The Vagrants
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The Vagrants

3.8 of 5 stars 3.80  ·  rating details  ·  1,707 ratings  ·  354 reviews
Brilliant and illuminating, this astonishing debut novel by the award-winning writer Yiyun Li is set in China in the late 1970s, when Beijing was rocked by the Democratic Wall Movement, an anti-Communist groundswell designed to move China beyond the dark shadow of the Cultural Revolution toward a more enlightened and open society. In this powerful and beautiful story, we f...more
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published February 3rd 2009 by Random House (first published August 4th 2008)
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Jennifer (aka EM)
Tough read. Almost impossible to rate. Did I (3) like or (4) really like this novel? No. I endured it. Do I think it (5) amazing? Yes, yes ... that I do.

It is, quite possibly, the most brutal, dispiriting, sad, anger-provoking, depressing novel I've ever read.

I feel as though this novel is trying to teach me so many things, but my lack of knowledge of China's history, specifically China's Cultural Revolution, is hampering me from understanding it fully. That's at the thematic, symbolic level. A...more
i've been trying to get away from writing a review of this book. i've been coming up with scenarios in which such writing is impossible. i have to walk the dog. i have to go to bed. there is too much distraction right now.

this is the story of the aftermath of an execution in a small provincial town (more a community than a town, really) in communist china. the narrator tells us that the historical period is the period that followed the cultural revolution, but since my knowledge of chinese hist...more
This is a very well written book. It was like being given the power to see into the minds of men and women. The pity was that their minds were so wracked and sickened that you found yourself reading faster and faster so that you could escape from them -- escape from the spaces in peoples minds and lives that were so intimate -- escape from a despair that was so cloying you could hardly tolerate it. I did not give this book four stars because some of the incidents in the novel were so graphic tha...more
A WRITER who was raised in one culture but writes in the language of another is a precious commodity for readers from the latter.

The writer is literally a translator of one culture into another: He is fully aware of the unique quirks of his birth culture that are alien, even incomprehensible, to his adopted one; yet because of this knowledge, he is also able to ensure that as little nuances as possible are lost in translation.

The Western world has been relatively lucky when it comes to attract...more
An exquisite telling of an absolutely brutal story. The book begins on the day of the grisly execution of an allegedly counterrevolutionary woman in a small town in China two years after the death of Mao. It continues with the story of how several memorable townspeople are affected by the aftermath of this wrongful death. Do they protest, turn away, submit, betray? It doesn't seem to make a difference as they iron fist of tyranny seems to gradually tighten around each of them in turn, squeezing...more
(This review was originally published on The Rumpus:

When I think of Beijing in 1998, I think of a worn-out train bound for a town fifty miles from the capital. Across from me sat a Chinese man in his late twenties who, for a while, would not meet my eyes. Only after the train began moving, the noise of the rails nearly deafening, did he lean forward across the little table that separated us and say, “English?”

I nodded, grateful and relieved to have someo...more
This story takes place back in the seventies. A time when China was dealing with the Tiananmen Square uprising.

The Gu family was like any other family. They lived good quiet lives in the town of Muddy River. That all changed ten years ago. The Gu’s daughter, Gu Shan, a free spirit was raised like anyone else in the beliefs of Communism and China’s leader, Chairman Mao. Shan started thinking for herself and renounced her beliefs in communism. Shan was taken away. That was ten years ago. During t...more
Много хубаво написана книга! Тематиката определено е тежка. Много грозни и страшни неща се случват на персонажите,но едновременно с това има и много човешки и красиви моменти. Определено си заслужаваше да я прочета!
5 stars! A stunning novel. Takes place in China in the late 1970s. A young woman is to be executed for her ideologic opposition to the oppressive cultural revolution. It is about humans being human — what people do and say to protect their own interests — but they all believe in different ways to accomplish this. Some believe it is best to go along with whatever they’re told, to be obedient at all costs. But even this is not a sureproof method. Others believe they must stand up to oppression, to...more
I think the subject matter of this book is important. I really wanted to like this book. I liked the subject matter, and I found her to be more honest than most other Chinese writers, which is saying something. It's probably because she no longer lives in China, and doesn't have to worry about the whole censorship idea. Certainly wouldn't have been able to read or buy this book in China.

However, that being said, I think she had too many characters in this book. It is hard to really know which on...more
"Then the dog leapt out to the frozen river, leaving small flowerlike paw prints in the snow" (27).
"...for the first time in her life, she felt its immense worhtlessness, when a cat's small paw could destroy the grandest dream" (29).
“Disturbed too were other souls” (127).
“It was to be endured, as anything beyond one’s control” (162).
“He went into a nearby store and asked for a small bag of sunflower seeds, and when he came out, he put a few of the seeds into his mouth and chewed them into an ine...more
I'm generally happy with most of my reviews on Goodreads, but a couple have haunted me - I need to correct them.

When I reviewed The Vagrants 6 months ago, I was struck by the power of the story. I also loved the way that a tiny random action by one character would set wheels in motion that had major consequences for another.

However; there were some things that annoyed me as I was reading, and in retrospect I think some of the characters were poorly drawn. The plot was strong enough for me to g...more
Regina Lindsey
In this debut novel The Vagrants opens on a day in 1979 when the people of Muddy River will attend the mandatory denunciation ceremony for a 28-year old counter-revolutionary, Shu Gan, whose crime was writing down her thoughts. While the book is set in China and the reader gets a glimpse into the Mao history and life in a Communist society, the subject matter is really more about human nature. The characters are rich and complex. There's aging Teacher Gu, who raised his daughter to read and thin...more
Clif Hostetler
Though the characters are fictional, the world it portrays was once real (1979 China, two years after Mao's death). The book is loosely based upon a true story. However, the name of the city and names of characters are all fictional (except for the distant city of Beijing and the former leader, Mao). I have heard of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution under Mao, and was under the impression that things started getting better after Mao's death. They may have, but it was a long slow process, an...more
This book is not one for the faint of heart, or easily depressed. In fact, despite its excellent prose and purpose, I probably would recommend it whole-heartedly to those readers who 1) are really interested in the social and political black hole of Communist China 2) really interested in the debilitating effects of a totalitarian state on its populace 3) like to remain in a state of constant depression.

On the other hand, given the author is of Chinese descent, and an Iowa Writer's Workshop grad...more
Jan 04, 2012 Christina rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Christina by: NY Times Book Review podcast
Shelves: china, fiction, 2012
When a pebble is thrown into a lake, rings start spreading further and further away from the spot where the pebble penetrated the water. So it is with humans. Our actions influence the people around us and spread in wider and wider circles. But with humans, it’s the relations between people that determines how the rings spread and these relations are not always easy to see. Sometimes people secretly know each other – or used to know each other. And sometimes, something is done to a person that c...more
A novel of abject misery and the horrible things that desperate people do to each other when they're pushed. Is it one of the works of Cormac McCarthy? Perhaps Faulkner?

Nope! It's "The Vagrants" by Yiyun Li. Take nearly enough characters to stack a George RR Martin epic, put them in rural China shortly after the Cultural Revolution, sprinkle liberally with poisoned dogs, tattletale neighbors, guilt, repression, and pure asininity and you get The Vagrants.

I'm sure it paints a realistic picture...more
Alice Meloy
I'm so grateful for writers such as Yiyun Li who, through their novels, take us places we've never really known nor understood. In THE VAGRANTS, Li draws a Breugel-like picture of a small town in post-Maoist China where family and community relationships show the strains of life under the Cultural Revolution and the uncertainties that follwed. Teacher Gu and his wife collapse when their daughter is executed as a counterrevolutionary; 12-year old Nini deals with life as a cripple and the oldest o...more
Excellent book. Set in a small city in China, Muddy River, following numerous characters around during the course of just a couple of weeks in 1979, shortly after the Cultural Revolution ended. Gu Shan is being executed as a counterrevolutionary, and the actions of a number of people intersect each other, impact upon each other, and have mostly negative consequences. Deftly woven into the narrative is a clear-eyed view of life in the Communist state--public outhouses, tiny houses, starvation, be...more
Debra Kang
This is a harrowing read, especially if one has also read "What Has That to Do with Me?" In that essay, which is included in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Li writes:

I am not sure how to tell the story I want to tell you. Sometimes when I think about the story, it becomes a grotesque kaleidoscope spinning with patterns and colors that startle my eyes. Sometimes I have to shut my eyes in order not to see.

And shut my mind's eye so I can stop imagining.

In writing this novel, Li has opened wide...more
Brian Shevory
A fascinating book about the ripple effects of the cultural revolution on a small village in China. While the novel centers around the public renunciation and execution of a former communist who has changed ideologies, Li shows how different members of the village are affected by her actions and the party's decision to execute her. It is incredibly sad, but also strangely fascinating to see what village life was like, and how the party failed to meet the basic needs of these people. What I found...more
I was completely enthralled by this book. It follows many different people in a town called Muddy River in China after the death of Chairman Mao. It all starts with the execution of a young woman and one way or another all of the persons in the book know of her or know her personally. The persons have a wide range in ages and social status and I found it very fascinating to see how the Cultural Revolution had affected the different people. The most interesting person, to me, was the enigma Bashi...more
Certainly paints a dismal picture of China in the 1970s. There were several wonderfully drawn characters: the intelligent yet impotent Teacher Gu; the morally bankrupt young scoundrel Bashi; the crippled Nini, prenatally defeated. Yet, so many other characters were just black silhouettes on the background. I liked this book and I will read whatever Yiyun Li writes next. But, I didn't love it. I guess I didn't need to be convinced that the Chinese version of Communism is not a rational existence;...more
I'm a little burnt out on reading about China.

That's not a knock on the Chinese Literature I've been reading - in fact, I've yet to read a single book out of China that I didn't think was fantastic - it's just that I'm tired of being so damned depressed after each of them.

Earlier this year, after reading Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone, I told my wife: "I know that this is a controversial statement, but it must have really sucked to live in Nazi Germany."

Well, let it be said that it must rea...more
Remarkably sad, but beautifully written and constructed. Novels that bounce around from character to character, especially those this diverse though all in the same provincial Chinese town, can lose their story and theme to the structure. But Li never loses the thread. And she ties it all together expertly. The bits of timeless wisdom from Teacher Gu are well thought out and well wrought. One might even call them Confucian. A few:

"Young people should think about living, not about sacrificing. It...more
David Bulgarelli
Yiyun Li's experience as a short-story author really payed off in this novel as she brilliantly tied together the individual stories and lives of so many characters together to give a great representation of life during the Cultural Revolution in China.
"Some patience in required of the reader" wrote Stephanie Merritt in her February 2009 review in The Observer and that probably explains why I decided to get so far and stop. Not because I was not getting anything from this book but simply because I did not have the patience to hold all the small pieces presented in such a way as to make me want to discover the whole, which I guessed would be bleak. Although set in 1979, in this 25th anniversary of the events of Tiannamen Square ten years later,...more
Great writing. Very depressing storyline. Found it difficult to root for any of the characters. Usually I love these kind of books but this one was tough.
Really intimate portrait of a pro-democracy movement among the most marginalized post-Mao. Well-written.
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Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing, China and moved to the United States in 1996. She received an MFA from Iowa Writers' Workshop and an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. Her stories and essays have been published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review,and elsewhere. She has received a Whiting Writers' Award and was awarded a Lannan Foundation residency in Marfa, TX. Her debut...more
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