China: Yiyun Li: The Vagrants (Review)

I have been fascinated by China for several years. I think what really sparked my interest was reading Jung Chang’s amazing family saga Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. I want to learn more about China so I’ve decided to create a reading list about China. I want to read both non-fiction and fiction, both Chinese writers and others. I’m really looking forward to diving into this huge nation and learn more about this fascinating country with an amazing culture but also such a devastating history.

My third choice on my China reading list, is a novel by the Chinese author Yiyun Li, The Vagrants.

When a pebble is thrown into a lake, rings start spreading further and further away from the spot where the pebble penetrated the water. So it is with humans. Our actions influence the people around us and spread in wider and wider circles. But with humans, it’s the relations between people that determines how the rings spread and these relations are not always easy to see. Sometimes people secretly know each other – or used to know each other. And sometimes, something is done to a person that causes ripples, rings and shock waves through a much larger group of persons than expected.

This is what The Vagrants is about. It takes place in China in 1979 after the Culture Revolution in a very short amount of time. Gu Shan is a young woman, 28 years old, and she is the pebble. This novel is about her death and the consequences of it. We don’t really get to know Gu Shan all that well – and what we do get to know, isn’t all that sympathetic. We learn about her through the people influenced by her death – people who knew her, was influenced by her actions, who know her parents – or who see her as a symbol for the resistance against the Communist Party.

Her parents, Teacher Gu and his wife, doesn’t know how to handle this. In some ways, Teacher Gu just wants to forget and move on. It’s better to stay blind than to see, he thinks. But not everyone can forget. Some people trust in the security of masses and wants to do something to right what they see as an injustice.

This is a novel that makes you sad. It makes you sad inside to read about how people treat each other, treat their children and what they do to animals. Maybe this is an expression of how an entire people was desensitized and lost their inner sense of right and wrong by the Communist Party’s various revolutions, propagandas and more. I have a hard time with people caring so little about their children that they don’t even take the time to name them but just call them Little Fourth, Little Fifth and Little Sixth. Of course, these were just girls so why should they name them? Waste of time, I guess.

This novel was full of stories like this. Stories about people hurting and suffering and not having the capacities to take care of each other because life is just so hard and all your focus is directed at survival. Putting food on the table. Staying out of trouble.   But even though you do everything right, the actions of others can get you into trouble. The authorities doesn’t always fact check all that much before they start asking questions – in a rather persuasive way. And if your name is connected with a counterrevolutionary, trouble is coming and it’s knocking on your door late at night.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The characters in this book are so well-written. They all have flaws, they all make wrong decisions, they all suffer the consequences. I think my favorite characters were Tong and Nini because to me, they symbolize the children of China. Nini is a crippled girl. She lives with her parents and 5 sisters and is basically their maid. Since she’s handicapped, there’s no point wasting time on getting her an education – or a husband, for that matter. She has to take care of her sisters, get coal to keep the family warm, make dinner and more.  She constantly has to take care of her baby sister, Little Sixth, but taking care of her is rather easy – you just tie her to the bed so she doesn’t fall off and then leave her to herself.

Even though Tong is a boy, his parents were not thrilled to have him. So at 1 month old, he was shipped off to his grand parents in his country. His parents bring him back when he’s 6 years old, together with his dog. Both he and his dog have a hard time adjusting to life in the city with people they hardly know. There was this one place in the novel where Yuyun Li writes about how Tong had to hit his dog to teach it not to bark all the time and it just made me so sad for this boy and his dog: “In his previous life in the village, Ear had not been trained to stay quiet and unobtrusive. Had it not been for Tong’s parents and the neighbor’s threats to sell Ear to a restaurant, Tong would never have had the heart to slap the dog when they first arrived. A city was an unforgiving place, or so it seemed to Tong, as even the smallest mistake could become a grave offense.” (p. 12-13). And these few lines in the beginning of the book not only sums up Tong’s and Ear’s lives, they sum up the lives of every person in China at that point in history.

I haven’t even really begun to fully explores all these persons and their lives and how it all connect. Teacher Gu and his wife, Old Hua and his wife, Bashi, Kai and her husband Han and his parents, Jialin, Kwen … Everyone. Everyone has a story to tell in this book. Everyone has a story to suffer.

I recently read an article exploring the current status of the one-child policy in China. Lots of people lived lives like Tong’s – growing up for a short or long while with their grandparents because their parents couldn’t fit raising a child in with working. This is how people live. And that’s the point of this book. It’s a novel but it’s based on real people. This is how life in China was – and still is, in some ways. And besides this being a wonderful novel, it should be read because of how it shows China and her people.

Previous posts about my China theme reading:

4 thoughts on “China: Yiyun Li: The Vagrants (Review)

  1. This is great. Thanks for this. I’m going to check out your recommendations for my 2012 project – reading a book from every country in the world. It’s great to have some more suggestions for China – the selection is so vast that you can feel a bit overwhelmed otherwise!

    • Thanks. Yeah, there’s so many books about China. I really recommend this one. Of course, Wild Swans is really popular but I think this is a better book. If you need any help finding a book about Denmark, let me know. 🙂

  2. Made me really want to go read this book. If I didn’t already have a stack on my bedside and a list a mile long to check out of the library I would…maybe I’dd add it to the list though.

    Also an interesting idea to read one book from every country. A project I might take to my book club for next year. Cheers!

    • Well, my list of books I want to read is 179 books … and these are books I own. My list of books I don’t own but want to read is 800+ books – so I know all of mile long lists 😉 But if you’re interested in the subject, this is really a great book, although very sad.
      I love the idea of reading a book from every country and Ann’s blog is very interesting to follow. /Christina

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