Sons of Heaven by Terrence Cheng
In 1989 China’s Tiananmen Square stood submerged in a bloody stand off between students protestors and the People’s Liberation Army. The image of the, to date, anonymous young man halting a line of tanks continues to resonate through out the world as it did with author Terence Cheng. Cheng’s debut novel Sons of Heaven weaves a fictional life story for this dissident civilian, his soldier brother and the leader Deng Xiaoping who supposedly gave the go ahead for the army crackdown. Through these three men Cheng explores the personal costs of resistance, obedience and the meaning of freedom.
Xiao-Di and his elder brother Lu are brought up in inner city Beijing by their poor but affectionate grandparents. Lu grows up to fulfill his childhood dream of being a soldier while the bookish Xiao-Di makes a socially advantageous match and, with the influence of his fiancée’s family, leaves for America on a scholarship.
At Cornell University Xiao-Di falls in love with the American Elsie and breaks off his engagement back home. Though Cheng’s prose is crisp the content of Xiao-Di’s American experience hovers dangerously close to cliché. Elsie is a free spirited Californian who awakens Xiao-Di to the sexual and political freedoms of the US where he, literally, grows in size on the good food, exercise, talk and sex. Xiao-Di is all ready to defect to the US for love, however Elsie, racked with strictures of her own, breaks up with him and he returns to China heart broken.
In China Xiao-Di is unable to get a job because of the negative influence his ex-fiancée’s father wields. This petty corruption, along with his grandmother’s wrath at ruining all chances to socially elevate themselves, spirals Xiao-Di into great bitterness at his increasingly hollow life. It is a bitterness echoed in the lives of many students including his best friend, the endearingly rendered Wong. Wong and his friends decide to hold a small protest which grows, over weeks, into a mass outpouring for democracy.
When Xiao-Di leaves home to participate, events find him standing before television cameras lambasting Deng Xiaoping and, when soldiers begin to open fire on the crowds and Wong meets a brutal end, the dazed Xiao-Di finds himself facing off the army tanks. Realizing the danger he has put his grandparents in, he sets off on an escape that leads him to the countryside and to terrible consequences for those that help hide him.
Reading a book in which History plays a major character can be confusing and, for the novelist, an added challenge to write without being boring or dragging the narrative down. Cheng manages to avoid both with finesse tackling as he does Mao, Deng, the Gang of Four, the Long March, the Kuomintang, the Cultural Revolution, the Red Army, the People’s Liberation Army and their chronology and relationships to each other.
Witnessing the tumult from the other side of the tanks is brother Lu, a character bordering on symbolically farcical at times with his monstrously scarred face and damaged leg. On account of his vicious temper the frustrated Lu has not been promoted from the lowly infantry for the past nine years. When finally offered an opportunity to advance professionally it is in exchange for helping find his renegade little brother. Betray his brother or his country? Lu’s decision drives the last third of the novel to its violent climax and dreamy, ambiguous ending as the two brothers finally come face to face with the choices each has made.
The third voice joining Xiao-Di the civilian and Lu the soldier to narrate the novel is the late Deng Xiaoping’s. Cheng portrays brilliantly how a revolutionary in his own right might suppress a revolution against him. As Deng reminisces over his life the reader begins to care for the communist leader and his son Pufang and even understand their relationship as one never does that between brothers Xiao-Di and Lu.
The crippled Pufang is the novel’s quiet, moral voice and the father son bond, injected with both tenderness and friction, does much to give Deng a human, rather than merely political, face. Deng is also painted through his dreams and here Cheng’s sparse, dry prose style works to its best advantage.
They smashed bottles in the square. Xiaoping, ‘little bottle,’ was the name he had been given by family and neighbors as a child. In years past, when he’d just taken control of the government after Mao’s passing, they had waved bottles in the air to celebrate their new leader. Now they smashed them on the stone steps of the Great Hall. This kind of behavior was unacceptable. Something had to be done.
Sons of Heaven begs the question who is a true son of heaven a title traditionally given to Emperors i.e. a man who can make no mistakes? Is there such a man at all? Were Cheng’s novel not inspired by the man who stood before the tanks it would still make an appealing read about a China that permitted a Tiananmen incident. However, given Tank-man’s actual existence, the fictional casting is all the more poignant and a credit to Cheng that the reader is left thinking that these events could indeed have been the way Tank-man’s actual life played out. Though Cheng states in his author’s note that he has not written a ‘political novel’, Sons of Heaven ultimately is about how the personal is political and the political personal even if the truly ‘free’ man does not want it to be.