‘The Vagrants’ by Yiyun Li

A deeply moving portrait of China, post Cultural Revolution, as the small industrial town of Muddy River in a quiet province slowly comes to the realistion that changes are taking place in Beijing. But this realisation – and acceptance that, in the late 1970s, change is taking place – comes too late for many of The Vagrants‘ central characters.

Quietly presented, Yiyun Li’s extraordinarily vivid novel is the story of change, fear, pain and loss as the ageing Teacher Gu and his wife wake on the day of the execution of their daughter Gu Shan for counterrevolutionary activities. A formerly emboldened follower of Chairman Mao, Gu Shan has renounced her faith in communism. As the Democratic Wall Movement in the capital gains ground, pushing for a more open and enlightened society, so the young and beautiful Kai, the privileged official radio news reader, announces only the news sanctioned by the provincial capital.

The Vagrants weaves together the lives of young and old, educated and illiterate, privileged and poor, with Gu Shan’s execution the catalyst for the events that unfold. From the peaceful white paper flower demonstration that leads to hundreds of dawn raid arrests to Kai’s surreptious meetings with counterrevolutionary intellectuals; from banned pagan celebrations for the dead to the young crippled girl, Nini, finding ways to feed her parents and young sisters, The Vagrants is a stunning picture of a historical time. China and its people is a country in flux for the nostalgia of what once was (for many, memory is based on the pre-Revolution, pre-industrial days of an agrarian life in the foothills of the mountains) mixed with the possibilities of futures. Kai sees for herself the abuse of privilege whilst the sinister yet foolish Bashi somehow, for the most part, avoids the authorities and lives a relatively comfortable existence after the death of his grandmother. The Gus struggle, in spite of a lifetime of service, and are treated with suspicion by their longtime neighbours due to the actions of their daughter.

It’s a tale of hardship, love, resilience, pain, sadness, courage, acceptance, despair as neighbours turn on neighbours, husbands distance themselves from wives, children report their parents, mothers sacrifice themselves. But The Vagrants is also about belief, faith and hope. Belief that change will come, faith that change will take place, hope that things change. For some, at the twilight of their lives, it’s possibly too late. But for people like Nini, always on the margins, it’s a beacon.