Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 27, 2021

Land of Big Numbers, by Te-Ping Chen

The authorship of Land of Big Numbers is not what I expected. It was my mistake: I’m always keen to read female authors from China when so very few come our way… but by the time my library reserve arrived I had forgotten the detail of the January review in the Asian Review of Books, and I thought the author was Chinese.  She is not.  She is American born and educated, and a journalist who spent some time in China as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.  So these short stories, good as they are, are written through the prism of an observer.

I am slightly wary of “cold war” stories.  I lived through the first Cold War when we were fed a diet of books and films that were always critical of the USSR, and it was not until 2003 when I saw the film Goodbye Lenin! that I realised that nostalgia for a time of national pride plus economic and social security was a real phenomenon in the New Russia, though how widespread that might be remains a mystery to me.  In 2011 I read A Russian Journal by John Steinbeck and saw a different side of the postwar USSR… it was a country so devastated by WW2 that, contrary to the rhetoric, its people were fearful at the prospect of any further warfare. Then in 2017 I read Return to Moscow by former diplomat Tony Kevin which forensically dissected the resurgent cold war narratives that are now a feature of everything we read and hear about Putin and Russia. Yes, Russia and its leader are problematic.  But what else do we need to know about it, and how does it help anyone  when the media sponsors a one-sided narrative that makes no attempt to understand their perspectives?

I also grew up during the isolationist phase of Communist China, and then saw the enthusiasm with which the West welcomed doing business with China after it embraced capitalism.  And now we see the same cold war rhetoric being applied to everything we read and hear about China, and for the same reason: economic and military rivalry between Big Powers.  The overt disdain for their political system is also new.  Yes, it is indeed problematic and so is their record on human rights, but those issues—even the butchery at Tiananmen Square— were brushed under the economic carpet until China started flexing its muscle in our region.  You don’t need a vivid imagination to recognise why President Biden is bringing his troops home from ventures in fruitless wars; he wants US defence forces on call in the Indo-Pacific.  And, it seems, so do we. The drums of war might be beating though there are some who see the importance of avoiding it.

Do the reasons for any confrontation meet the principles of a just war?

So I approached this book with an awareness of its propaganda value.  Chen’s stories expose aspects of China that reinforce the negatives.  The first story, ‘Lulu’, features twins: a sister who lands in serious trouble with censors for her social media reports about protests, while her brother, less academically gifted, becomes a success in the gaming industry.  The parents are dismayed by the unwanted attention brought to them, as are the parents in the titular story, ‘Land of Big Numbers’ when their ambitious son embezzles money for the stock market.  The father—quiescent and prudent for decades since his time as an activist at Tiananmen Square—and his wife—resigned to their situation after authorities denied him a means to earn a living—are highly anxious that new disaster will befall them when the government department Zhu Feng works for, finds out about the missing money.

Other stories reveal villagers dispossessed by poorly-constructed residential developments; the emptiness of the economic reality for the underclass of uneducated girls like Xiaolei who realises too late that it was foolish to expect anything; the extremes to which parental ambitions might drive a very competitive student; and the repressed memories of the Cultural Revolution that become resurgent under the influence of an hallucinogenic fruit.  A thread that runs through all of them is the generational divide between hesitant, wary parents and ambitious, materialistic children who take risks without knowing the possible consequences because the full complexity of China’s history is officially repressed.

All these stories ring true, but I ask myself, which audience do the stories serve?  What’s the agenda?  Who does the author want to remind about the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square?  To put it another way, where is the story about Chinese pride in achievements such as their space program, when they became the third country ever to launch a man into space in 2003?  I didn’t have time to read the last story before the book was due back at the library: perhaps that last story acknowledges the astonishing improvement in the Chinese standard of living and their literacy rates?  It’s not what’s in this collection that bothers me, it’s what’s not, and thus its limitations.  China is a big, powerful, bothersome player in our region and the world, and we need to understand more about what they think and believe and value… not so that we can kowtow to it, but so that there is clarity guiding our foreign policy rather than one-sided negativity buttressed by shallow popular opinion.

Other reviews are at The Asian Review of Books and the NPR, and there’s an interview with the author here.

Transparency: My views about how to have a constructive relationship with China have been partly shaped by reading Kevin Rudd’s The Case for Couragethis article in the Asia Society journal, and by my readings of the Australian Foreign Affairs Journal.

Author: Te-Ping Chen
Title: Land of Big Numbers
Design by Craig Fraser
Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster), 2021
ISBN: 9781398503366, pbk., 236 pages
Cource: Kingston Library

 


Responses

  1. Yes. I agree with you, and K. Rudd. We need to build a constructive relationship which takes into account differences. I know where I would like to place the most recent reference to ‘the drums of war’ ….

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    • Yes, I would have thought that comments like that are best left to DFAT diplomats…

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  2. I am so over this anti Russian and Chinese narrative that is taking us to another futile conflict. The rhetoric from this present government is very worrying. The lack of reasonable engagement is not what is needed in this world at this time. The arrogance of the West continues.

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    • It’s folly, I agree. We could leave it to the belligerents to mouth off at each other without us joining in!

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  3. Very true, I think. There is a lot of hypocrisy about China in the West (and Australia, I imagine). Best read with a critical mind and a curiosity about finding out more.

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  4. Such an interesting post, Lisa! I take on board what you say about the filters involved and the rhetoric – they’re everywhere! Mr K has been a news hound in the past and is so fed up with the propaganda we’re being fed by our UK mainstream media that he’s take to watching the Russia Today channel’s news just to get some balance!! I would have been wondering what the agenda here was, too….

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  5. I find that the best stories about China come from people who live there, and who find ways to circumvent the censors. The satires of Yan Lianke are brilliant in that way,

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