A glimpse into China's Heart

These carefully sketched stories both honor and question Chinese tradition

A flight from Boston to Beijing costs $900. Yiyun Li's book, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, costs about $22. What do these two purchases have in common? Spending money on either may offer insight into what lies at the heart of Chinese culture.

Personally, I would suggest both.

My own trip to China a year ago was full of cultural exchange and understanding, but I left with a number of unanswered questions, such as, why do the Chinese stand in line with recycled paper flowers outside Mao's mausoleum to pay tribute to a man who died in 1976? What was it like to live during the Cultural Revolution? Are young Chinese moving away from their own cultural traditions and toward Western values?

"A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" provides context and understanding, but does not directly answer any of these questions. That's the beauty of it.

Li's writing and storytelling present the reader with the information necessary to understand each character, but leave stories open-ended enough that readers find much left to ponder.

This collection of 10 short, fictional stories examines and explores Chinese cultural phenomena such as eunuchs, the one-child policy, corruption, arranged marriages, the rise of religious fervor, and the stigma of single women, and then juxtaposes the Western-embracing youth with their traditional elders.

In all cases, Li draws neither negative nor positive conclusions. Instead, she places readers in a variety of characters' shoes for a moment in time, long enough for them to get at least a glimpse of the historical, emotional, and cultural contexts that lie beyond.

Li thus offers readers their own chance to grasp a Chinese thought process, yet still allows them to draw their own conclusions.

She does all of this subtly - almost unnoticeably so - through her well-realized characters. The book begins with Granny Lin, an old Chinese woman who has been laid off from her job as a government-owned factory worker. With no job and no pension, Granny Lin lets her friend arrange a marriage for her with an elderly widower.

Through statements like, "It does not say that Red Star Garment Factory has gone bankrupt, or that being honorably retired, Granny Lin will not receive her pension ... for these facts are simply not true. 'Bankrupt' is the wrong word for a state-owned industry," Li refrains from partaking in direct political discussion.

Instead, she describes the strictly-in-denial fashion in which the Chinese government closes down a factory. The story presents a type of evasion that might surprise Westerners but is common in China.

In another story, Li explores life during the Cultural Revolution, suggesting that the people failed to grasp that the famine and suffering they experienced had anything to do with Mao's policies.

The fictional characters seem instead to believe Mao when he explains their hunger over the loudspeaker by saying, "Get rid of the sparrows and the rats; they are the thieves who stole our food and brought hunger to us."

While not directly related to each other - and without character overlap - her stories weave together easily, providing a well-rounded but fluid and thought-provoking look at Chinese society.

Growing up in Beijing, Li has captured the art of writing in a way that both explains and honors Chinese culture, while also questioning it.

In these stories, Li provides a glimpse into the oft-misunderstood lives of the Chinese people and the way their culture impacts their thoughts and decisions. Although based in fiction, Li's frequent allusions to actual historical events made me wonder if her tales explain what it was actually like to live in Zhong Guo.

Part of Chinese culture and tradition includes speaking in euphemisms and avoiding blunt confrontation that would incur the loss of 'face.'

This respectful tone of conversation employed by Li throughout "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" provides a natural and genuinely Chinese feel to her writing - even as her stories cleverly question every aspect of tradition.

This is Li's skill, to deli- cately maintain balance, justifying tradition and contradicting it at the same time through her fictional account of the Chinese people's perspective and reaction to past and present.

In her last story, an older Chinese gentleman visiting his daughter in America says to a friend, " 'That we get to meet and talk to each other - it must have taken a long time of good prayers to get us here.' "

Although I never sat down with Yiyun Li or any of the book's fictional characters, reading "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" gave me a better understanding - even if only a fictional one - of my neighbors across the globe.

Jennifer Moeller is an intern at the Monitor.

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