11/13/20

&: Ruined City reading guide, first part


This is an attempt to write about Howard Goldblatt's translation of Ruined City 废都 by Jia Pingwa 贾平凹, maybe notes for something more formal, maybe just a guide for myself to find stuff later, or maybe an excuse to pull out parts I like.

I started reading the original for the first time around 2006, when it was still officially banned. I managed to finally work my way all the way through it sometime around 2013.

When the book was unbanned several years ago, an English translation followed, completed by the most famous translator of modern Chinese literature, Howard Goldblatt. It came out through the University of Oklahoma Press (they also published my translation of Dong Xi). I have skimmed it many times, but I have to admit that I have never read it very closely.

So, there will be summaries and notes and quotes, but probably also some critiques of the translation and maybe even some attempts at making my own translations. Maybe. We'll see. It's a way to force myself to read it.

If you know nothing about the book, a brief explanation: the novel that made Jia Pingwa famous, published in 1993, banned shortly after. Jia returned to writing, but never really wrote a purely urban novel again (that's set to change, though). It's about a famous, established writer from the countryside, who's lived in the provincial capital for years, and gets mixed up with a rival from his old hometown. There's also lots of sex, which is one reason why it was banned for over a decade.

Page 12 to 22. An exquisite opening.

I’ve always been in awe at the way Jia Pingwa opens Ruined City.

He begins with an yìshì 异事, a "peculiar affair,” a “strange thing." These are what Kam Louie calls "strange anecdotes," which have deep roots in Chinese literature, but which crop up again in the roots-seeking fiction of the 1980s (see: “Searching for Cultural Roots: Rediscovering Things Confucius Did Not Say”), as writers looking to record folk religion and looking for something to fuel their own magical realism rediscovered supernatural tales.

Here, the yìshì begins with two friends visiting the tomb of Yang Guifei 杨贵妃. They find a crowd of people scooping up handfuls of dirt, take some of their own, and plant flower seeds in it. When a flower starts to grow, they decide to take it to the Yunhuang Temple 孕璜寺, where Abbot Zhixiang 智祥大师 makes a prediction that it will “bloom on four-stems, but it will be short-lived.” That prediction comes true. But the story ends with one of the men accidentally pouring boiling water over the plant while drunk.

It ends anticlimactically, as the yìshì anecdotes in Jia’s novels normally do: “Devastated by what he had done, he smashed the pot, after which he fell ill and was sick for a month.”

The book then slides into a second yìshì, but without introducing it as such. Looking out over a cityscape, someone looks up and sees four suns, all arranged in a “T” formation (or a 丁 formation). Jia pans down to a beggar standing on a traffic island, dressed in a silk banner stolen from the Yunhuang Temple, who recites a satirical poem about the nine urban classes.

And then we get the new mayor of Xijing hearing about the satirical poem, which is circulating through the city, and a young man named Huang Defu 黄德复, one of the mayor’s trusted advisors. This shifts us abruptly from yìshì to guānshì 官事 (there must be a better antonym for yìshì, but I hope this works), the affairs of bureaucrats. Plans are made to revitalize Xijing, the ancient Western Capital:
The mayor wasted no time in seeking appropriations from the central government, at the same time that he was amassing local funding in support of a project of unprecedented scope: it included refurbishing the city wall, dredging the moat around it, and building an amusement park, rich in local color, on the banks of the moat. He also rebuilt three city avenues: One with Tang dynasty architecture was designed for the sale of books, art, and porcelain. On a second avenue, styled after the Song dynasty, local and provincial snacks were sold. Local handicrafts, folk art, and specialty products were available on the third avenue, which boasted a mixture of Ming and Qing architecture.
When the beggar recites another poem criticizing the mayor, we focus back on him, making his rounds as an unofficial recycler, winding up back at Yunhuang Temple, where he watches the qigong masters teaching breathing exercises.

Abbot Zhixiang has a premonition that something strange was about to happen (yìyàngzhīshì 异样之事). The next day a relic of Sakyamuni is discovered in a temple not too far from Xijing. That night he sits in meditation and says to himself: “‘These days … there are hardly any wolves, vermin, tigers, or panthers still in the world, for they have all been reincarnated as human beings. That is the source of so much evil. Meanwhile, great numbers of qigong masters and people with odd talents have arrived in Xijing in recent years. Maybe the heavens sent them to save humanity.’” At that point, he decides to make his own contribution, and starts holding classes on qigong.

One of his students is Meng Yunfang 孟云房.

Qigong is only the latest fad he has taken part in. Seven years prior, he was obsessed with red tea fungus. He met his wife through the hobby of cultivating the fungus. The couple went through various other health fads, going from “laying on of hands” to vinegar eggs to a drink of chicken blood. “Unfortunately, the chicken blood produced an undesirable side effect: the wife’s pubic hair fell out.” When she goes to a neighbor to get a “secret remedy handed down from his ancestors,” Meng Yunfang rejects her and forces her to sign divorce papers.

He marries another woman, named Xia Jie 夏捷, and they move together to a small home near the Yunhuang Temple.

When Meng starts hanging around the temple, the abbot spots him:
On one occasion he was met by Abbot Zhixiang, who stopped him from running off by saying, “Don’t I know you?”
Meng nodded. “The abbot has a wonderful memory. Apparently you remember me.”
“Of course I do. Did that plant of yours die?”
“Yes,” Meng replied, “and everything turned out just as you had predicted.”
We return suddenly to the start of the novel, making the first complete circuit.

And I’ll include this, even though I’ve gotten as far as I want to get: he meets a young nun named Huiming 慧明. And we get another kind of shì 事, which is Fóshì 佛事, Buddhist affairs, which is what Meng Yunfang claims he’s doing when his wife catches him flirting with the nun. So, we go from The Tomb → The Flower → The Temple → The Sun → The Beggar → The Mayor → The Temple → The Flower, from yìshì 异事 to guānshì 官事 to Fóshì 佛事, beginning with Meng Yunfang (without knowing it’s him, or who his friend is) and ending with Meng Yunfang.

In ten or so pages, we get an idea of what sort of world we’re about to enter (with real magic and false), various levels at which to observe it (from the mayor’s office, from the temple, from the streets), a mixture of registers (a poem in doggerel, the Buddhist language of the temple and Meng Yunfang, dirty jokes (the situation with Meng Yunfang’s wife’s pubic hair) and bureaucratic verbiage).

Extra notes:

Qigong 气功: A fifth of China's urban population was "directly exposed to qigong during the 1980s or 1990s, either attending healing lectures or practicing qigong gymnastics and breathing exercises in parks and public spaces" (this is from "Embodying Utopia: Charisma in the post-Mao Qigong Craze" by David Palmer, in Nova Religio, 2008). In 1990, CCTV broadcast a documentary called Chinese Superman 华夏超人, a four part documentary about qigong master 气功大师 Yan Xin 严新, who claimed mystical powers. It drew the link between his practice and scientific discoveries, positioning qigong as a phenomenon that could be explained through modern science. Yan Xin also famously claimed to have put out a forest fire. Many of the masters were quite powerful. Zhang Xiangyu 张香玉, who claimed healing powers, managed to hold rallies in Beijing after June of 1989, because she had the support of key Party members. In the 1990s, many of the masters were rolled up. Zhang Hongbao 张宏堡, leader of Zhong Gong 中功 and alleged rapist, ended up escaping to America where Trent Lott supported his asylum. Li Hongzhi 李洪志 and his group mostly fled to America, where they have helped destabilize the political system. What a great detail to include qigong in this novel!

Page 22 to 33. Idlers, male anxiety, anthropology.

The translation reads: Over a period of years, Tongguan County, four hundred li east of Xijing, had become home to iderlers and ne'er-do-wells who complained about anything and everything, settling over society like a swarm of bottleneck flies. One of that crowd, a man named Zhou Min...

At first I suspected ”bottleneck flies” was a typo and was about to riff on it. But now, I’m not so sure. Searching for the term, I find the first hits in other Goldblatt translations. In Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh: "Bottleneck flies were already swarming over them." In The Garlic Ballads: "Green bottleneck flies had settled on it." In Red Ivy, Green Earth Mother: "She felt like a piece of rotten, oozing meat, covered with maggots in the blazing sun, with blue bottleneck flies buzzing in and out." Other than that, there's a paper called "The Surprising Genetics of Bottlenecked Flies" in Science in 1987, but that's about genetic bottlenecks. It’s not a typo but I’m not sure why an editor wouldn’t slice it out.

What does the original say? 西京东四百里地的潼关,这些年出了一帮浪子闲汉,他们总是不满意这个不满意那个,浮躁得像一群绿头的苍蝇。其中一个叫周敏的角儿... Just cāngying 苍蝇. Could it be blue bottle fly? Probably. Is that what Goldblatt had in mind? I can only assume.

Carlos Rojas has written a whole paper on this novel and sort of about flies. It’s called “Flies' Eyes, Mural Remnants, and Jia Pingwa's Perverse Nostalgia,” positions, 2006. Howard Goldblatt’s “bottleneck” fly reminded me to check that essay.

But anyways, we’re introduced here to a central character, Zhou Min 周敏, and a place called Tongguan 潼关, which is eighty miles east of the capital. Zhou Min meets a beautiful young woman at a dance hall. It turns out that Tang Wan'er 唐宛儿 is married. Eventually, Zhou Min and Tang Wan'er flee to Xijing and rent a house.
Their passion cooled after a month or so, and their money was running out. To Zhou Min, this was what a man could expect from being with a woman. Wan'er was beautiful and glamorous, they were living in a big city, and yet none of this brought him the satisfaction he sought or helped him find what he was looking for. There were new movies to see, fashionable clothes to wear, and plenty of accessories to buy. What he lacked were new ways of thinking, fresh ideas. There were no changes in the morning sunlight scaling the city wall, the same flowers bloomed in the garden, and even though women now wielded more authority than their husbands did, they were still limited to one day—Women's Day—on March 8th. An eighty-year-old man could be a bridegroom, but he was still an old man. Zhou Min who was nore mired in depression, could not reveal these thoughts to Wan'er, and was reduced to making his way to the city wall in the mornings and evening to play his flute. But that did not solve the problem of finances, so he went looking for work, and found it at the neighborhood Clear Void Nunnery, where several side rooms were being renovated. Since the workers were paid daily, he was able to buy a fish and a half jin of fresh mushrooms each day to take home for her to make dinner.
Masculine anxiety, which there is a lot of in Jia Pingwa’s work. Zhou Min stood out in the countryside for his pale skin and louche manner, hanging out at dance halls and seducing married women, but in the city, he finds that he stands out, still, as a man without new ideas, still rusticated. In the course of his work, Zhou Min meets the nun named Huiming. She introduces him to Meng Yunfang. Meng and Zhou become fast friends. Zhou eventually asks Meng if he might be able to get him a job with a newspaper.

And we get some of the cultural anthropology that makes up a lot of the novel, with Meng Yunfang explaining two types of xiánrén 闲人: shèhuì xiánrén 社会闲人 and wénhuà xiánrén 文化闲人 (some work on Jia Pingwa’s novel gives a translation for xiánrén as “idlers.”).

I wrote somewhere else that “Jia is an anthropologist as much as he is a poet.” I was referring to his work set in the countryside of Shaanxi, where he’s fond of describing folk traditions, but it’s just as true in this work set in the city. That’s what’s going on in these descriptions of the various xiánrén. The first group:
"I'll tell you. There are two types of special individuals called 'xianren': one type is known as social xianren. There might have status in society, they might not; they might be employed they might not be. For the most part they are energetic, spirited, capable individuals who like to meddle. They enjoy moving commodities around, they're good at meditating, they love to eat, drink, gamble, and go whoring, but they do not smoke opium. They pull scams, but they don't mug or rob people. They know how to create a disturbance and how to put one down. ... They are represented by four individuals, their unofficial leaders, widely known as 'the Four Young Knaves.' ... Want to know how best to describe them? You can get a good idea by listening to their jargon. They don't call money cash, they call it 'handles.' A good buddy is a 'steel brother,' getting on with a woman is 'drilling a hole'..."
And the second group:
"Now I want to tell you about the second type: cultural xianren. There is a person in Xijing who hasn't heard of the Four Young Knaves. But the 'Famous Four' are even better known. ... The painter Wang Ximian is number one. He is forty-five years old, a former jade factory carver who began painting in his spare time, and became famous within a few years. He was recruited by the Xijing Academy of Traditional Art, but chose instead to go to the Wild Goose Pagoda as artist in residence. ... His income far exceeds that of other painters. What sets him apart is his uncanny ability to copy the masters, from Shi Tao to Bada Shanren down to Zhang Daqian and Qi Baishi. …
These four figures all represent various facets of the postsocialist literati, liberated or cast adrift from a culture industry regulated by the state. Before Reform and Opening, cultural products could not really be commodified. But in postsocialist China, commodifying cultural products was a necessity.

Wang Ximian 汪希眠, for example, has steered clear of more legitimate institutions, where he could rise in the artistic bureaucracy, to seek his fortune selling forgeries at the Wild Goose Pagoda. Rather than being sustained by the state, he makes a living off tourists: "The pagoda is an essential tourist attraction for foreigners, among whom his paintings are extremely popular, especially his albums."

Wang Ximian is clearly not a wénhuàrén 文化人, motivated by and defined by art and culture, but a wénhuà xiánrén 文化闲人, first and foremost a xiánrén 闲人, an idler or layabout, and only by how he makes a living connected to the world of wénhuà 文化.
"For the next in line, walk down any street or lane in the city to look at the shop signs, and you will know the name Gong Jingyuan. During the Republican era, the shop-sign calligrapher everyone wanted was Yu Youren. But even at his peak, Yu was not as popular as Gong Jingyuan. Like Wang Ximian, he has to drive the women away, but he isn't burdened with Wang's infatuations. He has a good time with whoever comes along and quickly forgets her when it's over, which is why so many women call themselves Gong Jingyuan's lover, all of them women whose names he is unable to recall. ... The problem is, he's addicted to mahjong and can lose as much as a thousand yuan in a night. He covers his losses with calligraphy. He has been arrested three times for gambling, and each time the police let him out after he wrote calligraphy for them. ...
It’s interesting, reading into Gong Jingyuan 龚靖元—and the other figures here—something of Jia Pingwa. Jia, like Gong, is a renowned connoisseur of local food, and his calligraphy is also up all over the city, especially at restaurants. But the gambling addiction separates him somewhat.

And we get another aspect of the postsocialist literatus: making a living on the margins, or having close contact with life on the margins—shèhuì xiánrén 社会闲人 living off of wénhuà xiánrén 文化闲人.
"The third person is Ruan Zhifei, head of the Western Philharmonic orchestra. He started out as a Shaanxi opera performer whose father had taught him such tricks of the trade as fire breathing, hair tossing, and tusk playing. But when the local opera began to lose its appeal, playing to dwindling audiences, he quit and organized a local song-and-dance ensemble with all of his opera performers. ... But in recent years, as the popularity of the song-and-dance ensembles waned, the members of the troupe have drifted away in two groups, one moving to the countryside, the other opening dance halls in the city. Even at the unheard-of cost of thirty yuan to get in, those places are mobbed every night.
Jia’s later novel Qinqiang 秦腔 picks up some of this (as do other books, but this one in particular), with opera troupes going rogue in the city, doing anything to make a living, and finally disbanding. While performers in the time before Reform and Opening would have been guaranteed a living and an audience, times are tough for someone like Ruan Zhifei 阮之非, trained originally in the local opera.
"The fourth individual ... lives a quiet, unassuming life. Although his wife runs the Taibai Bookstore near the Forest of Steles Museum, he neither has nor cares about money, and is content to stay home and write about things that interest him. ... Where those four are concerned, he is at the top of the heap and is the most accomplished; his fame is the most far-reaching and he comes from hometown—Tongguan."
That fourth individual is the central character of the novel: Zhuang Zhidie 庄之蝶. We’ll save more discussion of him for later, but it’s interesting that he’s marked out as different from the other wénhuà xiánrén.

Meng Yunfang secures a job for Zhou Min at the Xijing Gazette by writing a note in Zhuang Zhidie’s name to someone named Jing Xueyin 景雪荫, who works for the Department of Culture.

Extra notes:

Dance halls, gēwǔ 歌舞厅 and wǔchǎng 舞场, started to spring up in the late 1970s as not much more than rented spaces with a boombox and some cassette tapes. Social dancing fell victim to the 1983 strike hard campaign against liúmáng 流氓 crimes and the atmosphere of concern over social liberalism. By autumn of 1984, dance halls began to re-open, with heavy restrictions which were eventually lifted in the late 1980s. The dance halls were for the urban working class, local and migrant. They were a place for couples to court and sometimes a place for migrant men to pay for the company of a young woman (the notorious mōbā 摸吧 or mōmo wǔtīng 摸摸舞厅 or hēiwǔtīng 黑舞厅 or hēisānqū 黑三曲 or fùfèi wǔtīng 付费舞厅).

Page 33 to 39. Looking at the translation, the arrival of Zhuang Zhidie, a cow.

Goldblatt's reputation as a translator has taken a beating over the years, at least among fellow translators. I don't love all his choices in this book. I wish his translation was ruder in places. But I'm mostly satisfied.

I thought it might be fun to take a few samples, mostly at random and check them out against the original, and attempt my own translation.
唐宛儿一整天没有见到周敏的面,知道是在外边为工作奔波,将中午做了的麻食又温了一遍,就热水洗了身子,漱了口,换一身喷过香水的时兴裤头和奶罩,专等着男人回来慰劳他。但周敏一时未回,就歪在床上读起书来。夜深听得门外脚步响,身子就软溜下来,把书遮在脸上装睡着了。周敏敲门,门却自开,原来并未插关,进来看床灯亮着。妇人悄然无声,轻轻揭了书本,人睡得好熟,就站着看了一会睡态,不觉凑下来吻那嘴唇,妇人却一张口将伸进的舌头咬住,倒吓了周敏一跳。
周敏说:"你没有睡呀!脱得这么赤条条的,也不关门!"妇人说:"我盼着来个强奸犯哩!"
Tang Wan'er knew that Zhou Min was out looking for work, since she hadn't seen him all day, so she warmed up the leftover noodles before taking a hot shower, rinsing out her mouth, and changing into a perfumed bra and panties to reward him on his return. But she waited and waited, finally sitting up in bed to read. It was quite late when she heard footsteps at the door. She quickly lay down, covered her face with the book, and pretended to be asleep. When Zhou Min knocked at the door, it swung open on its hinges, unlocked. He saw that the bedside lamp was on, but she made no noise, so he carefully lifted off the book and saw that she was asleep. He stood there for a moment drinking in the scene, then leaned over and gently kissed her on the mouth. She surprised him by opening her mouth and clamping her teeth around his tongue.
"So, you've been awake! What's the idea of lying here half-naked with the door unlocked?"
"I've been waiting here, hoping to be visited by a man with rape on his mind!" she said.
I'm using this section mostly because I want to know what “perfumed panties” are.

So, and now I’ll attempt by own translation, intentionally avoiding what Goldblatt has done already, just to make it interesting:
Tang Wan'er didn't find it unusual that Zhou Min had been gone all day. She figured he was out looking for work. In the evening, she heated up the cat's ear noodles that she'd make for lunch, then went to wash up. She rinsed her mouth out, and changed into some fashionable lingerie that she spritzed with perfume. She was ready to thank her man in the way that a woman should. After a while, when Zhou Min still hadn't come home, she lay down on the bed and cracked a book. She was awoken hours later by footsteps outside. She stretched, and covered her face with the open book. When Zhou Min knocked at the door, it swung open, unlocked and unlatched. He saw that the light was still on over the bed. Since Tang Wan'er seemed not to be awake, he reached out to take the book off her face. She looked as if she was sleeping deeply. He stood for a while and watched her, then, without really thinking, he bent down to kiss her on the lips. Tang Wan'er opened her mouth and bit him. Zhou Min jumped back in fright.
"I thought you were asleep!" Zhou Min said. "What the hell are you doing laying here half-naked with the door unlocked?"
"I was hoping a rapist would come in and find me," Tang Wan'er said.
Not much difference, I suppose. And now we know what perfumed panties are (喷过香水的时兴裤头和奶罩, or, literally, "spritzed with perfume fashionable underwear and bra").

But let’s keep going.
妇人问:"景雪荫长得什么样儿,这般有福的,倒能与庄之蝶好?" 周敏说:"长得是没有你白,脸上也有许多皱纹了,脚不好看。但气势足,口气大,似乎正经八百,又似乎满不在乎的样子,喜欢与男人说笑的。" 妇人把男人的头推到一边,嫌他口里烟味大,说:"哪有女人不喜欢男人的!" 周敏说:"我听孟云房说了,她是个男人评价很高、女人却瘪嘴的人,她没有同性朋友。" 妇人说:"我猜得出了,这号女人在男人窝里受宠惯了,她也就以为真的了不得了。如果是一般人,最易变态,是个讨厌婆子。她出身高贵,教养好些,她会诱男人团团围了转,却不肯给你一点东西,这叫狼多不吃娃,越危险的地方越安全。" 周敏说:"你这鬼狐子,什么都知道,可潼关县城毕竟不是西京城。她若是那样,庄之蝶一个条儿就那么出力?!"
Again, I feel as if Goldblatt’s rendering could be improved upon...
"What does Jing look like?" Wan'er asked afterward. "She's a lucky woman to be on such intimate terms with Zhuang Zhidie."
"You have nicer skin; she has wrinkles. And ugly feet. But she has a commanding presence and speaks with authority. She impressed me as a woman who likes to flirt."
Wan'er pushed his head away because of his smoker's breath. "Show me a woman who doesn't!" she said.
"Meng says she gets high marks from men, but that she has no female friends."
"I'm not surprised," Wan'er said. "She's obviously been spoiled by men, which of course boosts her ego. Sooner or later, most women like that turn into shrews. But a highborn woman with a decent upbringing can wrap men around her finger and give nothing in return. How does it go--wolves don't eat their young, and there's safety in numbers."
"You're quite a know-it-all, aren't you, you sly fox? But Tongguan is no Xijing. If she's what you say, how could a note from Zhuang Zhidie have such an effect on her?"
But let’s see:
"What does this Jing Xueyin look like, anyways? Lucky woman to be so close with Zhuang Zhidie."
"She's darker than you are, lots of wrinkles... She's got ugly feet, too. She carries herself well, though. She's got a way with words, I guess you could say. But I could never tell if she was taking me seriously, or if she couldn't give a damn. She's a bit of a flirt."
Tang Wan'er pushed Zhou Min away, wrinkling her nose at the stale smoke on his breath. "That's normal," she said.
"The way Meng Yunfang told it, she's the type of woman that men admire and women despise. All of her friends are men."
"I could've guessed," Tang Wan'er said. "She's been spoiled by the men in her life for so long that she thinks she's really something special. She's lucky to come from a good family. If she hadn't, a woman like that would be a terror for her husband. As it is, she can run the men in her life without ever having to give anything up to them. You know the saying, 'a wolf doesn't eat its pups.' The safest place for her is also the most dangerous."
"My clever little fox," Zhou Min said, "you forget that this is Xijing, not Tongguan. That note from Zhuang Zhidie disproves everything you just said. You should've seen the effect it had on her."
Well… what does all this prove? Let’s keep a close eye on the translation, but I don’t think I did anything groundbreaking here. I still feel as if I don't know what Tang Wan'er is talking about with wolves eating their puppies.

But anyways, that gets us into this section, with Zhou Min delivering a jade bracelet in thanks to Xia Jie for the help of her husband, and asking her about Zhuang Zhidie, trying to figure out exactly why he has such power over Jing Xueyin.

That night, Tang Wan'er demands more details, then tells Zhou Min that she's fantasizing about fucking Zhuang Zhidie. Shortly after that, Zhou Min starts to read everything Zhuang Zhidie has written.

Zhou Min takes up his post at the Xijing Gazette, eventually getting an offer to write something. Tang Wan’er suggests he write up the story of Zhuang Zhidie.

He writes a lengthy piece using gossip from Xia Jie, without actually naming Jing Xueyin. Before the article goes to print, he tries to get an audience with Zhuang Zhidie, who has so far been back in Tongguan.

Zhou Min arrives at the Writers Association and sees a man drinking milk from a cow: “The man laughed and patted his prominent belly before lying down, taking one of the cow's teats in his mouth and squeezing.”

Just remember him.

But Zhou Min still can’t find Zhuang Zhidie.

Tang Wan’er suggests they have a banquet to welcome him back to the city. Meng Yunfang sets it up.

Page 39 to 53. Dinner party, Wang Cuncai, love at first sight between Tang Wan’er and Zhuang Zhidie.

Zhou Min and Tang Wan'er prepare to greet Zhuang Zhidie. Tang Wan'er prepares by trying on various outfits. Zhou Min goes over to a restaurant down the block to borrow everything they'll need. Meng Yunfang and his wife arrive with a bottle of osmanthus liquor and a bag of apricots.

Meng Yunfang goes into the kitchen and starts cooking. But after a while, when Zhuang Zhidie doesn't show, Meng goes looking for him. He goes to the Clear Void Nunnery, where he runs into Huiming. It's not stated but the timing seems to suggest that they did more than chat, since an hour passes before he returns to the house and sees Zhuang Zhidie's scooter parked in the alley.

Zhuang Zhidie is standing in front of a used book seller’s stall, and he shows Meng Yunfang a copy of his own collected works, dedicated to Gao Wenxing 高文行. Zhuang signs it again, and puts it in his bag, preparing to send it back to Gao.

When he finally arrives, Zhou Min and Tang Wan’er are impressed by how casual and friendly the famous writer is, and note that he hasn’t lost his Tongguan accent.

This section contains a fun Jia Pingwa repetition in it, about the performer of “Hanging a Painting.” This is a common feature of Jia’s novels, repeating scenes and references. The most repeated has to be the story about a man learning about a devout monk that sealed himself in a box and remained perfectly preserved even after death, and then a layman trying to copy that feat and ending up a puddle of sludge and bones.

The translation reads:
“Have you seen Tongguan’s Chen Cuncai in the flower drum opera Hanging a Painting?”
”I’ve seen many of Dance Master Chen’s performances,” Tang Wan’er replied. “He’s in his sixties and wears tiny shoes, yet he can leap onto the back of a chair, toss a paper ball into the air, and kick it before it lands. He was popular before Liberation. People in Tongguan used to say they’d rather watch Cuncai dance in Hanging a Painting than rule the nation.”
”Opera is one thing, dance is another,” Xia Jie said. Red-faced, Wan’er sank down into the sofa with a perplexed look, more or less tuning Xia Jie out.
And the original:
庄之蝶说:"你看过潼关陈存才的花鼓戏《挂画》吗?" 唐宛儿说:"陈老艺人的戏我看过,六十岁的人了,穿那么小个鞋,能一下了跳到椅被上,绝的是抓一个纸蛋儿,空中一撂,竟用脚尖一脚踢中!解放前他就演红了,潼关人说:宁看存才《挂画》,不坐国民天下。" 夏捷说:"戏剧是戏剧,舞蹈是舞蹈,那不是一回事的。"唐宛儿脸红了一层,便窝在沙发里不动,似听非听地迷糊着。
And let’s look at Qinqiang written almost two decades later…

I’ll use my translation:
“If you go to see a big concert in Xijing, you’ll see how pathetic these opera shows are.”
“It wasn’t always like that,” the woman said. “Caiwa, back in the day… When he performed Hanging a Painting, everyone saw it. They even had a saying: I’d rather see Caiwa sing Hanging a Painting than be the leader of the whole Republic of China.”
“But that was back in the ’20s!” the man said.
“Well, we have our Mrs. Wang now.”
“That old bird that does Picking Up the Jade Bracelet wherever she goes, right? Supposedly, she gets a red sash…”
“You… you…”
“I’m serious.”
The original:
“你要是在省城参加一次歌星演唱会, 你就知道唱戏的寒碜了!” “我可告诉你, 王财娃演戏的时候,咱县上倒流行一句话: 宁看财娃《挂画》,不坐民国天下。” “那是在民国。” “现在 有王老师哩!” “不就是一辈子演个《拾玉镯》,到哪儿能披个红被面么。” “你, 你……” “我说的是事实。”
I show the translation uncorrected here, to show I’m not above self-criticism. I’ll let you draw your own red Xs over my mistakes.

But I had no idea what Jia Pingwa was talking about! It was one of the outstanding issues that I asked him about on my penultimate trip to Xi’an ahead of completing the book, but his answer was so vague that I realize now I would have had to know what he was referring to before I asked.

He uses two different names—Chen Cuncai 陈存才 and Caiwa 财娃—and seems to suggest both are locals to their respective regions—Tongguan 潼关 and Shangluo 商洛—but I’m sure anybody familiar with local opera would get that the reference was to Wang Cuncai 王存才, Pu opera 蒲剧 performer of the Republican Era.

Supposedly, the huadan 花旦 role in Pu opera involves a fair amount of balance work 跷功 (on stilts, basically), acrobatics, and, occasionally, chair work 椅子功. I’ve now seen a modern performance of Hanging a Painting 挂画 with Du Lina 杜丽娜 in the same role, along with the Yuncheng City Pu Opera Troupe 运城市蒲剧团, mounting the chair as Wang Cuncai would have done.

The performance is available here. The thin, elegant Du Lina probably has an easier time of it than Wang Cai would have. Having only seen the performance done by Du Lina, I have nothing to measure it against. Her singing is fantastic, though. I can say that.

Let’s return to Ruined City.

It’s clear from that passage that Zhuang Zhidie and Tang Wan’er have something going on.
After slicing the pork, Wan'er turned on the gas stove, and as the flames popped, she let her thoughts roam. She placed a small mirror on the chopping board, which allowed her to see Zhuang in the other room. As far as looks go, he can't be considered handsome, but it's strange how after only just meeting him, I find him so appealing, looking better by the minute. Back home in Tuangguan, Zhou Min impressed me as a smart, capable man who had some talent. But Xijing is, after all, Xijing, and next to him, Zhou Min merely looks clever. By this point in her reverie, the oil had turned hot, and she hurried to dump in the tofu. But she mistakenly tossed in some wet ginger. Pow! Hot oil spurted out of the pan and spattered on her face. "Ow!" she cried out, dropping into a crouch in front of the stove.
She returns to the party, but Tang Wan’er’s exasperated appearance, and the new imperfection in the form of a blister on her cheek, seems to set Zhuang Zhidie on fire. He excuses himself to the bathroom and masturbates while thinking about her.

I like the image of Tang Wan'er looking at herself looking at Zhuang Zhidie. It calls to mind another observation in the book (and repeated in Qinqiang, as well)—someone asks the gender of a fly on a mirror and the response is: it has to be a female fly, because even female flies love looking at themselves in the mirror. She is looking at the object of her desire, but also looking back at herself.

Also, somewhere in there, Zhou Min realizes the pot-bellied man he saw drinking milk from a cow on the road was Zhuang Zhidie.

Page 53 to 64. The Niu family, puttering, instruments of torture.

Instead of going home after the dinner party, Zhuang Zhidie goes to see Ruan Zhifei at the Writers Association (the Literary Federation in Goldblatt’s translation), then back to his place for more drinking.

Ruan Zhifei takes Zhuang on a tour of his apartment, showing off his imported wallpaper and furniture, then letting himself into his wife's room, where a man is in bed with Ruan's wife. Ruan doesn't seem surprised by the scene, and when Zhuang asks who it is, he refuses to answer. Ruan gives Zhuang a pair of women's shoes, since he has a surplus. Zhuang leaves and tries to get in touch with Jing Xueyin, possibly to gift her the shoes.

At this point, we hear the legend of the Niu family.
Fifty-five years earlier, an eccentric by the name of Niu had lived on the bank of the Wei River in the northern outskirts of town. ... At the time, General Yang Hucheng had ended his bandit career in central Shaanxi and become a powerful force in Xijing. He invited the eccentric Niu to be his aide. ... Soon thereafter, the Henan warlord Liu Zhenhua laid siege to Xijing. After meeting stiff opposition for eighty days, Liu tried the Japanese tactic of tunneling into the city. The residents knew what the enemy was up to, but did not know where the tunnel ended, so at night they buried earthenware vats filled with water and regularly checked to see if they were disturbed. ... The eccentric arrived, dressed in traditional garb, and after walking through the city, street by street and lane by lane, he rested on a boulder at the martial-arts school to smoke his water pipe.
"Dig here to create a lake," he said after twelve puffs on his pipe. Yang Hucheng was doubtful, but he had all the city's water brought over. The tunnel ended at the bottom of the lake, and when it broke through, all the water flowed out of the city. Liu Zhenhua was forced to retreat. A grateful Yang rewarded the eccentric with a house on Shuangren fu Avenue ... so his son moved into town.
Zhuang's wife, Niu Yueqing 牛月清, is the granddaughter of the eccentric. His son, and her father, established a water company at the site granted to him by Yang Hucheng 杨虎城.

And flies appear again:
He took the brick from the scooter rack and carried it inside.
"Don't bring that filthy thing into the house!" Niu Yueqing complained.
"Look closer," Zhuang said. "It's from the Han Dynasty."
"You've piled up so many of those in the other house that people can't get in the door; now you want to do the same here. You say they're from the Han; well, the flies in the house are from the Tang!"
Carlos Rojas refers to the flies in Ruined City (and in the preface to Old Xi’an, where there are also flies from the Tang) as “transhistorical spectral presences whose imperial-period associations stand in open defiance of the forward march of modernity.”

It’s a beautiful piece of academic writing, but I’m not sure I get it. It doesn’t matter.

Niu Yueqing’s mother lives in the apartment, too, and she is a bit of a spectral presence herself, sleeping in a coffin, and obsessing about her deceased husband, who she thinks she can still see.

For the rest of the section, Zhuang bullshits with his wife, and his friend, Zhao Jingwu 赵京五. We learn that the best hulutou 葫芦头 (not unlike conventional paomo 泡馍, in that stale bread is broken up into the broth, but with pork intestine in it) can be found at Chunshengfa 春生发 in Nanyuanmen 南院门, but the product at Fushunlai 福来顺 is inferior. Zhao Jingwu explains his love life. Zhuang’s wife goes out to return a back scratcher. Zhao eventually invites Zhuang Zhidie to see an old home that the mayor is going to demolish. When his wife returns, he tries to give her the shoes, but she turns them down for being “instruments of torture.”

I thought Michael Orthofer at the Complete Review was quite perceptive in his observation that Ruined City is “remarkable for its willingness to putter along through the everyday, in contrast to so much modern fiction that insists up spectacular and dramatic incident after incident.” This section is a fine example of that.

Page 64 to 75. Calligraphy.

Zhao Jingwu introduces a job to Zhuang Zhidie: write about my aunt's cousin's chemical plant. He takes Zhuang to see the old house that he mentioned before.

I quite like the extended descriptions of the home:
A detached protective guard on the frame, peeling black paint on the doors, and six missing metal fasteners marred the gateway. A pair of unicorns in relief decorated the high bluestone gate pier. Iron rings were inlaid in the outer walls, which were fronted by long purple stones. Seeing how intently Zhuang was looking everything over, Zhao told him that the rings were for tethering horses, while the long purple stones were known as mounting stones. In earlier days, rich families rode horses down the street; bells fastened to the reins rang out, and the hoof beats pounded rhythmically. ... The carving on the gate pier particularly impressed Zhuang, who said that the residents of Xijing had excavated and restored just about everything else, but no one had paid any attention to the pier gate carvings. If he went around making stone pier rubbings, he could publish a book of them.
Zhao leads Zhuang into the courtyard, which is home to several families and Zhuang himself, who has a room in the back. Zhao explains how the process of reform in the 1950s tossed out the wealthy residents and installed the poor. It turns out that Zhao is a descendant of the wealthy family that was once the sole tenant of the courtyard home. "The whole street was ours," he says.

Zhuang draws a comparison between the dilapidated courtyard and his own hometown:
"The world is changing all the time," he said. "This is what a once-magnificent home has deteriorated into. Pretty soon even this will be gone. Tongguan is my ancestral home, and as one of the most strategic spots in the Central Plain, it has been the site of many glorious chapters in our history. But ten years ago, the county seat was moved, and the town became a wasteland. I went back not long ago and sat in one of the old buildings. I couldn't stop sighing. When I came back, I wrote an essay about it; maybe you read it."
"I did," Zhao replied, "which is why I invited you here today. Maybe you can write about this sometime."
Zhao Jingwu tries to run him through the collection of antiques that he has collected in his room, but Zhuang Zhidie is distracted by a woman cradling a baby out in the courtyard. It turns out that she’s a maid for a wealthy family, and looking after the child at home. Zhuang is taken by her beauty.

Zhao gives Zhuang a pair of bronze mirrors, asking for one of Wang Ximian's paintings in exchange.

Director Huang 黄厂长, the factory owner, arrives.

The factory boss agrees to take them out for hulutou and gives Zhuang a bottle of liquor, candy, and cigarettes. "Foreign cigarettes are too strong for me," he says, which is what Jia Pingwa told me when I tried to give him a pack of Marlboros after he gifted me a carton of Zhonghua.

Zhuang Zhidie writes a piece of calligraphy for the factory boss:
Zhuang thought for a moment, then wrote:
The wind dances gracefully when the butterfly comes
The person departs and the moon laments
"What does that mean?" Zhao asked. "The butterfly [die] in the first line is clearly from your name, and the moon [yue] in the second line is probably your wife, Niu Yueqing. I can figure out your use of 'gracefully' and 'laments,' but not 'comes' and 'departs.'"
I feel Goldblatt’s pain here, since these sorts of things are impossible to translate without tossing in some of the original, which reads: 蝶来风有致, 人去月无聊.

He goes on to write a couplet for Zhao Jingwu:
There is no heavenly message for savage demons
The moon is dark in the presence of starlight
The original is: 百鬼狰狞上帝无言;星有芒角见月暗淡

But, anyways, suddenly there’s a knock at the door. It’s the nanny from the courtyard. She wants to meet the famous writer, but calls Zhuang a liar when he claims to be the man she’s looking for, since he looks a bit shabby. He asks her name. It’s Liu Yue 柳月. He finally convinces her by writing a couplet:
In the wild the sky presses down on trees
By the clear river the moon comes near people
It’s a line from a Meng Haoran 孟浩然 poem, called Spending the Night on Jiande River 宿建德江: 移舟泊烟渚,日暮客愁新。野旷天低树,江清月近人。
The boat is moored beside the misty island,
As the sun goes down, my sorrow grows anew.
Out on the plain, the trees and heavens meet,
The moon seems close to me on this clear water.
Zhuang Zhidie tries to get her to come on as his maid, but Zhao Jingwu interrupts, saying she has a contract with another family. The final agreement is that Liu Yue will join Zhuang’s household after the contract expires.

Page 75 to 82. Feet, cows.

A particularly masterful section, running from Tang Wan’er flirting, Zhuang’s foot fetish, a boozy dinner, nighttime street scenes, and the wisdom of a cow.

Zhuang Zhidie decides to stop off at Zhou Min's place on the way to dinner and finds him out but Tang Wan'er home.

He gazes into her eyes and sees himself looking back: "He looked into her eyes, in which a tiny human figure appeared. It was his reflection.” It recalls Tang Wan’er looking at him in her mirror, too, I think.

He tells her that he can tell her fortune by studying her physiognomy. That includes her beautiful feet:
Zhuang reached out but stopped before touching her and simply pointed to a spot below the ankle. She took off her shoe and raised her foot until it nearly touched his face. He was surprised by how lithe she was and noticed what a dainty foot she had. The transition from calf to foot was flawless, her instep so high it could accommodate an apricot. Her toes were as delicate as bamboo tips, starting from the long big toe and progressing down to the short little one, which was wiggling at that moment. Zhuang had never seen such a lovely foot, and he nearly let out a shout.
He rushes out to grab the box of shoes that his wife turned down. He slips the stilettos onto her feet and rushes back to have lunch with the factory boss and Zhao Jingwu.

He gets wasted at lunch, then rides back home on his scooter, telling his wife he's going to spend his wife at the Literary Federation compound. When he goes out again, he runs into an old friends:
The fading sunlight created a haze. Birds on the drum tower set up a din as wonton and kebab peddlers turned on lanterns and fired up stoves in front of the gate. Children crowded around an old man selling cotton candy. Curious as to how it was made, Zhuang walked over and watched the man spoon sugar into the spinning head and saw it emerge as fine, cottony threads. When he looked up, he spied Aunty Liu and her milk cow walking up to the gateway. ... When the cow saw him, she mooed loudly, sending children scrambling away in fright. "You haven't bought any milk in days, Mr. Zhuang," Aunty Liu said. "Aren't you staying in the compound?"
And we finally get the story of the cow: Aunty Liu was originally a "vegetable peddler" on the outskirts of the city, and Zhuang met her on a research trip, after which he suggested she buy a milk cow.

That night, after Zhuang sees the cow outside the Literary Federation, Aunty Liu leads it over to the wall, where Zhou Min is playing his flute.
The cow turned thoughtful as she lay on the ground chewing her cud:
When I was at Mount Zhongnan, I knew that the history of humans is tied up with that of cows. To state it differently, either humans evolved from cows or cows evolved from humans. But that's now how they see it. Humans say they evolved from apes. How could they possibly think that? ... Humans lie in order to have a clear conscience while keeping us enslaved forever. ... Are cows, like fleas, so insignificant that they have no reason to exist in this vast, chaotic world? No, we are enormous creatures—large bodies, four strong hooves, and steely pointed horns fit for battle—and yet, in a world where humans are under assault by all other wild creatures, cows alone stand by them ... Ah, you humans! You have conquered cows by forsaking fairness and with the invention of the whip.
The cow describes her mission, to "infiltrate this flourishing city in a cow's native state of being."
I am a philosopher, I truly am. I must keep close watch over this city to evaluate the lives of its human inhabitants and serve as a bovine prophet during the transitional period between humans and cows.
What does all this mean?

Is the cow another one of Zhuang’s women? If so, what does it mean that he suckles at her teat while debasing himself in the road, crawling around in the dirt? Maybe Zhuang’s women nurture him, while also forcing him to debase himself, too. Zhuang’s foot fetish and Tang Wan’er’s feet in his face feels as submissive as crawling under a cow to drink its milk.

Is there meant to be a connection between the cow—niú 牛—and Zhuang’s wife—Niu Yueqing 牛月清? Maybe.

Zhuang tells Aunty Liu to buy a cow because the milk in the city is “watered down.” Does he see in the cow something of himself, bringing authenticity from the countryside, to a city of “watered down” writing/masculinity/living? Yes, there must be something to that.

Why is it a “transitional period”? Does that have anything to do with the titular state of the city? What is the relationship between the humans and the cows and the “wolves, vermin, tigers, or panthers” that the abbot mentions have disappeared because they have all been “reincarnated as human beings.” I don’t know.

The cow will appear again, so maybe we’ll get some answers.

Page 82 to 94. Gossip.

Back at Shuangren fu, Zhuang Zhidie is pressing real money to spirit money to make it more effective in the underworld, and Niu Yueqing is having a ring made for Zhuang out of some silver hair ornaments she inherited. He goes out into the road to burn the spirit money, while Niu Yueqing's mother calls to the dead to come and get it. They gossip for a while about a woman up the block that's become pregnant, then some idle talk about how people evade family planning policy. While they're burning the paper, "the Wang woman" 王婆婆 comes over.

The Wang woman was a “one-time prostitute,” probably before Liberation, judging by the detail that she married a secretary to Hu Zongnan 胡宗南, who retreated to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. She had...
...borne him a son who died in a motorcycle accident as a young man. A few years later, the former secretary died, leaving her, a childless widow, to live out her days alone, hard, lonely days. She had opened a private nursery in her spacious home two years before. Since she lived nearby, she visited often to gossip. ... Some six months earlier, she had wondered aloud why Zhuang and Niu Yueqing still did not have a child at their age, a comment that Niu Yueqing's mother found heartbreaking. She explained that her daughter had been pregnant the year after she was married, but because they were not ready to have a child, she had had an abortion. The second time, they had said that he wanted to wait till he was fully established before having a child, so that pregnancy was also terminated. ... The Wang woman said she knew of a secret formula that guaranteed not only pregnancy, but the birth of a son.
Niu Yueqing is unable to conceive again. She gets some patent medicine from the Wang woman, which is supposed to guarantee results. That night, she pushes Zhuang Zhidie to have sex with her. He’s unable to maintain an erection.
Zhuang was deflated; Yueqing was unsatisfied. She told him to bring her to orgasm with his hand, after which they rolled over and went to sleep. Not another word was spoken that night.
The next day, Zhuang goes out to the factory, gets a tour, and pounds out an article. His work done, he gets an urge to see Tang Wan’er.

He doesn't want to risk seeing Zhou Min, though, so he goes to a small local bar to drink. A young man at the counter is so distracted by a magazine article that he accidentally takes some sausage off Zhuang's plate.
Zhuang laughed.
"What are you reading that has you so absorbed?" he asked.
"You wouldn't know, but this is about Zhuang Zhidie. Do you know who he is? I've read his works in the past but had no idea he's just like us."
"Is that so?" Zhuang said. "What does it say?"
"It says that Zhuang was a foolish child. In elementary school he thought teachers were the greatest people in the world. Then one day he went to the toilet and saw his teacher urinating. It was an eye-opener. 'Even teachers need to pee!' he said, as if they never needed to relieve themselves. Naturally his teacher glared at him, but didn't say a word, while Zhuang looked on and wondered out loud, 'Do teachers have to shake it, too?' Complaining that the boy had a low sense of morality, the teacher reported this to his father, who gave him a good beating."
It's the latest issue of Xijing Magazine, and Zhou Min's article, "Stories of Zhuang Zhidie." He decides to keep reading, hoping to learn something about himself:
Zhuang could make you happy and he could embarrass you. He could tell you how to recognize a female fly by seeing where it lands; if it alights on a mirror, it is female, for even a fly wants to be pretty. When he is dragged over in a public place to have his photo taken, he can put on a miserable look and say he was a horse in his previous life, not a warhorse or a beast of burden, but a beribboned pony at a tourist site, where it is mounted for picture-taking. ... As he read on, Zhuang came to the part about a romance from years before with a coworker at a magazine office; with many things in common, they were deeply in love, but ultimately parted ways owing to a strange combination of circumstances. ... No name was given, but the outline of the story was clearly based on his relationship with Jing Xueyin. ... Where had Zhou Min gotten his material? What bothered Zhuang was how Jing would react after reading the article. ... Beset by worries, Zhuang put down the magazine and rushed over to the editorial office of Xijing Magazine, his desire to see Tang Wan'er gone.
Page 94 to 103. Gossip, gossip, and more gossip.

There are some interesting things here, with Zhuang and the article in Xijing Magazine: Jia Pingwa is writing about Zhou Min writing about Zhuang Zhidie, but the reader might assume that Jia Pingwa is writing about himself.

Jia Pingwa’s association with Zhuang Zhidie is unmistakable, I would say. Their biographies are quite close. And when this book came out, part of the controversy around it was because of that identification between author and protagonist.

It’s not a particularly Chinese literary thing to see the author in his creation, and read in autobiographical elements, right? But… I would say it’s more common in the Chinese literary world to conflate the two. Bonnie S. McDougall’s Fictional Authors, Imaginary Audiences: Modern Chinese Literature in the Twentieth Century is the best resource on this, I think, in general, and the idea of autobiographical writing lending authenticity to work, and the idea of an audience projecting itself onto the writer (and another idea: "...the 'self' which is invoked in many twentieth-century Chinese literary works is not necessarily the 'self' of the individual but the 'self' as a member of the particular social group to which they belong.”)

There’s also in the idea still popular in China that literature should be didactic, the problem of “moral responsibility” of the author—what I mean here is: the author has a responsibility for their work, so they are closely identified with it, maybe especially if it communicates what are seen as bad moral lessons (and see Narrating China: Jia Pingwa and his Fictional World by Yiyan Wang for more on this in particular).

So, when the novel goes to print and people start worrying about the sex and corruption and general moral disorder in the book, part of the problem is that Jia is seen as the protagonist.

And their biographies are similar, too, all that aside: both arrive from the countryside and become literary stars, and both have somewhat complicated love lives, etc. I don’t want to gossip, though.

It’s interesting, though.

You have to wonder who Jia Pingwa is gossiping about while having Zhuang Zhidie decry gossip-as-literature.

This section begins with a lengthy explanation of how Zhuang Zhidie came to be an editor at Xijing Magazine twelve years earlier and how he met Jing Xueyin. He decides to stop by his old office and get to the bottom of the article.

Zhou Min appears, serving tea to Zhuang, who is gossiping with his old co-workers.
”Zhuang Laoshi, this is my first article, so please don’t be stingy with your views.”
Putting the lighthearted banter aside, Zhuang said that he had come specifically because of that article, which he found somewhat troubling. Zhong tensed up.
”What bothers you about it?
”Everything is fine except for the part about my relationship with Miss X. It was overblown, and there could be repercussions.”
”I considered that,” Zhong said. “I asked Zhou Min where he got his material, and he said it was all based on fact.”
”It looks real, but the way it’s written, it feels different. No names are mentioned, and yet the circumstances of the people involved are self-evident. You know that Jing Xueyin and I were close, but we never had a romantic relationship.”
Zhuang and the editor, Zhong Weixian 钟唯贤 come to an agreement that someone from the magazine will go to Jing Xueyin and explain what’s going on. After that, a mahjong game begins between Zhuang, Gou Dahai 苟大海, Li Hongwen 李洪文, and Xiao Fang 小方. The gossip continues. They talk about the boss, Zhong Weixian:
”That man has suffered plenty,” Gou said. “On top of being labeled a Rightist for twenty years, he married an awful woman. She came here last month and, in front of everyone, scratched his face bloody.”
”What can he do?” Zhuang asked. “They were already living apart when we were together in the Department of Culture, and he panicked every time she came to see him. We encouraged him to get a divorce, but she wouldn’t hear of it. I don’t know how he’s managed all these years, especially now that times have changed.”
Zhuang Zhidie is happy to gossip, but Zhou Min broke a key rule: keep it around the mahjong table. You can’t print gossip in a magazine! Everyone knew about Zhuang’s love life, but nobody was shameless enough to try to profit off of it.

The men around the table eventually settle on who’s going to pay for lunch (it’s guànchang bāozi 灌肠包子, translated as "pork jelly buns"). They go out to a teahouse after, and Zhuang walks home alone late in the evening, thinking about Tang Wan’er—but instead of her, he runs into the beggar we saw at the start of the book, who gives us another blast of doggerel about official corruption.

6/26/20

&: Diary (14)



(June 22nd, 2019) These entries used to be a place mainly to talk about going places—I was in Xi’an or I was in Beijing or I was in Hong Kong or I was in Seoul or I was in Nagoya or whatever—but there’s nowhere to go now. If I left Japan now, there’s no way I could enter again. My visa would expire while I was outside, waiting to be let back in. I don’t have anywhere to go, either. I was planning to be in Beijing at the end of August, but it’s not looking good. And life goes on as it always has. I have work to do. I have checks coming in. I am settled in my corner of East Tokyo. Maybe I’ll never leave again.

I’ve said it before: if there’s a place to feel isolated, it’s Tokyo. The outside world feels far away. I hear things and wonder how serious they are. There’s no way to be sure. I think you could live here and not know that there was a pandemic. You might wonder why the grocery had put up markers on the floor to separate people line up for the cash register, or why the 7-11 put up plastic barriers in front of the tills. You could explain it away as Japanese cleanliness taken too far.

I guess you would wonder where all the tourists are. Their absence is the most visible sign of something going on. The city feels the correct size. I mean, like, in Uguisudani, where they are converting the love hotels to cheap lodging for South Asian tourists, there is still the necessary number of people milling around, but it feels like the place is being used for its necessary purpose.

I like the city without tourists, but this isn’t a call for Japan to remain Japanese. It’s too late for that, even if you wanted it. It’s being buried, for better or worse. How absurd for Aso Taro to talk about mindo 民度 in 2020! The national spirit and the people he imagines to believe in it are dead and gone.

The tourists won’t be back for a while. But businesses are agitating for the flows of migrant labor to be started again. The flights from Kathmandu will start again, bringing in the farm workers, the men that run the cash registers at all the convenience stores, staff the Indian restaurants… Maybe the Vietnamese will be brought back first.

I don’t care. I feel more at home in the projects north of Mukojima, where everyone is speaking Chinese, or a Vietnamese coffee shop in the enclave east of Nishi-Nippori, or even the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, back when I could wrangle an invitation.

But I mean, it does feel good, without the city supercharged with tourists. I can take the trains again. And nobody ignores me in shops anymore or refuses to speak, afraid I might be a tourist. When I went to Mitsukoshi a week ago to buy a birthday present for *****, I was accorded all the fine treatment usually only extended to PRC big spenders, perhaps under the impression I was the first tourist to make it back.

When the tourists come back, it will feel like normal again. It will also mean that I can finally leave again. The trips to Seoul or Hong Kong or Beijing—just three, four hour flights—feel like coming up for air.



(June 23rd, 2019) I’m happiest when I have some piece of work with a deadline but which I haven’t started yet. I was losing my mind a few months ago. Now, I have too much work to do. The entry that crossed out to write this one had me in a hotel near ****** ****** working on a novel. This was months ago. I spent the afternoon with **** ****, who had just flown in from Wuhan (and it could have made me more nervous then, had I known how things would play out, since this was at the end of January or the start of February).

I was talking about getting these stories together that I wrote five or six years ago now, back when I was back in Saskatchewan for the first time in a long time. I was unemployed and living with ****** in my father's attic. I signed up for a provincial jobs program to get everyone off my back, but they weren't giving me much work. I had lots of free time. I used to wake up, buy a tin of Copenhagen and a Mountain Dew at the Bun n' Bottle, then walk down to the library, sit in a carrel with a notebook, try to write for at least a couple hours, and then I'd get high and go for lunch, and maybe go back to writing in the afternoon. A lot of the material from that time comes from working in slaughterhouses. I can't remember if I worked at the pork plant during that period or not, but it was either then or before, and I was at least hearing stories about it from friends, and I had some experience at the beef plant and the pork plant.

I gave up on it. I’ll work on it again when the work dries up. I was writing it at least a bit to comfort myself, I realize now, imagining myself back there. It was like I was renting an apartment over the Uptown for a month, going down to the liquor store in the old train station, coming home with a bottle of Royal Reserve and drinking myself to sleep because I had to get up early and drive over to the flats to dig trenches with Leo and his boys, or still screwing around, getting high and writing in the library in Crescent Park.

I don't even know why. I’m not nostalgic. I hated my life. I was working at a slaughterhouse or digging trenches or working construction, living with a woman that hated my guts. But I think it’s like I wanted to remind myself that I could go back there. I don’t care. It’s been three years and two months since I had a real job, but no matter what happens, even if I go broke tomorrow, it’s not like I started anywhere great. I could lose it all tomorrow and I’d only be going back to where I came from. So, when I was staring at a thinning bank account, it was like I was telling myself, writing about that stuff, that there’s nothing to lose. I don’t know how to write that in a way that sounds defiant rather than inspirational.

And today, I spent the day procrastinating again. *** **********. I booked myself a room at a hotel, telling myself: you can wait until then to start. I need that dose of desperation.

6/23/20

&: City Tank (second time)

I used to have here a chapter-by-chapter summary of Qiu Huadong's 邱华栋 City Tank 城市战车. It contained an incomplete translation of the first half of the novel, summaries, and some of my thoughts. It ran to just about 50,000 words. I took it down.

Where did it go? The only person that actually asked that question is Matt Turner, translator of Lu Xun’s Weeds 野草. There’s no particularly interesting answer.

The novel went out of print two decades ago. The book was revised and republished as Turmoil of the Day 白昼的躁动 in 2003 by New World Press 新世界出版社 and then as Gasp of the Day 白昼的喘息 in 2016 by Lijiang Publishing House 漓江出版社. I haven’t read either one. I was reading an ancient online edition.

I had the idea that maybe I could track down the updated version and fire off pitches to publishers. Joel Martinsen told me that he prepared sample chapters of some of Qiu Huadong’s novels, but that was a while ago. I don’t think that project took off, and it doesn’t seem like interest in Qiu Huadong has built over the years.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the main reason translators pitch novels or writers to agencies and publishers is just to let them know that you exist, and that you have the ability to read critically. I hate rejection, though, so I probably haven’t pitched enough people to finally get traction on anything.

Also, back to the summaries and translation, it felt unfair to work from a bootleg online edition of the unrevised novel. Also, that aside, a chapter-by-chapter summary saw me repeating myself a lot, and I didn’t want to go through the trouble of organizing it into a briefer essay.

I’ve got two deadlines coming and it’s the perfect time to procrastinate.

I’m going to try to salvage some of the summaries. This is what I wrote about the first four chapters.

My errors are still in there, even the ones I've already noticed.

If nothing else, maybe you can enjoy the translations.

Qiu was at the center of a new school of urban fiction that has gone by various names, including xin zhuangtai xiaoshuo 新状态小说, new reality fiction (or, literally, new state of affairs fiction?), or simply xin shimin xiaoshuo 新市民小说, new urbanite fiction (there is more dicussion of this in Robin Visser's "Urban Ethics: Modernity and the Morality of Everyday Life," which I found in Contested Modernities in Chinese Literature, edited by Charles A. Laughlin). Qiu was making observations of what he called the dushi xin renlei 都市新人类 (Visser translates this as "new urbanites" in "Spaces of Disappearance: 1990s Beijing, art, film, and fiction in the dialogue with urbanization" by Visser, which can be found in the Jie Lu-edited China’s Literary and Cultural Scenes at the Turn of the 21st Century, which also contains Jie Lu's own paper on Qiu, "Rewriting Beijing.") Like Cao Zhenglu, Qiu is grappling with the question of what to make of a postsocialist society, where there is more mobility but also less security, and "how to locate the 'independent artist' [liulang yishujia, literally, 'transient artist'] in the commercial exchange economy of Beijing" (from Visser's paper).

Qiu cranked out countless stories set in the city, but his 1997 novel, City Tank《城市战车》might be the best example. (Leung translates the title as Chariots in the City, but I'll stick with the translation that Jie Lu and Robin Visser have used in their academic work on the book.)

City Tank tells the story of Zhu Wen 朱文, a painter from Wuhan, who leaves behind his girlfriend for a new life in Beijing.

The novel opens with Zhu Wen looking out on the city:
From a distance, the people look like trees. Especially when night comes, the city looks like a massive abdominal tumor, floating among the lights, with the shadows of all the people coming and going shifting under the glow. This is a city of shadows, thick as a forest with faint grey shapes. The city is a forest with a shadow river flowing in the darkness.
When I woke up that afternoon, I felt a tightness in my chest, and I figured I must have smoked too much the night before. But right as I got up to the Lufthansa Center, I doubled over and threw up in the filthy canal. I could see the tomatoes I had eaten the day before. The vomit looked like blood and brains mixed together. I remember back three years before, when I'd seen a guy laid out on a street in Wuhan, his head split open, a big crowd around him. Nobody in the crowd said anything. I pushed my way through and got a good look. The mess of blood and brain spread across the pavement looked as pretty as ice cream. Years later, when I went to a gelato shop in Jianguomenwai, I was reminded of it again. I didn't feel anything while eating it, though.
I crouched for a while beside the canal, emptying my stomach contents. I felt better when I was done. I studied yesterday's meals until they slipped below the water. I figured it wouldn't be long before they became a banquet for some fish. Nothing gets wasted in this world.
I was always hungry. I guess you could call me a starving artist. I hadn't been in the city long, but it seemed intent on stripping me bare of everything I had. What was I going to give the city? Could I pluck some of my pubic hair as an offering? I'm sure the city was not particularly interested in receiving that. But there wasn't much more that I could offer. If you don't want my body hair, then screw you. I started laughing to myself, thinking about it.
Around me stood the luxurious and massive concrete carcasses of the Hotel Kunlun, Jingcheng Mansion, the Hilton, the Great Wall, and the Landmark. I figured there could be at least a hundred thousand people inside of them, all engaged in whatever noisy, exciting pursuits that had brought them inside. They probably had as little idea as to what they were really doing as I had. Who really knows what the hell they're actually doing? Everyone buzzes around like a fly, busy all the time. Standing beside that stinking canal, the faces in the crowd seemed to drift further away, sinking away from me like my vomit had.
The city! You great blind beast, you conceited monster, we came before you in shame, vomiting our guts out.
There was a scent in the air that reminded me of ether and my head started to go cloudy. I had been having strange dreams. In my dreams everyone had been turned into plants. They all turned into pansies, smiling, leering pansies. I wish I could drag some personification of this artistic world in front of me and give it a kick in the balls. I starve because of art. My creations were not enough to fill my stomach. But my appetite just kept growing. There was going to be a day when I could swallow the Lufthansa Center whole. I'd heard it was opened with some Germans, and there was a Kempinski Hotel inside. I'd swallow them, too, and their five-star hotel. I'd swallow the whole damn city and everyone in it. I'd let those shadow people float around in my guts, crying out for help.[Please forgive me any errors I've made translating names of these Beijing locations.]
What follows is a lengthy description of the viruses and bacteria that Zhu imagines he can see crawling on every surface, and then a memory of a trip to the Hard Rock Cafe location at the Landmark. He finds himself back in front of the Hard Rock, hoping to catch sight of someone he knows. None of his friends are around, but he notices a girl (this is Yang Mei 杨梅) in a black gauze skirt:
Just as I was about to leave and go look for something to eat, I saw that the girl in the black gauze skirt had sidled up beside me. "Hey, mister. You wanna take me in? Maybe we can have some fun." I turned and looked at her. I figured her for one of the kind-hearted whores that worked this end of town. Girls like that are easy to figure out. They're bound by their own rules and customs, and once you're done, they won't pester you for a tip. But I was broke. I studied her face. She had exaggerated each of her features with various cosmetics, and the eye makeup was so thick I couldn't tell whether or not she had double-folded eyelids. She had decent tits that were overflowing from her little black bra. Her voice sounded like car wheels on a gravel road. Maybe she wasn't what I thought. I thought I detected a hint of a Northeastern accent.
I leaned toward her and said: "I'm broke, sweetheart. I'm so hungry I could swallow this whole building in one gulp. I can't bring you in there. I couldn't even bring myself in there." At that moment, a gang of foreigners rushed past us into the Hard Rock.
Zhu Wen remembers some money that his ex-girlfriend sewed into a pair of shorts and he decides to spend it on her. He drags her back to his room but can't get it up. As they lay in bed together after the abortive hookup, Zhu Wen and Yang Mei get to talking.
I stared up at the ceiling. She sat up in the bed, looked around, and then started to try to comfort me. She lay her head on my chest and started to run her fingertips across my belly. But nothing was happening. We started talking instead. She told me that she was homesick. She came from a small town in the flatlands below the Khingan Mountains. Her younger brother had just passed away, her father was confined to his bed, and her mother had been forced to go out and make a living with a small stall in the market. She'd finished high school and was headed off to university, but her father needed a kidney transplant, and there was no way to pay her tuition.
After the news came that she would have to leave school, she knew she had to come up with some other plan. She hesitated for about a week after making up her mind, then finally went to sell her body. Three months later, she left her family a bit of money, and then went down to Beijing. "There was no other way," she said. "I had to do it. I needed the money, so I became a..." I was curled up on the bed like a little baby, listening to his mother talk. She looked around the decrepit hundred square foot apartment and seemed to suddenly notice all of the paintings hung on the wall and the scattered art supplies. "Wait, are you a painter or something?" she asked with surprise.
Zhu Wen breaks down crying while telling Yang Mei about his lack of success as a painter. She takes pity on him, tries again to comfort him, and makes a meal of instant noodles. After they share their meal, Zhu Wen loses his temper, fishes out the money he had hidden in the shorts, presses it on her, then yells for her to get the hell out. She ends up taking a fifty from him and leaving, but right at that moment, Zhu Wen realizes he’s made a mistake. He yells out into the night after her. She’s already gone. He goes back into his room and ponders burning all his art. And right at that moment, his cock, which betrayed him earlier, finally stirs to life.

Zhu Wen's neighbor, a performance artist from Zhejiang, Qin Song 秦颂, arrives to invite him out to dinner at the Balixiang Restaurant 八里香餐馆. The guest list for the dinner includes a number of people from Yuanmingyuan village, the leader singer of a local band, a poet, the art critic Li Shuangyuan 李双元, and the painters Duan Qiong 段琼, Feng Yue 冯月, He Xiangcao 何香草.

Robin Visser has written extensively about Qiu Huadong's urban novels, and sheds some lights on the cultural scene in 1990s Beijing and how the author reported on it:
In addition to fictional characters, Qiu refers to well-known 1990s artists and events such as the poet Gu Cheng's suicide, Gu Wenda's hair sculptures, Xu Bing's postmodern installations, Cui Jian's rock concerts, Zhang Yuan's documentary The Square, Su Tong and Wang Shuo's Collected Works, and Jia Pingwa's novel City in Ruins. Qiu complicates his character mix by using the occasional pseudonym for actual artists, and the names of real artists for his fictional characters. (This is from "Spaces of Disappearance.")
The conversation around the table at the restaurant is about what you would imagine, with Li Shuangyuan relating the latest news from the Venice Biennale and pondering post-colonialism and cultural hegemony, and a pair of independent filmmakers talking about their latest projects. While the artists are distracted discussing Hans Haacke, Richard Hamilton, and Nam June Paik, Zhu Wen devours all the best dishes on the table. Talk continues of the meaning of Chinese contemporary art, with Old K 老K sharing with the artists his plan to write a book—tentatively titled Sperm of the Sun—about Beijing in the 1990s. Zhu Wen shares with the reader some gossip about Old K, including the fact that his apartment is decorated with spent condoms blown into balloons, his frequent liasons with pretty young girls, and the size and provenance of his pornography collecton.

The lengthy talk at the table, which I haven't translated above, is the first of several instances of accounts of intellectual and artistic debates taking place in Beijing at the time, as Visser writes:
In debates about aesthetics with Westerners, Zhu Wen passionately explicates the rationale for an aesthetic transition away from the root-seeking nativism of the 1980s. On one occasion he gushes, 'I long for a new form for Chinese art—one which meets international standards and uses contemporary values to become one branch of international culture rather than merely promoting the nativist notion "the more ethnic the more international"' (p. 11). The narrative is peppered with transparent references to 1990s academic debates condemning 'ethnic' art (such as films by Zhang Yimou), which is seen to manipulate stereotypical Chinese images to gain Western approbation. The artists engage in countless discussions of aesthetics, tossing off terms such as 'postcolonial culture', 'pastiche', 'imitation' and 'globalism' to demonstrate their grasp of contemporary terminology in Western cultural criticism. (My emphasis, and this is from the same Visser paper.)
But more on those debates as we come to them.

***


It might help to have some knowledge of Beijing geography before getting deeper into City Tank. I’ve never lived in Beijing, although I have visited it many times. The novel is full of references to places that I am only vaguely familiar with. I can pull up a map of Beijing and zero in on where some of the action takes place, but that map looks completely different than it looked at the end of the 1990s, and it’s impossible to visit most of those places now.

One of those places is East Village 东村. But to get there, you have to know what the West Village 西村 was. The West Village is also gone, now.

Beginning in the 1980s, students graduating from Beijing schools, like the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, found cheap lodging around Yuanmingyuan 圆明园 (and nearby Yiheyuan 颐和园, too, which I should mention since that is where Zhu Wen is headed in this chapter), the smashed remains of the Qianlong Emperor's palace, built from plans drawn up by a Jesuit brother. It stood for less than a century before it fell into disrepair, smashed up and looted by British and French soldiers in one of the Opium Wars, then scavenged and sold off during the later Qing and Republican Era, finally vandalized during the Cultural Revolution. You could look up Huang Rui's 黄锐 Yuanmingyuan: Rebirth《圆明园新生》which shows the ruins of the Western Mansion 西洋楼 looming like stone behemoths.

The artists of the 1980s were following a slightly earlier generation of pioneers, which included Huang Rui, who arrived shortly after the Red Guards cleared out and Reform and Opening began:
Other members of that same generation of rebels, now tempered by the struggles of the Cultural Revolution itself, returned to the Western Palaces in 1979. They were the editors of the samizdat literary journal Today (Jintian 今天) Mang Ke 芒克 and Bei Dao 北岛 who were joined by supporters and fans including a friend of the magazine, Chen Kaige 陈凯歌, later a prominent film-maker, to hold their own literary salon there. On that occasion, poetry was recited, stories told, speeches made, and a lot of alcohol consumed. They regarded the Yuan Ming Yuan as a public space free from official control, a cultural grey zone to which they could add their own stories. The poet Yang Lian 杨炼, a loquacious and prolific member of this group, composed an elegiac poem to the ruins.
It was in this tradition of bohemian fringe-dwelling that, from the late 1980s, the Yuan Ming Yuan became home to a community of artists, poets and cultural ne'er-do-wells. Because of its relative distance from the city, its borderland nature between urban and rural control and the fact that cheap accommodation could be rented from the local villagers, Fuyuan Village 福缘村, around what was one the Fuyuan Gate, the main entrance to the gardens for plunderers, developed for a time into the nexus of Peking's alternative cultural milieu. Many of the houses the artists rented were in the area of the Sceptre Lodge (Ruyi Guan 如意馆), where Jesuit missionary-artists like Giuseppe Castiglone had worked during the Qianlong reign.
And, please, stop here, and read Geremie Barmé's "The Garden of Perfect Brightness: A Life in Ruins" (PDF) in full. It’s a tidy history of Yuanmingyuan, its destruction, its rebirth as an artists’ colony, and what happened to those artists.

So, I’d rather you just read Barmé's much more knowledgeable account of the end of Yuanmingyuan as an artists’ colony, but here it is briefly: pressure on the community around Yuanmingyuan began to build in the 1990s and there were waves of evictions, with artists being fined for illegal residence (I'm going by the account in Experimental Beijing: Gender and Globalization in Chinese Contemporary Art by Sasha Su-Ling Welland, but the number of artists, photographers, writers, and filmmakers around at the time means that there are innumerable accounts of the village and its dissolution). The community had produced its first superstar artists and the market for Chinese art was heating up (another Barmé recommendation: find a copy of In the Red, and turn to the chapter "Artful Marketing," which sets the scene—Beijing art world at in the 1990s—quite well), and there was a certain cachet to the vagrant artist image—so, you had artists fucking off to nicer quarters in Beijing or to New York or Berlin, and then younger artists that romanticized the scene trying to get in.

The community around Yuanmingyuan wasn't destroyed by the evictions and harassment of 1995, but constant threats led to the unofficial founding of other colonies. There's Songzhuang in Tongzhou, only ten miles out from the Fifth Ring Road, now part of Beijing, but deep countryside at the time. There was Caochangdi, too. And what would eventually become 798 Art Zone. And there was the East Village. This description collapses and distorts the timeline, because East Village forms before artists start getting evicted from Yuanmingyuan, but I hope it works as a rough sketch. East Village sprang up on the other side of the city. If you type Dashanzhuang 大山庄—the actual name for the area—into your map application, you'll just see a mark in the middle of Chaoyang Park. The entire area disappeared in the early 2000s, when the area was redeveloped. But, if you haven't pulled it up on a map this was east of Sanlitun, across the Third Ring Road, closer to the Fourth Ring Road. If you do have your map open, though, you can slide northwest a bit and find Line 10’s Liangmaqiao Station in Chaoyang. That was right around where Zhu Wen was vomiting into a canal at the start of the novel. Line 10 hadn't been run through there when Qiu Huadong was writing, but the Kempinski Hotel Beijing Lufthansa Center still stands, not far from the Hotel Kunlun and the Landmark Hotel, which are also referenced in the first chapter.

The tamest description of East Village calls it a "ramshackle collection of some 65 farmhouses bordering a garbage dump" (this description is from an Angie Baecker feature on Zhang Huan 张洹). Like the areas around Yuanmingyuan, it had become home to rural migrants, many of whom made a living in the recycling business. Beginning in the early 1990s, it attracted a group of artists that included Ma Liuming 马六明, Rong Rong 荣荣 (responsible for the photograph of the Beijing East Village sign), and Zhang Huan, who appears in City Tank pseudonymously, and in many other Rong Rong photos (find the one where he’s walking through East Village with Ai Weiwei 艾未未, only one where he’s smiling). East Village had a decidedly different character than other communities, less about a communal lifestyle and less open to foreign art collectors and journalists:
...the so-called East Village (Dongcun) in Beijing became the base for a group of migrant artists, who worked together closely and initiated a new trend in experimental art. Also unlike the communities at Yuanming Yuan and Songzhuang, the East Village artists developed a closer relationship with their environment—a polluted place filled with garbage and industrial waste—as they considered their moving into this place an act of self-exile. Bitter and poor, they were attracted by the "hellish" qualities of the village in contrast to the "heavenly" downtown Beijing. This contrast inspired them: all of their works during this period were energized by a kind of intensely repressed desire. (This is from: Making History: Wu Hung on Contemporary Art.)
There are different accounts of how long the East Village lasted, but I trust Wu Hung's dates: the actual community existed between 1992 and 1994, and various artists kept working together until 1998 or so (see: Hung Wu's Rong Rong's East Village, 1993-1998, and A Chinese Independent Designer's History of Contemporary Art by He Hao 何浩, who covers some of the aftermath, including Rong Rong's time at Liulitun, which is where several East Village artists relocated, south of Chaoyang Park, before that area was also redeveloped).

In the first chapter, Zhu Wen wakes up from a hangover, picks up a girl outside the Hard Rock, and goes to a dinner with a gang of artists, filmmakers, poets, and writers. We start the second chapter with Zhu Wen waking up from another hangover, planning to visit his friend, Zhou Sese, a poet, who lives over by Yiheyuan, near the West Village.

On his way to see Zhou Sese, who has gotten in a fight with some local toughs, Zhu Wen is excruciatingly horny. He gives a lengthy explanation of how women back then were becoming more and more dangerous, luring men in with hot pants and cleavage, then infecting them with gonorrhea, syphilis, and herpes. He compares his deep horniness to "a peasant revolt—the more the emperor tried to control his subjects, the more militant they became." Finally, thoughts turn from his boner to his friend Zhou Sese:
At Xizhimen, I got off the subway and transferred to the 375 bus, headed to Yiheyuan. Zhou Sese had been living over by Yiheyuan for quite a few years already and was fond of having guests over to hear him read his poetry and hold forth on his utopian literary theories. I'd heard that he'd recently been invited by a private firm to come by and put on a lecture. He went up to the front of the hall and wrote three names on the blackboard: Dante, Shakespeare, and Zhou Sese. He started the lecture with an introduction to Dante's poetic method, moving on to Shakespeare, and then he had launched into a lengthy explication of his own work. The audience stared back at him blankly. These businessmen had no expectations of the lecture and Zhou Sese himself, but at least one had been impressed enough to offer the poet a position as assistant general manager of his experimental farm. He had demurred, saying he needed to think it over. In the end, he had turned down the very attractive offer, electing to stay in his hovel near Yiheyuan, writing his utopian poetry. That was just one of the many reasons we all respected him so much. In such a materialistic age, it's no easy feat to turn down an easy life, and to hold onto the dream of being a wandering poet.
When Zhu Wen arrives at Yiheyuan, he goes looking for Zhou Sese and gets directed to a lecture hall at a nearby university:
I found the hall and snuck into a seat in the back row. Zhou Sese stood at the front of the room, dressed all in white—a white blazer, white shirt, white slacks, a white bandage wrapped around his left leg—his black hair rising like a roaring flame over his head. His face wore a particularly solemn expression and he spoke in a low, deep voice that reminded me of whalesong. On the blackboard behind him was written: "The rebirth of contemporary Chinese poetry." This was a topic that he enjoyed speaking about. Even with his leg wrapped up, he refused to cancel his lecture. He looked like a tree, standing at the podium, or perhaps an injured bird of prey. I found myself unexpectedly moved. He didn't seem to have seen me enter.
"It's clear to me now that the renewal of contemporary Chinese poetry must come from an artist with a poetic spirit. 'Poetry' can't be simply a noun, but must be a verb. It has to be a living thing, bloody, constantly growing. To be a great poet means having wisdom, creativity, bravery, self-control... A great poet must have a conscience. They must liberate themselves, but they must be willing to take on the suffering of the masses, and have the determination lead them out of this filthy world. Who will support me?" He gestured passionately at the crowd, who kept absolutely still. There was deathly silence from the observers. They looked like choking victims in their final moments. What were they all thinking?
"What are your views on personal wealth?" another student asked. "Do you like money?"
"Poetry is useless. Right now, we need to be guided by concrete, rational ideas. I'm more worried about the auto industry and the housing market than I am poetry."
"You want to live like Gauguin or Van Gogh—but this is the Information Age! Whoever controls access to information, controls the world."
The teenage audience members kept popping up, and, at first, Zhou Sese answered each attack with patience and calm. He didn't look any more stressed than if he was taking a stroll in the park. But it wasn't long before he realized that he couldn't provide the sorts of answers that would satisfy them. Perhaps he thought these questions were below him. Perhaps neither side could understand the other.
I got a bit nervous for him. He kept his cool, but I could tell the questions were getting to him. In a way, he was trapped: even if the questions annoyed him, he had a lot of hope staked on these students, and he wanted to keep his connection to the younger generation. Finally, it was clear that the students were speaking a language that Zhou Sese did not understand, and he was responding to them in a language that they did not understand. The lecture slid into complete chaos. Any discussion of the renewal of contemporary Chinese poetry was completely abandoned. It's impossible for these young people to put any faith in poetry, I thought to myself. They believed in computers, in the information superhighway, in TV, in the lies that they heard in the media, in cultural fast food, in beautifying themselves and strutting around. Poor Old Zhou, they don't understand a word you're saying.
I stood and shouted across the lecture hall: "Zhou Sese! Get over here. Let's go. Don't waste your time here."
Zhu Wen leads the thoroughly dejected Zhou Sese out of the lecture hall and they retire to the poet's rented room. There follows a long description of Zhou Sese's book collection. Zhu Wen finally gets around to what he's gone there for, and asks Zhou Sese who busted up his leg. We learn that Zhou Sese was in Beitaipingzhuang 北太平庄 and came to the defense of a migrant worker being harassed by some local thugs, who then turned on the poet, smashing his leg with a metal rod. Zhu Wen chastises him for risking his life to protect a stranger, but finds himself moved by his friend's courage. Zhou Sese fetches a notebook and begins reciting one of his poems. Zhu Wen figures the best way to cheer up his friend is to get him a prostitute:
"Make sure you wear a condom with these girls," I teased. "If you catch something, I don't want you to come crying to me."
He immediately shook his head. "No, I don't think that's appropriate. If you want to introduce a girlfriend to me, that's fine, but no—no, not that. I can't do it. Do you know how Babylon fell?"
"That's the one with the Hanging Gardens, right?"
"Right. It was a massive kingdom, close to a million citizens. That was truly incredible for the time. It was a powerhouse of trade and industry. It lasted for centuries, with no other power able to come close to it. The capital had a twenty-five mile wall around it, sixty feet high, and fifteen feet thick. There was no chance they would be attacked from the outside. But it was precisely that wealth and power, which made them impervious to assault from outside, that led to their downfall. It was the prostitutes that did it."
"It was prostitutes that brought down Babylon?"
"That's right. The rulers of the empire forced their subjects to convert to foul cults. The worst of those was the cult of the love goddess, Mylitta and Ishtar, an earth goddess, which involved devotees selling their bodies. The images of these two nude goddesses were carved on the city walls. The women of the city would bow to them. There were a group of sexual priestesses, who would live within a temple, working as prostitutes. There was no shame in it. They were called 'sacred prostitutes' by the government. Of course, the government took a cut of the profits, too. Eventually, other industries went into decline. Going to a prostitute was as ordinary as it is for us to smoke a cigarette. Venereal disease was rampant. The doctors they had then couldn't do anything to help them, either. They just sat around waiting for death to come. There were no longer any strong, healthy young men to defend the capital. Sometime around the 6th century, the Hittite Empire showed up and defeated them. All of the wealth generated by the prostitutes of Babylon and their masters ended up lining up their enemy's coffers."
The restaurant was deathly silent. A few people that had been listening in looked shocked. "What the fuck are you talking about?" I roared.
The pair ride their bikes out past Beijing University's back gate to a canal that runs—or ran—near Tsinghua University, where the poet Ge Mai 戈麦 killed himself.
"He probably jumped in over there. Some people still say he might have just slipped. I'm inclined to agree that it was a suicide, though. His body floated until it hit that sluice gate. They found it a few days later. He flushed all his poems down the toilet. He thought he had a mark on him. He figured he could wash it away. That's why he jumped. You think he managed to wash it off?" I could smell Zhou Sese's boozy breath puffing at me in the dark. "Did finally manage to get free of himself?"
I had to say no to those questions. When I shook my head, I started to feel dizzy.
"March 26th, 1989, the great poet Hai Zi threw himself in front of a train in Shanhaiguan. Ge Mai killed himself in 1991. Gu Cheng did it in 1993. He killed his wife and then himself. Every two years. What does it mean to lose a poet?"
The chapter ends with Zhou Sese quoting Haizi 海子 (quoting Osip Mandelstam?). The line is: 黄金在天上舞蹈,命令我歌唱 / "Gold dances in the sky: I'm ordered to sing."

I like the way that the three scenes in the chapter fit together: Zhu Wen lusting after teenagers in hot pants, who he imagines as deadly weapons that he must avoid, Zhou Sese confronted by teenagers that don't give a shit about poetry, and a meditation on the suicides of Hai Zi, Ge Mai, and Gu Cheng 顾城.

Qiu Huadong was barely halfway through his thirties when he wrote City Tank, but he would have been just at the age when you start to feel a fresh generation breathing down your neck. That breath would have felt even hotter in a city like Beijing, which was in the process of transforming itself completely, and in a country like China, attempting to vault itself into a new world by quietly stripping itself of what had previously defined it. Qiu was old enough to remember the Cultural Revolution, young enough to have been swept up in the idealism of the 1970s and 1980s. Throughout the chapter, Zhu Wen and Zhou Sese are confronted by teenagers, born after Reform and Opening. These kids are like vicious disease-carrying animals to Zhu Wen, who can’t stop getting a hard-on admiring them on the subway. When Zhou Sese tries to talk to them about poetry, it is as if he is speaking another language.

When Zhou Sese asks what it means to lose a poet, it’s a question from another time. Almost three decades on from the suicides of those Misty Poets (or Obscure Poets, whatever translation you prefer, but we will talk about the menglongshi 朦胧诗 later, I promise—I can't burn off all the material I have, with a dozen or so more chapters to go), we know the answer. It doesn’t mean shit. Zhou Sese is commanded to sing but everyone else has moved on.

***


I’ve been thinking, when does this book take place, exactly? It was published in 1997, but it’s clear that the events of the book are not happening that late. Gu Cheng is dead, so it's after 1993, and there are still artists hanging around the East Village, who would have been gone by 1997. I’m sure anyone with a sharper eye and a knowledge of Beijing history would already have an idea, but this chapter lets us know that it’s taking place sometime in September of 1995.

Zhu Wen mentions the Fourth World Conference on Women. I probably wouldn’t have noticed, but it came up in accounts of the eviction of artists from around Yuanmingyuan: “Shi Tou, one of the few female artists at Yuanmingyuan, connected the crackdown to Beijing's preparation to host the UN Fourth World Conference on Women that September” (this is from Experimental Beijing: Gender and Globalization in Chinese Contemporary Art by Sasha Su-Ling Welland).

The theme of the conference was “Action for Equality, Development and Peace.” Aung San Suu Kyi gave the keynote, Mother Teresa spoke out against the evil of abortion, and Hillary Clinton gave her "Women's Rights are Human Rights" speech.

Zhu Wen is mostly interested in the fact that twenty thousand women are descending on Beijing. Women are pretty butterflies, he says, and men are out there with nets, waiting to scoop them up.

A lot of these '80s and '90s urban novels were written in a time of limited sexual revolution in a deeply conservative country. Robin Visser called the "celebration of individuality and social freedom often expressed in sexual licentiousness" one of the "hallmarks of urban fiction of the 1990s" ("Urban Ethics: Modernity and the Morality of Everyday Life" in Contested Modernities in Chinese Literature).

I will once again recommend Geremie Barmé and the "To Screw Foreigners is Patriotic" chapter of In the Red, which opens with a scene of from A Beijing Man in New York《北京人在纽约》in which Wang Qiming王启明, played by Jiang Wen 姜文, bangs a white prostitute, and closes with a poem by Ouyang Sun in which he offers to inundate Australian women "with fresh cum / of the Yellow River and the Yangtse"—but it neatly summarizes the atmosphere of the time, including the feeling of self-loathing that had infected the literati.

But so, let's read the opening of the third chapter.
I wanted to sing! Eight hundred yuan in the mail from the crazy bitch that almost ended up my wife! I really felt like singing. Eight clean, crisp banknotes. It was probably the richest I'd ever been in my life, so you can imagine how fucking poor I'd been. I wanted to be an artist and I thought I was pretty damn good at it, but I wasn't having much luck making a living at it.
I didn't know what I was going to do with the money. I felt a bit guilty about it, too. Yan Tong had treated me so much better than I had treated her. I couldn't tell you how many times I got crazy and hurt her just for fun. She was a good girl and I was an asshole. There's no denying that. But what was I supposed to do? Out of that two hundred she'd put in my shorts, I'd given fifty to that sweet Dongbei whore, and I'd given the rest to Zhou Sese. I didn't want him going around with a busted leg for the rest of his life. After I'd gone to see him, he spent the next two weeks in bed. That's not the kind of thing anyone should have to go through. It almost killed him, mentally. But the bastard had kept writing, even while he was in the hospital. He wrote a poem called "Suffering," while he was in there. You can probably imagine what that one was like. One day I went to see him and he was sitting up in bed, writing this poem he called "Happiness." It was for this girl that had gone to visit him and even brought him flowers. She looked as pure as a ray of sunshine. I could see why he'd write a poem like that for her.
Zhu Wen spends the morning trying to figure out what to do with the money, then decides he might as well go get a pizza over at Jianguomenwai. A pizza and a beer costs him a hundred yuan, which seems expensive. On the way to refill at the salad bar that he sees a gang of pretty foreign girls. He decides to go over and shoot his shot with one of them, once he’s done eating. But he gets absorbed in thinking about all the horrors of the world, the millions starving and homeless and dying from preventable illnesses, and that cheers him up. Even if he’s scraping by in Beijing, he thinks, he’s got a better life than most people on the planet. Riding his bike home, he’s struck with inspiration: it’s time to do another installation (Zhu Wen, apart from his work as a painter, also dabbles in installation art).

He gets back to the urban village where he’s living and reflects that anything is better than living, as he did when he first arrived in Beijing, in the space between two buildings, even if looking up at the stars was pretty nice. It was Yan Tong 阎彤, his former girlfriend that forced him out of there, when she came to Beijing to visit.
"Alright, alright! Quit your crying! What's wrong it? I can look up at the stars every night. They keep me company. I've realized things looking up at those stars, important things, about art and life. What's so bad about that, huh?" But she just kept crying. "Quit your goddamn fucking crying! You're gonna get me even more pissed off here." Yan Tong and I had gone to university together, some dog shit teacher training school in a city where it rains all the time. After we graduated, we got sent to the same town to work as art teachers. I have barely any memories of the city or anyone in it. It's all a blur now. I only spent a few months there before the day I didn't bother showing up for class. I headed for Beijing, picturing myself soaring like an eagle to the great city of the north. Yan Tong had other plans, though. She wanted to get settled down there. She might've planned on being buried there, for all I know. Yan Tong was pretty enough, smart enough, and sweet enough, but I never did right by her, the whole two years we were together. The reason was simple: I was born a dreamer and I'll die a dreamer. I'm always looking off into the distance. So, I figured I might as well try to make a go of it, drifting through life. The month or so that Yan Tong spent with me in Beijing was heavenly, though. Everything changed. I rented an apartment and got my life in order. I was eating well, too. Just think about it! Plenty to eat, your girl by your side, everything going smooth... Imagine what that's like. But I realized after about a month that it wasn't going to work out. There was no way. I was turning into her husband. My inspiration had run out on me. I couldn't do my art. I had to end it. I finally worked up the nerve and put her on a train back south. She was starting school soon, anyways. And once she was gone, guess what? That first week, I finished ten canvases! And everything I painted had the stars in them, suddenly.
So, anyways, he’s still trying to figure out what to do with the money and he decides to go see Qin Song, who invited him out for dinner in the first chapter, and buy him a meal. Qin Song says, "Hey, big party tonight, the X Embassy is putting it on (H国, maybe the Netherlands?), and I’ve got an in with a woman that works in their cultural affairs department." Cut to Zhu Wen waiting at a dance hall for Qin Song and the woman from the embassy to arrive and pick him up. That means another scene of Zhu Wen checking out girls:
I squinted and scanned the dancefloor. I spotted a blond girl, probably American. She had on a striped sailor's shirt and a pair of loose jeans. She didn't have a belt on, so you couldn't help but get the impression that her pants were about slip off at any moment. There were a couple inches of bare flesh exposed between her shirt and her jeans. She had her hair in a ponytail and the way it bounced behind her as she danced, I felt like it was beckoning me over. She was a pretty girl. She was smiling while she danced, too, and there was something so pure and healthy about the whole scene. I was thinking of going over and dancing with her but all of a sudden the smoke machine on the dance floor started going and I lost sight of her. That really pissed me off, so I decided to say fuck it and get another beer. I got another bottle of Oranjeboom. I liked that way the green stubby bottles looked just like the ones that insecticide came in. I was just about to take a sip when I heard a woman’s voice behind me say: “Why don’t you buy me a drink?”
It’s not the American girl, but yet another working girl, named Luomo 罗茉, who he plays a game with: he says he’ll split the hundred and change in his wallet if she can pick up the Japanese guy sitting further down the bar. She succeeds, but club security arrive to escort her out, just as she’s about to collect on her half of the cash. But now back to the American girl…
Her smile was sunshine and grassy green fields. It had to be a Southern California smile. It wasn't a Boston smile or a New York smile. Those smiles aren't anything but fake plastic flowers. I wanted to tell her she was like a strawman—a strawgirl! "Hello!" I shouted over the music, "I wanted to tell you that you look like a straw girl. Can you understand Chinese?" She bobbed her head in slow motion with the strobes flashing above her. I thought I saw her nod but I wasn't really sure.
The fog machines gave a fresh blast and both of us were engulfed in a cloud of white steam. All I could see was Richard Marx up on the big screen over the dancefloor. He looked like he was in pain.
"You're saying I'm a scarecrow?" the American girl said, leaning to shout into my ear.
"Right! Right! That's what I mean."
"Well, I don't see any sparrows around here, so I must be doing something right."
I mean, there was just something about her that reminded me of a bundle of rice stalks, so pure and fertile and sun-kissed. "Where are you from?" I asked. I was shouting to be heard over the music.
"America. California. You ever been to America?"
"Only in my dreams. I bet if I really went, somebody'd cut my throat and steal my fucking wallet." She smiled. She seemed to find me interesting, even if she didn't look like she agreed with the part about America being full of killers and thieves. I decided to seize my chance. "You want to go find someplace to sit down?"
So, right, three women have appeared in the book so far, two were prostitutes, one was his “crazy” ex-girlfriend. But American girls are different.
I told her I liked her belly and she blushed a bit. American girls are easier to deal with than Chinese girls. Nowadays, Chinese girls flap both sets of lips to get a man to give them a house, a car, a credit card, a cell phone, and whatever else they want. They can't even play at being modest anymore. But this little American scarecrow didn't even have to try. "If you're free sometime, you should come by my school. This is where I'm staying." She handed me a slip of paper.
But so, as she passes him the paper, he decides it’s a good time to make his move and he takes her hand. Unfortunately, her boyfriend shows up behind her at that moment. He’s compared to a rhinoceros and a Central American jungle predator, and unlike the scarecrow girl with her pretty blue eyes, he’s dark-skinned and mean. Zhu Wen and him get into scuffle but security ends it pretty fast.

Another woman sidles up to him after that. She liked the way Zhu Wen handled himself in the scuffle and, when she confirms he’s a painter, she tells him that her husband’s good friend runs a gallery and might be able to help him out. He tells he doesn’t paint anything but stars, and nobody likes stars, and his installation work mostly involves stacking up garbage, so there’s no way he could ever sell it. He tells her to fuck off, basically, then, as he’s leaving, runs into Qin Song, who hurries him out.

Outside, he sees Luomo, tosses her what he owes her, and jumps in the Citroen that Qin Song has waiting.

And we're off to the embassy party.

***


Right then, Qin Song arrives and pushes him into a Citroen.

Sitting in the car are Qin Song 秦颂, the obese woman from the unnamed embassy, and An Mo 安沫, Qin Song's girlfriend.

We get the story of An Mo, an artist from Nanjing, who showed up in Beijing's East Village to stay with her man. She disappears one day and returns with a bunch of scrap iron. Qin Song figures she's building an enclosure to keep chickens in, but instead it's a cage for herself. She wants to reenact Kafka's A Hunger Artist, and installs the cage on a shopping street outside of Fulingsi 隆福寺. The stunningly beautiful woman in the cage attracts a crowd, which attracts the Public Security Bureau, who go looking for Qin Song. The cops get her out of the cage and she lectures them on hegemonic masculinity and feminine self-expression. In the end, they're just as amused as everyone else and decided to let her go with a warning, after confiscating the cage.

An Mo is not discouraged. She gets another cage and set it up outside a theater in Xisi 西四. This time, she locks herself inside. The cops arrive and can't talk her out, so they go to a construction site and come back with a reciprocating saw. Once they've dragged out the sobbing An Mo, they load her into a car and drive her down to the station. Once again, the police decide to be lenient. Qin Song gets called down again and has to pay a fine. And that, it turns out, is why he was late to get Zhu Wen.

The artists enter the cocktail party, introduced as "Chinese itinerant artists" 中国流浪艺术家. This is a party for the end of the Fourth World Conference on Women. Everyone is returning to their country (again, this is just H国—it's not Korea, but Holland? Am I missing something?). Zhu Wen snags a dry martini, then starts looking for something to eat and a girl to talk to.
Suddenly, a blonde woman in a red dress stepped forward. She smiled at me and said, "It looks like we match." I was wearing a shirt the same color as her dress. "According to your Chinese custom, it's fate that we meet. This is what you call yuanfen, is it not? My name is Ellen Ogilvy. My family is from Scotland, but I am a citizen of the country that is hosting you today."
Her Chinese was surprisingly fluent. "My name is Zhu Wen. Pleased to meet you." I took her hand. It was so beautiful and delicate I couldn't stop myself from bending a knee and kissing it. The woman shook with laughter. I knew I had made the right move. It fit the atmosphere, at least.
"Miss Ellen, may I ask what sort of artist you are? Installation? Performance? Painting? Perhaps a curator or a framer?"
"Please, call me Ellen xiaojie."
She was wearing a blazer over her dress that was tight around her hips and then flared out over her skirt and her round ass. She had a mischievious smile. Her eyes looked huge and she'd painted her eyelids bluish black. She had thin lips and a big mouth. When she smiled, it was like a bouquet of dahlias.
"A framer? Please! Why not just guess interior decorator?" She smiled. "I've been in China for six years now. I'm in sales at a folk art company in Shanghai. What about you? A performance artist?"
"Me?" A shard of ice from my martini caught in my throat and when it finally melted, I said, "No, I'm a painter. I also do installation pieces and collage."
Zhu Wen and Ellen get into a somewhat contentious discussion of the state of Chinese art. She finally asks him:
"Why are you Chinese artists are always chasing after the West? Modernism, postmodernism, then it was pop art, performance art, installation art... Why can't you use your country's own artistic language? Just look at Chinese folk art, full of imagination, esthetically complete..."
"Well," I said, "basically, we're looking for a common language, something that we can use to talk to the rest of the world with. We can't do that with our own artistic language. Like, fucking pop art, they've got it in the West and we do it here, too, but we're trying to represent what's going on in Chinese society, using things from our own culture, but we have pop art as a common language. Right? I don't think there's any other way." I was getting sick of the conversation. I put an arm around her waist and pulled her close. "Ellen, I like you, and I get the feeling you like me, too. Am I wrong?"
He decides the time is right to move in for a kiss.
A spark flashed between us! Our lips were sealed together as if magnetized. At that moment, I felt as if everything in the world was spinning. I felt dizzy. My head felt like a crack blasted open in the earth, glowing with magma…
The breath of spring! A kiss within a kiss, a spark of electricity, soft spring water, cool and fresh... When the Viking spacecraft photographed the surface of Mars, they discovered a man's face, made from stone, and a pyramid, and when they sent probes over Venus, they found the remains of tens of thousands of cities, with a network of tens of thousands of roads connecting them. In a moment, I slipped into a tunnel in spacetime. I could suddenly see in an instant all of the celestial bodies of the solar system spinning around each other. I could see all the traces left behind by humanity and other advanced species—how long had humanity been around? Why did the Mayans disappear? Why did they abandon the advanced cities they built? Where did they all go? How did they create such a precise calendar? How did they know to place each building in their city according to a corresponding star? How did they record on their stone tablets events that happened hundreds of millions of years ago? Was anyone even alive then? When later generations excavated the pyramids the Mayans used for their sacrifices, why did they find batteries and transformers? Where did they get stainless steel? In Arizona, archeologists found trees that had been cut down with metal tools. But those trees were cut down hundreds of millions of years ago! In a mine in Colorado, they discovered a four inch copper arrowhead in a human skull. Archeologists decided the mine had to have been in use for millions of years. In South Africa, a miner found a cache of metal orbs, which geologists dated to two billion years earlier. We haven't been able to smelt metal for very long, and we've only had electronics for a few decades—so what does all of that mean? Archeologists studying the fossil record can prove that color TVs existed more than four thousand years ago. What the hell does it all mean? It means that humanity is trapped in a cycle of creation and destruction.
And he goes on like that for a while. This is not crucial to the plot or what I'm about to say about the chapter, but that's what you're missing out on, since I skip over most of Zhu Wen's poetic reveries when selecting excerpts.

Ellen pulls away from him. Suddenly, someone—a cultural attaché that is compared to a cow—starts singing a song from Carmen. While he listens, wrapped up in the elegant atmosphere of the embassy, he suddenly comes back to earth: when he walks out of there, he’s going to be back in China, trying to get by with a few hundred yuan, pedaling around on his busted bike…

Qin Song and An Mo put on a performance of a piece they’ve been working on, where they blindfold themselves and touch the earth, like the blind men touching the elephant, accompanied by the Moonlight Sonata. Like, the way I imagine it, they’d rub Russia and say, “This is the arm,” and then run their fingers across the eastern seaboard of the United States and say, “This must be the tail.”

Ellen invites Zhu Wen to dance and he’s suddenly struck by another attack of low self-esteem. The thought of taking Ellen to see his filthy apartment sickens him. He looks around and can’t imagine how he ended up there. He thinks to himself, "I'm here now, but when I walk out the door, I'll be back on Chinese soil, a broke artist." He curses Qin Song. The people at the embassy party are from another world, where they "treat art as simply decoration, a craft to practice in idle times. They eat a good dinner, then look around for something to do—'What should I do, cut the lawn or fool around with some paints?'" Even as he holds Ellen's hand, he feels a deep chasm opening between them.

He steps away from Ellen, chugs a tumbler of tequila, then slips into a blackout.
I heard later that Ellen had been looking all over for me. I was hiding from her. I didn't want to see her. I was scared of what was really in my heart. I was scared of giving in to what I really felt.
Robin Visser suggests that these scenes might be intended to be farcical.

I'm not sure how much sense that makes but it did come to mind, for me, too, reading Zhu Wen’s low self-esteem tirade. It's an interesting distraction, at least, and I can put off talking about the postcolonial art theory stuff for a while, and get into something I'm a bit more familiar with.

I think everyone still reads "Sinking" in undergraduate Chinese literature courses. I can’t remember if I was forced to get through the original or if I had this translation by Joseph S.M. Lau and C.T. Hsia from the Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature, which I'm going to refer to in a second. Apart from being a nice break from Lu Xun and Guo Moruo 郭沫若, it's a story that's self-aware and introspective and dark, and it feels more modern than anything else in Chinese, until you get to Mu Shiying 穆时英 and Shi Zhecun 施蛰存 in the '30s, and those other writers that were influenced by modernism and, like Yu Dafu, were reading Japanese writers. It's the story you pull out when you need to talk about the sick man of Asia 东亚病夫 and national humiliation, but there's more going on, and, most importantly for this comparison, I think it's meant to be read ironically.

Yu Dafu wrote “Sinking” in the early 1921 and, like his protagonist, was studying in Japan at the time. The narrator of "Sinking" finds himself routinely humiliated by Japanese women, although the humiliation exists in his mind only, and is tied up with a national shame, at China falling victim to imperialist powers and unable to defend itself. As the story draws to a close, the Chinese student gets wasted in a brothel and once again feels the humiliation of being Chinese:
It was specifically the corner of the waitress's petticoat that was perturbing him now. The more he wanted to talk to her, the more tongue-tied he became. His embarrassment was apparently making the waitress a little impatient, for she asked, "Where are you from?"
At this, his pallid face reddened again; he stammered and stammered but couldn't give a forthright answer. He was once again standing on the guillotine. For the Japanese look down upon Chinese just as we look down upon pigs and dogs. They call us Shinajin, "Chinamen," a term more derogatory than "knave" in Chinese. And now he had to confess before this pretty young girl that he was a Shinajin.
"O China, my China, why don't you grow strong?"
The story closes with him walking into the sea, his final words: "O China, my China, you are the cause of my death! ... I wish you could become rich and strong soon! ... Many, many of your children are still suffering." That the nationalistic self-hatred of both men is meant to be read as ironic, though, is what I got out of the comparison. The protagonists of “Sinking” and City Tank lived in completely different times, the former in a time of collapse and chaos, the latter in a time of a rising China caught up in a wave of swaggering nationalism.

And maybe there is something to be said here, linking the two conversations—sexual and artistic: Zhu Wen becomes something like a piece of folk art 民间艺术, being appraised by Ogilvy. She spots him in the crowd, as if on the auction block, and makes an offer.

But let me quote Robin Visser here again to sum things up:
The anxiety about cultural identity that permeates the discourse on aesthetics in City Tank is not imagined. During the inaugural Shanghai Bien- nale in 2000, "the most relevant question—one much discussed by about forty seminar speakers over two long days at the show’s inauguration—was whether [China's] art can remain, in any meaningful sense, 'Chinese' at all." Such discussions call to mind Roland Barthes’s decoding of "Italianic-ity" in a French pasta advertisement that draws on "a specifically 'French' knowledge (an Italian would barely perceive the Italianicity of tomato and pepper), based on a familiarity with certain tourist stereotypes." In other words, definitions of cultural identity reside with those who name it rather than with those who embody it. By the late 1990s Chinese artists had begun to recognize the limitations of performing the nation by merely conceptualizing Cold War dichotomies. Instead, they shifted their aesthetic strategy, choosing an approach that expressed the effects of globalization on identity by playing with stereotypes of "Chineseness."
Maybe City Tank itself is worth looking at, too, in this context. Barmé says the main question used to figure out if something was worthwhile in the '90s was: will foreigners like it? 老外会喜欢吗? Books like City Tank, you'd have to answer that they probably wouldn't. The books (and films, especially) that have done well in translation, talking mostly about the English-speaking world, tend to fit a certain model: national allegories, exotically and purely Chinese, and depicting the country as fucked up and oppressive. City Tank has none of those elements: it's not a national allegory, and it's about a cosmopolitan and modern location, and the city itself is wealthy and modern, even if that wealth hasn't yet trickled down to Zhu Wen. Ogilvy would probably chastise Qiu Huadong for chasing after the West, rather than using models from his own culture.

I'm sorry. This is another one of those debates, covered in City Tank, that have been written about at length in English and Chinese, and I don't think there's much that I can contribute. (I'll suggest—because I was just looking at them—"Mao to the Market" by Peter Hitchcock in Whither China: Intellectual Politics in Contemporary China, "Nationalism, Mass Culture, and Intellectual Strategies" by Xudong Zhang in the same book, Geremie R. Barmé's chapter on the art market in In the Red, and Robin Visser's Cities Surround The Countryside, Urban Aesthetics in Postsocialist China, which I quoted from right there.)