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A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

3.3 3
by Yiyun Li

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Brilliant and original, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers introduces a remarkable new writer whose breathtaking stories are set in China and among Chinese Americans in the United States. In this rich, astonishing collection, Yiyun Li illuminates how mythology, politics, history, and culture intersect with personality to create fate. From the bustling heart of


Brilliant and original, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers introduces a remarkable new writer whose breathtaking stories are set in China and among Chinese Americans in the United States. In this rich, astonishing collection, Yiyun Li illuminates how mythology, politics, history, and culture intersect with personality to create fate. From the bustling heart of Beijing, to a fast-food restaurant in Chicago, to the barren expanse of Inner Mongolia, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers reveals worlds both foreign and familiar, with heartbreaking honesty and in beautiful prose.

“Immortality,” winner of The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for new writers, tells the story of a young man who bears a striking resemblance to a dictator and so finds a calling to immortality. In “The Princess of Nebraska,” a man and a woman who were both in love with a young actor in China meet again in America and try to reconcile the lost love with their new lives.

“After a Life” illuminates the vagaries of marriage, parenthood, and gender, unfolding the story of a couple who keep a daughter hidden from the world. And in “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” in which a man visits America for the first time to see his recently divorced daughter, only to discover that all is not as it seems, Li boldly explores the effects of communism on language, faith, and an entire people, underlining transformation in its many meanings and incarnations.

These and other daring stories form a mesmerizing tapestry of revelatory fiction by an unforgettable writer.

Editorial Reviews

Rodney Welch
Each of these stories takes you to a different place, and each feels fresh, wise and alive, creating a fascinating, horrifying and heartbreaking picture of life in a country where the past never goes away.
— The Washington Post
Fatema Ahmed
Yiyun Li is too realistic a writer to dispel the misunderstandings between her characters who soldier on, all too believably, in their stoical isolation. Self-pity is not an option for most of them, but as readers we can pity their predicaments and admire the refusal of their creator to simplify their lives.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
A beautifully executed debut collection of 10 stories explores the ravages of the Cultural Revolution on modern Chinese, both in China and America. "Extra" portrays the grim plight of Granny Lin, an elderly widow without a pension, whose job as a maid at a boarding school outside Beijing leads to a surprising friendship with one of her young charges, Kang. Li deftly weaves a political message into her human portraits: young Kang, the son of a powerful man and his now "disfavored" first wife, is an "extra"-that is, as useless in the new society as Granny Lin has become. A hollowed-out recluse in the collective apartment block of "Death Is Not a Bad Joke If Told the Right Way," Mr. Pang-once denounced by his work colleagues as being "a dog son of the evil landlord class"-still appears daily at a job where he is no longer even paid, and spends his home life counting grains of rice on his chopsticks. Even the charmed fatherless boy of "Immortality," his face so like Chairman Mao's that he's chosen to be the dictator's impersonator after Mao's death, falls from favor eventually, ending his days as a self-castrated parasite. These are powerful stories that encapsulate tidily epic grief and longing. Agent, Richard Abate. (Sept.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Yiyun Li's stories have been published in The New Yorker and garnered her the Plimpton Prize for New Writers. Her debut collection creates intimate scenes of life in a China in transition, a subject she knows personally as a Beijing native (she immigrated to the United States in 1996). Traditional ways adapt to a proscribed Communist way and adapt again for the newly capitalistic society. In the opening story, "Extra," Granny, a single woman of 50, retires involuntarily, finds menial work at a children's school, and develops a close maternal relationship with a lonely young boy. "After a Life" looks at the Su family's attachment to their mentally retarded and severely handicapped daughter and how this affects the parents' marriage and relationship with their son. "Son" tells the story of a young man who, on a visit from the United States, tells his mother that he is gay. In "Persimmons," villagers discuss the heroism of Lao Da. No matter the theme-be it human redundancy in an overpopulated country or the complex nature of the parent-child relationship-these stories are complex, moving, and surprising. Highly recommended for all academic and public libraries.-Rebecca Stuhr, Grinnell Coll. Libs., IA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The state bears down on the Chinese characters in this story collection, Chinese-American Li's debut. Sasha and Boshen are watching a holiday parade in Chicago, surrounded by carefree young Americans unburdened by history. "I would trade my place with any one of them," says 21-year-old Sasha, whose movements are restricted in China. No wonder the American concept of "moving on" is so magical. In "The Princess of Nebraska," Sasha is in Chicago to get an abortion arranged by Boshen, an older, gay Chinese man. The father is Boshen's ex-lover, a female role actor with the Peking Opera. The complicated back story overwhelms the intriguing three-way entanglement; "Love in the Marketplace" and "The Arrangement" are similarly affected by baggage. Other stories are simpler. In "Extra," an unmarried middle-aged maid exults in maternal love for a six-year-old "extra," the unwanted son of a discarded wife, while in "Son," a "diamond bachelor" (Chinese-born U.S. citizen) tells his mother he's not on the marriage market, because he's gay. The most overtly political story is "Immortality" (winner of the Paris Review Plimpton Prize), an ambitious allegory cleverly linking the eunuchs who served the ancient dynasties to the fortunes of a young man who's the spitting image of Mao and is chosen by the state, after the Chairman's death, to impersonate him. But no story makes its point more cleanly than "Persimmons," in which the peasant Lao Da has already had a run-in with the Birth Control Office for not reporting three extra children. When he is denied justice following his only son's drowning by a corrupt county official, Lao Da goes on a rampage, killing 17 bureaucrats. The powerless man must resort tomass murder to show he is not a "soft persimmon"-a patsy. Some ungainly plotting, but the author is one to watch.
From the Publisher
“Yiyun Li is a true storyteller. Great stories offer us the details of life on the riverbanks: birth, family, dinner, and love, all framing the powerful flow of terror, death, political change, the river itself. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is as grand an epic and as tenderly private as a reader could wish.”
–Amy Bloom, author of Come to Me

“With great tenderness, tact, and humor, these stories open a world that is culturally remote from us, and at the same time as humanly intimate as if its people were our own family and their thoughts the thoughts that lie nearest our own hearts.”
–Marilynne Robinson, author of Gilead and Housekeeping

“This extraordinary collection reminds you just how big a short story can be. With wit, ruthlessness, and an understanding of human nature–its grand follies, private sorrows, and petty dreams–A Thousand Years of Good Prayers may remind you of Flannery O’Connor, though Li is an original. Read this book and marvel at a writer both at the height of her powers and at the start of a brilliant career.”
–Elizabeth McCracken, author of The Giant’s House

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

By Yiyun Li

Random House

Yiyun Li
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1400063124

Chapter One

Chapter 1


Granny Lin walks in the street on a november afternoon with a stainless steel lunch pail in her hand. Inside the lunch pail is an official certificate from her working unit. "Hereby we confirm Comrade Lin Mei is honorably retired from Beijing Red Star Garment Factory," says the certificate in bright golden characters.

It does not say that Red Star Garment Factory has gone bankrupt or that, being honorably retired, Granny Lin will not receive her pension. Of course it will not provide such information, for these facts are simply not true. "Bankrupt" is the wrong word for a state-owned industry. "Internal reorganization" is what has been kindly omitted in the certificate. And, mind this, Granny Lin's pension is being withheld only temporarily. For how long, the factory has no further information to offer.

"There is always a road when you get into the mountain," Auntie Wang, Granny Lin's neighbor, says to her upon being informed of Granny Lin's situation.

"And there is a Toyota wherever there is a road." The second line of Toyota's commercial slips out before Granny realizes it.

"There you go, Granny Lin. I know you are an optimistic person. Stay positive and you will find your Toyota."

But where on earth can she find a way to replenish her dwindling savings? For a few days Granny Lin adds, subtracts, and divides, and she decides that her savings will run out in a year--in two years if she can skip a meal here and there, go to bed right after sunset, and stay bundled up so that she does not have to feed the insatiable stove extra coal balls through the long winter of northern China.

"Don't worry," Auntie Wang says the next time they meet each other at the market, looking down at the single radish Granny Lin has bought for her dinner, as plump as a Buddha, dwelling between her two palms. "You can always find someone and get married."

"Get married?" Granny Lin says, and blushes.

"Don't be so conservative, Granny Lin," Auntie Wang says. "How old are you?"


"You are even younger than I am! I am fifty-eight, but I am not as old-fashioned as you. You know what? Young people no longer have a monopoly on marriage."

"Don't make me a clown," Granny Lin says.

"I am serious, Granny Lin. There are so many old widowers in the city. I am sure there are rich and sick ones who need someone to take care of them."

"You mean, I can find a caretaker's position for old people?" Granny Lin asks.

Auntie Wang sighs and pokes Granny Lin's forehead with a finger. "Use your brain. Not a caretaker but a wife. That way, you can at least inherit some cash when your husband dies."

Granny Lin gasps. She has never had a husband in her life, and the prospect of a dead husband frightens her. Yet Auntie Wang makes the decision for her right there and then, between two fish stands, and in a short time she finds Granny Lin a match.

"Seventy-six. High blood pressure and diabetes. Wife just died. Living alone in a three-bedroom flat. Pension two thousand yuan a month. Both sons married and earning good money in the government," Auntie Wang says, surprised that Granny Lin remains unimpressed. "Come on, Granny Lin, where else can you find such a good husband? The old man will die in no time, and the sons are so rich they won't mind sparing some of the old man's savings for you. Let me tell you, this is the most eligible family, as far as I know. Their doorsill has been worn away by the feet of the matchmakers. But of all the possible wives, they are interested only in you. Why? Because you are never married and you have no children. By the way, Granny Lin, how come you aren't married? You never told us the reason."

Granny Lin opens and then closes her mouth. "It just happens," she says.

"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to. Anyway, they don't want someone who has a litter of children and grandchildren. I wouldn't trust such a stepmother, either. Who can guarantee that she won't steal from the old man for her children? But you are the best. I have told them that, were there one honest person left on earth, it would be you, Granny Lin. What are you hesitating for?"

"Why don't they hire someone to take care of him?" Granny Lin asks, thinking of the two sons who might soon become her stepchildren. "Won't it be cheaper in the long run?"

"Do you not know what those young girls from the nanny market are like? They are lazy, and they steal money--husbands, too, if they are hired by young couples. They leave the old people sitting in their own shit all day long. To hire such a girl? Ugh. It would only push him to death quicker."

Granny Lin has to agree that, indeed, an older woman as a wife is a wise choice. Accompanied by Auntie Wang, Granny Lin goes to the interview with the two sons and their wives. An hour of questioning later, the two sons exchange a look, and ask if Granny Lin needs some time to consider the marriage offer. Not having much to think about, she moves into her new home in a week. Her husband, Old Tang, is sicker than she has thought. "Alzheimer's," a daughter-in-law tells her at their wedding dinner.

Granny Lin nods, not knowing what the disease is but guessing that it has something to do with the brain. She supports her husband with both hands and leads him to the table, sitting him down and wiping away the drool from his chin.

granny lin becomes a wife, a mother, and a grandmother. She no longer remembers in what year of her life people started to call her Granny Lin instead of Auntie Lin; unmarried women, people believe, age faster. It does not matter anymore, because she feels quite qualified for her name.

Every week, one of the sons stops by and checks on Old Tang, leaving enough money for the next week. Old Tang is a quiet man, sitting in his chair by the window, immersed in his bottomless silence. Once in a while, he asks Granny Lin about his wife, and, as instructed by the two sons, Granny Lin replies that the wife is improving in the hospital and will be home in no time. But before she replies Old Tang seems to have forgotten his question, and goes back to his meditation without any sign of having heard Granny Lin. She waits for more questions that never come, and eventually gives up. She turns up the volume of the television and shuffles around the house, sweeping and dusting and wiping and washing, but the time arrives earlier each day when she finishes the housework. Then she sits down on the couch and watches the daytime soap operas.

Unlike the twelve-inch television Granny Lin used to own, which required her to make a trip across the room every time she needed to change channels (and all together she got six channels through the antenna made of two steel chopsticks), Old Tang's set is a monster with scores of channels, which all obey a small remote control. Dazed by all the choices she has, and by the ease of moving from one selection to another, Granny Lin soon finds that the machine does her no good. No matter what program she is watching, there is always the nagging worry that she is missing a more interesting one. Several days into her new life, Granny Lin is stunned to discover that she is no longer addicted to television, as she has been in the past ten years. Does marriage have such revolutionary power that a long-established habit can be overthrown in such a short time?

Granny Lin sighs and clicks off the television. Old Tang does not notice the silence flooding the room. She realizes then that the television is not to blame. It is because of Old Tang's presence that she cannot focus. She picks up an old magazine and peeks at Old Tang from behind the pages. Ten minutes grows into twenty minutes, and she continues looking at him as he insists on not meeting her gaze. She has an odd suspicion that Old Tang is not ill. He knows she is there, and he is observing her secretly. He knows that his wife of fifty-four years has left him for good and that Granny Lin is his new wife, but he refuses to acknowledge her. He pretends to have lost his mind and expects her to play along as if she were a hired caretaker. But Granny Lin decides not to concede. He is her husband; she is his wife.

Their marriage certificate is secure under her pillow. If Old Tang is testing her patience, she is ready to prove it to him; it is a tug-of-war that Granny Lin is determined to win. She puts down the magazine and looks boldly into Old Tang's face, trying to outstare Old Tang. Minutes stretch into an hour, and all of a sudden Granny Lin awakens in a dread that she, too, is losing her mind. She drags her body out of the couch and stretches, feeling the small cracking of her arthritic joints. She looks down at Old Tang, and he is still a statue. Indeed, he is a sick man, she thinks, and feels the shame of having cast rootless doubt on Old Tang, a man as defenseless as a newborn baby. She walks to the kitchen quickly and comes back with a glass of milk. "Milk time," she says, patting Old Tang's cheek until he starts to swallow.

Three times a day, Granny Lin gives Old Tang an insulin shot. Only then does she catch a glimpse of the life left in Old Tang, the small flinch of the muscle when she pushes the needle into his arm. Sometimes a small bead of blood appears after she draws the needle out, and she wipes it away with her fingertip instead of a cotton ball, entranced by the strange sensation that his blood is seeping into her body.

several times a day Granny Lin bathes Old Tang: in the morning and before bedtime, and whenever he wets or dirties himself. The private bathroom is what Granny Lin likes best about her marriage. For all her life, she has used public bathrooms, fighting with other slippery bodies for the lukewarm water drizzling from the rusty showers. Now that she has a bathroom all to herself, she never misses any chance to use it.

Old Tang is the only man Granny Lin has seen in full nakedness. The first time she undressed him, she could not help stealing a look now and then at the penis, nestled in a thinning bush. She wondered what it had looked like in its younger years, but right away chased the unclean thought from her mind. The frail nakedness filled her heart with a tenderness she had never experienced, and she has since tended his body with motherly hands.

One evening in late February, Granny Lin leads Old Tang to the plastic chair in the middle of the bathroom. She unbuttons his pajamas and he bends his arms at her guidance, his head leaning on her shoulder blade. She removes the nozzle and sprays warm water on his body, putting one hand on his forehead so that the water does not get into his eyes.

Granny Lin is squatting on the floor and massaging Old Tang's legs when he touches her shoulder with his palm. She looks up and he is gazing into her eyes. She gives out a cry and backs away from him.

"Who are you?" Old Tang says.

"Old Tang," Granny Lin says. "Is it you?"

"Who are you? Why are you here?"

"I live here," Granny Lin says. She sees an unnatural lucidity in Old Tang's eyes, and feels her heart fall. Such a moment of clarity happens only before a nearing death. Granny Lin had seen the same light two years earlier in her father's eyes, hours before he passed away. She thinks of rushing out to call a doctor, but her feet are locked on the floor, and her eyes are locked in his eyes.

"I don't know you. Who are you?"

Granny Lin looks down at herself. She is wearing a bright yellow plastic poncho and a pair of grass green rubber boots, her outfit for the bath time. "I am your wife," she says.

"You are not my wife. My wife is Sujane. Where is Sujane?"

"Sujane is no longer with us. I'm your new wife."

"You're lying," Old Tang says, and stands up. "Sujane is in the hospital."

"No," Granny Lin says. "They lied to you."

Old Tang does not hear her. He pushes Granny Lin, and his arms are suddenly strong. Granny Lin clutches him, but he is wild with uncontrollable force. She lets go of his hands, not knowing why she needs to fight with her husband over a dead woman. But he is still wrestling with the air and, two steps away, slips down in a puddle of soapy water.

Nobody pays attention to Granny Lin at the funeral. She sits in a corner and listens to the men and women who come up to talk about Old Tang's life: an accomplished physicist and a great teacher, a loving husband, father, and grandfather. The speakers finish and shake the family members' hands, ignoring her at the end of the line.

I did not kill him, Granny Lin imagines herself telling every person there. He was dying before the fall. But she does not tell the truth to anyone, and instead admits her negligence. Nobody would believe her anyway, for she alone saw the light in his eyes, the last glimmer before the eternal night, as it is called, the brief moment of lucidity before the end.

granny lin does not get a penny from Old Tang's savings. She has looked after Old Tang for only two months, and has, in many of the relatives' minds, killed him with her carelessness. She does not blame the two sons. She can think only of their loss, a thousand times more painful than her own. When one of them suggests a job in a private boarding school that is run by his friend, Granny Lin almost weeps out of gratitude.

Situated in a mountain resort in a western suburb of Beijing, Mei-Mei Academy takes pride in being among the first private schools in the country. It occupies one of the few four-storied buildings that were allowed to be constructed in the area. ("Connections, connections," the chef tells Granny Lin the day she arrives--how else could the school have gained the permit if not for its powerful trustees?) Private schools, like all private businesses, are sprouting up across the country like bamboo shoots after the first spring rain.


Excerpted from A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li
Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing and attended Peking University. She came to the United States in 1996 to study medicine and started writing two years later. After receiving a master’s degree in immunology from the University of Iowa, she attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she received an MFA. Li is a recipient of The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for new writers. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Glimmer Train, and Prospect. She lives in Oakland, California with her husband and their two sons.

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