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Sons of Heaven

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Sons of Heaven is an epic novel set against the backdrop of one of modern history's most haunting events: the Tiananmen Square Massacre. In June 1989, the world watched in horror as China's military was mobilized to suppress a student movement that stood for peaceful democracy. Hundreds were killed; others say thousands. No one knows for sure.

But the image that remains most powerful is that of a lone young man, looking confused yet terribly ...
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Overview

Sons of Heaven is an epic novel set against the backdrop of one of modern history's most haunting events: the Tiananmen Square Massacre. In June 1989, the world watched in horror as China's military was mobilized to suppress a student movement that stood for peaceful democracy. Hundreds were killed; others say thousands. No one knows for sure.

But the image that remains most powerful is that of a lone young man, looking confused yet terribly brave, as he held his ground before a rolling line of tanks. Who was he, and why did he do what he did? No one has ever been able to determine his identity or fate. Within the pages of Sons of Heaven, in a stunning blend of history and fiction, Terrence Cheng has vividly created a life for this young hero and given him a voice.

Cheng imagines the young man's life as he goes away to America to complete his education. He falls in love with a beautiful young American girl who opens up to him a free life filled with opportunity. When he returns to China he is embittered and disillusioned; only the potential for political change seems to revive him. Also unraveled is the story of the young man´s older brother, an ardent member of the Red Army, who is ordered to capture his little brother. In the end, their political differences turn deadly. On one level this is a novel of history as played out in modern China, but first and foremost, it is about the universal ties of family and the difficult process of boys learning to become men.

Also under scrutiny is the life and history of Deng Xiaoping, China's leader who is suspected of giving the final orders to turn the People's Army against its own people. What historicaland political factors affected his decisions that fateful summer? Was Deng the monster that the world made him out to be?

A revolving narrative of family, faith, and courage, Sons of Heaven braids the lives of peasants and soldiers, politicians and gods. It is a powerful novel of one of the most memorable and moving moments of our time.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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The haunting image of a young protester in Tiananmen Square refusing to yield to a row of tanks "struck a chord" in Terrence Cheng. An Asian American "comfortably living the American Dream," Cheng was stirred by the young Chinese men and women "fighting and dying for that same dream: freedom and democracy" and wondered what he would do, faced with the same choices. His ruminations, lasting more than a decade, served as the impetus for his gripping first novel.

In Sons of Heaven, two estranged brothers, one an American-educated dissident, the other a soldier in the People's Liberation Army, find themselves polarized by their life choices and forced to confront each other as enemies. But Cheng doesn't stop with their stories, spinning his tale in not two but three distinct voices -- the third is that of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader at the time of the uprising. The three stories are braided inexorably together as the military's violent response to the student protest builds to a crescendo and its aftermath engulfs all.
In ancient Chinese lore, warlords "fought for land, for power, the honor of kings, the sanctity of their promises," and emperors were "chosen by the gods to lead the people to prosperity and grand light." Cheng tackles the disintegration of these ideals with masterful results. Sweeping from the city of Beijing to the countryside, Sons of Heaven explores the enduring nature of an ancient people and shines a piercing spotlight on a day when a few brave voices decided it was time to be heard. (Summer 2002 Selection)

Publishers Weekly
Centering around the Tiananmen Square massacre and its aftermath, this remarkably structured and textured debut epic seeks to attach a face to the mysterious man who, by stepping in front of the rolling army tanks, became the most recognizable symbol of the massacres. Cheng succeeds in his endeavor, and in the process he gives China a face as well"one so vivid and provocative it's hard to walk away without a fresh impression of the massacre, the 13 years since, and modern-day China in general. Three months before the massacre, Xiao-Di returns to China after spending four years at Cornell University, where he fell in love with a blonde American girl who left him upon graduation. But he has tasted freedom and his return to China is turbulent. He cannot find work. He grapples with the way the masses adhere to tradition and respect authority. He lives with his grandparents (his parents are dead) and when not at home feeling angry and confused, he is out with his friend Wong, bleakly contemplating the future. Then, through the eyes of president Deng Xiaoping, we enter Tiananmen Square, where students have begun protesting. Cheng successfully humanizes the person he has called a complicated man, driven by a genuine passion to create a better society for the Chinese people. Xiao-Di soon finds himself impulsively partaking in a hunger strike and, before long, facing down a tank. Complicating matters is his brother, Lu, a Chinese soldier who is sent with a unit to find Xiao-Di. Through the brothers and their grandparents, a multifaceted and sophisticated portrait of the Chinese people is rendered. This is a rare find: historical and political without being pedantic, and briskly entertaining without being cheap, simplistic or contrived. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Cheng left Taiwan in 1973 as an infant and grew up in New York. In 1989, he watched the TV reports of the anonymous young man who challenged the tanks in Tiananmen Square and was never heard from again. Cheng's debut novel traces a possible biography for this iconic character. A math student who spent his college years in the States, the young man returns to China, where his long-standing engagement turns sour and the fianc e's family retaliates by blackballing him. Living with helpless grandparents and abandoned by an older brother, he joins the fasting students in Tiananmen Square. As Cheng limns the agony of this youth, he also traces the parallel thoughts and actions of the mastermind at the top of the government, Deng Xiaoping, and the true believer at its bottom, the student's brother, who is a lowly soldier. Despite some fevered overplotting, there is much grace, drama, and insight to be enjoyed; Cheng is particularly effective in depicting the perilous state of mind experienced by risk-taking. A ripping good story about a headline event of great power and resonance, it is sure to be marketed heavily and will appeal to many public library patrons. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/15/02.] Barbara Conaty, Library of Congress Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A vivid and imaginative fictional recounting of the events of Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Everyone who remembers the Chinese student uprisings of that year will recall the same image, broadcast across the world to international outrage: the solitary protester facing off against the tanks of the People's Liberation Army. The young man's audacity became one of the defining symbols of the late 20th century, but to this day his identity remains unknown. Cheng, who was born in Taiwan and grew up in the US, was inspired to write an account of the riots from the perspective of the man whose face he never saw: "What had pushed him to that point, so stupid and brave and able to transcend in such a miraculous yet mortal way?" He calls his narrator Xiao-Di. Raised in the shadow of the Cultural Revolution, Xiao-Di, like most Chinese of his generation, was naturally wary of politics and eager to find his satisfaction in private life. Engaged (through a matchmaker) to marry the daughter of a local official, Xiao-Di is allowed to study abroad—at Cornell University, where he falls in love with an American girl and breaks off his engagement. When his Cornell girlfriend eventually dumps him, Xiao-Di returns home and tries to make amends to his fiancée, but her father refuses to let him in and sees to it that Xiao-Di is blackballed by every employer in Beijing. Unemployed and at loose ends, Xiao-Di drifts through the city, hanging out with his old schoolmates, who have become newly politicized by the excitement of perestroika. Xiao-Di's older brother Lu, meanwhile, is an officer in the People's Liberation Army. A staunch Communist, Lu is disturbed by the unrest that is spreading across the country and iseager to defend the traditions of the Party. Inevitably, the brothers meet—in Tiananmen Square. Formulaic, but a compelling read all the same, in a brisk style with plenty of local color. Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060002442
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/13/2003
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.29 (w) x 8.03 (h) x 0.89 (d)

Meet the Author

Terrence Cheng
Terrence Cheng
Terrence Cheng first came to national attention in 2002 with Sons of Heaven, a beautifully crafted debut novel that gave a face, a name, and a powerful story to the anonymous rebel of the Tiananmen Square massacres, one of the most famous -- and unknown -- heroes of our age.

Biography

Born in Taipei in 1972, Terrence Cheng immigrated to the United States with his parents when he was barely one year old. Although he had grown up hearing stories from his parents, he never thought much about his family's life in China until his grandparents died. Cheng's maternal grandmother was a senator in the Chinese Nationalist Party. His grandfather fought the Japanese on the Mainland during WWII, sustaining wounds that left him scarred for life. In 1949, as Mao came to power, they fled Beijing for Taiwan.

Cheng was 17 years old at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacres. He recalls watching the demonstrations on American television and being transfixed by the lone figure of a young man who stepped in front of the tanks in a courageous act of defiance. At the last minute, the man was pulled aside by onlookers, disappearing into the crowd as mysteriously as he had appeared. The image haunted Cheng, who for the first time felt a connection to China and a true appreciation of the sacrifices his own family had made to assure his safety and comfort in the United States.

Cheng never forgot the "Unknown Rebel," as the anonymous dissident of Tiananmen Square came to be known. And in his 2002 debut novel, Sons of Heaven, he gave him a face, a name, and a powerful story. Hailed by Publishers Weekly as "a rare find," by the San Francisco Chronicle as "a superb first novel," and by the Miami Herald as "stylistically and thematically daring," the book struck a chord with readers everywhere.

In 2007, Cheng released Deep in the Mountains, a young adult novel in the Watson Guptill Art Encounters series that interweaves the lives of a young New York graffiti artist and famous Chinese painter Zhu Oizhan. He has also published a story in the crime fiction anthology Bronx Noir. A recipient of the James Michener Fellowship and a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Cheng teaches creative writing at Lehman College in New York City.

Good To Know

Some interesting anecdotes from our interview with Cheng:

"My first two jobs out of college were at a local health club, and then at a taekwondo school. In both situations I became a manager and had plenty of time on my hands, so I would sit in my office and write and edit whenever I could. I spent plenty of company time and money and resources printing, copying, mailing my stories to literary magazines (and subsequently getting rejected). Then, at the taekwondo school, I was offered my own franchise. At which point I realized I had to make a choice -- sell memberships the rest of my life, or go to graduate school and try to be a writer?"

"While applying to and eventually selecting the 'right' M.F.A. program: every program that wanted my GRE score (which was pitiful) I got into; every school that did not want my GRE score, I was rejected by. It came down to Johns Hopkins and the University of Miami. I was offered a partial scholarship by Hopkins, and a full ride to Miami. The director at Miami gave me the hard sell and I was like, 'I don't know. Let me think about it.' So he called my mother and gave her the hard sell (so sneaky!) -- then my mother gave me the hard sell, part two, and reminded me that I had no money. So I went to Miami."

"I got the offer to write Deep in the Mountains after the editor read my wedding announcement in The New York Times. So if my wife hadn't agreed to marry me, and our announcement hadn't appeared in the paper, then I would never have gotten the chance to write this book. So, as usual, all the credit belongs to my wife."

"I guess if there's a point to any of this, it is: Life works in funny ways. If you try to plan everything, the gods will certainly smash your puny plan."

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 27, 1972
    2. Place of Birth:
      Taipei, Taiwan
    1. Education:
      B.A., Binghamton University, 1994; M.F.A., University of Miami, 1997
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



Dissident



Grandfather believed in warriors, and dragons. When Lu and I were children — Lu still young enough to tolerate bedtime stories, and I too small not to believe them — Grandfather told us of warriors from China's great dynasties, the Song and Han, the Tang and Ming, and the battles they fought riding horseback and on foot, using weapons of the earth and steel. They were called warlords and they fought for land, for power, the honor of kings, the sanctity of their promises. They battled barbarians who swept down in wild thundering hordes from the north, trying to devour the great land of the Yellow River by sheer savage force.

This is what Grandfather told us and what we grew up to believe.

In the annals of Chinese lore the dragon symbolizes the emperor, who has had bestowed upon him the mandate of heaven, chosen by the gods to lead the people to prosperity and grand light. This is not so much a goal but the sole purpose of his existence. He has the wisdom and knowledge to teach and lead, and yet harbors the potential to unleash a cold fury upon those who countermand his judgments. The dragon emperor is always right, and if challenged he must answer with an inscrutable and unmatched ferocity; he cannot tolerate impunity, lest his total control be doubted and the mandate of heaven be shaken from his crown. If the dragon emperor's temper is revealed and punishment is exacted, it is always the victim who has wronged and never the emperor, for a son of the heavens makes no such mistakes.

My parents werepeasants, farmers from Shandong province in eastern China, south of Beijing, as were my grandparents, and their families before them. This is where my brother and I were born.

Normally the younger generation migrates to the cities to sample the ways of the new. An old friend of our family, a midranking government cadre, promised my parents and grandparents a secure place to live, simple work in a textile and machine factory, low-ranking Party membership. We would live in relative comfort and feel the new modernization taking place, what was supposed to become the true face of revolutionary China.

My mother was twenty-five, my father barely thirty. I was one year old and Lu had lust turned six.

But my parents would not go. They wanted to continue farming, finish the work they had started and come to completion with the land. They were in no rush to embrace the future.

"You take the boys," my father said. "We'll go in the fall, after the harvest."

"Don't be stupid," Grandfather said. "This is your chance. This is it."

My mother said, "You're the old ones, remember?" My mother looked at my father, then said to my grandparents, "Look at what we've lived through already. What could hold us back now?"

This is how Grandfather told the story. Later my mother apologized for her disrespectful tone. She was a temperamental girl and had grown into a fiery woman, Grandfather always said.

I've seen pictures of my mother and father, grainy black-and-white photos, lost visions of history. My mother is short and round-faced, her eyebrows thinly drawn like a hand-painted doll. She is a complete head shorter than my father, who is gangly in a dark tunic and cap, scarecrow shadows in the pockets of his face. Mother wears a tunic as well. They do not hold hands. In the picture they smile with strain, their faces haggard, raked with lines.

I recall being a small boy and seeing these photos for the first time. Lu had stormed off to our room and thrown himself on our bed, huffing and puffing. I didn't understand then, I was only three or four, but I know his feelings now. There are still nights when I lie awake trying to remember the feel of my mother's hands on my back, comforting me in sickness or telling me stories in those gray moments before sleep. Or the rough scratch of my father's stubble on my skin, calluses on his hands. But I cannot. As far back as I can remember it has always been my grandparents. But Lu remembers because he is older.

My grandparents took a train to Beijing with my brother and me wrapped in blankets. Lu has no recollection of this trip. When we were small I would ask him, and either he had truly forgotten or he simply refused to tell. News of my parents' deaths would not reach us for months, only when the last embers of fire that had disintegrated our small wooden home had gone cold, our parents' bodies lost in charred wreckage. A fluke, an incredible mishap. They had lived through the famine of the Great Leap Forward, bodies piled in ditches like mounds of firewood, dead from starvation. They'd eaten only handfuls of rice, the husks of grain, sipped muddy water from community wells with hundreds of miserable and dedicated others. They hoisted plows with their own legs and backs and shoulders because they could not afford an ox or horse or mule; had spent weeks, months at a time waist deep in soy and wheat fields, skin saturated and crusted with mud and rotten earth; countless nights maintaining shifts to keep the furnaces burning during the drive to make iron. All that hardship survived, only to die from the flicker of a last meal's fire.

There was no funeral. My grandparents — my mother's parents — never went to retrieve the bodies. The year was 1968, two years after Mao Zedong had announced the launch of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Dongluan (chaos) was rampant like a plague. Bands of Red Guards patrolled the cities and the countryside in search of the Four Olds: old thought, old culture, old customs, old habits. Thousands died, some say millions: artists, writers...

Sons of Heaven. Copyright © by Terrence Cheng. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Interviews & Essays

Exclusive Author Essay
I was born in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1972 and moved to New York with my parents in 1973. My grandparents had moved the family from Beijing, China, to Taipei, Taiwan, in 1949. My grandmother was a senator in the Chinese Nationalist Party and had worked alongside Chiang Kai-shek; with Mao Zedong and the Communists coming to power, they were not safe. Growing up, I heard these stories dozens of times, but it wasn't until I was a teenager that I started to connect the dots between Chinese history and my own family's history.

The Tiananmen Square Massacre happened in June 1989; I was 17 years old. That summer my grandfather, in Taiwan, was dying of cancer, and my mother was talking more and more about what he and my grandmother had gone through their entire lives -- how brave they had been, the perils they had survived so we could live a better life. And as I watched China's military crushing the peaceful democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, I realized that if my grandparents hadn't moved the family to Taiwan, I could have been born and grown up in Beijing, where the Tiananmen Massacre was taking place. I could have been right there.

Tiananmen Square was the first time I felt a true emotional connection to China and the Chinese people. I watched my peers on the other side of the world fighting for the dream I'd had the privilege of growing up with: freedom and democracy. I wondered what I would have done if I were over there, in that position. Would I have hidden in anonymity? Or would I have been protesting, making speeches, risking my life for the cause? Was I that kind of person? I didn't know.

Then the man walked in front of the tanks. To this day, the image haunts me: how he stood in the street and watched the tanks approaching, how he kept jumping in the way when the tanks tried to go around him. He wasn't afraid to die, and he would not move. To this day no one knows for sure who that man was.

I wanted to know him, his name, his family, his past, to try and understand the things in his life that had brought him to that point. What makes a man so incredibly brave, stupid, and scared -- so human, and yet transcendent? To the world he had no name, no history, no life. So in Sons of Heaven, I have attempted to create one for him.

The man who stood in front of the tanks became a symbol to me as I wrote Sons of Heaven. He represented East versus West, democracy versus communism, history clashing with the present. My protagonist is inspired by that man. In my novel, his actions during the democracy movement force him to flee and go into hiding. He is chased by government agents, and one soldier: his brother. Deng Xiaoping (the late leader of China, believed to have ordered the suppression of Tiananmen Square) is also a character in the book. As I wrote, I wondered, "Was Deng really the monster that the world made him out to be?"

Sons of Heaven, however, is not a political book. It is a story about two brothers, two families, the way history braids together the lives of peasants and soldiers, politicians and gods. It's about boys growing up, learning to be men. The book's themes -- about family, courage, faith, and love -- are universal. (Terrence Cheng)

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Reading Group Guide

About this Guide

The questions that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading and discussion of Sons of Heaven by Terrence Cheng. We hope that they will provide you with new ways of looking at and talking about this epic novel set against the backdrop of one of modern history's most haunting events: the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989.

But the image that remains most powerful is that of a lone young man, looking confused yet terribly brave, as he held his ground before a rolling line of tanks. Who was he, and why did he do what he did? No one has ever been able to determine his identity or fate. Within the pages of Sons of Heaven, in a stunning blend of history and fiction, Terrence Cheng has vividly created for this young hero a life, and given him a voice.

An unsettling and powerfully lacerating story of family, faith, and courage, Sons of Heaven weaves the lives of peasants and soldiers, politicians and gods, into a timeless snapshot of one of history's most memorable and heartrending events.

Questions for Discussion

  1. The image of the young man standing before the tanks figures prominently in most people's imaginations. Discuss where you were and what went through your mind when you first saw that footage.

  2. Above all else, Sons of Heaven is a family saga, pivoting around two brothers who have very different views of China. Does their strife as brothers come to represent a larger national strife in your eyes?

  3. The three voices in this novel -- Xiao-Di, Lu, and Deng Xiaoping -- fold into each other at the same time that they remaindistinct. What do you think of this technique of blending and balancing viewpoints in the novel? Which voice did you find most compelling and why?

  4. After reading Sons of Heaven, did you learn anything new about China's politics or history? Did any of your existing views (about Deng Xiaoping, the students and the Democracy Movement protests, or China in general) change?

  5. Discuss how the fictional elements of the story maintain suspense throughout the novel, in spite of the fact that readers know the student protests ended in a massacre. What was the most compelling aspect of the fictional plot?

  6. Xiao-Di's experiences in America undoubtedly had an affect on his participation in the Democracy Movement. Do you believe he would have partaken in these events if not for Wong's influence? What if he had never experienced life in America, or had a relationship with Elsie?

  7. Do you think Xiao-Di was really in love with Elsie? Or do you think he was more infatuated with the idea of being with an American girl and that whole experience?

  8. What do you think are some of the reasons behind Lu's violent tendencies? Do you think it is more due to his personal nature, his accident and experiences as a boy, or his training in the army?

  9. Deng Xiaoping's entire life was lived during modern China's tumultuous development. Taking into consideration both his personal and political experiences, did you sympathize with his decisions and feelings regarding Tiananmen Square?
  10. Do you believe Deng felt remorse for what happened at Tiananmen Square? Were there any other alternatives?

  11. Compare the strife and turmoil experienced by Deng's family, to Lu and Xiao-Di's family. Can any parallels be drawn? Which family has suffered more and with which family do you empathize more?

  12. The ending of the novel is very vague. What do you think happens to Lu and Xiao-Di?

About the Author

Terrence Cheng's grandmother was a senator in the Chinese Nationalist Party, and his grandfather was a prisoner-of-war captured by the Japanese during World War II. Both survived and moved their family to Taiwan after the Communists came to power in 1949. Cheng was born in Taipei, Taiwan in 1972, and immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1973. He earned his MFA in Fiction at the University of Miami, FL, where he was a James Michener Fellow. Director of Corporate Website Marketing for Random House Inc., he also teaches fiction at Lehman College-CUNY. He has lived most of his life in New York.

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