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Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

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By Madeleine Thien

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19 reviews

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In Canada in 1991, ten-year-old Marie and her mother invite a guest into their home: a young woman who has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Her name is Ai-Ming. As her relationship with Marie deepens, Ai-Ming tells the story of her family in revolutionary China, from the crowded teahouses in the first days of Chairman Mao’s ascent to the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s and the events leading to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989.

It is a history of revolutionary idealism, music, and silence, in which three musicians, the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to.

Forced to re-imagine their artistic and private selves, their fates reverberate through the years, with deep and lasting consequences for Ai-Ming – and for Marie. Written with exquisite intimacy, wit and moral complexity, Do Not Say We Have Nothing magnificently brings to life one of the most significant political regimes of the 20th century and its traumatic legacy, which still resonates for a new generation.

It is a gripping evocation of the persuasive power of revolution and its effects on personal and national identity, and an unforgettable meditation on China today.


19 Apr 2018


A powerful novel telling the history of China from Mao's Cultural Revolution to Tiananmen Square through the lives of 3 classical musicians. The history is made personal and shocking as we get to know the characters and the direct impact of events and policies on their lives is made explicit. I also learned lots about music. Overall I was gripped by the book which is all the more horrific because it's all based on fact. The story is told as a fractured narrative with flashbacks and second or third hand tellings of individual stories which all kept me on my toes and I had to concentrate quite hard at times to keep in mind who was whom & how they related to one another. That probably says more about me than the book which was well written, hard hitting and informative.

22 Jun 2017


I read this book as part of our reading groups participation in the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction.

I must admit, I wasn’t looking forward to Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, it being something I wouldn’t normally pick up. I thought it was going to be an overtly tedious, stodgy read; however, the first few pages seemed to be changing my mind. I actually enjoyed them and I truly was pleased that my initial disregard for it would be proved wrong and that it would end up being a wonderful, deeply and moving book that would change my opinion on historical fiction forever. Only after those few pages were over and I read more and more, I was sadly proved right with my initial thoughts – it was overtly tedious and stodgy.

Wondering if I was alone in this, I made my way to Amazon and found something that seemed to sum up exactly how I was feeling.

Zangiku wrote: “I hate it primarily because it is so staggeringly pretentious. . . I hate it for its deliberate obscurity, its pomposity, its repetitive meandering tales, endless jargon and interminable political palaver. I hate it because its subject matter is an epic morality tale that could electrify [and] educate readers were it only left to tell itself, rather than harnessed to serve the author's ego [and] her sloppy, boring book.”

Thien doesn’t actually tell us anything; she insists on writing streams of words that she of course understands, but the reader is left knowing nothing new. Was it not her intention to educate us about Chinese history instead of leaving me wondering what “orioles and cardinals” are? (I’m pretty sure she was referring to the birds, and not the American football teams.) Would it have been a strain for her to explain it? Is enlightenment not an eastern philosophy after all? It’s not as if the rest of the novel was concise and cleanly written, instead she fully engaged in writing twenty words when one would have sufficed.

I wish I was exaggerating when I say that whenever I tried to read the book, I fell asleep. No matter the time of day or location, whenever I tried to give it another go, soon I was nodding straight off. I doubt it was the author’s intention to provide a sleep aid, but apparently it worked better than Nytol. As plain and childish as it may sound, it was just deeply and powerfully – boring. I don’t mean being ‘on hold’ boring, I mean waiting for dial up boring.

Personally, I was unable to form any attachments to the confusing mix of bland characters, and I wasn’t convinced by any of their relationships either. In me, Thien had an enthusiastic reader who wanted to know about Chinese history in an exciting and electrifying way, someone who wanted to learn about the struggles real people went through, only she misfired and simply turned me off faster than Gordon Brown eating rice cakes while playing darts in culottes, a string vest and socks with sandals.

Another reviewer on Good Reads expressed how he had to take a piece of paper and draw a family tree to keep track of all the characters. I’m afraid this isn’t what I’m looking for when I’m reading a book as I don’t have an account on If I wanted confusion to this level, I’d rather think about how to fold a fitted bedsheet or what the Harry Potter Sorting Hat does for the other 364 days of the year.

I’m not one to give up on a novel; I’ve stuck through and forced myself to read some absolute questionable one star reads, but with this, I resented every second spent on reading it when I could have been reading something much better. The thing that pains me the most is that I’ve wasted previous reading hours on this book, hours that I’m unable to get back.

Truly the worst thing I’ve ever picked up.

07 Jun 2017


I did not expect to adore this book as much as I do.

When reading the blurb it sounded interesting and I thought it would be a good read, if not slightly too political for me, but oh! How wrong I was!

This is a lyrical and fairy-tale like novel that mixes fact and fable with joyful ease.

The story is essentially a coming of age novel about the 11-year old Marie (Ma-li) growing up in Canada, dealing with the death of her father, protests and politics going on in China that she does not really understand and then a burgeoning relationship with a girl who turns into an adoptive sister, Ai-Ming.

Ai-Ming seeks help from Ma-li’s mother, since her father and Ma-li’s father used to know each other. Infact, Ai-Ming’s father tutored Ma’li’s father in the art of music and composition.

While you have this contemporary story going on in the 1990’s, Ai-Ming also provides a history of her family and it’s ties to Ma-li, going back 60 years. 60 years through the communist regime and all the heart-breaking things that people had to do to survive.

Even thought this deals with quite a heavy subject matter, I didn’t find it depressing but inspirational. Even when I read the story – it did not really feel like reading but more being swept along in a fairytale.

Thien has done a marvellous job of writing this book and it’s my favourite to win the Baileys Prize!

05 Jun 2017

I am reading this book as part of our reading groups participation in the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction.
It did take me a while to get 'into' it, as there is a large cast of characters and it is not the sort of book I would normally choose. I am persevering, I am half way through and I find I have to go back sometimes to relate the characters as there are a lot. The whole transition during the turbulent times I found depressing, so can only imagine the horrors people went through. A very confusing and conflicting time where people’s minds were played with. As I read on I am getting hooked on the characters and wanting to know what happens to them. Through the book I am learning many facts about what the people went through. I have read other books based in China but from previous era’s.

02 Jun 2017

I read this book as part of our reading groups participation in the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction.
I was a little unsure when I first began to read the novel and it did take me a while to get 'into' it, as there is a large cast of characters and it is not the sort of book I would normally choose. However, once I had, I did appreciate the book. It is a sweeping, epic tale of the impact of the Communist regime and the Chinese revolution. At times it is a difficult read, and I found it hard to comprehend how the regime, took hold and had such a far-reaching effect on the people of China; the hardships, brutality and repression- even down to the control of people's thoughts! It was beautifully written with poetic prose and some lovely original phrases. I did get to care about the main characters even though I did not find them particularly relatable, there was some light-humour, brought in with some of the them and I wanted to know how they fared. It was a long book and I think the middle section could be a little repetitive and could have been shortened. That said I would definitely say that this book is worth a read, it gives a great insight into what life was like during those difficult times and you feel that you learn more about a different culture its history and its people, but it makes you appreciate, that despite these differences we all have the same fundamental human needs, desires and dreams.

01 Jun 2017

Vicki Goldie

This is a very rich. textured book. It reminded me of the perennial Wild Swans by Jung Chang.
This book is set in Canada, Hong Kong, and China. In Chinese history it covers the period from the beginning of Chairman Mao up to Tiananmen Square. As such it is absolutely fascinating and a history that I had no idea about. I did occasionally lose track of who was who as it has a it has a large cast of characters. It was moving, funny, and tragic. Not a page turner but a deeply immersive novel.
It is beautifully written and would make an excellent Book Club choice. it will stay with you for a long time afterwards. This will be high on my list.

30 May 2017

Having read none of the author's previous works, I wasn't sure what to expect from the book as the synopsis sounded ominous . What I found was a beautifully written but at times harrowing and brutal account of China under Chairman Mao's savage rule, seen through the eyes of some of the characters both in past and present China and Canada.
I have heard snippets of China past history but did not know the scope of what its people had to endure. The 'struggle' sessions, self-criticisms, the fact that the Chinese Government dictated where you lived, worked and how you thought was eye-opening and harrowing to read. But through it there were snippets of humor provided by 'Big Mother Knife' and some of the passages were poetic in their prose.
I like the way the author presented the second part of the book marked as a zero instead of traditionally 'Part 2' and the way the chapters worked backwards 7,6,5... thought this was clever and original. The 'number zero' is explained and all its meanings and interpretations in the book.
My only criticism is that some sections of the book were rather overlong but other than that I would thoroughly recommend this book and read the authors past and further works.

30 May 2017

A beautifully crafted novel. The prose was poetic and melodic, peppered with both humour and horror. The book is a good introduction to the history of communist China, and made me want to know more (particularly interestingly when compared to the Western world portrayed by the author). However, I do feel that the novel suffered from a somewhat meandering narrative and a plethora of characters. I went through cycles of giving up hope of being engaged to not wanting to put the book down in the next 20-odd pages. At the start, it was somewhat difficult to get my head around who the characters were and their relationships. I felt that a family tree would have been helpful (but obviously redacted to avoid any potential spoilers!)

Overall: an interesting and poetic novel, which has inspired me to learn more. If a friend wanted to learn more about communist China, I'd tell them about this book. But I am not personally motivated to rush out and buy another book by Thien or actively recommend her to others.

20 May 2017

Unfortunately, this book was not for me. I was initially very excited at the prospect of learning more about this period in history, but the philosophical references started to bore me and I thought that there were unnecessary parts which drew out the story, such as the explanations of traditional Chinese script at the beginning. I found myself thinking of other storylines which would have gripped me further than the ones presented by the author. I found this a very heavy read and it was hard for me to keep myself engaged with it.

17 May 2017

Quite simply the best book I've read so far in 2017. Sweeping in scope, full of detail, characters I fell in love with and I also learned things without feeling preached to.

This book is the fictional partner to Wild Swans and I loved every second spent reading this one.

04 Nov 2016

Music, story telling and family connect the central characters of this moving tale of political oppression, personal loss and survival. Madeleine Thien's characters are vivid and alive, and it is hard not to become emotionally attached to them as you witness the mayhem brought upon their lives by political revolution and displacement. Their voices powerfully convey the cruelty and inhumanity of communist China through the 1940s to the 1980s, how it destroyed families, tore apart communities and devastated individual lives. It is also though, a reflection on how the bonds of family love and human kinship can survive despite great adversity and political subjugation. At the heart of the story are a group of talented young classical musicians whose education and careers are at the mercy of faceless authorities; as they try to develop their talents and focus on their studies they are overwhelmed by the upheavals of revolution, and their support for each other through a love of music is put to the test. Spanning out from the young musicians are the interwoven lives of their families and friends, and their individual journeys of personal adaptation and survival. Large sections of the story are narrated in the present day by the daughter of a family who escaped to the west; as she searches for answers to the unanswered questions about her predecessors lives she uncovers more than she ever expected to find.

25 Oct 2016

The start of this book gripped me and intrigued me in equal measures, a story set across continents, following the characters through different times. The historical backdrop of communist China (something I ashamedly knew little about) providing a bleak backdrop for the colourful, well written characters. However the middle section, full of the uncomfortable horrors of living under Mao's regime left me feeling disengaged. Though full of historical detail it was at times repetitive and unemotional. This section seemed to drag and I didn't feel as compelled to continue reading as I had before, even thinking of not finishing it. Perhaps this was a deliberate choice by Thien to try and give the reader a glimpse of the confusion and frustration of living through these events. The end of the book gripped me again as many of the plot lines came together, the pace and sense of urgency returned as the story moved to the Tiananmen Square protests, but by this time I couldn't re-engage with the characters and had become detached from the plot. It's not an easy or enjoyable read but I'm glad I finished it.

24 Oct 2016

A slow burn that gets under your skin and won’t let go.
I struggled with Do Not Say We Have Nothing to start with – there are lots of characters to get to know and because we encounter them at different times in their lives the reader is left to do a lot of filling in the gaps.

But subtly, as the heart-rending choices the characters are forced to make are played out, the book took hold of me and I got to the point where I couldn’t put it down. Thien raises so many questions about identity – what is it that makes us who we are? If we’re forbidden from loving who we love, listening to the music that’s defined us, doing the job that we’ve always wanted to do – all those markers of individualism in the west – are we still us? How do we know?

The novel provides no easy answers, and it’s not exactly what I’d call an easy read, but it’s captivating and haunting, weaving fiction and reality as deftly as the musical scores that are so beautifully and evocatively described in the text, occasionally dropping in curve balls in the form of photographs that left me questioning the entire concept of what is ‘true’. I loved it.

24 Oct 2016

This book fascinated me but actually made me feel a little ashamed that I didn't know more about the true horror of living in this era in China. I learnt a lot and now want to learn some more. I was engrossed by the start and end of the book - I could engage with the characters, I could feel what they were experiencing and I cared about what happened to them. Sadly, I didn't feel the same about the middle section. It felt slower and a little repetitive in terms of the scenes - people being shipped off to who knows where, the work camps, the punishments, the brutal meetings - and I got confused by what was going on. I didn't get the same level of engagement - someone in my book group said they felt like they were on the edge of the story, which was the perfect description of how my feelings about the book changed. Maybe this was deliberate, maybe the author wanted to show how those living through these events had to have a certain level of detachment or perhaps how the regime made society act that way, but it meant the book lost my interest and reading it became a bit of a chore. However, the events towards the end had me gripped once more. It's worth a read, for the history lesson alone, but have plenty of spare time set aside before you open it!

20 Oct 2016

I was quite excited at the prospect of reading this book. A novel set in communist China and covering the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 was definitely of interest. And, indeed, I found the historical side extremely interesting and the depiction of the horrors of living day to day under Mao’s regime fascinating. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to keep me engaged and I found my interest waning after initial enthusiasm. I never really felt that I got to know the characters or gained any understanding of their motivations and this meant that I found the book pretty hard going, especially for long sections in the middle.

19 Oct 2016

All novels tell of individual lives, but in Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing passing on those tales has extra significance. Set amid the horrors of China’s Communist and Cultural revolutions, when failure to conform is a death sentence, the book focuses on two families of musicians – and the price they pay for survival.

By 1990, Marie is growing up in the safety of Canada and trying to come to terms with her father’s suicide, when Ai-ming, the daughter of his mentor, seeks refuge after becoming involved in the Tiananmen Square protest.

Helped by Ai-ming, Marie begins to piece together the decades of suffering that have gone before. The story that follows snakes back and forth between generations, perspectives and locations. It is impressively constructed and beautifully written, but it isn’t an easy read.

With millions of Chinese dying as a result of state-sponsored brutality, and those clinging onto life robbed of the right to act and even think independently, submission is everything: a single word out of place can be fatal.

For Marie and Ai-ming’s parents and grandparents, passing on chapters of The Book of Records becomes a way to preserve precious fragments of individuality – and share vital coded information – as they move around the country.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a novel you need to clear a whole weekend for. Dip in and out, and you could easily lose your grip on the intricately woven narrative. Give it the time and attention it deserves, though, and an understated yet chilling exposé of life in 20th-century China will unfold.

17 Oct 2016

Some horrendous torture scenes were well described and sadness evoked at losses of various sorts. There were too many characters for me to follow exactly what was happening. It was a very heavy going book, often felt like a history lesson.

15 Oct 2016

This book is like a wonderful piece of music. It is moving and completely unfathomable!

I don't know how music works, I don't know why certain music provokes strong emotions in me, I only know that it can. This book is the same.

There is so much here that I don't understand, so much that is beyond my experiences, that logically this book should leave me cold. But the emotions that inform and drive the characters are universal and expressed so elegantly that I can't help but be drawn in to their world.

This review would become a major essay if I were to discuss the story and themes; it would take a thousand words just to list the many threads woven throughout.

Therefore I will merely state that this is the most moving book I have ever read. It deserves to be read again and again and must be considered a modern classic.

12 Oct 2016

I'm looking forward to Wordsworth House book group's thoughts on Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. I found this a hauntingly sad book, a strong contender for being one of the saddest books I have ever read. Set against the backdrop of China and Canada, from the early twentieth-century to the present day, loss and separation echo throughout the novel: loss of identity, loss through death, loss through geography and time, loss of self through outside control.

This is at times very painful to read, but Thien writes lyrically and beautifully. Her language and characters draws you in and the way she weaves her story through different time periods is masterful. Thien places questions before you. What would it mean to lose your freedom of thought? How would you react to being forced to deny bonds of family and friendship? How far would you go to preserve yourself at the expense of others? What price do you pay for this in terms of the human soul?

Thien writes with compassion and understanding and her questioning of what it means to be human is one of true relevance today. A worthy Booker Prize contender!

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