The Vagrants, By Yiyun Li

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The Independent Culture

Before eliminating his enemies, Chairman Mao humiliated them in public with dunce's caps and jeering crowds. It is much easier to kill a man once he has been stripped of his humanity. The Vagrants, a debut novel, is set in China in the spring of 1979 in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. It opens with a harrowing denunciation ceremony in the town of Muddy River; Gu Shan, a 28-year-old woman, has lost her political "faith" and, after ten years in jail, is about to be executed.

Mao-suited officials, blown out with self-importance, encourage hand-clapping and flag-waving as the woman is bundled on stage by police and made to face an audience of Pioneer schoolchildren and townsfolk. If Gu Shan is aware of her eroded human status, she is not allowed to show it, as her vocal cords have been severed. Amid jeers she is hurried to a waiting police van, and driven to her death. Over the following six weeks, 80 or so Muddy River citizens stage a protest. All Gu Shan had done was let slip a few ill-advised remarks about Mao in a letter to a boyfriend, who denounced her. Clutching symbolic white flowers, they queue up to sign a petition calling for her posthumous "rehabilitation". Shortly afterwards, they are rounded up by investigators sent in from Beijing, and "purged" (imprisoned or tortured).

The novel is based on a true story which took place in China two years after Mao's death. The winds of change are blowing through the provinces, yet neighbours are still not to be trusted. Gu Shan's father, a former teacher, is unable to accept what his daughter has done, while her mother is devastated. Other citizens caught up in the "anti-government unrest" include Nini, a young girl with a disability, her 19-year-old suitor Bashi, and beautiful Kai, a newsreader married to a Party official.

Yiyun Li explores these ordinary lives with great sensitivity. Fearing guilt by association, children distance themselves from their parents, or report them to the police. Street-sweepers, factory hands and other "vagrants" are all affected by the execution, a minority exposed as "hidden enemies" within the Party. The Vagrants asks if there was something innately obedient in the Chinese character under 1970s communism. The Red Guard had brooked no criticism of the red leader; "problem citizens" were shut up in reformatories or beaten to death. Even Shan herself, in the days before her political conversion, had been a Red Guard. Yet look at her now, buried in a pauper's grave. Her blighted political life (in Maoist speak, "spoiled biography") had ill-conformed to the communist stereotype of the happy golden youth.

With its controlled understatement and scrupulous and unsparing lucidity, The Vagrants is a work of great moral poise and dignity. These days, few writers can be said to possess gravitas; yet Yiyun Li exudes a seriousness that would be remarkable in one twice her age. As a chronicle of political betrayal under a modern dictatorship, The Vagrants is a minor classic; I have not read such a compelling work in years.

Ian Thomson's 'The Dead Yard' is published by Faber in May