In Philadelphia writer Te-Ping Chen’s debut story collection, Land of Big Numbers, the personal blends seamlessly with the political to create indelible portraits of contemporary Chinese citizens at home and abroad.
Migration, ambition, class, and generational conflict wend their way through these 10 stories, most of which are from the point of view of millennials from remote regions seeking economic opportunity. Yet what they really seem to be looking for is connection, purpose, and new beginnings.
At home, abroad, and underground
“Lulu” follows a pair of twins on divergent paths once one of them leaves for university in distant Beijing. Lulu becomes an ardent political activist at the cost of her economic achievement—and freedom—while her homebody brother gains success as a professional gamer. In “Shanghai Murmur,” Xiaolei is another young woman who flees her rural town to seek love and fortune in the city, only to find a stark class divide that she will never be able to surmount.
Meanwhile, an older generation deals with the reverberations and trauma of the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square. An aging inventor dreams of joining his town’s Communist party in “Flying Machine,” and a young man gets in over his head playing the stock market, leading him to the mystery of his invalid father’s past in the collection’s title story, “Land of Big Numbers.”
Alienation in intimate relationships, particularly across cultures, is a running theme as well. In “Field Notes from a Marriage,” a young American widow travels to her husband’s hometown in rural China to meet his parents and gain insight into a tragic incident in his adolescence that may have led to his suicide two years into their marriage. “Beautiful Country” juxtaposes the stasis a Chinese expatriate nurse senses in her relationship with her long-time American boyfriend with the restlessness they feel on a road trip to the Grand Canyon.
Epic and poignant
Chen writes across genre, style, and tone, conveying both her fluid skills as a storyteller and the sometimes surreal and unpredictable experience of modern life. A mysterious seasonal fruit causes its consumers to experience joy then anguish in a Beijing neighborhood in the whimsical fantasy “New Fruit.” She creates a palpable feeling of dread and unease in the suspenseful “On the Street Where You Live,” in which an engineer develops an infatuation with a woman in Atlantic City.
The collection’s most stunning story is “Gubeikou Spirit,” a Kafkaesque study in human psychology and government bureaucracy. A group of subway commuters become trapped in the bowels of Beijing’s Gubeikou Station as they await a delayed train. Hours become days, weeks, and months as officials refuse to let them leave. Gradually they fall into a routine, build a comfortable and complacent community, and begin to fear the possibility of life above ground. The story is ridiculous, epic, and finally poignant in its absurd depiction of survival under repression.
A journalist’s stories
Chen spent a year in China as a Fulbright fellow and later worked as a correspondent in Beijing and Hong Kong for the Wall Street Journal, for which she still writes. She employs a journalist’s keen observational eye to images and details and is particularly deft at delineating the small and mundane aspects of daily life. Her prose has a clean, economical, reportorial style as well, and she is unafraid of leaving a story open-ended or feeling unresolved, allowing readers to draw their own meaning.
But she also writes with humor, empathy, and affection for her characters, presenting snapshots of lives impacted by politics, economics, and history. While they contend with forces they can’t control, they still strive for hope and grace.
Image description: The cover of the book Land of Big Numbers. On a light background are four differently patterned images of China's land mass, superimposed over one another. The title is written over the images in white text with one word per image. Tucked under the bottom left of the last image of China is the word “Stories.” The author's name, Te-Ping Chen, is below the image in gray text.
What, When, Where
Land of Big Numbers. By Te-Ping Chen. New York: Mariner Books, Feb. 2, 2021. 236 pages, paperback. $15.99. Get it at bookshop.org.