you're reading...

The Vagrants by YiYun Li

In a cold morning in March in Muddy River, and a “counter-revolutionary” – a once fanatical member of Mao’s Red Guard who became a pro-democracy activist – is to be publicly denounced and executed.  Gu Shan is the 28-year-old daughter of teacher Gu and his wife, the parents who questioned themselves the cause that brought her daughter to this tragic end. Is it poor parenting? Is it the curse of literacy that made young Gu Shan drawn to the political cause?

“She is a martyr,” Mrs. Gu said.

“A martyr serves a cause as a puppet serves a show. If you look at history, as no one in this country does anymore, a martyr has always served the purpose of deception on a grand scale, be it a religion or an ideology, “ Teacher G said, surprised by his own eloquent and patient voice. – page 226

For the days leading up to the execution day, we are introduced to several characters in the village (the titular Vagrants) which is directly and indirectly related to Gu Shan. Their lives entwined as they go about their daily lives, impoverish, trying to find the means to settle their next meal.

There is this 19-year old Bashi, an idle young man who thinks he is God’s gift to women, lives with his grandmother and is in search of a girl who would be his wife and takes care of his household. He chanced upon 12-year-old Nini deformed at birth on account of a kicking her pregnant mother received at the hands of the condemned Shan Gu. Nini comes from a large and uncaring family. It is perhaps disturbing to read that there is a seduction of a 12-year-old in the story but here’s YiYun Li writes in her native culture context to inform that child bride was a common practice in rural China.

We are also introduced to the Huas, former beggars, now trash collectors who in their younger years sometimes salvaged and raise abandoned babies, only to be forced to give up all of their adopted children to the state orphanage; which usually are run in an appallingly poor condition.

Gu Shan will be renounced by the public by Kai, a familiar voice as an anchorwoman of the propaganda department’s daily broadcasts, who was Gu Shan’s classmate, marry a State Official, Han and living comfortable life – but puts her privileged life at risk by helping out her ex-lover, Jialin to protest against Gu Shan’s execution.

There are also several minor characters like Tong who owns a dog called “Ear” and several others that became instruments in YiYun Li’s writing to portray the inhumanity and senselessness of Communist China’s policy.

I read YiYun Li’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers which is a collection of short stories. I thought her first book was superb. This is YiYun Li’s first full length novel. Here are my assumptions of what may have happened that made me feel this novel seems lacklustre than the rave reviews that it received:

  1. Suited for the common occurrence of short stories where characters are not fully developed, this seems to be carried over to this long novel. Due to the many characters involved, the book seems to stray between one character to the next without an anchor to a main protagonist.
  2. Whatever ideas or incidents that could have been narrated in a few words, this long novel feels rather wordy and longwinded and could have been shorter. It feels like a long litany of this person did this and then this person did that…. and it goes on and on.

I have been in a bad reading slump ever since reading through pages and pages of gruesome descriptions of murdered women in the tome of 2666 by Roberto Bolano and was looking for a book to pick me up. The Vagrants wasn’t the one. In fact it aggravated the effect of my reading slump…. You could say my slump affected my perception of this book but I manage to pick up another book (which I will soon introduce in my next post) and get back to gear again.

The first part of The Vagrants was a drag and things started to pick up when Gu Shan was executed and her corpse desecrated. Quite a surprise for me to discover YiYun Li has a taste for the grotesque.

At times the book was flat and dour, other times it was enticing, I feel a little uneven and disjointed reading the book. The only two stories that held my interest was the story between Bashi and Nini, and Kai’s life.

Several months ago I watched a documentary about an old couple, in their 80’s who lives in the Hui province, and a street sweeper, who go about their daily lives with the very little that they have and gave a home to several street and abandoned children, especially girls. It was one of the most raw and moving account of generosity and love that one stranger could give to another and it was that image of the old couple that I pictured when I read about the Old Huas in this book.

YiYun Li relates and paints the political implications on normal citizen’s lives accurately. Husbands divorce their dissident wives (or vice versa) to avoid from being implicated and arrested by the law. Children are encouraged to denounce their parents, and that your fate and fortune depends how closely related and compliant you are with the party.


Do not expect to lift your spirit with this book. It is miserable and dour, perhaps an apt and true reflection of the life of a group of people who are impoverish and politically oppressed. Otherwise, this is still a very good book to understand the political corruption and the body and soul, family and relative ties corruption that went with it.

Take a look at the Petchary’s review that do a better job than I do in reviewing this book.

Other views:

Petchary: Of course, history tells us that theirs is a lost cause; but the motivation of our young counter-revolutionaries and the origin of their beliefs are never deeply explored, and the occasional discussions between them are flat and unconvincing.

Lotus Reads: So what did I think of the novel? I think Yiyun Li does a splendid job of painting for the reader life in post-Mao China.

Maphead book blog: Li has written an excellent novel. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Did I miss yours? Let me know and I’ll add them in.

This is my first book for Chinese Literature Reading Challenge this year.

Hardback. Publisher: Fourth Estate 2009; Length: 337 pages; Setting:  China 1979.  Source: Library Loot. Finished reading at: 15 May 2010.


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


24 thoughts on “The Vagrants by YiYun Li

  1. I read two of her short stories not long ago-and hopefully will post on them soon-they were very powerful though grim in its presentation of life-very worth reading-I hope to read Vagrants this year-I enjoyed as always your post

    Posted by Mel u | May 22, 2011, 12:23 am
    • Thanks Mel. I expect to enjoy this book but not as much as I enjoyed the others. Other reviews to come which may earn a 5 stars from me. 🙂 Perhaps YiYun Li’s strength still lies with short stories, like Jhumpa Lahiri.

      Posted by JoV | May 22, 2011, 12:27 am
  2. Nice to see you back in the blogging world 🙂

    Posted by Tony | May 22, 2011, 2:37 am
  3. I enjoyed reading your review, because it’s quite a different book from what I normally read (and I guess there aren’t that many books about China in this period?). I have the feeling I wouldn’t enjoy it too much though. Too many characters… hmmm.

    Posted by Leeswammes | May 22, 2011, 6:56 am
  4. Thanks so much for joining in the Books to Movies Challenge. Can’t wait to hear your choices!

    Posted by Two Bibliomaniacs | May 22, 2011, 5:00 pm
  5. must admit I m thin on chinese lit I ve read this is one I ve seen around ,seems like a good tale will try and read the few I ve got on shelves from china first thou ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | May 22, 2011, 7:54 pm
  6. I bought a copy of this on a whim when I was in San Francisco because I feel like I really need to read more Asian authors. I haven’t read much about it, however, so I was glad to read your review… I think it will help me temper my expectations for when I pick it up. Clearly I will need to be in the right mood for it!

    Posted by Steph | May 23, 2011, 3:54 pm
    • Steph,
      Perhaps I went into this book with high hopes but it still turn out to be a little flat. Perhaps it is her writing. I feel she is more concise and spot-on in her short stories. I can’t wait to hear what you think about it! 🙂

      Posted by JoV | May 23, 2011, 7:51 pm
  7. Interesting review as always. I think one of this days I would have to delve into chinese literature. Cheers!

    Posted by Geosi | May 23, 2011, 3:55 pm
  8. Interesting review, Jo! I haven’t read any of Yiyun Li’s books before, but her name seems to crop up whenever Chinese literature is discussed these days. Will try to read her book of short stories which you say is good.

    Posted by Vishy | May 23, 2011, 6:30 pm
  9. I’ve recently finished reading a collection of stories by this author. You’re certainly right about her writing not being all that positive. That’s common in pretty much all of Chinese literature, however. Still, she’s a great writer. Thanks for the review and I’ll have to look for this one!

    Posted by petekarnas | May 24, 2011, 2:26 am
    • Pete,
      I didn’t mind negative writing, like you said it is common in Chinese-lit. This book however is a little flat but I really like her collection of short stories though. I agree, she is still a great writer. I’ll read anything that she writes. Thanks for stopping by!

      Posted by JoV | May 24, 2011, 7:40 pm
  10. I can imagine that this is a very interesting book, but a downer 😉 Are you out of your reading slump now? I always recommend cosy crime, never fails me 🙂

    Posted by Bina | May 28, 2011, 9:13 am
    • Bina, I think I am out of the slump. With this book and Linda Grant’s I think the path is cleared. and how is it that you could read mind??! I have not one , but three cosy crime mysteries sitting on my shelf now! 😀

      Posted by JoV | May 28, 2011, 10:18 am


  1. Pingback: Spring is here and almost over.. (It’s a wrap! for May 2011 by the way) « Bibliojunkie - June 3, 2011

  2. Pingback: The Long March Home by Zoë S. Roy « JoV's Book Pyramid - January 26, 2012

  3. Pingback: Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by YiYun Li « JoV's Book Pyramid - July 1, 2012

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 276 other subscribers

Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
Share book reviews and ratings with JoV, and even join a book club on Goodreads.

Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

%d bloggers like this: