“Do Not Say We Have Nothing” is an epic history of China, beginning in 1872 and ending in 2016. The story is told by Jiang Li-ling (Marie Jiang) as she discovers her family history through the violence and tragedy of the cultural revolution.
After her father commits suicide in 1989, Marie Jiang lives alone with her mother in Vancouver. One day in December of 1990, her mother receives a mysterious letter, and shortly thereafter, Ai-ming, the daughter of her father’s childhood friend comes to live with Marie Jiang and her mother. Ai-ming was caught up in the student protests in Tiananmen Square and her family thought it best that she leave China. Ai-ming begins to tell Marie Jiang the story of their families and life in China. AI-Ming stays for a few months, leaving for San Francisco and then New York, and ultimately going back to China where she seems to simply disappear.
Ai-ming shares many stories about their family histories and Marie Jiang attempts to unravel the remaining history of her father’s family. Ai-ming’s father, known as Sparrow, was a brilliant composer and taught at the Shanghai Conservatory. Sparrow’s aunt and uncle, well to do landowners, were beaten and sent to reeducation camps as part of the communist movement. Their daughter, Zhuli, was sent to live with Sparrow and his family. Zhuli was a brilliant violinist. Sparrow’s student, Jiang Kai, was also a composer and a pianist. Kai was Marie Jiang’s father. Zhuli, Sparrow and Kai spent a great deal of time together at the Conservatory and become close.
Music was central to both families, although certain tones and melodies were disfavored and considered bourgeois. The students at the Conservatory were critical of each other for focusing on the wrong types of music. “…the girl next to her, an ecru major, mocked Zhuli for favoring music in the ‘negative’ and ‘pessimistic’ key of E-flat minor, and continuing to play sonatas by revisionist Soviet composers…”
The family story reflects how the communist influence impacted every aspect of life, including permissible language, love and music. “[T]he word ‘dear’ was stupid with sentimentality and had been struck from permissible usage.” The politics of the time prevented Zhuli, Sparrow and Kai from pursuing their musical and personal lives in one way or another. The Conservatory was closed and ultimately, Sparrow went to work in a radio factory and Kai moved to Canada. A lot happened in between and their relationship continued across the continents.
A common thread throughout the story is “The Book of Records.” The Book of Records was a number of chapters of an unidentified book which had been reprinted by hand and distributed surreptitiously to those who rejected the inflexibility of communist rule. At times the chapters were used to relay messages. Marie Jiang’s mother had a chapter in her house and Marie Jiang learned about the importance of the book as she unraveled her story.
The story is moving and informative, but tragic and sad. Each life is diminished by the politics of the time and there is much needless suffering and death. The book is well written and was recently short listed for the Bailey’s prize. It is definitely worth a read. You can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11242682__Sdo%20not%20say%20we%20have%20nothing__P0%2C2__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold.