Intergenerational Turmoil in China

Intergenerational Turmoil in China

Three recent books trace the generational fault lines of the Confucian family during China’s past and present revolutions.


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 ( 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.”

One thing the two countries share, having tacitly upended their value systems over the past thirty years, is a sharp but publicly repressed problem of generational conflict. For Hung, whose father was a MiG-21 pilot during the war, this has meant an ongoing obsession with painting fighter planes, which he depicts as simultaneously ridiculous and glorious. Zhu Wen’s stories depict similarly conflicted feelings toward the older generation. In the story “I Love Dollars,” the narrator watches with a mix of pride and shame as his father argues down a middle-aged, red-armbanded street monitor when she tries to fine him two yuan for littering. Why, the narrator thinks, in this era of dollars, would anyone waste precious time on such trifles? His father retorts: “If we’d surrendered those two yuan, I’d feel we’d shown a lack of respect, see? Two yuan ought to get the respect due to two yuan.” There is something gracious in the father’s outmoded values, his competence at street-level skills that were critical under the socialist system but are now obsolescent. The narrator confronts a similar absurdity in his own value system in one of the story’s central scenes, when he takes his father to a dance hall to try to get both of them laid and must explain to the disbelieving older man that all the women there are prostitutes:

“But they all look so young,” Father meditated wonderingly, his face sagging faintly, but perceptibly.
 Dad, I said, you have to get over this psychological barrier, it’s terrorizing you…. Try and be a bit more like me, forget your family, and just take a look around you.

As the narrator looks around, he tries to talk himself into the ludicrous thesis that the experience of a hundred-dollar trick is twenty times as enjoyable as the five-dollar one. This is the free-market ideology of progress, right? Yet he can’t quite convince himself, and his inability to do so is embodied in his continuing respect for his father–his old Communist youth-brigade-organizing father. In Confucian societies like Vietnam and China the young dollar worshipers, try as they might, will never be able to “forget their families.” Meanwhile, in a strange reversal of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, it is the old Bolsheviks who still have a sense of respect for traditional norms, for family and for value systems that are complex and overlapping, not simple or absolute; and it’s the young capitalist entrepreneurs who are the new nihilists, honoring nothing, stripping society down to a purely materialist measure whereby any human quality can be denominated into hard currency.

Zhu Wen’s writing is far too formally inventive to be treated as sociology. (The strength of his voice in English owes much to a terrific colloquial translation by Julia Lovell.) Some of what felt revelatory in 1994, when Zhu Wen began publishing stories, is by now old hat to Chinese audiences. Zhu Wen has turned from writing to directing films–Seafood in 2001, which won a prize at the Venice Film Festival, and South of the Clouds in 2004. And one wonders how the author of I Love Dollars is absorbing the metaphorical implications of the fall of the dollar and the rise of the yuan. Still, part of the energy of I Love Dollars feeds on a social tension that’s just as critical today as it was fifteen years ago: the great generational fault line that runs down the middle of Asia’s Confucian Communist-capitalist hybrids. How do you fulfill your obligations to your elders when the values those elders spent their lives upholding have been explicitly rejected by the new society?

In Lijia Zhang’s telling, that dilemma very nearly wrecked her life. Zhang is not a formally inventive writer, and her memoir Socialism Is Great! is best treated as sociology, an exploration of gender, career and especially mother-daughter tensions in the rapidly changing Chinese society of the 1980s. In the mid-’80s, when Zhang was a promising, curious middle-school student with a budding taste for literature, her mother took advantage of a government offer to certain workers to retire and hand over their safe jobs to their children. The family was poor, and in a society with a recent memory of Mao’s economic disasters, lifetime employment at a state-owned factory was what passed for security. So instead of applying to university, Zhang submitted to her mother’s will, inherited her toolbox and prepared to spend the rest of her life repairing gauges at an ICBM factory in Nanjing.

Zhang describes her life in those years as a pressure cooker of restrictive obligations to family and country. In the tiny flat she shares with her mother, grandmother and sister–the men in the family, mercifully, are rarely around–she bickers with her mother for selling her beloved schoolbooks, including novels such as Ba Jin’s 1930s trilogy Home, Spring and Autumn. Her factory danwei, the “work unit” that once regulated much of Communist life, is sometimes a supportive social network but more often a claustrophobic cell. Zhang’s efforts to free herself by enrolling in a distance-learning university, doing freelance translations into English and finally pursuing a series of romantic affairs, provide moments of liberation, but she keeps getting pulled back into her old job.

Zhang depicts China in the liberalizing ’80s with the disappointed nostalgia a Western baby boomer might have for the ’60s. In such an impoverished, tightly restricted society, almost everything new looked like freedom, and it was natural to assume that all freedoms–economic, intellectual, sexual–must run together. She thrills when her cultured married lover, Liang, presents her with a new foreign book, “bursting with individual initiative. Liang had become the connection between my small, stagnating well and a vibrant intellectual scene in the fast-changing world.” The book is the autobiography of Lee Iacocca. Later, Liang promises to take her with him to America on a student scholarship: “I personally much prefer Nietzsche to Schopenhauer because his attitude to life was so much more positive. If we are determined to do something, we will!”

“Jerk,” the reader thinks, and so Liang proves to be. As in the States in the ’60s, the pursuit of sexual liberation in a climate of sharp gender inequality largely meant men taking advantage of women. Zhang’s subsequent efforts at self-realization seem to have worked out better; she ended up marrying (and divorcing) an Englishman and becoming a freelance journalist for the Western press in Beijing. But none of that is included in the book, which ends in 1989 when, in her own telling, Zhang led a protest at her factory in support of the student demonstrators at Tiananmen and was arrested for chanting “Long live democracy!” and reading the Bei Dao poem “Answer”: “Let me tell you, world,/I–do–not–believe!”

It is a strange moment at which to cut off the narrative. Unlike the revolutions in Eastern Europe, China’s revolt, and in particular Zhang’s, led to nothing, or not to anything clear, and it no longer seems at all adequate to treat 1989 in such a simplistic fashion, as a moment of pure liberation. What connection does Zhang draw between her personal adolescent rebellion in the ’80s, the failed political rebellion of ’89 and her life today as a divorced international media-industry professional in ultramodern Beijing? Did the generational political energy of ’89 break on the shoals of Tiananmen and fragment, swirling off into a million private revolutions and generating today’s Chinese commercial and creative classes? Or is her vision a darker one, as in Ye Lou’s Summer Palace, where the young lovers who danced on the barricades in ’89 drift into lives of emotional exile, trapped by the memory of that exhilarating moment, while shopping malls and superhighways reshape the very landscape of the country they rebelled in?

If Zhang seems to be not yet done rebelling against her mother, Charles Li long ago settled the war with his father that wracked his adolescent years. Li, a linguistics professor at UC Santa Barbara, also hails from Nanjing, but a Nanjing Zhang would not recognize: the World War II capital of the puppet regime installed by the Japanese Army. As Li’s memoir, The Bitter Sea, relates, his father was a major figure in the splinter Nationalist faction the Japanese put in power, and became a senior official in the quisling regime. Until he was 5, Li lived with his mother and five siblings in a vast mansion in a walled compound. When Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang retook the city in 1945, Li’s father was arrested and sentenced to prison, though for some reason not to a bullet in the head like the other senior members of the collaborationist regime. The family’s belongings were confiscated, and they spent a year living in a filthy slum before Li was sent to Shanghai to stay with an aunt.

Li stayed in Shanghai through the Communist takeover. Then, in 1950, his aunt took him to Hong Kong to rejoin his parents. (The Kuomintang had released Li’s father just before Nanjing fell to the Red Army.) It is here that Li’s contest of wills with his domineering father begins. Li’s father beats him when he fails to conform at school, relenting only when his son starts to excel at an expensive private academy. Constantly scheming at some sort of political comeback, the father becomes increasingly admiring of Mao. Ultimately, he succeeds at coaxing Li to forget about attending college in America, like other graduates of his elite school, and instead to cross the border into China to undergo political re-education in the hopes of attending a Chinese university.

Li spends a miserable famished year in a re-education camp at the start of the Great Leap Forward before finally being told that he will never be allowed to study in China: the Communist Party knows he has been sent over as a political feeler by his father and wants nothing to do with them. Li suddenly realizes this is true–his father has been using him as a probe. Returning to Hong Kong, he confronts his father and breaks off all contact. Ultimately, he wins a scholarship to Bowdoin College and reconciles with his aging, increasingly broken father over the course of decades.

Li’s sympathetic portrait of his father, from a vantage point decades after his death, is an interesting model of the difficulties the strict Confucian family model has sustained during a century of violent social upheaval. Born in an impoverished village in Shandong around the turn of the century, Li’s father had been phenomenally successful, attending Peking University and then studying law, first at Tokyo University and then at Oxford. He became deputy foreign minister under Wang Jing-wei’s Nationalist government in the early ’30s. But in many ways, he remained a man of the nineteenth century, and Li finally concludes that he had expected too much: “In my heart, I had wanted him to be something other than who he could be–a one-dimensional man who didn’t have the faintest idea how to relate to his family, a man who had for most of his life behaved according to the traditions that had served his ancestors for generation after generation.”

The turn of the twenty-first century is hardly the first age in which Confucian filial piety has been tested by revolutions in social norms. Li’s father’s lifetime saw the fall of the Imperial state, the advent first of Nationalist republicanism and then of Communism–both of which explicitly rejected Confucian ideology–and ultimately the rise of the modern consumer capitalist “Asian tigers” of Hong Kong and Taiwan. But none of these social revolutions succeeded in knocking out the Chinese family. In fact, if China is like Vietnam, it may be that each Chinese revolution has adapted itself to the Confucian family rather than the other way around. More than forty years ago in Vietnam, it was the family that sent its sons south to fight for honor and country; the Communist Party succeeded by taking advantage of these powerful family norms. Twenty years later, when the party launched its program of liberalizing reforms, it was families that (in contrast to the failed reforms in the USSR) eagerly started businesses, pooled their capital and planted rice for export. The Confucian family was the engine of the party, and the Confucian family is today the engine of capitalism.

At the end of Zhu Wen’s story “I Love Dollars,” the narrator, back in bed with Wang Qing, finally arrives at a gesture he considers worthy and noble: he asks the divorcée if she will sleep with his father. His debauched, monetarized value system, a caricature of capitalist materialism, is ultimately not enough; he needs to demonstrate that he is a pious son, albeit in a madly unconventional fashion. And isn’t he right? This is what renders accounts like Lijia Zhang’s, with its simplistic twinning of liberation from familial tyranny and access to capitalism and Western culture, so unsatisfying. Women bear far more of the burdens of the Confucian family, and reap far fewer rewards, so it is understandable that Zhang’s rejection of traditional roles is more uncompromising than Zhu Wen’s or Li’s. Still, are we really so confident of the merits of individualism and the obsolescence of filial piety? From the first page of the story “I Love Dollars” to the last, the supposedly greedy, hedonistic individualist of a narrator is actually concerned with nothing but winning his father’s respect. Do we like him less for that? Or more?

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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