Viking Flights of Fiction
Winter 2009
Cover image of English
$24.95 | buy the book


A Novel
Wang Gang

An enchanting coming-of-age novel in the tradition of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

"The pure friendship between the teenage boy and his English teacher is movingly beautiful; the depiction of the intellectuals of that particular period cuts to the bone. I highly recommend it." —Mo Yan, author of Red Sorghum

During the darkest days of the Cultural Revolution, a twelve-year-old boy named Love Liu wonders what life is like beyond the region of Xinjiang in China's remote northwest. Here, conformity is valued above all else, and suspicion governs every exchange among neighbors, classmates, and even friends. Into this stifling atmosphere comes a tall, clean-shaven teacher from Shanghai, with an elegant gray wool jacket and an English dictionary tucked under his arm.

With the dictionary at his disposal, Love Liu throws himself into learning English, and a whole new world opens up for him. But in an atmosphere of accusation and recrimination, one in which the teacher is deemed morally suspect and mere innuendo can cost someone his life, Love Liu's ideals face a test more challenging than any he'll meet in the classroom.

A major bestseller in China, with rights sold around the world, English is a transcendent novel about a boy's self-discovery, a country's shame, and the transporting power of language.

Wang Gang is a critically acclaimed novelist and screenwriter in China. English is based on his experiences growing up in western China. He lives in Beijing. Martin Merz, a native speaker of English, has a degree in Chinese language and literature from Melbourne University in Australia and is completing a master's degree in applied translation at the Open University of Hong Kong. Jane Weizhen Pan, a native speaker of Chinese, is a professional translator as well as an interpreter in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. She lives in Melbourne, Australia.

Around May of that year, the city of Ürümchi was bathing happily in the sunlight cascading down from the Tianshan Mountains. Like a fluttering snowflake, I drifted into the classroom through the window, then sat down and stared out at the snow and the sun. Ürümchi's often like that: Sunlight mingled with snowflakes splashes right onto your face. This was springtime in Ürümchi, when you know-it-alls from the other side of the pass have already begun to tire of looking at your peach blossoms and your open fields.

No one called out for us to stand when Ahjitai walked in. The classroom was like the wilds by a river, and we were buzzing little insects. Ahjitai walked forward a few steps. Then Garbage Li cried out, and our eyes all turned toward our teacher.

We hadn't expected Ahjitai would actually come.

I had put her chances at less than fifty percent.

Ahjitai stood on the podium, tears running down her face as she got ready to speak.

You should have guessed already that all the boys were sad that day because Ahjitai was leaving. She was beautiful, her skin snowy white—she was a "double turner." I should explain: "Double turner" is a term from Ürümchi that means the mother is Uyghur and the father Han Chinese, or the other way around.

We had stopped learning Russian the year before, and from that day we would not be learning Uyghur. We weren't really interested in any language. We were interested only in women like Ahjitai. She might have been a teacher, but her neck and her tears were things I yearned for at dawn much more than the sun.

Ahjitai was leaving. Can you imagine what that meant to us?

She scanned the classroom. At that moment all the boys held their breath as if awaiting a verdict. There had recently been rumors about Ahjitai. Someone even said she had boarded a truck and, sitting up front next to the driver, gone to Kashgar, where her mother is from. But rumors are just that. Here she was, standing on the podium, so Garbage Li was right—she would still teach the last class.

Ahjitai turned. Her waist and the area just below it brought to mind the elm trees beside the Ürümchi River, their leaves gently swaying in the summer breeze. Chalk in hand, Ahjitai wrote five words on the blackboard:

The Sayings of Chairman Mao

She'd hardly finished writing when she turned toward us and said:

"I don't want to go. I don't want to leave you."

The boys whooped and began to fly about like sparrows in the open air. Ahjitai smiled. Whose smile could match hers? Whose lips could compare with hers? Suddenly Garbage Li cried out:

"Long live Chairman Mao!"

The whole class laughed—even the girls this time. Then everybody shouted:

"Long live, long live Chairman Mao!"

Ahjitai waited for the clamor to subside, then asked: "You really want to learn Uyghur that much? You want me to stay?"

The classroom fell silent. The boys were not interested in any language—not even Chinese, let alone Uyghur—and the girls had hankered for English classes for a long time. Like the first spring rains, English would soon drift over the Tianshan Mountains and fall on the river banks of Ürümchi and the swamps of the Seventeen Lakes beside the school.

Ahjitai suddenly locked her eyes on my mine: "Love Liu, you're daydreaming. What are you thinking about?"

My face turned red. The whole class was looking at me. I stood up. This was the first time Ahjitai had questioned me like that.

"Nothing," I stammered.

She smiled and asked me to sit down.

I hesitated, then said, "Miss Ah, you..."

"I've told you many times," she interrupted, "don't call me Miss Ah. Call me Miss Ahjitai, and from now on just call me Ahjitai. Anyway, I'm not going to be a teacher anymore."

"You're not leaving, are you?" I asked.

"I am leaving," she said. "I'm going into business."

I sat down wondering what going into business meant. Did it mean she would work in a shop? Which shop?

"I want to learn English with you," Ahjitai said. "I saw your English teacher yesterday. His name is Second Prize Wang."

The boys groaned.

Ahjitai smiled. "All right," she said, "class dismissed."

She walked out under our gaze. Again I stared at her fair hair as it swayed like lake grass.

It was quiet, very quiet. No one said a word.

Russian was gone. Uyghur was gone. English was coming.

—from English

release date: April 2009