A collection of ten short stories, this is a poignant and honest look at the lives of utterly ordinary people that play out in front of cultural constraints and political intrusions. Topics like the relationship between husband and wife, filial duty, the families that we make ourselves, and the societal expectations that put shackles on even the most human experiences are explored in a somber but touching way.
Almost all of these stories are amazing, and it’s hard for me to pick a favourite. The most obvious front-runner is a story that links the practice of having eunuchs as servants in the Royal Palace to a boy who is born with Mao Zedong’s face. This one is a well deserved award winner that is perfectly crafted, packs an emotional punch, and contains a wealth of subtle cultural and political commentary. However, there are others that don’t have such a wide scope and are more contained, but just as great, like the story of an old woman who works in a school and befriends a strange little boy, or a homosexual man who emigrated to America but comes back ten years later to visit his mother.
Even in these ‘small’ stories of normal people’s lives there is so much information about China, its past and present, and the change that has happened first through the Cultural Revolution and then through the integration of capitalism into a communist system. They often feel like a general observation of the human condition that could take place almost anywhere, only for the secret police, the one-child policy, or online censorship to intrude into the happenings. However, what shines through is great care for these characters that are complex and realistic, and offer great insight into different facets of life in contemporary China.
There is maybe one small negative I should mention here, and that is that there is virtually no joy in this book. There are brief glimpses of mostly short-lived happiness but everything seems suffused with melancholia and a feeling that the next blow is just around the corner. As an old man explains at one point, “It takes three thousand years of prayers to place your head side by side with your loved one’s on the pillow. For father and daughter? A thousand years, maybe.” There were apparently not enough prayers available for these characters.