Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing


When I started this book, I was dismayed. I thought it was yet another book about the hardships of daily life in Communist China and I have read books about this theme before (a very good one though is June Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China).

In addition, I started getting lost amongst the many characters and the switches between locations and times. Blame it on fatigue the week I started the book because I usually don’t have trouble with non-linear storytelling. However, there is a point where I got hooked and could no longer put the book down.

What I could best relate to was the musical theme. One of the most likeable characters in the book, Sparrow, is a musician and composer who teaches at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. His music is in favor with the regime, so while it is, the family can live a relatively peaceful life. However, being in favor can only last so long and there is trouble ahead. Falling out of favor can be due to personal actions or characteristics, or it can happen at random when a whole group of people is designated as counter-revolutionary and targeted for punishment or re-education. This eventually happens to Sparrow and he is sent to another in the south to work in a radio factory.

While Sparrow is at the Conservatory, a young cousin, Zhuli, just a child, shows up at the door. Her parents, who were formerly prosperous landowners dispossessed of their land and house were sent to a labor camp and Zhuli was brought to Shanghai by someone from their village. Zhuli grows up playing the violin and attends the Conservatory. She is in Shanghai in turbulent times and encounters serious problems… Pianist Kai, one of her classmates who came from a less prosperous background, joins the revolutionary guards and survives a time of riots, social disorder and purges.

Kai ends up in Canada, marries and has a daughter called Marie who loves mathematics.

Sparrow eventually marries Ling and they have a daughter called Ai Ming. Sparrow continues working in the radio factory but Ling who works in radio broadcasting eventually is given a position in Beijing. Because Sparrow is not reassigned along her, he stays in the South and brings up Ai Ming. They see Ling once in a while. Their life is one of hard work for the parents and diligent studies for Ai Ming. As she gets older, she desires going to university and perceives Beijing University as being her best choice. Sparrow and Ling manage to bring both her and Sparrow to Beijing so they can obtain residency permits. With a residency permit, Ai Ming stands of better chance of admission.

This is counting without further turbulence in their troubled world. Student strikes are organized, as well as hunger strikes, and the standoff between students and government officials culminates in the Tiananmen Square events. Ai Ming, not being yet a student, is only peripherally involved but nevertheless gets in trouble with the authorities.

Ai Ming manages to make her way illegally out of China and arrives in Canada, to knock on the door of the apartment where Marie and her mother live. Her father left for Hong Kong there and dies there without having come back.

Now the interesting questions are:

Why does Ai Ming end up on Marie’s door step?

What was the nature of the relationship between Sparrow and Kai?

Why did Kai go to Hong Kong?

How and why did he die?

How does all this affect Marie?

What happens to Ai Ming in the end?

All very interesting to find out about… This novel is very intricate and the successive cause-and-effect actions that move the plot along are often far from obvious…

One character still somewhat eludes me (and maybe a reread might enlighten me) and it is the personality and motivations of Ling, Ai Ming’s mother. There are many characters in this novel that the reader gets to know quite well as we follow part of their path along with them, but in the case of Ling, it seems that we only get bits and pieces and the story is never told from her point of view. It might be interesting to re-imagine the story from Ling’s point of view…

I did not speak about “The Book of Records”, a hand-copied manuscript that plays a role both as a record of events and a way to transmit coded information…

While most characters in the novel seem to be fictitious, except for names government officials and members of the party’s elite, there is one character from real life and it is He Luting, the director of Shanghai Conservatory. In the novel, we hear of him being stripped of his position. However, in time, he did come back to the Conservatory and died in 1999 at the age of 95.

All in all, this novel was great fun to read and a great door into looking again into XXth century Chinese history. It was short listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and was awarded both the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award in Canada in 2016.


Thien, Madeleine. Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2016.

Chang, June. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. Harper Collins, 1991.

Other things:

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien #Bookerprize

‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ by Madeleine Thien

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s