Book Review: Hao by Ye Chun

Hao – Ye Chun (Catapult, 2021)

I received an Advance Reading Copy of this book. All opinions are my own. It will be available for sale 7 September 7, 2021.

This was such a unique short story collections. Many of these stories centre around language, particularly the Chinese language and its writing, and each story focuses on women. The stories themselves have quite a variety; some are historical, some have modern settings. The women in them vary from rich to poor, from struggling as new immigrants in foreign countries to being established in their own places. For each though there is an uncertainty, a feeling that they are on the cusp of change. Whether that change is the end of a relationship, a baby, or a new life in another country, each woman is faced with upheaval in small or large ways.

In “Stars”, our main character is recovering from a stroke which has left her bereft of all language except the Chinese word “hao”. A Chinese immigrant living in America, her language therapy all occurs in English, her second language, and seems unable to unlock her own language memories. In “Milk” a desperate mother does whatever it takes to provide for her son after her husband disappears in the city. “Wenchuan” is based on the true and heartbreaking stories of the schools that collapsed in the 2008 earthquake where Wenchuan was the epicentre. The buildings were poorly constructed and hundreds of children were trapped and killed because of this. This short story uses a first person plural narration to tell of the mothers after the earthquake. The way a community rebuilds or falls apart after such a tragedy. It bears some of the language of an epic poem, a tragic chorus of mothers who cannot bear that their children’s lives be forgotten.

Through each story, language and particularly written language is a crucial aspect. The cadence and style of Ye’s writing often had me forgetting that these stories were written in English. They had the rhythm of a very excellent translation from Chinese. Ye herself is a bilingual Chinese American writer and this definitely shows as she uses story to tell about Chinese language. Written Chinese is a character-based language, quite different from English. Combined characters can mean other words and these combinations have great nuance and meaning. In the story “Hao”, set in China in 1966, we see the power of the written language with the main character of Qingxin, an intellectual who has been targeted by the government, whose husband has been killed and who suffers when she inadvertently writes the wrong character one day. Yet she also uses language and writing to bring hope to her young daughter when they play their “word game”, tracing characters on each others backs at night.

The final story “Signs” tells about the birth of the Oracle Bone Script, the ancestor of today’s Chinese characters. It is a thoughtful story about how people communicate, what the physical world means to us and how we relate to our surroundings. Seeing as the story is written in English, it’s easy to imagine that Ye’s intent is to help non-Chinese readers understand the language’s history and what makes it so different and unique from Western languages.

All together, this makes for a fascinating and very readable collection. It will be a pleasure to see what further writing we get from Ye Chun.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: Hao by Ye Chun”

  1. This really does sound fascinating and like a good entry for my Transmongolian reading challenge! While I don’t read a lot of short stories, I do like the focus on the Chinese language and the way we communicate – that sounds right up my street.

    1. Oh yes, it might be an interesting one for that. I enjoyed seeing the differences between our languages and particularly how the differences in written communication can alter the ways we think about the world.

    2. I agree that the focus on language sounds the most interesting. I’m especially curious about your note on the way the author wrote in English, but it reads with a rhythm like Chinese? It’s so cool that you are able to notice that thanks to your background in China.

    3. It’s fascinating how different written Chinese is from written English and how that changes the ways we think between the two languages. I find there’s often a cadence to Chinese when it’s translated into English where it’s grammatically correct but not quite how you or I would state something. I noticed that here even though the author is fluent in both languages. I’m curious if she did that intentionally.

  2. Sounds beautiful! Learning the chinese language sounds incredibly daunting, so anything that helps showcase the beauty of that language to english-speakers is always a plus in my mind 🙂

    1. It’s so completely different from English, which makes it extra daunting. So it is nice when books can bridge that gap a little.

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