China: Chan Koonchung: The Fat Years (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 such an amazing culture – but also such a devastating history. My fourth choice is The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung which has been published about two weeks ago.

So what would you do if you could remember something happening but you were just about the only one who could? And even if you went to old news papers or on the internet, there wasn’t any information about it?

Well, that’s the situation for several of the characters in this book. Not all though. The main character, Old Chen, is a happy man. He’s happy about his life, the world he lives in, everything. But then he meets a woman he was in love with when they were both young, Little Xi. Little Xi is not happy. She is a former lawyer who very quickly found out that she was not cut out for handling out death penalties for every offense committed. So now she supports herself by various means while her main focus is on discussing political issues on the internet, using ever changing pseudonyms.

When Old Chen meets Little Xi again, he decides to try to woo her and does so by pretending he’s not the same as all the other happy people but is discontent just as Little Xi. Little Xi is frustrated. She spent some time in a mental hospital and when she was released, everybody had changed. Nobody wanted to talk about what happened on June 4th, 1989 or about the Cultural Revolution. It was as if they didn’t remember anymore: Certain collective memories seemed to have been completely swallowed up by a cosmic black hole, never to be heard of again. (Location 1081-82)

Old Chen introduces Little Xi to another old friend of his, Fang Caodi. Fang Caodi is not happy either but unlike Little Xi, he actually knows he’s unhappy. Fang Caodi remembers that there was a month where the country was in great inner turmoil – or more precisely, 28 days. 28 days from the day when the world economy went into a huge crisis and to the day where China’s Golden Age of Ascendancy officially started – but it seems that these 28 days are missing from everyone’s memory.  As well as missing from newspapers, books and more. How can that be?

Fang Caodi suspects that this collective amnesia can be related to the vaccination for the bird flu that everyone got the same spring but he’s not sure. He also has an idea that anyone suffering from asthma is not affected for some reason but he can’t confirm either suspicion initially.

After helping Little Xi remember what happened in those 28 days, Fang Caodi and Little Xi decides to kidnap a government official to force him to tell them why nobody remember any of the bad stuff that has happened in recent Chinese history. But in doing so, they involve Old Chen more than he wished to be.

This novel takes place in a near-future version of China – in some ways, a China that already exists. Some of the issues discussed in the book, have already become reality. I find recent Chinese history fascinating and the idea of a government somehow manipulating the entire population is intriguing – and something you can easily believe could happen in China (and in some ways have happened already, many times). But I don’t think the plot in this novel is entirely convincing. I think the answer to the question ‘how?’, is not persuasive. And I think the author ran out of ideas too because not only doesn’t he explain everything, he has a lot of promising minor characters that could really have been interesting to develop further (Little Xi’s son among others) but they are just introduced and then almost forgotten.

Of course, China is very different from the country I live in and I do know that it’s dangerous to assume that other people think and react like I do – especially when we come from different cultures. But I still have a hard time buying how the plot is developed and that because people fear chaos more than dictatorship, the Chinese government just had to wait for the people to come running scared when things got out of hand in those 28 days, and then the government could step in and impose stability like another Leviathan (I still don’t believe Thomas Hobbes was right about how we humans act if we have no sovereign).

And more important than that – the last 25 % of this book is so boring. In essence, it’s consists almost entirely of one very very long speech or treatise on first economic and then politics. It just go on and on and on: Twenty-five per cent of the balance of every National Bank savings account was to be converted into vouchers for use in China only. One third of these had to be spent within ninety days, and two thirds within six months. Beyond that time limit they would no longer be valid. The Chinese people’s excessive savings were one of the reasons for insufficient domestic demand. Personal savings equalled more than 20 per cent of the nation’s annual GDP, and business savings were more than 30 per cent. (location 41114-20). This was just a short example. It just continues like this for page after page. Suddenly, the book stopped being fiction and became non-fiction. And I didn’t enjoy the novel after that.

In the afterword, the translator states that this lengthy monologue is how the president addresses the people and he claims that Most liberal ethnic-Chinese scholars living in China and abroad regard the last section of the work as very dramatic and the most important part of the book. (location 4962-68). The key word here is scholar. Since when do you write novels to please scholars? Isn’t papers, essays, non fiction books more suited if you want to address scholars? In my opinion, at least, this is a pure defense for a very in-appropriate way to end a story.

One top of that, there was also a serious error at this point. The author forgets that one of his characters is tied up and can’t move and then let him walk freely to the bathroom – only to remember that he’s tied up a few pages later and then makes a point of his captors not having any intentions of unleashing him … Serious editing needed there!

I do believe there’s a lot of interesting discussion points in this book. Old Chen at one point ponders how much freedom the Chinese people have – if it’s maybe 90 or 95 per cent. He compares it with the West and thinks it’s a little less than in the West but as he correctly points out, Western nations also have restrictions on freedom of speech and action (his examples are how Germany restricts neo-Nazi organizations and how some states in the United States deny homosexuals the freedom to mary). And I think he has a good point here. However, there’s a difference between having freedom where you actually know that some things are not allowed and having a freedom where you’re not aware that things are being kept from you. The Chinese government is still restricting it’s citizens (just recently, my friend Jun Feng was in China and he was so happy that he had a small program that allowed him to access Facebook while he was there (Facebook of course being un-available in China)). And therefore, I don’t think the points has that much value – if you don’t know your freedom is being restricted, then you are less free than if you do know. At least, that’s what I think.

For the great majority of young mainland Chinese, the events of the Tiananmen Massacre have never entered their consciousness; they have never seen the photographs and news repots about it, and even fewer have had their family or teachers ever explain it to them. They have not forgotten it; they have never known anything about it. In theory, after a period of time has elapsed, an entire year can indeed disappear from history – because no one says anything about it.

It’s is argued that the young Chinese have never heard of the massacre on Tiananmen Square in 1989 and that it has hardly been mentioned in the official discourse since then and that people avoid talking about it because they don’t want to get in trouble. First of, if these things are true, it just adds to my argument that the Chinese people are less free because people in the West would not let the official discourse just brush over something like this. Secondly, I don’t think that people who have experienced what happened back then, would just forget it. I still remember vividly the images of the tank driving into and over that young man. Of course, you can’t remember if if you have never known it. But if it is true that it has been forgotten just by being not spoken about, I find that truly scary.

I was at times unsure whether the author did in fact support the Communist Party or not – or at least very unsure about what his intentions were with this book. But he does come out and has a character state that since June 1989, /…/ the Chinese Communist Party no longer has any ideals. As a Party-state regime with a total monopoly of power in China, the Communist Party rules only to preserve its own power. ((location 4598-4600). It is also stated in the afterword that China isn’t really a fascist state anymore because it hasn’t an ideology or a great leader anymore and that The Party leaders have no dream of utopia, only a dream of amassing more wealth and power for themselves and their dependents, while suppressing all malcontents in the name of national stability. (location 4950-52)

As it can be seen, this novel inspires a lot of thought. I love when fiction does that. But fiction can’t be judged solely on the ideas and thoughts it gives us – it has to be judged on it’s own merits as a novel. And on that, I think this novel fails. There are too many characters introduced where one think they will play an important role in the plot later – but they don’t. The plot itself is not completely satisfying and then the author lets one character go on a far too long speech towards the end that accomplishes nothing else but make you forget the merits of the first 75 per cent of the book, as well as start skimming to have it over with. This novel could have been so much – unfortunately, it failed to even be a novel for too many pages.

But between a good hell and a counterfeit paradise, which one will people choose? No matter what you might say, many people will believe that a counterfeit paradise is better than a good hell. They know perfectly well it’s a counterfeit paradise, but they don’t dare expose it. As time goes by, they will even forget that it is a fake paradise. They start arguing in defense of this fake paradise, asserting that it is actually the only paradise. But there’s always a small number of people, even if they are only an extremely small minority, who will choose the good hell no matter how painful it is, because in the good hell at least everyone is fully aware that they are living in hell. (Location 2106-11)

  • Title: The Fat Years
  • Author: Chan Koonchung
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Year: 2012
  • Pages: e-book
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

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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:

China: Jun Feng: Tiden er til fest (Time for Celebration) (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 second read in this series is my friend Jun’s book about his own life – from his childhood in China to now where he lives in Odense, Denmark.

In my year at university, there was this guy. This Chinese guy. His name was Jun Feng or Jimbut. Jun had fled China and had arrived in Denmark in 1992 and in 1996, he enrolled at university to study philosophy. This is his book.This is a book about why he had to leave China, how he came to end up in Denmark and all the hardship he has gone through. It’s also a book about his time at university. And I know him – he’s the sweetest guy. And I know the people he writes about – Torben, Thomas, Reinholdt, Ann-Lise and all the rest. As well as the professors he mentions – Hass, Favrholdt … So how on earth am I to review this book?
Well, first of, by writing the disclaimer above. Now you’re warned. There’s no way I can write an un-biased review.
Secondly, I’m just trying to be as honest as I can. And my first comment is that this book, or at least the Danish version of it, is very poorly written. This is hardly surprising since Jun had lived in Denmark for only 7 years when it was published. I haven’t seen the English version (Time for Celebration) so I can’t say if it has the same issues. I wish I could say it didn’t matter but it does. It interrupts the flow of my reading when I see a spelling mistake. Still, even with a lot of mistakes, you can tell that Jun is a good writer. And it doesn’t hurt that he has lived a very interesting life either.
So this is the story of Jun’s life – mostly from his 20s and early 30s. This is a time where Jun becomes unpopular with the Chinese authorities because of a long poem he writes. The funny thing is that it’s a love poem, not a political poem. Jun decides to become a buddhist monk and leaves China on foot. He walks through Burma to Thailand and ends up in a prison in Laos. After several incidents where Jun cuts his wrist or cut himself in the stomach, he finally gets the attention of the UN and Denmark agrees to take him on as a refugee.
For me, the most interesting parts where his reflections on himself and how he views himself and his life. It’s fascinating that he can sit at a party and feel that he is boring when he is the one who has lived the most interesting life. I am intrigued by the flower that grows in his eye. He hands it to people, the leaves scatter around him etc. How exactly to understand this, I’m not sure.
Also, because Jun is so honest you can see the difference between the way he views life and the way I view it. He thinks some things that I would never think. He thinks of himself as the greatest modern poet in China, as a legend. He questions his self image when he lives in Denmark because he hasn’t published anything here so here’s he’s just a guy, a guy who’s no longer young. So here he sees the need to play dumb, he has issues with Danish prejudices. In this country, unfortunately, when you ask people for help on the street, and you ask in English, you can get this answer: “We are in Denmark and here, we speak Danish.”
I’ve been working with refugees so I know how we as a people often treat them. And Jun’s book is just another example. A huge group of people think that if you get to our country, you should just forget your culture and your religion – if you’re a muslim, that is – and be exactly like us. Of course, this is never going to happen. Jun is from Asia, normally he would be easier to accept. But still, he has had issues here. He has escaped from prison – and still, we treat him like this. Appalling!
I liked Jun’s book. It’s a very interesting read and I recommend it, especially for people interested in China after Mao. Still, it’s not an amazing book but it’s good. It’s worth the time.

You can read an English translation of the book here.

Previous posts about my China theme reading:

China: Jung Chang: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (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.

Of course, my first read had to be Wild Swans.

Wild Swans is the story of the author and her family. The interesting part is that their lives take place in one of the most fascinating periods of history. Jung Chang’s grandmother lived before the Communist took over in China. She was one of the last generation to suffer the traditional foot binding and was a Concubine before she was married to a ver kind man, a doctor. This marriage, however, caused a lot of pain in the doctor’s family since his family didn’t want this woman to have power over them. They don’t care about their father’s happiness – instead they care about their own roles in the family and their status. The doctor insists however, and though this causes one of his sons to commit suicide in protest, the doctor still marries Jung Cheng’s grandmother and ensures that her mother finally has a happy childhood.

Jung Chang’s mother grows up when there’s a civil war in China – various parties fighting to gain power. The victory goes to Mao and his Communist Party and both Chang’s parents are supporters of this. We then follow their lives and how they fight for Communism, meet each other, get married and have children.

Maybe the most fascinating person in the book is Jung Chang’s father. He is a Communist to the core. He believes in Mao and he believes that the Communist party will do what’s right for China and her people. He thinks that one of the main issues in China so far has been the tendency that people in power always helped their families and made sure they got influence and power as well. He definitely don’t want that custom to continue so he almost goes to far in the other direction – not letting his wife ride with him in the car on long and dangerous travels, not protecting her or taking extra care of her while she’s pregnant and after she has given birth etc. He always puts his work and the party first, his family second. It takes a lot of hardship and pain for him and his family before he begins to question the Communist party and Mao and it takes even longer for him to admit that he has been a lousy father and husband – and that with the way things are going, he may not want to continue being a Communist.

I’m so fascinated by how Mao could create a China where everybody was ready to tell on everyone else. He didn’t need a secret police or anything – the entire population was always ready to tell on each other, encouraged in this by Mao himself. He turned students against teachers, workers against their bosses, children against their parents.

When reading this book, I sometimes wondered how anyone could believe that they were doing the right thing when they were tearing down anything old and beautiful, when intellectuals are condemned and sent to the country to learn from the peasants, when they are having huge gatherings with the purpose of yelling at some poor soul and beating him/her up …

How anyone can think the steps taken in the Cultural Revolution was a good idea is beyond me. And if it’s true that Mao knew that some of his ideas and politics were wrong and in fact hurt both his country and his people, but still continued with them because he didn’t want to loose face … What can you say about that? To say it’s so fundamentally wrong is just too weak.

This is a very hard book to review. This type of book is. I felt the same book when I reviewed When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge. How do you put a star rating on people’s suffering? What can you write in a review that can put a hundred years of a country’s history, a hundred years containing so much suffering, in to perspective? In the end, I guess all you can do is just recommend this book and hope that we actually do learn from history.