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The Audacity of Silence

The Use of Language and Silence Against Forces of Oppression in Madeleine Thien's 'Do Not Say We Have Nothing'


Language is a crucial instrument for the existence of individual identity and the expression of personal ideas. Human languages serve as universal platforms upon which people can discuss and debate shared ideas to improve upon the existent societal or physical constructs. Many theorists and linguists have explored the concept of limiting language as a function of fundamentally altering an individual’s thought process and perception. Alternatively, language manifests the human experience and acts as a reflection of the hardships one encounters. During eras of political oppression, language can demonstrate the enduring and adaptive characteristics of a society. Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a complex and intergenerational tale that explores the events and contemporary relevance of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

The central protagonist of the story, Marie Jiang, also known as Li-Ling Jiang, uncovers the history of the Cultural Revolution and its influence on numerous members in her immediate and extended family. A series of intricate events ensue to ground the story on several musicians in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, including Swirl and Zhuli. The tale also traces the endeavors of Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, with Sparrow, an acclaimed pianist and mentor in the Shanghai Conservatory. The historical background and family relations of each musician is explored in many regions of China during various periods of the 1900s.

Thien establishes several contrasting settings including the home of Marie in Vancouver, families in Shanghai, Beijing, the rural villages of Bingpai, and numerous others. Thien weaves unexpected relations between relatives in a family, ultimately displaying the destructive nature of the Cultural Revolution on average folk, rural farmers, urban musicians, and professional composers. The tale of Ai-Ming, a Chinese university student involved with the Tiananmen Square protests serve as a reminder of the contemporary relevance of cultural persecution. Therefore, how does Madeleine Thien explore the motif of language to convey various effects of social conflict and oppression in Do Not Say We Have Nothing? Throughout the recent turbulent history, the drastic cultural changes in China present profoundly transformative and lasting consequences on Marie’s extended family. Exploring various forms of language, Madeleine Thien conveys the deeply detrimental effects of systemic oppression and the adaptive nature of individuals in turmoil through various forms of imagery, discussion of personal expression, and the use of silence as a recurring motif.

Use of Various Forms of Imagery

Thien utilizes a diverse array of imagery to explore the destructive effects of the Cultural Revolution and the reactionary tales of many lives caught in the turbulent era. To begin, a tense discourse between Marie and her mother ensues following an emotional examination of her father’s possessions after his suicide. A wave of distress washes over Marie as she grasps the gravity of the situation and the permanent nature of her father’s passing. As tears continue to flow down her face, Marie’s mother states that, “If you’re trapped in a room and nobody is coming to save you,” you must, “bang on the walls,” “break the windows,” and “climb out to save yourself.” (Thien, 10) She continues to stress the idea to “Li-ling” that “crying doesn’t help a person live.” (9)

Using visual, auditory, and sensory imagery, Thien subtly constructs a metaphor of the increasingly constrictive social environment in China during the Cultural Revolution. Marie’s father, a victim of the extensive persecution of musicians, succumbs to the emotional confinement of Mao’s regime, by ultimately taking his own life. Marie’s father fell victim to the Communist reign against music represented by the “walls” of an enclosed room, henceforth jeopardized by the spiraling depression trapped in his mind, leading to suicide. (10) In response to the devastating effects of her father’s death, “Marie” becomes enraged and corrects her mother to reject her Chinese name “Li-ling” to shout instead, “My name is Marie!” (10) Marie rejects limitations associated with Chinese heritage and identifies herself as an Anglophone Canadian, or to “break the windows” to “climb out.” (10)

Thien also uses sensory imagery in relation to music to illustrate the profound effects of the artistic language to combat systemic oppression. Marie reminisces about times together with her father when his, “fingers tapped the kitchen table” and, “along [her] mother’s soft arms all the way to her fingertips, driving her crazy and [Marie] into fits of glee.” (1) Marie’s father imitates the tapping patterns of piano playing on the objects and people who embody elements of his ordinary life. Music, both played on an instrument and in real life, presents a gratifying pleasure for the player as well as his or her audience and surrounding family.These effects are of great significance in an era of conflict as musicians Zhuli, Wen the Dreamer, Sparrow, Swirl, and many others use secretive compositions and performance as a mental refuge.

To also demonstrate the ambiguous nature of music, the imitation of piano playing drives Marie’s mother crazy while sending Marie into “fits of glee.” (1) Similarly, to the Communist Party, Western music embodied a rebellious and chaotic state of disorder that hinders the unification of Chinese thought. However, for the artists who live by the performance of music, it is an essential source of joy and personal purpose. When the right to perform and rehearse music is stripped of the musicians, adaptation to silence has become a source of happiness and existence. As described by Swirl, “the only life that matters is in your mind…silence too, is a kind of music.” (122)

The existence musicians once found in performance can now only be embodied by the lack thereof, to avoid persecution from the government. Regardless of the societal constructs that a government imposes upon its people, individuals will find a method to pursue personal purpose and happiness, whether through silence or musical performance. Extending upon this idea, Thien conveys the power of silence through imagery in an earlier chapter recounting Marie’s thoughts before Ai-Ming had arrived. Marie and her mother experienced incredible loneliness after Kai’s suicide. In response, Marie daydreams of the crowded places of poor countries. She imagined that, “People slept six to a bed, a dozen to a room… [where] you could always speak your thoughts out loud.” (9) Although the individuals which Marie discussed are economically unstable, they benefitted from a wealth of expression and company. The deafening silence many characters in Do Not Say We Have Nothing endure is a method of punishment and, “Shatters them with loneliness.” (9) Musicians such as Swirl are, however, able to adapt to the destructive effects of artistic oppression and craft new methods of self-expression.

Thien constructs sentiments of confusion and turmoil using visual and sensory imagery in numerous contrasting chapters. A significant period in Marie’s life is her personal encounters with Ai-Ming, after she had fled the Communist regime to live with Marie in Vancouver, Canada. Several days following Ai-Ming’s arrival, Marie, “Retreated to the sofa and pretended to watch the Weather Channel” on the television. (17) On the broadcast, rain had been predicted, “For the rest of the week, the rest of 1990, and even the remainder of all time.” (17) Thien’s use of pathetic fallacy is evident as the overwhelming sorrow Marie felt following her father’s death felt like an eternal rainstorm. In addition, the coming of a stranger into her household added an environment of chronic discomfort.

Marie continues to describe the voices of Ai-Ming and her mother like “cable cars” that were “interrupted now and then by silence.” (17) She then had the “sensation that the floor was made of paper,” “that there were words written everywhere [she] couldn’t read,” and “one unthinking gesture could crumple this whole place down.” (17) The metallic and artificial sounds of cable cars are drastically different in comparison to the warm qualities of human speech. As Ai-Ming and Marie’s mother can converse fluently in Chinese, Marie feels a palpable disconnect as her abilities in Chinese are very limited. Marie feels an awkward vulnerability towards the connection between a stranger and her mother, when she struggles to establish a similar connection in her native tongue.

The use of visual imagery is again prevalent in the presence of “words written everywhere” which she could not read and the fragile state of her household that “could crumple down” with the slightest gesture. (17) The Chinese characters, which Marie was never taught, have become foreign vocabulary despite her parent’s frequent usage. The final papers including the journal and personal accounts of Marie’s father were all written in Chinese, a print that Marie understood none of. Therefore, Thien outlines the frail memories and connection between Marie and her father as well as the volatile state of the situation, like a house made of paper. The destructive nature of the cultural oppression extends beyond the immediate generation, leaving damage throughout many generations in a family.

Music, as a central recurring motif throughout Do Not Say We Have Nothing, embodies Thien’s craft of numerous auditory and visual imageries. When describing the current state of affairs in China, powerful language such as a time of “chaos, of bombs, and floods” convey the widespread pandemonium and violence incited by the Communist government. Music, as a form of artistic expression, facilitated “love songs” which “streamed from the radios and wept down the streets.” (201) Music even possessed the power to “sustain weddings, births, rituals, work, marching, boredom, confrontation and death.” (201) In times of civil conflict, music serves as “a refuge, a passport” that is universal and exists “everywhere.” (201) Thien carefully selects diction associated with the fluid motion of water to describe the transformative effects of music. “Love songs” are described to stream and weep like an unstoppable and flowing body of water, capable of reaching all streets and crevices. (201) The term “wept” embodies the abundance of tears that are shed in response to grief or loss, which are sentiments often expressed through music. (201)

In contrast, music also serves complex roles that propel the livelihoods of people during a turbulent period. Music sustains commonplace practices such as “weddings” and “births” which have become increasingly difficult. (201) The growing social conflicts are met with the universal healing ability of music as if it serves as a “refuge” for those under persecution or a “passport” to travel to safe havens. (201) Thien uses diction in conjunction with imagery such as “chaos,” “bombs,” and “floods” to describe the destruction of the Cultural Revolution in contrast to the regenerative property of music as an artistic language. (201) In conclusion, Thien employs the use of imagery to convey the deeply damaging effects of the Cultural Revolution and the adaptive nature of individuals through music, art, and personal expression.

Discussion of Personal Expression

As a function of language, Thien employs the motif of personal expression to convey the various effects of cultural oppression on the Chinese public. Zhuli finishes a music rehearsal in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music with a discussion of political change with a fellow musician, Tofu Liu. The violinist is noted by his “soft-spoken” nature and expresses to Zhuli that “fights and arguments” to develop a “political understanding” to build “a more just society” is essential. (188) He stresses the importance of “struggle against [oneself]” in an era of drastic social change. (188) Thien utilizes a metaphor to link Liu’s speech to the “unwinding” of “a breathless Tchaikovsky descent.” (188) An intricate parallelism is evident between the qualities of a voice to the rhythms of music, to ultimately be linked to “history” as something “not so different from music.” (187) Liu conveys that no beneficial creation of beliefs ever emerged from those who expressed genuine ideas “in their hearts” clashing with those conforming to the ideals of the status quo which “glides easily off the tongue.” (188)

Thien employs the use of analogies to emphasize the importance of conflicts as a catalyst to further culture and identity of a nation. Personal expression is a driver of progressive change, which is under scrutiny during the Cultural Revolution. Thien’s use of imagery to convey expression, together with elements of music, speaks to the disruption of livelihoods for many during the Cultural Revolution. In the book, Marie suggests that “for anything to be alive, it required motion” such that a “record must turn” and a “current must run” in order to avoid becoming “nothing more than a stale copy” of calligraphy that is “frozen in time.” (162) The motion, representing the artistic freedom and well-being of artists before the Cultural Revolution is jeopardized when the record stops turning, and music is no longer played. The copies of music created during composition has become stale and lifeless, as if the ink used to create musical pieces have long dried. Following this logic, the musicians are no longer alive as the motions which drove musical creativity has become illegal.

The adaptive nature of individuals who face persecution during this era of Chinese history is embodied by The Book of Records in Do Not Say We Have Nothing. (23) A narrative within the novel, the book encompasses the intergenerational tales of Marie and Ai-Ming’s families which are copied and passed from person to person. Instead of creating new material of artistic originality, the Book of Records does not conform to conventional structure of a Chinese novel. Instead, it possesses no distinct beginning, no meaningful development and no triumphant ending, as a reflection of the era in which Jiang Kai, Swirl, and Sparrow lived in.

Thien discusses the significance of copying or, the art of Chinese calligraphy, as an artform that imitates the “breath and pressure and line” of other masters in penmanship. Instead of resorting to prohibited musical composition against the order of the Communist government, protagonists in the story construct free artforms such as the copying of characters in their personal lives to The Book of Records as a means of expression. (23) While away from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Zhuli reflects upon the hardships of the Chinese Civil War and Cultural Revolution that inspired his Symphony No.2 composition.

Using vivid visual and auditory imagery, Thien establishes a series of contrasts comparing “daylight” and the “stars and planets” of the night with “sound” and “deafness.” (107) She contradicts conventional belief on the clarity of sight during the day, as darkness is necessary “to see the heavens,” represented by the stars of the night. (107) Proceeding upon this logic, the ability to hear “sound” becomes a form of “deafness.” (107) Zhuli furthers his rhetoric by asking “[if] so, what was silence?” (107) The silence Zhuli describes can be interpreted as the artistic oppression from the Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution. The destruction of musical instruments and persecution of performance artists have led to a silence, or vacancy of musical expression.

Following ordinary thought, this devastates the professional musicians who have invested most of their lives practicing an artform that is now forbidden. However, Thien employs the use of peculiar cosmic imagery to convey the silver lining of an otherwise destructive experience. Zhuli mentions the ambiguous qualities of sunshine as having the ability to bring light, but also “wipe away the stars and planets.” (107) The heavens and cosmic objects serve as a symbol of human imagination and wonder to explore the unknown, as a manifestation of artistic or personal creativity. Therefore, an absolute clarity, brought about by the “daylight” can limit the artistic capacity of an individual. (107)

Similarly, the presence of “sound” representing Zhuli’s extensive musical rehearsal at the Shanghai Conservatory, has created “deafness” or ignorance of the quickly changing Chinese society surrounding him. (107) Therefore, the concept of silence, the lack thereof music due to culture changes, brings about unexpected advantages for Zhuli. The conflict between himself and the Communist regime brings significant emotional turmoil, but also grants an adaptable silver lining to explore his heritage and identity, as he does later in many regions of China.

To explore this idea further, Thien elaborates her use of silence as a device to convey conflict in an interview with Medium. She describes “the complexity and pain of survival” through silence in the “immediate aftermath” of the cultural shifts in China. (Thien) The challenge posed to citizens and musicians alike to “silence themselves” in “a double helix of forgetting and remembering” personal identities and societal changes. (Thien) Therefore, as many individuals desire the right to free speech and personal expression, the motif of contrast is evident in the tales of Zhuli and others in the story.

It is with silence that individuals became no longer vulnerable to the widespread persecution and uprising of the Cultural Revolution. Throughout these conflicts, undeniable pains associated with survival, both physically and emotionally, is endured by Zhuli as a professional musician. The adaptability and endurance of central characters in the novel is portrayed through discussion of personal expression in varying artforms. Motifs of Silence Silence and language are central devices used to portray the emotional turmoil and firsthand experiences of musicians during the Cultural Revolution. Thien employs narration to establish an authentic account of the emotional strife Marie experiences, as a shadow of a genuine victim of the Cultural Revolution.

Marie expresses that, “You can look at a person and know they are full of words” and their expression is “withheld due to pain or privacy, or maybe subterfuge.” (18) Moreover, the individual may be withholding words as if they are “knife-edged” and “waiting to draw blood.” (18) The power of silence as a device of oppression is once again conveyed in this passage. An individual during the Cultural Revolution has become tortured and emancipated to manifest their emotional agony through their physical appearance. Although he or she may be, “Full of words,” the ramifications associated with the outpour of genuine thoughts and emotions outweigh an inner turmoil. (17) The words are, “Withheld due to pain or privacy,” which is relevant to numerous occasions when Marie feels intense sorrow or hatred, but strongly limits her expression of emotions to others. (17) Furthermore, the Cultural Revolution in China saw violence and vigilante justice in reaction to commentary that defied the agenda of the Communist Party.

Individuals would be publicly humiliated, harassed, beaten, or even executed in severe circumstances. Individuals in a community or even within one family have been observed to turn against one another in an effort led by Maoist thought to eradicate the capitalist, Western, and democratic ideologies. Therefore, “subterfuge” as a form of deception fuels evident character versus character conflict, arising from the significance of language and expression. (18) In a politically and culturally volatile era, the words may be “knife-edged” and “waiting to draw blood,” leading to the demise of individuals who fail to withhold words and maintain a sustained silence. (18)

Thien evaluates the discussion of censorship and silence in an interview with Medium on Do Not Say We Have Nothing. She expresses that “censorship” take many forms and “self-censorship” to control communication can result in “social validation.” (Thien) This is of utmost importance in an era of political unrest in China as “social opprobrium” can effectively result in a life of misery or even a untrialed death. (Thien) Thien uses strategic diction and imagery to convey the significance of silence in times that demand survival. Furthermore, Marie asks “what happened if you melt a person down layer by layer?” (143) She continues to question, “what if there was nothing between the layers, and nothing at the centre, only quiet?” (143)

These questions follow an emotional reflection on her father’s suicide and the values which he held during the brief duration of his stay with Marie. Imagery is effective in this case to provoke both a literal and metaphoric understanding of quietness, or silence. The phrase repeated in many instances throughout the book and takes precedence as the title, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, speaks powerfully in this instance. Marie’s emotional turmoil and lack of connection towards her father creates a feeling of hollowness, as if “there [is] nothing between the layers” of a person. (143)

Nevertheless, at the center of Marie remains a silence, or as previously discussed, a determination to survive the Cultural Revolution. There is a significant contrast between the active choice to express nothing and expressing that one has nothing. The latter of which embodies an absolute surrender to the Communist agenda and the complacency to accept the new political order of the People’s Republic. However, the former, experienced by many individuals in China during Marie’s lifetime, is a conscious endurance to preserve identity and continue a character versus society conflict for survival.

The use of imagery to strip an individual layer by layer speaks to the wave after wave of persecution and revolution the Chinese have experienced. However, at the center, being an abstract concept of quietness, embodies a personal loss of identity. Marie, during a time of grief when remembering her father’s suicide, experiences riveting pessimism that her identify has been lost. Extending this idea, Thien reiterates the difference between saying that one has nothing and one saying nothing during an account on the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Thien recounts the “moving stories” of “how people hid things, or created in secret, or made use of the arts available to them in order to refine their craft and their skills.” (Thien)

This development of personal identity and practical abilities relates to the activities done in “silence,” or clandestine under the Communist regime. The center of an individual is a fundamental “form of resistance” that artists have endured with integrity. “Art has the capacity to say multiple things, to camouflage ideas and ways of being,” which Thien establishes within Marie’s father, as an artist who attempt to hide his tremendous inner turmoil and remain silent under “a regime or place or ideology that wants [him] to disappear.” (Thien) Silence, as a crucial tool of survival, brought upon significant emotional turmoil, as Thien conveys throughout the stories in Do Not Say We Have Nothing


In an era of political oppression and social turmoil, the freedom of expression becomes compromised to limit the artistic capacity and thoughts of the public. Music, in its fundamental form, is one of the most original and ubiquitous languages known to man. Through a series of patterned sounds and rhythms reflecting upon personal ideas, music transcends the barrier of human language and serves as an universal tongue that all can understand.

The intergenerational tale in Do Not Say We Have Nothing explores the permanent effects of the Cultural Revolution on a diversity of classes, professions, and age groups in China. Exploring various forms of language, Madeleine Thien conveys the deeply detrimental effects of systemic oppression and the adaptive nature of individuals in turmoil through various forms of imagery, discussion of personal expression, and the use of silence as a recurring motif. Thien constructs a meaningful commentary of the violent oppression in the Cultural Revolution that is specific to China, but displays an universal endurance and perseverance during a time of change and loss.

In the rapidly developing world of today, it is of special significance to explore the power of language. Whether via spoken dialogue, written text, or through artistic forms of language such as music, the use of language continues to dictate policy and cultural paradigms of today. Ultimately, it is the role of modern society to use language as a powerful tool against unjust authority. The most effective means to counter events that may jeopardize the livelihoods of many is to not say that we have nothing, for language presents greater power than man can ever expect.