The Book and the Controvery

Young and Decadent in Shanghai

If it is true that the hype contained in a book's blurb stands in inverse proportion to its literary merits, then Shanghai Baby by the young Chinese writer Zhou Wei Hui is a good illustration of this rule. On the backcover the publisher promises us a novel "as explicit as Tropic of Cancer, as shocking as Trainspotting, ... an exposé of the new China, breaking through official rhetoric to show the inroads of the West and a people determined to burst free." And just in case that should not yet be enticing enough to make us buy, the evil dictatorial monster called the Chinese Government is conjured once again ("The risqué contents ... have so alarmed Beijing authorities that thousands of copies have been confiscated and burnt"), and page 1 blares out at us: "The Shocking, Sensual Novel the Chinese Government Does Not Want Westerners to Read".

Having finally been won over by the culture industry's concerted forces ofadvertisement, and eager to show our good democratic sentiments by supporting a banned author (how exciting!), we buy the book.

The initial suspicion that the authorities probably do not care two straws about whether or not foreigners read it (otherwise, why is the author permitted to leave the country to promote it abroad, why is it sold openly in Hong Kong's bookstores?) soon proves to be well-founded in the text. The semi-autobiographical novel chronicles the life and loves of a young female writer, Nikki, who is also the narrator and lives in Shanghai, desperate to become famous by writing. In love with an impotent young man of strange family background (who will become addicted to and die of, morphine), quarrelling and breaking with her parents, and involved in an adulterous affair with a German businessman, the protagonist's lifestyle is admittedly unlikely to endear her to the authorities.

Richly and explicitly sensual it certainly is. But whilst this would appear quite apt for a novel set in a city whose better hotels once offered heroin on room service, its descriptions of kisses heterosexual and otherwise, intercourse, and female masturbation are no more explicit than many European or American novels, and unlikely to be perceived as particularly ‘shocking' in the West. However, in a country where as recently as the 1970s everything pertaining to sexuality was considered deeply immoral, and, along with even romance, "had altogether disappeared from Chinese arts and literature" (Jianying Zha in her very informative China Pop), a novel describing the protagonist's lover licking her vagina whilst she is on the phone to her boyfriend, will obviously spark a somewhat different reaction. Moreover, if author and protagonist are female and convey a strong awareness of their female sexuality, then this only makes it all the more provocative in a traditionally male-dominated society. Similarly, the juxtaposition of an impotent Chinese and a virile foreigner is hardly one to be well received in China's nationalist climate. Ultimately, it was chiefly on grounds of the explicit sex that the book was banned.

Comparatively provocative too is the description of the profound differences between Wei Hui's post-cultural revolution generation, and that of her parents. The differences range from attitudes to sex and gender, to questions of independence versus filial piety in the relationship between children and parents, to searching for security as opposed to embracing risks in the market economy. "The way we think is just too different. We're separated by a hundred generation gaps", Nikki informs her parents. But Wei Hui is no Chinese Phillip Larkin - "We'd better respect each other, instead of arguing our cases" Nikki suggests to her parents, and on these terms they achieve a genuine reconciliation.

Unfortunately, the generation gap theme is treated rather too briefly, and in too haphazard a manner. A more thorough exploration would have been interesting. This lack of depth is certainly one of the novel's major weaknesses, along with lack of structure and breadth. The narrative seldom strays beyond the protagonist's immediate surroundings and concerns, and many of the minor characters remain altogether too sketchy to convey a broad picture of contemporary life in Shanghai and China. In particular the family of Nikki's boyfriend, Tian Tian, could have provided fertile ground for just this. When he was still a young child his mother left the family for Spain, where she has since been living with a Spaniard, running a Chinese restaurant. Tian Tian's father subsequently died in Spain of a heart disease, on a visit to his ex-wife. This double bereavement turned their son's life into a tragedy; causing him to drop out of school, temporarily loose the power of speech, and taking most of his will to live, along with his sexual potency. Faced with her son's death, Tian Tian's paternal grandmother in turn loses all happiness, and sinks into a nightmarish "delirium", fixated on what she supposes was the murder of her son at the hands of his former wife and her Spanish lover. Many interesting themes come together here; the relationship between mother and son in China old and new, the role of family in the development of a person, freedom and responsibility, male impotence (eventually one of the major causes of Tian Tian's drug habit and death), China's relationship to the West, and the Mainland Chinese' relation to overseas Chinese.

Unfortunately, a reading of Shanghai Baby leaves one with the distinct impression that as a novelist Wei Hui is as yet not capable of the breadth and depth, not to mention the structure, which such a project requires. She is not without talent; there are plenty of insightful observations into themes ranging from life in present-day Shanghai to human universals. However, they are not woven together into a pattern, and this produces a book that often reads more like a collection of aphorisms and one regrets the text in between. Similarly, the narrative often seems to be going nowhere in particular, simply drifting from episode to episode, resulting in a distinct loss of energy after the first hundred or so of the book's 256 pages - put simply, it becomes boring. Stringent editing here would have done the novel a favour.

Style is a further problem. The author has a talent for irony and quirkiness, which becomes her, and in part saves the novel by injecting a dose of wit. What becomes the text far less is that it is overloaded with similes, many of which simply do not work ("This toilet looked like a giant white fly, doleful yet uncomplaining"). Moreover, the book is filled with far too much narcissism on part of the narrator, a narcissism one hopes is meant ironically, and fears it may not be. But this may be a problem of translation, a problem that makes itself felt in other parts of the novel too. Sentences that work well in Chinese do not necessarily work in English, "kind, loving and trusting as a dolphin, it was his temperament that captured my wild heart" being a good example. There are also problems of cultural translation. The text is a Chinese novel, written in a Chinese cultural and social environment. But this means that some conflicts, especially the one between Nikki and her parents, are not written as forcefully as may be necessary to make a post-1968 European or American reader aware of just how distressing they are to the characters involved. To a Chinese writer and reader, these are obvious. However, one can hardly blame the author for not possessing the pretensions of a Yukio Mishima and writing her novel specifically as to facilitate translation.

What certainly impresses though, is the almost lyrical profundity Wei Hui at times does achieve ("while God smiles and clips His fingernails"), and together with her talent for irony, quirkiness and observation, as well as her obvious wide reading in both Chinese and Western literature, this gives hope for future works.

So what is the reader left with? A young author's novel, certainly, and one that, if the reader is not so knowledgeable about China, will leave him wondering what all the fuss was about, especially given the complete absence of politics from the narrative. A novel that certainly does give insights into the vast changes sweeping the country, and is, for all its flaws, interesting for its depiction of China's new generation and their concerns: pop culture; love, labels, libido; the naked commercialism of China's market economy and the opportunities this grants the fortunate and the talented; the question of gender relations - Nikki and her female friends do not consider themselves ‘feminists' but are concerned with gender inequalities. Then there is the question of nationalism and the attitude to foreigners, as well as the generation gap. Although, as mentioned, much of this is not handled as effectively as it could have been. One must also be careful not to take this account of the lives and loves of avant-garde youth in Shanghai as representative of the whole country. It most certainly is not; Shanghai is far more westernised and sophisticated than much of the rest of the country, which is also why the novel has sparked such controversy.

The controversy itself is interesting, more interesting maybe than the novel. On the one hand, the novel has been banned, burnt, and Wei Hui has been subjected to considerable criticism in the media. Apparently, she has also been forbidden to publish anything further. Her editor, too, did not escape unscathed and the publishing company temporarily closed. On the other hand, the author has not been arrested or in other ways persecuted – as would certainly have been the case 20 years ago. Instead she was even permitted to travel to Europe and the States to promote the book. In any case the novel quickly achieved cult status, for all the obvious reasons, with over 130, 000 copies being sold before it was banned. However, after commercialising the book market, banning books simply does not work anymore. To quote Jianying Zha once again: "because the government has never been able to contain pirated copies or illicit sales - both being hallmarks of the ‘second channel' (the private distribution channel) - even after a ban has been announced, it has become virtually impossible to effectively enforce it." There are just too many small bookstores around to keep a good check on them all. According to reports in Western newspapers, sales of pirate copies have been huge; more than a million copies are allegedly in circulation. It has sparked imitations (apparently there is a Chongqing Baby and a Guangzhou Baby about), and has even embroiled Wei Hui in a bizarre literary feud with another young writer, Mian Mian, with accusations of plagiarism, masturbation whilst writing and sex in public toilets flying both ways.

Much of the Western media's reaction has been a predictable sea-saw effect to that of the Chinese authorities - what they hated, the others loved, for reasons just as obvious. Put simply, many discovered in Shanghai Baby a text that lent itself quite easily to a reading through their particular set of liberal lenses. Though reading some of the interpretations, one does wonder whether the reviewers actually ever opened the book. Otherwise, it becomes hard to understand how the German weekly Freitag can construe a writer as a feminist who lends her protagonist sentences such as "I wouldn't set myself up as a woman's lib warrior", and in interviews reiterates that she is not a ‘feminist'. Not to mention US-American reviewers who in a text devoid of literally any comment on internal politics, want to detect the voice of a generation still mourning the dead of Tiananmen. Let alone her American publishers' talk of "a people determined to burst free". The fact remains that China's youth is singularly apolitical, and the populace quite happy to let the communist party govern alone, as long as it ensures a successful capitalist economy. Shanghai Baby's success in the West has then also been remarkable, but one does wonder whether, had it not been banned, it would ever have made it far beyond China's borders. For Shanghai Baby is not great literature, and one doubts it will still be remembered in ten years. What makes it interesting are neither plot, main characters nor literary merits, but rather its setting and the society it thereby necessarily portrays. But that makes it more of value as a symptom, than as a work of art.

Shanghai Baby by Zhou Wei Hui
US Edition: Hardcover, 256 pages, Simon & Schuster Inc., ISBN: 0743421566, Price: $24,00

German Edition: Gebundene Ausgabe, 319 Seiten, Ulstein Verlag, ISBN: 0743421566, Preis: EUR 18,00

16. Februar 2002


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