Sunday 6 June 2021

The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa

The Girl Who Played Go is a historical novel by Chinese author Shan Sa, originally published in French, translated into English. With that many international filters, it is surprising how well it evokes the Chinese mindset, but also, the Japanese side as well.

Opening in 1936, the novel swaps between narrators – both nameless, but with very distinct personalities. The main protagonist is a 16-year old Chinese girl living in Manchuria, now occupied by Japan and transformed into the puppet state of Manchukuo. She is somewhat ignorant of the political turmoil engulfing China and Japan at the time, more interested in playing go in public parks. Go is a type of “super chess” invented in China centuries ago, with black and white stones, compete for territory on a board while eliminating opposing pieces. The game is won when no other territory can be conquered.

The girl is an excellent player, besting men older than her, but she finds a formidable match in the form of a mysterious man. The man is the other nameless narrator, a Japanese Army officer. He’s a product of his time, raised in the nationalistic breeding ground which was the Imperial Army at the time, he’s attached to the Kwantung Army, the specific unit that garrisoned Manchukuo. Considered the elite of the Japanese Army, the Kwantung Army is regularly sent out to crush local Chinese guerillas, which had been operating in Manchuria ever since the invasion of 1931.

One interesting detail is that the officer admires the way Chinese guerillas voluntarily leaped to their deaths rather than be captured by his unit. He also has some reflections with his younger brother, who condemns the Japanese military as “assassins of democracy.” Added to that are his introspective thoughts when witnessing Japanese officers torture a Chinese prisoner for information, along with the boasting of other officers that they could be as far as Hong Kong in a week should they decide to press southward.

About halfway through the book, the two characters meet for games of go and their destinies become intertwined. The girl is going through a coming-of-age story set against a violent era in a violent world, filled with young romances, schoolwork, and worrying for the future. The officer is bound by duty, always mindful that his life is not his own, and is always at the Emperor’s disposal.

1936 eases into the fateful year of 1937 when the Sino-Japanese War began in earnest, and, according to some, was the true beginning of World War II. The Japanese Kwantung Army marches south on Peking (Beijing) and the two nameless characters meet once again for a final act.

The Girl Who Played Go is told through short, alternating chapters – first the girl, then the officer – and is very readable. Unlike most literary fiction, it is quick and sharp and doesn’t try to show off to literary critics with overstuffed prose and gimmicky writing. It’s a fairly short read, but a good entry into the volumes of Chinese fiction.