Ying Chen was born in Shanghai, China, in 1961. She immigrated to Montreal in 1989, where she studied literature. Les Lettres chinoises (English translation: The Chinese Letters) is her second novel. It was published in 1993 and it is only available in French, the original language.
Les Lettres chinoises is an epistolary romance novel, it is a compilation of letters between three young adult characters (in their early twenties) who are from China: Yuan, Sassa and Da Li. Two of them arrive in Montreal while the other one stays in Shanghai.
Ying Chen: Plot and themes
Les Lettres chinoises is a novel about contrasts, it deals with multiple themes such as immigration (causes and consequences), cultural differences, the power of memories, word meanings, relationship discrepancies, and loneliness.
The novel starts with the first letter from Montreal that Yuan (who has just arrived in Canada) sends to Sassa, his fiancée in China. Sassa is waiting for her visa to join him within the next few months. However, the reader soon realizes that Sassa is not willing to leave China. Through frequent letters, Yuan tries to motivate her, pointing out all the freedom and opportunities existing in Canada, which is the opposite to life in China, where there is no privacy and tradition (therefore, the social and political system) has total control of the citizens. During the first letters between Yuan and Sassa, a common friend arrives in Montreal. Her name is Da Li. She is an old friend who had gone to the same school as them. Da Li also emphasizes the good things about Canada while pointing out the negative aspects of China.
As the weeks have gone by, the relationship between Yuan and Sassa gets colder. Yuan’s enthusiasm for his new life in Canada contrasts (gradually more and more) with Sassa’s lack of motivation and sense of loss. In the meantime, Da Li writes Sassa about a new lover she has found in Montreal, which also differs with Sassa’s loneliness.
Perspective and Style
Les Lettres chinoises is written with a minimalistic, economical style and presents a series of contradictions: eastern culture and lifestyle contrasting with western. Freedom and individuality versus restraint and a strong sense of belonging; discovery, openness and willingness towards the future against the tradition and celebration of the past. The author impressively depicts these “opposing landscapes” through the characters with great subtlety, elegance and powerful emotionality. The novel endeavors to place the reader as a mediator (or harmonizer) among these contradicting currents. One can state that Taoism, a very old Chinese philosophical and religious tradition has been a strong influence on this novel.
Even if this novel presents an undeniable Chinese identity, beyond the particularities of this culture Les Lettres chinoises achieves a display of the universal mental conflict present in all immigrants: the half-death of the old self and the half-birth of another self with the ability to adapt to a new environment. Les Lettres chinoises is a wonderful easy-reading novel with elegance, wisdom and depth.
Original Title: Les Lettres chinoises
Author: Ying Chen