Foreign Policy

Searching for Fact From Fiction

For a China correspondent, a slow news week might include a deadly landslide in Sichuan, farmers unearthing 125-million-year-old dinosaur fossils in Liaoning, or a multibillion-dollar listing by a tech giant. Beijing’s particular brand of top-down control means that there is also a steady stream of stories about state efforts to overwrite human nature through social engineering projects, such as intrusive family-planning campaigns and forced relocations that shift entire villages to make way for dams and highways.

Land of Big Numbers, Te-Ping Chen, Mariner Books, 256 pp., .99, February 2021

Land of Big Numbers, Te-Ping Chen, Mariner Books, 256 pp., $15.99, February 2021

One of the challenges of reporting in China is to divine the human experience behind the peculiar or the political. Time is short, many interviews are done remotely, and people are often wary of opening up to a foreign journalist, leaving unanswered questions. What did the farmers in Liaoning think when they found dinosaur skeletons curled up in the earth? How can a young woman who was institutionalized for hurling ink at a poster of President Xi Jinping persist in posting videos that criticize 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. Her stories resemble miniature landscapes, illuminated by fine detail and idiosyncrasy. A young woman from the countryside finds work in a Shanghai flower shop and daydreams about the lives of her well-off customers, a farmer seeks to build an airplane from metal scraps, and a chef tries and fails to understand his twin sister’s political activism. Where a news story limits itself to questions that can be answered, Chen’s fiction embraces uncertainty and contradiction that at times make it feel truer than a dispatch.

Chen spent four years as a correspondent in Beijing, and all but two of the 10 stories are set inside China. Many observers and policymakers fear a new cold war between the United States and China, particularly after the frosty last year of the Trump administration and the mudslinging over the coronavirus pandemic. With so much negative news at the government level, Americans and others beyond China risk losing sight of the ordinary people living there. The disconnect is exacerbated by the departure of foreign journalists from China. Chen herself left the Wall Street Journal Beijing bureau in 2018, and last year, three of her colleagues were among a group of American journalists booted out of China amid rising bilateral tensions.

In offering a window into ordinary life in China, the English-language collection differs from leading English translations of contemporary Chinese fiction. Translated work tends toward the avant-garde, such as Mo Yan’s epic novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips, or the raucously scatological, such as Yu Hua’s Brothers. The biggest commercial success translated from Chinese in recent years is the dystopian science fiction tome The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, now in development for a Netflix series. Darkness, trauma, sex, and violence color a lot of this contemporary work. By contrast, Chen’s stories are concerned with the poetry of mundane details.

Readers of contemporary American fiction, which often charts the rhythms of the everyday, will find the stories in Land of Big Numbers familiar and accessible. Chen writes cleanly, without many experimental flourishes but with occasional jackpots of detail. In “Flying Machine,” she describes a farming community of mostly retirement-age residents, capturing a familiar scene across China today. “For years, the village had been emptied of its young people; no one wanted to farm anymore. When they came back on weekends from town it was with tinny ringtones and asymmetrical bangs and white shoelaces, and they never stayed long,” she writes.

Chen said in an interview with her publisher that during her day job she collected material for her fiction like a magpie, and some of the characters she describes seem just beyond the headlines: the corrupt functionary obsessed with the stock market, the traumatized survivor of the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters. But she breathes life into these archetypes, unpacking her characters’ motivations. Fiction allows Chen to trace the emotional course of the official’s corruption, from his realization that he can skim funds to exhilaration over his new wealth to the new nagging fear of getting caught.

In “Shanghai Murmur,” one of the most gutting pieces in the collection, a struggling migrant worker, Xiaolei, comes into contact with a wealthy Shanghai wife. Xiaolei thinks the woman is beautiful but sees “something off-putting in her face.” “She looked like the sort of woman who would feed a pet expensive dog food and dock her servants’ pay,” she notes. The story captures with clever simplicity the contrast in fortunes between someone stuck on the bottom rungs of Chinese society and the oblivious nouveau riche at the top. Xiaolei’s predicament pivots on something trivial—a Montblanc fountain pen—that serves to underscore her marginal position.

The bits and pieces from Chen’s reporting notebook nearly always work in her stories, though she does strike the occasional false note when trying to convey things that are familiar in China but strange to a Western audience. In “Field Notes from a Marriage,” the main character comes upon a “nail house,” a lone home on a freshly demolished plot that a family has refused to vacate. The structure stands surrounded by a moat of rubble, and friends must bring the holdouts supplies—if they leave, the government will swoop in with a wrecking ball. The detail surfaces in the final pages of a wonderfully moody story about a troubled marriage. The explication required to shoehorn in this phenomenon ends up distracting from an awkward and believable attempt at connection between a woman and her mother-in-law.

Chen has a gift for allegory, and two pieces in the collection use fabulist elements to give a taste of what it’s like to live in an authoritarian society. In one story, a new fruit comes to market that has the power to evoke profound, individualized pleasure in everyone who eats it. For some, the fruit returns forgotten memories in cinematic detail; ultimately, the government steps in to ban the fruit, because it is seen as disruptive. Another story examines how a population might trade away free will in exchange for the basic creature comforts of a nanny state, where the government provides food, shelter, and purpose. These stories replicate the experience of having a memory denied and ceding ones’ rights—a suffocating sensation that conveys the mental trade-offs of life in China more powerfully than a news story might.

While she worked on Land of Big Numbers, Chen said that she was reading a lot of short fiction by the Indian American author Jhumpa Lahiri, whose work often places its audience into the ordinary lives of its characters as it explores themes of identity, culture, and home. In her own collection, Chen echoes some of Lahiri’s tone. Their characters grapple with alienation, loneliness, indecision, and inertia but are not usually beset by plot-churning death or disaster. Both authors resist endings that force a resolution or a revelation. Instead, their stories fade out softly, like a rung 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 about separating Chinese cultural pride from nationalism. China is a “place filled with kind and clever people who are constantly finding ways to reinvent their lives, with a propulsive mix of pragmatism and playfulness,” she writes. “I don’t know how to speak in a shorthand that captures all of this.” Her fiction is not shorthand—nor is it journalism—but it manages to capture the humanity behind the headlines. With so many lines cut between the United States and China, the small cross-cultural bridge that Chen builds with Land of Big Numbers feels particularly welcome.

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