[REVIEW] “Ebbs and Flows of History: A Review of Christopher New’s Chinese Spring” by Kiran Bhat

{Written by Kiran Bhat, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Christopher New, Chinese Spring, Contraband, 2019. 279 pgs.

Chinese Spring

There is a reason why, in certain cultures, we view life as cyclical. The cosmic chain begins with life and ends with death, but immediately after we depart, another life begins, and takes our place. This is as true of individuals as it is of countries. On the surface, Christopher New’s novel Chinese Spring deals with one man’s fight with cancer, against the backdrop of Hong Kong’s political turmoil of the 2010s. At the same time, there is a reason the novel begins with the arrests of protestors at Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989. New is interested in the ways countries attempt to change but rarely do, as well as the way individuals, despite their best intentions, often remain stuck in the mindsets and mentalities that formed them.

Though the book’s preamble considers Tiananmen Square and the tensions there and it has multiple characters and delves into each and every one of their lives, it is the narrator, Dimitri Johnston, who provides the main thrust of the novel’s momentum. We first meet him on 4 June 2012, introduced by the following sentence: “The day he learnt he was dying, Dimitri Johnston went to Victoria Park in Hong Kong, to join a candlelight vigil for the people killed in Beijing twenty-three years before.” He doesn’t spend much time at the protest, nor does he pay attention. He can only remember the diagnosis from his doctor. He decides to take the tram home, observing the Southeast Asian domestic helpers and office workers around him. He can only think: “You have no more part in all this… It will just go on without you.”

Much of New’s style is revealed in these sentences. The sentence is long yet taut, full of information and yet remains on the surface. New continues with this pseudo-objective narrative voice for the entire novel. The language is never poetical or particularly lyrical. There is not much energy or mania propelling the language either. Rather, there is a malaise, or melancholy, which causes sentence upon sentence to slowly reveal itself. New’s structure and voice work well for the themes of the book, for Dimitri Johnston has found out he has terminal cancer, and everyone from his wife Mila to the half-Chinese, half-British Hongkonger San-San are either grieving in relation to him, dealing with the chaos of their own life, or finding their minute ways to confront China’s stranglehold on Hong Kong.

Practically every chapter is narrated by a new character, a decision which does not become the novel. Because Chinese Spring is fairly short, most of the characters receive only a chapter or two to be developed, and so none really feel lived in or thought out. The character San-San, for example, is described primarily through her mixed race heritage, and then reacts to Dimitri’s cancer confession, or the workings of the Hong Kong she grew up in. Like most the characters in the novel, San-San feels like a vehicle for New’s thoughts about being multi-racial or a foreigner in Hong Kong, rather than a person thinking on her own terms and reacting to the strains and pains of daily life.

While this would normally be a huge flaw in a novel, I felt there was something purposeful about the lack of outside motivation that New’s characters exhibit. Elena, Mia, San-San, and Lai-king may very well be mouthpieces for New’s musings on Hong Kong’s lack of freedom, its place as a city between East and West, and its unique form of multi-culturalism and consumerism. At the same time, when one considers how much of Hong Kong’s personality, autonomy, and selfhood has been ceded to mainland China, one can argue that New’s decision to render his characters voiceless works. Chinese Spring is a purposefully mood-driven novel, to hint at how little control we have over the workings—hierarchically, politically, or even cosmically—above us.

At one point later on in the novel, Dimitri, gravely ill, once more sits on a tram. He reflects on the maids and officers around him, and “[foresees] the final unfurling of his life: the hospice bed, the calm, sympathetic, yet ultimately uninvolved, nurses”. He thinks about his friends, family, and children. He lets his mind have a little bit of peace. And then the novel fast-forwards to 2013, at another protest, where Mila, now widowed, reconnects with a little girl she had met before. When the girl asks if they will meet at another protest, Mila’s reaction is the following:

‘Yes, I expect—I hope so. But the year after that? Mila wondered. And the year after that?

Because, even in 2013, the future of Hong Kong as a vibrant city of democracy and multi-culturalism is fading, and Sun has no interest in offering an alternative: he would rather see things as how they are.

Prescient in its themes, or rather, aware of the ebbs and flows of history and the place of the individual inside of it, Chinese Spring is a document of past, present and future of Hong Kong’s problems, told through the eyes of a person who belongs to Hong Kong but as an outsider. Relentless in its vision, Chinese Spring is a welcome addition to the catalogue of social realist novels, as well as the tomes of novel-as-philosophical inquiry.  When one finishes Chinese Spring, one is left with a key reflection: that death is inevitable, that our small impacts on this world are forgettable, and that, because we are first and foremost temporary actors on the stage of life, when our time inevitably runs out, not only does life goes on, but so do countries, so do landscapes, and so do the problems that we have bequeathed them.

How to cite: Bhat, Kiran. “Ebbs and Flows of History: A Review of Christopher New’s Chinese Spring.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 24 Aug 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/08/24/chinese-spring/.


Kiran Bhat

Kiran Bhat is a global citizen formed in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, to parents from Southern Karnataka, in India.  He is the author of the English-language story cycle, we of the forsaken world… (Iguana Books, 2020), the Spanish-language poetry collection Autobiografia (Letrame Editorial, 2019), the Mandarin-language poetry collection Kiran Speaks (White Elephant Press, 2019), the Portuguese-language story collection Afora, Adentro (Editorial Labrador, 2020), and the Kannada-language travelogue Tirugaatha (Chiranthana Media Solutions, 2019). An avid world traveller, polyglot, and digital nomad, he has travelled to over 132 countries, lived in 18 different places, and speaks 12 languages. His list of homes is vast, but he considers Mumbai the only place at the moment worth settling down in. He currently lives in Melbourne. Kiran is on Twitter.

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