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Wang Gang's English is an incredible novel about the impact of deception on an individual and society, told through the voice of a 12-year-old boy who is coming to terms with his life during the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution.
Synopses & Reviews
A captivating coming-of-age novel in the tradition of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
During the darkest days of Cultural Revolution, a twelve-year-old boy named Love Liu wonders what life is like beyond the region of Xinjiang in China's remote northwest. Here conformity is valued above all else, and suspicion governs every exchange among neighbors, classmates, and even friends. Into this stifling atmosphere comes a tall, clean-shaven teacher from Shanghai, wearing an elegant gray wool jacket and carrying an English dictionary under his arm.
With the dictionary as his disposal, Love Liu turns to it for answers to his most pressing questions about love and life, and a whole new world opens up for him. His classmates-the bright, troubled Sunrise Huang and the rowdy, impoverished Garbage Li-also find hope in the unfamiliar and tantalizing sounds of English, but in an atmosphere of accusation and recrimination, one in which their teacher is deemed morally suspect and mere innuendo can cost someone his life, their ideals face a test more challenging than any they'll take in the classroom.
A major bestseller in China, where it was voted best novel of the year independently by the critics and the general public, English is a transcendent novel about the power of language to launch a journey of self-discovery.
"For 12-year-old Love Liu, foreign languages are a way of life: he lives in gossipy Xinjiang in far northwest China, where the sounds of Uyghur, Russian and Chinese mingle. But when Second Prize Wang, a dashing English teacher from Shanghai, arrives at his school, Love Liu wonders what use it would be to learn English. However, he's enamored of the confident and cosmopolitan teacher. Love Liu dives into his studies and soon befriends Second Prize Wang, and their unconventional friendship becomes one of the only constants in Love Liu's world as the Cultural Revolution wears away at the people of Xinjiang. Love Liu's friends are smacked with accusations, his school gets closed down for months at a time and his parents are alternately lauded and condemned. The more quotidian aspects of the novel can be repetitive — Love Liu cycles endlessly through the same handful of teenage tribulations — but the novel's larger portrait of Love Liu and Second Prize Wang's friendship emerges with touching clarity and provides a perfect counterbalance to the corruption and confusion of the Cultural Revolution." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
In this particular case, the old adage "You can't judge a book by its cover" is jarringly true. The jacket of "English" features the face of a darling Chinese boy peeking out from a frame of folded pages from a Chinese-English dictionary. Behind him, within the frame, are hills meant to suggest the majestic Tian Shan Mountains, which serve as a backdrop to this narrative. The boy looks at us from another... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) world, and while you can see only a part of his sweet face, he appears to be smiling. A blurb on the back of the book reads: "The pure friendship between the teenage boy and his English teacher is movingly beautiful ..." That's fine as far as it goes, but there's no hint of the unpleasantries that accompany this tale: the storms of tears, the murder, the hideously destructive power of fear, the casual brutishness of the human race, the adultery rooted in loathing, the banality of evil to which humans gravitate with gross enthusiasm and the bad taste that so often accompanies it. I loved this book and can't stop talking about it. But it's wrenching and merciless and, though fictional, rooted in historical truth and based on the life of its author, Wang Gang. The story is set in the industrial town of Urumchi, way up in Northern China, close to the Russian border. There's a sizable population of the Muslim Uighur tribe as well as Han Chinese. Some of these Chinese are unlucky intellectuals who have been sent here partly as punishment, partly to strengthen the border against possible invading enemies. The Cultural Revolution has been going on for some years, but Love Liu, the boy who narrates this story and is 12 when it begins, never talks about that directly. A grown-up when he recalls the tale, he refers to those times with the cryptic phrase "in those days," which readers may first think of as nostalgia but gradually come to see that "in those days" everyone was on the brink of starvation and terrified for their very lives. The worst may be over, as the story begins. But maybe not. Love Liu doesn't consciously know much about this. He knows that his father used to be an architect (he designed the National Theatre in town, as well as Love Liu's middle school) but now paints posters of Mao on city walls. He also knows that, over by the East Hill Graveyard, "People were often executed by firing squad." But his real world is in his middle school classroom, where he is flanked by prissy, hysterical Sunrise Huang, a perennial teacher's pet, and the hooligan Garbage Li, who earned his name by picking through garbage to help his family make ends meet. Love Liu's life is governed by teachers; the kids have stopped learning Russian and now are being taught the Uighur language by Ahjitai — a mixed-blood beauty, half-ethnic Uighur, half-Chinese. But when English becomes a new curriculum requirement, Ahjitai is replaced by Second Prize Wang, a young man who speaks the language. The boys in class are disconsolate; they've all nourished terrible crushes on Ahjitai, but Sunrise Huang takes one look at the new teacher and falls for him like a ton of bricks. Something like that happens to Love Liu as well. It may be Mr. Wang's gentlemanly ways or his refusal to speak ill of anyone, or it may be the beauty of the new language he teaches. We've all had something like that in our youth — something that promises to separate us out, to take us into a better world, a place far away from this sometimes excruciatingly dull daily life. It doesn't matter what the object is; the process of getting there is the precious part, the part that's like falling in love. Despite the rigors of the political regime, love is everything in this novel: Sunrise adores Second Prize Wang, Garbage Li adores Sunrise, and Love Liu adores the beauteous Ahjitai (and the English language). In the generation above them, Love Liu's mother has something going on with the middle school principal; Sunrise's mother has an illicit relationship with Commander Shen, a former war leader; and Ahjitai is relentlessly pursued by Director Fan, an odious flunky of the Cultural Revolution. Love, self-interest or fear propels each one of them. It's not pure or romantic love; it's squirmy and surreptitious. Lust and longing know no boundaries. They have nothing to do with Chairman Mao. But they're all anyone can think about. Love Liu's parents are a mystery to him. One minute they're kissing him, the next they're whaling him smartly across the face with chopsticks or smacking him or kicking him viciously. The minute after that, they're apt to be sobbing loudly, telling him it's all for his own good. Low-grade violence is everywhere the boy looks: Both Love Liu's and Sunrise's mothers slap Second Prize Wang, accusing him of prurient interest in their children. Director Fan slaps Love Liu's dad in the street. Ahjitai slaps poor Mr. Wang, who is also unrequitedly in love with her. The truth is, they're all at wit's end. The firing squad is waiting right across town. Against a background of sappy love tunes in praise of Chairman Mao, Death literally stalks. It comes, if not by execution, by suicide or starvation or poison. Second Prize Wang just can't seem to get behind all this. He dresses and acts like a gentleman; he wears cologne. He treats his students with respect. You know he'll be lucky to escape this hellhole with his life, but he's oblivious. He teaches Love Liu the words to "Moon River," and the easy sweetness of that tune takes on a moody subversion. He teaches his students that there is such a thing as a personal life and the legitimate quest for beauty. Second Prize Wang, by his very name not destined to be a winner in society, saves more than one soul in the ratty town of Urumchi. The author includes a bitter afterword about what the Cultural Revolution was really like. Murder, violence and terror were everyday things in those days, he writes. But in "English," the first of his novels to be translated into English, he has chosen to focus on "moments of tenderness and forgiveness." It's an incredible example of human resilience that Wang managed to survive and write this transcendent book. Reviewed by Carolyn See, who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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A bestseller in China, "English" is a transcendent exploration of a boy's self-discovery, a country's shame, and the transporting power of language.
"I loved this book and can't stop talking about it. . . Transcendent." -Carolyn See, The Washington Post
In the tradition of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Wang Gang's English is a captivating coming-of- age novel about the power of language to launch a journey of self- discovery. When a new teacher comes to school-a tall, elegantly dressed man from Shanghai carrying an English dictionary under his arm-twelve- year-old Love Liu turns away from Chairman Mao's little red book and toward the teacher's big blue book for answers to his most pressing questions about love and life. But as a whole new world begins to open up for him, Love Liu must face a test more challenging than any he'll take in the classroom.
About the Author
Wang Gang is a critically acclaimed novelist and screenwriter in China. English is based on his experiences growing up in western China. He lives in Beijing. Martin Merz, a native speaker of English, has a degree in Chinese language and literature from Melbourne University in Australia and is completing a master’s degree in applied translation at the Open University of Hong Kong. Jane Weizhen Pan, a native speaker of Chinese, is a professional translator as well as an interpreter in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. She lives in Melbourne, Australia.
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