It’s almost an insult to consider Zhu Wen as a man of his times. Writers like him are above all that, timeless: like Catullus, Balzac or Daniil Kharms, Zhu Wen is one of those writers who seems to leap from the pages of his stories, grinning obscenely and poking the reader in the abdomen. In the opening lines of the title piece of I Love Dollars, the story with which Zhu Wen burst onto China’s literary scene in 1994, the narrator, in bed with a promiscuous divorcée, is surprised by a visit from his father, who addresses the woman: “And you would be Miss?” The narrator intercedes: “I didn’t want Father to think the woman his son had just been sleeping with was some random pickup, a divorced older woman. I’d lose his respect. What the hell do you care what she’s called? I said to Father, signaling to Wang Qing to get lost.” Wang Qing leaves, smiling cryptically and clutching something in her fist, perhaps her panties. As his father scolds him for skulking inside and not getting more fresh air, the narrator silently retorts: “Ah, but Dad, some things, unfortunately, you can still only do inside. One day, one day I dream of doing them outside, on sun-drenched grass, happy and uninhibited, just like an animal. You never gave me the courage I really need; you forgot, just like your father did with you.”
This is weird, twisted territory, but it’s the familiar weird, twisted territory of Kafka’s “The Judgment” or Freud’s chapter on “The Embarrassment-Dream of Nakedness.” The sudden visit from the father after sex–who among us hasn’t been unpleasantly surprised by a postcoital intrusion from the superego, wondering what the hell we are doing, at our age, in bed with this random person and how we plan to fulfill our parents’ expectations of us? These are primal, ancient themes; people have been telling stories like this since Ham saw Noah naked. They remain fresh in part because of their psychosexual immediacy, and in part because not just anyone can tell them well. It requires savage irony and a gleeful contempt for public morals.
That said, let’s get down to insulting Zhu Wen by considering him as a man of his times. Zhu Wen’s savage irony and gleeful contempt for public morals are not entirely his own; they reflect the stinging disillusionment of Chinese intellectual culture in the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre. The most surprising aspect of the cultural explosion that has come out of China since the early 1990s is its vicious sense of irony. The sarcasm of novelists like Yu Hua (Chronicle of a Blood Merchant), filmmakers like Ye Lou (Summer Palace) and bloggers like the foulmouthed Beijing provocateur Wang Xiao-feng (wangxiaofeng.et) is all the more striking coming from a country whose mass culture is for the most part sugar-sweet and commercially conformist. And to some extent, it is a reaction to that very commercial conformism. In a post in April ridiculing the popularity of “Anti-CNN” T-shirts in the wake of CNN’s coverage of the Olympic torch protests, Wang Xiaofeng wrote:
Chinese people react really quickly: over there they are busy cursing CNN, over here they have already released a line of products…. Right now my biggest regret is that I bought a T-shirt printed with “I’m fed up! Leave me alone!”, such a classic, but I later threw it away.
The last sentence refers to the fad of “cultural shirts,” popular in 1991 before the government banned them, bearing cynical slogans like “Getting rich is all there is.” Already by the early 1990s, just a decade into capitalism, the leading edge of Chinese culture was honing a Sex Pistols-like postmodernist strategy of celebrating empty commercialism in order to ridicule it and in order to profit from it. And this was the cultural moment that nourished the scabrous honesty of Zhu Wen’s I Love Dollars.
If I were as honest a writer as Zhu Wen, I would probably pause at this point to note that I am completely unqualified to write about China. I have done a little reporting in China and have lived for the past five years in Vietnam. Getting an American who lives in Vietnam to write about China is a bit like getting a Chinese person who lives in Mexico to write about the United States. On the other hand, China did rule Vietnam for a thousand years, and over the past few decades the two countries have been traveling very similar trajectories, so there is much in Zhu Wen’s work that feels familiar, and painfully so. Today’s Chinese writing and art often convey what Vietnamese would say if they only dared; the powerful Vietnamese cultural preference for moderation and ambiguity, which may have saved the country from the worst excesses of Maoism, also mitigates today against its ability to produce a writer like Zhu Wen. In a conversation I had early this year in New York City with the up-and-coming Vietnamese surrealist artist Nguyen Manh Hung, he said he envied Chinese artists’ sensational directness. “They can present, in a single image, sex, violence, politics and tradition,” Hung said. “In Vietnam, we can’t do sex, violence or politics, so we’re left with tradition.”