One should add “Politics” to the two abstractions of the title, for Chin's fictional world is infused with the cultural and personal consequences of Mao's Great Leap Forward.
From an early age Dapeng Liu, the narrator, is destined to become an engineer—his father announces this goal for him in 1946, when Dapeng is 10 years old—and eventually he achieves his dream. Along the way, however, he has to negotiate a delicate path of family, love, and especially the volatility of politics, for everything changes with Mao’s defeat of the nationalists in 1949, including education and the system for professional advancement. Political threats are everywhere and in seemingly untoward places—for example, “six engineers and technicians labeled as rightists [are] sent to a labor camp in the Gobi Desert,” and teachers are regularly denounced and punished. Dapeng himself is eventually detained and accused of stealing government documents, though the accusations are false and he is able to resume his professional duties. Against this background, where paranoia seems a logical response, Dapeng falls in love and marries Chuju Wu, whom he has known since childhood, but it is a marriage fraught with difficulty and exacerbated by their geographical distance: Dapeng works as a hydraulic engineer in Beijing, while Chuju stays in her hometown. She eventually becomes involved in a sexual scandal that brings their brief marriage to a sordid close. By the end Dapeng is cultivating a new love relationship and polishing his English skills, with hints that the next phase of his journey might take him out of China. Because the author is an engineer who's lived in the U.S. since 1978, the novel has a particularly autobiographical feel.
Both epic and personal, this novel chronicles two decades of love, loss, history, and culture—and the complex tensions that arise from these forces—during the turbulent Mao era.