Land of Big Numbers: Stories

Land of Big Numbers: Stories

By:  Te-Ping Chen

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One of Barack Obama's Summer Reading Picks

"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.

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  • Format: Paperback

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780358272557

  • ISBN-10: 0358272556

  • Pages: 256

  • Price: $15.99

  • Publication Date: 02/02/2021

  • Carton Quantity: 24

Te-Ping Chen

Te-Ping Chen

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.
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  • reviews
    One of Barack Obama's Summer Reading Picks 


    Named a Most Anticipated Title of 2021 by: 

    Elle, Esquire, O Magazine, Buzzfeed, NewsweekRefinery29, 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, Fortune, and the BBC 

    New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice 

    An Indie Next Pick 

    One of Harper's Bazaar's Must-Read Books by Asians and Asian-Americans 

    One of Marie Claire's Best Books by Asian-Americans of 2021 

    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 


    "[Chen] excels at realism and vivid portrayals of the widening gap between China’s haves and have-nots.” 

    New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice 


    "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." 


    "Revelatory...From a ripped-from-the-headlines vignette about a rural farmer trying to build a plane, to a surreal allegory about passengers trapped in a station waiting for a train that never arrives, Chen’s writing gives readers just enough to leave them wanting more. It’s a must-read from an up-and-coming fiction writer." 



    "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." 

    Associated Press 


    "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."  

    Foreign Policy 


    "This sharp collection of short stories about modern 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 ...

  • excerpts



    The hour of our birth had been carefully forecast, a winter’s day cesarean timed to coincide with Dr. Feng’s lunch break. The doctor pulled me out first, indignant, squalling, like a hotel guest inexpertly roused and tossed before checkout. She came next, and was so perfectly quiet that at first they worried she wasn’t breathing at all. Then they thwacked her on the back and her cries joined mine and they laid us side by side, boy and girl, two underwater creatures suddenly forced to fill our lungs with cold, dry air. 


    Dr. Feng had operated on my mother as a favor to my uncle, his old classmate. Otherwise we would have been born in the hospital down the street, where a woman had bled to death after a botched cesarean the previous year. The family had been in the waiting room for hours, and at last the father-to-be pounded on the doors of the operating room. When no one responded, the family pushed them open to find the lifeless woman on the table, blood pooling on the ground. She was alone: the staff had stripped the medical certificates that bore their names from the wall and fled as soon as the surgery went wrong. 


    From the start we were lucky, not least because we had each other. As twins we’d been spared the reach of the government’s family-planning policies, two winking fetuses floating in utero. For the first few weeks of our life, our skulls had matching indentations from where they’d been pressed against each other in the womb, like two interlocking puzzle pieces. Later in life when we were apart, I’d sometimes touch my hand to the back of my skull when I thought of her, as if seeking a phantom limb. 


    We weren’t in any way an extraordinary family. My mother worked as a warehouse clerk, my father a government sanitation planner. When my father was forty-seven, his division chief ?— ?a fanciful man who had once dreamed of being an artist?—decided to build a public toilet in the shape of a European clock tower. He’d been to Europe and had been impressed by the cleanliness of the toilets and the loveliness of the architecture and wanted to combine the two. Like most artists, the division chief had a fragile ego, and shortly after my father balked at the project’s expense, he was fired. It was the sole act of independence he’d committed in his life, and it cost him his career. 


    The toilet still stands there today, its vaulting concrete walls stained and ridiculous, the inside chilly and damp like the inside of a pipe, a bird of poured concrete plunging from the tower’s top as if being defenestrated by rival birds inside, and indeed the whole structure smells like a foul aviary. You wouldn’t think it cost 200,000 yuan to build, and probably it didn’t, Lulu said; most of it likely ended up in the division head’s pocket, art corrupting life, life corrupting art. 


    From the time she was ten, my parents worshipped at Lulu’s altar. Her precocity was evident early on; it was like a flag being waved energetically from a mountaintop. Neither of our parents had much education, and it stunned them to find themselves in possession of such a daughter. 


    When we were small, we played devotedly together. Lulu was a great inventor of games, which often incorporated whatever she’d read most recently: one day we were stink bugs, looking for the right leaf on which to lay our eggs, another we were herdsmen fleeing Mongolian invaders. She was braver than me: once, when the elderly woman who lived opposite us had left her door ajar while retrieving the mail downstairs, my sister even snuck into her apartment. 


    “It’s full of newspapers, stacked as high as your head,” Lulu said excitedly, her eyes glowing as she dashed back. “There’s a giant orange cross-stitch on her couch, with a peony and six fishes.” 


    As a child she was always reading. Even at meals she would sit and scan the back of the juice box. She must have read it a million times: aspartame and xanthan gum and red no. 9. It wasn’t a conscious thing; she just seemed to feel uncomfortable when her eyes weren’t fastened to a page. She had a mania for lists, too. By age eleven she’d memorized every bone in the human body, and she used to recite their names to me at night in an eerie voice as I held a pillow over my head: sternum, tibia, floating rib. 


    In high school, I rebelled against her brilliance by playing video games, lots of them, spending hours whipping a gun back and forth across dusty landscapes empty of people, except for those who wanted to kill you.

Available Resources

Related Categories

  • Format: Paperback

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780358272557

  • ISBN-10: 0358272556

  • Pages: 256

  • Price: $15.99

  • Publication Date: 02/02/2021

  • Carton Quantity: 24

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