Decoded by Mai Jai, translated by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
Decoded by Mai Jia is the first English publication of one of China’s famous writers. First published in 2002, it’s the story of Rong Jinzhen, a mathematical genius who becomes China’s greatest cryptographer. It’s an amazing book with a story of espionage, spies and secret codes which pulls the reader into the narrative. The author also manages to make some profound observations on the nature of state secrets and the human condition.
The novel is written like a biography. The author is the narrator who is trying to find the real story behind China’s greatest code breaker, Rong Jinzhen. He doesn’t have a lot of information to go on in the beginning since his subject is clouded in mystery and official government secrecy. The author is forced to interview all kinds of people who knew Jinzhen and where he originated. Much of the novel is written in the form of transcripted interviews with the people who knew the man: his wife, family members, colleages and government directors. Eventually, Jinzhen’s story emerges.
We find out that Jinzhen was raised in a family compound of genteel poverty. The family had been wealthy salt merchants, but fell on hard times. Decades earlier, one of the prominent members of the clan had traveled to an unnamed foreign country and learned he was talented in mathematics. When he returned to China, he changed his name to John Lillie and started a college for teaching math. Years later he had a daughter who became a mathematical prodigy, traveled all over the world before tragically dying in childbirth. Her son became a wastrel, spending his short life spending money and seducing women. After he died mysteriously, a woman showed up at the family compound claiming to be pregnant with his child. She too died in childbirth, but Jinzhen was born. Shunned by the rest of the family, Jinzhen is raised by an elderly foreigner who had attached himself to the clan. Eventually, another family member comes to fetch Jinzhen for the college founded by his great-grandfather. Adopted into the new branch of the family, Jinzhen is discovered to be a self-taught mathematical genius.
Western readers will find the book fascinating as it shows the way prominent families organized themselves before the downfall of Imperial China. The extended family of salt merchants live in a huge compound complete with servants and guards. As they fall from fortune, the palace becomes empty and weed-choked. This is the environment where Jinzhen reaches his maturity: ignored by the rest of the clan as a bastard and cared for by a lonely foreigner. It’s mentioned the only reason he’s not tossed out into the street when Mr. Auslander, the foreigner, dies, is because of a large sum of money left to Jinzhen as an endowment.
At the college, Jinzhen becomes a brilliant student. A foreign instructor attaches himself to Jinzhen when he discovers the young man’s gifts. The instructor conducts class in a very Prussian manner, sketching out a problem on the board which will place out any student who can solve it. Naturally, Jinzhen cracks it every time, getting full credit for every class the man teaches.
After the communists seize power in 1949, Jinzhen’s talents come to their attention. He’s recruited for a super secret intelligence division known as group 701, which is involved with code breaking. He meets another math progeny, famous for breaking Japanese codes in WW II. But the older code cracker has gone mad, spending his days wandering around the Unit 701 facility, trying to get the workers to play chess with him. At first, the director of Unit 701 can’t figure out what Jinzhen is actually accomplishing. He spends most of his days playing chess with the lunatic and reading novels. But Jinzhen shocks everyone by breaking a code known a “Purple” which had until now proven unbreakable.
But even with all the accolades, Jinzhen will face another task: breaking a new code known as “Black”. Trying to crack this one will eventually drive him mad. The author’s task is to discover what caused Jinzhen’s mental collapse. It’s a task he never fully resolves, but learns a lot about ciphers and what their creation does to people.
The novel can be a little trying on those not familiar with Chinese culture. For instance, Jinzhen starts out as being called “Duckling” by the house where he lives. Further on, while he is traveling to the college, his adopted father gives him yet another name, Jinzhen or “Golden Pearl”. He’s also called Zhendi, a nickname close friends use, not a formal name. He takes the family name (“Rong”) of the academic family whom he lives with, even though they are distant relatives. Are you confused? I was.
Don’t expect a lot of soul-searching on the rights of whistleblowers and state secrets in this book. That the government and party of China have the final say in such manners is a given. But the author does bring the issue of state secrets up numerous times. In his view, all states have secrets which they must protect. There are some mention of contemporary events. During the madness which gripped China during the culture revolution, Jinzhen is able to stop a mob from attacking his family at the university.
Finally, there’s an interview with another code breaker, in retirement at the end of the novel which touches on why people constantly strive to find a field where they might excel. As the cryptographer puts it:
“But for those with commonplace lives, it is different. Those of talent, members of the inner circle, would refer to us as the fairer sex. It meant that we possessed elements of genius, but could never perform such work. We spent our years searching, feeling oppressed – filled with talent but never able to truly demonstrate it, to release it. For this kind of person their later years possess no memories of glory; there is nothing to sum up. What are they to do in their so-called golden years? Only what they have done their whole lives: they continue to search in vain for something to do, unconsciously trying to find some way to put their abilities to use; enacting the ultimate and final struggle.”
Decoded is an excellent spy and espionage novel, but more in the George Smiley mode than James Bond. There’s no gun battles in crowded foreign ports, but a lot of grinding out the method of the cypher. The author doesn’t give a lot of examples of secret codes, for which I am grateful, as they tend to slow down the narrative. Decoded makes me want to find more books by this writer, which is one of the highest compliments I can pay.