Late to the China party in general, I’m also late to Wang Shuo. Wang got popular in the late 80s and 90s for writing about disaffected youth. As someone steeped in the western tradition of youth revolution–beats, hippies, punk rock–it’s cool to see what ‘fuck the system’ looks like in the Chinese context, state imposed morality and all.
Geramie Barme, an Australian China culture critic, places Wang Shuo at the heart of ‘Liumang culture’. Liumang being a term for hooligan or slacker. The term was often used by disapproving communist ideologues to disparage the moral failings of reform. I imagine grumpy old men complaining about ‘youth these days’ or ‘hippie slackers’. Wang preferred the term Wanzhu. Wan usually means ‘to play’ but is also used in more irreverent contexts suggesting something like ‘screw around.’ Zhu roughly translates as ‘master.’
Not having read any of his books yet myself, their basic descriptions fit expectations. The Operators, from 1987, is about a group of heroes who form a company specializing in graft and cheeky stunts including sending guys as stand-ins when guys can’t make it on time to meet their girlfriends for dates. Seducing women, excessive drinking, and outsmarting the entrenched powers that be are par for the course.
Wang wasn’t just writing a lifestyle, he was living it as well. He left the Navy and lived off of odd-jobs in Beijing before getting famous writing. He drank and cavorted like the best of his characters. Even his position as a writer carried a sense of flaunting the system. He lived outside the standard job market, supporting himself and answering to no one.
The message seems to have the same elements of western youth rebellion of the 60s: sexual liberation, a screw the man attitude, and personal gratification. Like Timothy Leary’s “turn on, tune in, drop out” except with less drugs and more alcohol. The message in China however didn’t breed a mass movement. While not a straight line, disgust with ‘the system’ was organized into cultural and political change in the US, namely humanitarian and environmental legislation in the 70s. Not so in China. The effect of a similar sentiment and message has been, if nothing else, more subtle.
But not for lack of popularity or exposure. Wang Shuo’s works were not sidelined by the government as one might expect of such a culturally critical attitude as apathy. Wang was one of the most successful authors of the 90s, selling millions of books across China, and while his work was criticized it was almost never banned.
More recent history has brought a new literary anti-establishment voice: Han Han. Han Han won a few literary prizes while in middle and high school and then proceeded to fail his classes spectacularly before finally dropping out. His first hit novel, Triple Gate, was published when he was 17. It has since become one of the best selling books in recent Chinese history. He has since written several more novels, several collections of essays, and hosts one of the most viewed blogs in the world. Oh yeah, and he’s a professional race-car driver.
A race-car driving high school drop-out novelist, that’s pretty rock and roll. It’s also pretty glamorous–fast cars, nice clothes, trendy clubs. And his personality fits the description. He’s arrogant, swears constantly, and generally exudes ‘I don’t give a shit.’
He is also unapologetic about his lifestyle. Han Han’s generation, known as post-80s, is often criticized for being selfish and spoiled–the children who have grown up under economic reform and the one-child policy ruined by the benefits of wealth and over attentive parents. If Han Han’s attitude itself is a shining example of this criticism it is also a response that seems to say ‘you don’t like it, so what?’
Like Wang Shuo, Han Han is controversial without being banned. He tends to avoid overt political criticism while still engaging in satire and subversive commentary. He regularly points out forced evictions and questionable land deals on his blog. He also cries hypocrisy over the expressed government goals to improve Chinese cultural influence despite official censorship.
In a way Han Han is an updated Wang Shuo. They both buck the establishment through attitude as much as actual content, and so far their cultural critique has been absorbed into the culture at large without sparking some kind of greater movement. That they never actively call for change is no small part of their ability to exist at all, and a sign of the way artists’ influence is confined by censorship.
It’s been said that Han Han’s rebelliousness just channels disgust with the system toward consumerism. Filing the void of party ideology with the desire to get rich is a common theme in China. The government’s staunch pursuit of double digit economic growth seems to some to belie a fear of what people might do if they aren’t busy trying not to miss out on getting rich.
It’s also not uncommon, in any country, to view apathy as a less than constructive political strategy. Still, that two of the most popular writers of the last 20 years in China are anti-establishment drop-outs says a lot about the feelings that resonate among the people.