What the Diaspora Can Know: Reconsidering Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing

By Nick Admussen

Imagine the world from the perspective of people who speak Chinese: a Sinosphere, centered by the huge population of the People’s Republic of China but spanning across the globe from Taiwan to Singapore, Vancouver to Los Angeles, Panang to Perth. Now imagine the Anglosphere, a similar map of people who speak English. Increasingly, as English is taught in Chinese countries and Chinese immigrants spread far and wide, these maps are melting into one another. Chinese intellectual life is full of translations, imitations, and excoriations of Anglophone books and ideas, and yet somehow English-language intellectual life lags behind, still scratching at the surface of Chinese experience. This is why it is particularly important when a book that claims to represent part of Chinese experience goes into wide circulation in English-speaking regions. Madeleine Thien’s new novel, which has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and celebrated in British periodicals even before its release into the U.S. market this week, is such a work, poised to influence the way that thinkers and readers encounter China in the English language. This is one reason that the China Blog of the Los Angeles Review of Books has agreed to run this second review of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a work written in Canada and Hong Kong by a Canadian citizen of Chinese-Malaysian descent that emerges out of precisely the contemporary overlap between languages, cultures, and identities just described.

The title of the novel comes from the first verse of the Chinese lyrics to “The Internationale,” a socialist anthem that has been sung by generations of Chinese people, as well as by members of myriad other ethnic and national groups.[1] In the thirties, the anthem feels hopeful, communal: even the poor have kin, comrades, and resolve for a better future. Thien’s characters, an extended family of musicians and other artists, fight for the Communist revolution, start a long novel-within-the-novel called the Book of Records, fall in love, sing, and bear much-loved children. As the revolution becomes a state, and the state accumulates the tools and habits of an oppressor, the feeling of the anthem shifts: do not admit, it threatens, that you have nothing.

As the novel progresses, the family is torn apart: characters are punished for their words and beliefs, but finally simply because somebody must be punished, because the revolution has failed and some reason must be supplied. The Book of Records is hidden away, lover turns on lover and brother against sister, and few are foolhardy enough to ask why. Then, after the death of Mao and the rise of Deng Xiaoping, the anthem shifts again, this time in counterpoint to Cui Jian’s rock song “I Have Nothing” (whose title is sometimes translated as “Nothing to My Name”), which was played in the square at Tiananmen during the protests of 1989. Across the fulcrum of the massacre of June 4, 1989, Cui Jian’s song itself goes from a romantic love ballad — I’m broke, take my hand, love me for what I am — to a dirge for the dead, as Beijingers who had been trying to become the “masters of their world” as promised in “The Internationale” are executed, arrested, and exiled.

This is a beautiful historical story, brilliantly told: Thien’s characters are sharply drawn, and their repeated involvement in the major events of twentieth century Chinese life underline the way in which so much of the turmoil and transformation of China’s revolutionary century happened to the same people. In some cases, the heroes of the war with Japan were the same cadres who were criticized and humiliated in the Cultural Revolution, were then rehabilitated by the Deng government in the 1980s, and went to protest that government in 1989. The novel’s structure and ambition is in this sense deeply connected to contemporary Chinese literature, with an urge to trace the arc of history quite similar to Yu Hua’s To Live or to a lesser extent, given that it is so much more fanciful and surrealistic, Mo Yan’s Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out. That many of the central characters are musicians adds a rich emotional layer to the punishing march of events, as individuals unable to express themselves in words do so instead through the voices and silences of orchestral music.

But Do Not Say We Have Nothing is much more than a historical drama. It is told to us in the voice of Marie (also called Li Ling, also called Ma-li), the lonely daughter of Chinese-Canadian immigrants. After her father, crushed perhaps under the weight of his losses and complicities during the Cultural Revolution, commits suicide, Marie sets out to understand his life and the lives of the people that he loved. While it is their stories that make up the bulk of the novel, it is Marie’s voice that we hear. Marie peers into her father’s world in the manner of a betrayed and orphaned child: because so much was hidden from her, she was denied the chance to love her parents for themselves. Discovering them, their crimes included, is her way to reveal real people with whom she can empathize, to forge a familial bond. What she makes, though, is not a community — the people she’s searching for are ghosts — but something as immaterial and powerful as music. As one character says, “music is nothing. It is nothing and yet it belongs to me.”

Marie’s complex of feelings towards her father are visible on every page of the book: it has the precision of a student trying very hard to please, the patience of a denizen of an empty house, the persistence of ardor, and the hopeless conviction that wherever the story goes, it cannot recoup the losses it chronicles.  As loving as Marie is about the historical record, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is as much a myth and an epic as it is a mixture of actual and plausible events. We have a lot of facts about the Cultural Revolution and 1989’s June 4th Massacre, but what happened is also a matter of story, interpretation, error, exaggeration, empty records and secrets yet untold. It is not something we can compile and master; it is handed down to us in contradictory pieces, and to see it otherwise is to submit experience to ideology. We tell what happened in stories not because we need to list the minutiae of history — we put those in other kinds of books — but because we need to understand the lives of the people that went through it.[2]

A composer in the novel puts it this way: “…his music would have to come from broken music, so that the truths he understood wouldn’t erase the world but would be a part of it.” This kind of understanding is a great gift of the current generation of immigrant and diasporic Chinese writers, from Yiyun Li to Ha Jin to the Harvard scholar Jie Li, who wrote a history of a pair of Shanghai alleyways drawn from the stories of her relatives and neighbors who lived there. Their departure from the P.R.C., their many types of familial and linguistic distance, coupled with their understanding that they are not observers but participants, trains them intimately in what is true about all histories: we make them out of beliefs and stories, from individual voices, from the subjective accumulation of the untrustworthy and the personal. The stability of the truth of history is gone before we pick up the pen to write it; it is nothing, and yet it is our only birthright. This book is good as a historical novel, but it is truly exceptional as a story about what keeps us reaching for history even as it flees from us.

The end of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, much like the Book of Records that its characters pass from hand to hand, is open and unfinished — it is not so much a book that we as readers complete as one that we inherit, regardless of our own ethnicity or heritage. As Thien’s novel comes to a close, a character faces a line of soldiers, “his hands up for them to see….What had any of them done that was criminal? Hadn’t they done their best to listen and to believe? There was nothing in his hands and never had been.” The sweep of this open history includes all of us, the lies we tell one another, the barricades we build in the streets of Ferguson and Wukan and Hong Kong and Gaza, and our confused attempts to do our best. It is not the only truth possible. But it is much more than nothing.

Nick Admussen is an Assistant Professor of Chinese Literature and Culture at Cornell University and the author of Recite and Refuse: Contemporary Chinese Poetry.

 [1] In the first review of this book carried on the China Blog, Michael Rank noted that he could not find the phrase in English language versions of the song, but as Madeleine Thien pointed out via Twitter, the book is faithful to the Chinese language version of the anthem, which you can hear and see translated here.

[2] This said, unlike the previous China Blog reviewer, I found Thien quite scrupulous in her accuracy concerning Chinese language, translation, and history. It is clearly appropriate, for example, to use the Chinese lyrics to “The Internationale,” as mentioned above, but there are other cases as well.  Rank wonders, for instance, whether real people would use the formal term xing lu, which can be translated as “punishment,” as they do in the novel.  I found it in a 1951 issue of the People’s Daily, so it was certainly in official circulation at the time.  He questions whether it was correct for people in the novel to refer to Deng Xiaoping as “Chairman Deng”; this usage was indeed at best rare, but not impossible, as he was the chairman of the Central Military Commission and the habit of calling Mao Zedong the “Chairman” carried over to Deng in some cases. I cannot speak with authority about every detail in the book, but by and large it struck me as quite thoroughly researched and scrupulous.  More generally, though, for Rank to pursue these questions as if they were of primary importance in a review of a novel struck me as a diversion from engaging with the more significant qualities of this work of literature.

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