Books

Te-Ping Chen
Land of Big Numbers

Drawing on headlines, conversations and memories from Te-Ping Chen’s time as a Beijing-based correspondent, Land of Big Numbers is a scintillating collection of stories. A bright university student shoulders her parents’ dreams and is given a laptop “thick with promise, like a fat slice of cake”. An elderly farmer builds a plane from his fellow villagers’ trash, in the hope of winning Chinese Communist Party membership. A young woman hoping to make it big in Shanghai ends up as a florist, while a wannabe singer spends her days answering citizens’ inquiries at a government call centre. Naive but never pitiful, these characters retain a quiet dignity, united in their hope for something better.

Chen’s prose is concise but rich in detail, balancing suspense, humour and elements of magic realism. Standouts “New Fruit” and “Gubeikou Spirit” are cautionary fables that are deeply evocative of Beijing, but could be set anywhere. In the former, a mysterious fruit brings joy to those who eat it, but in the next season, unearths their most shameful memories. In the latter, commuters stranded on a subway platform are refused exit. Months pass and they gradually adapt to their new lives. The state’s broadcaster sends a crew to interview them, praising them for “inspiring a nation with their fortitude and optimism”. It builds to a thrilling conclusion and is a powerful critique of what a society can be persuaded to accept.

Land of Big Numbers explores the gaps in personal and national memory. Slipping in and out of the lives of ordinary Chinese people, Chen paints a textured portrait that celebrates their ingenuity and pluck. In “Field Notes on a Marriage”, an American widow travels to her Chinese husband’s home town in an attempt to understand his past. Her memories, which contrast with his mother’s recollections, emphasise our inability to know someone, let alone a nation, completely.

This nuanced collection invites readers to question the “truths” fed to us, that is, to delve beyond figures and reductive stereotypes. What is the price we pay for progress? What is freedom? Is it possible to escape one’s past? Rather than offer neat answers, Chen’s tales linger long after they end. 

Shu-Ling Chua

Simon and Schuster, 256pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 6, 2021 as "Te-Ping Chen, Land of Big Numbers ".

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Reviewer: Shu-Ling Chua