Little Gods presents several points of view about the protests, mainly the views of individuals in Beijing who were much less committed to the protests than the students who told us about what was happening. The book begins with the birth of a baby girl, Liya, in a Beijing hospital not far from Tienanmen Square where the protests were happening.
A series of vignettes reveal the first seventeen years of Liya’s life, along with the history of her parents, friends, and caregivers. Her father, a committed supporter of the democracy movement, disappears into the void of violent repression of the Tienanmen Square protests. Her mother, Su Lan, didn’t agree with him. “Democracy fever, Su Lan called it, mingzhu bing. She hated that her husband had caught it. She did not believe he actually understood the issues or even cared. She accused him of using political fervor as an excuse to look away from a weakness inside himself.” (p. 136)
After Liya’s birth, her mother manages to return to her life as a physics student, and to move to America where she’s able to pursue her research while bringing up her daughter. The mother’s physics research is about the nature of time, which the daughter applies to her life and her search for identity. Although it’s not stated explicitly, the mother’s repeated changes of research advisers and schools suggests that her ideas are not accepted or respected, and she eventually gives up her goals for a more ordinary job.
A key to the lives of Liya’s parents and their fellow students in the 1980s is that being selected as a student of physics was a possibility only for the very top students, and was desired because it created a chance to study in America as few other disciplines did. This too is familiar from the lives of my husband’s physics students, some of whom moved on to fields that they found more appealing after they completed their PhDs. Also, after 1989, some of them were never able to return to China because of their open support for the protests, another part of history that helps understand Meng Jin’s book.