Although we’ve been corresponding for almost five years, I have never met Te-Ping Chen. Early on, she told me that she was writing fiction, and that these stories were “a little private store of joy outside my day-to-day journalism.” I felt an immediate kinship with her. Back then, she was living in Beijing where she worked for the Wall Street Journal. I had been writing fiction about China after—many years ago—giving up my own journalistic dreams.

In 2017, Te-Ping sent me the stories from Land of Big Numbers. Embarrassingly, it took me ages to read them. My father’s death had gutted me, I was starting a new job in a new city, my brain cells moved in slow motion. At last, I slid the two-inch stack of paper from its envelope, snapped off the elastics holding it together, and began to read.

I was gobsmacked.

Te-Ping Chen, I thought, is clearly some kind of self-taught genius. The stories are agile, dizzying, bursting at the seams—and madly skillful. Each story crystallizes into a marvelous form. But more than that Te-Ping writes about history and politics through its kernel, the complicated human being.

You, lucky reader, can read one of the stories from the collection, “Gubeikou Spirit,” right here.

I won’t give away its brilliance, but allow me some parenthetical thoughts. In 2021, we may feel a shiver of recognition with Pan, Jun and the subway passengers who find themselves sliding uneasily “into this new life.” Down in Gubeikou Station, the speed of the 21st century collides with something equally powerful, and even mountainous—us. But what is that us?

Faced with the unthinkable, we hoard, grow suspicious, act on fear; we also reinvent, build community, and create new conditions for surviving. We toggle between being citizens and mere passengers. How quickly we cease to register our unfree conditions! But also: how movingly we make alternative demands of freedom. As the story observes, “It could not be determined if she had always been so incoherent, or if it was life at Gubeikou that had made her so.”

Complicated, provocative, hilarious, joyful, frustrating, liberating, the China of Land of Big Numbers is the China many of us know, the China we hope others might perceive: a place rife with knowledge about all of us, our social fabric, our politics, our human natures. After so long yearning to leave the underground, Pan voices the questions that assail many who stand before the future they said they wanted: What, in our dreams and stories, in our efforts, were we moving towards? And what, exactly, are we waiting for?

Madeleine Thien
Author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing