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by Da Chen

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At the height of China’s Cultural Revolution a powerful general fathered two sons. Tan was born to the general’s wife and into a life of comfort and luxury. His half brother, Shento, was born to the general’s mistress, who threw herself off a cliff in the mountains of Balan only moments after delivering her child. Growing up, each remained


At the height of China’s Cultural Revolution a powerful general fathered two sons. Tan was born to the general’s wife and into a life of comfort and luxury. His half brother, Shento, was born to the general’s mistress, who threw herself off a cliff in the mountains of Balan only moments after delivering her child. Growing up, each remained ignorant of the other’s existence. In Beijing, Tan enjoyed the best schools, the finest clothes, and the prettiest girls. Shento was raised on the mountainside by an old healer and his wife until their deaths landed him in an orphanage, where he was always hungry, alone, and frightened. Though on divergent roads, each brother is driven by a passionate desire—one to glorify his father, the other to seek revenge against him.

Separated by distance and opportunity, Tan and Shento follow the paths that lie before them, while unknowingly falling in love with the same woman and moving toward the explosive moment when their fates finally merge.

Brothers, by bestselling memoirist Da Chen, is a sprawling, dynamic family saga, complete with assassinations, love affairs, narrowly missed opportunities, and the ineluctable fulfillment of destiny.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“From Shaolin to the sugarloaf mountains of Gwangdong to Tiananmen Square and the skyscrapers of New York: an epic novel that neatly distills modern Chinese history. Da Chen’s elegantly written novel ends on the promise of redemption. . . .” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Within this sweeping, ambitious, historical novel, there is a beautifully wrought story of young men coming of age, related to each other but strangers, and heading toward a breathtaking collision.” —Ron Nyswaner,author of Blue Days, Black Nights: A Memoir

"This book is fantastic in every sense of the word—a saga of China that is at once exotic and universal, an epic tale of destiny entwined with history. The description of Shento’s birth is one of the most original beginnings of a novel I have ever read, and it launches the novel with the generous imagination that is evident throughout. . . . Chinese family life, military tradition, and the steaming violence on the Vietnamese border are all depicted with the wide strokes of a great artist creating a timeless tale.” —Laura Shaine Cunningham, author of Sleeping Arrangements and Beautiful Bodies

Brothers begins as if in a dream. And like a dream you are captured by its first eerie lines: ‘To tell the tale of my birth, I must start not from the beginning, but from the end to my beginning. I was born twice, really.’ This is Shento speaking. His brother Tan speaks next. And an epic novel evolves out of their alternating accounts, with all the rich and exquisite detail you expect from such an artful writer as Da Chen. He deals in big emotions: revenge, love (both graphic and romantic), torture, and fealty. He gives us China, from the ordinary soul to the ruling elite. He takes you from Mao to Tiananmen Square and then beyond. If you’re in the mood for a good atmospheric read, you won’t find a better one.” —John Bowers, professor of creative writing, Columbia University, and author of The Colony, In the Land of Nyx, and Stonewall Jackson: Portrait of a Soldier

Brigitte Weeks
Fact and fiction overlap so seamlessly here that I had to stop reading and take a breath. Da Chen has achieved something that sounds simple but is, in fact, close to impossible: He brings the Western reader into the guts of the conflict, the agonies and the revelations of events that shook the world's largest population in the 35 years after 1960, when Shento and his brother were born. Make no mistake, this is not contemporary history retold. This is magnificent fiction. It transcends the events it chronicles and does what fiction at its best should do: It changes our internal landscape.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Acclaimed memoirist Chen (Colors of the Mountain) draws on his experiences growing up during the Cultural Revolution for this arresting novel about two brothers negotiating the momentous changes that have buffeted China in recent decades. The protagonists are half-brothers: Tan, the privileged, legitimate heir of Gen. Ding Long, and Shento, the general's abandoned bastard child. While Tan is "groomed to be a leader," Shento is placed in a hellish orphanage where he plots revenge. Shento eventually escapes, joins the army and rises to the head of the president's security detail. Meanwhile, caught on the wrong side of the changes sweeping China following Chairman Mao's death, Tan's family is discredited and flees to their ancestral home in the south where Tan builds an economic empire. Tan also falls in love with the beautiful orphan, Sumi Wo, who has an illegitimate son by Shento. When Sumi and Tan become involved in the pro-democracy movement, they attract official attention, putting the estranged brothers on paths that will converge at Tiananmen Square. Chen's inventive and sprawling family saga eloquently recreates a time of enormous upheaval. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Set during the Cultural Revolution, memoirist Chen's (Sounds of the River) first novel is an intriguing and ambitious tale of two half-brothers-both fathered by a prominent Chinese general-whose disparate lives connect through fate. Readers first meet narrator Shento, who was orphaned by his mother's suicide. The bastard son of Gen. Ding Long, Shento is rescued by an act of grace and raised in the remote village of Balan by an herbalist and his wife. Meanwhile, in Beijing, Shento's brother, Tan, lives in the lap of luxury as General Long's legitimate heir. Numerous brief chapters alternate the stories of the two brothers and are interspersed with chapters told by Sumi Wo, Shento's first love. Chen's writing is extremely strong in the first two-thirds of this bittersweet and tension-filled novel; the story line and characterizations, especially those of the brothers, are well drawn. The last portion, however, is slightly disappointing, as the plot twists appear hurried, lessening the novel's intensity, and the violence factor increases. Nevertheless, this is still a quality read that could provide the basis for a major motion picture and fodder for book groups. Recommended for fiction collections in larger public and academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/06.]-Shirley N. Quan, Orange County P.L., Santa Ana, CA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Teens looking for a grand saga in which to lose themselves will appreciate this one set in late-20th-century China. General Long, well-respected by Chairman Mao, has two sons. Tan is born to his wife, and into a life of privilege; Shento is born to a rural mountain woman who commits suicide at his birth. This child's life is full of depravation and cruelty, especially during his time in an orphanage. As the boys mature, Shento learns the identity of his father, but when he is rejected, he vows revenge. As the boys grow up, their paths cross, although sometimes unknowingly. Shento trains as an assassin and during the Cultural Revolution he kills Tan's teacher. Shento is the first to meet Sumi and fall in love with her. Later, believing Shento is dead, she falls in love with Tan. Despite its sprawling nature, the novel is fast-paced, with chapters alternating among the characters, thus eliciting both sympathy and antipathy for each brother as he meets life's challenges. As in Dickens, the numerous coincidences do not detract from the tale, but instead infuse it with a sense of inevitability. This story of revenge, adventure, and an explosive love triangle satisfies a taste for historical fiction as well as for a family saga.-Teri Titus, San Mateo County Library, CA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
From Shaolin to the sugarloaf mountains of Gwangdong to Tiananmen Square and the skyscrapers of New York: an epic novel that neatly distills modern Chinese history. It's a staple conceit of martial-arts movies that brothers separated at birth will search for each other all their lives, only to fight to the death. Exiled Chinese novelist Da Chen (Colors of the Mountain, 2000, etc.) takes this stratagem and runs with it. The paterfamilias is a great general named Ding Long, a stalwart of Maoism. Stationed away from his family in South China, he sires a young son with a local woman. Ashamed, she leaps from a cliff and into legend. Young Shento's adoptive parents are in turn massacred by Vietnamese, but not before he has been entrusted with the secret of his birth. Packed off to a military camp, he falls in love with the beautiful Sumi Wo. When events force them apart, Shento becomes a secret agent, assassin and presidential bodyguard, all the while nursing his hatred for his missing father-whose "real" family has been in turn blessed with every favor, including a brilliant son, Tan Long, who seems destined for great things in the new China. "Money will change this country, not Marxism," Tan Long intones. "And then when we all have more money, life will be better and misery and hunger will be gone." Of course, Tan Long's path crosses Sumi Wo's, both brothers thus tasting bittersweet love. Tan Long becomes a political prisoner, then exile, while Shento helps suppress China's nascent democracy movement. Yet blood is blood, and Da Chen's elegantly written novel ends on the promise of redemption and perhaps even reconciliation, as Shento realizes that "reality is often the antithesis of one'sdream."Often melodramatic, but Da Chen's sweeping tale, reminiscent of Zhang Yimou's film To Live, successfully transports Chinese conventions into English to recount the agony of history.

Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.19(w) x 8.04(h) x 0.92(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

chapter 1



To tell the tale of my birth, I must start not from the beginning, but from the end to my beginning. I was born twice, really. First when I tore through my mother's dark passage. The second time when the old medicine man saved me.

The young woman who gave birth to me meant to end it all, not just her life, but also mine, right at the moment of my sunrise. She was in a hurry to leap off the cliff atop Mount Balan, but I outraced her swollen legs and slipped out of her womb just as she struggled toward the edge of that fateful precipice. One was left to wonder why she did it, making herself a myth, leaping off the zenith of the mountain with me still attached to her by the rope of life, the entangled umbilical cord.

I burst through before she burst off, born in the air, hovering over it all. I imagine her flying off that rugged cliff like an eagle gliding downward, free from her nest, her moorings, her sins, or her final lament, to be forgotten by the wind that fluttered her youthful hair up as she rushed down. We, the twinned and wingless angels, free-fell. But the unthinkable happened. The hand of destiny intervened. I, the wailing newborn, falling in the wake of my mother along the face of the vine-crawling cliff, was suddenly caught in the branches of a tea tree growing out of a cave's mouth.

In one slow-motion second that could have lasted a lifetime, the umbilical cord snapped. Arrested by the two springy branches, I let out a frightful scream—my ode to the strenuous tea tree. My mother—the angel of my birth, my death—and I parted in the air, blood aspill, splattering the tea leaves. I bounced, suspended aloft by the branches of the blessed tree. She plunged farther, a diminishing dot of herself, then vanished into the secrecy of the valley below, never to be seen again. Why she chose to sing her death song this early in her life, I would only come to know later. For now, I was left dangling, as dangling as one could be.

But fate intervened once more. Grace descended upon me in the shape of a scrawny village medicine man, old and faithful. When he heard me crying and saw me caught on the wind-blasted cliff, he climbed down to fetch me as a monkey would. Fortunately, he was as nimble as one, for his vocation dictated that he roam the mountain ranges from peak to peak, from valley to valley, and from cave to cave in search of the rare ginseng and scarce swallows' spit only to be found in the capricious spots reached by birds.

He flung himself down, breaking through tree branches, missing a few footholds, nearly dashing himself to death. But on that given day heaven allowed only one death. Breathlessly, he got hold of me. That was the moment I call my second birth, one given me by the grace of Buddha through the hand of one who had done his virtuous deeds day and night, caring for a village full of sick and poor. I say Buddha's grace and it was rightly so, for had another man heard me and, Buddha willing, found his heart wanting to save the little bundle, whether he was a virtuous man or not, he might never have done what the medicine man did, for in the old man's heart rang a lonesome bell of childlessness. The cry I made, the cry he heard, as he would later recount, was that cry deep in the recesses of his soul. It was not just a cry of any boy, but that of his own blood.

He was inches away when a blast of wind nearly took me away from it all again. But, one arm holding to a tree root, he reached for me, catching my tiny leg just in time to swing me into the crook of his arm. To save time, to save me, he did what no one dared do before, sliding hundreds of feet down the steep cliff, scraping his knees, his heels, nearly breaking his bones, then running home to his wife of forty years before the nocturnal mountain cats could smell our bloody trail.

The goat was chased and the milk milked. His wife fed me the milk as if it came from her own breasts. Then and there they named me Shento, the mountaintop, the zenith.

"He will soar for the sky like our sacred Mount Balan," Baba said.

"And he will rise toward the heaven like the spirit of our ancient soul," Mama said. "Can we really keep him as our own?"

"Of course. He is a gift from our beloved mountain, a reward for the deeds we have rendered."

"And he looks like he belongs in my arms," Mama crooned, stroking my cheek.

So ends the tale of my birth and begins the story of my life.

The sun waned and the moon waxed and I gradually grew to be a sturdy village boy with an appetite of a child three years older. Mama fed me with an adult-sized bamboo spoon. No birdie song needed to be sung to get me to eat. I would chow down one spoonful after another until I gave out little burps. My favorite food was sweet sticky rice cake. In our poor village where the staple diet was yams, sweet rice was rare and precious. Baba walked miles to visit patients in remote villages to earn extra money for those precious rice cakes. He went to the ancient forest, chopped down the finest bamboo poles, and made a sturdy playpen big enough for me to crawl and sleep in. Baba put the pen near his desk in the infirmary. With Mama's assistance, he saw his patients, dispensed advice, and performed acupuncture with me nearby.

Against one wall in the infirmary leaned a massive medicine cabinet containing drawers of herbal medicine that Baba sold to his patients by the ounce, and some by the pinch. The drawers were labeled with arcane Chinese inscriptions that only doctors versed in the classics would recognize. I startled Baba one day at two-and-a-half years by naming and locating ten of the most common herbs. By three I could name more than half of them. When I was four I pointed out one day that Baba had pinched the wrong herb for a particular prescription. The correction, Baba said, saved the pregnant woman from having a miscarriage. Baba and Mama were convinced that I was no ordinary boy. From then on, Baba read me classic medicinal texts and schooled me to memorize acupuncture points.

One night, lying in bed before falling asleep, I overheard Baba whisper to Mama, "Our son is destined to be the most gifted doctor these mountains will ever know. Imagine how many cures he might find for diseases with his extraordinary mind."

"No!" Mama retorted.

"No? Why would you disagree with that?"

"His destiny is beyond your narrow wish," Mama said. "One day he will lead thousands and rule millions."

"Aren't you a bit too ambitious, my dear wife?" I heard Baba say.

"Not at all. Don't you see? He suffered tragedy at birth, not unlike many emperors who rose from nothing to the golden throne."

Baba was quiet for a moment. "I did read somewhere that tragedy breeds extraordinary men."

"Yes. Unfortunately those great men were never entitled to much happiness."

"Oh, I much rather he be ordinary and live happily and long enough to see us die," said Baba.

"It is too late. His destiny began when he took his first breath off that cliff. It is already great fortune for us to have him for as long as our good Buddha allows."

That night, I broke the rule and snuggled into their bed, sleeping between them till the sun rose. But no matter how often they talked about me, they never came near the subject of my birth parents. It was as if once that taboo were broken, the ghost from my past would come to haunt our nearly perfect though simple life.


chapter 2



I was born the son of General Ding Long and the only grandchild of two influential families in China: the Longs, a banking dynasty, and the Xias, a military powerhouse. The two prominent families were as different as night and day.

Grandfather Xia had no education. But he walked with Chairman Mao in the Long March, a pedigree that won him the lifelong post of commander in chief of China's navy, air force, and army.

Grandfather Long, an Oxford-trained Communist economist, an oxymoron in itself, was the governor of the Bank of China. His brothers had long prospered in the capitalist colony of Hong Kong as bankers. A sophisticated financier who spoke Parisian French, perfect formal Japanese, and English with an Oxford accent, Grandfather Long preferred Savile Row-tailored suits, Cuban cigars, fine wines, Beethoven, and Shakespeare—some minor sins picked up in his university days at Oxford back in the thirties. He was the only Chinese national during the Cold War years to receive, on a daily basis, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and, his favorite, the brownish-looking Financial Times of the United Kingdom.

In keeping with his image as China's top banker, he was given a classic model Mercedes-Benz, a liveried chauffeur, and China's only chef trained in Western cuisine from the kitchen of Beijing Hotel. Grandfather Long was, after all, head of one of the biggest banks in the world, second only to the almighty Federal Reserve of the United States. The balance sheet said it all. The Bank of China owned the country with all its mountains, rivers, air rights in the sky, mineral rights under the ocean floor, and everything else in between.

Grandfather Xia may have been a five-star general, but he was still grubby and rough, preferring to sleep on hard solid wood and a carved wooden pillow. Soft, spongy mattresses with springs made his back ache and shoulders sore. He often wore a pair of straw sandals, his feet's best friends during his youthful days as a messenger when he had walked rocky mountains and waded rivers for the great Chairman Mao during the infancy of China's Communist Party in Yenan, of the Shaanxi Province. He had a confessed northern peasant mentality and didn't trust flushing toilets, preferring to use night pots instead. He said that fine cigarettes were an insult to real smokers such as he, whose lung cells could only be awakened by a special type of foul-smelling tobacco from a little village near the mountains of the Himalayas; all other smoke only put his lungs to sleep.

His favorite daily wear, if he had a choice, were hand-stitched baggy linen shorts. For entertainment, nothing was better than the yee-yee-yaa-yaaing Peking Opera that he hummed along with in a guttural, off-tune voice that easily scared children. But the most shocking was his daily diet of roasted bull testicles, raw oysters, pork knuckles, and fish heads—the greasy handiwork of his private chef, a distant cousin who was originally a country butcher from his village. Everything was served in big pots and plates, in great quantities and variety, country-style home cooking, each meal a little feast that could have fed a village. He would sample each dish, burp, and give the rest to his staff, guards, and their families, the way emperors did a dynasty back. He was a king in his own court, leading the biggest army in the history of the world—10 million soldiers at peacetime, which could easily double or triple from the reserve with the hint of any war. His favorite joke was that if anyone were to cause any trouble, all China needed to do was have all their men pee and their enemy would be flooded in a nasty deluge.

As different as they were, Grandfather Long and Grandfather Xia formed the north and south poles of Chairman Mao's feudal-like reign over the most populated nation on earth. Grandfather Long kept Mao from going bankrupt, at least on the books. The bank reserves were higher than ever with loans aplenty. He supported every ideological movement initiated by Mao, and gave him all his financial might. Grandfather Xia kept the chairman from going out of power. And if there were any attempts on his life, Mao never heard about it because Grandfather took care of them the old-fashioned way: He made them disappear.

My two grandfathers never saw eye to eye, even at the most intimate meetings with the aging chairman. They quarreled constantly like schoolchildren. The fights were legendary and sometimes even came close to fists. Mao's only comment on their bickering was that they reminded him of his younger third wife, the notorious Madame Mao.

Like all the emperor's trusted men, my grandfathers were loved by their ultimate leader and rewarded lavishly. They had mansions in Zhong Nan Hai, the elegant prime location in the capital city of Beijing, surrounded by scenic mountains and lakes. Their residences were walled, protected from the eyes of ordinary people and the din of the congested streets. Fashionably furnished vacation homes were also built and given to them on the long, deserted sandy beaches of Beidaihe, a government resort near the China Sea. A private train with sleeping compartments and mah-jongg rooms, staffed by a culinary chef, scurried them back and forth from the city and country as they wished.

By virtue of their ranks, they were both given the same government rations, the same number of servants, the same color TV, and an equal number of phone lines. Naturally, their properties were located on the same strip of land, constructed in the same style, and decorated in like manner, down to identical furnishings. Chairman Mao's nonpreferential treatment meant the two men were always in each other's shadow, at work or in leisure, neighbors in the city and at their beach retreats. Their relationship was so uncompromising that one refused to let the other enjoy himself and followed him around to the different locations just to irritate the other with his presence.

All things nonetheless went well except for one tiny consequence that took root, grew, and blossomed in their backyard like a willow seed dropped off by a passing swan. Hua, which meant "flower," was Grandfather Xia's only daughter. A concert pianist, she was beautiful, shy, and artistic. Grandfather Long, the banker, used to call her a pretty flower growing out of a pile of manure.

Grandfather Long's only son, Ding Long, was a young general in the army. Every chance they had, ever since they were young, Hua Xia and Ding Long had snuck into the garden separating the two homes and played together. In the summer, when the families vacationed by the sea, the two kids raked clams and caught crabs together whenever their fathers weren't around.

Meet the Author

Da Chen lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with his wife and children.

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Brothers 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
clasique More than 1 year ago
This story takes the simple elements of love, hate, betrayal and loyalty and weaves a beautiful, well written story that keeps you captivated and intrigued. The vivid descriptions of the beautiful and serene mountains and valleys of China has opened up my imagination and I am more resolved to go and visit the captivating land. I could not put this book down until it was finished because the characters are complex and charismatic and each had something to say and eager to let the reader into their world. I am truly glad to have found this author as his work is reminiscent of wuxia novels of the past. The enticing dance of the characters within the pages of this book demands that the story be read. Da Chen is a masterful storyteller. His work has a permanent place in my library.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Interesting as a narrative on the Cultural Revolution. The prose style is hurried and awkward at times. The main characters seem improbable, larger than life. I think this writer has a lot of potential, and if tempered could write more compelling fiction.