Living as Sparrow, Swirl and Wen the Dreamer in Communist China, with Madeleine Thien

Book Reviews, Fiction

“One thing I have learned, dear Sparrow, is that light is never still and solid and so it is with love. Light can be split into many directions. Its nature is to break apart.”

I’m not sure where I should start after reading Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Amazon | Indie Bound) but here are three things I know: 1) reading a story that challenges your own political ideology is tricky, 2) it takes a great storyteller to illustrate the complexity and intimacy — really, the humanity — of the other side, and 3) that the author was fully able to transcend point no. 1 and effectively accomplish point no. 2.

(Note: Spoilers ahead.)

It is the story of an inter-generational  Chinese multi-family, a sweeping epic of politics, love and music. It is an intimate look at how the characters dealt with living in Communist China before, during and after the Great Proletarian Revolution, the demonstrations and the massacre at Tiananmen Square, all the way to Canada for a life of quiet and refuge.

What enamored me even more with Thien’s masterpiece is how at the intersection of these families is a piece of delicate literature, the mysterious “Book of Records” which has been passed down from generation to generation. It was an exhilarating and heartbreaking read, the kind that stays with you for days. Even now as I write this review, I can still remember certain scenes in my head: Sparrow at the Conservatory and then at the factories, Swirl and Wen the Dreamer on the run, Big Mother Knife on the train back home to Ba Lute.

The book begins with Marie, a ten-year old girl who lives in Canada with her mother. After learning about her father’s (Kai) suicide in Hongkong, she grieves and recalls the most tender moments with him. Soon, the family of two receives a visitor, Ai-Ming, the daughter of Kai’s old friend, Sparrow. It is through Ai-Ming that Marie learns about Communist China, the friendship of their fathers and one of the reasons why Ai-Ming left.

Ai-Ming hesitated for a long time before answering. Finally, she told me about days and nights when more than a million people had come to Square. Students had begun a hunger strike that lasted seven days and Ai-ming herself had spent nights on the concrete, sleeping beside her best friend, Yiwen. They sat in the open, with almost nothing to shelter them from the sun or rain. During those six weeks of demonstrations, she had felt at home in China; she had understood, for the first time, what it felt to look at her country through her own eyes and her own history, to come awake alongside million of others. She didn’t want to be her own still river, she wished to be a part of the ocean.


In a time when protests are erupting all over the country against Trump’s fascist regime, there were moments when I identified with Ai-Ming and her generation’s struggle for democracy. At the same time, she was living in a much different context, with an entirely different form of government. What was clear to me though was the power of people, (specifically students) en masse to mobilize against the state, a ripple in the fabric of Ai-Ming’s generation heard throughout the world.

But the story started way before the massacre, the protests and the hunger strike at Tiananmen Square. The story started right after the Communist revolution in China, when the Party led by Mao Zedong gained control. Revolutionary fervor was high, and Thien gave a glimpse of this vividly through a family living in Shanghai. There was Big Mother Knife, a matriarch, married to Ba Lute who was a Party cadre with their children Sparrow, a gifted composer and the younger brothers, Flying Bear and Da Shan. There was Big Mother’s sister Swirl, her husband Wen the Dreamer and their daughter, Zhuli. And there was Kai, a friend of both Zhuli and Sparrow. These characters all take center stage at some point in the book, overlapping and seamlessly weaving into one another. But first, a few basics.


While Big Mother Knife consistently mocked the Party and admonished what it was trying to do, Ba Lute was the opposite:

…her hero husband was busy leading another land reform campaign, he was always away, overthrowing a landlord’s family, repossessing fields of mung beans, flax and millet, and maybe the air itself, on behalf of the People. And if it wasn’t land reform, it was song and dance troupes, political study sessions, Party meetings or private flute lessons for yet another influential cadre.

And to his son, Sparrow, he was resolute in his belief in the Party:

“There’s no future in music,” Ba Lute said. “When you were a child, fine, it was okay to be a dreamer. But you’re a bit wiser now, aren’t you? Isn’t it time to start reading the papers and building your future? In a new world, one must learn new ways. You should be studying Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought with great fervor! You should be applying yourself to revolutionary culture. Chairman Mao says, ‘If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality. If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself. If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution.'”

It’s hard to imagine what this character is being described as, and harder to think about what he’s saying in an incredibly individualized culture in the West — specially when you’re in a country where individualism is king, equivalent to big bucks for capitalism.

I had to pause here for a second, in spite of Big Mother Knife’s chaffing, to envision a different reality. “Land reform campaign” is not unfamiliar to me, as I grew up in the Philippines where agriculture was the main industry. To this day, so many peasants, farmers and farm workers are still in the struggle for what has been rightfully theirs for a long time — land that generations of their families have worked on for multiple generations. I think about the lumád sacadas, indigenous Filipinos from the southern part of the Philippines who have been swindled into thinking that working in the farms up north was worth the journey, time and difficulties.


Perhaps the most emotional portion of the book was at the height of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, where the Party sought to strengthen political ideology among the masses. It was a time when revolutionary fervor was higher, and the people took to themselves to enact judgment on who was revolutionary or not, on who was or wasn’t partaking in revolutionary activities. People deemed counter-revolutionary were either imprisoned, sent away to labor camps, killed themselves or fled the country.

Another one of the strongest elements of the story has been classical music, religiously listened to, played and lived out in various means by Sparrow, Zhuli and Kai. This book was many things to me, a challenge and simultaneously a delight to read for many reasons, but most of all, it was my first introduction to classical music. Never have I heard of Glenn Gould, but there I was on a Friday night, listening to the seventh canon of Bach’s Goldberg Variations completely entranced. There was Prokofiev, there was Ravel.  But then there were also the infamous Red Guards, students who became Mao and the Party’s paramilitary against the likes of Gould, Prokofiev, Ravel.



Zhuli hung herself at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, a place she once loved until she was shunned by her peers. Sparrow and his father were deemed as traitors, sentenced to life in the countryside. Big Mother Knife and Swirl were on the run, on a search for Wen the Dreamer who escaped a labor camp. These characters were shunned for being too liberal, for being too bourgeois. At the intersection is the “Book of Records” — the very same book that sentenced and separated Swirl and Wen the Dreamer.

These parts are scary to me, I admit. As a student of history, I know that there are different versions that come out, depending on which political perspective gets told.

The Party said that desire, like intellect and skill, was a tool for struggle. But love, if it served the smaller self before the greater one, the individual before the People, was a betrayal of revolutionary ideals, of love itself.


After finishing the book, I chanced upon a book  called China: An Introduction at Forest Books in San Francisco. I was curious about the Cultural Revolution and wanted to know more about it — I love that this book propelled me to do even more research on the country’s history, something I never thought of doing in the past.

The memory of Do Not Say We Have Nothing hasn’t diminished, and sometimes I find myself thinking about Swirl and Wen the Dreamer. I was enamored of their story, of the intimacy that they shared, how they defied all odds and went to great lengths to protect the “Book of Records.” But on a deeper level, I can’t help but think: who’s really at fault here? Is it the system? Is it the culture? Or is it human nature? How come Swirl and Wen the Dreamer couldn’t hold the same love they had for each other towards a larger group of people, towards their community and the whole society? Can beauty and music co-exist as a means that strengthens one person, that in turn strengthens the community they belong to?

I admit: I have inadequate thoughts, and more questions than I can even write. But as we move towards an increasingly fascist regime, Thien has given us a good reference of how we ultimately choose to live our lives.

“The old world shall be destroyed.
Arise, slaves, arise!
Do not say that we have nothing.”
— 英特爾納雄納爾 / The Internationale (National Revolutionary Army version)

* * * 

61urvjoryjl-_sx326_bo1204203200_Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
October 11, 2016
W. W. Norton & Company; First American Edition edition (480 pages)
My rating: ★★★★★

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

5 thoughts on “Living as Sparrow, Swirl and Wen the Dreamer in Communist China, with Madeleine Thien

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