A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
Yiyun Li Fourth Estate, 224pp, £14.99
Contemporary Chinese novelists offer two contrasting pictures of their homeland. Writers such as Zhou Wei Hui, author of the bestselling Shanghai Baby, portray a country that is young, dynamic and westward-looking. Writers such as Gao Xingjian, author of Soul Mountain, look back on the tragedies of the Mao era. The authors of the two genres, which are known as "Pretty Woman Literature" and "Scar Literature", appear to have little in common.
Yiyun Li is 33 years old and has been living in the US since 1996. Born in Beijing in 1972, she was only four when Mao died and the cultural revolution ended. She belongs to the post-Mao generation, whose leaders are the driving forces behind China's economic transformation. For the most part, this generation is only too happy to pretend to have short memories. But Yiyun Li is different: she is not prepared to forget.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is a brilliantly written collection of short stories about modern China. Li explores in intimate detail the inner suffering of a society experiencing rapid change while struggling to come to terms with the oppression of the past. The ten stories range widely in subject, focusing on urban isolation, sexual inhibition, rural rage, political violence and family abuse. All these, ultimately, are shown to have origins in the collective nightmare of the cultural revolution. Li's characters demonstrate amazing resilience as they struggle to adapt to the new realities, yet their defences are weak and they end up being cruelly exposed.
Li has a remarkable talent for telling the story of the whole of China through apparently insignificant lives. In "Immortality", a baby boy is conceived moments after the Great Leader proclaims the birth of New China to the chorus of "Communism is so great". The boy grows up to bear a striking resemblance to the Leader, a quirk of destiny that initially propels him towards a glorious career during the cultural revolution, but later leads him to ruin when class conflict gives way to capitalist competition.
In "Extra", a middle-aged worker who has been alone all her life is made redundant. She decides to accept a marriage of convenience to an old man suffering from Alzheimer's. She nurses him until death with the kindness of a stranger, never questioning the meaning of the intimacy she has chosen. Then, at a boarding school outside Beijing, she befriends a six-year-old boy, who awakens in her a kind of love she has never experienced.
By turns horrifying, beautiful and deeply moving, Yiyun Li's stories, despite their modern setting, carry great histor-ical resonance. With this small collection, she has already become one of the most important Chinese voices of our time.