Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen - Book Review - Kristopher Cook

Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen

Recently, I’ve wanted to read more literature-based on Chinese culture. China, itself is a country I’ve taken a great interest in, having begun to learn Mandarin in recent months.

When offered the chance to read Land of Big Numbers by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, I couldn’t turn it down. A short story collection makes the content manageable and allows the reader to explore multiple directions within a vast and sometimes confusing nation.

Te-Ping Chen

Chen, by day, is a political journalist who currently writes for The Wall Street Journal. Looking through her past articles, it’s clear she’s developed a keen eye for details. It’s also something that’s prominent in these stories.

Te-Ping Chen, Land of Big Numbers
Te-Ping Chen (Author Profile Picture).

Land of Big Numbers is a fictional collection of ten short stories centred on Chinese citizens, the communist government, and the Chinese class system.

The first story, ‘Lulu‘ was first published in the New Yorker in April 2019, and ‘Field Notes on a Marriage‘ was published on Granta’s website in August 2019.

Before beginning work on her collection, Chen had initially started writing a historical fiction novel but later set it aside when she began her job at the Journal. When trying to get back into writing fiction, she found herself stuck on small details, such as which ‘kind of car was prevalent in 1930s Shanghai’.

By beginning to write short stories, it offered the freedom needed to just write.

A Class Above                     

Land of Big Numbers offers a great insight into modern-day China, picking up on the minor idiosyncrasies that keep society ticking.

Having lived in China, I found myself nodding along and chuckling at some of the more peculiar practices: how older generations address certain situations or how people are desperate to find a partner just to appease their parents.

Most of the stories have a dreamlike quality to them, much like a short by Haruki Murakami. They start off normal enough, regarding love or aspiration, and then transpire through a tunnel of hallucinatory reality — a total blurring of the lines.

They also focus on the China that we westerners have come to hear more and more about in recent years; Controlling regimes, unprecedented growth and turbulent societal structures.

Despite this praise, the final story, ‘Gubeikou Spirit’ fell a little flat. Given that the satire was too forceful for my liking, I struggled to get through it. As the passengers on a train station become trapped with no way out (the guards are blocking the exits), they begin to settle into their new lives – similar to the boys’ role in Lord of the Flies. This leads to an ordered structuring of the group.

When a few begin to complain about the guards holding all the power, they’re met with backlash from the others. ‘After that another vote was taken: Pan and Jun and the teenage boys weren’t allowed anywhere near the staff door in the mornings. “You’ll get us into trouble,” the woman with the perm scolded them. “Don’t you realize, we depend on them for everything?”

The Surreal East

There are several surrealist elements included in these stories.

For instance, the story ‘The New Fruit’ has a surrealist nature that quickly interchanges with a more sinister tone. In this case, a new fruit is developed, known locally as QiGuo. It shows up after a man cross-contaminates two fruits, creating a new product in the process. Upon tasting it, everyone immediately feels younger and happier.

Those of us who ate the qiguo noticed that the sun was warm on our limbs and the sound of a bicycle bell tinkling outside reminded us of the warm air, of the spring breeze, of possibilities.

Te-Ping Chen, Land of Big Numbers

However, in the second season of harvest, the fruit is now tasteless and brings a feeling of nausea. This goes as far as convincing one woman to tell her husband she no longer loves him, to which he walks out into the busy road.

Eventually, the government intervene by banning the fruit, burning down the farm, with the inventor and his wife disappearing.

Chen then finishes the story with a promise that’s often given by such a regime, that things will soon be better than ever before. There’s no need to worry – we will save you! ‘Most of us have heard by now that the government is supposedly developing a new version of the qiguo, something superior in its flavor, more stable in its effects. They say it will be sweeter, that its trees will bear fruit in all seasons. Especially as the winter sets in, we are impatient to try it.

The Promise of Flying High

Similar elements are seen in ‘Flying Machine’. A man constantly invents new things to be accepted into the communist party. At 68 years old, he tries to develop an aeroplane.

The surrealism and contradictions come in the form of a purple-haired girl who works at the local internet café. Why are all these people so preoccupied with flying when the internet is readily available?

This could be read as Chinese villages being left behind other more developed areas of China, clutching at their old ways instead of looking at what’s around them. Or equally, it could be China’s ancient traditions being a large part of modern society.

In Lulu, there’s an undertone of the restrictions placed on those that are successful.

As the young girl grows up attending a prestigious college, she’s expected to go on to great things. She’s also likely to act in a particular traditional manner.

Whereas her brother, the one always playing computer games, is left to his own devices.

As the story progresses, their paths slowly cross, with one more focussed on their education and work than the other. It’s worth noting that anyone who dares to question the communist party will quickly find their lives much more difficult.

Te-Ping Chen recently wrote an article for the Journal surrounding similar incidents concerning the Communist party, yet this time it was about their control on Chinese culture. Who really owns it?

Closing Thoughts

I highly recommend this to anyone who wants to learn more about Chinese culture. Given it’s a collection of short stories, they’re easily digestible thanks to Chen’s remarkable insight. Matched with her journalistic eye for detail, each offers a new perspective on a once shrouded nation.

If you’re a fan of Murakami’s short stories, then definitely pick this one up; you won’t be disappointed.

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