Last year, I spent most of every rainy, drafty, muggy day in Shanghai trying to write yet another life story for Wang Shuo, a writer who has already given us a thousand life stories. It was a fool’s errand; Wang reinvents himself every three or four years, and completely disavows whatever version came before. Mercurial, simultaneously sentimental and cynical, crassly commercial but wonderfully lively—Wang Shuo’s work reflects the Chinese popular culture he practically invented.
The first version of Wang Shuo was born in 1958 on one of Beijing’s dayuan—the compounds where the relatively privileged personnel of the People’s Liberation Army, like Wang’s father and mother, lived. Wang was luckily just a little too young to be a Red Guard or a “sent-down youth,” the teenagers who Mao exiled to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. He instead came of age in the cynical waning days of the Cultural Revolution, which he spent running wild with a gang of fellow delinquent youths. He was present at the 1976 Tiananmen Incident, in which police forcibly dispersed crowds gathering to mourn Zhou Enlai, and was jailed for three months for stealing a policeman’s hat. Unsurprisingly, the career his parents had prepared for him in the People’s Liberation Army didn’t suit him, and he got out of the army almost as soon as he could. He worked in a series of odd and sometimes unsavory jobs in the early 1980s, as a bagman for smugglers and a pharmaceutical salesman; he apparently also mooched off a series of girlfriends. Finally, in 1984, he wrote a novella about a demobilized soldier who becomes a depressed rake, and is saved by the love of a saintly stewardess. Years later, he would comment that “writing something about a stewardess was a good gimmick,” that if he “had written about a peasant,” The Stewardess《空中小姐》might never have gotten plucked out of the slush pile. And it was a good gimmick—from then on, Wang made his living by his pen.
Since 1984, there has been a new Wang Shuo every two years or so. In 1985 and ’86, he published three novellas that, like The Stewardess, centered around unemployed or criminally employed ne’er-do-well men and the saintly women who love them. Of that trio, I’m fond of Half in Flames, Half in the Sea《一半是火焰，一半是海水》, a moral fable with a Beijing hustler and a set of uncanny doubles (and Wang Anyi is as well, for what it’s worth). Wang does not share my affection. He regards the last half—a trippy, languid account of the protagonist’s stay on a Buddhist island—as an incoherent failure. For a time in 1988, mostly motivated by money, he tried to market himself as a crime writer, a phase he later apologized for, saying he underestimated the difficulty of writing crime fiction and didn’t put in enough effort to do it well. It’s a shame he feels that way, because his stories centering on the detective Shan Liren—who ambivalently enforces the law on behalf of a state that is a law unto itself—can be as compelling as his fiction about Beijing punks.
He wrote his best works from 1987 to 1992, clustered around ’89 and ’91 in particular. There’s the high-concept comedy of the Three T Company, whom you can hire to handle the noisome tasks of modern life for you (ti means “on your behalf” in Mandarin); Never, Ever Call Me Human《千万别把我当人》, which is a frenetic mess but a prescient and appropriately vicious satire of the awful hoary bluster of Chinese nationalism; Playing for Kicks《玩的就是心跳》, a metafictional noir that borders on Robbe-Grillet; and Ferocious Animals《动物凶猛》, a novel about aimless youth in the late Cultural Revolution that is as glowingly lyrical as a smoggy sunset. Animals, which was adapted into Jiang Wen’s masterpiece In the Heat of the Sun《阳光灿烂的日子》, contains one of my favorite scenes in all post-Mao Chinese fiction—the young protagonist wandering through the still afternoon of a mostly deserted Beijing, breaking into empty house after empty house.
But if you admire the formal ambition, or the comic daring, or, God forbid, the pathos of those novels, the joke is on you. Writing about this phase of his career some ten years later, Wang would mock the pretension of his high-concept works, joking that he must have thought he was a “messenger from the gods.” Beginning in early 1989, China’s premier writer of farce began to tire of it, and in an essay written to welcome the new year of 1990, declared that he’d rather “launch a large-scale romantic movement” on behalf of regular working people. He was part of the team behind the 1990 soap opera Yearnings, a weepy chronicle of the suffering of two intertwined families during the Cultural Revolution and early Reform Era. He then produced 1992’s Stories from the Editorial Board《编辑部的故事》, a canny and surprisingly sentimental television comedy about the multigenerational staff of a moribund magazine. By then, he had become a cultural entrepreneur, the head of a film and television production studio. After 1992, he wrote no fiction for almost a decade.
Yet even this incarnation was short-lived; his 1993 television series Love You Unconditionally《爱你没商量》, was an expensive flop. Wang swore off an industry that he would later (once it had rejected him) criticize for caring about nothing but the lowest common denominator. His career in film was also placed on forced hiatus when the censors briefly banned his works and blacklisted him in 1996. When he reemerged in 1999, the man who had once been an icon of everything vulgar and crass had transformed himself into a strident critic of Taiwanese and Hong Kong cultural imports he found unbearably vulgar and crass. In Chinese, we would say that Wang is hao niu; in English (well, sort of), we would say he has chutzpah.
The year I was in Shanghai, I read basically every word Wang Shuo wrote from 1978 to 1992, and because Wang wrote to pay the bills, that added up to a lot of words. I dedicated not an insignificant chunk of my life to him, and yet, the whole time I was in China, I made only a half-hearted attempt to meet him. I asked around, and the people who were connected with everyone in Chinese literature weren’t connected with him, which was unusual; they also weren’t connected with anyone who was connected with him, which was very unusual. To a certain extent, I doubted that an interview would be terribly productive. Wang is someone practiced at telling his story. He has told it many times and many different ways. There are more than enough interviews out there where Wang reemerges like a phoenix out of the ashes of his old self.
But to be honest, the real issue was that I was terrified to meet him. There’s a chilling, caustic nihilism to Wang. He grew up with a modicum of privilege, and at times you get the sense that he’s the type who laughs at everything because he can afford to. He’s brutally unforgiving to his perennial targets, a long list that includes foreigners. In Wang’s works, foreigners are con-men looking to trick Chinese women into bigamous marriages or pompous marks stumbling around China speaking barely competent Chinese (really, it hits too close to home), only to be dunked on by Wang’s streetwise heroes. To hate on foreigners is one thing (hell, I’m no fan of us foreign devils), but Wang is truly awful to women. His female characters also fall into two simple categories—they’re either innocent martyrs, or salty, slutty gun molls who will eventually get what’s coming to them. The most repugnant example of Wang’s misogyny can be found in Never, Ever Call Me Human. Tang Yuanbao, the oafish would-be-wunderkind hero of the novel, is subjected to the worst fate Wang Shuo can imagine—he is transformed into a woman. Tang receives gender reassignment surgery, and is then taught to shop for clothes, to flirt, to dance with men. To say it would not pass muster with the PC police is a grievous understatement. It is truly offensive. Given all that, even if I had something new to ask Wang, I’m somewhat terrified of what he might have to say.
Wang intimidates me. He intimidates me because he can be so vicious, but he also intimidates me because he can be so goddamned good. There’s nobody in contemporary Chinese literature who can talk like Wang can. He plays back the sounds of Beijing like a tape recorder—every grumbled out, consonant-laden jibe; every virtuosic feat of street slang; every pyrotechnic display of profanity. As a foreigner, it can be thrilling to read Wang because he’s not inviting you in, because he doesn’t give a damn whether you like it or can hang with it, much less whether you can translate it. And to try to translate him . . . oy. There have been a few attempts—Half in Flames, Half in the Sea has been translated (as Hot and Cold, Measure for Measure), and the tireless Howard Goldblatt has translated Never, Ever Call Me Human (as Please Don’t Call Me Human) and Playing for Thrills. But to publish translations of Wang means not only facing the anemic market for translations from the Chinese in the United States, but also hacking your way through dense, sometimes impenetrable slang. Even the titles of his works cause headaches. 过把瘾就死, what do you do with that? I’ve seen “Go For It, Then Die”; “Die Satisfied”; “Satisfy ‘till You Die”; and I personally tried out “Get My Fix and Die,” which I know is not very good.
I admire the fact that Wang doesn’t give a damn what anyone but his intended audience thinks about his work. His work shows us what Chinese pop culture could be, if it weren’t obsessively patrolled and sanitized by people who think that China must always present a good face to the world. It reflects the ingenuity and miraculous good humor of people who have had to put up with centuries of grief (and decades of extreme grief) from their government and from each other, and it doesn’t paper over the real tensions among them. There are more feckless villains in his works than saintly heroes, and more mediocre fools than villains and heroes combined. There’s nothing pretty about the misogyny, xenophobia, and cynicism that occasionally appear in Wang’s work, but it’s at least an honest reflection of how some Chinese people really feel, unlike the glossy, stilted, fascist voice-from-nowhere of the government’s “main melody.” Precisely because Wang isn’t writing for foreigners, he depicts a China that is complicated in a way that is relatable to them. If the Chinese Communist Party is really as interested in increasing China’s “soft power” as they say they are, it’s all already there, waiting for them; all they’d have to do is lift their boot off of the necks of writers like Wang Shuo.
China is hard to love, and it’s only getting harder. It’s crowded, noisy, and a complete mess in ways that can be exciting in short stints and absolutely exhausting in the long run. It’s a country saddled with a government both dully pompous and crudely thuggish, a government that has abducted one million Uighur people from their homes and placed them in concentration camps. I expect that that fact will strike a sour note in a piece that has aimed to keep things relatively light, but that’s exactly the note it should strike—it is a horror that even those of us who love China cannot turn away from, much less excuse away. Some people seem to be under the illusion that if the regime were to change, everything they dislike about China would also fall away, but as is the case for any place with bad history (that is to say, every place), many of these phenomena have far deeper roots than the current government. Communist rule may have exacerbated the aspects of mainstream Chinese culture I most loathe—the shallow elitism, the depressingly narrow conformism, the unbelievably naïve positivism—but it certainly didn’t invent them.
And anyhow, for the time being, the worst people are still in charge, and they’re only making things worse, not better. Especially in Beijing, but everywhere you go, they’re actively shutting down and removing everything I’ve ever loved about the country—the Wang Shuo stuff, the hustling migrant vendors, the bohemian-run shops that never seem to sell a single thing, all the dust, all the mess, everything ramshackle and wonderful. They’re replacing it with antiseptic malls where rich people can go to do . . . whatever it is rich people do all day. With China, as with everything, there’s always good mixed in with the bad, but bad seems to be dominating the mix as of late.
I most recently left China last July. I don’t actively miss it. I work on it every day, but I don’t really think about when I lived there all that much. But when I do think about it, I think about walking back home from some great sweaty Chinese punk show, walking through the hutong that have been there for three hundred years, walking past old Beijing dudes who are somehow still up, sitting on cheap plastic stools, and drinking in the alley—who seem like they themselves have been drinking in those alleys for three hundred years—and then turning around for a moment to see the dark lumbering hulk of the Lama Temple shadowing over me, as if it were the weight of all the history, good and bad, that’s taken place in that city, made into stone and timber. A lot of my youth has been spent in those hutong; and after all, I fell in love there. (Yes! Really! Literally!) And I think, well, of course, I’ll have to go back there, of course, this summer or next. China puts me at my wits’ end—how could I ever really leave it behind?