A Thousand Years of Good Prayers--Yiyun Li

The stories in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers are uniformly good.  They derive their strength from the sometimes mythic overlay on the lives of real, struggling people (as in "Immortal," excerpts of which have been posted before.)  Yiyun Li is still not in full control of her language; there are sometimes awkward phrasings, or perhaps innovative phrasings that don't really accomplish what the author intends (unless momentary disorientation is the effect she wishes to achieve.  One small example is when she has when one character "shoveled" a pot of dregs at her daughter.  These moments are few and my comment is a quibble, but it goes to show that there is a little seasoning required for this author to emerge into her own vast and beautiful domain.

While the language has momentary trouble spots, the stories never do. They are intricate, well-told, and often end with epiphanies that can be fully exposed to everyone without giving away anything at all of the story.  These ephiphanies illuminate all that has gone on before richly.  Some examples have been given in previous posts.  But each story is studded with gorgeous or startling moments that light up obscure corners of our own perceptions:

from "Death Is Not a Bad Joke If Told the Right Way"
in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
Yiyun Li

The morning sun is halfway up in the sky. Three old men are sitting under the north wall of the alley, their eyes closed and their toothless mouths half open, enjoying this unusually warm winter day in Beijing. On the other side of the alley, four girls are jumping rope, chanting a song I have never heard before: "One two three four five. Let's go hunt the tiger. The tiger does not eat man. The tiger only eats Truman." It will be years later when I realize that the Truman they are singing about was the American president during the Korean War, so in the winter of 1979, the song makes little sense to me. I sit there and chant the song silently to myself. After a while the four girls stop singing and start to draw squares on the ground. I jump down from the lion. "Can I join you?"I ask.

"Say the pledge," a girl says and the four of them quickly surround me hand in hand, waiting solemnly.

"What pledge?" I ask.

"You don't know the pledge?" a girl says, making a face. "Where are you from?  The Java Island?"

"No, I am from the institute."

"What institute?" the girl says.

"Let's not waste time," another girl cuts in.  "Say with me: I promise to Chairman Mao--she who does not obey the rule is Liu Shaoqi."

All in a moment.  It is evident that Yiyun Li is not particularly enamored of the communist regime of China; however, not all of her characters feel the same.  In one story, when a man discovers that his daughter is an adulterer, his one consolation is that the man she has chosen to be with is an American from Romania, so at least he grew up in a communist country.

The communism of China pervades these tales.

from "Death Is Not a Bad Joke If Told the Right Way"
in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
Yiyun Li

I have to admit twice to my mistake, once to my mother and then in a louder voice so that all the passengers can hear me, before my mother drops the topic and the passengers turn their eyes away from my burning face. I watch my sandals and hum my favorite song to myself: "Let me sing a song to the Communist Party. The Party is dearer than my own mother. My mother only gives me a body. It is the Patry who gives me a soul."

One of many chilling insights that fills up the stories in the book.  While there is no direct attack against the party or the ruling powers, the stories are filled with these subtle and shaping insights into what life was like in the communist regime.

But it is also filled with a deep wisdom and understanding that comes from the simple thought of ordinary people. 

from "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers"
in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
Yiyun Li

"In China we say, Xiu bai shi ke tong zhou," Mr. Shi says when Madam stops. It takes three hundred years of prayers to have the chance to cross a river with someone in the same boat, he thinks of explaining to madam in English, but then, what's the difference between the languages?  Madam would understand him, with or without the translation. "That we get to meet and talk to each other--it must have taken a long time of good prayers to get us here, " he says in Chinese to Madam.

Madam smiles in agreement

Madam speaks only broken English and Persian. The two often chat with each other, each using his or her native language.

And this same story ends with this epiphany:

from "A Thousand  Years of Good Prayers"
in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
Yiyun Li

"It is what we sacrifice that makes life meaningful"--Mr. Shi says the line that was often repeated in their training He shakes his head hard. A foreign country gives one foreign thoughts, he thinks. For an old man like him it is not healthy to ponder too much over memory. A good man should live in the present moment, with Madam, a dear friend sitting next to him, hold up a perfect golden ginkgo leaf to the sunshine for him to see.

And it is on this golden thought that the books ends.

The stories are powerful, the writing better than good--approaching great.  With a little refinement, it will be perfect.  The moments captured are powerfully drawn and the reader is drawn into intimate contact with an alien world--a world turned inside out--but a world full of people, ordinary, loveable, hateable, good and awful people.  Every writer would give more than eyeteeth to have a first collection this fine.  You would do yourself a favor if you were to find a copy and read it.

****1/2--Highly recommended.


  1. Thank you so much for drawing my attention to this writer, Steven, I shall certainly look out for her.
    Lisa (ANZ LitLovers)

  2. Can anyone answer the qesrions is the back of this book?


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