Yiyun Li

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

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A Thousand Years of Good Prayers Summary

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The short story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Yiyun Li’s first collection of fiction, deals with issues of identity, friendship, culture, and freedom, among others. The stories feature predominantly Chinese and Chinese-American characters. Two of the stories, the title story and “The Princess of Nebraska,” were adapted into films by Wayne Wang.

The first story, “Extra,” is about Granny Lin, a woman who is honorably retired without a pension from her job at a garment factory in China. An unmarried woman with no other income, Granny Lin struggles to make ends meet. Her friends recommend she marry to get inheritance money, and she finally agrees to marry the widower Old Tang, who has Alzheimer’s. When Old Tang dies after slipping in the bathtub, Granny Lin, left with nothing again, has to take a job working as a maid at a boarding school. Once there, she bonds with Kang, a little boy who has been abandoned by his parents because his father married a new wife. Granny Lin supports Kang when he starts obsessively stealing a little girl’s socks but, ultimately, is fired for stealing when the sock theft is revealed.

In “After a Life,” two couples, the elderly Su couple who are caring for their mentally disabled daughter, BeiBei, and the Fongs are put at odds with each other when Mrs. Fong calls the Sus to ask them if her husband is having an affair. The story focuses on Mr. and Mrs. Su, who consider their life together and the happiness they had in their youth, compared to their struggle now to care for their daughter.

In “Immortality,” a small Chinese village falls out of favor when the Communist party takes over, and its legacy of supplying Great Papas or eunuchs for the royal courts becomes irrelevant. One boy in the village has the face of the new dictator, and slowly gains power and prestige because of his ability to impersonate the powerful ruler. He gains wealth as an impersonator in films and then rises through the ranks of the Communist party. Finally, he is disgraced when he hires a prostitute and is caught and blackmailed by a pimp. Embarrassed and lost, the man returns to his home village, castrates himself over his mother’s grave. Surviving the bleeding, he must live the remainder of his days in his village.

In “The Princess of Nebraska,” Sasha, a young half-Mongolian, half-Chinese graduate student travels with Boshen from Nebraska to Chicago to get an abortion. Boshen is the friend of Yang, the father of Sasha’s baby. He and Yang met when Yang, kicked out of the Chinese opera for being gay, began working as a prostitute. Boshen paid for Yang’s services, and the two began a relationship. Later, Yang met Sasha and began a relationship with her. Boshen insists that Sasha tell Yang about the baby, to see if he wants to help her raise the child in the U.S. Sasha is skeptical, but on the bus ride, the baby kicks and Sasha wonders what it would be like to be a mother.

Many other stories follow, including “Persimmons,” in which a widower’s son is killed in a drowning accident, and the widower kills seventeen people he believes were responsible for his son’s death. In the title story of the collection, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” Mr. Shi, a rocket scientist, visits his recently divorced daughter in America. Their relationship is strained, however, and Mr. Shi spends most of his time alone. During his visit, Mr. Shi becomes close to an Iranian woman, despite the fact that they don’t share a language. Mr. Shi reveals to the woman that during the Cultural Revolution, he was demoted because of his close relationship with another woman, who was taken away after he refused to stop seeing her. Though he wasn’t in a romantic relationship, Mr. Shi admits that he committed a kind of infidelity by remaining close to the woman in a way that he wasn’t with his own wife.

Yiyun Li is the author of three novels, two collections of short stories, and a memoir. Her most recent book is Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, which was published in 2017. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, published in 2005, is her first collection of short fiction. Since her first publication, Li has been awarded or nominated for a number of literary honors, including a Whiting Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, California Book Award, MacArthur Fellowship, and a Guardian First Book Award. She also received a Lannan Foundation residency in Marfa, Texas.