Tuesday 25 May 2021

A World To Win: Tim Harper's new history of global revolution

Editor's note: Our poetry column takes a break this month! Still an history undergraduate at heart, I simply couldn't pass up the opportunity to review this new border-crossing book on the anti-imperialist heroes of Underground Asia (just published by Harvard University Press and Penguin UK). 

(Photo by Theophilus Kwek)
Gazing from the dust-jacket of Underground Asia historian Tim Harper’s new and magisterial account of anticolonial radicalism in the first quarter of the 20th Century – is an enigmatic young man, wrapped up against the European cold, whose strong, even handsome features have not yet gained the global recognition of his later years. Barely twenty years old, and known variously as ‘Seaman Ba’, ‘Ly Thuy’, ‘Nguyen Ai Quoc’ or his birth name ‘Nguyen Tat Thanh’, Harper places him early on in the narrative “perhaps on the pont Alexandre III in Paris […] cigarette at the corner of his mouth, an umbrella on his arm, quite the dandy”. Over the next six hundred pages or so, Harper draws back the clock-and-dagger curtain of imperial intrigue to reveal how Thanh (and others like him) came to join a gathering chorus of revolution, emerging on the world stage as ‘Ho Chi Minh’. But crucially, it is here that we encounter him, with the weight of national liberation still in the distant future, free for the moment to traverse the boundaries of la belle époque; a student abroad on the banks of the Seine. 

Underground Asia examines a period “when local nationalisms were still nascent, and when the political future of the colonial world seemed uniquely open”. Out of the ferment of commerce and conquest arose individuals who, coming of age in “a world connected and transformed”, minted new allegiances around a dream of a more equal and borderless world. They made their home in what Harper calls the “village abroad”, an international network of cosmopolitan solidarities in universities, port cities, and metropolitan nodes where Thanh and his circle crossed paths with such like-minded figures as Tan Malaka, M.N. Roy, and the young Deng Xiaoping. Though the life-histories of these men form the book’s core, Harper is quick to acknowledge the “ubiquity and tenacity” of the era’s women revolutionaries, who despite their “relative invisibility” in surviving colonial records, are at critical moments the true movers and shakers of his narrative. He also pays compelling tribute to the invisible hands of global revolution, such as the dock workers and cabin boys who helped ‘Seaman Ba’ leave home in 1911 and facilitated ‘Ly Thuy’s’ return via Hong Kong almost two decades later. 

We now know, of course, that though these revolutionaries would each shape the post-colonial world in indelible ways, the moment of cosmopolitan dreaming was eventually lost – to the violence of imperial policing, to the anxious diktat of an ascendant Comintern, and to a new generation of rebels who held, by conviction or compromise, to the “dismal nationalisms” of later mass movements. By the end of the period the revolution had faded to a “waiting game”, and it is testament to Harper’s humane and meticulous treatment of this cast of fallible characters that we experience so keenly the pangs of their disenchantment. Most tragic among the disappointments is Tan Malaka’s final imprisonment and summary execution at the hands of an Indonesian republic he had prophesised years earlier; other strands of the tale, like Zhou Enlai’s and Deng Xiaoping’s, lay a trail for the world-historical events to come. Meanwhile, Harper excels in capturing the fusion of geography, ideology and youthful élan that led the revolutionaries to formulate the enduring ideals of their time (and ours); or how indeed, in his memorable words, “the universal revealed itself to [them] in a continuum of port cities”. 

Harper’s sympathetic and highly sophisticated storytelling allows us to trace the contingent turns of this intellectual history through what can appear, otherwise, as an overwhelming – and motley – mass of historical detail. If the number of letters read by the French postal censor in a given fortnight in 1920, for instance, might seem too fine-grained a footnote for the grand narrative of global revolution, we ought to remember that every wrinkle of colonial policy factored into the daily calculations of a community in exile whose many aliases and alibis are only just coming to light. On occasion, however, and particularly in the first half of the book, Harper’s efforts to join the dots of this “connected wave of revolution” risk pre-empting the story somewhat. In his telling, a global web of radical connections, at least in the sense of a self-consciously cosmopolitan network that, even if not formally coordinated, shared similar values and a common vocabulary, only became more apparent as the revolutionaries converged in Europe and Russia after World War I. Prior to this, the sporadic flashpoints of rebellion (among others: bomb attacks in India, shootings in Hong Kong) certainly augured a gathering wave of discontent, but given how admittedly “fragile” the connections were, it is debatable if they arose collectively “out of the resources of the country of the lost” as Harper suggests. 

It’s hard not to reflect on the revolutionary lives so vividly recorded in Underground Asia without imagining how they would map onto our own. A century on, rail and shipping routes no longer hold the same novelty as they did for Harper’s protagonists, but new conveniences – afforded by the global commons of the internet and, at least before COVID-19, the commodification of budget travel – have enabled a new kind of the “everyday internationalism” they once experienced. So, too, it might seem that our interconnections are once again putting global solidarities within reach: especially when today’s spectres of xenophobia, inequality and climate change denialism are no more territorially-bound than colonialism ever was. Harper’s analysis of the forces that thwarted the dreams of earlier cosmopolitans should give us pause, or at least help us identify and resist the dismal nationalisms of this era. In the same vein, Harper’s project of fleshing out these “lonely” figures on the margins of a changing continent should not grieve us for possibilities lost, but attune us to those still to be won. The important work of recovering these “small voices of history”, as fellow historian Khairudin Aljunied puts it, reconnects us with the “ideas and visions […] that were shunned and unaccepted in their day and age, but have become the framework for thought and action in our time”. 

Don’t (just) take my word for it! Underground Asia has also been reviewed in the New Yorker, The Wire, and Wall Street Journal


Theophilus Kwek has published five volumes of poetry, and has been shortlisted twice for the Singapore Literature Prize. He is also an editor and researcher with interests in Southeast Asian history and migration/citizenship issues. He serves as Poetry Editor of the Asian Books Blog. 

Wednesday 19 May 2021

Pot-sticker dumplings and scarlet gloop: Nicky Harman reviews Maisie Chan’s Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, 2021, and looks back at Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet, 1982


Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths is a delightful story featuring the eponymous Danny, son of parents who run a Chinese takeaway, his friend Ravi, his doting granny (Nai Nai) and assorted oddball friends and neighbours. Danny loves drawing, hates maths, and is appalled when Nai Nai moves to Birmingham from China and he has to share his bedroom with her. He can't speak her dialect, she snores like a train, farts for England (or rather China) and worst of all, she turns up at his school to bring him Chinese lunch. Oh, and he has to look after her because his mum and dad are busy running their takeaway. When the local bowls club are less than welcoming, he leaves her at the bingo and goes off to play in the park. Then Danny discovers that Nai Nai, unlike her grandson, has maths skills in abundance. She not only becomes the local bingo champion, she takes her grandson in hand and helps him create a great school project based on Fibonacci
fractals in Romanesco cauliflowers. 

A novel about an immigrant family inevitably has a certain amount of cultural information to impart. Dragons, in their Chinese version, feature a lot. As Danny says, ‘I was really pleased with my newest creation that I called a DRUCKON. It was a mutant duck with a dragon’s head. It’s very Chinese, if you ask me. Dragons are the most beloved and lucky creatures in Chinese mythology, and ducks are yummy and succulent. The tricky part was the head. Chinese dragons don’t look like other dragons and they have no wings. Ravi is basically an expert on all things medieval and knights. He says that Chinese dragons are anomalies, which is a nice way of saying they’re ‘weird’. And they don’t go around trying to eat princesses or battle knights. I think that’s nice. A druckon is a Chinese win-win.’  

There is also an odious tiger mother, who drags her daughter Amelia to an unending series of after-school improving activities, as a result of which she is fluent in both Cantonese and Mandarin.  And there is The Chinese Way – Danny’s dad drills its tenets into his son – hard work, respect for his elders, and of course the importance of maths, the bane of Danny’s life. We even learn a bit of the language, when Danny and Nai Nai exchange a few words in Chinese. However, Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths wears its culture lightly. The heart of the novel is the friendship and respect that grows between the boy and his granny, and the adventures they share. 

Chinese immigrant families in the UK are almost invisible in literature, but as I read Danny Chung, Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet immediately sprang to mind. (It happens to be one of my favourite novels.) In Sour Sweet, Chen, his wife Lily and her sister Mui arrive in London from Hong Kong in the 1960s and go into business. There are two main stories in the novel: we read how Lily and Mui come to terms with their new life – Lily remains resolutely traditional, while Mui embraces British life enthusiastically – while the other thread follows the in-fighting in a Triad gang, the Hung family, who eventually get Chen into their clutches.

Fifty years separate the stories and that makes for interesting comparisons. Of course, the novels are aimed at different readers: an adult readership and pre-teen young readers. But there are similarities. Both families run restaurants, both firmly believe in The Chinese Way, both have a newly-arrived and eccentric grandparent. (Grandpa in Sour Sweet prefers to sleep under the counter instead of the bedroom, and invites fellow-patients from the local clinic to tea, even though they cannot understand each other.) Both families are the odd-ones-out in their communities. Lily and Mui have no friends apart from their customers and a benevolent widow, Mrs Law, and remain culturally and socially isolated in their London suburb. They are further ‘othered’ in one rather odd way: Mo chooses to have his characters speak a sort of Canto-English. ‘Bad talk!’ Lily reprimands Chen. And ‘Husband, door is stuck!’ And she asks her son about his aunt’s new baby, ‘Did you like baby, Son?’ to which Man-Kee replies, ‘Didn’t like it.’ I do not think that this would be considered either acceptable or necessary today, although at least when the family have something important to say to each other, they revert to received English.

Multi-culturalism and racism are not explicitly addressed in either novel but, by way of a contrast to fifty years ago, Danny lives in a Britain that feels more accepting of its separate communities: his best friend is Ravi, an Indian boy, and we are given snapshots of Ravi’s family and his crowded home.

British appreciation of Chinese food has improved over half a century too. In Sour Sweet, ‘The food they sold… bore no resemblance at all to Chinese cuisine. Sweet and sour pork was their staple, naturally: batter musket balls encasing a tiny core of meat, laced with a scarlet sauce that had an interesting effect on the urine of the customer the next day.’ In 2021, Danny soon finds that his bothersome Nai Nai is a wonderful cook, ‘
Nai Nai went into the kitchen to make herself a pot of tea and came out ten minutes later with a plate full of guotie, or, as some people call them, potstickers. I loved them, but Ba never had time to make them for me any more. He was always too busy. I grabbed some chopsticks and started munching them down after dipping them in soy sauce with a bit of cut ginger in it. Nai Nai’s potstickers were SO good, just like Ba had always said.’

Here’s a personal anecdote to illustrate the progress in British taste buds: in 1973, my parents celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. I organized a dinner for them, with family, (white British, one and all) in a Chinese restaurant in Earls Court, possibly the first in London to serve Peking Duck. My parents (farmers in Wiltshire) arrived in some trepidation, probably worried that dinner would be musket balls and scarlet gloop and that they would lose face with their brothers and sisters. They left delighted and well-fed. I was eternally grateful to my landlady, who had introduced me to the restaurant. She was Dymia Hsiung, widow of playwright Hsiung Shih-I and a writer herself, as well as an enthusiastic mah-jong player and a fabulous cook. Now there’s a cultural connection to conjure with.








Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, by Maisie Chan, delightfully illustrated by Anh Cao, age-graded 9-11 years, Piccadilly Press,10th June 2021.

 Sour Sweet, by Timothy Mo, new edition, Paddleless Press, 1999.










Sunday 16 May 2021

Lion City Lit: Celebrating Forty Years of Transforming Lives

Asian Books Blog is based in Singapore, so we occasionally highlight book-related events in the city. Celebrating Forty Years of Transforming Lives is the 40th anniversary commemorative book published by Lions Home For The Elders, a leading Singapore charity.

The book tells the story – in words and images – of how the first home was established in 1980 on the void deck of a Housing Development Block (HDB) in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10, thanks to the hard work and fundraising by Lions Club volunteers, and approved by the then Department of Social Welfare. 

Chairman of the Lions Home Henre Tan, says in his foreword: “In spite of all the constraints on us all during these difficult and demanding days, we did decide to keep to our plan to produce a worthy and insightful narrative of the Lions Home For The Elders, from its humble beginnings to become one of Singapore’s leading nursing homes caring for the elderly.” 

The 40th anniversary book was originally intended to be launched at the Lions International Convention, scheduled to be held in Singapore in June last year, when 20,000 of the charity's supporters were expected to attend. But like many events, the launch was cancelled and the book was recently launched at a hybrid event broadcast from Singapore, beamed live around the world, and attended in person by 50 people, following coronavirus safe distancing procedures.

Singapore-based author and publisher Ken Hickson, who was previously responsible for Asian Books Blog's Lion City Lit column, steered Celebrating Forty Years of Transforming Lives from its beginning in mid-2019, to completion close to two years later. He says: "I want the book to not only provide a faithful record of a remarkable Singapore institution but also to meet clean and green standards." He achieved his second aim by sourcing suitable paper from sustainably managed forests in Asia and using a local printer, Times Printers.    

Sunday 2 May 2021

The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura - A Fast-Paced Japanese Crime Story

The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura is a crime thriller set in modern-day Japan about an experienced pickpocket named Nishimura as he prowls the crowded streets of Tokyo, looking for his next mark. He floats through the metropolis, taking what he wants, as if in an ethereal, dreamlike state, unable to wake up.

Wednesday 28 April 2021

Through Teachers' Eyes (Part 2!): Bringing Asian Poetry into the Classroom

Editor's note: In last month's column, we asked two writers and educators, Inez Tan (in California) and Ann Ang (in Singapore), to each tell us about an Asian poem that they loved teaching. Their reflections on poems by E.J. Koh and Toeti Heraty, respectively, proved to be a hit – so we're back this month with two other writers and educators, Jennifer Wong (in the UK) and Esther Vincent Xueming (in Singapore), writing about how they've brought Asian poetry into the classroom. Enjoy! 

Left to right: Jennifer Wong, Ocean Vuong, Esther Vincent Xueming, Ow Yeong Wai Kit


Esther Vincent Xueming on Ow Yeong Wai Kit 

I first stumbled upon Ow Yeong Wai Kit’s “Elegy for a Silent Stalker” when he sent it in to The Tiger Moth Review back in 2019. Written after Kay Ryan, who describes her own poems developing “the way an oyster does, with an aggravation” (Poetry Foundation), Wai Kit’s “Elegy” similarly aggravates the reader with its opening line: “Who wouldn’t be a polar bear in the tropics?” Perhaps what is so appealing to me about “Elegy” is its overtly critical attitude about the unnaturalness of keeping animals in captivity, which resonates with me as an animal lover.

Since then, I have used this poem at workshops for teachers, and written about it alongside Shucolat’s Tribute to Inuka in a recent issue of enl*ght. When the opportunity came for me to design a poetry unit for my Year 4 students this year, I decided to teach “Elegy” comparatively alongside a poem of mine, “Falcon” in an ecopoetry-themed lesson. I began the lesson by introducing the poets, and gave students a common working definition of ecopoetry. We noted that an ecopoem had to be both “environmental” and “environmentalist”, in that it had to be about the “nonhuman natural world”, “ecocentric, not anthropocentric”, and set in an environment “implicitly or explicitly, impacted by humans” (Poetry Foundation). Rhetorically, it should be urgent and unsettling. With these understandings in mind, I gave students a brief account of Inuka’s life, and shared some photographs that characterised Inuka in specific ways: as a cub bonding with his mother, relishing his (supposedly) favourite meal of watermelon ice cake and finally, with a strip of green running down his spine where algae had grown, to show how unsuited he was to a tropical climate. I cannot over-emphasise the importance of contextualisation, which helps students recognise how poems are cultural artefacts belonging to a larger ecosystem beyond the page and classroom.

We then read the poem and focused on two key themes: the ethics of keeping animals in captivity, and the relationships between humans and nonhuman beings (and our obligations towards them). The class was given a few minutes to share their responses with each other in pairs, and we then reconvened to look at the second poem, “Falcon”, in a similar way. After that, students were broken into larger groups to compare the two poems, using the following questions (from the Poetry Moves Teaser Booklet) as a guide:

  • What similarities do they share in terms of purpose, message, stylistics (literary features), theme?
  • How are they similar or different in terms of cultural and historical contexts?
  • How are they different in terms of purpose, message, stylistics (literary features), theme?
  • How does reading two poems together change/complicate/contradict your understanding of each poem’s purpose, message, stylistics (literary features), theme?
Using their mobile phones, they captured their group’s responses into a Google document in their Google Classroom, and in the interest of time, each group was then asked to choose one question from the four to present to the rest of the class. To consolidate their learning, I gave them a group essay outline task as an extension activity where they could choose to respond to either “Elegy” or “Falcon”. Interestingly, all except for one group picked the former with spirited essay outlines that demonstrated sound understanding of the poem’s themes and literary features. Their insightful personal responses passionately addressed the ethics of keeping animals in captivity.

All in all, teaching “Elegy” and “Falcon” comparatively allowed for students to deepen, expand and extend their understanding of the themes taught, and by comparing the two poems, they could refine and evaluate the poems’ differing perspectives. Not surprisingly, students’ responses are richer whenever they are able to examine a text in relation to other texts, making comparative teaching one of my favourite pedagogical approaches.

Elegy for a Silent Stalker
After Kay Ryan; for Inuka the polar bear (1990-2018)

Ow Yeong Wai Kit 

“Singapore's last polar bear Inuka was put down on Wednesday morning (April 25) after a health check-up showed that the 27-year-old animal's ailing health had not improved significantly... Inuka’s enclosure will be refurbished and might be turned into a sea lion exhibit.” – Straits Times, 25 April 2018

Who wouldn’t be a polar bear in the tropics?
A solitary last emperor, an Arctic ambassador
paddling a marionette dance in his own lagoon,
never to be laid adrift on dwindling ice floes
or having to forage for food scraps ebbing soon.
His shaggy pelt, his algae-ridden fleece glows
amidst rations of apples and fish. He lumbers,
the scraggly hulk heaving to bear his own weight.
Resting his neck on his hairy paws, he slumbers
in an air-conditioned palace, his jowls sagging
on artificial permafrost. He knows the tundra
is an inconceivable dream. He has no need to hunt
for an ursine paramour. Trudging across icebergs
of indifference, he licks his fur. Silently, he stalks
nothing more than his own shadow.

Jennifer Wong on Ocean Vuong 

My Father Writes from Prison’ is one of my favourite poems from Ocean Vuong’s collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds. Written in an epistolary style, it grabs the attention of the reader right away with the use of dialect, conjuring a sense of intimacy and an opaqueness of meaning. Here is the reimagined voice of a father writing from prison, and the use of the slashes helps to reinforce the fragmentary narrative, as if—traumatised by his experience of the war—the father cannot or will not be able to tell his son all that lies buried in his heart. From the confession of how ’I crushed a monarch midnight’ to the glimpse of ‘the moss-covered temple a shard / of dawn in the eye of a dead’, the images are tinted with feelings of guilt, sadness and tenderness. There is also the constant holding back of speech, of what is nearly on the tip of the tongue. The constant disruption of syntax helps to convey this, such as the way the slashes splice the poem into disjointed lines:

my hands that pressed the 9mm to the boy’s / twitching cheek I was 22 the chamber / empty I didn’t know / how easy it was / to be gone these hands

Through these disruptions, the reader realises—slowly and painfully—the level of violence being alluded to, and the father’s inability to tell the story. There is a visceral connection between the hands that destroy (‘my hands that pressed the 9mm’) and the body that is violated.  

Look at the way hunger is captured in the later part of the poem. The father addresses the son, saying:

I’m so hungry / a bowl of rice / a cup of you / a single drop / my clock-worn girl / my echo trapped in ’88 / the cell’s too cold

The longing shifts from physical hunger to the longing for family attachment, embodied in the imagery of ‘a cup of you’, while the body also longs for physical intimacy (‘my clock-worn girl’) in this unnatural and inhuman prison space.

When I teach this poem, I usually will ask my students to discuss and derive important elements of a prose poem based on Vuong’s poem, and how we can maintain a sense of coherence within the poem despite the seemingly disjointed narrative. I then ask them to write a letter to their family or their loved ones, revealing something that was hidden before. Afterwards, students are asked to break down the contents of the letter into more ‘poetic snippets’ by using slashes. Often, this will generate a fascinating jigsaw of meanings and metaphors.

You can listen to Ocean Vuong reading this poem here


Esther Vincent Xueming is the editor-in-chief and founder of The Tiger Moth Review, an eco-journal of art and literature based in Singapore. She is co-editor of two poetry anthologies, Poetry Moves (Ethos Books, 2020) and Little Things (Ethos Books, 2013), and is currently co-editing an anthology of ecofeminist personal essays entitled Making Kin (forthcoming publication, Ethos Books). Her debut poetry collection, Red Earth, which was a finalist for the 2020 Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize (New York), is also forthcoming with Blue Cactus Press (Tacoma, Washington) in Fall 2021. A literature educator by profession, she is passionate about the entanglements in art, literature and the environment.

Jennifer Wong was born and grew up in Hong Kong. She is the author of several collections including Goldfish (Chameleon Press) and a pamphlet, Diary of a Miu Miu Salesgirl (Bitter Melon Poetry 2019). Her latest collection, 回家 Letters Home (Nine Arches Press 2020) has been named the PBS Wild Card Choice by Poetry Book Society. She has a creative writing PhD from Oxford Brookes University and teaches creative writing at Poetry School and Oxford Brookes. Her poems, reviews and poetry translations have appeared in World Literature Today, Oxford Poetry, Magma Poetry, Poetry Review, Poetry London, PN Review and Asian Review of Books. She is currently also writer-in-residence at Wasafiri.

Read Nashua Gallagher on Jennifer Wong's latest collection here


Sunday 25 April 2021

Alfred Raquez and the French Experience of the Far East, 1898-1906 by William L. Gibson

William L. Gibson has just published Alfred Raquez and the French Experience of the Far East, 1898-1906, as part of the series, Routledge Studies in the Modern History of Asia. 

In 1890, a man calling himself Alfred Raquez appeared in Indochina claiming to be a writer travelling the world to escape unfathomable sorrows back home in France. He published thousands of pages of highly detailed travel accounts that open a unique window onto the European presence in the Far East. And yet, despite the charm and the ebullience and the erudition, through all his travels and rising fame, the man kept a secret that was so mortifying that even his closest companions would not learn of it until after his death in 1907. In truth, Alfred Raquez did not exist... 

Alfred Raquez and the French Experience of the Far East, 1898-1906 provides a fascinating read for students and scholars of colonial Southeast Asia, and European colonialism more broadly. 

William L. Gibson and his co-editor Paul Bruthiaux have previously published In the Land of Pagodas and Laotian Pages, both translations of Raquez's travels through Asia at the turn of the century, and both published by the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Press.

William's articles have appeared the Mekong Review, the Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient, and BiblioAsia, amongst others.

William's trilogy of hard-boiled crime novels set in 1890s Singapore is published by Monsoon Books. 

Wednesday 21 April 2021

The Mountain Whisperer – Another novel to add to the Jia Pingwa canon, reviewed by Nicky Harman

Jia Pingwa, ‘China’s master story-teller’ as the launch event for Mountain Whisperer dubbed him, remains relatively unknown to the English-language reader although a number of his novels have been translated. For anyone wanting to make his acquaintance, there is Turbulence, translated by Howard Goldblatt (1991); Happy Dreams, (Nicky Harman, 2014); Ruined Capital (Howard Goldblatt, 2016); Backflow River, (Nicky Harman2016, a free-to-read novella); The Lantern Bearer, (Carlos Rojas, 2017); Broken Wings (Nicky Harman, 2019); Shaanxi Opera, forthcoming; and now, Mountain Whisperer translated by Christopher Payne, and published, in a beautiful edition, by Sinoist Books, 2021. 

Even judging by the small collection which has been translated (a tiny part of his oeuvre), what is striking is the range of Jia’s writing: panoramic epics, rural and urban, with a cast of hundreds or the ‘small stories’ (Jia’s words) with a mere half-a-dozen; from ebullient characters we can imagine meeting anywhere, to the fey and the frankly oddball ones we are only likely to meet in the pages of his novels. 


Mountain Whisperer is one of Jia’s epics, hefty, though conveniently divided into four books set in different historical periods. Its unifying thread is the funeral singer, the eponymous mountain whisperer, one of Jia’s fey characters. As he lies dying in a cave high in the mountains of Shaanxi, he tells the stories of a soldier, a peasant, a revolutionary and a politician, and the parts they played in the struggles that forged the People’s Republic of China from its turbulent birth to its absurd reversal.  

And yet, the real protagonist of Mountain Whisperer could be said to be the land itself. Jia describes how it has shaped the lives and culture of local communities and embellishes his own writing with excerpts from an ancient compilation of mythic geography and fabulous beastsPathways Through the Mountains and Seas.


There is insufficient space here to give a proper synopsis of the whole novel. I will just say that, of the four stories, my personal favourite is the fourth, about a man called Xi Sheng of very short stature. This section brings us bang up to date. So much so, in fact, that we have a scarily prescient description of a pandemic – scary because this novel was written in 2013, Jia tells us. Of course, another coronavirus hit China and other countries in 2003, ten years before this novel was written. But the description of how the epidemic struck the villages is eerily familiar, today. ‘From the national capital it extended its tendrils throughout the country, leaving no place untouched. The first symptoms were akin to catching a cold: a headache, blocked nose, fever, joint pain and incessant coughing. Once the infection made its way into the lungs, death would follow shortly. The people in Qinling took to cursing the southerners, then Beijingers, all asking the same question: how the hell had it spread to Qinling?’ 


It would be remiss of me to finish this review without devoting some space to Jia Pingwa’s Afterword. Every novel he writes has one, and they are remarkable: extended essays which describe how he dreamed up the novel, what challenges he faced as he wrote it, the real-life elements that he has fictionalized, and what this particular novel means to him personally. For this last reason alone, I thoroughly recommend reading it, perhaps even before you begin the book. A 500-page novel about a place where you have never been and are never likely to go to, can seem daunting. But the Afterword of Mountain Whisperer takes us, the readers, by the hand, sits us down with Jia Pingwa, and allows us to listen as he talks from the heart. Here is a small excerpt: 


Three years ago, I returned to Dihua [Jia’s birthplace], on the eve of the lunar New Year. I visited my ancestors’ graves and lit a lantern to remember them. This is an important custom in the countryside, and if lanterns aren’t lit for some graves, it means there is no one left in the family to light them. I remember kneeling down in front of them, lighting a candle, and then the darkness that hung around me grew even denser. It seemed as though the only light in the entire world was the one emanating from the small candle I held. But... my grandfather’s visage, my grandmother’s too, as well as the forms of my father and mother, they were all so clear! ….

From Dihua, I returned to Xi’an and for a long time I remained silent, uncommunicative, often shut up in my study doing very little, except for smoking. And there, in those clouds of tobacco that blanketed my study and swirled about my head, I recalled the past decades, time seemed to flutter by, unstable, fleeting, surging in great waves of reminiscences... the changes wrought on society over the past hundred years, the wars, the chaos, the droughts and famines, revolution, political movements upon movements, then the reforms and to a time of relative plenty, of safety, of people living as people. Then my thoughts drifted to my grandfather and what he had done with his life. I wondered how he had lived, and how his son had come into this world, my father and his life, and the lives of the many townspeople from the place we called home. 


In [the Qinling mountains] I saw so many ancient trees, the cassias with large, yellowish leaves that draped down their trunks like finely woven baskets, as well as gingko trees with trunks so wide it would take four men to wrap their arms around them. I also saw the people who lived in the mountains, often busily rebuilding homes, and there within their compounds planting many saplings. There are times when life can surprise and amaze you, and there are other times when it is cruel and vile. The mountain whisperer is like a spectre wafting across Qinling, decades upon decades, winding his way through the affairs of this world without obvious reason, without clear intent or form, solitarily observing the lives as lived but never delving in too deeply, never becoming too involved. Then, finally, death visits him. Everyone dies, and so too does every age. We see the world rise to great heights and then we see it fall. The mountain whisperer sang songs of mourning, and those same songs welcomed him into the netherworld.