When I think of Beijing in 1998, I think of a worn-out train bound for a town fifty miles from the capital. Across from me sat a Chinese man in his late twenties who, for a while, would not meet my eyes. Only after the train began moving, the noise of the rails nearly deafening, did he lean forward across the little table that separated us and say, “English?”
I nodded, grateful and relieved to have someone to talk to. When he asked why I was going to this town, which, by his reckoning, was not a good place for foreigners, I told him I was looking for a small hiking trail I’d heard about, hoping to get away from the chaos of the city for a day. He said it would be very hard to find, and offered to accompany me.
A few minutes into our conversation, a uniformed man walked up and began talking to my new companion. From the tone of his voice, it sounded like an interrogation. The uniformed man kept gesturing to me angrily. My acquaintance shrank into himself, speaking quietly to the uniformed man. After the man left, I asked, “What was that about? Is everything okay?”
He shook his head, “I cannot talk.” Then he looked out the window, and for the rest of the trip he did not speak to me or meet my eyes. When the train pulled into the station, he exited quickly, without saying goodbye, and I did not attempt to follow.
I mention this occasion as a single example of the fear and secrecy I encountered during my three months traveling solo in China in 1998. This was the year of President Clinton’s famous visit to Tiananmen Square, a visit which, as a foreigner, I was allowed to witness, but which was so tightly controlled by the government that my Chinese acquaintances told me they dared not go. This was almost ten years after the massacre, almost twenty years after the fictional events described in Yiyun Li’s arresting debut novel, The Vagrants, which should be required reading for anyone interested in political fanaticism and state-sponsored tyranny.
At the time of my visit, the official government line on Chairman Mao, who had decimated the country with his brutal Cultural Revolution decades before, was that he had been 70% right, 30% wrong. The giant portrait of Mao that hung over the entrance to the Forbidden City served as a reminder that his vision of revolution (or at least 70% of that vision) still resonated in the hearts and minds of the Communist government. But the problem with fanatical revolution is that it quarters no dissent. To be a counter-revolutionary in China in the 1970s, the era in which Li’s novel takes place, was to be an enemy of the people.
The Vagrants captures in chilling detail the atmosphere of constant fear, uncertainty, and vigilance that made daily life in post-Mao China a terrifying tightrope walk. The precise date on which the novel begins is March 21, 1979. The place is Muddy River, a village beset by poverty, a place where, down every alley, one finds despair. If every story must have a reason for being told, a moment or necessity that sets it in motion, the catalyst for The Vagrants is a murder—specifically, the pending execution of 28-year-old Gu Shan, who has spent the past decade imprisoned for writing a letter to her boyfriend which questioned the government.
Gu Shan’s great crime is that she has not reformed. Instead of recanting her opinions and using her time in prison to see the error of her counter-revolutionary ways, she kept a journal in which she was critical of the government. In the extravagantly censorial atmosphere of post-Mao China, a doubt uttered in private is fair grounds for execution.
Her denunciation ceremony takes place amidst an atmosphere of excitement on the one hand, resignation on the other. Schoolchildren, public officials, and workers’ units take part in the spectacle, while those who disagree with the policy, for the most part, keep their silence. In this atmosphere, small acts take on hyper-significance. The condemned girl’s mother burns her daughter’s clothes in the street, an attempt to send her child off in the proper manner, only to be dragged away by authorities. Her actions bewilder Gu Shan’s father, a teacher who has come to lament his daughter’s education, an education which he believes led her astray. He regrets that the women in his life cannot be quiet and obedient; why must they insist on making waves?
Forced to calculate, from one minute to the next, where their loyalties should lie, the people of Muddy River are trapped in a collective and endless Catch-22. The famous radio personality Kai, a former classmate of Gu Shan, who aims to protest the execution may end up a heroine or a prisoner, depending on the shifting political winds, while those who support the execution may yet end up losing jobs, homes, or political clout because of their choice. The people who stream into the city square to sign a petition questioning the execution may be signing away their lives. The source of The Vagrants’ great tension, and its power, is that at any moment any character may run into trouble of a fatal variety. No one is safe.
In a description of a group of schoolboys playing on the river as the winter ice begins to thaw, Li eloquently captures the essential problem of the time and place about which she writes:
“Sometimes one of them lost his balance and plunged into the river… The soaked boy dodged the ice drifts, scrambled onto the bank, and ran home, laughing too because this kind of failure did not bother him. The same thing could happen to anyone; the next day, he would be one of the winning boys, laughing at another boy falling in. It was a game.”
Perhaps one of the most arresting features of this book is that there are very few characters for whom the reader is allowed to feel a lingering sympathy. Just as we begin to cast our lot in with the martyr, Gu Shan, whose prolonged and extraordinarily painful death is portrayed in all its savage butchery, we learn that she is not innocent. At the age of 15, flush with the zeal of Communism, Gu Shan turned against her own parents and the elders of her village, whom she publicly beat and humiliated. One of the women she beat was eight months pregnant; her child, Nini, was born with terrible deformities.
If Gu Shan is a ghost on the page, condemned to death from the moment we know her name, twelve-year-old Nini is very alive. Despised and abused by her own parents, Nini finds some hope when she is befriended by Bashi, a young man considered by many to be the town idiot, whose driving desire is to see a woman’s unclothed body. Because women his own age will not have him, and even young girls mock him, he turns to the prepubescent, physically deformed Nini as an answer to his loneliness. It is testament to the unbearable misery of Nini’s life that one finds oneself rooting for the underhanded and selfish Bashi, hoping that Nini will go live with him—loss of sexual innocence seems a small price to pay for a full stomach, a warm bed, and protection from the cruelties of her own parents. Bashi offers Nini something that until then has been almost entirely lacking in her life: acceptance and affection. But even Nini cannot be entirely trusted to hold our sympathies; the one couple who has been kind to her all her life eventually becomes the subject of her resentment, and we hold our breath, wondering how she might punish them.
The vagrants of the novel’s title turn out to be Mr. and Mrs. Hua, an elderly, childless couple who spent their earlier years taking in abandoned girls, only to be forced, ultimately, to give up all of their adoptive daughters. Late in the book, Mrs. Hua considers “giving up their home and going back to the vagrant life. They could visit their daughters, the married ones and the ones who’d been taken away from them, before they took their final exit from the world.”
In a world where one prospers or fails, lives or dies, according rules over which one has absolutely no control, this “final exit” is the only sure end of suffering. At one point, the radio announcer, Kai, remembers something her father once told her: “Life is a war, and one rests only when death comes to fetch him.” These words ring true throughout The Vagrants, which offers a terrifying glimpse into the reality of a deeply censored society, a place where one’s neighbors cannot be trusted, and where the most dangerous thing a person can do is speak his or her mind.
I read this book with a sense of horror, in part because I know that, though the characters are fictional, the world it portrays is a real one. The man who hired me to go to China in 1998 had, as a child, lost his own parents to the Cultural Revolution. He had seen his mother murdered, her beloved personal library burned. He had survived in part because of the kindness of an older woman who saved a few books for him, which he read and reread in hiding. We spent a lot of time together, and, on a couple of occasions, he opened up to me about his childhood, his mother. But for the most part, he kept his silence. “Is not good to talk about these things,” he said. “Too much sadness.”
Sadness suffuses every page of Yiyun Li’s novel. It is this relentless sadness, the refusal to buy into the contemporary literary religion of redemption, that makes The Vagrants a brave and important book.
See also: Fifteen Thousand Pages in Three Minutes