Japan's bloodbath in China during the 1930s began in Manchuria, a resource-rich region in northeast Asia. This prelude to World War II in the Pacific haunts Shan Sa's story of young lovers whose worlds collapse in a typhoon of despair. The Girl Who Played Go, the fiction winner of the 2004 Kiriyama Prize, has an economy of prose that allows the novel to cover an epic time, while focusing on the tragedy of a Chinese girl who loves a Japanese boy. This boy comes to her as an enemy soldier trying to maintain his father's samurai ethic; she comes to him as a member of an aristocratic Manchu yellow-banner family that has served the Qing emperors in Peking. His side is on the rise, hers in decline.
The protagonists meet in a public park, a place where one can play the ancient board game of Go. Both play masterfully, initially knowing nothing of each other's identity. They are strangers in a game of strategy, much like their political leaders in Tokyo and Nanking. The interplay of two youngsters and two empires drives the narrative, allowing the author to counterpoise the Japanese story with its Chinese counterpart. Family portraits from both sides illuminate two teenagers driven to adulthood before their time, cheated of a full youth and the critical years when they might have discovered their humanity — already a challenge in a time of terror and terrorism with the Manchurian war regressing into bitter guerrilla fighting, which results in atrocities on both sides.
Shan's voice is unmistakably Chinese — feminine but hard, finely tuned and precise. Not a word is wasted, no excess of emotion shown. She colors her background with a few swift strokes that a master calligrapher would admire. Her dialogue has a staccato rhythm, somewhat like a Chinese Hemingway with bullet prose. Ornamentation is not for Shan, stark reality is.
More than pleasure, readers will become involved in a healing process. As horrific as the war was, its aftermath has brought a dreadful hatred between the former enemy states. Japan bashing dominates much of what comes through in recent Chinese literature. This book offers a way around the sepsis wasting away a possible healing. Shan has created two life-loving youths shattered in a hellish war that carries them and millions like them to early deaths. Even-handed in her treatment of both main characters, she allows a reader to see the richness of both Japanese and Chinese culture, making us imagine how they might each enrich the other once again
Reviewed by Patrick Lloyd Hatcher