Reading China through the Diaspora

  • Janie Chang
    Dragon Springs Road. Harper Avenue Canada (purchase at
  • Madeleine Thien
    Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Vintage Canada (purchase at
Reviewed by Stephanie Fung

Janie Chang’s Dragon Springs Road and Madeleine Thien’s award-winning Do Not Say We Have Nothing are valuable texts emerging from the Asian diaspora, especially for those who cannot read Chinese (like me) and whose access to Chinese history is, in most cases, through texts written in English. How might these texts, refracted through the diaspora, portray Chinese experiences productively in ways that disrupt colonial histories?

Set in Shanghai in the early twentieth century, Dragon Springs Road tells the story of Jialing, a Eurasian orphan, who is abandoned by her mother when she is seven years old. The Yang family, new owners of the derelict estate where Jialing is found, take her in as their bond servant. Jialing grows up in the family household with Anjun, the eldest Yang daughter, and Fox, an animal spirit, by her side. Despised by Chinese and Europeans for being zazhong (a derogatory term for “mixed race”), she endures discrimination and alienation in a patriarchal society where gender, class, and racial inequities are deeply entrenched. Every situation she encounters—from navigating a murder to being caught in political crossfire and a love affair—ties her to “the shadows of her past” and her identity. Jialing longs for a new life elsewhere, such as Harbin, a “city of refugees and émigrés.” A character tells her, “you would not be the first to go there to escape your past, and no one will ask, including me.”

Chang skilfully crafts an intriguing (and not often told) narrative of what life might have been like for a mixed-race person like Jialing living in Shanghai in the early 1900s—a time of instability with the end of the imperial Qing dynasty and the beginning of the Chinese republic. For Chang, her novels are strictly historical fiction where, as she notes in an article, “characters and their responses to the conditions around them inform the reader . . . they must behave in a way that’s true to the realities of their era, economic status, and position in society; otherwise they turn into anachronisms.”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, however, demonstrates how historical fiction can move beyond its temporal trappings to point to other ways of understanding the past. The novel opens in Vancouver in 1990 with Marie, the daughter of Chinese Canadian migrants, whose father has recently committed suicide. With the arrival and guidance of Ai-ming, a young woman who flees Beijing after the Tiananmen massacre, Marie delves into the history of her extended family during the Cultural Revolution, attempting to understand the lives they led. At the heart of the narrative are three close friends fervently studying and creating at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in the 1960s—Ai-ming’s father, Sparrow, who is a composer; her aunt, Zhuli, a violinist; and Marie’s father, Kai, a pianist. As the state transforms into an oppressive regime, these three try to stay true to themselves and to each other, but are ultimately torn apart with devastating repercussions.

Like Dragon Springs Road, Thien’s novel asks how one might act and survive under political pressures, trauma, and oppression. Yet Do Not Say We Have Nothing goes beyond an exploration of personal survival and brilliantly haunts us with broader questions about intergenerational storytelling, survival of people’s histories, and what we inherit in the present. How do we imagine histories that have been erased? What does it mean to bear witness to such histories? And how can we imagine ourselves and alternative futures through the past? Thien’s characters traverse temporal and spatial boundaries through language and art. If, as Thien writes, Shostakovich’s No. 5 is “deceptive” for “inside, concealed and waiting to be heard, were ideas and selves that had never been erased,” so is the “Book of Records”—the manuscript of a novel—that offers an alternative, open-ended history and that is passed down from generation to generation. One of the characters’ fate is to “populate this fictional world with true names and true deeds . . . to continue this story, to make infinite copies, to let these stories permeate the soil, invisible and undeniable.” The novel’s ending is left unfinished, and what we are left with, or inherit, is his task: the power and responsibility to continue this story and others—to participate in history and imagine other ways of living.

This review “Reading China through the Diaspora” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 139-141.

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