Best Defense
Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Today’s China: How it got that way

Over the weekend I finished The Vagrants, a terrific novel by Yiyun Li about China in the late 1970s, in the ebb tide period after the Cultural Revolution but before the economic opening. I think this is the richest novel I’ve read in a year or more. Anyone curious about China at all would enjoy ...

Jakob Montrasio/flickr
Jakob Montrasio/flickr
Jakob Montrasio/flickr

Over the weekend I finished The Vagrants, a terrific novel by Yiyun Li about China in the late 1970s, in the ebb tide period after the Cultural Revolution but before the economic opening. I think this is the richest novel I've read in a year or more. Anyone curious about China at all would enjoy it, as would anyone who simply likes a good novel.

Over the weekend I finished The Vagrants, a terrific novel by Yiyun Li about China in the late 1970s, in the ebb tide period after the Cultural Revolution but before the economic opening. I think this is the richest novel I’ve read in a year or more. Anyone curious about China at all would enjoy it, as would anyone who simply likes a good novel.

It is perhaps the most scathingly anti-revolutionary book I’ve ever read, except perhaps for Andrei Platonov’s The Foundation Pit. At one point the wisest (and most broken) character in the book asks,

… what is a revolution except a systematic way for one species to eat another alive? Let me tell you — history is, unlike what they say on the loudspeakers, not driven by revolutionary force but by people’s desire to climb up onto someone else’s neck and shit and pee as he or she wants.

But it is more than a political novel, it is a great story, beautifully written. It begins in March 21, 1979, with the execution of a young woman who had been a fanatical Red Guard but had lost her faith in Communism and become a determined counterrevolutionary. As she is paraded before being killed, it becomes clear that her vocal cords have been cut, to prevent her from making a final statement. We also learn that one possible reason for her being sentenced to death is that a Party official needs new kidneys, and hers are extracted before she is put to death. It ends about five weeks later, on May Day.

Postscript: Life goes on. After I wrote this item, I went shopping at the Pentagon City Costco. In the cashier’s line I stood behind what looked to be a group of visiting Chinese officials, looking very FOB. They were buying tons of bottles of Rogaine and One A Day multivitamins.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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