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Do Not Say We Have Nothing

3.92  ·  Rating details ·  19,994 ratings  ·  2,880 reviews
“In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life. I was ten years old.”

Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations—those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students prote
Hardcover, 474 pages
Published October 11th 2016 by W. W. Norton Company (first published May 31st 2016)
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Average rating 3.92  · 
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 ·  19,994 ratings  ·  2,880 reviews

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Hannah Greendale
Click here to watch a video review of this book on my channel, From Beginning to Bookend.

A young Chinese girl (Li-Ling), whose English name is Marie, is living with her mother in Vancouver when a relative from China appears at their door: a teenage girl named Ai Ming who seeks refuge after the student occupation of Tiananmen Square. Ai Ming unearths a collection of notebooks written by Marie's deceased father, among which is the Book of Records - a story handwritten by Ai Ming's father. With Ai
Jun 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
My endless quest to discover quality books written by women of color from around the globe has lead me to the writing of Madeleine Thien. Thien is a Malaysian-Chinese living near Montreal and has previously written a novel and short story collection. Do Not Say We Have Nothing won the Governor General Prize for 2016 and was short listed for the Man Booker Award. An epic novel using music as a background, Do Not Say We Have Nothing follows three generations of Chinese revolutionaries to detail ho ...more
Elyse  Walters
Jun 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Once again: Many Thanks to modern technology and the Public Library!
I was nervous about reading this book last year. The low reviews feed into my own insecurity that this book would become too complicated and I'd get frustrated.
The high reviews kept nagging at me.

Actually Michael's review inspired me most!!!

Rather than purchase the book, I downloaded the ebook from the library from the comfort of home.
There were times when reading Madeline Thien's novel, I found myself remembering two other
Jan 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: those that have empathy and want to understand
Shelves: five-stars-books
5 "profound, elegant, eloquent, devastating" stars !!

The 2018 Gold Award (Mostest favorite Read)

Unexpectedly, she sang a line of notes, and the music, as natural to her as breathing, contained both grief and dignity. It seemed to expand inside my thoughts even as it disappeared; it was so intimate so alive, I felt I must have known it all my life

A wonderful quote to begin my brief review as it is close to expressing the entirety of my experience of this most extraordinary book. Extraordinar
May 09, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
confession: this took me forever to read because i kept nodding off every time i picked it up. didnt matter what time it was, the pages would cause my eyes to slowly close and my mind to drift away.

and it wasnt because i was bored, but because the writing is sooo lulling and slow and gentle, as if this was a bedtime tale. the narrative is quiet and unhurried. while some may consider the novel to often meander, especially as the four different stories weave in and out, i enjoyed seeing just how
Feb 26, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, depressing
Spanning multiple generations, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is the tale of a large extended family and how music brought them together in times of hardship. Their story unfolds in front of the curious eyes of a girl named Marie, the child of Kai, a pianist who lived during the Cultural Revolution, one of the most horrifyingly brutal periods in Chinese history. Ritualistic torture, humiliation, and cannibalism were allowed and even encouraged, as these people were said to be "bourgeois" and needed ...more
Diane S ☔
Oct 01, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very powerful story, beginning with the cultural revolution and it's effects on one family, followed through to the next generation. A family that is in love with music, Sparrow the composer, young Zhuli, a musician, Kai a closer friend also a composer/musician, all at the Shanghai composer, all will be caught up in its destruction with horrifying results. Starvation, separation, the camps, people turning on people, brutality, it is all here. Following one family lets us thoroughly get to know ...more
This is a novel of epic scope and ambition, a complex family story that starts in the China of the 1950s and ends in the present day.

The pivotal events are the Cultural Revolution, and specifically the destruction of the Shanghai Conservatory and the denunciations of the musicians there, and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and their violent aftermath. There are also many other themes - largely musical but also some intriguing digressions on Chinese writing and mathematics.

Thien's charact
Jenny (Reading Envy)
I started this book as a review copy eBook, and finished it with the print from the library (which I think we got from the UK based on the cover art.)

This book is complex and I really enjoyed it. I suspected it could win the Man Booker Prize based solely on its description, and I was not disappointed. I am a sucker for music discussed in fiction, so the central theme of music really did the trick for me. I discovered only later that many of the characters and events surrounding the conservatory
A moving family saga that portrays the lives of three generations through the post-war decades in China. The story interlaces different time points with a focus on the crucial periods of Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1969-1977), set mostly in Shanghai, and of the time of the massive demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and their brutal suppression (1989-1990). Like good historical fiction it does bring the cultural and political paroxysms of these times alive through engaging characters, s ...more
Jul 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I think there's always one book on Man Booker Long List that requires me to get a piece of paper and draw a family tree so that I can try to keep track of the relationships between the characters. I had to do that here and it's quite a demanding read not only because of the number of characters but also because the narrative jumps around in time following 3 generations through 3 momentous periods of Chinese history.

Earlier this year, I read The Four Books when it was nominated for the Man Booker
Dec 03, 2018 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Lovers of music and history
Shelves: read-in-2018
Canada, 1990. Marie and her mother welcome a young, mysterious woman called Ai-ming, who has fled China after the protests in Tiananmen Square. Marie listens to the story of Ai-ming’s family in revolutionary China with awe; wondering where their point of connection might be; from the tea houses full of people in the early days of President Mao's rise, to the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s and the events that led to the 1989 demonstrations in Beijing; not knowing how close the tragic destiny ...more
Oct 21, 2016 rated it really liked it
There is much to admire in what Thien tried to do in this 2016 Booker- shortlisted novel, and judging from the laudatory reviews, she must have succeeded. Personally, I struggled against the style of this novel, which I found cloying, despite the fact that different members of one family each had pieces of the story to tell. I have yet to find the author who can tell me a Chinese fiction that I really enjoy, except for classics like the Outlaws of the Marsh (Water Margin) and Journey to the West ...more
Hugely surprised this did not win the Booker Prize. If, like me, you know next to nothing about China’s Cultural Revolution and the transition from Chairman Mao to successive leaders, you will learn so much. There is no denying the power of its portrayal of history. In addition, I was consistently impressed by the book’s language. Thien incorporates Chinese characters and wordplay, musical bars, and snatches of poetry and folk songs. That said, I didn’t always find this easy reading. The flashba ...more
John Mauro
Jan 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing
History matters.
Goddess of Democracy

"Do Not Say We Have Nothing" is Madeleine Thien's ambitious third novel spanning three generations of a Chinese family. The family's history is deeply intertwined with both the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

During the Cultural Revolution, we follow a group of classical musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory, who are persecuted for their art. One of the characters writes several symphonies but is afraid to share them due to retaliation from the Communist Pa
Aug 06, 2016 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Gosh this is boring. An interminable story with characters you cannot tell apart who are supposed to be fictional ciphers for a real life fictional family in Canada. Heaps of musical references and if you love Bach you might get them, but I don't. Also, interspersed with Chinese writing and poems that don't seem to add much. Creating something this dull from such an exciting period of history is an impressive achievement that has rightly been recognised by the Booker judges. ...more
Britta Böhler
I can see why some readers love this book. The story of two (interconnected) Chinese families in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square-protests, in China, Hongkong and Canada, is certainly interesting enough. My main problem was that I didn't find the writing style appealing (and at times rather bad), and I had a hard time connecting with the characters and their lives' story, as heart-wrenching as they may be.
It didn't help that 30+ pages of my book were missing (and another 30+ pages were doub
Jan 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: china, 2018, music
If there's one thing I love it's a multigenerational family epic from a different culture, which is an actual genre that I only sortof made up. The thing with books like this is they give you a sweeping overview of a wide swath of history in someplace like, say, China - or Korean Japan, or Chile, or whatever - without being a boring nonfiction book. This one traces Chinese history from the Cultural Revolution of the 60s, which was awful, through to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, which wa ...more
Helene Jeppesen
This book took me forever to get through. It was written in a really dense language that didn't appeal to me, and the storyline (or storylines, I should say) were intricate and hard to keep track of.
This is a story about the Chinese revolution of the 1960s and about all of the horrible things that took place. It's told from the perspective of one-two families, through many generations, and it's told in a 'framed story' narrative which makes it necessary for you to really focus in order to keep
Jun 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Do you love music? Are you perhaps a musician? How would you react if music were taken away from you, if you were no longer able to listen/play/compose? Imagine a world where musical instruments are destroyed and musicians face back breaking menial labour which will destroy their sensitive hands… This novel resonates with music even when music is systematically being destroyed.

Imagine being a reader, a poet, a writer and your words are taken from you…

This is the world faced by, amongst others, a
Peter Boyle
"As he played, he remembered standing on the round tables of the teahouses... back when he first imagined that all the world was a song, a performance or a dream, that music was survival and could fill an empty stomach and chase the war away."

This is the kind of book that wins awards - a multi-generational family saga, epic in scope and aspiration. Through the lens of several memorable characters, it brings to light a crucial period in Chinese history. It's a very ambitious novel. Maybe a little
Mar 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The best books inspire us, transform us, educate us and awaken us. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is one of those books – magisterial in scope, courageous in theme, dynamic in its execution.

The story focuses on immensely talented musicians who became pawns and victims in China’s Cultural Revolution. The framework of it is based on fact: He Luting, the director of conservatory of music, was personally targeted by The Gang of Four, and yet refused to buckle under the call for self-criticisms, betrayal
Sep 21, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Three generations in China, presented against the backdrop of three pivotal historic events: the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the Tiananmen Square protests (1989). The three events were featured in the story with increasing detail. The Great Leap Forward had only passing references. It was a tragedy of mismanagement at a national level which resulted in the starvation of millions. There were more details on the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, where ...more
Viv JM
I think this book needs to be read slowly and savoured. It is very slow to start off with and somewhat confusing (it really would have benefited from a character list/family tree!) but perseverance pays off and overall I found it a rewarding and moving read. The scope is epic - Chinese history from the Great Leap Forward through to the Tiananmen Square massacres- told through the story of two interlinked families. There are many fascinating insights and gems along the way, particularly in relati ...more
Alice Poon
May 27, 2017 rated it really liked it

This is a compelling family saga spanning three generations set in one of the most tumultuous and inglorious periods in China’s recent history. It is an ambitious novel that attempts to express the heartbreaking experiences of the characters in times of painful afflictions in the abstract language of classical music. I’m giving this novel 4.3 stars.

As a total layman to the field of classical music, I am not in a position to judge whether the author’s attempt has succeeded or not. But as a reade
Friederike Knabe
Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say we Have Nothing has totally captivated me from beginning to end and even now, more than a couple of weeks later, many of the novel's characters have stayed with me, their conversations and reflections are influencing my own. It is impossible for me to capture the many facets of this deeply moving and multi-layered, expansive canvas of a novel. Madeleine Thien's exquisitely conceived and beautifully written work is set against the background of six decades in Chinese ...more
Oct 01, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: china, booker-prize
If I didn't speak Chinese, I would probably have rated this very accomplished novel a 4 or even a 4.5. Unfortunately the extremely basic and strange errors in Thien's usage of Chinese, reducing a living language to mere decorative Orientalist flourishes*, left an increasingly bad taste in my mouth in light of the novel's serious (oh, and it's so, so serious) moral claim to bearing witness (from its fundamentally distanced tone through to the fussy endnoting of song lyrics FGS) and championing of ...more
Oct 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a sweeping, multi-generational, non-linear epic of a story. It starts in China in the late 1960's and goes to present day. It is complicated and wonderful and my personal favorite to win the 2016 Booker Prize. These characters really got under my skin and I will be thinking about them for a long time. This is a book that I would like to reread at some point because there are just so many layers. ...more
Lisa Vegan
I read this for my real world book club. It had been on my to read shelf but I suspect I’d have never gotten to it, so I’m glad that it was chosen for a book club selection.

This is the perfect book to simultaneously read both paper and audio editions. Chinese characters to see and Chinese pronunciation to hear. I did that with CDs through disc 3 of 17. If I had been able to download an audible file on my phone I’d have continued reading this way but the CDs slowed me down too much. When using t
Jul 29, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“Jiang Kai,” she said spitefully, “now I understand. I'll forget Prokofiev. I'll play the 'March of the Volunteers' and 'The Internationale' for all eternity. The old world shall be destroyed. Arise, slaves, arise! Do not say that we have nothing. That should win me the Tchaikovsky Competition and please everyone, you most of all.”

I remember having read this article on the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests (back in 2014), and the point that impressed upon me most of all is that t
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Madeleine Thien was born in Vancouver. She is the author of the story collection Simple Recipes (2001), and three novels, Certainty (2006); Dogs at the Perimeter (2011), shortlisted for Berlin’s International Literature Prize and winner of the Frankfurt Book Fair’s 2015 Liberaturpreis; and Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016), about musicians studying Western classical music at the Shanghai Conservat ...more

Articles featuring this book

Why not focus on some serious family drama? Not yours, of course, but a fictional family whose story you can follow through the generations of...
228 likes · 79 comments
“If you're trapped in a room, and nobody is coming to save you, what can you do? You have to bang on the walls and break the windows. You have to climb out and save yourself. It's obvious, Li-ling, that crying doesn't help a person live.” 44 likes
“The only life that matters is in your mind. The only truth is the one that lives invisibly, that waits even after you close the book. Silence, too, is a kind of music. Silence will last.” 44 likes
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