The questions that
follow are intended to enhance your group's reading and discussion of SONS
OF HEAVEN by Terrence Cheng. We hope that they will provide you with new
ways of looking at and talking about this epic novel set against the
backdrop of one of modern history's most haunting events: the Tiananmen
Square Massacre of 1989.
But the image that remains most powerful is that of a lone young man,
looking confused yet terribly brave, as he held his ground before a
rolling line of tanks. Who was he, and why did he do what he did? No one
has ever been able to determine his identity or fate. Within the pages of
SONS OF HEAVEN, in a stunning blend of history and fiction, Terrence Cheng
has vividly created for this young hero a life, and given him a voice.
An unsettling and powerfully lacerating story of family, faith, and
courage, SONS OF HEAVEN weaves the lives of peasants and soldiers,
politicians and gods, into a timeless snapshot of one of history's most
memorable and heartrending events.
1. The image of the young man standing before the tanks figures
prominently in most people’s imaginations. Discuss where you were and
what went through your mind when you first saw that footage.
2. Above all else, SONS OF HEAVEN is a family saga, pivoting around
two brothers who have very different views of China. Does their strife
as brothers come to represent a larger national strife in your eyes?
3. The three voices in this novel—Xiao-Di, Lu, and Deng Xiaoping—fold
into each other at the same time that they remain distinct. What do you
think of this technique of blending and balancing viewpoints in the
novel? Which voice did you find most compelling and why?
4. After reading SONS OF HEAVEN, did you learn anything new about
China’s politics or history? Did any of your existing views (about
Deng Xiaoping, the students and the Democracy Movement protests, or
China in general) change?
5. Discuss how the fictional elements of the story maintain suspense
throughout the novel, in spite of the fact that readers know the student
protests ended in a massacre. What was the most compelling aspect of the
6. Xiao-Di’s experiences in America undoubtedly had an affect on
his participation in the Democracy Movement. Do you believe he would
have partaken in these events if not for Wong’s influence? What if he
had never experienced life in America, or had a relationship with Elsie?
7. Do you think Xiao-Di was really in love with Elsie? Or do you
think he was more infatuated with the idea of being with an American
girl and that whole experience?
8. What do you think are some of the reasons behind Lu’s violent
tendencies? Do you think it is more due to his personal nature, his
accident and experiences as a boy, or his training in the army?
9. Deng Xiaoping’s entire life was lived during modern China’s
tumultuous development. Taking into consideration both his personal and
political experiences, did you sympathize with his decisions and
feelings regarding Tiananmen Square?
10. Do you believe Deng felt remorse for what happened at Tiananmen
Square? Were there any other alternatives?
11. Compare the strife and turmoil experienced by Deng’s family, to
Lu and Xiao-Di’s family. Can any parallels be drawn? Which family has
suffered more and with which family do you empathize more?
12. The ending of the novel is very vague. What do you think happens
to Lu and Xiao-Di?
About the Author
Terrence Cheng's grandmother was a senator in the Chinese Nationalist
Party, and his grandfather was a prisoner-of-war captured by the Japanese
during World War II. Both survived and moved their family to Taiwan after
the Communists came to power in 1949.
Cheng was born in Taipei, Taiwan in 1972, and immigrated to the United
States with his parents in 1973. He earned his MFA in Fiction at the
University of Miami, FL, where he was a James Michener Fellow. Director of
Corporate Website Marketing for Random House Inc., he also teaches fiction
at Lehman College-CUNY. He has lived most of his life in New York.
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