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The Vagrants
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on 14 August 2011
The main theme of this book is political dissidence in a country where a small bunch of people has an (open or hidden) power monopoly, like here in China after the Cultural Revolution and during/after the democratic wall movement.

Totalitarian States
`As people are the most dangerous animals in the world', the powerful will always try to consolidate their power base and firm their grip around the neck of the population. Dissidents have to be silenced. Here, it is a former Red Guard who became a defender of open criticism (free speech).
A totalitarian or police State forces teachers to become liars, thereby turning them into `clowns'. The media spew pure propaganda and `offices become minefields where one had to watch for oneself, constantly defining and redefining friends, enemies and chameleons. With their fates and their families' futures in their hands, these people sleepwalked by day and shuddered at night.'
The State becomes a slaughterhouse: `butchers one day and the next day you will be meat on the cutting board. Your knives that slit open others' throats will one day slit your own.'

The author's view on mankind is deeply pessimistic: `betrayals often came from the most intimate and beloved people in one's life.'
The most ambitious and cynical specimen of the `dangerous animals' even use the corpses of the slaughtered in order to climb more rapidly on the political career ladder.

This forceful political fable, which transcends its historical base, is highly recommended.
One minor remark, however: it has too many protagonists.
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on 5 January 2011
Any reader interested in post-Mao politics in China will find this novel engrossing. It focuses on the lives of certain residents in Muddy River after 1975. Freedom of ideas and thought have still not become part of the lives of the Chinese. One of the residents in Muddy River are Kai a beautiful young woman, married with a child who convinces herself that she can speak out for improvements in the treatment of politicals without severe consequences to herself or her family. To save themselves, her husband and his parents denounce her publically. She is sentenced to be executed. Other characters are Mr and Mrs Hua who looked for girl babies exposed after birth on mountainsides and who bring these girls up as their own much-loved daughters. The authorities remove these girls when they are in their teens leaving the two old people bereft. Nini is a 12-year old who is disfigured and disabled and who is treated as a servant by her parents and is carer to her 5 young sisters. She is finally cared for by the Huas.

This book is wonderful and there are many more characters who will make the reader hopeful for improvement in their difficult lives. Highly recommended.
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on 19 November 2010
Many books have been written about people's lives affected by the cultural revolution in communist China, but Yiyun Li's portrayals stood out for me. So often I read books by author with a strong political agenda (Wild Swan came to mind). Li's story and characters don't seem to impose too much judgements but allows the readers to decide for themselves. As a result, the characters are complex and the plot is multi-layered.

At the beginning, it's so easy to think that it's a story about how people of Muddy River rise against the tyrannical government for the execution of an innocent woman Shan, that it's a story about evil versus good. But as the story goes on, it becomes difficult to tell who is the goodie and who is the badie. You get to learn that Shan is not all that innocent, and the government official like Han is not just a cold-hearted b*****d.

As a Chinese born in post-cultural revolution era but still affected by it through the stories told by families and friends, as well as observations of the emotional trauma experienced by people growing up during CR, the stories told in the book sometimes felt a bit too close to home and haunting. Nevertheless the book's dark humour lightened up the mood at places.

In my opinion Yiyun Li is one of the most important contemporary Chinese authors today. I highly recommend this book. If you enjoy this one, check out her collection of short stories 'A thousand years of prayers' too.

I hope you will find this helpful.
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A substantial, entertaining and disturbing work from a relatively new author who certainly knows her subject. This is illustrated by the detail in her descriptions of the appalling everyday life in late 1970's China. Most of us lucky enough to live in the west at this time were not really aware of the extent of the deprivations suffered by the Mao oppressed Chinese people. It was far away and news was scarce and of course censored. If only this book had been written back then.
The lives of the party privileged through the whole spectrum of, I hesitate to use the term "society", to the beggars/street sweepers are believably interwoven. The fear which was constantly there no matter where our main characters were in the class structure permeates every page. It is not a high principled political rant, but a very humane story and as such leaves a much deeper impression.
It is raw. It is frightening. It is a great read. I hope for more from Yiyun Li.
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on 8 August 2015
I couldn't remember all the characteristics of all the people and the tempo of the writing was far too slow for my ability to maintain interest. I'm sorry but I'd have to be an insomniac, with no other interests to distract me, in order to complete the book. I got halfway through before realising that my empathy had left the room and was refusing to rejoin me.

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on 14 January 2016
Sorry but my wife found this tedious reading! Donated to charity.
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on 23 August 2017
A powerful book that says so much about loved ones, the importance of small things in life, and the cruelty of the world. Beautifully written.
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on 4 November 2015
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on 16 December 2017
An engaging well-crafted book with a fascinating collection of small town China characters.
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on 22 March 2015
Well written and very thought provoking.
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