MURONG XUECUN, HAN HAN, BI FEIYU AND JIANYING ZHA

MURONG XUECUN

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “When the novelist Murong Xuecun showed up at a ceremony in Beijing to collect his first literary prize, he clutched a sheet of paper with some of the most incendiary words he had ever written.It was a meditation on the malaise brought on by censorship. “Chinese writing exhibits symptoms of a mental disorder,” he planned to say. “This is castrated writing. I am a proactive eunuch, I castrate myself even before the surgeon raises his scalpel.” The ceremony’s organizers forbade him to deliver the speech. On stage, Mr. Murong made a zipping motion across his mouth and left without a word. He then did with the speech what he had done with three of his best-selling novels, all of which had gone through a harsh censorship process: He posted the unexpurgated text. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, November 6, 2011]

Murong Xuecun (moo-rong shweh-tswen) is the pen name of Hao Qun. At 37, he is among the most famous of a wave of Chinese writers who have become publishing sensations in the past decade because of their canny use of the Internet. Mr. Murong’s books are racy and violent and nihilistic, with tales of businessmen and officials engaging in bribe-taking, brawling, drinking, gambling and cavorting with prostitutes in China’s booming cities. He is a laureate of corruption, and his friends have introduced him at dinner parties as a writer of pornography.

That his books are published at all in China shows how the industry, once carefully controlled by the state, has become more market-driven.But Mr. Murong’s prose inevitably runs up against censorship, which the Chinese Communist Party is intent on maintaining despite the publishing industry’s gradual changes. Mr. Murong says he is a “word criminal” in the eyes of the state, and a “coward” in his own eyes for engaging in self-censorship. His growing frustrations have pushed him to become one of the most vocal critics of censorship in China. After zipping his mouth in Beijing last November, he delivered his banned speech three months later in Hong Kong.

Murong Xuecun’s Use of the Internet

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “Mr. Murong owes his commercial success to the fact that he has found ways to practice his art and build a fan base on the Internet, outside the more heavily policed print industry.He addresses political issues on both a blog and a microblog account that resembles Twitter, which has nearly 1.1 million followers. He posts his novels chapter by chapter or in sections online under different pseudonyms as he writes. This Dickens-style serialization generates buzz, and the writing evolves with reader feedback. Once the book is finished or nearly so, Mr. Murong signs with a publisher. The censored print editions make money, but the Internet versions are more complete. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, November 6, 2011]

In 2004, the state-run China Radio International called Mr. Murong’s popular first novel a “cyber trendsetter” in a report that was reposted on the Web site of the newspaper People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece. Local officials in the city of Chengdu, where the story is set, denounced it. The uncensored version of the novel, “Chengdu, Please Forget Me Tonight,” was translated into English (“Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu”) by Harvey Thomlinson and nominated in 2008 for the prestigious Man Asian Literary Prize.

“I simply found it extremely fun to do,” Mr. Murong said of writing online, as he chain-smoked one afternoon in his 26th-floor Beijing apartment overlooking the Western Hills, a jester’s grin on his boyish face. “Later, I realized that the writers and readers on the Internet changed the course of Chinese literature and started a new phenomenon.”

Murong Xuecun’s Writing Career and the Internet

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “Mr. Murong’s four novels and one work of investigative journalism are based on years spent in China’s fastest-growing cities. He traveled to Beijing from his family’s farm in Jilin Province to attend the China University of Political Science and Law, which trains judges, lawyers and police officers, the kind of people who figure prominently in his novels. Mr. Murong then moved from Chengdu to Shenzhen to Guangzhou, working at companies in various positions like legal adviser. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, November 6, 2011]

He wrote on the side and sent stories to magazines, but received only rejection slips. Then he stumbled across an in-house Internet forum at Softo, the cosmetics company where he worked in Guangzhou. Hundreds of company employees posted on it, but people on the outside could also gain access. Amateurs were posting poems, short stories and serialized novels. “I saw a novel titled “My Beijing,” which inspired me,” Mr. Murong said. “I thought, “I can write that kind of thing as well.”

In 2002, he began his novel of Chengdu. Using a pen name, “The Little Match That Sells Girls”---a twisted reference to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl”---he posted his chapters online as he wrote them. The evolving novel gained notoriety and was reposted on forums. It was a bawdy page-turner: the protagonist, Chen Zhong, an employee at an automobile oil and parts company, regularly engages in bribery and adultery. There are sex scenes in bars and brothels. One of his best friends is a corrupt police officer.

But the freewheeling nature of the Internet could surprise even Mr. Murong. After posting Chapter 26, he went on a long business trip. He came back to find that someone else had written Chapter 27. “I had been pirated,” he said with a laugh. Now the book had two lives.

Writing on the Internet meant, for the most part, working beyond the curtain of censorship. The print world was different. After Mr. Murong signed a contract to have the Chengdu novel published by Zhou Wen, an entrepreneur, he was forced to cut 10,000 words. But he had an out. After the book was published, he posted an uncensored manuscript on the Internet, one that was even more complete than the chapter-by-chapter version he had written online. “It did feel liberating,” he said.

Some writers are skeptical that uncensored books on the Internet can have much of an effect. Chan Koonchung, the author of “The Fat Years ,” a dystopian novel published in Hong Kong and Taiwan but banned on the mainland, has seen at least two electronic versions of his book posted by fans. But he said he believed that only a small number of mainland Chinese would read it online because it could not be discussed in the news media or any other forum. “Most people don’t know about these books,” Mr. Chan said. ‘so they’re not going to go onto the Internet to look for them.”

Mr. Murong eventually persuaded another house to publish a complete edition of the Chengdu novel. Publication rights generally last three to five years in China, and publishers putting out editions beyond the first one sometimes feel more confident in reinserting passages that were originally censored.”Once a book gets past the censors and gets published, it is legitimate,” Mr. Murong said. “A couple of years later, you can publish the complete version. The logic is this: If the first version was not banned, why would the second one be?

Murong Xuecun and Self-Censorship

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “Mr. Murong began muzzling himself with his second book, “Heaven to the Left, Shenzhen to the Right,” about young people trying to make their fortunes in Shenzhen. “I already knew where the lines were, based on the experience of my first book being edited,” he said. For example, Mr. Murong had originally intended for his protagonists to have experienced the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown. But he said he did not dare cross this “untouchable red line.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, November 6, 2011]

There was another impetus to self-censorship. “I always become good friends with the editors,” he said. “I don’t want to get my friends in trouble. If they say something is risky, or if they might lose their job over it, I’ll let them delete what they want.”

As with the Chengdu novel, the complete version of the Shenzhen tale exists online. An uncensored version of Mr. Murong’s fourth novel, the one about the legal system, is sold as an e-book.The intact version has, for example, a scene where the protagonist, a corrupt lawyer, is asked to sign away his organs while on death row.”Now that I’m aware of my self-censoring tendencies, I try to make up for it while I write,” Mr. Murong said. “I can write one version and publish a “cleaner” version.”

But sometimes it can be surprising what slips into the first print editions. Mr. Murong’s third novel, ‘some Die of Greed,” a critique of China’s rampant materialism, has a scene in which wealthy men at a restaurant eat a woman’s breast and drink a virgin’s blood.As Mr. Murong’s fame grew, the official Writers Association asked him to join, but he rejected their overtures. Meanwhile, he took his work in a new direction, toward journalism, which undergoes more scrutiny from censors than fiction.

Mr. Murong’s most painful struggle with censorship came when he worked with an editor from Heping Publishing House on his latest book, “China: In the Absence of a Remedy,” the nonfiction exposé that documents Mr. Murong’s 23 days spent undercover to investigate a pyramid scheme. There were endless negotiations. Even a phrase like “Chinese people” had to be changed to ‘some people.” Mr. Murong yelled at the editor, smashed a cup on the floor and punched the wall of his home.

“It was like someone was whipping me for no reason,” Mr. Murong said. “In 2008, the censorship was painful, and I could endure it. But in 2010, I couldn’t endure it anymore.” Zhang Jingtao, the editor, said he wanted to “make the book more appropriate for our society and our times. “Publishing is a cultural activity, which falls under the realm of ideology,” Mr. Zhang said. “My job is to be the ideological quality control.

The book was published last year to great acclaim, even if it was incomplete. Newspapers ran articles on Mr. Murong’s role in alerting the police to the fraud ring. The book was serialized in People’s Literature, a magazine co-founded by Mao. Its editors decided to award Mr. Murong the magazine’s annual literature prize. Last November, the day before the award ceremony, Mr. Murong spent eight hours preparing his speech. He wrote: The only truth is that we cannot speak the truth. The only acceptable viewpoint is that we cannot express a viewpoint.” It was 4,000 words long. In the end, not a single one was spoken.

Han Han

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Han Han is China's most popular blogger, top-earning author, champion race car driver, a banned novelist and, according to The Guardian, “arguably the coolest man in the country.” He has accumulated more than 440 million hits on his blog as of December 2010-making it the most popular blog in China, perhaps the world. Han shot to fame in 2000 after he published “The Triple Gate“, a novel based on his own experience as a school drop-out on Shanghai that mocked China’s rigid education system. He has a dozen titles to his name and was named by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people.

Han Han was born in Shanghai in 1982. He dropped out of middle school and turned to writing. He published “The Triple Door", his first novel, in 2000. The book became a bestseller and Han has since published more than 10 novels, many of which were successful. Han writes fiction and essays and runs has a high-profile blog. He earned 3.8 million yuan in 2008 and 1.7 million in 2008, making him one of the best paid writers in China. In 2010, Han released the “The Party“ which quickly became a No.1 bestseller. The same year he launched a magazine by the same name, inviting contributions of essays, poetry and opinion pieces. Han had trouble getting “The Party“ off the ground because of problems with censors. [Source: Global Times]

But despite all of his success he is not immune to the power of the government’s censorship lords. His attempt to launch a new magazine Party, a literary magazine for alternative thinkers, was been shut down after just one issue. In a blogpost, Han said the reasons were unclear and cautioned his followers not to assume that the propaganda department was responsible for the failure to reach a second edition. "Maybe there were too many departments involved and too many people with the power to make a literature magazine into a relic," he wrote. "I don't know what was wrong. I don't know who I've displeased. I'm standing in the light while you are in the dark. If we ever met, I will not hold a grudge, but please could you tell me what happened?" [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, December 29, 2010]

The original plan was to provide "a good art publication with more free and wild writing, but it seems the idea is too good to be true," Han was said to have written previously. His fame should have guaranteed success, but his criticism of the government and championing of free expression made potential partners nervous, Han reportedly made almost a dozen approaches before finding a business partner, switched the magazine's name several times and had to change the classification of the periodical because it was deemed as operating in a grey zone.

According to the Southern Weekend newspaper, about 70 percent of the original content had to be scrapped to secure approval for the publication of the first edition. Filled with 128 pages of freewheeling content from musicians, film directors and offbeat writers as well as extracts from Han's novel “I Want to Talk to the World“, the first edition was repeatedly delayed on the orders of the authorities. But when it was released, it was immensely popular, selling 1.5m copies.

A second edition proved even harder to print, prompting Han to close the operation and dismiss the staff. "The operation was halted several times and censored by provincial officials," he wrote."Party faced difficulties and was pulped even after it secured all the approval it needed." Han has blended racing success--- his most recent rally victory was earlier this month---with a sharp wit and criticism of corruption, injustice and incompetence.

Han Han on Revolution, Democracy, Freedom

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Han Han
Peter Ford wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, “Han Han, a Chinese race-car-driver-turned-political-polemicist who has become one of the country’s most popular bloggers, has unleashed a firestorm on the Web with a volley of edgy essays over the weekend. The essays are on three of the government’s least favorite subjects: “On Democracy,” “On Revolution,” and “On Wanting Freedom.” [Source: Peter Ford, Christian Science Monitor, December 27, 2011]

The outspoken Mr. Han reaches more than a million followers and readers whenever he sounds off, which gives him a degree of leeway that the Chinese censors do not grant to everybody. And his popularity means that all of a sudden the sensitive subjects he broached have moved out of the shadows of intellectual or dissident websites into the glare of the Chinese Web’s most visited portals.

Han is all for increased freedom of expression. “I believe I can be a better writer, and I don’t want to wait until I am old,” he says. But he is ambivalent about democracy in China because he doubts whether enough Chinese people have sufficient civic consciousness to make it work properly, and he is against a revolution because “the ultimate winner in a revolution must be a vicious, ruthless person.”

Ordinary people’s “quest for democracy and freedom is not as urgent as intellectuals imagine,” he argues, and one-person-one-vote elections “are not our most urgent need” because “the ultimate result would be victory for the Communist Party---the only institution powerful enough to buy off all the voters, he says. Instead, he advocates step-by-step reforms to strengthen the rule of law, education, and culture. That’s an approach that the government claims as its own, and Han’s essays have drawn a fair bit of flak from other liberal commentators. “His stance is too close to that of the authorities,” sniffed dissident artist Ai Weiwei on his blog. “It’s like he has surrendered voluntarily.”

Han writes in a casual, immediate style that appeals to younger readers, but his gadfly commentaries are pretty lightweight and not always intellectually coherent and he often says things on his blog that he is lucky to get away with. (Ai Weiwei spent nearly three months jailed in solitary confinement this summer for criticizing the authorities.) Still, as I read Han’s essay on revolution, something chimed with what I had come across in a very different sort of document that I had been perusing earlier in the morning, the biennial “Comprehensive Social Conditions Survey” just out from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). That report listed the top 10 issues of current public concern in China, led by food price inflation (59.5 percent of respondents), health care availability and costs (42.1 percent) and the wealth gap (28 percent) ahead of a string of other bread-and-butter worries such as unemployment and housing prices. It was a Chinese version of the famous note pinned to a board in Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters when he was running against George Bush Sr., “It’s the economy, stupid!---And nowhere on the list was there any mention of restrictions on freedom of expression, or the lack of democracy (although official corruption angers 29.3 percent of the population, according to the survey.)

When asked why this was so, Li Wei, one of the CASS researchers who had carried out the study, told the Christian Science Monitor, “Initially, he said, he and his colleagues had planned to ask about Internet censorship and the lack of freedom of expression. “But when we tested our questions in preparation for the survey, we found that villagers did not know what we were talking about,” he recalled. “They thought they had complete freedom because they don’t talk about politics, so they don’t have any problems.”

“That is not to say that we think freedom of expression is unimportant,” he added quickly. “But it is not important enough to enough people in China to make it part of our survey.” That is hardly the same thing as arguing, as Han appears to believe, that the Chinese people cannot be trusted with democracy until they are better educated and more civic minded. But it must offer the Chinese government a good deal of comfort.

Han Han Accused of Plagiarism by Science Writer Fang Zhouzi

In February 2012, Joel Martinsen of Danwei.com wrote: “Megablogger, rally racer, and novelist Han Han has been defending himself against science writer Fang Zhouzi’s charges that he didn’t write some of his most famous work. [Source: Joel Martinsen, Danwei.com, February 1, 2012]

Going up against Fang Zhouzi is a risky thing. A science writer better known for his work exposing academic fraud and intellectual dishonesty, Fang Zhouzi is a tenacious opponent who has an arsenal of online debating tactics at his fingertips. He brings up questions one by one, beginning with minor points that might seem trivial to explain or brush aside, and then when his target takes the bait, he charges in with more evidence showing a pattern of deceit. This technique, which he employed successfully in 2010 to reveal Tang Jun’s worthless diploma as well as in a more recent campaign to completely discredit Luo Yonghao, a popular internet personality who had insulted his wife, is how he went to work on Han Han.

Concentrating on Han Han’s early work, he raised questions about two essays written for the New Concept writing contest, a first step to national popularity for a number of young writers, including Guo Jingming and Zhang Yueran “. Han Han’s participation in the contest was marked by a procedural irregularity: he apparently failed to receive a mailed notification of the second round of the contest and was called in the following day to sit for a special essay topic. Had strings been pulled” Was his first-round essay a fake” The notion that Han Han’s entire literary career might have been built on a lie served as a good starting point. Fang Zhouzi set about picking apart the essay, ‘seeing a Doctor” ). Here’s one point, which appears to contradict the notion that Han Han wasn’t much of a reader, especially of foreign books:

‘seeing a Doctor” quotes lines from Turgenev’s Father and Sons and Smoke, as well as referencing Freud’s The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (in English) to support the notion that misreading a name is intended as an insult. ‘seeing a Doctor” cites details from two of Turgenev’s novels; having them at one’s fingertips requires one not only to have read the novels but to be fully familiar with them. Clearly, there’s no way it was written by Han Han.”

Han Han himself wrote up several posts that explained the circumstances behind the composition of the controversial pieces and sent sarcastic barbs back at Fang Zhouzi. His father, Han Renjun, contributed a few blog posts as well. Fang Zhouzi seized on details in these accounts and played the role of cross-examiner to attack the credibility of Han Han and his father by pointing out inconsistencies in their “testimony” , and then went further: the setting is more consistent with the late 70s than mid 90s, and the symptoms described point to hepatitis rather than the scabies ultimately diagnosed. Therefore, Han Renjun (who as it happens published a few short essays under the name “Han Han” before turning it over to his newborn son) is the true author.

Indeed, Han Han has a marketable brand image, and his work is carefully packaged and promoted for the media and the general public. It’s a framing that has set him up as an iconoclast, a spokesperson for the 1980s generation, and someone who speaks the truths that everyone else is afraid to mention. Even those who appreciate his populist appeal may find him a lightweight rather than a “public intellectual,” and attempts to paint him as a latterday Lu Xun are more than a little ridiculous. But rethinking the relative importance of Han Han as a voice in contemporary social debate does not mean he has to be utterly demolished, or in the words of critic Peng Xiaoyun, that he is a “malignant cancer on society”. On the other hand, even taken in aggregate it’s hard to see how Fang Zhouzi’s analyses contain anything libelous.

Fang Zhouzi has not set out the conditions under which he would be convinced that Han Han had in fact authored all of the work he claims to have written. However, in one microblog post he mentioned his willingness to engage in a “face-to-face confrontation, open debate, or live writing competition.” How that would resolve the issue is unclear, but the proposal recalls another online debate, in 2006, when the philosopher Li Ming challenged Fang to a duel to the death over the Four Color Theorem and refused to back down.

Fang Zhouzi’s arguments seem to rely on the unspoken assumptions that everyone’s memory is perfect, so any discrepancies are clearly lies, and every utterance, whether earnest or joking, braggadocio or self-deprecation, is meant to be taken at face value. Fang Zhouzi gets a lot of mileage out of a claim by Zhou Youbin that Han Han hasn’t read much since he was eighteen, implying that Han Han’s book aversion was a lifetime trait. Even a letter produced by Han Renjun in which the young Han Han requests a list of books is brushed aside: “What do they want to show by making these letters public” That Han Han was well-read as a high school freshman” Buying those books doesn’t mean reading them, and reading them doesn’t mean understanding them.” The assembled evidence is a little reminiscent of the approach taken by truthers and creationists, the kind of distorted logic that Fang Zhouzi has dismantled time and time again. At times, it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s really just taking the piss:

Blunders and Witticisms from the Han Han Zhang Fang Exchange

As in the best flame wars, Han Han PK Fang Zhouzi has been a comedy goldmine. Quick wit, outrageous accusations, dodgy amateur textual analysis, passionate debaters falling prey to the simplest of conversational gambits---if I was a conspiracy theorist I’d wonder whether Sina had engineered the whole thing to keep people refreshing their microblog feeds over the long holiday. A few examples:

Publishing veteran Zhang Fang became a laughingstock due to an analysis of Triple Door in which he mis-identified an English-language pop song as a translation of classical poetry, and expressed amazement at the author’s quotation of another arcane classical reference to ‘spring green” without realizing it was a homophone for “I’m a big stupid ass.”

The illustrations in this post come from a series of amusing dramatizations of the debate drawn by Rebel Pepper, a satirical online cartoonist. The strip at right illustrates the Zhang Fang debacle. One further up the page mocks Fang’s stubborn insistence on incontrovertible proof. One of the most impressive is “Ghostwriter Terminator,” which sends Fang Zhouzi on a trip into the past to gather first-hand evidence of Han Han’s chicanery. Discovering to his surprise that Han Han doesn’t show any literary or athletic inclinations whatsoever, Fang Zhouzi decides to train him, and in the process develops a fondness for the boy. With his commitment to the mission in jeopardy, Peng Xiaoyun shows up.”

It was probably inevitable that someone would write up an analysis of the fraud perpetrated by Lu Xun: In “Remembering Mr. Zhou Shuren,” Fujino Genkurou (that is, the Mr. Fujino that Lu Xun once mentioned) writes, “Mr. Zhou was not tall. He had a round face and looked like a clever man.” I have seen many paintings and photos of Lu Xun, and there’s no way his face would be called “round.” The average height of a Japanese man around the second world war was 1.6 meters. Baidu Baike records Lu Xun’s height as 1.61 meters, taller than the average Japanese man. How would he be considered “not tall?” Could there be such a difference in Lu Xun’s appearance between the time he was a student in Japan (age 24-25) and later on” Or was the Lu Xun who studied medicine at Sendai not the later literary giant Lu Xun” The question of Lu Xun’s degree fraud deserves looking into.”

In my opinion, the funniest moment was probably unintentional. An anonymous microblogger claimed to have been hired by Fang Zhouzi as a ghostwriter and shadow moderator, and posted a signed contract as proof. It was clearly a photoshop job, but when Fang asked Sina moderators to delete the post, he was told he needed to provide proof that the contract was fake. Outraged, he posted, ‘so I don’t know myself whether the signature and contract are genuine?”

Bi Feiyu

Chitralekha Basu and Song Wenwei wrote in the China Daily: Bi Feiyu has been billed by media and marketing professionals as "China's finest male writer with the deepest understanding of the female psyche." Since winning the Man Asian Literary Prize (MALP) for Three Sisters in March 2011, Bi has been much in demand. He has been attending literary dos, conferences and book signings around the world. "I haven't slept in the same bed for three consecutive nights," he says. But even before the big MALP win, events featuring him at literary festivals in Beijing would sell out the fastest. Li’s given name Feiyu, means "one who flies across the universe." It can be argued that he has quite literally been living up to his name.[Source: Chitralekha Basu and Song Wenwei, China Daily, January 12, 2012]

The 47-year-old, whose shaven head shows off his prominent cheekbones and brooding, vulnerable eyes to his best advantage, has the draw of a movie star. When we reach the residential compound in which Bi lives in Jiangsu's provincial capital Nanjing, the staff member manning the gates tells us, assuredly, "Oh, he only needs to win the Nobel now. The rest are already in his kitty."

Bi won the Lu Xun Award - twice. He also took the Mao Dun Prize, the highest national literary award, last September. He was the youngest among fellow heavyweights, such as Zhang Wei and Mo Yan, to do so. He was also long-listed for The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2008 for The Moon Opera.

Bi began his career by writing poems and screenplays for celebrity director Zhang Yimou (Shanghai Triad, for instance). He sees his trajectory over the last 10 years as a movement from the absurd to the real. The bizarre scenario in one of Bi's early stories - The Ancestor, in which the living sleep in coffins and the very ancient great grandmother's teeth are pulled out, one by one, to exorcize the ills plaguing the house - has given way to simple tales, told simply.

Bi says he now prioritizes understanding over imagination. "In one's 40s, one begins to have a better understanding of things," he says. "Scientists sharpen their senses of logic and analysis. Writers hone their understanding." This shift from clever craftsmanship to empathy and intuitive understanding is also evident in the MALP-winning Three Sisters - the story of three women from rural China, trying to make a life at a time of turbulence and general confusion in 1970s and '80s. "Often, stories set in the 'cultural revolution' (1966-76) years talk about the damage it did to the country's economy and politics," Bi says. "But the 'cultural revolution' was more serious than politics. I am interested in individuals and how their lives panned out as a result of the social upheaval."

Bi Feiyu, Women and Conditions for Good Writing

Chitralekha Basu and Song Wenwei wrote in the China Daily: Women - often strong, feisty, ambitious types who do not hesitate to use their sexuality to get what they want - dominate Bi's fiction. Expectedly, he's a little tired of the "best male writer on women" tag. "It's a marketing ploy, which probably helps sell a few more copies," he says. Evidently, the label makes no difference to him, unless, of course, it implies "a disrespect for my ability to write about human nature in general". [Source: Chitralekha Basu and Song Wenwei, China Daily, January 12, 2012]

But the state of women in China today remains a matter of concern. "Women are still discriminated against in terms of getting jobs, raising capital for investment, retirement ages, etc," he says. "If you claim there is equality between men and women in China, you're living in a fairytale."

In his acceptance speech upon receiving the Mao Dun Award in September, Bi said a writer's vocation included the responsibility of leading an exemplary life, beside the obvious task of continuing to write well. Hectic travel since the Man Asian win in March has continued to distract him from the quiet life of contemplation, inner monologues and focused writing that Bi would rather lead.

Bi is sometimes bothered by the fact that the novel about a doctor's life that he has been trying to write for four years is probably not going anywhere. "I work best only under conditions of quietness and isolation. Quietude is my oxygen and water," Bi says. He hopes for a positive turn in March, "when the next unlucky Man Asian Literary Prize winner takes my place". That's when he plans to stop in his tracks, at least for a while, and turn his gaze inward.

Bi Feiyu’s Massage

Chitralekha Basu and Song Wenwei wrote in the China Daily: The idea for Massage, which won the prestigious Mao Dun Award, came to him in a moment of epiphany, he says. For years, Bi had been going to a massage parlor staffed by blind masseurs late in the evening. One night, after packing up, as both clients and staffers were getting ready to go home, the lights were switched off. A woman masseuse took Bi's hand and led him through the pitch-dark corridor. "You see, Teacher Bi," she told him, "I can see better than you do." [Source: Chitralekha Basu and Song Wenwei, China Daily, January 12, 2012]

The dichotomy between physical blindness and one's sense of vision and perception has served literature well in the past. Celebrated examples include Blindness by Jose Saramago and The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood.

The idea that limited vision might actually be an attribute - a gift, offering insight into things that people with normal eyesight may not be able to perceive - had an obvious appeal to Bi, who says he has "always respected limitations". Extending the metaphor to the scene of China's race to fast-track developmental success and commercial hegemony, he says, "Unlimited power, unbridled energy, full-on development might throw things out of control. I think a little restraint can do good for this country."

But blindness, in Massage, which can be read as a collection of interrelated stories with a blind person at the center of each, Bi says, is more about the actual physical state of being blind and society's response to it, rather than a metaphor."I am just trying to bring the things that tend to remain outside the realm of visibility into light," he says. In the story about Du Hong, for example, a blind girl is urged to overcome her limitations by learning to play the piano and is later applauded for what is, in fact, a lousy performance that is billed as her service to society.

Nationalistic fervor runs very deep in China, where Olympic medallists are ticked off for omitting to mention the role of society in their makings. It's precisely the sentiment Bi says he has been trying to satirize. He obviously does not buy the theory that every performer, athlete and writer ought to be beholden to society and "especially not the blind. Society has done very little for them, so to expect them to have to repay society is total hypocrisy," he says.

Jianying Zha

Jianying Zha is a writer, media critic, and China representative of the India China Institute at The New School. She is the author of one previous book in English, China Pop, The New Press, and five books in Chinese: three collections of fiction and two nonfiction books, including The Eighties, an award-winning cultural retrospective of the 1980s in China. She has published widely in both Chinese and English for a variety of publications, including the New Yorker, the New York Times, Dushu, and Wanxiang. She lives in Beijing and New York.

David Pilling wrote in the Financial Times, Though she seems to have allied herself with the pragmatists and incrementalists, Zha is no apologist for the Communist party. Indeed, she was an early signatory of Charter 08, the document calling for democratic reform that landed Liu Xiaobo, one of its authors, in jail and subsequently won him the Nobel Peace Prize. [Source: David Pilling, Financial Times, June 10, 2011]

Tide Players

“Tide Players: The Movers and Shakers of a Rising China“ by Jianying Zha is a portrait of the movers and shakers who are transforming China. In half a dozen sharply etched and nuanced profiles, Zha dives into the lives of a vivid cast of characters that form an elite part of the new establishment in today’s China. From the chain-store tycoon determined to avenge his mother’s execution for being a “counterrevolutionary criminal” to a former cultural minister turned prolific writer and a group of cantankerous professors at China’s top university, Zha’s in-depth literary journalism renders a clear-eyed yet compassionate portrait of characters navigating the subtle complexities of modern China. By presenting a picture of a China that few Western readers have seen before, Tide Players establishes itself as a staple for students investigating Asian society, Chinese history, and international affairs.

Evan Osnos of The New Yorker wrote: “Zha beautifully combines the hard-earned expertise of an insider with the moral candor of an outsider. In exploring China’s defining struggles---over control of power, loyalty, and history’she never seeks refuge in the convenient extremes of one side of the debate or the other, but makes the hardest choice of all: to illuminate the shadows in between, with empathy and courage.” According to Publishers Weekly, the book “offers a nuanced and textured picture of a country constrained by totalitarianism but buoyed by the pioneering spirit and resilience of its people . . . an honest and thoughtful portrait that forces outsiders to check their preconceptions at the door.” K. Anthony Appiah, Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and President of the PEN American Center, said: “If you want to understand the astonishing developments in China’s contemporary cultural life . . . there could be no surer or more entertaining guide than Zha.”

Book: “Tide Players: The Movers and Shakers of a Rising China“ by Jianying Zha (The New Press, 2011]

Tide Players Review

David Pilling wrote in the Financial Times, in China there is “a small group who push up against the edge of what is permissible but never quite overstep the limit. These are the “tide players” of the book’s title, those who have spirited wealth out of China’s shift to a market economy, or have prised open space for intellectual curiosity and self-expression. The term comes from Pan Lang, a poet of the Northern Song Dynasty (AD960-1127): “Tide players surf the currents/The red flags they hold up never get wet.” In Jianying Zha’s remarkable and fast-paced book, the tide players are the pragmatists of modern China, who strive and prosper but who push events along in the process. The author is a Chinese woman who appears equally at home in Chinese and English, in Beijing and in New York. A returnee to China after a long stint in the US, she becomes the reader’s person on the inside. [Source: David Pilling, Financial Times, June 10, 2011]

Zha offers us six portraits, skilfully counterpointed---three of successful business people and three of intellectuals. Of the six, the only one who is not a tide player is her brother, an idealist jailed for nine years for helping to found a political party. Even his career parallels those of the daring entrepreneurs. He once hoped to be vice-chairman of a car-rental company. When that fell through, he became, instead, vice-chairman of the China Democratic party. That landed him in jail. Like Zha’s brother, in his time a Red Guard, an inner Mongolian peasant, a would-be entrepreneur and a political prisoner, most of the book’s personalities have led multiple lives. They go from barefoot doctor to wildly successful businessman---and back again. Or from disgrace to respectability. Such has been the churn of China’s recent history.

Zhang Dazhong, whose mother was strangled to death by the state for criticising Mao Zedong, was brought up in poverty. He got a job at the village grocery store, selling pork for $5 a month. In the early 1980s, as the economy opened up, he registered a company to distribute amplifiers from his tiny apartment. He began to open stores, rode a boom in imported karaoke machines and, by 2005, owned one of the biggest electronics chains in China. Two years later, he sold out for $500 million to a rival, a would-be tide player who fell foul of the power structures and is now serving a 14-year jail sentence.

But Zhang’s is not a simple rags-to-riches story. Like all those featured, his life is complex, reflecting what Zha calls “the rainbow of hues that you’d need to paint a semblance of Chinese life today”. Portrayed as a gentle, decent man---the title of the chapter is “A good tycoon”---Zhang’s driving force turns out to be not a quest for wealth but, rather, one to clear his mother’s name. He has campaigned for 35 years and has recently taken to handing out copies of a banned book on Mao to anyone willing to contemplate past injustices.

Yet Zhang’s rebellion---if that’s what it is---is circumscribed. Like many in the book, perhaps including the author, he appears to believe China is best served by incremental change. (A slight caveat: we only know what people say, not what they actually believe.) “I don’t have a bone to pick with the current leadership,” he tells Zha. “How fast can China change politically” Too fast is no good either.”

Zha’s technique is not to intervene openly in the debates she starts. For the most part, she lets the protagonists speak for themselves. “The person who takes one step ahead of others is a leader. The person who takes three steps ahead is a martyr,” says someone, referring to her brother’s principled obstinacy. Another, harsher critic calls political prisoners “toothless men writing for one another”. On this occasion, Zha offers her verdict. “The words were heartless,” she says. “They were also true.”

The most moving chapter is about Zha’s brother, described as both a “mulish simpleton” who bangs “an egg against a rock” and a fixed pole whose constancy allows others to find their bearings. Zha, who can’t decide whether he is a fool or a hero, is nevertheless sure that “those who locked him up are on the wrong side of history”. She brims with pride when readers of an essay she wrote about him, widely circulated in Chinese despite the best efforts of censors, praise her brother for his “courage and conviction”.

Image Sources: Amazon, University of Washington, Ohio State University

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2012


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