“New Work in New China” by Michael X. Wang, is a remarkable story that follows the difficult decision of Pei Pei, a poor man from the country, who is offered the chance to become a gong-gong, a manservant to the Chinese emperor, a position he must become a eunuch to accept.
The vivid Chinese landscape Wang has created through lasting images serves as a poignant backdrop for the struggles Pei Pei endures as he tries to weigh his deep love for his wife and his desire for children, against the money and power a position close to the emperor can provide him. Beyond being just a manservant, gong-gongs, like concubines, make up a kind of sexual senate for the emperor. The reality is that although they do not hold official power, public intrigue gives them power nonetheless, so much so that it is possible for them to create great change in New China, even possibly usurp the throne someday.
Complex cultural considerations press on the story throughout as everyone around Pei Pei, including his own family (except for his wife who does not know about the offer until the end of the story), considers it a great honor that he should be given the opportunity to become a gong-gong and sees it as his responsibility to his family, and his duty as a man, to accept.
The intricately intersected paths of Wang’s incredible characters really push the story forward from beginning to end with their ever-developing and shifting power dynamics. The strong desires of Pei Pei’s family who want him to serve the emperor with honor, of Pei Pei’s cousin Zhang Mei who is already a gong-gong and wants to be the future of New China, of Lady Xiu who is an educated concubine that wants to overthrow the emperor with the growing rebellion, as well those of Pei Pei himself and his wife, continuously raise tensions, pulling readers deeper and deeper into the harsh realities of Pei Pei’s world. Only when Pei Pei observes Lady Xiu using her position to help those less fortunate, does he start to truly understand the possibilities open to him if he chooses to join her.
As the story progresses, Pei Pei begins to understand the state of his country and government in ways that he never has before. He is, for the first time in his life, in a position to play a real role in the future of his people, all depending on one difficult personal choice he must make. Though Pei Pei has never wanted to be a gong-gong, he recognizes the rare opportunity to be able to elevate himself and his family—at the cost of having his own children and family—and also to act on behalf of the Chinese people and use his position to truly benefit New China.
The universal human struggles explored in this story, the desires for power, safety, and love, are age old, but told in ways both unique and surprising. The story deals with nothing less than some of the greatest questions human beings have always asked themselves, questions of duty and moral responsibility and the greater good. The stakes of Pei Pei’s choice go beyond a sense of family and manhood and respect, and grow to encompass his country and all his people and his world. In the end, this is a story of choice that is both heart-breaking and thought provoking that leaves readers asking themselves important questions, as all great stories should.
“New Work in New China” can be found in Issue 106 of The Greensboro Review.
Cortney Esco is a second-year MFA candidate in fiction at UNC Greensboro and Managing Editor for The Greensboro Review.