Madeleine Thien’s ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’

Tiananmen Square, 1989

Writing about – and teaching a class on – Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing wasn’t easy. It was hard enough to read. This novel is intricately put together in several senses: structurally, linguistically, thematically. While at first, I felt Thien was working her way through a cynical ‘literary prize’ checklist, I soon decided her ambitions were much higher. This is a novel with a lot to say, about music, politics, philosophy, time, language, love, the self, duty, loss, censorship… And all of it, through a madcap structure which serves to elevate those themes, and through a cast of characters sprawling enough to rival Elena Ferrante. There is so much to learn about Chinese culture here: its joys and limitations. What it means to be a Chinese emigrant, compared to a national. This book is like a Rubik’s Cube. The more you twist it around, the more the pieces make sense, and come together as a beautiful whole.

I am not Chinese. Nor have I ever been to China, so it would be arrogant to suggest that this book has allowed me to even scratch the surface of understanding what it means to be Chinese. But I had to teach a lesson on it. Two, actually. So I’ve had a pop. If you are Chinese and happen to have stumbled across my blog, I’d be more than grateful to hear your thoughts on the book – or anything that I’ve written about it – in the comments below.

Emily x


Although this book, like our last, contains a male character who dreams of fleeing to Canada in order to escape his own oppressive culture and be with the man he loves, you could be forgiven for missing the connection. Sparrow’s yearnings for Kai, once they have both (like Harry Cane) committed to conventional married life and fathered daughters, are just a single note in the epic symphony of Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The scale and ambition of the novel – both in terms of its sprawling cast of characters and its portrait of modern Chinese history – is dazzling. The novel’s narrator, Marie, like Thien herself, has lived in Vancouver all her life. But it is the question of what it means to be Chinese – the culture that both Marie and her creator have inherited – that Thien seems compelled to explore.

Time, Music and Language

In terms of its presentation of time, the novel’s structure is playful to the point of being disorientating. The first section, Part One, contains chapters numbered from one to eight, while the second section, Part Zero, counts backwards from seven to one. Within those chapters, we jump back and forth between the lives of three generations, leaping between Big Mother and Swirl’s youth in the forties, Zhuli, Sparrow and Kai’s childhood in the sixties, and Marie and Ai Ming’s early lives, from the eighties to the present day. Besides the family ties, the narrative threads are linked by The Book of Records, the love of which seems to bind together the generations.

It is notable that both the structure of the novel and the characters within it resist the idea that time is linear. In one storyline, Swirl claims that it is “foolhardy to think that a story ends. There are as many possible endings as beginnings.” In another, Marie states that “the past was never dead but only reverberated.” The link between these ideas is that Swirl’s statement arises from a reading of The Book of Records, while Marie’s is prompted by listening to a recording of her father playing Beethoven. Thus – as we concluded in our discussion last year of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Thien seems to suggest that the passing of art from generation to generation is an essential part of humanity. The idea is expanded on through a monologue from the Old Cat to Zhuli: “The things you experience are written on your cells as memories and patterns, which are reprinted again to the next generation. And even if you never lift a shovel or plant a cabbage, every day of your life, something is written upon you. And when you die, the entirety of that written record returns to the earth. All we have on this earth – all we are – is a record; copies of things. The original has long since passed away from this universe, and on and on we copy.”

In light of this statement, Thien’s use of a circular narrative (which begins and ends at Chapter One, and with the voice of Marie) seems pointed. So too does the theme of classical music, which places emphasis on repetition and recurring motifs. But more importantly, the tragic implications of Mao’s cultural cleansing –the destruction and banning of art and artists – are brought into sharp relief. How much of that cultural heritage – so essential to our humanity – was lost?

It is also interesting to consider time in terms of how it pertains to Chinese language. Quite early on, Marie states that: “in English, consciousness and unconsciousness are part of a vertical plane, so that we wake up and we fall asleep and we sink into a coma. Chinese uses the horizontal line, so that to wake is to cross a border towards consciousness and to faint is to go back. Meanwhile, time itself is vertical so that last year is the year above and next year is the year below. […] This means that future generations are not the generations ahead but the ones behind.”

Not only does this concept of the order of generations link to the Old Cat’s discussion of originals and copies, it also sheds light on another interesting point: that the construction of our language can shape the way we think about the world. Perhaps the most interesting example of this is the lack of tenses in Mandarin, which limits the ability to discuss – and think about – how things were, and how things might or could be. While in the English language, we are encouraged to think of time as a straight line, Mandarin Chinese expresses all events – past, present and future – as occurring simultaneously.

Suicide, Confucianism and Shame Culture

From the first page, suicide plays a key role in Thien’s novel. Both major and minor characters – across generations – take their lives. It is perhaps unsurprising then, to learn that China’s suicide rates rank amongst the highest in the world, particularly for women: while globally, suicide is three times more common in men than women, in China, female suicides outnumber male suicides by a ratio of 3:1. What’s more, studies have suggested that relatively few of these suicides are linked to psychiatric disorders or depression.[1]

A possible root of this high suicide rate is China’s ‘shame culture’. By contrast, most Western cultures are, due to the prevalence of Christianity, guilt cultures. The New York Times defines the terms thusly: “In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.” This definition – as it pertains to suicide – certainly seems to ring true in the novel. Many of the professors at Zhuli’s university take their own lives when the students rise up in an effort to violently “trample every bit of their prestige into dust”. Zhuli, whose role as a musician morphs from prestigious to shameful overnight, reflects on her decision to commit suicide thusly: “she still knew who she was, before they broke her down again, she wished to choose a future and to leave.”

Zhuli’s rationale is interesting for a few reasons: among them, the idea that suicide is a ‘future’ that can allow an individual to preserve a sort of fidelity of character. This attitude is perhaps better understood in light of Confucianism, which fosters a shame culture by placing great emphasis on accepting one’s role and living in line with that role, while striving for harmony with other people and one’s self. Crucially, there is a place for suicide within Confucianism. The Confucian scholar Mencius wrote: “Though life is what I want, there is something I want more than life. That is why I do not cling to life at all cost.”

Thus it seems that Zhuli, in seeing a sudden conflict between her true self and the expectations of her society, sees suicide as a more viable future than life. In her words, it is not “fear” she is running from, but “discontinuity.”

When Zhuli’s spirit haunts her cousin Sparrow, as he lies in bed with his lover, Kai, she asks him: “haven’t you understood yet Sparrow? The only life that matters is in your mind.” This philosophy – as well as the Confucian rationale behind Zhuli’s suicide – recurs when Zhuli’s niece Ai Ming (who, notably, is described as looking identical to her aunt) ponders: “what was fortune? She had come to believe it was being exactly the same on the inside as on the outside.”

It is ironic that Sparrow, unlike his beloved cousin and daughter, spends the majority of his life suppressing his inner self – both his musicality and sexuality. He eventually decides to travel to Hong Kong and commit to living an authentic life with Kai, but dies before he can make it. Kai – racked by grief regarding Sparrow’s death as well as shame for having abandoned his familial role – jumps from a window. Thus, another suicide in the story finds its roots in China’s shame culture, amplified by the damage caused by an oppressive regime which sought to oppress individuality and freedom of expression. It seems fitting that – for the majority of the novel – this suicide is framed not from Kai’s perspective but in terms of the people he let down, and the ramifications his death has on their lives. Indeed, on the novel’s first page, Marie describes her father as having “left” them.

[1] Law, Samuel & Liu, Pozi (February 2008), “Suicide in China: Unique demographic patterns and relationship to depressive disorder”, Current Psychiatry Reports, Current Psychiatry Reports

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