Like Father, Unlike Son

Jonathan Spence

  • ‘I Love Dollars’ and Other Stories of China by Zhu Wen, translated by Julia Lovell
    Columbia, 228 pp, £16.00, September 2006, ISBN 0 231 13694 3

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in