For a China correspondent, a slow week of news could include a deadly landslide in Sichuan, farmers digging up 125-million-year-old dinosaur fossils in Liaoning, or a billion-dollar listing by a tech giant. Beijing’s particular brand of top-down control means there is also a steady stream of stories of government efforts to override human nature through social engineering projects, such as intrusive family planning campaigns and forced relocations that move entire villages to dam place to make highways.
One of the challenges of reporting in China is guessing the human experience behind the particular or political. Time is short, many interviews are conducted remotely, and people are often cautious about opening up to foreign journalists and leave unanswered questions. What did Liaoning farmers think when they found dinosaur skeletons curled up in the ground? How can a young woman institutionalized for throwing ink on President Xi Jinping’s poster continue to post videos criticizing the state?
Land of Big Numbers, a new volume of short stories by Wall Street Journal reporter Te-Ping Chen, turns the raw material of such vignettes into provocative fiction. Their stories resemble miniature landscapes illuminated by fine details and peculiarities. A young rural woman finds work in a flower shop in Shanghai and dreams of the life of her wealthy customers, a farmer tries to build an airplane from scrap metal, and a cook tries and doesn’t understand his twin sister’s political activism. Where a message is limited to questions that can be answered, Chen’s fiction encompasses uncertainty and contradiction that sometimes make it feel more true than broadcast.
Chen spent four years as a correspondent in Beijing, and all but two of the ten stories are set in China. Many observers and policymakers fear a new Cold War between the United States and China, especially after the Trump administration’s frosty final year and the mud slaughter over the coronavirus pandemic. With so much negative government news going on, Americans and others outside of China risk losing sight of the common people who live there. The separation is exacerbated by the withdrawal of foreign journalists from China. Chen himself left the Wall Street Journal’s Beijing office in 2018, and last year three of her colleagues were part of a group of American journalists displaced from China amid mounting bilateral tensions.
The English language collection offers a glimpse into ordinary life in China and differs from leading English translations of contemporary Chinese fiction. Translated works tend towards the avant-garde like Mo Yan’s epic novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips, or harshly scatological ones like Yu Hua’s Brothers. The biggest commercial hit translated from Chinese in recent years is the dystopian science fiction book The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, which is currently in development for a Netflix series. Darkness, trauma, sex and violence shape much of this contemporary work. In contrast, Chen’s stories deal with the poetry of secular details.
Readers of contemporary American fiction, which often records the rhythm of everyday life, will find the stories familiar and accessible in the land of great numbers. Chen writes neatly, without a lot of experimental frills, but with the occasional jackpots of details. In “Flying Machine” she describes a farming community with predominantly retired residents that is now a well-known scene throughout China. “The village had been liberated from its young people for years; nobody wanted to farm anymore. When they came back from town on the weekends it was with thin ringtones and asymmetrical bangs and white laces and they never stayed long, ”she writes.
Chen said in an interview with her publisher that in the course of her day-to-day work she gathered material for her fiction like a magpie and some of the characters she describes only go beyond the headlines: the corrupt official obsessed with the stock market, the traumatized survivor of the 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square. But she breathes life into these archetypes and unpacks the motivations of her characters. Fiction enables Chen to trace the emotional course of the official’s corruption, from his realization that he can siphon off funds, to the amusement of his new fortune, to the new agonizing fear of being caught.
In “Shanghai Murmur,” one of the most daunting pieces in the collection, a struggling migrant worker, Xiaolei, comes into contact with a wealthy woman from Shanghai. Xiaolei thinks the woman is beautiful, but sees “something repulsive on her face”. “She looked like a woman feeding expensive dog food to a pet and paying her servants,” she notes. The story captures, with clever simplicity, the contrast between someone who is at the bottom of Chinese society and the unsuspecting nouveau riche at the top. Xiaolei’s predicament revolves around something trivial – a Montblanc fountain pen – which is used to emphasize her marginal position.
The parts from Chen’s notebook almost always work in her stories, though she occasionally makes false notes when trying to convey things that are known in China but strange to a Western audience. In “Field Notes from a Marriage” the main character comes across a “nail house”, a lonely home on a recently demolished property that a family did not want to evacuate. The structure is surrounded by a rubble trench, and friends must bring supplies – if they leave, the government will shoot in a wrecking ball. The detail emerges on the last few pages of a wonderfully moody story about a marriage in trouble. The explanation required to get this phenomenon under control ultimately distracts from an uncomfortable and believable attempt to establish a connection between a woman and her mother-in-law.
Chen has a knack for allegory, and two pieces in the collection use fabulous elements to convey a sense of what it is like to live in an authoritarian society. In a story, a new fruit comes out that has the power to evoke deep, individual pleasure in whoever eats it. For some, the fruit returns forgotten memories in cinematic detail; Ultimately, the government steps in to ban the fruits because they are viewed as disruptive. Another story examines how a population can trade free will for the basic comforts of a nanny state, where government provides food, shelter and purpose. These stories repeat the experience of a memory being denied and one’s rights surrendered – a suffocating sensation that conveys the mental compromises of life in China more than a message.
While working on Land of Big Numbers, Chen said she read a lot of short stories by Indo-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri, whose work often immerses audiences in the ordinary life of his characters when dealing with topics like identity, culture, and home. In her own collection, Chen reproduces part of Lahiri’s tone. Your characters struggle with alienation, loneliness, indecision, and indecision, but are usually not plagued by death or disaster. Both authors oppose endings that force resolution or revelation. Instead, their stories fade away like a bell. Chen’s fictional dissident in “Lulu” goes to jail, gets out and returns to jail – but life goes on.
In January, Chen published an essay on separating Chinese cultural pride from nationalism. China is a “place full of friendly and smart people who are constantly looking for ways to reinvent their lives with a driving mix of pragmatism and playfulness,” she writes. “I don’t know how to speak in a shorthand that captures all of this.” Her fiction isn’t an abbreviation – nor is it journalism – but she manages to capture the humanity behind the headlines. With so many lines between the US and China, the little cross-cultural bridge that Chen is building with Land of Big Numbers is especially welcome.