Book Review — Land Of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen

This evening, I finished Te-Ping Chen’s first fiction book, called “Land Of Big Numbers.” Chen is an American journalist who, from 2014 to 2018, was a Beijing-based China correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. The book was written in 2021.

This 231-page book is a collection of ten stories about people who live in, or have emigrated from, present-day China. Putting it this way, the stories are all linked to China. The stories will definitely help readers understand the Chinese and their modern work culture, the daily lives of young men and women in China, and the differences between classes and generations.

The book starts off with an interesting story that I would say made me trudge along when I encountered the uninspiring ones: The story about the twins who follow quite different paths — one becomes a professional gamer, while his sister decides to become a political dissident. The reader is made to sympathize with the sister who experiences a lack of freedom from the hands of a repressive government. It might not be the motive of the writer, but I also ended up being endeared to the brother who opened up his mind to a career as a video gamer and travelled internationally to win championships.

Then there is the story of “New Fruit,” which relates the tale of Qiguo, a mysterious and delectable new fruit that offers all who taste it a fleeting promise of hope and happiness. Unfortunately, the next season, people could not believe what happened to their favourite fruit. What happened? Read the story to find out. My favourite story has to be that of Cao Cao, an old farmer who constructs an airplane from spare parts. While he fails over and over again and never quite succeeds in any of his ventures, his real triumph is his never-ending drive to rearrange old things into new things and to transform humble things into magnificent things. Even though this story might be made up, I can imagine that younger Chinese have used the never-give-up attitude of people like him to make innovations that people all over the world enjoy today.

#WILT “America” in Chinese, Meiguo, means “beautiful country.” Such an irony, because China today is considerably more beautiful than America today. That provides a glimpse into the kind of country China was in the immediate past.

Even though the pages of this book are about half of the last one I read — the 560-page book by Patrick Keefe — I did not enjoy it as much as half of Keefe’s. The three stories I mentioned may be the only ones I really enjoyed. For the others, I wasn’t drawn into them. I do not think they are particularly bad stories — the story of a man swept into the high-risk, high-reward temptations of China’s volatile stock exchange is certainly not. I know it cannot be because in the period I read this book, I studied for and passed a difficult certification which could have divided my attention. The root of my lack of enthusiasm might be the author’s writing style. The book is full of flat characters, uninteresting conversations, and unconvincing motives. On top of that, the metaphors were strenuous. How did she come up with phrases like “croissants…pulled…apart, like the underbelly of a sea creature gently exhaling” or “feeling one’s years beneath one’s skin, as if Shanghai had grafted steel plates in her cheeks”? If she was referring to Shanghai, China’s biggest city, then I don’t see how the metaphor fits. But I must confess that I loved this description of the birth of twins:

“Then they thwacked her on the back and her cries joined mine, and they laid us side by side, boy and girl, two underwater creatures suddenly forced to fill our lungs with cold, dry air.”

But then, that was in the first story. My mistake was to assume the wordings in the other stories would be as eye-catching. It also didn’t help that as soon as you start warming up to a story it ends abruptly, leaving you wanting more.

Many readers in China and those who know a bit about the place would also balk at how all the stories boil down to all things negative about China — oppressive government, police brutality, closed political system, fight for freedom, violent boyfriend, unsuccessful attempt at innovation, school bully, failed stock market, or dangerously flirty salesgirl. The reader cannot help but worry about the health system of China when he reads of a lifeless woman left alone after a failed surgery, with the medical team fleeing after their medical certificates have been stripped from the wall.

We know that China cannot be all shades of bad with nothing good to be said about it. But then, the book’s international acclaim, with praise from Barack Obama and a long list of American media outlets, could be for this exact reason.

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