A condensed version of this review appeared in the February 2023 issue of The Historical Novels Review.
Michael X. Wang’s Lost in the Long March follows a family across the middle third of China’s 20th century. It’s a lovely example of bottom-up historical fiction. But the story could have been even better if it had done more to integrate the big-picture events it seeks to interrogate.
Lost in the Long March opens in 1934, at an inflection point in the civil war between the Chinese Nationalists (led by Chiang Kai-shek) and the Chinese Communists (led by, among others, Mao Zedong). “The Nationalists,” Wang writes, “considered the Communist guerrillas … a threat, both martially and ideologically, to total military dictatorship of the country. And the Nationalists were losing.” But not for long. Ping, our first point-of-view character, is present for a pivotal battle that puts him and his fellow Communists on the defensive and eventually forces them into the year-long retreat known as the Long March.
Ping isn’t much of a soldier, though. Mostly, he serves as a gunsmith for Mao’s ragtag army, forging and repairing weapons in the field. He’s not a true believer, either, which isn’t unusual. “Nearly all the soldiers had been bandits or prisoners,” Wang observes through Ping, “and they cared about the Communist ideals about as much as they did their body odor.” Ping is more interested in Yong, a skinny sniper who stands out both because of her gender and her unflinching devotion to the revolution. The two become a couple, a relationship we see evolve from Yong’s perspective as well as that of Haiwu, a martial artist and friend of Ping’s. The couple’s eventual son, Little Turnip, also carries part of the novel.
Wang employs different authorial voices and tenses for certain viewpoint characters. (For example, Haiwu’s section shifts the tale from third-person limited to first. And Wang tells the last part of the book jointly through Ping and Yong’s eyes, but in present tense instead of past.) The transitions briefly knocked me out of the story, but I adapted quickly enough. What I found more challenging was the jumbled chronology.
Wang cuts back and forth across the period he’s covering, leaving Ping and Yong in the 1930s to relate Haiwu’s account from the vantage of the 1970s. Then we rewind to the 1940s to see a formative slice of Little Turnip’s upbringing, only to return to the 1970s to close on a potential reunion. The non-linear framework creates mystery, but it also glosses over key events that seem pertinent to Wang’s central message (more on that below). The defeat of the Japanese invasion, the triumph of the Communists over the Nationalists, the disastrous Great Leap Forward, the incendiary Cultural Revolution—Wang mentions them in passing, and there are some brief, table-setting summaries like the one I quoted above. But generally speaking, he isn’t interested in holding your hand and walking you through the macro-level history. Neither are his characters. “The interesting parts of the March,” Haiwu says after he’s described a development in Ping and Yong’s marriage, “at least for me, had already passed. But you know the rest of the story. You’re not here for that.”
Except what if you are? Wang explains in his afterword that, “Lost in the Long March began as notes about the history of my birth country. I was twenty-seven at the time and knew little about China’s past outside of the stories my parents and grandparents had told me. Their references … accumulated over the years, and I was determined to be ignorant of them no longer.” As part of his self-education, he immersed himself in relevant scholarship. The only problem is that Wang writes as if his readers have done the same. The way the book is structured—as what occasionally feels like an accumulation of references in literary form—assumes a certain amount of prior knowledge. If you come to the story without it, you might feel, well, lost while reading Lost in the Long March.
And that’s a shame because I think the novel is hugely successful thematically.
The main characters all suffer personal losses during the March. Haiwu loses a leg. (He also literally loses his way at one point and nearly starves to death in the woods.) Ping and Yong give up Little Turnip so they can stay in the fight. Little Turnip is robbed of a normal childhood.
The larger country fares no better. Some of this privation stems from the usual sort of horror that accompanies conflict at scale. “[T]here are lots of homeless in our country,” Haiwu reflects near the end of the book. “… lots of people with a missing arm, leg, hand, or feet … The historian Sima Qian once said, ‘War is the amputation, limb by limb, of the Middle Country.’”
But the story isn’t titled “Lost on the Long March.” Wang seems to be arguing that the Communists’ famous retreat began an ideological journey that took China decades to recover from, a trek that kept much of the nation in a disorienting, radicalized mindset. That fervor might have been necessary to stave off the Japanese, but the cost to further progress was high—and paid for far too long.
Yong admits as much while shopping shortly after Mao’s death. “Following the return of Deng Xiaoping … [l]ayers of restrictions prohibiting the enactment of “bourgeois” policies have been rolled away, and the “Four Modernizations”—agriculture, industry, technology, and military—are in the process of being implemented. It is here, in these marketplaces, that Yong begins to see the effects. It is here that she feels her decade-long ideas of a new China finally taking shape.” But there’s still much to be done. Ping and Yong have risen in the ruling Communist Party, yet they feel obligated to conserve energy by only running hot water in their bathtub once a month. And Beijing, which they help administer, can only afford to light its streets for three hours during winter evenings.
The symbolism is powerful; I’m glad I read to the end to see how Wang tied everything together. And none of the above is to say that Lost in the Long March needs lengthy primers to bridge each era. But even just a little extra context—and perhaps a less fragmented narrative—might have helped make the book more accessible to the wide audience it deserves.