A debut collection from an extraordinary new talent, vividly giving voice to the men and women of modern China and its diaspora
A debut collection from an extraordinary new talent that vividly gives voice to the men and women of modern China and its diaspora
Gripping and compassionate, Land of Big Numbers depicts the diverse and legion Chinese people, their history, their government, and how all of that has tumbled—messily, violently, but still beautifully—into the present.
Cutting between clear-eyed realism and tongue-in-cheek magical realism, Chen’s stories coalesce into a portrait of a people striving for openings where mobility is limited. Twins take radically different paths: one becomes a professional gamer, the other a political activist. A woman moves to the city to work at a government call center and is followed by her violent ex-boyfriend. A man is swept into the high-risk, high-reward temptations of China’s volatile stock exchange. And a group of people sit, trapped for no reason, on a subway platform for months, waiting for official permission to leave.
With acute social insight, Te-Ping Chen layers years of experience reporting on the ground in China with incantatory prose in this taut, surprising debut, proving herself both a remarkable cultural critic and an astonishingly accomplished new literary voice.
The hour of our birth had been carefully forecast, a winter’s day cesarean timed to coincide with Dr. Feng’s lunch break. The doctor pulled me out first, indignant, squalling, like a hotel guest inexpertly roused and tossed before checkout. She came next, and was so perfectly quiet that at first they worried she wasn’t breathing at all. 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.
Dr. Feng had operated on my mother as a favor to my uncle, his old classmate. Otherwise we would have been born in the hospital down the street, where a woman had bled to death after a botched cesarean the previous year. The family had been in the waiting room for hours, and at last the father-to-be pounded on the doors of the operating room. When no one responded, the family pushed them open to find the lifeless woman on the table, blood pooling on the ground. She was alone: the staff had stripped the medical certificates that bore their names from the wall and fled as soon as the surgery went wrong.
From the start we were lucky, not least because we had each other. As twins we’d been spared the reach of the government’s family-planning policies, two winking fetuses floating in utero. For the first few weeks of our life, our skulls had matching indentations from where they’d been pressed against each other in the womb, like two interlocking puzzle pieces. Later in life when we were apart, I’d sometimes touch my hand to the back of my skull when I thought of her, as if seeking a phantom limb.
We weren’t in any way an extraordinary family. My mother worked as a warehouse clerk, my father a government sanitation planner. When my father was forty-seven, his division chief ?— ?a fanciful man who had once dreamed of being an artist?—decided to build a public toilet in the shape of a European clock tower. He’d been to Europe and had been impressed by the cleanliness of the toilets and the loveliness of the architecture and wanted to combine the two. Like most artists, the division chief had a fragile ego, and shortly after my father balked at the project’s expense, he was fired. It was the sole act of independence he’d committed in his life, and it cost him his career.
The toilet still stands there today, its vaulting concrete walls stained and ridiculous, the inside chilly and damp like the inside of a pipe, a bird of poured concrete plunging from the tower’s top as if being defenestrated by rival birds inside, and indeed the whole structure smells like a foul aviary. You wouldn’t think it cost 200,000 yuan to build, and probably it didn’t, Lulu said; most of it likely ended up in the division head’s pocket, art corrupting life, life corrupting art.
From the time she was ten, my parents worshipped at Lulu’s altar. Her precocity was evident early on; it was like a flag being waved energetically from a mountaintop. Neither of our parents had much education, and it stunned them to find themselves in possession of such a daughter.
When we were small, we played devotedly together. Lulu was a great inventor of games, which often incorporated whatever she’d read most recently: one day we were stink bugs, looking for the right leaf on which to lay our eggs, another we were herdsmen fleeing Mongolian invaders. She was braver than me: once, when the elderly woman who lived opposite us had left her door ajar while retrieving the mail downstairs, my sister even snuck into her apartment.
“It’s full of newspapers, stacked as high as your head,” Lulu said excitedly, her eyes glowing as she dashed back. “There’s a giant orange cross-stitch on her couch, with a peony and six fishes.”
As a child she was always reading. Even at meals she would sit and scan the back of the juice box. She must have read it a million times: aspartame and xanthan gum and red no. 9. It wasn’t a conscious thing; she just seemed to feel uncomfortable when her eyes weren’t fastened to a page. She had a mania for lists, too. By age eleven she’d memorized every bone in the human body, and she used to recite their names to me at night in an eerie voice as I held a pillow over my head: sternum, tibia, floating rib.
In high school, I rebelled against her brilliance by playing video games, lots of them, spending hours whipping a gun back and forth across dusty landscapes empty of people, except for those who wanted to kill you.
“A spectacular work, comic, timely, profound. Te-Ping Chen has a superb eye for detail in a China where transformation occurs simultaneously too fast and too slow for lives in pursuit of meaning in a brave new world. Her characters are achingly alive. It’s rare to read a collection so satisfying, where every story adds to a gripping and intricate world.”
—Madeleine Thien, author of Booker finalist Do Not Say We Have Nothing
"An intricately constructed, tenderly observed collection—the sort of stories that skillfully transport you into the daily experience of characters so real, who speak to you with such grace and tangible presence, that you could almost reach out and touch them. Through the lens of these different voices, each vividly alive, Te-Ping Chen shows us how much life, loss, and quiet pleasure exists in the world, just out of view."
—Alexandra Kleeman, author of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine and Intimations
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