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Land of Big Numbers: Stories (Paperback)
February 2021 Indie Next List
“I loved this stunning debut collection of stories. Chen digs deep and uses her experience as a foreign correspondent to portray the voices and lives of people living in modern China. These stories will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading the book. Highly recommended.”
— Cody Morrison, Square Books, Oxford, MS
"Dazzling...Riveting." —New York Times Book Review
"Chen has one of the year's big debut books." —Philadelphia Inquirer
“Gripping and illuminating . . . At the heart of Te-Ping Chen’s remarkable debut lies a question all too relevant in 21st Century America: What is freedom?” —Jennifer Egan
“Immensely rewarding, from the first sentence to the last . . . An exceptional collection.” —Charles Yu
A “stirring and brilliant” debut story collection, offering vivid portrayals of the men and women of modern China and its diaspora, “both love letter and sharp social criticism,” from a phenomenal new literary talent bringing great “insight from her years as a reporter with the Wall Street Journal” (Elle).
Gripping and compassionate, Land of Big Numbers traces the journeys of the diverse and legion Chinese people, their history, their government, and how all of that has tumbled—messily, violently, but still beautifully—into the present.
Cutting between clear-eyed realism and tongue-in-cheek magical realism, Chen’s stories coalesce into a portrait of a people striving for openings where mobility is limited. Twins take radically different paths: one becomes a professional gamer, the other a political activist. A woman moves to the city to work at a government call center and is followed by her violent ex-boyfriend. A man is swept into the high-risk, high-reward temptations of China’s volatile stock exchange. And a group of people sit, trapped for no reason, on a subway platform for months, waiting for official permission to leave.
With acute social insight, Te-Ping Chen layers years of experience reporting on the ground in China with incantatory prose in this taut, surprising debut, proving herself both a remarkable cultural critic and an astonishingly accomplished new literary voice.
About the Author
TE-PING CHEN's fiction has been published in, or is forthcoming from, The New Yorker, Granta, Guernica, Tin House, and The Atlantic. A reporter with the Wall Street Journal, she was previously a correspondent for the paper in Beijing and Hong Kong. Prior to joining the Journal in 2012, she spent a year in China as a Fulbright fellow. She lives in Philadelphia.
Named a Most Anticipated Title of 2021 by:
Elle, Esquire, O Magazine, Buzzfeed, Newsweek, Refinery29, Lit Hub, The Millions, Bustle, Redbook, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Write or Die Tribe, Autostraddle, and The Buzz Magazines
Named a Best Book of February by Washington Post,O Magazine, Harper's Bazaar,Buzzfeed, and The Millions
Named a Best Book of the Year So Far by Esquire and the BBC
An Indie Next Pick
Named a Most Anticipated Title by a Woman of Color for 2021 by R.O. Kwon in Electric Literature
An Afar Media Book Club Selection
The Nervous Breakdown Book Club Selection
A Featured New Release from Lit Hub,The Millions, and Book Riot
A Great Story Collection of 2021 by an Asian-American Author from Book Riot
A Featured Debut from A Mighty Blaze
One of The Nerd Daily's 6 Must-Read Story Collections by POC Authors
“Dazzling...Riveting...Chen excels at gritty realism, vividly portraying the widening gap between China’s haves and have-nots...Though the characters never mention the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward or Tiananmen Square massacre by name, the turmoil of the past haunts them as they rush headlong into the future."
—New York Times Book Review
"A stirring and brilliant collection of stories probing the contradictions and beauties of modern China, Te-Ping Chen's debut is both love letter and sharp social criticism. Through scenes firmly planted in reality as well as tales of the bizarre and magical, Chen reveals portraits lovingly rendered with insight from her years as a reporter with the Wall Street Journal."
"Remarkable...Unfolds across the modern Chinese diaspora, pinballing between acutely observed realism and tragicomic magical realism...Each haunting, exquisitely crafted story poses powerful questions about freedom, disillusion, and cultural thought, firmly establishing Chen as an emerging visionary to watch."
"Dazzling...Rich and varied...Chen unleashes a powerful and enticing new voice, at times as strange as the dark fairy tale master Carmen Maria Machado, at others as inventive as the absurdist king George Saunders—but always layered with the texture available to a foreign correspondent who has seen it all...Story by story, in China and the U.S., Chen builds a world in which oppression and contentment coexist, not some awful near future but the bizarre here and now...At its most elegant, a Chen story isn’t all an artful reimagining of a cool newspaper feature but instead something more imagistic and elemental, a reflection on how we all live, no matter where we live. The logic of her observations can be terrifying. There is virtuoso writing, which serves to sharpen her political allegories...Perhaps the secret ingredient in Chen’s fusion of reporting chops and creative force is her core insight into human nature: that in the face of loneliness, unfairness, oppression, we rationalize; we cling to small comforts."
—Los Angeles Times
"As brilliant an instance of a journalist's keen eye manifesting in luminous fiction as one can find...Chen evinces a capacity to sweep with astonishing ease from individuals to communities, from the settled middle-class to rural poverty, from blazing dissidents to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) loyalists...[An] unlikely page-turner...Pretty much everything about Land of Big Numbers is specific and keen yet somehow generalizable. These stories could appear as news right now, at any moment...The broad strokes of it all, truly, could happen anywhere—maybe right where you are. It is a gift to read stories like this...Thank goodness for journalists like Chen, who even with fiction can teach us so much."
"[A] blazingly talented newcomer...The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Chen is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who spent several years covering Hong Kong and Beijing for the newspaper. In her debut story collection, Land of Big Numbers, she moves effortlessly between the two countries, illuminating the lives of ordinary, often damaged, people on both sides of the Pacific...Chen has said she’s interested in the trade-offs people are willing to make to prosper under repressive regimes, yet she is the least didactic of writers. Her characters are finely etched, often quirky, sometimes wonderful...These stories combine...the unadorned clarity of the very best newspaper writing and the inspired, weird, poetic inventions of fiction. Chen is the real deal."
"Provocative...Where a news story limits itself to questions that can be answered, Chen’s fiction embraces uncertainty and contradiction that at times make it feel truer than a dispatch...Chen’s stories are concerned with the poetry of mundane details. Readers of contemporary American fiction, which often charts the rhythms of the everyday, will find the stories in Land of Big Numbers familiar and accessible...Chen has a gift for allegory...Chen echoes some of Lahiri’s tone. Their characters grapple with alienation, loneliness, indecision, and inertia but are not usually beset by plot-churning death or disaster. Both authors resist endings that force a resolution or a revelation. Instead, their stories fade out softly, like a rung bell...Her fiction is not shorthand—nor is it journalism—but it manages to capture the humanity behind the headlines. With so many lines cut between the United States and China, the small cross-cultural bridge that Chen builds with Land of Big Numbers feels particularly welcome."
"This sharp collection of short stories about modern China...is as fine a portrayal of the last decade as any work of nonfiction. The stories range from tragic to satirical, but they’re rooted in a close observation of life in China—and in the surreal ups and downs of everyday life, bureaucracy, and oppression."
—Foreign Policy, Book Recommendation
"As a Wall Street Journal correspondent, Chen lived longer in Beijing than anywhere except her U.S. hometown. Her stories in this collection, following various Chinese characters, consider the very big question of what freedom means. The answers may surprise Chen’s fellow Americans."
"The masterful short fiction in this debut collection from a lauded journalist alchemizes her flair for reportage and a novelist’s gift of intimate grandiosity, portraying modern China and its denizens as a people in transition."
—O, the Oprah Magazine, 20 Best Books of February
“Brimming with tales of men and women in modern China desperately seeking a sense of reinvention.”
—O, the Oprah Magazine, with publication of the story "Hotline Girl"
"[A] vibrant debut...Uses magical realism (think a piece of fruit that reveals repressed memories) to depict the realities of China’s diverse people."
"Te-Ping Chen has one of the year’s big debut books...Chen calls her new collection of short stories set in China a 'love letter to the country as well as cultural criticism,' and you can feel that push and pull throughout Land of Big Numbers...Its pages are populated by everyday folks living and loving, and trying to navigate the rules and cruelties of a government that’s always looming just out of frame. Chen, who has traveled widely in China as a Wall Street Journal correspondent...employs magical realism with such a light touch it’s often difficult to distinguish the real-world absurdities from her inventions...That’s the China you find in Land of Big Numbers, one full of facets and fractions, a place that cannot be contained by one story, a place where, she says, 'over the top' elements are easily 'braided' into the real."
"Exquisitely observed...The stories are tethered to the realities of political repression and class yet are imbued with elements of magical realism. Together, they create a vivid portrait of life in contemporary China that is stifled by state control and yet tinged with humor, irony and tremendous longing."
—San Francisco Chronicle
"Sophisticated and startling...In Chen's tour de force, 'Gubeikou Spirit,' a group of passengers is stranded in a subway station, at first for a few hours, then days, and then in a surreal stretch, they are left in the station for months. Officials bring in food and mattresses and a giant TV, while guards prevent them from leaving.The passengers debate what to do: to obey authorities and stay or try to escape and perhaps face punishment. One man insists, 'The nation is watching us…We need to be role models.' The story could be a metaphor for stalled reforms or simply an observation of the human condition. All but one of Chen's stories are set in China, but her depictions of human frailty and hope are universal: How many people in any nation are brave enough or foolish enough to reject security to seek out the unknown?"
"These haunting, often dreamy, stories will stick with you for weeks."
—Buzzfeed, Most Anticipated February New Releases
"Chen’s debut short story collection explores the vast and diverse experiences of Chinese people, both in China and its diaspora globally, blending history, sociopolitics, and touches of magical realism in stories about people just trying to survive, and maybe even thrive."
—Buzzfeed, Most Anticipated Books of 2021
"In Land of Big Numbers, Chen’s debut collection of short stories about China and the Chinese diaspora abroad, she focuses on people on society’s fringes, with big desires framed against their small positions...Chen’s blend of factual social observations with a kind of magical realism perfectly illuminates China’s contradictions...For those who want a peek inside the country, this very readable collection of short stories is a great place to start."
“Gripping and illuminating, Land of Big Numbers offers intimate glimpses of the seductive power of state control: the Faustian bargaining it requires of its citizens, the landscapes and lives it forces them to discard in exchange for material prosperity. At the heart of Te-Ping Chen’s remarkable debut lies a question all too relevant in 21st Century America: What is freedom?”
—Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad and Manhattan Beach
“Immensely rewarding, from the first sentence to the last. Te-Ping Chen's writing is clear-eyed, pitch perfect, skillfully restrained and quietly powerful. I will be returning to these stories again, to enjoy them, be consoled by them, and marvel at them. An exceptional collection.”
—Charles Yu, National Book Award–winning author of Interior Chinatown
“Subtle, haunting, beautiful short stories of life in an unfree society.”
—Steve Inskeep of NPR's Morning Edition, said on Twitter
“A razor-sharp collection of stories spotlights the varying experiences of the Chinese diaspora through a multitude of finely wrought characters.”
“Te-Ping Chen's Land of Big Numbers is ripe with prose both sharp and beautiful. There is a rare brilliance and a feeling of necessity imbued in every word of these stories. At each story's end you feel wonderfully more awake, more connected and alive. This essential collection reminds us clearly that there is magic and violence all around us. This is a stunning debut.”
—Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, New York Times–bestselling author of Friday Black
"Chen’s impulse to pull in for the close-up on characters who might otherwise be ignored somehow makes the scope of the world around them feel even wider. Land of Big Numbers approaches character and emotion with subtle exactitude, but careens towards magical realism in its themes...It’s Kundera by way of Barthelme, with a bit of a modern pharmacological spirit. Chen examines a nation seized by the gravitational pulls of globalization, the internet, and new consumerism, but her writerly instinct stays under-the-fingernails intimate. She lets the forces of the world sneak in. The result is a collection of stories that’s impressive for holding tight to discrete moments in people’s lives, in order for us to feel how fast the world is spinning around them. In her debut work, Chen’s voice is sensitive, quick, funny, and caring, and over the course of our phone call in February, her responses echoed this same sharp, clarifying precision."
"Chen's beautifully crafted stories take place in diverse settings, mostly different Chinese urban and rural areas but a few American locales slip in; they are diverse in tone—some whimsical, some bittersweet—and also style. Some are straightforward, close to journalism; others, such as 'Lulu,' featuring a digital activist and set in a near future in which current technological trends have creepily moved forwards, veer into William Gibson territory. Perhaps the best is 'New Fruit,' with its elements of magic realism...In other tales, characters exalt in new possibilities for life and love...[An] admixture of tales that celebrate aspects of Chinese culture with ones that encourage reflection on autocracy, along with its cosmopolitanism."
—Times Literary Supplement
"A wry, tender look at contemporary China."
"The personal blends seamlessly with the political to create indelible portraits of contemporary Chinese citizens at home and abroad. Migration, ambition, class, and generational conflict wend their way through these 10 stories, most of which are from the point of view of millennials from remote regions seeking economic opportunity. Yet what they really seem to be looking for is connection, purpose, and new beginnings...Chen writes across genre, style, and tone, conveying both her fluid skills as a storyteller and the sometimes surreal and unpredictable experience of modern life...The collection’s most stunning story is 'Gubeikou Spirit,' a Kafkaesque study in human psychology and government bureaucracy...The story is ridiculous, epic, and finally poignant in its absurd depiction of survival under repression...[Chen] employs a journalist’s keen observational eye to images and details and is particularly deft at delineating the small and mundane aspects of daily life. Her prose has a clean, economical, reportorial style as well, and she is unafraid of leaving a story open-ended or feeling unresolved, allowing readers to draw their own meaning. But she also writes with humor, empathy, and affection for her characters, presenting snapshots of lives impacted by politics, economics, and history. While they contend with forces they can’t control, they still strive for hope and grace."
“Revelatory . . . Chen explores modern Chinese culture by examining myriad facets and exigencies of life there, reflecting on the past and present, anticipating the future. Chen writes with an almost hallucinatory lucidity about the minutia of a person's everyday experience, whether it's what it's like to work in the stock market or have an endless daily commute, nothing escapes Chen's observations, which are astute and clear-eyed, even as she occasionally throws in elements of the surreal in order to better capture the oddities of daily life.”
"Chen takes us to China and introduces us to a lively cast of characters...As a former foreign correspondent, Te-Ping Chen is well acquainted with the geography of the place and the people, and her intimate knowledge is sure to shine through in this debut."
"First-hand observations of contemporary China converge into this stunning debut collection...Chen’s fiction is a satisfying literary read as well as precise cultural criticism."
"Exciting...Told with tongue-in-cheek twists and moving across genres, Land of Big Numbers is a thrilling trip through modern-day China."
—Bustle, Most Anticipated Debuts of 2021
"Readers will find nuanced depictions of life in modern-day China featured in this short-fiction collection from a stunning new voice in American letters."
—Bustle, Most Anticipated Titles of 2021
"A collection of 10 new, eye-opening stories that explore the length and breadth of China's past, present, and future."
—Bustle, Most Anticipated Titles of February
"Highly recommend...Brimming with tales of men and women in modern China desperately seeking a sense of reinvention."
“An expansive look at modern China, as it struggles with the influence of the past and envisions a new future. Chen offers both realism and magical realism throughout the collection, which allows her to tackle her vision of Chinese culture with both clear-eyed practicality and dreamlike allegory.”
—Electric Literature, Most Anticipated
"[Chen] draws on her real-life experience as a journalist who spent years on the ground in Beijing, while also playfully gesturing to the surreal nature of living in the world’s most populous nation. I dove into her book as if reconnecting with a long-lost friend."
—Electric Literature, Interview with Author
"Chen makes her fiction debut with this collection that tells stories of modern China, its people, and its diaspora. The stories range in style from the sincere to the satirical, from the realistic to the absurd, and reflect on the multidimensional nature of life in China that Chen was able to witness and experience intimately over her years as a journalist based in Beijing."
"Deft at the short story form, Chen’s tales don’t linger on one moment for too long. There are beautiful details the artful reader can appreciate...Readers of Xuan Juliana Wang’s Home Remedies and Yiyun Li would take great delight in the stories found in Land of Big Numbers."
"Vibrant, cacophonous...Levels of reality abound in Chen’s stories, personal histories melding with repressed collective trauma, intimate love stories bumping up against the reality of crass commercialism, realism itself slipping—irrevocably, if barely noticeably—into the surreal. What binds these stories is Chen’s voice: confident, playful, boundlessly compassionate...With a sharp eye for detail and a sly sense of humor, Chen takes on the big questions of freedom, history, longing, an individual’s place in society."
—Rachel Heng, Asian-American Writers Workshop's The Margins
"Luminous...Chen's writing is captivating...She skillfully blends social commentary, politics and the human condition with a sprinkling of magical realism...While she does not shy away from the oppression or the disillusionment that the characters face, she is able to illuminate the beauty of ordinary life in Chinese society. Chen's love for her subjects and compassionate observation is seen throughout the collection and especially when describing common household scenes...The stories, although distinct, are woven together by threads of wistful longing. Chen's understated and nuanced language and pacing attest to her prowess as a great storyteller."
—Shelf Awareness, starred review
"Fine, well-crafted works...The prose is limpid, the observations acute, the situations original, the pacing near perfect. Read them."
—Asian Review of Books
"What can a collection of short stories portraying the diversity of China’s people say to America? Much, if those stories are from the pen of Te-Ping Chen...Chen writes with insight, illustrating the country's social strata with a deft, human touch...Gripping and compelling...In sparse, lingering prose—'a great wasteland of sorrow was opening up in him, unfolding dozens of tiny shacks, terrible squatters setting up residence, banging their miniature liquor bottles against his chest, a hundred feet trampling his organs'—Te-Ping Chen crafts a masterstroke of contemporary literature, both timely and prescient. The result is a touchstone of Chinese history perfectly positioned in the present."
“Puts a spotlight on the diversity of China’s people, their history, and government. Oscillating between precise realism and playful magical realism, the stories feature a woman stalked by an ex-boyfriend, citizens trapped on a train for months, and more.”
"An intimate portrait of modern China...Political and social tension pulses throughout."
—Women's Wear Daily
"Chen's stories are exquisitely crafted and told. Drawing from her years as a reporter, it feels no stone is left unturned in these stories about freedom, Chinese culture, activism, violence and more. She meticulously plots these stories that feel so grounded in reality—even when she’s toying with magical realism."
"Insightful, thought-provoking, and well-written."
—The Nerd Daily
“A spectacular work, comic, timely, profound. Te-Ping Chen has a superb eye for detail in a China where transformation occurs simultaneously too fast and too slow for lives in pursuit of meaning in a brave new world. Her characters are achingly alive. It’s rare to read a collection so satisfying, where every story adds to a gripping and intricate world.”
—Madeleine Thien, author of Booker finalist Do Not Say We Have Nothing
“This debut story collection is absolute fire. It has the great quixotic feel of being both ancient and modern all at once. I think fans of Megha Majumdar, Kamila Shamsie, and Jhumpa Lahiri would love this one!”
—Amy Jo Burns, author of Shiner
“An intricately constructed, tenderly observed collection—the sort of stories that skillfully transport you into the daily experience of characters so real, who speak to you with such grace and tangible presence, that you could almost reach out and touch them. Through the lens of these different voices, each vividly alive, Te-Ping Chen shows us how much life, loss, and quiet pleasure exists in the world, just out of view.”
—Alexandra Kleeman, author of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine and Intimations
"Land of Big Numbers offers a great insight into modern-day China, picking up on the minor idiosyncrasies that keep society ticking...Most of the stories have a dreamlike quality to them, much like a short by Haruki Murakami. They start off normal enough, regarding love or aspiration, and then transpire through a tunnel of hallucinatory reality—a total blurring of the lines...I highly recommend this to anyone who wants to learn more about Chinese culture. Given it’s a collection of short stories, they’re easily digestible thanks to Chen’s remarkable insight. Matched with her journalistic eye for detail, each offers a new perspective on a once shrouded nation. If you’re a fan of Murakami’s short stories, then definitely pick this one up; you won’t be disappointed."
"A colossal collection...At its worst, the stories are excellent. At its best, they're masterpieces. An absolute must-read!"
—Books and Bao
“Wall Street Journal correspondent Chen emerges as a fiction powerhouse, each of her 10 stories an immersive literary event...Traversing continents and cultures, moving effortlessly between China and the U.S., Chen deftly presents everyday lives that entertain, educate, and universally resonate.”
—Booklist, starred review, Review of the Day
"Astonishing collection of stories about life in contemporary China, by a Chinese-American writer...[Chen] has an eye for the wry, poignant detail...She is gentle and understanding with her characters, so that their choices, desires, and regrets open up, petal-like, in story after story...Again and again, Chen reveals herself to be a writer of extraordinary subtlety...She is a tremendous talent. Chen’s stories are both subtle and rich, moving and wry, and in their poignancy, they seem boundless."
—Kirkus, starred review
“Haunting . . . [a] strong debut . . . Chen’s sweeping collection comprises many small moments of beauty.”