The Girl Who Played Go: A Novel

The Girl Who Played Go: A Novel

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by Shan Sa, Sa Shan

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As the Japanese military invades 1930s Manchuria, a young girl approaches her own sexual coming of age. Drawn into a complex triangle with two boys, she distracts herself from the onslaught of adulthood by playing the game of go with strangers in a public square—and yet the force of desire, like the occupation, proves inevitable. Unbeknownst to the girl who


As the Japanese military invades 1930s Manchuria, a young girl approaches her own sexual coming of age. Drawn into a complex triangle with two boys, she distracts herself from the onslaught of adulthood by playing the game of go with strangers in a public square—and yet the force of desire, like the occupation, proves inevitable. Unbeknownst to the girl who plays go, her most worthy and frequent opponent is a Japanese soldier in disguise. Captivated by her beauty as much as by her bold, unpredictable approach to the strategy game, the soldier finds his loyalties challenged. Is there room on the path to war for that most revolutionary of acts: falling in love?

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Breathtaking. . . . While exploring epic themes like the loss of innocence and the meaning of honor, it lingers on the tiny, exquisite details of life.” —Vogue

“Shan . . . writes spare prose adorned with images that linger in the mind. . . . In this elegant translation . . . the dreamlike, mesmerizing alternation of voices stands in uneasy contrsast to the operatic violence of the plot.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Powerfully drawn. . . heart-breaking. . . . Sa’s descriptions and metaphors take hold powerfully and linger. Sa also brings to the reader with stark precision the cruel loss of innocence that war brings to both sides.”–San Antonio Express-News
“This Chinese twist on Romeo and Juliet. . . evolves into a rich metaphor for the struggle between an ancient society and a modern one, and the battle between the easy innocence of adolescence and the painfully gained knowledge of adulthood. If you enjoyed the similar theme of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, you’ll like this.”–People

“Explosive. . . . Poignant and shattering. . . . While [the] climax is inevitable and the stories lead directly toward it, a reader is still shocked and horrified when it occurs.” —The Boston Globe

“Shan Sa creates a sense of foreboding that binds the parallel tales of her protagonists. Her measured prose amplifies the isolation amid turmoil that each character seems to inhabit.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Dreamy . . . powerful. . . . This unlikely love story . . . is beautiful, shocking, and sad.”
Entertainment Weekly

“Compelling. . . . Emotionally charged chapters evoke the stop-and-start rhythms of adolescence. . . . Shan handles the intersection of the personal and the political quite deftly.” —The Washington Post Book World

“What makes Sa’s novel so satisfying is the deceptive simplicity of her narrative strategy.” —San Jose Mercury News

“An awesome read. . . . Shan Sa describes the story so well that you almost forget you’ve never visited the places in her book. . . . This book is truly for every reader.” —The Decatur Daily

“Entrancing. . . . [With] an ending that you won’t predict.” —The Austin American-Statesman

"It has the sweep of war and the intimacy of a love story. . . . Shan Sa is a phenomenon." —The Observer (London)

"Spellbinding. . . . Sa's language is graceful and trance-like: her fights are a whirling choreography of flying limbs and snow, her emotions richly yet precisely expressed.” —The Times (London)

"One is struck by the economy of the tale, its speed, and the brutality of its calculations. There is never an excess word or a superfluous phrase: each paragraph counts. . . . Fine literary work."—Le Figaro Magazine (France)

"An astonishing book. . . . Ends up taking one's breath away. . . . Goes straight to our hearts." —Le Point (France)

“Gripping. . . . A wrenching love story. . . . [The protagonists’] shared sense of immediacy and the transience of life is what in the final analysis makes this novel so strong, so intelligent, so moving. . . . . . . You’ll have to look far and wide to find a better new novel on an East Asian subject than this finely crafted story, satisfying as it is on so many different levels.” —The Taipei Times

The New York Times
Shan Sa's first novel to appear in English is itself much like a game of go, in which two opponents place stones in turn on the grid of a stylized battlefield, each trying to surround the other. It is 1937 and the nameless players are a 16-year-old Manchurian girl and a 24-year-old Japanese officer garrisoned in her town. As they take turns in brief first-person chapters, their stories circle each other slowly, warily. And like the black and white stones on the board, life for each is starkly defined. — Janice P. Nimura
Publishers Weekly
In her first novel to appear in English (her two previous novels, published in French, won the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Cazes), Sa masterfully evokes strife-ridden Manchuria during the 1930s. The first-person narration deftly alternates between a 16-year-old Chinese girl and a Japanese soldier from the invading force. As in the Chinese game of go, the two main characters-the girl discovering desire, the soldier visiting prostitutes, both in a besieged city-will ultimately cross paths, with surprising consequences for both. Sa's prose shifts between lavish metaphor-the girl's sister, grieved by an adulterous husband, is "not a woman but a flower slowly wilting"-and matter-of-fact concision ("We weary of the game and kill them," the soldier says of two Chinese prisoners, "two bullets in the head"). The most absorbing subplot is Sa's careful rendering of the girl's sexual awakening. Though at first intrigued by a liaison with a revolution-minded student, she is reluctant to enter adulthood, a state she views as fraught with injury and falsehood, "a sad place full of vanity." To escape her increasingly troubled life, she becomes a master at go, eventually taking on the soldier, who is in disguise. As the two meet to play, they gradually become entranced, even while war rages around them. The alternating parallel tales add an extra spark of energy to this swift-moving novel, as Sa portrays tenderness and brutality with equal clarity. (Oct. 16) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Shan Sa writes in a noble (if new) tradition; like Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian and Dai Sajie (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress), she is a Chinese who left her homeland and now resides in France. Her writing is perhaps the most insular of the three. Her story focuses on a teenaged Chinese girl in 1930s Manchuria, bold, sexually daring, and ready to burst out of her bud even as the Japanese threaten invasion. Her story alternates with that of a dutiful but edgily troubled Japanese soldier managing the march through Manchuria. The two meet, the soldier in disguise, to play go (an ancient Japanese board game) in a tense and ongoing competition that represents the wrestling of their respective nations. The story is as lovely and delicate as a carved jade flower-and can seem as cold to the touch. This is beautiful writing, but it's a bit remote. Certainly worth reading, but best for world literature collections and libraries where readers have the time to enter into the author's measured pace. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/03.]-Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-It might seem incongruous that a book that is rife with war, death, and human misery is distinguished by its light and delicate touch, but that is exactly the case with this novel. The tale itself is that of the 16-year-old girl of the title and a young Japanese lieutenant and takes place in his nation's puppet state in Manchuria the year before the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. The two come into contact in the town square, where people come to play go, a game of strategy somewhat similar to chess or checkers. They are both skilled players who enjoy the game and the escape it provides them. But this is not another tale of young love, awash in melodrama. Each chapter is short, no more than a few pages long, and written from the perspective of one or the other protagonist. This structure allows the author to capture the moods of the characters with brilliant simplicity and to the fullest effect, not only for the moment, but also for the progression of the story. This technique works well here, breathing new life into what might appear an old tale.-Ted Westervelt, Library of Congress, Washington, DC Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The China-born Sa, who arrived in France in 1990 as a late adolescent and writes in French, presents the first of her three novels to be translated into English. THe story is set in Manchuria during the 1930s and follows the gradually intertwining lives of a young Manchurian girl and an invading Japanese soldier who competes against her in an ongoing game of Go. Oblivious to the political turmoil around her, the 16-year-old, whose name is not revealed until the last page, lives with her middle-class, westernized parents, attends school, and hangs out at the town square, where she beats all her opponents at Go. Caught up in the chaos of a demonstration, the girl is rescued by two students, Min and Jing, and soon finds herself in a complicated romantic triangle, sleeping with Min but drawn to Jing. Meanwhile, a 24-year-old unnamed Japanese soldier arrives in Manchuria, full of patriotism. He fights his first battle, traps "terrorists," receives letters from home, and becomes involved with a prostitute. After a game of Go with his captain, he is assigned to play Go on the square in order to spy on the locals. He and the young girl begin a game. He becomes obsessed with her, although to her he is merely a "lump" to whom she pays little attention while wrapped in the angst of her own adolescent crisis: She's pregnant. Unaware of the girl's connection, the soldier helps in the arrest and torture of Min and Jing for their politics. The girl has an abortion. Still, the game goes on until Jing, freed after betraying the others, convinces the girl to run away to Peking. After the Japanese overrun the city, she's captured by Japanese soldiers. She is about to be raped when her Go opponent recognizesher. He acknowledges his love by killing/saving her and himself. Intense, operatic personal tragedy magnified by Sa's sense of history and Eastern culture.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.19(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.74(d)

Read an Excerpt


In the Square of a Thousand Winds the frost-covered players look like snowmen. White vapor billows from their mouths and noses, and icicles growing along the underside of their fur hats point sharply downwards. The sky is pearly and the crimson sun is sinking, dying. Where does the sun go to die?

When did this square become a meeting place for go players? I don't know. After so many thousands of games, the checkerboards engraved on the granite tables have turned into faces, thoughts, prayers.

Clutching a bronze hand-warmer in my muff, I stamp my feet to thaw out my blood. My opponent is a foreigner who came here straight from the station. As the battle intensifies, a gentle warmth washes through me. Daylight is dwindling and the stones are almost indistinguishable. Suddenly someone lights a match and a candle appears in my opponent's left hand. The other players have all left and I know that Mother will be sick with worry to see her daughter come home so late. The night has crept down from the sky and the wind has stirred. The man shields the flame with his gloved hand. From my pocket I take a flask of clear spirit which burns my throat. When I put it under the stranger's nose, he looks at it incredulously. He is bearded and it's hard to tell his age; a long scar runs from the top of his eyebrow and down through his right eye, which he keeps closed. He empties the flask with a grimace.

There is no moon tonight, and the wind wails like a newborn baby. Up above us, a god confronts a goddess, scattering the stars.

The man counts the stones once and then twice. He has been beaten by eighteen points; he heaves a sigh and hands me his candle. Then he stands up, unfolding a giant's frame, gathers his belongings and leaves without a backward glance.

I stow the stones in their wooden pots. They are crisp with frost in my fingers. I am alone with my soldiers, my pride gratified. Today, I celebrate my one hundredth victory.


My little mother barely comes up to my chest. Prolonged mourning for her husband has dried her out. When I tell her I have been posted to Manchuria, she pales.

"Mother, please, it is time your son fulfilled his destiny as a soldier."

She withdraws to her room without a word.

All evening her devastated shadow is silhouetted against the white paper screen. She is praying.

This morning the first snows fell on Tokyo. Kneeling with my hands flat on the tatami, I prostrate myself before the altar of my ancestors. As I come back up I catch sight of the portrait of venerable Father: he is smiling at me. The room is filled with his presence—if only I could take a part of it all the way to China!

My family is waiting for me in the living room, sitting on their heels and observing a ceremonial silence. First of all, I say good-bye to my mother, as I used to when I left for school. I kneel before her and say, "Okasama,* I am leaving." She bows deeply in return.

I pull on the sliding door and step out into the garden. Without a word, Mother, Little Brother and Little Sister follow me out. I turn and bow down to the ground. Mother is crying and I hear the dark fabric of her kimono rustling as she bows in turn. I start to run. Losing her composure, she launches herself after me in the snow.

I stop. So does she. Afraid that I might throw myself into her arms, she takes one step back.

"Manchuria is a sister country," she cries. "But there are terrorists trying to sour the good relations between our two emperors. It is your duty to guard this uneasy peace. If you have to choose between death and cowardice, don't hesitate: choose death!"

We embark amid tumultuous fanfares. Soldiers' families jostle with each other on the quay, throwing ribbons and flowers, and shouts of farewell are salted with tears.

The shore draws farther and farther away and with it the bustle of the port. The horizon opens wide, and we are swallowed up in its vastness.

We land at Pusan in Korea, where we are packed into a train heading north. Towards dusk on the third day the convoy comes to a halt, and we leap gleefully to the ground to stretch our legs and empty our bladders. I whistle as I relieve myself, watching birds wheeling in the sky overhead. Suddenly I hear a stifled cry and I can see men running away into the woods. Tadayuki, fresh from the military academy, is lying stretched out on the ground ten paces from me. The blood springs from his neck in a continuous stream, but his eyes are still open. Back on the train I cannot stop thinking about his young face twisted into a rictus of astonishment.

Astonishment. Is that all there is to dying?

The train arrives at a Manchurian station in the middle of the night. The frost-covered ground twinkles under the streetlamps, and in the distance dogs are howling.


Cousin Lu taught me to play go when I was four years old and he was twice my age. The long hours of contemplating the checkered board were a torment, but the will to win kept me there.

Ten years later Lu was considered an exceptional player, so famous for his talents that the Emperor of independent Manchuria received him at his court in the new capital. He never thanked me for propelling him to this glory: I am his shadow, his secret, his best opponent.

At twenty, Lu is already an old man, and the hair that falls over his brow is white. He walks with his back hunched over and his hands crossed, taking small steps. A few pubescent hairs have appeared on his chin, a baby-beard on a centenarian.

A week ago I received a letter from him.

"I am coming for you, my little cousin. I have decided to talk to you about our future..."

The rest of the letter is an illegible confession: my painfully discreet cousin must have dipped his pen in very weak ink because his cursive ideograms are strung out between the watermarks like white storks flying in the mist. Endless and indecipherable, his letter written on a long sheet of rice paper undid me.


It is snowing so heavily that we have to stop training. Trapped by the frost, the cold and the wind, we spend our days playing cards in our rooms.

Apparently the Chinese who live out in the country in northern Manchuria never wash, and they ward off the cold by coating themselves in fish fat. As a result of our protests, a bathhouse has been built in our barracks, and officers and soldiers alike queue up outside it. Inside the bathhouse, through the haze of steam, the walls can be seen trickling with condensation. In the doorway, molten snow boils furiously in a huge vat. Each man draws off his ration in a cracked enamel bucket.

I undress and wash myself with a towel dampened in this cloudy liquid. Not far away the officers have formed a circle, and as they scrub each other's backs, they discuss the latest news. As I go over to them, I recognize the man speaking: Captain Mori, one of the veterans who fought for Manchurian independence.

This morning's newspaper tells us that Major Zhang Xueliang has taken Chiang Kai-shek hostage in the town of Xian,* where he and his exiled army have sought refuge for six years. In exchange for the generalissimo's freedom, Zhang Xueliang has demanded that the Kuomintang be reconciled with the Communist Party to reconquer Manchuria.

"Zhang Xueliang is unworthy of his good name and he's an inveterate womanizer," Captain Mori says dismissively. "The very day after September 18, 1931, when our army had surrounded the town of Shen Yang where he had his headquarters, the degenerate weakling fled without even attempting to resist us. As for Chiang Kai-shek, he's a professional liar. He'll welcome the Communists with open arms, the better to throttle them."

"No Chinese army can take us on," threw in one of the officers while his back was energetically scrubbed by his orderly. "The civil war has ruined China. One day, we'll annex the entire territory, another Korea. You'll see, our army will follow the railway that runs from northern China to the south. In three days we'll take Peking, and six days later we'll be marching through the streets of Nanking; eight days after that we'll be sleeping in Hong Kong, and that will open up the doors to Southeast Asia."

Their comments confirm various rumors, already rife in Japan, in the heart of our infantry. Despite our government's reticence, the conquest of China becomes more inevitable every day.

That evening I go to sleep relaxed, and happy to be clean.

I am roused by a rustling of clothes: I am sleeping in my own room, and Father is sitting in the next room, wrapped in his dark-blue cotton yukata. Mother is walking up and down, the bottom of her lavender-gray kimono opening and closing over a pale-pink under-kimono. She has the face of a young woman; there is not a single wrinkle round her almond-shaped eyes. A smell of springtime wafts around her—it's the perfume Father had sent from Paris!

I suddenly remember that she has not touched that bottle of perfume since Father died.


Cousin Lu is becoming more and more stooped. He tries to seem nonchalant, indifferent, but those dark unsettling eyes peer out of his emaciated face, watching my every move. When I look into his eyes and ask him, "What's the matter, Cousin Lu?" he says nothing.

I challenge him to a game of go. He turns pale and fidgets on his chair; his every move betrays his volatile mood. The territory he is trying to defend on the board is either too cramped or too sprawling, and his genius is reduced to a few strange and ineffectual moves. I can tell that he has again been reading ancient tracts on go; he gets them from his neighbor, an antique dealer, and a forger of the first order. I even wonder whether, after reading so many of these manuscripts, which are said to have sacred origins and are filled with Taoist mysteries and tragic anecdotes, my cousin is going to end up succumbing to madness, as players used to in the past.

"My cousin," I say when, instead of thinking about his position, he is staring at my plait and daydreaming, "what's happened to you?"

Lu flushes immediately as if I have found out his secret. He gives a little cough and looks like a doddering old man.

"What have you learned from your books, my cousin?" I taunt him impatiently. "The secret of immortality? You look more and more like those dithering old alchemists who think they hold the secret of purple cinnabar."

He isn't listening to me. He isn't looking at me either, but at his own last letter to me, which I have left on the table. Ever since he arrived he has been waiting for my reply to his illegible demands. I am determined not to breathe a word.

He goes home to the capital, full of flu, a broken man. I go to the station with him, and as I watch the train disappearing into the swirling snow, I have a strange feeling of relief.


At last, my first mission!

Our detachment has received orders to track down a group of terrorists who are challenging our authority onthe ground in Manchuria. Disguised as Japanese soldiers, they attacked a military reserve and stole arms and munitions.

For four days we follow a river locked under ice, with the wind against us and the fallen snow swirling round our knees. Despite my new coat, the cold slices through me more sharply than a saber, and I can no longer feel my hands or feet. The marching has drained my head of all thought. Laden like an ox and with my head tucked down inside the collar of my uniform, I ruminate on the hope that I will soon be able to warm myself by a campfire.

As we reach the foot of a hill, gunshots ring out. Just in front of me several soldiers are hit and fall to the ground. We are trapped! From their positions up above, the enemy can shoot down on us and we cannot return their fire. A sharp pain twists my gut—I'm wounded! I'm dying! I feel tentatively with my hand: no wound at all, just a cramp produced by fear—a discovery that covers me in shame. I look up and wipe the snow that has stuck to my eyes, and I can see that our more experienced soldiers have leaped down onto the frozen river, where they are sheltering behind the banks and returning fire. I leap to my feet and start to run. I could be hit a thousand times, but in war the difference between life and death depends on a mysterious game of chance.

Our machine guns open fire and, covered by their powerful barrage, we make our assault. To make up for my earlier cowardice, I launch myself into battle at the head of the platoon, brandishing my saber.

I have been brought up in a world dominated by honor. I have known neither crime, poverty nor betrayal, and here I taste hatred for the first time: it is sublime, like a thirst for justice and revenge.

The sky is so charged with snow that it is threatening to collapse. The gunmen are sheltering behind huge boulders, but the smoke rising from their weapons gives away their position. I throw two grenades and when they explode, legs, arms and shreds of flesh fly out from a whirl of snow and flames. I scream with triumphant pleasure at this hellish sight and, leaping towards a survivor who is taking aim at me, I strike him with my saber. His head rolls in the snow.

At last I can look my ancestors in the face. By handing their blade down to me they also bequeathed me their courage. I have not sullied their name.

The battle leaves us in a trancelike state. Stimulated by the blood, we whip our prisoners to break them down, but the Chinese are harder than granite, and they do not falter. We weary of the game and kill them: two bullets in the head.

Night falls and, fearing there may be other traps ahead, we decide to make camp where we are. Our wounded groan in the dark, a dialogue of moans, and then silence. Their lips are frozen. They will not survive.

Meet the Author

Shan Sa was born in 1972 in Beijing. In 1990 she left China for France, where she studied in Paris and worked for two years with the painter Balthus. Her two previous novels were awarded the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman and the Prix Cazes. This is her first book to be published in the United States.

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Girl Who Played Go: A Novel 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Carl_in_Richland More than 1 year ago
I believe all readers will find the style and plot-line of this book simply beautiful; the narrative alternates its’ very short chapters between the story of a young girl living in Manchuria in the early 1930’s and a soldier of the invading Japanese army. Both share an interest in the game of ‘go’ that brings them together, she as a local go master playing against a mysterious stranger, and he as a soldier - spy who falls in love with this very pretty go master. At another level, it’s a remarkable description of the cultures and way of life at the turn of the century in China and Japan, with value systems that are quite different from today. Both the Chinese and Japanese cultures of this period, at least as portrayed by Shan Sa, were very idealistic, the language flowed with beautiful allusions to nature and the value system of both cultures was spoken of in almost religious terms, all of which seemed to me very anachronistic by today’s standards. Finally, the author describes in unflinching detail the horrors of war, pulling no punches in her description of how invading soldiers treat the local citizens, and describing through the soldier-spy perspective how murder, torture, gang rape, the confiscation and destruction of property can all be rationalized (“it’s for their greater good”). Sadly, this part does not sound at all anachronistic. This is a powerful novel that readers from their mid-teens and older will remember long after the book is put down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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yellowcup More than 1 year ago
I adored this book when i read it 2 years ago and still do! Shan sa is an extremely talented author!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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ProfessionalBookNerd More than 1 year ago
Oh boy. Holy emotions. Shan Sa is a very talented writer. At first I was caught off guard by the point of view switching with every chapter (the story is told from both of the main characters' perspectives, alternating chapters), but once I figured out what was going on, it was really easy to follow, and the nature of the very short chapters makes the book an extremely fast read. This book will stimulate the full spectrum of your emotional capacity. It made me smile, giggle, cry, feel infuriated, and have all kinds of emotions in between. I picked up the book because I was interested in the board game in the title, Go. This game is actually a big part of most Asian cultures and history. Rulers of lands used to settle wars by playing a game of Go. I loved that this was how the two main characters are connected through the whole book, and I loved the dynamic of the soldier in disguise finding solace in such a symbolic game. His country is at war with her country, and over the course of many meetings, they wage war with each other, sitting across a table and getting to know each other through their strategies and victories and losses. Of course, you don't have to know anything about Go to appreciate this book, but I think if you do, it does enhance the story. This deals with very real, very human issues. I would recommend this to anyone who is looking for a book that will leave an impression and stay with them. Just have a box of kleenex for the end if you're like me and get all emotional.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Shan Sa's first and possibly best novel published in English as of yet. In times of war, this heart-breaking tragedy moves every tingling emotion. Although the story ended too soon, I'm sure there wasn't any other way to tell it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this book is absolutely mesmorizing and wonderfully written. it is a very captivating book and a must read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is moving and captures the essence of not only horror, but of betrayal, loss of innocence, disillusionment and irony within its few pages. Focused mainly on reflection, the tale does not move quickly; rather, it meanders its way surreally into our conscious. Just as the young girl cannot escape the ghosts of her friends, I doubt that we will be able to escape the ghost of this story. It will haunt us.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Once I started this book I couldn't put it down. It is so well written that you just get caught up in the story and the characters. I just couldn't turn the pages fast enough. This Romeo and Juliet love story set in China was just breathtaking and haunting.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was hard to put down and the short alternating chapters between the young Chinese girl and the Japanese soldier keep the story flowing. I finished it days ago and it still haunts! Well written and packs a punch at the end. I highly recommend this book.