Human beings are capable of many wonderful things: creating inspiring works of art, curing debilitating and deadly ailments, connecting the corners of the world with ever more impressive technologies of transport and communication. Though not the stuff of newspaper headlines, most of us contribute at least in some way to the betterment of our fellow man and woman through our productive work. We also perform many small yet significant acts of kindness and respect that reaffirm the value and dignity of each individual, as well as acts of love that signify even more.
Of course, the ledger has two columns. On the other side are all our petty, thoughtless, mean-spirited acts that hurt rather than help others, as well as our hateful, downright criminal transgressions, which sometimes do make headlines. At the extreme are history-altering evils that destroy countless lives, both figuratively and literally, leaving psychic wounds among the survivors that linger for lifetimes. In this final category, few can rival the high crimes perpetrated on the Chinese people by Mao Zedong.
It’s one thing to know the cold fact that tens of millions died in the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward, or to have heard of the persecution of intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution. Reading Madeleine Thien’s award-winning novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the dehumanizing effects of Mao’s policies become palpable as they rain down chaos upon the gifted young musicians and composers at the centre of the story. Authoritarian collectivism and egalitarianism cannot abide the joyful expression of individual excellence.
I actually found this a difficult book to get through, its depictions of the plague of communism infecting my mood. Mao spearheaded a decades-long series of attacks of awful scope on individuals and individuality. It’s like a science fiction dystopia, except that it really happened, in living memory, with repercussions that are still being felt to this day. China has come a long way, especially in terms of economic freedom, but other freedoms lag far behind.
Personally, I think this novel could have been improved by threading a little more hope through the narrative, adding a few more uplifting elements, without detracting from its power as a cautionary tale. But if you’re feeling strong and want to be reminded of how important is the struggle for individual freedom—how real the threat from those who lust for power over others and the ideologies that give them the moral cover to get it—Thien’s book will not disappoint. It’s an important work, and I’m glad to see it getting the recognition it deserves.