What does it mean to live morally in an uncaring society? The question is deeply embedded in any culture that has an enduring creative legacy, and China is no exception. For some years, especially from the late 1940s until Mao’s death in 1976, the question was sidestepped as the Party imposed its own vision of Soviet-inspired socialist realism. But for the generation of Chinese born during the 1940s, who reached adulthood in the mid-1960s during the fiercest years of the Cultural Revolution, the question reappeared with new insistence. Extremist left-wing ideologies were discredited, relaxed sexual mores began to reassert themselves, and the possibilities of political participation were probed once more.
After 1978, when the twice-purged Deng Xiaoping was able to impose his will on the party ideologues and to open up long-closed channels of expression, China’s generation born in the 1940s responded with an astonishing burst of creativity, expressed most vividly in the posters and writings displayed in Beijing not far from the party headquarters, on what was swiftly dubbed ‘Democracy Wall’; they were disseminated both within China and overseas. Predictably, the party watchdogs struck back, accusing the new critics of creating a world of ‘misty’ imagery, of focusing national attention on the dark side of society, and of indulging in two sins, one referred to as ‘spiritual pollution’ and the other as ‘bourgeois liberalisation’.
Zhu Wen is from a third generation. He was born in 1967, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, and raised during that period of frenzied trashing of China’s traditional values, before moving on to college and a degree in electrical engineering in the city of Nanjing on the Yangtze River and then, in 1989, to a state-sponsored job at a thermal power plant. He was thus spared the heady demonstrations of that year in Beijing, and the savage government repression that followed, though he would have had plenty of opportunity to observe the effects of Deng Xiaoping’s emphasis on the need for rapid economic growth and the ‘opening up’ of China to the world of economic opportunity, even while opportunities for political participation remained closed off to all but party members and a few determined dissidents. The social and economic situation in China was fluid and chaotic, but there was clearly going to be no return to the narrow ideology of Mao. At the same time, the regime gave few hints as to the values the citizens of the country were now expected to live by, beyond the ongoing imperatives of rapid economic growth and the maintenance of a moderate level of social order. Overt political demonstration was impossible, but people were largely left to their own devices as far as self-education and self-promotion were concerned. Overwhelmed by the possibility of social satire and self-expression, in 1994 Zhu Wen left his comfortable job, determined to become a full-time writer.
Between 1994 and 1996, Zhu Wen wrote the three sardonic and meticulously observed novellas that form the bulk of this book: ‘I Love Dollars’ in 1994, ‘A Boat Crossing’ in 1995, and ‘A Hospital Night’ in 1996. All three have been splendidly translated by Julia Lovell, and together they give us an absorbing portrait of the go-go years in China just before Deng Xiaoping’s death. It is hard to imagine that any other Chinese writer, however talented and sharp, will be able to produce a book about this period that is at once so sad, so hideously funny, so suffused with the feel – and the smell – of the old China, so intimate and yet so detached.
Zhu Wen’s narrator, though given different names and a different urban base in each novella, is a ‘petty urbanite’ of a kind superficially similar to many figures from writing in other times and countries: he is a smart talker, inhabiting a run-down world of cramped spaces, indifferent food and part-time jobs. He is obsessed by sex, grabbing any opportunity for a quick fling with the equally rootless women who share his world. The women seem to respond to him, yet often joylessly, hurriedly, with much else on their minds. At the same time the stories are also intensely Chinese: anyone who has been in China – at even a small distance from the modern hotels that now fill so many town centres – will recognise, with either nostalgia or a shudder, the stinking alleys with their piles of trash, the unlit stairwells and tatty furniture, the battered bicycles and madly overloaded handcarts, the pungent fried dough cakes and heartburning local liquor and, over it all, the sharp tang of cheap Chinese cigarettes.
The relationship of the narrator to his family is a theme that runs through all three of these powerful and intricately structured stories. The plots of all three are driven by chance interconnections between the self, family and society; the stories deal in random conjunctions that lead to shared dramas or bouts of introspection, that compel families to fragment and re-coalesce, and that bring occasional flashes of happiness and also periods of sadness and self-mortification. (Zhu Wen’s stories were written in China, about China, and were published in magazines inside China, so he cannot be blamed by foreign critics, as others have been, for being too self-conscious about his impact overseas.)
What ties these stories together is not money or sex, prominent though both are, but filial piety. Zhu Wen uses this to draw his narrators into a world bound by Chinese values that have been dealt terrible blows by the revolutions of the 20th century, but which have left their traces in many aspects of Chinese thinking. Zhu Wen asks what is left of the old value systems in the post-Mao and post-Deng world. How has the old system been modified, or has it been fatally changed? Can it, or should it, be reinvoked? And after so much catastrophic upheaval, what does it mean to be a father, or a son? Can the roles be restored or must they be reinvented? And if one is reinventing such a fundamental moral concept, how far can – or should – one go?
Zhu Wen does not dodge the implications of what he is asking. In ‘I Love Dollars’, the narrator defines his filial obligation as being to get female sexual company for his father, who is in town on a fleeting visit. The narrator (here presented as being Zhu Wen himself) explores a series of options as he and his father glide through their day together. There are the girls in barber shops, who will take a man behind the curtain for a quick rub after his hair is tended to; there are the waitresses in restaurants and cafés, who are willing to join his father at his table; there are the college girls, chatting and flirting and looking back over their shoulders as they go to athletics practice; there are the young women whose company can be bought for an hour or two in the little private box seats at the back of the local cinema, and who go as far as taste, location and money allow; there are the hostesses waiting in a row at the local nightclub where jazz is played, eager to go home with you if the price can be negotiated; and, as a final turn of the screw, there is the narrator’s own mistress, who is close to his father in age and may be willing to keep the older man company in his son’s bed.
These scenes are heartbreaking, crude, funny, despairing. In the end it is the father who keeps his dignity and the son who loses his, just as it is the son who vomits up his booze, not the father. And in this story, the narrator lets us know that the father has never liked his son’s writing: ‘He thinks my fiction’s stylistically and morally retrograde, and my poetry undistinguished. But so what? Whenever I’ve needed help, Father’s been there.’ And as for the narrator’s mistress, when he knocks at her door to make his request, she pulls him into her tiny, overheated flat ‘quickly, as if I were some underground party activist with an arrest warrant on his head’. It is as close as we come to the Communist Party.
‘A Boat Crossing’ has a very different setting. The narrator is staying at the Hotel Imperial, in Cape Steadfast, a run-down town on the banks of the Yangtze. ‘Interesting things happen at the Imperial,’ the narrator tells us, though he never says what the ‘things’ are or were. Instead, he has decided to head upriver on an old passenger steam-vessel called the Orient, to a little town called Wan, where he may know somebody (or may not). We are not told the reason for the journey, except that Cape Steadfast is no longer safe for him, perhaps because he has somehow offended two decrepit Communist functionaries at the local party school, who insist on coming to the dock to see him safely off. Zhu Wen creates a place and mood brilliantly, and somehow the sluggish, low-water river, the officious and unwanted Communist officials, some men fighting over a cigarette, the noisome public toilet, the boat’s lateness, and the presence of a middle-aged woman the narrator may or may not know, who is trying to persuade him to buy a teenage girl from her: all of these come together with chilling logic to prepare the narrator for the overnight trip that lies ahead.
Once afloat on the Orient, the narrator’s world is condensed into the tiny space of his cheap four-person cabin, where three other passengers have already stretched out on their bunks, smoking and eating as they guard a bulging sack of what they claim are ‘medical samples’ (whether human or animal we never know for sure). With a kind of inevitability, the four men are joined by a middle-aged woman trying to sell her young travelling companion. The plot again concerns intergenerational morality, but this time at a different level, as the narrator finds himself having to relate his age and his (comparative) affluence to the plight of the almost silent young woman whose fate is entirely in his hands. More surreal than ‘I Love Dollars’, ‘A Boat Crossing’ is also about sex and money, but it carries a deeper menace, and its denouement is both unexpected and brutal, as if ripped from the recesses of the narrator’s memory.
The twin forces of chance and filial piety, in a very different narrative structure, drive the third of Zhu Wen’s tales, ‘A Hospital Night’. Here the setting is the Workers’ Hospital in another unnamed city. The narrator is phoned by a friend he knows slightly, a woman recently divorced from a man who has become one of China’s new super-rich in the heady business world of the 1990s. In a few terse sentences, she persuades the narrator to meet her at the hospital, and to come with her to visit her elderly father, who has had an emergency operation to remove his gall bladder. The jokes and the shocks come from this bizarre beginning, related deadpan by the narrator, which leads him – again, inexorably – to agree to accompany the young woman on a visit to her father’s ward, so that she won’t have to call in her own former husband to help look after the patient. Since at night-time the doctors are off duty and the nurses are both thin on the ground and surly, a family member is urgently needed to sit with the patient until dawn the next day. When all the male members of the old man’s ‘real’ family find excuses to head for home or back to work, the hapless narrator is left on his own, and his task becomes all too clear: with the father unable to sit up in bed, because of the post-operative pain in his bladder, let alone get out of bed and go to the toilet, it will be the narrator’s job to guide the old father’s penis into the hospital-issue urine jar whenever the fluid builds up. For this task, needless to say, the narrator has no experience, no aptitude, and only the vaguest sense of the intimacies that will be involved as he cares for his temporarily adopted father.
We are safe in reading this as a parody of the traditional Chinese concept of filial piety. The physical intimacy of the job at hand puts immense strain on ‘father’ and ‘son’ alike, as they remain locked in a duel over ways and means: the old man’s rage at the narrator’s incompetence is given wings by his pain, and neither of them is helped by the friendly interest in their plight shown by another elderly and talkative patient, in an adjacent bed, who has just been through a similar operation, and appears genuinely eager to help. As in Zhu Wen’s other two novellas, where the normatively idyllic idea of a ‘night on the town’ or a ‘river cruise’ are transmuted into the darker recesses of thought and behaviour, so here the routine banalities of a ‘hospital visit’ leave us all, characters and readers alike, shaken and disoriented.
Other stories in this volume are just as appealing: ‘Wheels’, for example, written in 1998, where once again a chance meeting triggers a grim denouement; or ‘Pounds, Ounces, Meat’, a lively story in which young lovers out shopping for their supper discover how tortuous the idea of a just price can be. Though skilfully told, these other stories are not needed to enhance the power of the three novellas. Julia Lovell, in her informative preface, tells us that in 2000, Zhu Wen stopped writing fiction, as suddenly as he began. He got into film-making, and has now made several movies, two of which – Seafood (2001) and South of the Clouds (2004) – have won major international prizes. Film’s gain is literature’s loss, but even if Zhu Wen never writes another word, he has, with these three novellas, given to the closing years of the Deng regime its own subtle, extravagantly funny and savage epitaph.