Anything Sky Means Heavenly
Little Gods by Meng Jin. 288 pp. HarperCollins/Custom House, 2020. $27.99
Not long before I read Meng Jin’s Little Gods, I had been writing about the Chinese concept of laojia—translatable as hometown but more often translated into English as ancestral home—and wondering why English preferred the latter to the former or even to the stilted and literal—but nonetheless workable!—formulation old home. From laojia, I’d marveled my way up to the common translation of Beijing’s famous Tiananmen Square—Gate of Heavenly Peace—a translation I’d always regarded with amusement. I remembered squinting at new street signs in China and pushing myself to translate even faster than the day before; I remembered writing, of Chinese to English translations, “that weighty, projected way—such that anything sky means celestial or heavenly and anything long becomes eternal.” Of course, the loftier meanings are implied: there is no way that laojia is actually intended to mean old home and not something weightier; Tiantan Park in Beijing certainly means Temple of Heaven Park and not Temple of Sky Park. But I wondered, still, what consequences there might be for language that is first translated in vaulted, sweeping terms—what we might lose or overlook with this preference.
Unsurprisingly, then, I felt at once delighted and as though I’d been punched in the chest when I read the passage in Little Gods in which young Liya discovers the coincidence of her birth and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989: “I said the words again, Changan Avenue, and this time I heard them not in my voice but in the voice of a documentary narrator. Eternal peace, this voice said, and then it said another phrase: gate of heavenly peace. What an odd translation, I’d not noticed it until now, how grand and dramatic the diction.”
Jin explains that Tian implies heaven but can also mean sky; that Men can be gate but can also mean door. “In Chinese, Tiananmen sounded simpler, even elegant, it could have been calm skies door,” Liya thinks. But “in the documentary narrator’s voice I couldn’t hear the grace in either [Changan or Tiananmen], only the irony, the threat.”
Could have been calm skies door. The sudden intimacy in these convergent realizations reminded me how easily we forget that language is more mirror than window. It reminded me also of an essay in which a Japanese writer describes non-Japanese filmmakers’ fascination in filming—in seeing—Tokyo. “I grew up watching foreigners film Tokyo,” Moeko Fujii writes in The New Yorker. “The list of auteurs who have trekked to [the city] is long.” I could say something similar about Beijing—a place where I was not born, where I have not spent large parts of my life—but which holds deep significance for me all the same. I could say about Beijing: Ever since I can remember, I have watched foreigners understand Beijing. In the news, in foreign policy analyses, in pictures of the Great Wall and the Forbidden City brought back from first-time-in-Asia trips. I, like Fujii, am familiar with seeing into a city from the outside, and with the weight that the capital of a foreign country—a supposedly more accessible, visible point of entry—carries in the collective imagination. The list of political columnists who have visited Beijing is long.
The crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in the early summer of 1989 haunts literature about the city, often even literature about mainland China generally. Works tied to the incident gain automatic gravity, and for obvious reason: it is heavy; it is hard. In The Los Angeles Review of Books, Mishi Saran speaks to this fixation:
I see that my life in China has been bookended by those long-ago events that centered on Tiananmen Square.
How do you look away after something like that? How do you not write?
There seems to be a hope, for many artists and writers who write about this incident, that incorporating it helps to make their narratives more politically understandable and stable. While artmaking is inherently political, bringing in Tiananmen, or events like it, gives the internal world of the artwork a directed political compass. Tiananmen, with its pro-reform students against an authoritarian government, casts the scan in black and white; the sides are instantly clear, the morality apparent.
Yet the act of folding such an outsized political event into a work of literature is also tricky. Little Gods opens in sticky, early-summer Beijing, where Su Lan, a young and brilliant physicist, is about to give birth on the night of June 4, 1989. Many years later, after Su Lan’s death, her teenage daughter Liya returns to China to understand who exactly her mother was and what happened to her father, who vanished the night of her birth. Significant sections of Little Gods take place outside of Beijing, and the book is not “about,” per se, the political motivations and consequences of the 1980s reform movements that centered on the capital. The novel is a series of character studies. But Beijing—the idea of it, what it stands for, what has happened there—hovers over the entire story. When Su Lan and Liya’s father Yongzong are furiously studying for their college exams in the 1970s, qualifying for Peking University is the dream. Later, as Liya looks for answers about her parents, she is constantly aware of how large Beijing looms in her family’s past and, for that reason, in her search: “the scale of infrastructure here surpassed the ability of my body. Beijing was not designed for humans, I thought—and here my mind completed the idea, even as I heard my other self saying, What a derivative, Western thought—but for military machines.”
Novels about or set in Beijing—a city whose name is often interchangeable with “authoritarianism” in Western politics and news—form a trail of stories defined by the Tiananmen protests. From Canadian Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing to censored mainland Chinese writer Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma—to, now, Meng Jin’s Little Gods—such novels interrogate a balance that writers and readers, but especially Asians living in the West, need to consider. These works have to balance proper treatment of the crackdown—truthfully recounting it—with a sensitivity to the way such stories let an audience comprehend an entire country, a shared history. The novels are constantly at risk of being reduced by their stories’ politics, of the stories’ politics flattening rather than illuminating. Jin has spoken about her decision to connect Liya’s birth to Tiananmen, and it is an autobiographical one: Jin’s father told her that, if not for her birth in the spring of 1989, he would have been protesting with the students in the Square. “The storyteller in me started to imagine my birth had saved my father’s life,” she said. “That was the seed of the story.”
But what does it mean to incorporate the Tiananmen protests into a work of literature? Who can, and who should? What exactly is the protests’ legacy, when mention of them on the Chinese internet is readily wiped away? These are not questions Little Gods can answer on its own, but given its well-known, deeply painful historical backdrop, it inevitably raises them. The novel joins a genealogy of books that attempt to claim, understand, and perhaps even help to heal the wounds Tiananmen left behind.
A closer look at literature concerned with Tiananmen reveals a common preoccupation: betrayal, of varying degrees and levels. Summer of Betrayal by Hong Ying, originally published in 1992 (in Taiwan, as it was banned in mainland China), begins with a woman, Lin Ying, who returns home from the mayhem of June Fourth only to discover her lover in bed with someone else. Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, published in 2016, opens on meditations about the narrator’s father’s suicide at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests. As a ten-year-old, narrator Marie heartbreakingly asks: “Why had our love meant so little to Ba?” Her father’s death feels treacherous: unfathomable and opaque. Later, Marie will unravel some of the tapestry of her father’s life and those tangled with it, and find, if not an answer to this question, at least a measure against which to understand the weight of living. Marie learns about her father’s past from an older girl named Ai-ming, a refugee from the Tiananmen demonstrations.
In Little Gods, the most apparent betrayal is Yongzong’s of Su Lan—Yongzong seemingly disappears into thin air the night their child arrives in the world. He abandons Su Lan alone and grieving in a hospital overwhelmed with the wounded; leaves her to return to Shanghai in chafing flip-flops. But numerous smaller betrayals also populate the book, creating supports on which the greater disloyalties loft themselves up: Yongzong lies to his best friend, Bo; Su Lan abandons her mother, An; Su Lan betrays Liya by being an absent mother and then finally, by dying of no discernible cause. “I was furious” is Liya’s first response to her mother’s abnormal death. “I was certain she had done it to herself, not killed herself, not anything so tragic, but somehow arranged it so she would cease to exist.”
In Little Gods, betrayals and their fallouts are furthermore intertwined with the notion of rights. For example, Liya flies to Shanghai after her mother’s death and rummages through her parents’ old apartment. Next door, their elderly neighbor Zhu Wen—who once took care of Liya as an infant—listens to her aggressive searching. “You are not interested in the truth,” Zhu Wen thinks of Liya, to herself. “You are interested in answers. I can see it in the way you move, as if your mother has hidden something, and you have a right to whatever it is.” Does a betrayal grant the right, if not to repentance from the traitorous party, then at least to cross certain lines—to obtain an explanation, no matter the cost?
Similar questions also surface in the novel’s predecessors, such as in The Crazed by Ha Jin, published in 2002. In a provincial university, literature student Jian Wan is assigned as caretaker to his advisor and soon-to-be father-in-law, Professor Yang, who has suffered a stroke. Yang’s condition is strange, as he shows no signs of aphasia and instead becomes even more talkative. His volubility soon gives way to raving, however, in which glimmers of truth and stories of treachery and blackmailing emerge, forcing Jian to reckon with Yang’s past and the country’s future. When the professor finally dies, Jian’s fiancée, Meimei, leaves him for a man she’s been seeing in Beijing. This final betrayal drives Jian toward the center of things, as he chaotically asserts a right to comprehension—toward Beijing on a certain June day when the demand for rights was audible, even ringing in the air.
One of Little Gods’ weaknesses is its overly heavy reliance on a single element for each character. Jin defines Zhu Wen by her ugliness and deformed body; Su Lan by her past and her denial of it; Liya by her ruthless search for answers; and Yongzong by his constant need to be seen as good. Jin counteracts this choice by making each character’s response to this defining element complex—and largely gets away with it. The writing itself helps too; Jin’s prose is consistently subdued yet incandescent.
But the greatest strength of Little Gods is its refusal to accept easy answers about the past and the ways we remember and refashion it. The story doubles back on itself, holding not only its characters but Chinese history up to skeptical scrutiny; Jin refuses to let Tiananmen weigh monolithically in the narrative. Instead, she introduces the political discontent that ultimately leads to Tiananmen from Zhu Wen’s point of view, and Zhu Wen, older and world-weary, stresses the repetitiveness of history:
In the newspapers I read about an ongoing student demonstration in Beijing at Tiananmen Square. I checked the publication date on the top corner. It seemed that these exact events had happened before, these same slogans chanted and these same patriotic songs sung in unison . . . perhaps it was this same deposed government official who had died and whose death transformed him into a martyred hero, propelling the parading of these same wreaths of flowers through the streets.
This is not the sort of statement many would expect from this side of history. But Zhu’s cynicism, which mirrors that of the middle-aged nurse who delivers Su Lan’s baby in Beijing, is not the flattened disaffection of a whole generation; Zhu’s cynicism is grounded in concern for herself, and reflects the yearning for a right to a personal life beyond grand social narratives:
I could not help feeling agitated and embarrassed for reasons I did not fully understand. I was embarrassed for the protesters, who looked so young and sounded so naïve, but I was also embarrassed for myself. Each time this kind of thing happened, my alienation darkened; there was something in the collective mob of passion that challenged the tolerable solitude of living in my given body.
With this detachment and discomfort, Zhu Wen watches as Yongzong becomes more and more involved in the political demonstrations. Later, switching to Yongzong’s point of view, the reader learns of the similarly self-centered—if not exactly selfish—motivations of Yongzong’s participation: how he feels “lit up” when engaged with the political theory and action of the times; how he feels that his life “finally, had reached its place of yearning.” He is no scientist like his wife, nor is he passionate about medicine, his chosen profession. He uses his fervor for the protests to justify his growing discontent with Su Lan and her changing, pregnant body, convincing himself that the debates “about the fate of the nation were more immediate than Su Lan’s physics.”
Little Gods’ engagement with the granular elements of a national tragedy follows the framework of novels that precede it by tracing the way extraordinary social events affect individual lives: how the political arises from the personal. In this, Little Gods echoes Ha Jin’s The Crazed, where the protagonist declares: “That’s how I decided to go to Beijing. . . . I had no grand purpose or dream of democracy and freedom; nor did I have the sense of responding to our national exigencies. My motive was mainly personal—I was driven by desperation, anger, madness, and stupidity.” Little Gods’ sixteen-year-old Liya, standing alone before an empty Tiananmen Square after her Calm Skies Door epiphany, thinks to herself: “If the father I never knew was dead, like the mother I knew and didn’t know—I wanted his corpse to be the property of personal grief, not of national tragedy. I was no hero. I wanted to weep only for myself.”
Little Gods breaks from some of the works that precede it, however, in how personal it becomes while still keeping its gaze leveled on the historical. Like Su Lan, Little Gods is concerned with “extremes, with the very small and the very large.” Like Su Lan, Little Gods does “not believe in the idea of China”—“not, at least, as anything more than accumulated coincidence and geography.” It distrusts collectivity; it aims instead to wring the truth from the lives that composed a historical moment. It harbors no illusions even as it recognizes the need for them. Liya finally understands that—no matter the truth about her parents, especially her father’s disappearance—there is only one narrative that works where she is going, where she is returning. “The story of her dead father is a story pleasing to Americans, to Westerners in general,” Liya concludes, and though she knows “that she is using it to package herself, the pleasure she derives from being a person with solid answers to these questions overrides her doubt.” What does it mean to incorporate Tiananmen into one’s stories, then? Who can or who should? Liya can, and although she recognizes that this doesn’t necessarily mean she should, she’s still attracted to the self who would weave Tiananmen into her own story—this self who would “[fill] in rootlessness with a story so deep in the mud of history it could be passed as identity—as self! She was the kind of person I’d always dreamed of becoming . . . a person admired for possessing an authoritative moral center.” Jin has not resolved the risks of incorporating politics into literature by the easier way of emphasizing politics’ importance to justify its presence. Instead, she has turned these risks inside out, revealing that the power of writing about historical events has always instead been in the myriad individual lives that composed them. Little Gods is aware of the way in which the world is aware of Beijing, of a collective inclination to remember the events of 1989 as elemental, hallowed, and scrutable—an easy moral true-north. Jin’s answer to that is simple: the past is not so simple.