the Vietnam War, falling in love for the first time and trying to figure out my own life, facing a dizzying array of choices.
Meeting Sparrow, Zhuli and Wen the Dreamer has made me rethink my life experience. It has given me a new ‘zero point.’
What was my worldview in 1989 while the Chinese were massacring their own in Tiananmen Square? Starting my second career as a business owner, a San Franciscan hoping for a wave of liberal reform to combat Reaganomics. Reading Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison and Tom Robbins, still addicted to running and partying with pretty women, I had no idea what the lives of my Chinese contemporaries were like.
In the Spring of ’89 a million Beijing students filled Tiananmen Square demanding reform, freedom of choice, freedom of speech, freedom. The government tried to ignore them but after a month of occupation they sent in troops to break them up. Two million factory workers stopped them. Parents and grandparents of the striking students blocked every road, street and alley that led to the square. Nationwide, millions of sympathetic Chinese sent food, tents, and medical assistance to the hunger strikers.
Using the universal language of music, Madeleine Thien offers up the lives of Sparrow, Wen the Dreamer, Swirl, Zhouli, Big Mother Knife, Old Cat, Ling and Jiang Kai, of Ai-Ming and Marie, as testimony to a history we barely know.
In her acknowledgements she writes, “Not everyone who supported and strengthened this story can be named. To my beloved friends in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Beijing and Dunhuang, thank you for accompanying me through this book of records and an alternate memory of history. Remember what I say: Not everything will pass.”
Thank you, Madeleine Thien, for offering me with a new ‘zero point’.