Te-Ping Chen on Navigating Generational Difference and Political Turmoil
The Author of Land of Big Numbers Talks to Jane Ciabattari
The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Te-Ping Chen was raised in Oakland, educated at Brown, and covered China for the Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade, ending in mid-2018. Land of Big Numbers, her first story collection, is a remarkable gathering of characters drawn from her observations of a nation in transition, the aspirational “China Dream” slogan promoted by President Xi buoying up a new generation while the older generations watch with well-earned wariness. “We lose histories,” Chen writes in an essay on tracing her own family’s roots for the Journal. “We lose them because of time, because nothing was written or what was written was lost, because our families flee, fight or simply forget. In China, as in the case of my family and others, we also lose them because of the Communist Party.”
The stories in Land of Big Numbers are about addressing the past, she told me via email, but even more so, she added, she hopes they illuminate the present. “Modern China is a place of such contradictions and heartache, but the day-to-day lived experience can also contain so much surprise and joy as well. It was such a privilege to be a reporter in Beijing, and I hope these stories help awaken readers to the incredible complexity and diversity of the country, and also its humor and beauty as well. When living in China, I encountered so many people who astonished me, clever and resourceful and endlessly inventive, full of fire and pragmatism, and this book is intended to evoke those stories. The government in China so often dominates the narrative, and I hope Land of Big Numbers helps to shine a spotlight on its people, too.”
Jane Ciabattari: Which region of China did your parents come from?
Te-Ping Chen: My father was born in Hong Kong, but our laojia is Hainan, a tropical island in the South China Sea. My paternal grandfather hailed from a small village there; growing up I heard stories from his childhood about pirate attacks and coconuts. My paternal grandmother was an overseas Chinese from Burma, but her family originally came from Taishan, Guangdong. My mother was born in Harlem, and her mother—my grandmother—was raised between Beijing and Hawaii, while her father’s family was from the Hangzhou/Shanghai area. So a mix, but mostly southern Chinese.
JC: When did you first travel to China? Write about China as a journalist?
T-PC: I first traveled and lived in China in 2006, as an undergraduate studying abroad. My first time reporting there was in 2009, when I worked on some stories about tobacco smuggling in Fujian. Later, I moved to Harbin, northeast China, then to Chengdu, and joined the Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, later moving back to Beijing to work as a correspondent there.
I didn’t major in Chinese history at Brown (I studied sociology & international relations), but I did take some classes in that area. In college, I was interested in nonprofit and policy work, but also edited the opinions page for the campus paper and did some freelancing for the local alt-weekly. It was a chance to write about prison reform and police and some cultural pieces here and there, and I really loved it. I was always someone who would wind up awkwardly cornering people at parties and asking them a million questions about themselves, and having a job that allowed me to be curious about other people and exercise that curiosity in a compulsive way (and also get to write!) seemed kind of miraculous.
JC: You covered China as a journalist. What inspired you to begin writing short stories. Did you find it easier to tell truth through fiction?
T-PC: I started writing short stories because I was frustrated with a novel. I’d written one when I was living in Chengdu, and later on while living in Beijing I picked it back up. I’d been trying to revise, but honestly had just fallen out of love with the project—the work had come to feel obligatory, without that initial spark. One day while biking home from the bureau, the phrase “Shanghai Murmur” suddenly popped into my mind, and I decided to try and write a short story around it. To my surprise, once I began writing in the short story form, the words came much more easily.I first traveled and lived in China in 2006, as an undergraduate studying abroad. My first time reporting there was in 2009, when I worked on some stories about tobacco smuggling in Fujian.
I don’t know that I would say it’s easier to tell the truth through fiction—but more complete truths, yes. As a reporter, I was used to presenting a vision of China to the world, but necessarily a partial one, condensed into mostly 800-word slices. And so much of what I was interested in—the human dramas, the emotional language of the world around me, the intimate, the surprising—didn’t fit into headlines. In some ways, the usual news stories I would write were like China haikus—smog was bad today / new government targets fixed / factories shut down. And I just felt like I wanted more, both as a reader and as a writer. There was always more to say, more to show.
Partly I was also writing out of a very selfish instinct, which was that ever since I’d first arrived in China in 2006, I’d been accumulating stacks and stacks of notes and details and overheard conversations around me and it felt like I’d been amassing such a warehouse of these objects—kind of like Cao Cao in “Flying Machine”—and they were all jumbled and dusty and I needed to lay them all out on a table and try to arrange them, polish and make meaning out of them.
JC: In your title story, a young man, Zhu Feng, discovers the stock market. “It was like discovering a secret passcode. It was such easy money. It was a whole thing that existed, that minted millions of fortunes all around the country, and now he was finally inside it. The government was encouraging everyone, too.” He “borrows” money from the government funds he manages, and the money he invests in the market grows, until it doesn’t. How does the way the Chinese stock market works, and the way the government controls the economy, affect his fate?
T-PC: When I was in Beijing, one of my favorite stories for the Journal was written after spending a day in one of the city’s old-fashioned trading halls, with rows of seats and computers and big screens where ordinary people could come and buy stocks and watch the market go up and down. China’s stock market, unlike the U.S., is mostly composed of small investors, and the atmosphere of that room had an at times giddy, nearly casino-like feel. In the title story, Zhu Feng also gets swept up in that thrill, buoyed by his faith that the government will never, ever let the market bottom out, gambling with increasingly higher stakes. Around the time I was writing Land of Big Numbers, state media outlets were championing the market and predicting a bull run, much as they do in that story, urging investors like Zhu Feng on. In the end, though, he finds that his confidence is misplaced, and the reader understands that even if the government decides to intervene in the market, for him, it’s probably too late.
JC: During his financial crisis, Zhu Feng discovers the secret to his father’s decline, which began when he was injured during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. You write with such care about the generational differences in China. (“..they had simple lives, it was their children who were going on to do the complicated things.”) How have your most dramatic observations of this complicated generational relationship shaped your fiction?
T-PC: The home often makes me think of a stage set—full of drama, entrances and exits and a cast of characters who love, but misunderstand each other and are often split along generational fault lines. In China those generational differences run especially and spectacularly deep, with younger Chinese growing up in a time of abundance and possibilities, while many of their parents were raised in penury at a time when China was seen as a global backwater. Those conflicts surface throughout Land of Big Numbers in different ways. In “Lulu,” for example, the father doesn’t understand his daughter’s form of idealism, and tries to dissuade her from thinking she has the power to affect the world around her. By contrast in the title story, Zhu Feng is the one disappointed in his father’s lack of ambition and unwillingness to take risks, though ultimately he comes to understand his father’s identity is more complex than he thinks.
JC:One of my favorite stories, “New Fruit,” has a surreal aspect, with the “peculiar” qiguo fruit with “a taste marvelous and rare,” creating strong moods in those who eat it–elation the first season it is introduced (the state media call it “a new fruit that is a symbol of our new nation”), but a powerful regret the following year. Did you have a particular fruit in mind when you began the story? And a sense of mass behavior?
T-PC: Yes! I had a very particular fruit in mind—namely, the nectarines street vendors sell in Beijing during the summer, and specifically the ones sold in the hutong near my apartment (a neighborhood that inspired many of the characters in the story). I still have no idea what made them so delicious, someone once told me they were probably injected with sugar water. Whatever it was, they were utterly addicting, with perfect balance of bite and sweetness; I loved them with an outsized passion, which spilled over into the writing of that story.
With “New Fruit,” I was thinking about mass behavior and mass forgettings, but I wanted to try and capture what that kind of amnesia looks like at a more intimate level—or more precisely, in one neighborhood. And I also wanted to write a story that conjured up that very particular and lively hutong where I lived, full of street vendors and gossiping retirees, a place I had a lot of affection for—a very traditional old neighborhood, the kind that makes the city so special. (Though at the time I was writing “New Fruit,” the government was also in the midst of a major effort to shutter many small hutong shops and vendors and crack down on unlicensed businesses—a campaign billed as part of an attempt to ‘beautify’ the capital, but one that also coincided with a government effort to drive out the migrant workers who ran them.)
JC: In “Gubeikou Spirit,” Pan, a young working woman rushes onto her train station, eager to get home to her aging father, who fades toward the end of the day. She hears an announcement: “The next train will be delayed.” The story turns surreal, as hours, days, weeks pass, and the would-be passengers settle into a routine. Who do so many stay somnolent and passive under the control of the guards? Why is Pan more willing to rebel than the others?
T-PC: The easiest thing in the world is to stay somnolent and passive, as so many of those would-be passengers do. First, there are the official obstacles to their exit that they encounter. There’s the broader trust and hope and belief in the government, and their confidence that authorities will soon be able to fix the subway system. And then there’s the way that state media so effectively turns their plight into propaganda, so that they start to feel like heroes. Finally, of course, donations and other goods start flooding in, so that they end up being materially very comfortable—and counting themselves as lucky, in fact, to be so sheltered, protected and cared for.The easiest thing in the world is to stay somnolent and passive, as so many of those would-be passengers do.
As for why Pan is more willing to rebel, in part, she’s thinking of her father. But she’s also a person who’s impatient with life around her, who’s never been satisfied with things at face value. In China, the people you encounter who are willing to try and buck the system have, yes, frequently faced life circumstances that have pushed them to do so. And yet often it also feels like it’s something even more fundamental—that there are just some people whose character won’t allow themselves to be dictated to.
JC: Xiaolei, the narrator of “Shanghai Murmur,” leaves her village and comes to Shanghai at sixteen. Like many provincial characters in fiction, she aspires to a more glamorous, affluent life. She works in a flower shop, the perfect place to discover the spending habits of wealthy Shanghainese who are her customers, and her own yearning to acquire money and what it can buy, especially beauty. She follows her fantasy too far, and loses her job. Is hers a relatively common story in China today? Are citizens still following President Xi’s slogan in search of the “China Dream?” Is the class divide in China growing, as it has this past few years in the US?
T-PC: There are millions of migrants like Xiaolei who are trying to make a living in cities far from their homes and family, nursing their own dreams and ambitions in the face of steep odds. On the “China Dream,” yes, I think it’s fair to say that Xi’s vision of a rejuvenated, powerful China, one that’s prosperous and strong, continues to speak powerfully at home. On the other hand, you are correct, the class divide in China is very pronounced, much as it is in the US. Too many disaffected citizens feeling locked out of that dream is, of course, is a source of major concern for the party.
JC: I, too, am a fan of Adam Johnson’s story “Nirvana,” which seems to predict the creation of chatbots based on deceased loved ones, not far from some of your own stories. Is he one of the writers who influence your work? Who are others?
T-PC: I love writers who, like Johnson, so effectively blend the real with the surreal, and sometimes even the sublime; Carmen Maria Machado and Lesley Nneka Arimah and George Saunders are some of the other short story writers who also come to mind, writers whose expressive sense of play I really admire. I also love storytellers like Maile Meloy, Jhumpa Lahiri and Kazuo Ishiguro, writers who craft their prose with such sharpness and crystalline detail, and tried to channel both spirits in this book.
JC: You’ve written for the Journal about researching the lives of your great-grandparents, who in the early years of the twentieth century had anticipated democracy might come to China. In 2019 in Beijing you discovered the grave of your great-grandfather—a poet who published a newspaper advocating free speech and a free press in 2019, and who essentially “vanished” when the Communist Party took power in 1949. His grave had been desecrated, the tombstone removed, during the Cultural Revolution. (Mao’s targets included those who didn’t like the Communist Party, and anyone who had connections abroad, and journalists, as you explain it). “The past is a sensitive thing in China,” you have written. To what extent are your stories influenced by your older characters’ memories of freedoms denied during the Cultural Revolution?
T-PC: The older characters in Land of Big Numbers have mostly moved on from the political turmoil of their past. But a sense of deep caution, and fear, continues to shape their view of the world and how their children should interact with it. In “Lulu,” for example, the reader meets a young, brilliant woman who becomes politically outspoken online, and we see her father’s anger and apprehension at her choices. He and his wife have in many ways been shortchanged in their lives, educationally and otherwise, and he can’t comprehend why his daughter would—in his view—squander all her many blessings on what he sees as merely a symbolic fight.The older characters in Land of Big Numbers have mostly moved on from the political turmoil of their past.
JC: In “Lulu,” twins take differing paths; while the boy is a game-playing teenager, his sister is a genius, whose path is obstructed by her political activism. The story makes me wonder about the generation of Chinese teens today. Are they more or less willing to take political risks than their parents? (You have written for the WSJ on the willingness of Hong Kong youth to rally and protest.)
T-PC: There are certainly some, like Lulu, who do take political risks. But the space for such activity has narrowed, and is narrowing, especially with the government’s increased sophistication in monitoring people’s activity and behavior, online and off.
And as China’s position in the world has changed, there’s also been a shift in mentality among many younger Chinese, too. During my time in Beijing, I wrote about young Chinese nationalists, including a profile of a young Chinese man who’d grown up idolizing the West, and the U.S. in particular, admiring its wealth and its political systems. And yet after the financial crisis, and time spent studying abroad at both Cambridge and Harvard, he grew increasingly disillusioned with what he saw as weaknesses in both countries’ ability to effectively function and take care of its citizens, and commensurately prouder of what he saw as China’s strength on those fronts. It’s an attitude we see on display with different characters in Land of Big Numbers, too—that feeling that comes with being part of a country on the rise, and a deep pride in the government as well.”
Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen is available now via Mariner Books.