“Do Not Say We Have Nothing” by Madeleine Thien

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Well-researched and devastatingly beautiful, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is an ambitious book that articulates the reverberating impact of totalitarianism in communist China, as well as the transforming power of friendship and humanity.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien (Granta, July 2016; Knopf Canada, May 2016)
Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien (Granta, July 2016; Knopf Canada, May 2016)

This third novel from Thien—a Canadian writer of Malaysian-Chinese heritage—this is a touching tale of the intertwined lives of three music prodigies at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, who confront the cruelty of the Red Guards and the re-education programmes during the Cultural Revolution.

The story starts in Vancouver, where ten-year-old Marie finds it hard to understand why her father, Jiang Kai—a renowned pianist who survived the Cultural Revolution and later moved to Canada— took his own life in Hong Kong in 1989. After her father’s death, Marie meets Ai-Ling, whose father, Sparrow, taught Kai at the Conservatory. Having taken part in the student-led protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989, Ai-Ling had escaped to Canada from China, seeking temporary refuge in Marie’s home.

Through Ai-Ling, Marie catches a glimpse of the turbulent past their fathers shared: decades of persecution, betrayals, compromised values and suppressed individual rights. It is a terrible era when all kinds of enjoyment are denounced as bourgeois. A third, the talented violinist Zhuli, who pursues her art with such dedication, suffers persecution under the cruel hands of the denouncers and the Red Guards. One of the survivors, Comrade Glass Eye, reflects on the lasting damage of Mao’s industrialisation policies:

 

Why did our leaders dream that every farmer could be reborn as a steel-maker? How did they imagine that a boy who had studied the fields all his life could make iron ore out of nothing? […] we existed to be forged and re-forged by the Party.

 

Throughout the book, the call for “loyalty” or “patriotism” are exploited by those in power. During the Cultural Revolution, no one can speak freely as their words can easily be used against them, and lying becomes a guilty way to survive:

 

The authorities had taken Zhuli’s body while Sparrow and his father stood by. No, they had not stood by. He and his father had praised the Chairman, the Party and the nation. They’d had no choice but, still, they had performed disturbingly well, as if words and music were only ever about repetition, as if one could just as easily play Bach as repeat the words of Chairman Mao.

 

The ruthlessness of the Red Guards culminates in a televised scene taken from real-life where He Luting, Director of the Conservatory, is denounced publicly as a scapegoat for “corrupting” young minds with Western music and ideology. He uncompromisingly pleads not guilty.

The musical motif runs through the book. At a time when every word or name is distrusted, the language of music survives the cruelty of history. Ai-ming recalls a time when there were only eighteen pieces of approved music that could be broadcast publicly. Anything else was illegal. Later, inspired by the courage of her daughter and her fellow students who take part in the Tiananmen protests, Sparrow decides to complete his sonata after 23 years, entitled The Sun Shines on the People’s Square:

 

Sparrow had never made a sustained sound, the music came in beginnings and endings like the edges of a table. The life in the middle, what was it? Zhuli, Kai, Himself. Twenty years in a factory. Thousands of radios. A marriage and family. Nearly all of his adult life: the day after day, year upon year, that gives shape to a person, that accrues weight.

 

In connecting the historical significance of the Cultural Revolution with the students protests in 1989, Thien compares and contrasts the older generation who survived the Cultural Revolution with the younger generation who witnessed the later Tiananmen Square incident. She questions the balance of power between the government and the people: what does it take for a government to be respected by its own people? Is it wrong for the people to articulate their beliefs? Ai-ming’s friend, Yi-wen, said:

 

All we wanted was to deliver a funeral wreath to the Great Hall of the People. That was the beginning, isn’t it?

 

On the other hand, Ai-ming wonders

 

was that really how it had begun? Could it have been so simple?

 

Alluding to an an anonymous Book of Records, Thien articulates the importance to revisit or reconstruct the past, even if it is impossible to understand the magnitude of physical and emotional sufferings people experience in the Revolutionary period. As Wen the Dreamer said:

 

This is my fate…To escape and continue this story, to make infinite copies, to let these stories permeate the soil, invisible and undeniable.

 

Although the intellectual rigor of the books occasionally gets in the way of Thien’s storytelling, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is written with conviction and honesty. Thien’s novel offers a reimagined account of the trauma, disillusionments and hope experienced by the people during one of the most turbulent historical periods in China.


Jennifer Wong is a Hong Kong poet now residing in London. Her most recent book is Goldfish.