Monday, December 10, 2018

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

It’s hard to believe it has been over five years since I read Gold Boy, Emerald Girl - Yiyun Li’s second collection of short stories. Since then, I have recommended them to a number of literary sorts, and I still think they have a unique and moving voice. I grabbed this book, her first novel, on a whim at the library. 

For better or worse, this is a difficult book. It begins with the execution of a young woman for political dissent, and ends with plenty of tragedy and betrayal. But it is also moving - and important - as well as fascinating and well written. Yiyun Li immigrated from China in the 1990s, and her experiences - and those of her parents - shape her writing. The trauma of the Cultural Revolution, the “Great Step Forward,” and particularly Tiananmen Square left impressions on her, and her fiction is set during these turbulent times.

The Vagrants is a novel, but it feels much like a set of interconnected short stories. The execution of Gu Shan reverberates through the lives of various people in the fictional small city of Muddy River, for better or worse. The stories all connect through that nexus (and others) despite their separate threads.

The theme in my view, is the way that a totalitarian society puts ordinary people in impossible situations, so that they predictably betray each other to save themselves. It is Game Theory in action. The game is rigged so that individuals gain - or at least lose less - if they turn each other in, even if that means fabricating “crimes” against the state in their neighbors. By banding together, it is more likely that they could force change, but the risk to any one person is too great, and the likelihood of betrayal practically inevitable.

Yiyun doesn’t write one-dimensional characters. There aren’t many heroes, and few true villains in this book. Rather, people have complicated and ambiguous motives and actions. In what has to be one of the best reversals I have read, the “golden boy” - the little boy with the good heart - ends up with one of the least comfortable futures, with his desire for approval leading to questionable actions and results. The flip side is the malignant idler Bashi, who starts off trying to find a girl he can screw - or rape if necessary. Except that once he finds the vulnerable crippled girl, he finds he can’t follow through on his plans, and ends up discovering a purpose outside his own selfishness. Both of these results are unexpected, and Yiyun makes the changes utterly convincing.

Like in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, the overwhelming feeling one gets is one of aching loneliness. The system - particularly in combination with the old patriarchal beliefs that never went away - isolates everyone from each other. When you can’t trust your neighbor or your family, how can you have intimacy? And yet, there are some people and some moments where this occurs, and the scenes are total gems of character writing. The title characters, the two childless old people who take in the infant girls abandoned to die at the edge of town - they are bright spots of love. The moment when old Teacher Gu, whose wife has been arrested, finds an unexpected friend in a neighbor below his social circle. And this, after the man’s wife tries to destroy Teacher Gu.

As fair warning, I do need to say that this book is plenty traumatic. Yiyun throws a glaring light on one of the most sickening human rights violations of the Regime: dissidents would be held in prison, given genetic tests, then executed when their organs matched the needs of a powerful person. In some cases, the organs were removed while the person was still alive. This is pretty well documented, actually. Unsurprisingly, the most common victims were ethnic and religious minorities. (Human nature sucks so much, a lot of the time.) There are also some disturbing sexual elements, such as the creepy old man who saves corpses for burial (rather than cremation, as mandated by the Regime.) And severs the breasts and genitals of female corpses for his collection. But perhaps the worst is finding such a connection with characters that you just know are going to suffer.

Yiyun’s writing isn’t just good, it’s beautiful. I kept going back and re-reading passages just for the loveliness of the phrasing. It seems like a paradox, for the story to be so horrifying even as the writing is gorgeous.

I also want to talk a bit about totalitarianism, as this book really brought together a lot of my own thoughts on the subject.

In the right wing circles I used to run in - and to which a good number of friends and family still belong, Communism is used as a political weapon, a shibboleth of orthodoxy, and above all as a conversation ender when it comes to political discussions. The problem is that the essential core of Communism is misunderstood - or perhaps misrepresented.

In essence, as the argument goes now, the only two options are the totalitarian communism of Stalin or Mao on the one hand; or the anarcho-capitalism, the economic libertarianism (better described as social darwinism) of Ayn Rand. Thus, anything that smacks of wealth redistribution, a public sector, or regulation, is tarred as “Communism,” or at least “Socialism,” and the horrors of Mao and Stalin dragged out as the argument why we can’t have, to choose a common example, single payer health care. (Or fill in the blank with, say, a higher minimum wage, stronger unions, food stamps, or even Medicare and Social Security.) As soon as you start talking about inequality and the common good, clearly the Gulags are inevitable.

Suggest that maybe things might look more like, say, Sweden (or fill in the blank with another first world country…) rather than the Soviet Union, and you get called a pinko rather fast.

The same thing happened, of course, to the leaders of the Civil Rights movement. Desegregation meant death camps for whites, right?

Of course, for those of us with a Fundie background, “atheism” (with the biggest of scare quotes) was blamed for both Communism and Nazism. But also in there is the idea that the core of Communism is economic. That is, Communism is synonymous with any attempt to address inequality. Touch inequality, and you end up with the Gulag.

I think this very much misses the point. There is a reason why certain nasty regimes resemble each other so much, despite totally different economic philosophies. To give some examples, Nazism (a nasty right wing movement based on racial hatred, religious supremacy, reactionary gender roles, and militant nationalism) turned out to be strikingly similar to Stalinism (a nasty left wing movement based on class hatred, atheism, egalitarian gender roles, and militant nationalism.) And both are strikingly similar to the military dictatorships of Pinochet and Gaddafi. Or the far-right Islamist dictatorships like the Taliban or ISIS - and Iran and Saudi Arabia. Or the kleptocracies of South America. Or even the Roman Empire. The connecting thread for all of these isn’t economic theory - it’s totalitarianism.

Which is ALL about power.

It is about the power to control people’s lives, and deprive them of human rights. You can see in all of these the naked fact that speaking out against power is forbidden, and results in severe punishment, including death. The central idea is that one must never question authority, and that one should surrender one’s personhood in favor of the whims of those in power.

That’s why both hard right and hard left regimes resemble each other more than they resemble the democracies of the first world. That’s also why life in a fairly right wing democracy like the United States is fairly similar in many ways to life in a fairly left wing democracy like Sweden. Sure, there are differences, for better or worse. But in both, we can count on being able to speak out politically without getting whacked.

This is why it is pretty absurd to say that we will be one step from the gulags if we raise taxes so we can have universal health care. (And for that matter, tax rates on the wealthy are far below where they were in the 1950s, often held up as the zenith of American society by the right.) It’s also absurd to say that expecting employers to pay a living wage and provide benefits (like many of those 1950s corporations did - thanks to unions) will lead to the secret police. And also why it’s absurd to say that regulations keeping large companies from destroying the environment will lead to executions for political beliefs. It’s naked scare tactics divorced from any truth of history or even the present.

The Vagrants really brings this home.

In the Chinese society if the 1970s - after the disaster of the “Great Step Forward,” which led to mass starvation, and after the purges of intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution - the economic system actually looks a lot like it did before, just with different people at the top. Class differences haven’t gone away. “Capitalism” still mostly exists in a slightly different form - for the people at the bottom. After all, the upper classes (Communist leaders) are still fabulously wealthy, the middle classes have secure jobs, while the lower classes must find a way or starve. Hey! That sounds not that much unlike, say, every human society in history. Funny how that works. In that sense, Yiyun portrays a thoroughly recognizable society.

But things do look different from another perspective. Because of the totalitarianism, dissent is dangerous at best.

In what has turned out to be an interesting (and to some, surprising) development, modern China has become rather more economically free, while remaining politically repressed. Who knew? You actually can have capitalism and billionaires and stuff - and still have a totalitarian society. It really isn’t primarily about economics...

What struck me most about this is just how right Raymond Aron was. I have mentioned it before, but one of the best books I have read is Aron’s The Opium of the Intellectuals, wherein he points out that both Communism and Nazism are - above all - religions. Sure, they lack the traditional Supreme Being™, but the substitute impersonal forces. In Communism’s case, The End of History™.

In The Vagrants, this really comes out. Early in the book is the “denunciation ceremony” for Gu Shan. Attendance is mandatory for most people - and children. The stadium is filled, and there are hours of motivational speeches (sermons!), patriotic songs (hymns!), and praise of the Communist Party. “Without the Communist Party, we would have nothing!!”

Perhaps the most chilling moment comes in the propaganda delivered by a teacher to the children.

“[O]ur party has never been wrong and will never be wrong.”

That’s a cult.

That’s the sort of shit that you hear from toxic religions of all sorts. “We are always right and have never been wrong and will never be wrong.” The beginning of the end for me with Evangelicalism (in retrospect), came with a smug and self-congratulatory sermon from our former pastor. In which he basically made this argument.

This is how you get to “kill anyone who disagrees.” It’s when your dogma - whatever the hell that dogma is - is viewed as infallible. As Solzhenitsyn pointed out, to kill by the millions you need an ideology.

It doesn’t matter what that ideology is. It could be Marxism. It could be Aryan Supremacy. It could be anarcho-capitalism. It could be religion, whether radical Islam, or radical Christianity.

Steven Pinker, in his excellent book (which has been a huge influence on me), The Better Angels of Our Nature, described how ideology leads to genocide:

Utopian ideologies invite genocide for two reasons. One is that they set up a pernicious utilitarian calculus. In a utopia, everyone is happy forever, so its moral value is infinite. Most of us agree that it is ethically permissible to divert a runaway trolley that threatens to kill five people onto a side track where it would only kill one. But suppose it were a hundred million lives one could save by diverting the trolley, or a billion, or - projecting into the indefinite future - infinitely many. How many people would it be permissible to sacrifice to attain that infinite good? A few million can seem like a pretty good bargain. Not only that, but consider the people who learn about the promise of a perfect world yet nonetheless oppose it. They are the only things standing in the way of a plan that could lead to infinite goodness. How evil are they? You do the math.

The Vagrants brings this out one hundred percent. Including the part about those opposed to the Communist Party being vermin. In the same section, the school children are instructed that “counterrevolutionism” is a infectious disease, and that it must be cleansed by the strongest disinfectant. Which means killing a few people, but whatever.

You will see this in every totalitarian system. And that includes the white nationalism of Donald Trump, where immigrants and refugees are referred to as contaminants, vermin, disease, and so on.

It ultimately comes down, not to economic theories, but human rights. Do all humans, regardless of race, national origin, religious belief, political belief, sex, gender, sexual orientation, and so on, deserve human rights? Or not. That’s why universal health care, or tax rates, aren’t a slippery slope to the gulags. But calling the press the “enemy of the people” is. It’s why Social Security isn’t some nefarious plot to enslave workers. But eliminating workplace protections is. It’s why telling billionaires that they can’t have an increasing share of the world’s wealth isn’t one step away from show trials for dissidents. But calling for violence against protesters is.

I am a conservative (in the traditional sense) by temperament. I am not a risk taker, generally. I prefer a quiet life, with my books and music and kids and cat. Because of that, I am not at all interested in starting a revolution. I prefer reform and correction and incremental change. I prefer data and facts and evidence over theories, for the most part. Sure, try stuff, but do it carefully, and make corrections as you see what does and doesn’t work.

Yiyun has some similar ideas about revolutions, and I truly loved how she put them. First is what I believe is a Chinese proverb. It is fantastic, if cynical as hell.

“The one who robs and succeeds will become the king, and the one who tries to rob and fails will be called a criminal.”

This fatalistic proverb recurs throughout the book. It guides the actions of many characters - if they can just succeed, whether through theft of through betraying their neighbors, they will be king in their own way. But if they fail, it is catastrophe.

The last one I will mention comes from Teacher Gu when he is talking with his neighbor Guosheng near the end of the book. Liberated from his filters by some booze, he goes on a rant against revolutionaries in general. I don’t agree with all of it - Teacher Gu is a reactionary in his own way, wishing women were more submissive, and that the world was like it was before the Revolution. (I sympathize with him on the second point - life was better for him when he had his freedom, his books, and the respect his intelligence and education deserved.) But this line stood out:

“[B]ut what is 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.”

Dang. That’s both depressing, and all too true. Our current racist right wing movements are driven in some part by legitimate grievances. But they are also driven by the prurient desire to be “better” than someone else. “We may be poor, but at least we aren’t [fill in the blank: n-----rs, immigrants, gays, whatever]”

Ultimately, after reading this book, what I longed for more than anything, is the utopia of what I thought America was. And still is from time to time, occasionally, and with some people. I want the freedom that we (mostly) have. But I also long for the community of commitment to the common good. I know that hasn’t really existed for many in our nation, but the idea has existed for a long time.

And, come to think of it, I long for the utopia promised by the teachings of Christ. A world where hierarchy and power are replaced by mutuality. Where there is true freedom to live our lives, because each of us acknowledges the inherent worth of the other. Where we treat the most vulnerable not as infections to be purged, but as worthy of the love and care we would give to Christ himself.

I have, I suppose, gotten off the topic a bit. But I think it fits. Yiyun’s chilling tale isn’t just about “those Commies over there,” but about us as humans. Our tendencies toward ideological thinking, the ease in which we humans can be motivated to hate each other, and the way that power is a destructive force, no matter what its justification.

Yiyun Li is a great writer - one of my favorites I would say - and although her books aren’t necessarily easy or pleasant, they are important, and give a real insight into our world, and our common humanity.


I’m pretty sure I have posted this before, but I have to do it again here. This has long been one of my favorite Beatles tunes, and not just because of those gorgeous Epiphone Casinos.

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it's evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world

But when you talk about destruction
Don't you know that you can count me out
Don't you know it's gonna be
All right, all right, all right

You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We'd all love to see the plan
You ask me for a contribution
Well, you know
We're doing what we can

But if you want money for people with minds that hate
All I can tell is brother you have to wait
Don't you know it's gonna be
All right, all right, all right

You say you'll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it's the institution
Well, you know
You better free your mind instead

But if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao
You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow
Don't you know it's gonna be
All right…

And, no matter how “Christian” you call yourself, if you want me to participate in promoting “minds that hate,” well, you can go to hell.


  1. This book was devastating. It’s one that I thought about a lot after I read it. Li writes beautifully, and it’s even more amazing when you realize she’s writing in a language that isn’t her first.

    1. I am reminded of Joseph Conrad, who also wrote beautifully in his second (or third?) language. His books are, likewise, devastating.