In A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Yiyun Li depicted many different lives of the people in last decade’s China, still under the reign of Communism. With Communism, comes Capitalism, two contradictory political systems, once threatened the world of a nuclear World War. The clash of communism and capitalism was delicately presented in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, as the newly liberated modern China and its people were greatly influenced by the West. Throughout Yiyun Li’s collection of short stories, Capitalism was constantly mentioned and presented, a constant factor that influences all the character’s life and choices. The two most common themes in the stories that associate to Capitalism are immigration and freedom. In Princess of Nebraska, Sasha immigrates to America in pursuit of a better life. In Son, Han immigrated to America to escape China’s communism rules. Mr. Shi follows his daughter to America and discovers the joy of America’s in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. In all these cases, freedom has become a symbol for America, a country of Capitalism. What all the characters have in common is the wish to pursuit freedom, the American dream.
Mr. Shi and Madame from the title story, both from an oppressive country, constantly mention, “America is a good country”. Mr. Shi undergoes the change from being a man disgraced of his job, restricted from talking about his job and hiding secrecies from his family, to “A new person, a rocket scientist, a good conversationalist, a loving father, a happy man.” Mr. Shi’s daughter states similarly, “If you grew up in a language hat you never used to express your feelings, it would be easier to take up another language and talk more in the new language. It makes you a new person.” Both Mr. Shi and his daughter feel that America has given them a new identity, because it has given them the freedom to become what they want to. Likewise, in the story Princess of Nebraska, Sasha and Boshen both immigrate to America for a new life. It symbolized a new beginning for them. In the suppressive China, Boshen was persecuted as a gay activist and Sasha’s mother had limited freedom as could not move back to Beijing. Sasha therefore leaves behind her old Chinese life and puts all her faith in “moving on”—and comes to the same conclusion Mr. Shi and Madame had, “America is a good place. Everything could happen there.” Capitalism’s freedom gave them a chance to begin a new life.
In a similar fashion, Han from Son, also homosexual, immigrates to America to escape the Communism rules and pursue the American dream. In general, Capitalism is presented as a symbol of freedom and escape in these stories. Aside from immigration, the influence of Capitalism in China is also shown. After A Life effectively demonstrates how in some areas Capitalism stands side by side with Communism. The protagonist of the story, Mr. Su’s invests in the stock market, which is a Capitalist aspect in economy. The stock brokerage is rented from a “bankrupted state run factory”, giving the image of Capitalism literally replacing Communism. “Thousands of grains make a tower, together their investments make factories run” employs the Capitalist stock investment in a Communism concept. Mr. Su, although believes himself to be smarter than the others, does not make money anymore than the old ladies do. In this case Capitalism is not portrayed very positively. “with almost everyone in the country going crazy about money, and money alone, it was rare to meet someone who was nostalgic about the old but also earnest in his effort to understand the new” suggests the Capitalism craze for money.
In Immortality, however, Capitalism’s influence seems to expose the people to the repression of Communism –“Now we have Sony and Panasonic; we have Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson. We have imported movies in which men and women hold hands freely in the street, and they even kiss each other without a trace of fear in their eyes. Our lives, we realized, is not as happy as we have been taught to think.” Sansan from Love In The Marketplace was greatly influenced by American films, such as Casablanca and Women In Love, basing her ideal romance on the films. They were in a way, her American dream. How Capitalism influences China is shown to have different effects in different situations. In most cases of the character’s pursuit of the American dream, the characters genuinely believe in the freedom Capitalism brings will resolve their problems. Despite the constant confrontations of Capitalism’s freedom and Communism’s oppression, Yiyun Li didn’t present Capitalism as a cure-all. Sasha’s obsession with beginning a new life in America is one particular example to demonstrate this, as her passion was rather blind and desperate.
Sasha’s statement, “vast and empty landscapes depressed her” is one of irony, as Nebraska, like Inner Mongolia, is also “vast and empty”. This possibly hints that Sasha’s old life troubles aren’t going to disappear just because she immigrated to another country. Albeit Mr. Shi’s delight of freedom for being a “rocket scientist”, a new person, meeting Madame, his distant relationship with his daughter does not ameliorate. This may be because that both Mr. Shi and his daughter were pursuing their “new identity” individually—a Capitalism notion, and despite his efforts and the new found freedom discovered, it wasn’t enough to cover up Mr. Shi’s old troubles and cure his daughter’s indifference. Han, with his “brand new American passport with the old Chinese worry” adamantly believed his mother’s faith in Jesus to be false, that her mother needs to be controlled by a superior force. Believing in America’s free will, what Han didn’t realize was that his mother was living her convictions with far more courage than he can live his own. In Immortality’s telling, the Great Papa’s, the landlord’s, the dictator’s and the impersonator’s glory all collapsed in the end. More Capitalist ways of life was introduced then.
“It says we’re going to have a new life from now on.” “New or old, life is the same.” This is a further indication that, in a way, Capitalism or Communism, life and people are the same. It can be concluded that, Yiyun Li presents both China (Communism) and America (Capitalism) as multidimensional characters. Although there is emphasis on Capitalism’s freedom, there is no clear distinguishing line between the black and white of Capitalism and Communism. Yiyun Li herself emigrated from China to America to pursue her American dream: “For me, the American dream meant that I could pick up writing and become a writer, something I had never dared to dream before coming here. For my characters, it means freedom to escape totalitarian control on many different levels—from parental supervision to the ideological control of the Communist party.” Her own experience in the area further validates that, as quoted by Yinyun Li, “I think people in both countries tend to forget—that deep down we are all human beings, and the pains and joys we have are the same. In a way, I think the two countries are set up in the public view as competitors, which can lead some Americans and Chinese to feel wariness or animosity toward one another. But in the end, people here in America are like what you will find in China, too.” In the end, we’re all humans, Capitalism or not.