Books newlight on 30 Jan 2008 06:18 pm
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is a collection of ten short stories written by the Chinese author Yiyun Li. The sharp observation of human relationships, the sometimes punchy, sometimes minimalistic dialogs, as well as the warmth and empathy underneath, all make the reading very enjoyable.
Yiyun Li is at her best conveying the strange sense of alienation and liberation. In the two stories I like the most, Extra and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, the protagonists were all thrown into an unfamiliar situation. Unable to communicate with or without the language barrier, but still trying to understand, the characters at end all manage to find their way out, reaching some kind of inner peace and freedom while the outside world remains largely indifferent and incomprehensible.
What strikes me most in those stories is the freedom gained by using a new language. Being able to, or being forced to use a new language, looks to have the unexpected effect of making one be freed from the inhibitory restraint of the mother tongue, instead of just providing the possibility of make yourself understandable. The author herself once said that she feels using English to write gives her the freedom to better express herself. In A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, we witness Mr Shi’s daughter’s transformation from a distant, silent figure into a vivid, laughing, animated person once she’s on the phone, speaking English. We, as Mr Shi, are astonished.
However this is not uncommon. Many young Chinese who come to live in the west probably have experienced this change twice, first when they started to learn Putonghua (aka Mandarin) in the primary school, which for those not from the north of China is complete different from their local dialect, and then they had to start it all over again with English in the secondary school. For some, it’s restricting and tedious, but for others, it’s liberating to communicate in a new language, with both the fresh vocabulary offered and new social norms coming with the new language.
The scenes of ordinary people’s life in the stories are heartfelt and moving, the stories are often slow-paced yet gripping. The only fault I found is that when the author is too earnest in expressing a moral or political message, or too keen in employing a less subtle metaphor, the story lines sometimes become forced, the characters flat or even silly.
When I was reading the book, I frequently felt the stories perhaps reflect the author’s own experiences, as a person who has explored a different culture and language, gained a new perspective and felt empowered to read more about her previous life. I expect more good work to come from Yiyun Li. Two of the stories from this book, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Princess of Nebraska, have been adapted into two movies, both directed by the Chinese American director Wayne Wang. One of them, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers won the Golden Shell Best Film Award in Sen Sabastian Film Festival last year. I’m looking forward to watching those two films too.