(April 27th, 2019) Got coffee at the Vietnamese place that replaced Kent, went for a walk around Inaricho, then spent the rest of the day putting materials in order for getting the Floating City project on track. Emailed **** ******* to ask about funding sources, emailed **** ***** to get the contact information for Liang Xiaosheng, put off calling him again, pulled out book report originally sent to Penguin. Never again, I told myself, try to represent a book. I can see this going down as nothing but a waste of time—maybe a useful lesson in how the publish industry works, how Chinese funding sources are secured, the relationship between Mainland partner presses and the tiny publishing houses they connect out to in the wider world. Best case scenario, a publisher takes interest and is willing to take over on the work of securing funding and sorting out rights, or I can get **** *** or **** *** interested in representing the book. Worse but unlikely scenario, someone else scoops it up and publishes. Worst case scenario, nothing happens. But, another way of looking at it, there's no money coming in at the moment, so I might as well try to hustle this through to its conclusion and learn something in the process. And always, there's the urge to get the job done as quickly as possible, forgetting that everyone else is operating on a timeline that stretches out to months or year. Successfully pitched Alec Ash at China Channel on a review, and **** *********** on a longer piece about the fake Freshwind in Dihua. Only four months to go until the second payment out of Amazon, and I should be able to last until then, as long as there are a few more successful pitches along the way, and hopefully **** will put me on the project of another Jia novel for ***** ******.
(April 28th, 2019) Another grey day, walked over to Onoterusaki Shrine 小野照崎神社, which I know I've written about before, so I won't bother doing it again. I like the miniature Mount Fuji, overgrown with weeds, one of the few remnants of the Fuji cult that started by an ascetic that starved himself in protest food prices going up. I need to remember to visit on the first of July (or June?), when they open the gates let people hike up the narrow trail to the peak. I hung an ema 絵馬, wishing for the success of this book pitch. The city is supposed to be quiet over Golden Week, but those kinds of patterns don't matter on this end of town, where spring and summer holidays only mean more people flooding into Asakusa, all the hotels around Uguisudani and Ueno full, the roads between them full of tourists. Once you get deeper into the territory between Uguisudani and Minowa, toward Arakawa Ward, going down the side streets, it's as quiet as always, more cats than people, especially a place like Onoterusaki, far from the tourist route, just a particularly beautiful neighborhood shrine, the only restaurants alleyway tempura or kaiseki 懐石 places that you'd have to know about to find. Went up all the way to Negishi Park, wandered through a few of the shrines over in that neighborhood, then stopped at a family restaurant and ate omurice with beef stew on top, came back down through Shitaya.
I’d already spent the several days with Jia Pingwa but, sitting at a table with the author one night at in Sichuan restaurant off the Second Ring Road in Xi’an, I was still dying to tell him how I first came to read Ruined City.
Maybe that says something about how I view Jia Pingwa—is he a father figure to me? I don't know. Maybe, since what I think I wanted from him was his approval. I wanted to prove to him not only that I knew his work but that I had some deeper connection to it. The decision as to who would translate his works was no longer in his hands, and I'm sure he still doesn't give a damn, but it felt important to make the case.
Ruined City1 had come into my hands at a time when my life could still be changed by a novel. I wasn’t alone in that. I had heard similar stories, mostly from post-’80s babies, and mostly from young women. They'd come across copies of the book on parents’ or teachers’ shelves, or maybe a bootleg copy in a used book market, and, later, online editions. The book’s reputation preceded it. Ruined City was banned but it was never difficult to find.
Unlike other books that carry the “banned in China” label, Ruined City does not often venture into well-known sensitive areas. It is not one of those thick books that makes bold statements on the state of the country or the project of socialism. Local officials look ridiculous and corrupt, sure, but that kind of thing wasn't grounds for a banning in the early-1990s. It's possible to read Ruined City as national allegory, but I don't necessarily recommend it. It is one of the rare contemporary Chinese novels that focuses on the individual's plight rather than the Chinese nation. The real problem with the book, as censors saw it, was that it was filthy.
In truth, three decades on, the sexual exploits of anti-hero Zhuang Zhidie and the other literary bums and intellectual grifters in the novel seem tame. But it’s not so much that it contained sex, rather that all of the sex in the book was not the good, procreative kind, but hotel room liaisons, extramarital affairs, and other immoral practices. (And Jia took the high road, hiding most of the sex with the trick of simply writing "here the author has deleted x number of words," so most of the filthier stuff was theater of the mind. It was only as dirty as your own imagination.) The supposed filth was part of the reason I sought it out, but like many other infamously dirty novels, the thrill of flipping through to find the sex leads to flipping back to the first page and reading it through.
The first copy I ever held, I told Jia that night, belonged to the first girl I fell in love with. That was many, many years ago now. I don't know how reliable these memories are. But I think I remember her copy being a first edition, published by Beijing Publishing House, or a convincing bootleg. The only other copy I ever held was in the Asian Library at UBC, a genuine first edition, and it looked close enough. It had the cover with the crumpled ball of paper on its. I forget where the girl—and her name was Xinran—got it, but I imagine it was probably plucked from a tarp laid out at the used book market outside Kuaizaiting Park in Xuzhou. I might have the name of the park wrong, but you'd know the place I mean, if you've spent any time in Xuzhou. There used to be a zoo in the park, and, legend had it, at least, a tiger had once broken out of its pen and mauled a man. They had a used book market there, though, mostly old men selling old novels and those glossy books of nude photographs that somehow skirted anti-pornography laws. The book was carefully wrapped in an RT-Mart flier, like all of Xinran’s books.
My own rudimentary Chinese made it impossible to work through the dense writing, so she read it to me. I experienced Ruined City first in her voice. I shared a house with a friend, down the road from the workers’ dormitory where Xinran and her parents lived then, and I'd been given the room once occupied by the maid. We'd sit on the sagging bed and she'd read to me from Ruined City or from Dream of the Red Chamber. Sometimes we'd sit on the stone benches along Yunlong Lake. That was the first place I fingered her and the first place I managed to stumble through the line that opens the novel: “Sometime in 1980, a strange thing happened in Xijing…”
Later, much later, we struggled to translate. It was for ourselves, I guess, although I’m sure versions of our translations can still be found online, whether they’re worth reading or not. That's how I met most of the people in the world of Chinese translation, by sending out our translation in emails.2 The opening scenes of the novel are still drilled into my head, from going over the same sections again and again: The two loyal friends that visit the burial mound of Yang Guifei, the strange flowers that bloomed in the dirt that they collected there, the four suns that appear in the sky over Xijing, the old man clothed in a banner from Yunhuang temple who chants doggerel, Meng Yunfang growing back his first wife's pubic hair with a secret cure, Meng Yunfang and the nun, the young thug Zhou Min and his dance hall girl, Zhou Min’s arrival in the city and his meeting with Meng Yunfang, Meng Yunfang suckling a cow on the street…
“Young people shouldn’t read that book,” Jia told me that night, as I reached to take a scoop of mapo tofu, and I thought of the saying that the middle-aged shouldn't read Romance of the Three Kingdoms, young people shouldn't read Water Margin, men shouldn't read Journey to the West, and women shouldn't read Dream of the Red Chamber. Whether or not that’s sound advice, Jia was probably right: for a young man aspiring to be a horny literatus, reading Zhuang Zhidie’s exploits only added fuel to the fire.
Jia had given me a fresh copy of the book that afternoon and on the drive back from Dihua, I’d flipped at random to a passage about Zhuang Zhidie noticing the mole between Wan’er’s legs. I couldn’t help but be transported back in time and space to that park bench beside Yunlong Lake, reading the passage together:
"Look at yourself," Wan’er said, laughing.Now, I've forgotten any more intimate blemishes, but, gazing into Xinran’s eyes, I’d noticed the small mole peeking out of her lower right eyelid. If they try to counterfeit you, I told her, I’ll look for that mole.
"Is that what a writer is supposed to look like?" "What should a writer look like?" Zhuang Zhidie asked her.
"More elegant, refined..." Wan'er said.
He lifted her legs and parted them, so that he could study her. "No," she protested, "please," but she did not stop him. She was already wet. He pillowed her head with a blanket and she watched herself in the mirror on the wall of the hotel room. She began to moan and he silenced her with a kiss, plugging his tongue into her mouth. The room was filled with the sound of their panting. 口口口口口口 (Here, the author has deleted five hundred words.)
He told her that she had a mole down there, so she moved herself so that she could see the spot in the mirror. She thought to herself: Zhuang Zhidie truly loves me. That laborer in Tongguan had never noticed the mole, and neither had Zhou Min—she'd never noticed it herself, come to think of it. She asked him: "Is it beautiful?"
"I think so," he said. "I have a mole on mine, too.
She saw that he did in fact have a mole there, and she said, "Perfect! Even if we're separated, we can always identify each other by our moles."
We went our separate ways, just like Wan’er and Zhidie.
“But now,” I told Jia, “whenever I read the book—”
“You think of her,” he said.
“I think of her.”
It was Xinran, too, while we were in the middle of going our separate ways, who told me to read Jia’s 2005 novel Qinqiang3. That was the book that brought me to Xi’an this spring. Through good luck and good guanxi, I had been given the task of collaborating with Nicky Harman on a translation of Qinqiang.
Apart from the chance to meet Jia, I treasured the chance to spend more time with Nicky, who is responsible for translating two of Jia’s other novels, Happy Dreams4 and Broken Wings5. I consider her the finest translator working today, and I’ve learned many things from working with her that would have taken me years to figure out on my own. Her own experiences in China differ greatly from my own and I'd enjoyed asking her about her first visits to the country in the '70s. Part of the success of the co-translation, I thought, would involve understanding her better, since I was often working with her writing, as much as I was working with Jia Pingwa's writing.
Jia Pingwa and his loyal assistant Ma Li had invited Nicky and I out to Xi’an to take a trip down to Difeng, the model for Qinqiang’s village of Freshwind, and out to Northern Shaanxi to see some cave homes.
I flew out of Narita, took a red-eye from Hong Kong and met Nicky in Beijing to take a China Eastern flight three hours south to Xi’an.
Flying in, I noticed that every roof in the suburbs of the city was blue. The ground below looked like Six-Color Desert Pattern. It was my first trip to the city, apart from a few brief layover on the way from to Nanjing from Tokyo.
I had pictured a dignified black Red Flag limousine, but Jia and Ma Li met us outside the airport in a Ford E-series with blonde wood trim and a wet bar in the front. We headed straight for a banquet in a luxury hotel built into the Tang West Market complex.
We stopped for a cigarette out front. "I'm glad you smoke, too," Jia said. He smoked a cigarette like an official, rather than a farmer, holding it at lapel level after taking a drag. When he walked, the cigarette stayed in place, hovering in his right hand, over his breast.
"I barely smoke these days," I told him, "except when I'm in China, or working on something. My girl isn't too happy about it."
"The secret," Jia said, "is to get her started smoking, too."
"She'll smoke sometimes, but she can have the same pack in her purse for a month."
"Get her a pack of something nicer," he advised.
It wasn't the first time I’d met Jia but he only had a vague recollection of the last time. It had been in the back of a bookstore in the 798 Art Zone in Beijing, maybe a year or so before I ended up going to Xi'an. At the time, he was very much in Serious Author Mode and just off another event for the Beijing International Book Fair. He went onstage and talked about whatever it was he talked about, alongside a guy from Grove, a publisher from Mexico, and Nick Stember. I recall understanding very little of what he said in his thick Shaanxi accent, but I was too proud to pick up the earpiece and listen to Eric Abrahamsen’s simultaneous interpretation. On his home turf in Shaanxi, sharing a cigarette out front of the hotel and then bottle of Maotai over local delicacies, he was far less intimidating. He was patient and funny and I managed to work out some of the rules of his idiosyncratic Shaanxi-inflected Mandarin (a d initial becomes a j, for example, and the -ai final becomes -ei).
With a good buzz on, we were chauffeured in the conversion van over to the Shaanxi Traditional Opera Institute Theater. It was there that I got my first taste of the reception that Jia Pingwa receives whenever he goes anywhere in Xi'an. As soon as he alighted from the van, he was swept up into the group of Shaanxi Traditional Opera Institute leaders that had assembled to greet him. We were ushered into a VIP room in the lobby of the theater and poured tea. The leaders pleaded with Jia to take the stage after the performance (he promised them that his foreign guests were willing to, but luckily, this never happened).
The novel—Qinqiang—shares its name with the local operatic form and it feels impossible to really understand the book without knowing something about Qin opera. The book is filled with references to qinqiang, with the Xia family at the center of the novel intimately involved in the indigenous artform, either as patrons, performers or fans. When Ma Li asked what I wanted to do in Xi’an, I made her promise that we could see some opera. I’d listened to and watched hours of qinqiang opera, often trying to figure out a reference in the text to a line from Picking Up the Jade Bracelet or One Story of Two Marriages. But I’d never seen it live.
The performance that night was a version of Women Generals of the Yang Family6 put on by the company’s troupe of younger performers, mostly in their late teens. It was an impressive show, and the performer in the role of She Taijun was particularly good. I was transfixed by the intricate finger patterns and sleeve tosses. The band, too, was particularly good, especially the percussion section, and their solos during the acrobatic sections had the crowd on their feet. It completely changed the way I saw the novel. I couldn’t help but see the novel’s heroine Bai Xue in the role of the matronly shot-caller She Taijun.
Jia was unimpressed by the modern staging and smoke machine. He waxed poetic about the village opera. "But," he said, "you can't find that kind of thing, these days. It's rare."
The next morning, I woke up early before dawn and took a taxi across town to the Great Wild Goose Pagoda. It was my first time in Xi’an and I’d wanted to see it, since reading a poetic description of the tower in one of Jia’s essays:
I always say, go for a walk in the city. There's no bell in the Bell Tower anymore; the sound you hear out there in the morning is the sound of the sky. There are no drums in the Drum Tower, either; the sound you hear out there is the sound of the earth. If you're in politics, head out to the east side of the wall to see the Terracotta Warriors. If you're an artist or a writer, then go south of the wall to see the carved stone in front of the Tomb of General Huo Qubing. I'm always willing to take visitors up onto the wall. I like to point out the Great Wild Goose Pagoda and the Qujiang Pond. I say to them: You see the pagoda? It's a stone ink stamp. Over there, the Qujiang Pond, that's the ink pad. Remember that. History marches on and Xi'an is a modern city like all the rest. But the difference is: the heavens placed this great stamp down in Xi'an. Xi'an will always be home to the soul of Chinese culture.I saw the pagoda itself, from a distance, but the complex was still, though, and I couldn’t find anywhere to look down on the pond from, so I found a place open for breakfast, got some jiaozi and took the Metro back across town. Even if I hadn’t seen the stamp given by the heavens to Xi’an, I got a good look at the city, traveling across the city. It struck me that nobody whose vision of Xi’an was formed by Jia’s novels would be disappointed by his work. Jia’s Xi’an (or Xijing, as he calls it in most novels) is completely honest; he populates his Xi’an with migrant workers and grifters and everyday people; and there are no surprises when you come to visit it.
I stood with Jia later that morning looking out of the Tang West Market complex. He gave the history of the place, its renovation into a square surrounded by towering statues of foreign merchants arriving by camel down the Silk Road, retail towers, and antique shops and museums, all of it rendered in faux-Tang architecture. I couldn’t help but think of the plans the mayor of Xijing has in Ruined City. Prescient, perhaps, since it was written almost two decades before they broke ground on this particular complex:
...along the canal, they built an amusement park themed around local culture; they rebuilt three of the city's streets to mimic ancient markets: one street was an imitation of a Tang market and sold paintings and porcelain, the second street was an imitation Song Dynasty market and sold local street food and snacks, the third street was built to resemble an imagined Ming or Qing Dynasty boulevard and sold folk art, handicrafts and local products. The tourism sector boomed.I found the whole thing a bit absurd, the camel statues and the Uniqlo, but Jia looked beyond that, and pointed out the action around the square at the center of the complex, the recycling men coming through and the troupe of Zhuang women that were dancing in one corner, and the women in matching red uniforms lining up out front of a restaurant to receive their daily lecture… We left the city and drove a couple hundred kilometers southeast of the city to Dihua, stopping at a rest stop along the way for a cigarette and a bowl of noodles. The landscape turned mountainous and green.
Unlike other writers in China that were sent down to the countryside in the ‘60s or ‘70s, Jia is genuinely from the countryside. Dihua is his hometown. He only left the village after joining a production brigade tasked with building a reservoir, then impressed cadres enough to earn a spot at Northwest University. The themes of Qinqiang are universal, but it seems like it would be very difficult to fully understand the nuts and bolts of the novel without a little taste of the author's hometown.
Dihua now is split between a real town and a fictional village: a stretch of rural modernity, a street lined with farmers selling their vegetables and eggs, butchers, clothes sellers, and then beyond that, a section of village that has been half-preserved and half-remade. Nicky, Ma Li and I got out in the untouched section and walked for a while, stopping off to watch a woman grinding chili peppers with a mighty stone roller powered by an electric motor. I looked around, trying to take in the faces, listening for the dialect. We got back in the van and drove to the section of the city being transformed into a Jia Pingwa-themed tourist attraction. We were met by Jia’s brother, accompanied by local cadres, tourism officials, and other people in charge of redeveloping Dihua.
The homes owned by the Jia family have been preserved in a corner, along with a rural mansion fixed up by Liu Gaoxing, the man who Jia’s 2007 novel Happy Dreams was based on.7 Beyond the preserved Jia Family homes sits the fictional village of Freshwind. The street features shops that pop up in the novel, like the pharmacy operated by Zhao Hongsheng, a statue of Xia Feng and Bai Xue being married and another of Bai Xue steaming mantou. Jia posed obediently beside each statue (the picture at the top of the page).
It was like visiting a replica Macondo with Gabriel García Márquez. Even on a grey day in early spring, there seemed to be a fair number of tourists visiting the preserved home and Freshwind.
Jia had just been back for the Qingming Festival, but it was clear that he spent little time in the village. It was easy to see why. Every conversation was interrupted by a request for a photo. Fans stopped to take pictures of Jia and his entourage. The more brazen stepped directly to the author to request that he sign a copy of their book. We stopped at the Erlang Temple and wandered around the open square across from it, where there was an open-air theater and a pagoda. I thought of the start of Qinqiang with its raucous scene set at the opera theater:
When I got to the opera theater it seemed like everyone in the village was already there. The women and children that had seats were trying to keep sitting but the late arrivals crowded in all around them until they ended up standing on the benches. Their feet were planted firm but the bodies of the standing people swayed back and forth. I thought they looked like a field of wheat, swept by the wind in midsummer. Kids began to climb the walls around the edge of the theater grounds and then a few boosted each other up to the stage itself. Some of the troupe tried to shoo the kids from the stage but they climbed back again.Jia said: “I used to climb up the pagoda in the summer and sleep there, up on the second or third floor. It didn’t used to have all that color on it, back then. There wasn’t a wall around the temple there.” I looked up and noticed a surveillance camera halfway up the pagoda. There wouldn't be any village kids climbing up to snooze in the summer heat, now.
Jia, Ma Li, Nicky and I went in the afternoon to a restaurant down the road, with Jia's younger brother, the guy running the baogujiu shop in town, a local cadre, and a few other people, ate a meal of good bread, larou, drank a bottle of Wuliangye and a bottle of Fenjiu. After lunch, we tried to go back to Jia’s old home, and we stood for a while in the room of his that is still preserved there. He showed us his old radio and the movie posters on the wall, and his brother said, "He feels a bit embarrassed since he used to live here with his first wife." We tried to sit down for a cup of tea, but the table we were sat at was tucked into the back of a room devoted to selling Jia’s books, and we were unable to talk without being interrupted by autograph-seeking fans.
I thought I detected a hint of melancholy in Jia, touring his village, although he was too diplomatic to come out and say what was bothering him. How strange it must be, I thought, to see your hometown converted into a tourist attraction. How strange it must be to write about your childhood home and by writing about it contribute to its complete transformation—by writing about it, he has destroyed it. In the temple, he had bowed to the local gods, but what did those spirits make of their shrine being turned into another tourist attraction?
The transformation of the village has surely benefited a great number of people who would otherwise have had to go to Xi’an or beyond to get a job. It was clear that everyone in the village was in the Jia Pingwa business, including Jia’s own brother, who seemed to serve as the unofficial mayor of the place. And development was, I thought, particularly tasteful and understated, compared to how it could have gone. The stone bridge the local government had put in was quite beautiful, too, and I imagine it must be particularly impressive in summer, when there are lilies out on the pond. The complex in the center of Xi’an that we had looked out on that morning didn’t displace much of value, but the transformation of Difeng seemed to have dislocated something still vital, if only to a small number of residents. It was sad to see that Jia could no longer take refuge in the place that he had spilled so much ink memorializing.
It was a long drive back to Xi’an.
I wondered if we had gained anything by visiting the village. I am still trying to answer that question. As a translator, the text is there, and I know there’s an argument or a philosophy that says nothing needs to be added to it, nothing needs to be interpreted—just translate what’s there, as it is, and avoid all editorial or linguistic or stylistic or tonal modifications. (There's the old line about a translation being like a woman: if it's beautiful, it's not faithful; if it's faithful, it's not beautiful.) But I don’t think that’s a philosophy either Nicky or I adhere to. I'm struggling to think of an example, though, of what we might have gained in Dihua.
I was thinking, you have a description of a hillside being, literally, “deep green” in the text, but until you’ve been to the countryside around Difeng, you wouldn’t know if it was a blueish pine green or a grassy emerald… What does a green hillside look like in the countryside around Dihua? It's not that we would necessarily want to change the “deep green” to “emerald green,” but it’s interesting to know. I thought about all the grave mounds we'd seen on our way into the village. In the novel, Yinsheng works on rebuilding the grave mound of Xia Tianzhi, and it says that he piled stones on top—but were they stones or were they rocks or were they small boulders or were they bricks? What is a grave mound built out of in Dihua? And, again, maybe it's best to leave it as simply "stones," but maybe it's not. There are "alleys" and "lanes" and "roads" and "trails" in the book, but what exactly would those be, to someone that grew up in this particular village? Is the “upstairs” in a village house an upper floor or is it a loft? The text only says "upstairs" but wouldn't it be better if the translator, at least, knew what the hell it was? (And Nicky and I both climbed into a loft, up an old rickety ladder, just to find out!) Is the stone roller than Yinsheng uses to grind grain different from the one that Cuicui uses to grind sesame seeds? Is the "stick" stuck in to push the roller a "twig" or a "branch" or a "rod"? And what do the faces in the village look like? Bai Xue is beautiful, but what is beauty in Difeng?
Or, what would the characters in the book sound like? What does the village accent sound like? When someone shouts across the lane, could we call it a "howl" or a "bark" or a "cry"? I thought, listening to Jia greeting the old women in the village, or talking to one of the farmers with a house near his old home—in pure village dialect that I struggled to understand, even with my crash course in Shaanxi hua—that I could hear something of what the novel sounded like in his head, what the novel was supposed to sound like.
So, I guess some of what we discovered is and will be practically important to the translation, like the loft and the stone rollers, affecting even word choice, but some of our Difeng experience will only contribute in a less direct way, enriching our understanding of the novel but probably not changing how we would translate it. It's a novel set in Difeng but it's the product of the author's imagination, finally. There is the real place, how it exists in Jia's imagination and memory, then the version of the village that Nicky and I have in our heads and the version that we will produce in our translation, and finally the place as it will exist in the minds of readers. Does it matter if there is any connection between the first and the final?
I still don't know.
The next morning, we went out to Sanyuan County with Jia and another writer—Wang Shenghua—to see cave houses like the ones in Broken Wings. I’d been committed to seeing opera and Nicky was committed to seeing the cave houses. We pulled up to a crowd of at least thirty or forty, waiting to welcome Jia. “Why are there so many people?” Jia asked.
We toured the caves under the watchful eye of local cadres and enthusiastic county bureaucrats, constantly photographed and filmed. Whenever Jia attempted to explain a feature of the cave houses, he was usually interrupted by one of those helpful bureaucrats, steering the conversation back to their own notes on the houses—”Yes, Jia laoshi, that’s right, and let me point out this kang, where it is said Xi Zhongxun once slept!” We ate a boozy lunch in a cave, drinking more Fenjiu. A former cop and current antiques collector—Yao Zhiguang—after helping me to polish off a bottle begged off cracking another, slurring, "It's against the law to operate a car after drinking." When he toasted me on the next round, he recruited a young man from the village to drink in his stead.
We took a ride into his antiques shop in the county town, where the showed us his book of mostly Han rubbings, took us around to the other antiques shops in the neighborhood. It was clear that these antiques shop owners, too, wanted to be in the Jia Pingwa business, and their best pieces were presented to the author, who is known for his impressive collection.
We went back into the city with Wang Shenghua and drank tea in his studio with his lovely personal assistant, who was reading a copy of Remembering Wolves at her desk when we came in. She looked exactly how I imagined Liu Yue, the young woman Zhuang Zhidie first encounters in the courtyard of Zhao Jingwu, to look, with long black hair, and an elegant nose (and I flip back to that chapter and note: “...the book that the girl had been reading in the courtyard was, coincidentally, one of Zhuang Zhidie’s...”).
It’s a testament to Jia’s skill as a writer that so many moments in Xi’an and people we met along the way seemed to have been plucked straight from his novels. There was Wang Shenghua, the aging literatus known in literary circles as much for his resemblance to Mao Zedong as his calligraphy, the beautiful assistant herself, the antique collecting cop with a drinking problem who had somehow amassed a collection of some of the best antiques and contemporary art that the province had produced...
"Zhou Min said they pay by the letter," Tang Wan'er said "and they even count the periods and question marks. Imagine how much the commas alone in one of your novels would be worth!"That night, at the Sichuan restaurant, after I told Jia the story of encountering Ruined City, he told me what the book had meant for him. It'd been hell. Being able to greet foreign scholars and translators was not something he took for granted, he told us. In the wake of the book's banning and official suppression, he had several times been followed by official surveillance while strolling the city with international visitors. I don't know how much of that was off the record, so I'll leave it at that.
"It's more about what's between the commas," Zhuang Zhidie said, chuckling. She laughed too, and when she laughed, her shirt lifted and exposed her pale belly. Zhuang Zhidie swallowed hard. His eyes kept slipping down over her lower body.
"When you write a story, are the characters based on real people?"
"It's hard to explain," Zhuang Zhidie said. "Most of them are just imaginary, though, my own creations."
"How do you do it? They seem like real people. The descriptions are so detailed. I told Zhou Min, you must be a very sensitive, emotional man."
After the dinner, I went out alone and met up with the friend of a professor from Northwest University, who I had met once in Beijing, and a few of his friends. I passed him a bottle of Maotai that Jia had given me that afternoon on the way back to Xi’an and a pack from the carton of soft pack Zhonghua that the author had gifted me. We went out to a KTV in Baishulin.
I had the sensation again of being in a Jia Pingwa novel, drinking wine with a young woman from a village way out on the edge of Lintong, a mostly rural district of Xi’an that stretches about thirty miles northeast from the central city, listening to the professor and his friends talk about literary circle politics and a friend that had gone to California to teach. I quizzed the young woman on her life. She had met a man when she was eighteen, gotten pregnant, and then gotten married married at twenty. I felt like Xia Feng, always on the search for material.
It was three o’clock in the morning when we left.
Later, we went out with Jia to see the frescoes at the Shaanxi History Museum, then for a lunch of paomo.8 All the meals we’d eaten in the city, he had eaten sparingly, and it was only in the village, where most of the food was simple vegetable dishes that he had eaten a bit better. The paomo was important to him, though, I could tell, and he took pleasure in pointing out the men sitting at the table beside us, painstakingly breaking day-old bread into crumbs to soak in their soup.
I pulled up on my phone the essay Jia had written on paomo:
There was an old man that lived on Xi'an's Five Flavor Alley. He was seventy years old and had been going to the same paomo shop for twenty years. Each day, he would bring his shredded bread and dunk it in the soup, then order three more pieces of bread, tear it up and carry it home. He never missed a day. Finally, when he died, his family took the torn-up bread that had never made it into the soup and tucked it beside him in his coffin.I got emotional. I put my head down, staring into my bowl of soup. I was thinking about how Jia's writing had been constantly in the background during the past decade and a half of my life. I was thinking of reading the paomo essay many years earlier, probably translating it to post on an abandoned blog, maybe even while eating paomo at the Xi'an Xiaochi stall in Richmond Public Market, dreaming of Jia's Xijing, and I was thinking about sitting on that park bench beside Yunlong Lake, and about reading Qinqiang for the first time on the bus to Professor Rea's classes at UBC… It was a long road. And I was finally meeting the man
The feeling was unexpected. Jia's welcome had been touching, and it had felt like a weight had been lifted off of me, telling him about how I had found his work, having his acceptance... I felt for the first time like a serious, legitimate translator of Jia's work. A month before, onstage at the Bookworm Festival with Nicky Harman and Dave Haysom, I had felt like a bit of a fraud, rambling about Jia Pingwa and his novel. But I felt suddenly like I had more right to Jia’s writing. It was as if by sharing a bowl of paomo, Jia had granted me an imprimatur. I’m sure that wasn’t his author's intention—just a friendly invitation that he explained by saying that you can't go to Xi'an without eating paomo just like you can't go to Beijing without seeing Tiananmen—but that's the way it felt to me.
When I took off a couple days later, heading south on a Cathay flight to Hong Kong, I felt as if I had a better understanding of the land below me and the novel I was tasked with translating, even if some questions had been left unanswered.
1 I prefer Abandoned Capital as a translation of 《废都》, although I can see why Howard Goldblatt went with Ruined City for his University of Oklahoma Press edition. Yiyan Wang uses Defunct Capital in Narrating China: Jia Pingwa and His Fictional World. I think I just got used to Abandoned Capital as the title. I might have gone for something along the lines of the French translation, which is La Capitale déchue, which is something like The Fallen Capital or The Deposed Capital. But I defer to Goldblatt here.
2 The earliest emails I can see, sending out translations, are from 2007, when I was sending out samples of Happy Dreams that we'd done. Those earliest emails went to Eric Abrahamsen, who I finally met in person a year ago in Beijing. Time flies.
3 This book has no working title, but previous translations of the title have included Shaanxi Opera, Opera, and Local Accent
4 This is a translation of Jia's 2007 novel 《高兴》, which is about a trash collector that shows up in Xi'an from the countryside, out on AmazonCrossing.
5 A translation of Jia's 2016 novel 《极华 》, which is about a trafficked woman, out on ACA.
6 《杨门女将》. What an opera to see live in Xi'an!
7 Liu Gaoxing became a minor celebrity following the publication of Happy Dreams and was interviewed several times by major newspapers. It seems that he got the drop on local officials, turning his home into a tourist site long before they got the idea of making a replica Freshwind, and now his continued attempts to cash in on his fame seem to be slightly embarrassing to them. His home is decorated with press clippings, photos of himself with the author, and testimonials from satisfied visitors.
8 This is the key piece of information I gleaned about ordering paomo: the lamb version is more famous, but the beef version is better. I wish I could remember the name of the restaurant we ate in. It was run by Hui people. Oh, and also, these days, nobody really breaks up their own mo to pao.
(April 8th, 2019) No sleep the night before, out to Narita to get a Cathay flight into Hong Kong, few hours' layover spent charging my phone and wandering over to the outdoor smoking lounge (one benefit of flying out of the North Satellite Concourse, get to feel the night air), then boarded a red-eye into Beijing, line up to clear customs behind a few hundred Russians, crashed until dawn in the dingy sort of cubicle hotel (まんが喫茶-style), slept for an hour, then woke up, pissed in a bottle, ate a half dozen packs of Peanut M&Ms, and started re-reading Yu Miri's Tokyo Ueno Station until the sound of hacking and snoring got too bad and went to sit out in the terminal. It was as unpleasant as it sounds.
(April 9th, 2019) Another flight, into Xi'an on China Eastern with Nicky. Directed into a garish waiting lounge to wait for ** ** and Jia Pingwa, picked up in a Ford E-series with blonde wood trim and a wet bar in the front with a bottle labeled MATINET, checked into the luxury hotel built into the Tang West Market complex. I'd met ** ** and Jia once before, in the back of a bookstore at 798 in Beijing, before he went on to give a talk alongside Nick Stember, someone from Grove Press, and a publisher from Mexico, and I'd been too stunned to say much, but now that I was locked into a backroom with him in a hotel restaurant, I could ask him whatever I wanted, and nothing came to mind. The first of several bottles of Maotai was drunk. Drove across town to see a production of Yangmen Nvjiang 杨门女将 (the story of 11 widows?), a qingchunban 青春版 "youth version" put on at the Shaanxi Traditional Opera Institute Theater 陕西戏曲研究院剧场 by their Xiao Meihua Tuan 小梅花团. Got the first hint of the reception Jia Pingwa receives when he goes places, ushered into a side entrance, met with the director of the company who requested the author take the stage afterwards, settled for his two foreign guests going onstage, brought to the best seats in the house, then quickly hustled out while being mobbed by fans. An impressive show, and the young woman in the role of She Taijun 佘太君 was particularly impressive. I've watched hours of qinqiang 秦腔 opera on Youtube but to see it in person, even in an aggressively modern staging with lots of lights and smoke, that alone was worth the trip to Xi'an.
(April 10th, 2019) Woke up before sunrise and caught a taxi to the Great Wild Goose Pagoda, could only see it from across the park, sitting inside the temple complex, wandered down Xiaozhai Commercial Street 小寨商业街, walked all the way back to Keji Lu 科技路 and across the Second Ring Road. Received a carton of soft pack Zhonghua from the author. Took the conversion van a couple hundred kilometers southeast of the city to Dihua 棣花, a village split between a regular old countryside town and a section developed by the local government into a Jia Pingwa-focused tourist site, peppering Jia with questions along the way. Met Jia's younger brother, local cadres, walked through Jia's old home, down into a new street named Qingfengjie 清风街 after the village in Qinqiang 秦腔. The street features shops that pop up in the novel, like the pharmacy operated by Zhao Hongsheng 赵宏声, a statue of Xia Feng 夏风 and Bai Xue 白雪 being married and another of Bai Xue steaming mantou (like visiting a replica Macondo with Gabriel García Márquez). Had our first drink of baogujiu 包谷酒 by midmorning. Constantly mobbed by fans of Jia wanting to get books signed or pictures taken. Stopped at the Erliang Temple 二郎庙, saw the opera theater and pagoda. Strange feeling, hearing Jia talk about when he was a boy, climbing up to sleep on the lower floors of the pagoda, in this village he has written about so many times, because by writing about it, he has helped to destroy it, right? In a way, it's been preserved, and everyone seems happy to reap the benefits of Jia's popularization of this remote corner of Shaanxi, but it has been destroyed for him—he can't even walk down the street! Whatever was left of the old village has mostly been transformed or torn down, replaced with a simulation. We got a taste of that after lunch when we sat down to drink tea and were mobbed again by people trying to get signatures. Every conversation was interrupted by a request for a photo. We went in the afternoon to a restaurant down the road, with Jia's younger brother, the guy running the baogujiu shop, a local cadre, and a few other people, ate a meal of good bread, larou 腊肉, drank a bottle of Wuliangye 五粮液 and a bottle of Fenjiu 汾酒. I need to write about this soon, before I forget everything. That's the problem. Got back into the city late. Sat down at the desk in the hotel and tried to write. Watched RT and drank a Sprite out of the minibar. Fell asleep with the window wide open.
(April 11th, 2019) Went up to Sanyuan County 三原县 with Jia and Wang Shenghua 王盛华 to see the cave houses, similar to those in Jihua 极花. Once again, accompanied by local cadres and other enthusiastic county bureaucrats. Ate a boozy lunch in a cave, drinking more Fenjiu, featuring a local cop/antiques collector who after helping me to polish off a bottle begged off, slurring, "It's against the law to operate a car after drinking." Visited his antiques shop in the county town, where he showed us his book of mostly Han rubbings, took us around to the other antiques shops in the neighborhood. Went back into the city with Wang Shenghua 王盛华 , drank tea in his studio with his lovely personal assistant who was reading a copy of Huainianlang 怀念狼 at the desk when we came in. Another boozy dinner. Went out that night with ** ******** and friend to a KTV, both people I've talked to by email but never met in person, spent three hours in there, nostalgic rush of old China days, spent the time chatting with a young woman named **** **, quizzing her about the life of a KTV girl, making notes that I won't share here but can probably be used somewhere else, and the thought occurred to me again, that she was, as I repeated over and over again, encountering people in Xi'an and the countryside, "like a character in a Jia Pingwa novel" (the first time was the writer Wang Shenghua, the cultural entrepreneur with a plush studio, going down to the countryside to take notes for some story), a plucky girl from the countryside that fought with her husband and went first to the county town and then the city to work, etc. etc.... And strange to watch the drama of the KTV, the playing out of some idealized masculinity and femininity—I wish I had something more to say about that, and this note is kind of incomplete in a way that I think could be misinterpreted, but it reminds me of the Miura Atsushi 三浦篤 line quoted on Neojaponisme about the kyabakura キャバクラ as a "theme park of traditional gender roles." I feel like that day alone, I could part it out into a few pieces of writing, maybe a piece on Wang Shenghua? (I have to dig deeper into his writing), maybe something about the literary man and women (huge question mark placed here, but maybe draw from women characters in Jia's writing? return back to **** ** in a Xi'an KTV, Wang Shenghua's assistant, History of Modern Xi'an as Told by a Bar Hostess? I could probably write a brief KTV experience memoir, like Isham Cook [just to take a China-related example, but I'm sure I could do better, God, I hope I could do better—I mean, he is good at what he does, though, even if it makes me never want to fuck again] but without any poetic descriptions of vulva, probably hopefully less overheated, or maybe I should wait until I'm in my 40s or 50s to start doing that kind of thing, because maybe my then I'll be interested in fucking again and will have completely given up on everything else?) and something about the caves? I don't know. I feel like there's a lot there but it's bubbling just under the surface and it'll take a few weeks, maybe a few months for the memories to ferment into something worth writing. Returned home by myself, walking across the city. This entry seems so slim for a day on which so much happened.
I don't know much about this area. It used to be called Takecho 竹町 but is now the district of Taito 台東 in the ward of Taito 台東. Satake Shotengai 佐竹商店街 in the center of the district is one of the district is one of the oldest shopping arcades in the country—that depends on how you define a shopping arcade, I guess, because it looked like it was a run-of-the-mill Tokyo merchants' street during its early life, rather than something evoking a Parisian arcade, and it wasn't covered until the 1970s when it was finally rebuilt after being leveled in the Second World War. Satake and the rest of the district feels distinct from the rest of the ward, nothing like Ueno and its park and arcades, or the rest of Shitaya: self-contained, with no gangs of tourists yet, and not many hotels, and not many office buildings around, either. The shopping arcade still has a pulse but doesn't look like it's drawn the interest of developers. I don't have much of a sense of the place, to be honest. But, yes, developers have not really been through to carve up the smaller lots, so there are still plenty of tin-sided buildings, most of them workshops or small factories, some restaurants. And I could have gone anywhere in the city to collect pictures of this corrugated metal siding, but this is where I've been walking, the past week or so.
This wall belongs to, if I recall correctly, what might have once been a workshop with an apartment over top but is now a garage with an apartment over top. These walls are everywhere in Taito Ward, especially in neighborhoods like this. Nothing is very old in Tokyo, and this whole area would have been a scorched wasteland seventysomething years ago, and most of the oldest buildings around here are from the '60s, put up to replace whatever went up temporarily in the late-'40s or '50s, and those shacks were definitely made of corrugated tin, too, and concrete bricks and scavenged lumber and war surplus building materials... It's hard to tell how old buildings in Tokyo are, usually nothing to give them away, unless they're incredibly old (and by that I mean, say, usually early-20th century) or incredibly new, but with these tin-sided buildings, you can usually take a guess, based on corrosion and rust and how much they've been patched over the years.
You can see the contrast. Off-white, brown, beige stucco vs. corrugated metal.
This is further to the north, between Iriya Station and Inaricho Station (I know this describes a huge area). The building that once stood in this empty lot was close enough to the tin-clad building to hide it. The street was formerly home to a number of small workshops, and older homes. The only business still operating on the street is a tofu factory. A new apartment block is going in here, now. Throughout the area, new asphalt has been laid down the alleys, new buildings sit alongside old ones. Most of the apartment blocks went up about a decade ago. The tin cladding marks this building out as belonging to the a former generation. The tin and its corrosion and rust and imperfections and asymmetry look out of place, suddenly, as newer buildings go up all around. I've talked about this before, the grey and beige local skylines of Tokyo, get up on a rooftop and you're in a forest of off-white lowrise apartment blocks, as far as the eye can see—maybe a bundle of office towers in there, maybe the Skytree in the distance. This is what it looks like at eye-level, all the off-whites rising around you...
Look at this: corrugated metal, exposed wiring, campaign posters (this one for a Matsuo Akihiro 松尾あきひろ of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan 立憲民主党). Like a concrete wall with stenciled and stickered xiaoguanggao 小广告 represents the Chinese city, this has to be the Tokyo version of that. This is the Tokyo version of, like, an old dormitory building in Chaoyang spraypainted with banzheng 办证 ads.
Because this is Japan, a land of obsessives, there are coffee table books, blogs and Instagram devoted to this totan architectureトタン建築, and I'm a latecomer to this, just like I am to everything else in this country. The Japanese are nostalgic for the Showa like Americans in the '70s were nostalgic for the '50s and maybe it's like me getting drunk, putting on a Pavement album and watching promotional videos for defunct malls on Youtube—just the innocence of the time (rather than Showa militarism and destruction, more the postwar boom times), the relative wealth and comfort of life under the string of Jiminto 自民党 Prime Ministers, building booms, bubbles... But so, nobody is going to save these buildings, which represent that time, since they're not pretty enough to save and probably not built well to survive a major disaster—these ones are still around because of a three decade economic slump, once the bubble burst.
Up until a couple hundred years ago, this area was a backswamp, a slimy wetland routinely flooded by the Iruma and then Sumida. The name Nihonzutsumi 日本堤 (Japan dike?) might originally have been written as 二本堤, referring to the two dikes in the area, one running between Asakusa 浅草 and Minowa 三ノ輪 and then another from Sanya 山谷 to Shodencho 聖天町. What is now the district of Nihonzutsumi within the ward of Taito was formerly way out on the edge of the city and known as a place that outcastes and other people relegated to the filthiest municipal chores, such as hauling night soil and tanning leather. It was not a safe place to live because it was prone to flooding. Eventually, the red light district of Yoshiwara 吉原 relocated from the center of town, and the entertainment district of Asakusa began to grow a bit further south, but Nihonzutsumi became the center of Sanya, a neighborhood whose name has been scrubbed from maps because of its association with outcastes and later the yoseba 寄せ場, an informal labor market, the doyagai ドヤ街, the collection of flophouses and shortstay rentals for workers, and the criminal organizations, dominated by the Kanamachi Ikka 金町一家, that were based in the neighborhood to act as labor brokers and skullcrackers while also doing side business in extorting workers, prostitution, gambling and loansharking.
The name was scrubbed, the string of building booms that brought workers to the city was snipped by the Japanese asset price bubble. The workers had brought life to the neighborhood and that life was drained out when most of those workers moved on, heading back up north or moving on to Yokohama or Osaka. Nihonzutsumi was still home to older workers that had nowhere else to go, living off benefits in the cheap lodging of the doyagai or sleeping rough in Tamahime Park, but the stigma the neighborhood carried meant that nobody was scrambling to snap up cheap property in Sanya. That's changed as the economy has recovered and the rest of the country begins to empty into Tokyo. Outsiders that don't know the history or don't care about the history are happy to live in a quiet neighborhood with fairly low rents and proximity to transit—that's why I moved there.
When I first moved into the neighborhood in early 2016, Nihonzutsumi was dominated by a long shopping arcade called Irohakai いろは会商店街. I remember walking through when I first arrived and noting its uniqueness in Tokyo, where the streetlife is fairly sedate. The roof of Irohakai offered shelter to the working men that still called the neighborhood home, and they'd sit under its shelter and pass around a bottle on a rainy day, take a snooze in the shadows when it got hot. There were a few cheap bars and restaurants along Irohakai that still catered mainly to those men. But the roof of the shopping arcade came down, the arcade's organizing committee disbanded, and people began selling their properties to developers. In just a few years, Nihonzutsumi has been transformed.
The walls around Nihonzutsumi are an expression of the neighborhood's disorderliness and decay (this is relative to the rest of the city, of course). It's one of the few places to see xiaoguanggao 小广告 like you see in China, stenciled torii discouraging public urination, advertising work or short-term rentals, and, instead of just the usual wall decoration of campaign posters, approved and unapproved graffiti by ESOW and affiliated street artists. There was a short-lived scheme to have the shuttered stores on the arcade painted, but they've mostly faded. The wheatpaste art just off Irohakai, looking back at older pictures, was once a colorful piece that stretched across most of the wall. I have in my notes that it was done by an Italian artist but the only references to it online suggest it might have been done by Swoon, an American artist. The smaller white cutout to the left is definitely her work, and another wheatpaste cutout survives right around the corner on one of the Irohakai shutters (I believe it was a liquor store).
It seems like, maybe in another city, cheap rents around Nihonzutsumi should have brought another kind of gentrification, like.... sophisticated young people who would be followed by coffee shops and vintage stores and remodelers of dive bars? (I'm trying to draw this toward a closing point, so this is a parenthetical thought, so but why did that kind of gentrification not happen? Let me speculate. First reason and crucial, there's not much old housing stock over there. Developers would prefer to build crisp new highrises for people that do their shopping and dining out around distant commuter hubs. Second, the stigma attached to the neighborhood is mostly outdated, but supposedly—and this is just what I've heard—it does remain difficult to do business there for various reasons. Third, it's too far away from anything interesting?) So, I can almost imagine this wall becoming some kind of neighborhood Instagram trap, with the liquor store around the corner being converted into one of those Showa-themed pubs where twentysomethings drink Hoppy and eat canned food. But as it is, as I write this, not having walked by that particular wall in a couple months, it might already be gone, replaced by God knows what but probably an apartment block or maybe a drug store.
I took this picture in 2012 or 2013 in Gongrencun 工人村 in Dalian 大连 (or somewhere else nearby, at least Xianglujiao 香炉礁). I was staying in a cheap hotel in the neighborhood, walking around and getting feel for the place. I don't know what the area looks like now, but back then, it was grey and grim. There was an elevated highway running overhead, with three layers traffic dropping into a massive interchange, then wide roads running out to the airport and the northern suburbs. The uniform red and white or green and yellow signs on restaurants, the blue of the phone shops signs, the patches of brown grass, and whatever other shreds of color in the grey were dimmed by the dust blown in from the Gobi and the quarries north of the city and probably falling from the smokestacks of heating plants.
The city was experiencing a building boom, spreading out into new suburbs, turning portions of the central city into workers' slums. There were alleys of shacks around the laoloufang 老楼房, built from concrete blocks, mostly, and tin and tarps. Rumors had circulated for years of the relocation of residents from the neighborhood and many had already relocated out of more permanent dwellings, heading out to the suburbs. On walls down those side streets, layers of paint, paper and glue had formed over a few short years. You can see them, there: a grey wall, then grey oil paint and white glue and black graffiti and posters, and another layer of grey oil paint, glue, daubs of white, graffiti in black ink, posters, and then another layer and another, strips and shreds peeling away from the concrete or the lower layers, and stuck back down with a fresh layer of graffiti and then a fresh layer of grey paint. The graffiti, the xiaoguanggao 小广告, and the posters and stickers—chengshi niupixuan 城市牛皮癣, urban psoriasis, is the name it's been given—always win out, another layer always builds up.
The walls themselves are beautiful, but the content of the xiaoguanggao is informative, giving a brief look into the anxieties of the people that lived in this particular neighborhood in Dalian in 2012. The main poster is, I think, seeking a missing person, maybe a worker that went north, across the Bohai, from Shandong, lost touch with his family—and who came looking for him? Maybe it was a family friend, a cousin that was working in the city, too, and got word from the family... Who knows! And below that, tagged overtop, someone looking to rent a room with a shared kitchen. It was certainly one of the houses nearby, maybe one of those concrete shacks or maybe a room up in one of the crumbling apartment blocks. And on those walls were always the banzheng 办证 tags, put up by people that could handle the types of documents that a migrant worker in Dalian would need to secure a job or an apartment. The xiaoguanggao go up everywhere, but in a place like this particular neighborhood in Dalian, they covered nearly every surface. The wall itself has surely been knocked down already, along with the rest of the neighborhood.
I took this picture in 2017, somewhere off Hehui Jie 和会街 in Nanjing, a street that runs east to west between Zhongshan Bei Lu 中山北路 and Sanpailou Da Jie 三牌楼大街 in Gulou District 鼓楼区. Right around the corner, there are dozens of similar collections of grey walls, tiled pillars, and other surfaces that have collected years of stickers, tags, and coverups. The banzhengkezhang 办证刻章 ads are there, again, and a poster for a room rental.
I love the way it looks, for some reason. Maybe it's because I am from a place where private property is king and petty vandalism is strictly punished, and I live now in a city without any texture to its walls. Maybe I'm just nostalgic for Chinese cities, sitting here in Tokyo. There's something I love beyond the rough beauty of these fucked up walls, like... maybe what it says about how the country functions? a certain type of community? It's almost like a benign rot visible on the surface, the underground world bubbling up to the surface, an opportunity to see the private impulses and petty scams that underlie the system. And they're the product of dozens, maybe hundreds of people probably unknown to each other, working at cross-purposes: the young men that come through with stickers in the late evening or early morning and other young men with stencils or posters and then whoever is charged with scraping them off and whoever is charged with painting over them.
This was the view out the window of the my apartment in a city in Northern Jiangsu. I think there's probably a Walmart there, now.
I took the picture in 2005 or 2006, maybe to ask what the graffiti meant. I think that probably those characters—办证—were the first two characters I learned to write, since they were among the most common characters to see written in a Chinese city. Whenever I find myself standing at a urinal and have a Sharpie in my pocket, I'll write 办证, along with my first phone number in China, 15951469323.
I like the choice of red, the raking hand on the spraycan that gives each character a slant. I walked recently through several exhibitions of Chinese calligraphy at a museum in Ueno and another in Negishi and none of the work touched me as deeply as that brickwall scrawl.
Everywhere I lived, the walls were tagged, from that shithole in Northern Jiangsu to the pleasant xiaoqu 小区 I called home in Panyu to the filthy apartment block in Datong and every place in between. Always: grey walls with stickers on them, stenciled graffiti advertising the services of plumbers, maybe some more complicated little 4-color posters advertising student prostitutes or dick pills. It's omnipresent. From the hallway when you walk out in the morning, and then on nearly every surface in nearly every xiaoqu, either the xiaoguanggao or the coverups or both, and through every public space in the country.
This is somewhere in Chaoyang in Beijing, probably off Jintai Lu 金台路 or Chaoyang Lu 朝阳路, around that area (beside a shuttered restaurant called Fuji Jiangrou 傅记酱肉, if that helps) where everything still belongs to the People's Daily, I think. The wall is like a Franz Kline or Robert Motherwell painting, and I swear, they could cut that section out before they tear down the building, break it down into a tetraptych and ship it right to the Christie's Hong Kong saleroom.
I stopped beside the wall on a walk from the CBD to Sanlitun to admire the work and also to smoke a cigarette. I was thinking about, like, the elderly caretaker of a People's Daily residential compound coming out sometime in the early-1990s and discovering to his shock and dismay revolutionary graffiti spraypainted across the building—but then he gets up closer and sees it's just an advertisement for fake documents or a shared room. In a decade or two, will people take pictures of the last remaining xiaoguanggao like they do of the faded Cultural Revolution stencils? "The old political graffiti was covered up and replaced with advertising markings that celebrated in their own way the age of Reform and Opening and the New Era of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics..." In a thousand years, will people exhibit whatever preserved examples of the form remain, like the rubbings from the Longmen Grottoes that I saw at the Taito City Calligraphy Museum? I guess they do preserve the now relatively ancient graffiti at Longmen, though, right? And they're probably not going to touch the faded Cultural Revolution stencils there, either, right? Maybe a coffee table book of xiaoguanggao for nostalgic urban Chinese, someday.
But, no, probably not.