Nothing Beautiful Was as it Seemed: Te-Ping Chen Interviewed by Yangyang Cheng

A short story collection that weaves together the complex reality of life in China.

Land Of Big Numbers1

A country is as real as it is imagined. Experiences are filtered through the person; memories are shaded by time. From geography to history, from population size to economic might, the scale of China can easily confound and distort. Both the discourse from Beijing and the gaze from the West tend to paint it with a broad brush, projecting fears and aspirations, ideology and agenda. A billion faces blur into the light or disappear into the darkness. A billion lives distill into a shared statistic. An absorbing writer knows how to tap into this nebulous complexity. She shows us how the space between the real and imagined, is a world all its own.

A few years before I left China for graduate school, a young American student named Te-Ping Chen visited her ancestral homeland for the first time and later returned to it as a journalist. I followed her reporting from China in The Wall Street Journal for years, but I encountered Chen—the creative writer—for the first time in April 2019, when The New Yorker published her short story “Lulu.” I recall the moment vividly as a literary event. The title character went from being a promising university student to a political prisoner. In less skilled hands, the plot could have been a cliché, but Chen realized it with a distinct beauty and understanding unlike any other story I had read about China.

In Land of Big Numbers (Mariner Books), Chen writes with tenderness and grit. Her characters display a quiet dignity that rejects simplistic symbolism for a more nuanced rendering. I recognize in them glimmers of my younger self and the people who raised me. The world she’s created is at once familiar and fascinating. A few of the stories, blended with elements of science fiction, easily transcend time and space, taking the form of a fable. I do not believe literature should be read with geopolitics in mind; however, in a world increasingly fractured by nationalism, the stories of ordinary Chinese people in their universal struggles are as timeless as they are urgent.

 —Yangyang Cheng 


Yangyang Cheng As a working journalist, how do you negotiate the boundaries between reporting and creative writing? 

Te-Ping ChenWith journalism, you’re reporting, pulling from your notebook and from many specific conversations. Then you sit down and stitch it together, pulling from a particular, bounded memory bank. I’ve always liked that process—the challenge and feeling of creation that comes with trying to understand how the pieces all fit. 

By contrast, with fiction, it’s possible to draw from a much broader reservoir—the whole catalogue of emotions you’ve ever felt or accessed: that expression on a neighbor’s face you spied once when you were ten, history books, that conversation you had with a stranger on a plane last year. At times, it does feel like exercising a similar muscle as journalism, or any kind of writing, really—that act of going to the well. But you have so many more reserves, and so much more freedom of motion, because of it. 

YCIn a BOMB interview from 2011, Teju Cole and Aleksandar Hemon criticize the distinction between fiction and non-fiction in literature. Cole, referencing his art history background, says that one would not categorize a painting as real or imagined. What is your take on this?

TCI’m sympathetic to the point, but probably disagree. You wouldn’t call a painting real or imagined. A photograph, though, is a different medium than a painting, and the difference between the two is meaningful. All photographs are, of course, composed and have a subjective imprint on them—in the same way all journalism does—but they generally capture a moment with more literal fidelity than, say, a painting might. Though a painting (like fiction) can often capture an experience, emotion, or idea in a more powerful way.

And while some paintings more closely resemble photographs (and vice versa)—and both are very much forms of art—it does seem important to me to let readers know what is based on reportage, and what’s not. 

YC“Lulu” is the story of a young Chinese woman who paid a heavy price for her online activism, told through her twin brother in the first person. In “Field Notes on a Marriage,” the narrator, an American woman, visits her husband’s hometown in China after his suicide. If Lulu and the Chinese man were real, a reporter like yourself could hypothetically interview people close to them and reconstruct their lives. Is there a journalistic element in choosing these points of view? 

TC In “Field Notes on a Marriage,” the dead husband is the main character, and one narrated (incompletely, imperfectly) by his wife. That story in many ways is about the gaps of knowledge we have of other people, which is something I’ve thought a lot about, including as a reporter. In the case of those characters you mention, you’re right, we could try and construct their lives through interviews, but the stories would inevitably be interpreted and re-interpreted by people who might need or want to represent themselves, or their loved ones, in a certain light. And so, in the end, you might wind up with something like “Field Notes,” something filtered through love and longing and a feeling of grasping after something that you might not ever really know.

Te Pin Chen By Lucas Foglia

Photo of Te-Ping Chen by Lucas Foglia.

YCOne story in the book that touched me in a different way from the rest is “Shanghai Murmur.” As a high school student in China, I read quite a bit of contemporary fiction by young Chinese women, popular at the time. Later, I grew to absolutely resent that type of writing and felt ashamed of my younger self who enjoyed it. 

Your story, written with much more maturity and nuance, invoked a familiar ache, a sensation I did not know I’m still capable of feeling! Now I can see a hint of my younger self in the main character, the flower shop girl, who was witnessing new wealth around her, experiencing unrequited love, and fantasizing about a Cinderella-like transformation to her circumstances. 

Could you describe your process in creating this story? Are there any literary influences or experiences you drew on? 

TC I had worked in a flower shop growing up, and it always struck me as a place where so many stories intersected, as a crossroads of sorts. A lover’s hopeful bouquet, a rose centerpiece for a new mother, the geometric lines of a funeral spray. All of it so neatly presented, but behind the scenes, there was the chilly stockroom and the hard work, and scrubbing, and the stench of rotting flowers. I was in high school when I worked there, and I spent a lot of time imagining the lives of people who came and went, and in many ways the experience served as the starting point for that character. The rest of her world and its contrasts, her crush on that customer and the ache she feels for him and her broader adopted home of Shanghai—all of that followed from there.

When I was working at the shop and flowers started to wilt, we used to do things like run wires through the hollow stems of marigolds and other flowers to hold them upright. Nothing beautiful was as it seemed, and that’s what the character finds, too, in her experience of the city.

YCYour stories are about China and Chinese lives, but ordinary folks in China cannot read them due to linguistic barriers and censorship. Is this something you think about? I ask this for completely selfish reasons. As someone born and raised in China, who writes about China in English from the US, I constantly struggle with the notion of fidelity, not in relation to the government but to the people: is writing about them in a medium they cannot access a form of betrayal? What is your view on this?

TCAs a reporter for an American newspaper whose website was blocked in China, that was the experience I always had working in the country, of knowing that most of what I wrote wouldn’t be read by a Chinese audience, not for linguistic reasons—the Wall Street Journal has a Chinese website too—but because of censorship.

I didn’t think about it much with regard to the book, because I didn’t expect it would be published, or that anyone would necessarily read it, Chinese or not. When writing these stories, if I’m being honest, I was really writing them for myself. It’s hard to live in China and not be struck by what you’re seeing around you—part of me worried if I wasn’t writing everything down, it would slip away, like water through the fingers; this book was my attempt to try and stanch some of the flow.  

But I did think about it a lot as a reporter, and it was something I found deeply uncomfortable. As a journalist, you want to be part of an ecosystem, to be read by the people you’re covering, and in China, the government decided to largely wall us out. 

YCToni Cade Bambara said that “writing is one of the ways I participate in struggle.” The line resonates with me because I’ve always seen my intellectual endeavors as working towards liberation, both to free myself and to imagine a world where everyone can be free. I was trained and until very recently worked as a physicist. When I started writing a few years ago, I was prompted not by the beauty of language but by the ugliness of politics. As I gradually embrace writing as an art, I question this initial and enduring motivation of mine: Should art be a form of resistance? Is there extra pressure on writers from marginalized communities to produce art that is?

TCI have thought about this, too. Part of me wants to agree and say yes, art is a form of resistance. But I mistrust that instinct, and suspect it comes with an invisible corollary, namely, this feeling that someone like myself isn’t otherwise allowed to try and create. For me, that feeling is a species of self-doubt, of otherwise not feeling worthy. Fair enough—I think self-doubt can be a good thing! And yet I ultimately chafe at the idea that art should be a form of resistance, because if you’re imposing a purpose on art, and saying it needs to conform to a certain message, then what we’re talking about starts to feel closer in nature to propaganda.

I’m also frustrated by what you allude to, this idea that expectations of creating “protest art” are often applied to marginalized communities in particular. I think art is, or should be, a much more personal choice.

YCIn these troubled times, survival alone can be an act of defiance! The last story in the book, “Gubeikou Spirit,” is about a group of passengers trapped in a subway station. I assume it was written before the pandemic? Was choosing it as the closing chapter influenced by COVID-19? 

After almost a year of isolation and quarantine, how do you see this story now? Has anything changed from how you initially conceived it?

TCYes, it was written before the pandemic, and was always the book’s closing story, because of the way it ends—I won’t further spell out, for fear of spoilers!

But you’re right, it’s so interesting to think about it in light of the pandemic, and events that have followed since. “Gubeikou Spirit” is about people who have their lives stripped from them by state bureaucracy, but more to a point, it’s a story about how readily they come to embrace their new normal. It’s a tale about how scarily adaptable people can be, and our ability to survive and grow acclimated to all kinds of circumstances—a trait that I find at once inspiring and disturbing. I didn’t write it knowing that a pandemic was coming, and of course the circumstances of our changed lives are very different from what happens to those characters. But as in the story, it’s extraordinary to think of how the world has changed, and how much we’ve gotten used to, all in a very short span of time.

Land of Big Numbers is available for purchase here.

Yangyang Cheng is a particle physicist and a postdoctoral fellow at Yale Law School. Her essays have been published in the New York Times, The Guardian, Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places. She is working on a book about science and the Chinese state.

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