Review: Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing”

by Miles Raymer

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In his 2011 book Confucian Role Ethicsphilosopher Roger T. Ames reflects on the relationship between individual identity, family dynamics, and music in the Confucian tradition:

The timelessness and broad appeal of the teachings of Confucius begins from the insight that the life of almost every human being, regardless of where or when, is played out within the context of his or her own particular family, for better or worse. For Confucius and for generations of Chinese that have followed after him, the basic unit of humanity is this particular person in this particular family rather than either the solitary, discrete individual or the equally abstract and generic notion of family. In fact, in reading Confucius, there is no reference to some core human being as the site of who we really are and that remains once the particular layers of family and community relations are peeled away. That is, there is no ‘self,’ no ‘soul,’ no discrete ‘individual’ behind our complex and dynamic habits of conduct. Each of us is irreducibly social as the sum of the roles we live––not play––in our relationships and transactions with others. The goal of living, then, is to achieve harmony and enjoyment for oneself and for others through behaving in an optimally appropriate way in those roles and relationships that make us uniquely who we are. The analogy with music here is irresistible. Harmony requires that each component maintain its own integrity and be itself while simultaneously joining in and integrating with the other participants to form an organic unity distinct from, and more than, the sum of its parts. The unity of each of us emerges as we pursue this inclusive harmony within the orchestra of our roles and relations. (96, emphasis his)

Madeleine Thien brings all of these sentiments and more to life in her exquisite novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing. This intergenerational epic depicts a half century of hardships experienced by two Chinese families, focusing on the second half of the Chinese Civil War/Communist Revolution (1945-1950), the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and the Tiananmen Square Protests (1989). These turbulent and brutal decades of Chinese history don’t make for light reading, but Thien’s disarming and pensive prose transforms tragedies into possibilities for learning and growth.

The main characters are a composer named Sparrow and a pianist named Jiang Kai, two young men who bond over their love of music while studying at the Shanghai Conservatory during the years leading up to the Cultural Revolution. Through their eyes, we witness the era’s ethical complexity as they react to traumatic violence and oppression. Sparrow and Jiang Kai become narrative counterpoints, demonstrating the impossibility of making the “right choice” in circumstances where no good option is available. Their relationship is fraught but quietly courageous––a passionate romance crushed by history’s heavy hammer. They are both very close with Zhuli, a violinist and Sparrow’s cousin. Thien captures the trio’s dynamics elegantly in her description of one of Sparrow’s compositions, a Sonata for Piano and Violin:

At first, the violin played alone, a seam of notes that slowly widened. When the piano entered, I saw a man turning in measured, elegant circles, I saw him looking for the centre that eluded him, this beautiful centre that promised an end to sorrow, the lightness of freedom. The piano stepped forward and the violin lifted, a man crossing a room and a girl weeping as she climbed a flight of steps; they played as if one sphere could merge into another, as if they could arrive in time and be redeemed in a single overlapping moment. And even when the notes they played were the very same, the piano and violin were irrevocably apart, drawn by different lives and different times. Yet in their separateness, and in the quiet, they contained one another. (454)

Sparrow and Jiang Kai eventually marry two different women, and each couple has a daughter. Sparrow’s daughter is named Ai-ming and Jiang Kai’s is named Li-ling (our narrator). These women spend the novel trying to understand their parents’ stories while simultaneously authoring their own. Their strained but poignant familial relationships represent the tension between a generation that sacrificed everything to preserve the “purity” of Chinese communism and a generation seeking to push China toward democracy. The book’s climax covers Ai-ming and Sparrow’s experience of the Tiananmen Square Protests––a series of remarkable passages including this one:

Ai-ming tried to clear her thoughts. All these slogans and songs had been handed down, she thought, and if the words were not theirs was the emotion that propelled them borrowed, too? What about the students’ desire, their idealism, their righteousness, how many contradictory desires did it serve? Once idealism had belonged to Chairman Mao, the Revolutionaries, the heroic Eighth Route Army. Had their generation inherited it? How could a person know the difference between what was real and what was merely illusion, or see when a truth transformed into its opposite? What was theirs and what was something handed down, only a repetition? The loudspeakers kept cutting into the air: Under martial law, soldiers are authorized to use all necessary means, including force…Hadn’t to the government, too, stolen their words from someone else? People are forbidden to fabricate or spread rumors, network, make public speeches, distribute leaflets, or incite social turmoil…As if words alone could make reality, as if there were no people involved, as if words alone could make someone a criminal, or conjure crimes from the air. Hadn’t the Red Guards tried to destroy the old language and bring to life a new one? What if one had to create a whole new language in order to learn to be oneself? She said to Yiwen, “I think we keep repeating the same mistakes. Maybe we should mistrust every idea we think is original and ours alone.” (404-5, emphasis hers)

Though its political and historical elements are obvious, Do Not Say We Have Nothing transcends its mission to fictionalize important moments in modern China. Burrowing fearlessly into the universal intricacies of human nature, Thien writes with arresting fluency about art, memory, time, mathematics, and identity:

Story cycles…could last a hundred chapters, and the old storytellers could spin them out over months, even years. Listeners couldn’t resist; like clockwork they arrived, eager to hear the next instalment. It was a time of chaos, of bombs and floods, when love songs streamed from the radio and wept down the streets. Music sustained weddings, births, rituals, work, marching, boredom, confrontation and death; music and stories, even in times like these, were a refuge, a passport, everywhere. (28)

“I assumed,” Ai-ming told me, “that when Big Mother’s stories finished, life would continue and I would go back to being myself. But it wasn’t true. The stories got longer and longer, and I got smaller and smaller. When I told my grandmother this, she laughed her head off. She said, ‘But that’s how the world is, isn’t it? Or did you think you were bigger than the world?’” (36)

Time itself, the hours, minutes and seconds, the things they counted and the way they counted them, had sped up in the New China. He wanted to express this change, to write a symphony that inhabited both the modern and the old: the not yet ended the nearly gone. (121)

For all her talent, and for all of Kai’s, it was Sparrow, she knew, who had the truest gift. His music made her turn away from the never-possible and the almost-here, away from an unmade, untested future. The present, Sparrow seemed to say, is all we have, yet it is the one thing we will never learn to hold in our hands. (137)

What was music? Every note could only be understood by its relation to those around it. Merged, they made new sounds, new colours, a new resonance or dissonance, a stability or rupture. Inside the pure tone of C was a ladder of rich overtones as well as the echoes of other Cs, like a man wearing many suits of clothes, or a grandmother carrying all her memories inside her. Was this what music was, was it time itself containing fractions of seconds, minutes, hours, and all the ages, all the generations? What was chronology and how did she fit into it? (189)

Do you understand? All these things that we don’t have are nothing compared to the things we did have. A life can be long or short but inside it, if we’re lucky, is this one opening… I looked through this window and made my own idea of the universe and maybe it was wrong, I don’t know anymore, I never stopped loving my country but I wanted to be loyal to something else, too. I saw things…I don’t want the other kind of life. (259-60, emphasis hers)

What was a zero anyway? A zero signified nothing, all it did was tell you nothing about nothing. Still, wasn’t zero also something meaningful, a number in and of itself? In jianpu notation, zero indicated a caesura, a pause or rest of indeterminate length. Did time that went uncounted, unrecorded, still qualify as time? If zero was both everything and nothing, did an empty life have exactly the same weight as a full life? Was zero like the desert, both finite and infinite? (292)

Sound was alive and disturbing and outside of any individual’s control. Sound had a freedom that no thought could equal because a sound made no absolute claim on meaning. Any word, on the other hand, could be forced to signify its opposite. (315)

I used to be humbled before music, he thought. I loved music so much it blinded me to the world. What right do I have, do any of us have, to go back? Repetition was an illusion. The idea of return, of beginning over again, of creating a new country, had always been a deception, a beautiful dream from which they had awoken. (324)

Is art the creation of something new and original, or simply the continuous enlargement, or the distillation, of an observation that came before? (418)

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a book that asks many more questions than it answers, revealing how our efforts to wrest clarity from the world––inadequate even in the best of times––become ever more futile in the context of revolution and political upheaval. Yet, Thien teaches us, the power of narrative remains even when clarity is unachievable. Amidst confusion and chaos, each generation will strive to tell its own story:

We were not unalike, my father and I; we wanted to keep a record. We imagined there were truths waiting for us––about ourselves and those we loved, about the times we lived in––within our reach, if only we had eyes to see them…I believe these pages and the Book of Records return to the persistence of this desire: to know the times in which we are alive. To keep the record that must be kept and also, finally, to let it go. (296, 419)

Rating: 9/10