Cover image for The girl who played go
The girl who played go
Shan, Sa, 1972-
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Joueuse de go. English
Publication Information:
New York : A.A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, [2003]

Physical Description:
312 pages ; 18 cm
Program Information:
Accelerated Reader AR UG 6.8 10.0 79142.
Geographic Term:
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
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In a remote Manchurian town in the 1930s, a sixteen-year-old girl is more concerned with intimations of her own womanhood than the escalating hostilities between her countrymen and their Japanese occupiers. While still a schoolgirl in braids, she takes her first lover, a dissident student. The more she understands of adult life, however, the more disdainful she is of its deceptions, and the more she loses herself in her one true passion: the ancient game of go. Incredibly for a teenager--and a girl at that--she dominates the games in her town. No opponent interests her until she is challenged by a stranger, who reveals himself to us as a Japanese soldier in disguise. They begin a game and continue it for days, rarely speaking but deeply moved by each other's strategies. As the clash of their peoples becomes ever more desperate and inescapable, and as each one's untold life begins to veer wildly off course, the girl and the soldier are absorbed by only one thing--the progress of their game, each move of which brings them closer to their shocking fate. InThe Girl Who Played Go,Shan Sa has distilled the piercing emotions of adolescence into an engrossing, austerely beautiful story of love, cruelty and loss of innocence.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Go is an ancient board game originating in China that appears simplistic at first glance, with lines and circles navigated by black and white stones. Although the rules are very basic, the subtle strategies of the game brim with powerful meanings that mirror the personality of the player and the artistry of the attack. The Japanese ancients also found the game enthralling and adopted it into their culture, but Go would remain a male-dominated pastime throughout the centuries in both civilizations. When a young Japanese soldier meets a lovely 16-year-old Chinese girl playing Go in the Square of a Thousand Winds, they form a silent bond, meeting daily to play the game. As a fragmented China battles for her dignity, the 1930 Japanese occupation of Manchuria is in full force. The girl and the soldier are opponents in more than just a game of Go; they are on opposite sides of a deadly war in which their muted love receives a crushing blow. Shan manipulates the scope of silence with a wisdom beyond her years. --Elsa Gaztambide Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

In her first novel to appear in English (her two previous novels, published in French, won the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Cazes), Sa masterfully evokes strife-ridden Manchuria during the 1930s. The first-person narration deftly alternates between a 16-year-old Chinese girl and a Japanese soldier from the invading force. As in the Chinese game of go, the two main characters-the girl discovering desire, the soldier visiting prostitutes, both in a besieged city-will ultimately cross paths, with surprising consequences for both. Sa's prose shifts between lavish metaphor-the girl's sister, grieved by an adulterous husband, is "not a woman but a flower slowly wilting"-and matter-of-fact concision ("We weary of the game and kill them," the soldier says of two Chinese prisoners, "two bullets in the head"). The most absorbing subplot is Sa's careful rendering of the girl's sexual awakening. Though at first intrigued by a liaison with a revolution-minded student, she is reluctant to enter adulthood, a state she views as fraught with injury and falsehood, "a sad place full of vanity." To escape her increasingly troubled life, she becomes a master at go, eventually taking on the soldier, who is in disguise. As the two meet to play, they gradually become entranced, even while war rages around them. The alternating parallel tales add an extra spark of energy to this swift-moving novel, as Sa portrays tenderness and brutality with equal clarity. (Oct. 16) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Like Nobel prize winner Gao Xinjian and Dai Sijie (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress), Sa fled China for France- where she has since won major awards like the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman. Her protagonist is a teenaged girl in 1930s Manchuria who becomes obsessed with a game called go. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

Adult/High School-It might seem incongruous that a book that is rife with war, death, and human misery is distinguished by its light and delicate touch, but that is exactly the case with this novel. The tale itself is that of the 16-year-old girl of the title and a young Japanese lieutenant and takes place in his nation's puppet state in Manchuria the year before the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. The two come into contact in the town square, where people come to play go, a game of strategy somewhat similar to chess or checkers. They are both skilled players who enjoy the game and the escape it provides them. But this is not another tale of young love, awash in melodrama. Each chapter is short, no more than a few pages long, and written from the perspective of one or the other protagonist. This structure allows the author to capture the moods of the characters with brilliant simplicity and to the fullest effect, not only for the moment, but also for the progression of the story. This technique works well here, breathing new life into what might appear an old tale.-Ted Westervelt, Library of Congress, Washington, DC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



1 In the Square of a Thousand Winds the frost-covered players look like snowmen. White vapor billows from their mouths and noses, and icicles growing along the underside of their fur hats point sharply downwards. The sky is pearly and the crimson sun is sinking, dying. Where does the sun go to die? When did this square become a meeting place for go players? I don't know. After so many thousands of games, the checkerboards engraved on the granite tables have turned into faces, thoughts, prayers. Clutching a bronze hand-warmer in my muff, I stamp my feet to thaw out my blood. My opponent is a foreigner who came here straight from the station. As the battle intensifies, a gentle warmth washes through me. Daylight is dwindling and the stones are almost indistinguishable. Suddenly someone lights a match and a candle appears in my opponent's left hand. The other players have all left and I know that Mother will be sick with worry to see her daughter come home so late. The night has crept down from the sky and the wind has stirred. The man shields the flame with his gloved hand. From my pocket I take a flask of clear spirit which burns my throat. When I put it under the stranger's nose, he looks at it incredulously. He is bearded and it's hard to tell his age; a long scar runs from the top of his eyebrow and down through his right eye, which he keeps closed. He empties the flask with a grimace. There is no moon tonight, and the wind wails like a newborn baby. Up above us, a god confronts a goddess, scattering the stars. The man counts the stones once and then twice. He has been beaten by eighteen points; he heaves a sigh and hands me his candle. Then he stands up, unfolding a giant's frame, gathers his belongings and leaves without a backward glance. I stow the stones in their wooden pots. They are crisp with frost in my fingers. I am alone with my soldiers, my pride gratified. Today, I celebrate my one hundredth victory. 2 My little mother barely comes up to my chest. Prolonged mourning for her husband has dried her out. When I tell her I have been posted to Manchuria, she pales. "Mother, please, it is time your son fulfilled his destiny as a soldier." She withdraws to her room without a word. All evening her devastated shadow is silhouetted against the white paper screen. She is praying. This morning the first snows fell on Tokyo. Kneeling with my hands flat on the tatami, I prostrate myself before the altar of my ancestors. As I come back up I catch sight of the portrait of venerable Father: he is smiling at me. The room is filled with his presence--if only I could take a part of it all the way to China! My family is waiting for me in the living room, sitting on their heels and observing a ceremonial silence. First of all, I say good-bye to my mother, as I used to when I left for school. I kneel before her and say, "Okasama,* I am leaving." She bows deeply in return. I pull on the sliding door and step out into the garden. Without a word, Mother, Little Brother and Little Sister follow me out. I turn and bow down to the ground. Mother is crying and I hear the dark fabric of her kimono rustling as she bows in turn. I start to run. Losing her composure, she launches herself after me in the snow. I stop. So does she. Afraid that I might throw myself into her arms, she takes one step back. "Manchuria is a sister country," she cries. "But there are terrorists trying to sour the good relations between our two emperors. It is your duty to guard this uneasy peace. If you have to choose between death and cowardice, don't hesitate: choose death!" We embark amid tumultuous fanfares. Soldiers' families jostle with each other on the quay, throwing ribbons and flowers, and shouts of farewell are salted with tears. The shore draws farther and farther away and with it the bustle of the port. The horizon opens wide, and we are swallowed up in its vastness. We land at Pusan in Korea, where we are packed into a train heading north. Towards dusk on the third day the convoy comes to a halt, and we leap gleefully to the ground to stretch our legs and empty our bladders. I whistle as I relieve myself, watching birds wheeling in the sky overhead. Suddenly I hear a stifled cry and I can see men running away into the woods. Tadayuki, fresh from the military academy, is lying stretched out on the ground ten paces from me. The blood springs from his neck in a continuous stream, but his eyes are still open. Back on the train I cannot stop thinking about his young face twisted into a rictus of astonishment. Astonishment. Is that all there is to dying? The train arrives at a Manchurian station in the middle of the night. The frost-covered ground twinkles under the streetlamps, and in the distance dogs are howling. 3 Cousin Lu taught me to play go when I was four years old and he was twice my age. The long hours of contemplating the checkered board were a torment, but the will to win kept me there. Ten years later Lu was considered an exceptional player, so famous for his talents that the Emperor of independent Manchuria received him at his court in the new capital. He never thanked me for propelling him to this glory: I am his shadow, his secret, his best opponent. At twenty, Lu is already an old man, and the hair that falls over his brow is white. He walks with his back hunched over and his hands crossed, taking small steps. A few pubescent hairs have appeared on his chin, a baby-beard on a centenarian. A week ago I received a letter from him. "I am coming for you, my little cousin. I have decided to talk to you about our future..." The rest of the letter is an illegible confession: my painfully discreet cousin must have dipped his pen in very weak ink because his cursive ideograms are strung out between the watermarks like white storks flying in the mist. Endless and indecipherable, his letter written on a long sheet of rice paper undid me. 4 It is snowing so heavily that we have to stop training. Trapped by the frost, the cold and the wind, we spend our days playing cards in our rooms. Apparently the Chinese who live out in the country in northern Manchuria never wash, and they ward off the cold by coating themselves in fish fat. As a result of our protests, a bathhouse has been built in our barracks, and officers and soldiers alike queue up outside it. Inside the bathhouse, through the haze of steam, the walls can be seen trickling with condensation. In the doorway, molten snow boils furiously in a huge vat. Each man draws off his ration in a cracked enamel bucket. I undress and wash myself with a towel dampened in this cloudy liquid. Not far away the officers have formed a circle, and as they scrub each other's backs, they discuss the latest news. As I go over to them, I recognize the man speaking: Captain Mori, one of the veterans who fought for Manchurian independence. This morning's newspaper tells us that Major Zhang Xueliang has taken Chiang Kai-shek hostage in the town of Xian,* where he and his exiled army have sought refuge for six years. In exchange for the generalissimo's freedom, Zhang Xueliang has demanded that the Kuomintang be reconciled with the Communist Party to reconquer Manchuria. "Zhang Xueliang is unworthy of his good name and he's an inveterate womanizer," Captain Mori says dismissively. "The very day after September 18, 1931, when our army had surrounded the town of Shen Yang where he had his headquarters, the degenerate weakling fled without even attempting to resist us. As for Chiang Kai-shek, he's a professional liar. He'll welcome the Communists with open arms, the better to throttle them." "No Chinese army can take us on," threw in one of the officers while his back was energetically scrubbed by his orderly. "The civil war has ruined China. One day, we'll annex the entire territory, another Korea. You'll see, our army will follow the railway that runs from northern China to the south. In three days we'll take Peking, and six days later we'll be marching through the streets of Nanking; eight days after that we'll be sleeping in Hong Kong, and that will open up the doors to Southeast Asia." Their comments confirm various rumors, already rife in Japan, in the heart of our infantry. Despite our government's reticence, the conquest of China becomes more inevitable every day. That evening I go to sleep relaxed, and happy to be clean. I am roused by a rustling of clothes: I am sleeping in my own room, and Father is sitting in the next room, wrapped in his dark-blue cotton yukata. Mother is walking up and down, the bottom of her lavender-gray kimono opening and closing over a pale-pink under-kimono. She has the face of a young woman; there is not a single wrinkle round her almond-shaped eyes. A smell of springtime wafts around her--it's the perfume Father had sent from Paris! I suddenly remember that she has not touched that bottle of perfume since Father died. 5 Cousin Lu is becoming more and more stooped. He tries to seem nonchalant, indifferent, but those dark unsettling eyes peer out of his emaciated face, watching my every move. When I look into his eyes and ask him, "What's the matter, Cousin Lu?" he says nothing. I challenge him to a game of go. He turns pale and fidgets on his chair; his every move betrays his volatile mood. The territory he is trying to defend on the board is either too cramped or too sprawling, and his genius is reduced to a few strange and ineffectual moves. I can tell that he has again been reading ancient tracts on go; he gets them from his neighbor, an antique dealer, and a forger of the first order. I even wonder whether, after reading so many of these manuscripts, which are said to have sacred origins and are filled with Taoist mysteries and tragic anecdotes, my cousin is going to end up succumbing to madness, as players used to in the past. "My cousin," I say when, instead of thinking about his position, he is staring at my plait and daydreaming, "what's happened to you?" Lu flushes immediately as if I have found out his secret. He gives a little cough and looks like a doddering old man. "What have you learned from your books, my cousin?" I taunt him impatiently. "The secret of immortality? You look more and more like those dithering old alchemists who think they hold the secret of purple cinnabar." He isn't listening to me. He isn't looking at me either, but at his own last letter to me, which I have left on the table. Ever since he arrived he has been waiting for my reply to his illegible demands. I am determined not to breathe a word. He goes home to the capital, full of flu, a broken man. I go to the station with him, and as I watch the train disappearing into the swirling snow, I have a strange feeling of relief. 6 At last, my first mission! Our detachment has received orders to track down a group of terrorists who are challenging our authority onthe ground in Manchuria. Disguised as Japanese soldiers, they attacked a military reserve and stole arms and munitions. For four days we follow a river locked under ice, with the wind against us and the fallen snow swirling round our knees. Despite my new coat, the cold slices through me more sharply than a saber, and I can no longer feel my hands or feet. The marching has drained my head of all thought. Laden like an ox and with my head tucked down inside the collar of my uniform, I ruminate on the hope that I will soon be able to warm myself by a campfire. As we reach the foot of a hill, gunshots ring out. Just in front of me several soldiers are hit and fall to the ground. We are trapped! From their positions up above, the enemy can shoot down on us and we cannot return their fire. A sharp pain twists my gut--I'm wounded! I'm dying! I feel tentatively with my hand: no wound at all, just a cramp produced by fear--a discovery that covers me in shame. I look up and wipe the snow that has stuck to my eyes, and I can see that our more experienced soldiers have leaped down onto the frozen river, where they are sheltering behind the banks and returning fire. I leap to my feet and start to run. I could be hit a thousand times, but in war the difference between life and death depends on a mysterious game of chance. Our machine guns open fire and, covered by their powerful barrage, we make our assault. To make up for my earlier cowardice, I launch myself into battle at the head of the platoon, brandishing my saber. I have been brought up in a world dominated by honor. I have known neither crime, poverty nor betrayal, and here I taste hatred for the first time: it is sublime, like a thirst for justice and revenge. The sky is so charged with snow that it is threatening to collapse. The gunmen are sheltering behind huge boulders, but the smoke rising from their weapons gives away their position. I throw two grenades and when they explode, legs, arms and shreds of flesh fly out from a whirl of snow and flames. I scream with triumphant pleasure at this hellish sight and, leaping towards a survivor who is taking aim at me, I strike him with my saber. His head rolls in the snow. At last I can look my ancestors in the face. By handing their blade down to me they also bequeathed me their courage. I have not sullied their name. The battle leaves us in a trancelike state. Stimulated by the blood, we whip our prisoners to break them down, but the Chinese are harder than granite, and they do not falter. We weary of the game and kill them: two bullets in the head. Night falls and, fearing there may be other traps ahead, we decide to make camp where we are. Our wounded groan in the dark, a dialogue of moans, and then silence. Their lips are frozen. They will not survive. Excerpted from The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.