&: Minor Novels of the 1990s Reading Club: City Tank (10)

(gonorrhea, depression, mountains)

This is the tenth chapter of City Tank by Qiu Huadong, summarized and partially translated. (Previous entries: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9.)

It begins:
But the next morning, that dark princess told me that she was in love with me and wanted to be with me. It put the fear in me. I didn't want to get involved with her. This girl might've been capable of lying about being the princess of an African tribe, but she revealed our secret almost immediately. When Gai Di woke up still reeking of liquor and bile, she was right there, telling him what had happened. It infuriated Gai Di, who had considered her his girl. He pulled himself to his feet, ready to fight. "Gai Di," I said, slowly backing up, "it's not like that. I just fucked her. One time. Just cool it." He looked like he was still ready to kill me. Apparently he was in love with her. I ran for the door.
I'd never been involved in that kind of thing before. The idea of fighting over a girl was completely foreign to me.
I went looking for Zhou Sese and found him in his room, deep in conversation with three Indian men. All three wore identical robes, just like you see Indians wearing in the movies. They were skinny, with big eyes, dark skin, and messy little beards.
They were talking about the Vedas.
"Gai Di's gonna kill me. He's got a girlfriend named Molly. I heard she's the daughter of an African chieftain or something. All of a sudden, she's in love with me. She wants to be with me. I came looking for you."
Zhou Sese laughed and said, "Desire will be what kills you someday. Come and talk with my Indian friends. You need to take a dip in the sea of eastern wisdom. It might help you learn to control these urges."
Some time with the poet calms Zhu Wen down enough to get him back out and about, but it’s not long before he’s hit with something else.
A couple days later, my dick started to hurt. When I pulled it out for a closer look, my urethra was swollen shut, and when I started tugging on it, a bunch of stinking yellow pus came out. My heart sank. I had fallen victim to the epidemic of STDs that had swept the city. It was gonorrhea. I was sure of it. I never thought it could happen to me. It scared the hell out of me. I squeezed my dick until the whole thing was red as a carrot. At that moment, my dick looked like I felt: beaten down by the world, sad and scared. The pus that had started as a few drips turned into a steady trickle. The pain was unbearable. I felt like I was walking around in a dark cloud. I hated myself intensely.
When I told Zhou Sese, he jumped backwards. "Stay away from me. I don't want to be infected, too. I'm not letting you use my towels anymore, either." I was completely alone, cut off from the rest of the world, and I had brought it all on myself. But I must've gotten it from Molly. I was going to be leaking pus from every orifice, all because of her. Women like that are like a toilet seat. If you give in and sit down on them, you're going to be marinating in germs. I could curse her all I wanted, but it was my own fault. Before that, I'd had two voices in my head. One was the voice calling me forward, telling me to keep swimming, like a sperm, toward the womb of reality. Another voice was calling me to find a new set of spiritual values to approach the new age. Calling me! Pulling me this way and that! But as soon as the pus started flowing, I lost all hope. I felt like I had been sent into exile.
He goes and gets a shot at the clinic advertising on every hutong bathroom wall, which promises imported Western medicine that turns to just be penicillin. He goes to apologize to Gai Di, who’s dealing with his own case of the clap. Gai Di launches into a tirade about Molly, suggesting that one day promiscuous foreigners will one day infect them with AIDS, etc. On his way home, Zhu Wen runs into Yan He 严河, a photographer who has been mentioned a few times but hasn’t made it into my summaries. Yan He offers him some great advice on dealing with the aftereffects of gonorrhea and also offers him the chance to come along with him on a trip to photograph in the countryside.
Yan He was the definition of wandering artist. He was a tall man with long jet black hair, and I never saw him without his dark sunglasses. He was twenty-five that years, but he still looked like a boy. There was a purity to him—and that smile, as if he found everyone and everything around him a source of great amusement. "In all my work," he told me, "I stand on the side of humanity in facing down materialism." Yan He had been around the world, traipsing through Europe, up and down the Americans, and wandering across Australia. Chinese artists had begun spreading out around the world, and he seemed to know all of them, so he could always rely on an invitation. "All of a sudden one day, an American artist happened to ask me about the Lama Temple. I couldn't even answer him. I was born here, my parents died here, and I'll probably die here, too... But how the hell is it even possible, that I didn't know the first thing about the Lama Temple? When I talked to these foreign artists about Beijing, I was trying to come off like it was just any other place. I was talking about McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Neapolitan pizza, Turkish kebab, Japanese food, postcolonial food culture! I felt ashamed of myself." When he returned to China the last time, he decided to devote himself to photographing the scenery of the country. Once he was done, he planned to head back out into the world and show them what China was really like.
Then there’s a lengthy explanation of a piece of installation art—Musical Jiaozi—that Yan He, which involved heating up vinyl records and moulding them into the shape of jiaozi. It’s sort of funny, but let’s get back to the story.
When Yan He and I were ready to leave, I started thinking about Yan Tong, back in that godforsaken town she was teaching in. She told me that she'd go crazy without me. I had gotten a letter from her, telling me she was pregnant. That was after she left Beijing the last time. "I want to have the child," she wrote, "but I want to know what you think." I wasn't really sure yet.
He heads out with Yanhe.
Our trip had us going south, heading for the most famous natural scenery in the country. Yan He had raised enough money to take care of our expenses, and we could usually fly between destinations. We went to: Taishan, Laoshan, Zhongshan, Yuntaishan, Yandangshan, Putuoshan, Tiantaishan, Huangshan, Jiuhuashan, Tianzhushan, Wuyishan, Jinggangshan, Lushan, Jigongshan, Hengshan, Wudangshan, Emeishan, Huashan, Maijishan, Tianshan, Kunlunshan... We wandered for three months, spending most of our time up in the mountains. My anxiety lifted. I felt a new energy. My faith in myself was restored.
The rest of the chapter is taken up mostly with stories from Yan He about his various adventures.

I often hear criticisms of Chinese novels that mostly boil down to a lack of editorial assistance. Working on these summaries and excerpts, I guess I’m editing things: I’ve included the fight with Gai Di, the STD, and Yan Tong’s pregnancy, although they take up relatively little of the chapter, and I’ve summarized and translate a very small sliver of the Yan He material, which I find excruciatingly dull. The description of Yan He's Musical Jiaozi installation gets far more detailed treatment than the revelation that Zhu Wen's girlfriend is pregnant. I understand Zhu Wen is supposed to be a piece of shit, and I guess that's why it gets such a brief mention—but do I need two paragraphs on LPs folded into dumplings?

But how true is it? Are Chinese novel under-edited? I don't know. I'm in the process of editing a translation of a particularly thick and sprawling Chinese novel in English translation, and the issues I see with it are not often down to under-editing. I think with certain writers, they are aiming for precisely the effect that comes across as under-editing. Chinese novels tend to move at a different pace. With some writers, I think you can see here the influence of all the big 19th century Russian and English novels that they grew up reading, moreso than the influence of local traditions. I don't know. There's more tolerance for diversions, I guess, and less of a rush to get to a conclusion.

I can’t tell if I’m getting tired with the novel as a whole or if it's just this chapter that has been a struggle. Maybe I'm running out of interesting things to say. I don't know. But, for anyone still following this, this desultory entry takes us to halfway through City Tank.

The Minor Novels of the 1990s Reading Club will return in February.


&: Minor Novels of the 1990s Reading Club: City Tank (9)

(fake princesses, KTV, Van Halen)

This is the ninth chapter of City Tank by Qiu Huadong, summarized and partially translated. (Previous entries: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8.)

It begins:
STDs swept the city like a tidal wave. Everywhere you went in Beijing, there were advertisements, printed in red and white on thin sheets of paper and pasted up all over the hutong walls, in public bathrooms, and climbing power poles. They listed various STDs and their shocking symptoms, with a promise at the bottom: "The best imported Western medicine from a respected overseas Chinese doctor, one shot can cure all STDs within three days." Everywhere I went in the city, I felt viruses and bacteria lurking in every crack and corner, just waiting to pounce on me and make my dick leak pus. Beyond the big three—syphilis, gonorrhea, herpes—there were plenty of others. The number of advertisements all over proved that nobody could be trusted to control their urges. Were there really that many people walking around with STDs? In a way, I thought it was ridiculous. But there was something deeper to worry about: sex had become another commodity, another product to push on people. For people in the city, desire and lust overpowered all other emotions. The profit motive and sexual gratification had come to dominate. It was another thing that made me skeptical of human nature. Everyone was working to comfort and gratify the sack of meat that carried them around. That was all everyone was working for.
That prompts a lengthy explication of Zhu Wen’s view of human nature and his general disgust with life in the city and with humanity as a whole.
I don't know when exactly that wave of pessimism washed over me, but before I knew it, I was drowning in it. When I first arrived in Beijing, I was hot-blooded. I could hear my heart thudding. I wanted to accomplish something. It was long between the time I left my schizophrenic girlfriend back down south and the death of my enthusiasm. I failed to accomplish anything. Exhaustion and anxiety overtook me.
Zhu Wen runs into Gai Di, who is even more disgusted with humanity than he is. Gai Di's been cheated out of fifty thousand yuan by Ma Fei 马非. Gai Di borrowed the money from a fan in Taiwan and used it to bankroll an album with Ma Fei, intended to be released under their Filthies 脏人 band name. Ma Fei put it out under his own name.

The Filthies were an attempt to create a new brand of “fly music” 苍蝇音乐, which Zhu Wen explains is nothing like Cui Jian 崔健 and He Yong 何勇, with their shouting and sloganeering, nothing like Black Panther 黑豹 or Tang Dynasty 唐朝, with their soaring anthems, and nothing like Breathing 呼吸, with their naked emotion. Zhu Wen gives his own analysis of the Filthies, concluding that Ma Fei is probably as good or better of a lyricist than Gai Di.
"I need you to help me,” Gai Di said. “We're going to deal with this guy. I'm going to run a knife over his throat." Gai Di glared at me, as if I was the one that had taken his money. I agreed to go with him. I figured it'd be a good opportunity to meet this Ma Fei. I wanted to know every demon on that city. I took the knife and followed Gai Di out the door.
"Where'd you meet this guy?" I asked. "I've never even heard of him."
"He's from Xi'an, but we met at a bar in Lhasa. He had a band out there, too. I thought he was a pretty good singer. He ended up pissing off a Tibetan guy and I ended up saving his life. He had an interesting life. Before I met him, I heard he got locked up for a while, then hit the road." Gai Di told me that Ma Fei had studied philosophy and had even translated a Heidegger book into Chinese. But things were different in the 1990s. The capitalist tide rose. All his fancy philosophical ideas amounted to shit. The desire to understand the world had been replaced with a pure lust and greed.
Gai Di narrates Ma Fei’s conversion to a rock n’ roll singer (another reference to Hai Zi 海子, here, whose poems Ma Fei put to music). Zhu Wen thinks that maybe he could make friends with the guy.

They catch Ma Fei outside a room he’s renting in a compound nearby. Ma Fei is startlingly handsome, with big, bright eyes, and a strong chin. Zhu Wen grabs Gai Di and tells him to let Ma Fei explain what happened.
Ma Fei surveyed the scene dispassionately. "This is about the tape, right? I got cheated, too. I was just as surprised as you were when I saw it. I never told them to market it as a solo project. I went to find the promoter. He told me they took your vocals off it because they couldn't get clearance. That was how they explained it to me. I'm willing to pay you back. I've got ten thousand right now. That was everything they paid me." Ma Fei tossed a bundle of cash on the ground.
So, Gai Di calms down. Ma Fei lets them know he has to get out of there to see a girl at School X.
I remembered that girl I'd met a little while ago at the dance hall, Van Halen, from California, the vegetarian that was studying Buddhism. "Actually, I know a girl over there, too," I told Ma Fei, "maybe me and Gai Di can tag along..."
"I was just thinking," Gai Di said, putting away the knife, "I know a foreign student over there, too. I met her at a bar last week. She told me she's the princess of some little African country. It's probably bullshit. She's black as coal, teeth so white it hurts your eyes. Her name was Molly."
"Well, let's go," Ma Fei said. We followed him over to the foreign student dormitory and Ma Fei introduced us to the Korean girl. She was a barrel-shaped girl, and the way Ma Fei and her carried on made me and Gai Di cringe. Ma Fei introduced her as Li Zhenji. Her Chinese was quite good. She helped us track down Van Halen and Molly. It was great walking around School X with the three girls. I felt like my chest was about to burst open. Molly was the prettiest of the three, closely followed by Van Halen, with the Korean girl too ugly to even be in the running. Molly had a thin waist and a round ass that bounced when she walked. She had an amazing body.
How should these names be translated? Van Halen is 范·海伦, which has to be Van Halen, right? Maybe it would be better to have it as some variation on that, like, call her Helen Van, embedding the original meaning but making it more reasonable as an English name. So, yes, okay, from this point on: her name is Helen. It’s also worth mentioning, I think, that she seems to speak Chinese in a sort of halting way, trailing off to end many sentences with “这样.” In a real, complete translation, I’d probably have noted that earlier and tried to incorporate it, but you’re mostly going to get her speaking normally, here.

But what about the African girl’s name, 本·莫莉, Ben Moli? I’m going with Molly. The Korean girl’s name is 李贞姬, which could be Lee Jeong-hui, right? I wonder how Qiu Huadong deals with this in revised editions of the novel.

Anyways, they decide to go to a Korean dance hall that has karaoke.
I never really liked karaoke. The Japanese are good at coming up with those sorts of masturbatory amusements. The people that love karaoke are the ones that feel like they can't express themselves in their daily life. I think it says something about the race that invented it. They lack a certain healthy vitality. Helen wasn't interested at all in singing karaoke. A slight blush spread across her peach fuzz-covered face. A waitress came around and Ma Fei ordered a tequila, Gai Di got Martell Cordon Bleu, Helen and I got beers, and Li Zhenji said she wanted to drink Maotai. I'd heard Ma Fei say she had a heart condition, and she still drank liquor! That's Koreans for you. Molly got a juice. The karaoke screen was flicked on and Li Zhenji grabbed the microphone.
I couldn't really figure out what the point of the outing was or what the night was developing toward. It had been a while since I'd been out with any women. I figured I could make something happen with Helen, if I made any progress at karaoke. I reached out to put an arm around her, but she stopped me: "Oh, no, no, you can't."
I felt a bit insulted. "Why not? Is it because I'm not your boyfriend? Maybe we should change that. I told you I could send you some paintings. I was serious." I traced in the air the shape of my largest canvas. "What's up with you, huh?"
"I broke up with my boyfriend. He left China. I didn't want to break up with him. But he wanted to end it."
"Why did he want to end it?" I couldn't believe there was a man out there that would voluntarily break up with the stunning Helen. "Is this the guy that tried to fight me that night? He's a jerk. He's not good enough for you." I took her hand. It felt ice cold. I guess she really was heartbroken over the whole thing. But what was I going to do?
"He doesn't care about me anymore. He fell in love with an Indian girl. She was studying here, too. He took her back to America with him. What does she have that I don't?"
Zhu Wen gives up trying to comfort Helen. Her ex-boyfriend was an asshole. She should be happy. He realizes that Helen isn’t interested in him. But when she says she wants to go to Tibet, he offers to accompany her.

Zhu Wen looks around and sees the Korean girl is enjoying herself singing, Ma Fei and Gai Di are deep in conversation, and Molly has been left by herself. When a Tang Dynasty song comes up on the screen, Gai Di rushes over to snatch the microphone. Gai Di and Ma Fei drain a dozen more shots of tequila then bitch at the waitress that they don’t have any of their songs in the system. That turns into a whole scene with Gai Di drunkenly abusing the staff, vomiting, and then being threatened by security. A three thousand yuan bill comes and Zhu Wen fishes into Gai Di’s pockets to pull some bills from the stack Ma Fei just gave him.

Li Zhenji takes care of Ma Fei, Helen gets bundled into a taxi, and Zhu Wen takes Gai Di and Molly back to his place, where Gai Di vomits all over. After that’s settled, Molly and Zhu Wen are awkwardly hanging out, Molly popping loud bubbles with her gum—and their eyes meet! He walks across the room, pulls her to her feet, presses her against the wall, and kisses her.

The description of the sexual encounter with Molly is slightly offensive. He seems surprised to find that her whole body is “as black as charcoal.” He compares her to various animals. She moans and he says, “It was a sound that I’ve never even heard in a zoo.” That doesn’t last long, though. Qiu Huadong immediately launches into one of Zhu Wen’s lengthy daydreams or hallucinations or whatever they are, where he’s floating on a volcanic island or something and then talking about Satan. I think it’s beautiful writing in places, but I’m not going to translate or even summarize it. I find it a bit boring, actually. Like I said, I'm not a sophisticated reader—I want to hear some details, not some shit about floating islands.

But, as for what it all means, maybe it’s useful to jog back to the beginning, when Zhu Wen is lamenting that “sex had become another commodity, another product to push on people” and the fact that “desire and lust” has become what motivates everyone in the city. Fucking is no different from getting a pizza. I feel like this is a pretty facile reading, but fuck it. The sex is spontaneous and without emotional connection or even—on the part of Zhu Wen, at least—horniness. He makes it clear it’s more about getting out his frustration and anxiety than it is about busting.

As Jie Lu says:
On the other hand, at a more psychological level, his love affair with the African girl is an instinctual, impulsive, and spontaneous act that also expresses an emotional constellation of drives, desires, curiosity, selfishness, rebellion, transgression, attraction, depression, loneliness, and a spirit/sense of tender dedication. This emotional constellation reflects, in the broader context of the emerging urban environment, a profound anxiety not just towards the global space but the city in general. (From "Rewriting Beijing.")
But the way he was talking earlier about how he's sick of the world and everything, maybe it's good he busted. It might clear his head.

We get more of Molly and Zhu Wen in the next chapter, so I’ll leave it there.

Chapter 10: Zhu Wen's experiences creamy discharge and pain during urination, then heads off to the mountains, and I discuss whether Chinese novels really are under-edited.

&: Minor Novels of the 1990s Reading Club: City Tank (8)

(Jie Lu, the big city, the role of the poet)

This is the eighth chapter of City Tank by Qiu Huadong, summarized and partially translated. (Previous entries: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7.)

I’m not a sophisticated reader. My favorite things about a book like this are the ethnographic elements, the snapshots of the city in the 1990s, and the parts where Zhu Wen tries to get laid. But I do enjoy reading sophisticated readers taking apart the novel.

I’ve quoted Robin Visser and Jie Lu throughout the summary, since they’ve written the most about the book in English. (I am generally lazy about digging for Chinese language sources for this kind of informal work, but I haven’t found anything promising, except for some interesting reviews of the book and the series it belongs to. I think part of it might be the fact that not as many sources have been digitized, or they aren’t available to me, or I might just be lazy. I don’t know for sure.) I’ll get to Robin Visser’s writing on Qiu Huadong later, but this is a good place to talk about Jie Lu.

The eighth chapter begins with an extended meditation on the form and function of Beijing, with Qiu Huadong raking together a mound of metaphors: Beijing is a family, a network, a, concentric rings, the human bloodstream, a millstone slowly turning, a vessel that can contain all things. He has Zhu Wen pondering the mixture of old and new in 1990s Beijing: “This is a city where the sound of rock n' roll meets the melody of a guzheng, carried on the night air. The old people dance to their folk songs, finding a space under the overpass, and above them somewhere are the children of the city, rushing off to dance until dawn in a nightclub.”

Jie Lu’s examination of City Tank’s narrator, and the city he finds himself in, starts with Walter Benjamin’s (from Baudelaire) flâneur and badaud. Do these categories work here? I ask this question to recommend Ping Zhu’s skeptical discussion of the use of the concept in the context of Chinese literature in Gender and Subjectivities in Early Twentieth-Century Chinese Literature and Culture, and also Shu-mei Shih’s argument against using it.

Shu-mei Shih is talking about Yu Dafu 郁达夫 and Mu Shiying 穆时英 and Liu Na’ou 刘呐鸥, two of whom we’ve that we’ve already referenced in our discussion of City Tank. First, and least important, but interesting to me, because I never really thought of this... if we strictly follow the Baudelaire/Benjamin model, these urban narrators of Yu and Mu do not condemn the many women they meet down in the underworld, while the flâneur is a misogynist. And second, and most relevant, Shu-mei Shih argues that the urban narrators in Mu Shiying and Liu’s work in particular also do not fit the model of "independent, passionate, impartial" (as Baudelaire put it) gentlemen. They are "saturated with the perceptive attitude of the flaneur," and are always "observing and imagining the modern city," and they are probably also modeled on the stereotypical cultured European urbanite, but:
If the male subject finds himself alienated from urban culture, it is not because he wants to stand aloof but because he cannot be a full participant: the space of Shanghai is an unsettling meeting ground for local cultures, colonial cultures, and imported/imposed metropolitan cultures. If he sometimes appears to be an onlooker of urban spectacle, it is because his participatory rights were not given full expression and he only can consume the city visually, in an elusive form of ownership, or receive its overwhelming sensory stimuli without an apt defense mechanism. (This is from The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China, 1917-1937 by Shu-mei Shih.)
How much of this is true for Zhu Wen?

But Jie Lu makes her analysis work by stretching out the definition of the flâneur—it’s a category no longer monopolized by men leisure and autonomy, she argues, but is a cultural practice open to everyone living in the society of the spectacle—and knits it together with the badaud, the gawker or bystander, the rube that gets swept up into the city, losing all critical distance. Jie Lu sees in Zhu Wen a "split spectatorship," with autonomy as itinerant artist but also—at this point in the book—an overly credulous belief in what makes Beijing special:
[Zhu Wen’s] artist/flaneur’s stance of proud detachment and autonomy—the transcending position from which he can map, grasp and represent the city as a totalizing whole—is undermined and made impossible by the spell‐bound gawker's engagement with and fascination by what he sees—he cannot transcend the street level, that is, his existential/material condition … Indeed, in [Zhu Wen’s], the desire to participate in this changed urban life is just as strong as his aesthetic urge to represent it. Nevertheless, it is the figure of gawker that truly urbanizes the observer/flaneur, bringing him down to the street and plunging him into the urban spectacle. (This is from “Rewriting Beijing: A spectacular city in Qiu Huadong's urban fiction” by Jie Lu, Journal of Contemporary China, May 2004, Vol. 13, Issue 39. And a special thanks to Professor Lu for her patient assistance in helping me locate a copy of the paper.)
Later in the chapter, Qiu has Zhu Wen seeming dissatisfied with the metaphors. Yes, it’s a spider web; sure, yes, it’s a family; and okay, it’s like concentric rings… but what is Beijing made of? He answers:
One zoo, two amusement parks, four scenic spots, 108 parks, 23 garbage dumps, 86 street sweepers, 92 water trucks, 417 night soil carts, 1360 garbage trucks, 6954 public toilets, 6747 trash cans, 30122 garbage collection spots, Beijing has 7053 incandescent street lights, 34480 gas-discharge street lights, 58071 mercury street lights, 253 light posts, 417 automatic signal lights, 425 manual signal lights, 544 police patrol stations, 801 traffic police posts...
The list continues, moving from infrastructure to shooting ranges, arcades, theaters, pool halls, etc. etc. etc. Zhu Wen can only provide us with “a fragmented picture without inherent connections,” Jie Lu explains.

It’s interesting that the next section of the book has Zhu Wen going to take in another attempt to sum up Beijing:
I got invited by Wang Sen and Huang Hu to see Zhang Yuan's latest work, The Square. It was a documentary shot like a TV news report, but in 35mm black and white. Zhang Yuan took the square as his stage, taking in every corner of it, all the people walking around, the pigeons flying, all the kites... We watched the film in a dark little theater and while we watch, Wang Sen peered around in the dark, pointing people out: Zhang Yuan was there, and so was a famous Fifth Generation filmmaker, and beside him was a playwright, and the people over to the left were all reporters. He seemed to have forgotten he had gone to the theater to watch a film. He was more interested in Zhang Yuan and the other people in the audience.
Zhang Yuan 张元, too, has already been referenced in our discussion of City Tank. I mentioned his 1993 film Beijing Bastards《北京杂种》as good way to add some context to the novel. The Square was the next film he made.

I’ve never actually seen it, but it seems to be about what Zhu Wen described: Zhang Yuan and Duan Jinchuan 段錦川 filmed Tiananmen Square over several days, shadowing an official camera crew from CCTV, compressing the footage into a hundred minute documentary which includes the military and political rituals that take place on the square, as well as civilian visitors hanging out. The film is usually described as Zhang Yuan’s reaction to being placed on a blacklist that circulated after the unauthorized participation of Chinese filmmakers in overseas festivals. I’ll spare you the theoretical breakdowns, but here’s Zhang Yuan: “I think every shot in the film attests to 1989 and is full of 1989” (this is quoted in Cinema, Space, and Polylocality in a Globalizing China by Yingjin Zhang).

Zhu Wen describes the final shot of the film:
In the scene that made the greatest impression on me, the viewer sees a police offer surveying the crowd. When he catches sight of the camera pointed at him, he puts on a pair of dark sunglasses and strides over, scowling. The final shot of the film is the cop's hand closing over the lense. The screen goes black. That's the end of the movie.
Duan Jinchuan offers his account of a screening that might have been a bit like the one Zhu Wen:
The Square and No. 16, Barkhor South Street《八廓南街十六號》were screened at the People's University. At the very beginning, the number of audience was quite good. However, at the end, only eight or nine persons still stayed at the venue. It seemed that the audience could not accept this form of documentary and they finally left. (This is from an interview with Duan Jinchuan, translated and quoted in "A Spatial Analysis of Zhang Yuan's Films" by Sit Tsui 薛翠, a master's thesis pulled from a University of Hong Kong database.)
But I’ve never seen it and I don’t have anything else to say.

It’s funny, I think, Wang Sen glancing around to see who’s at the screening, and the other glimpses of careerism and social climbing that contrast with Zhu Wen’s so far lackadaisical approach to making something of himself. How many people that lived in Beijing shitholes in the 1990s making documentary shorts and doing performance art are millionaires now? Zhang Yuan might have been blacklisted, for a while, but within a few years, he was back on the festival circuit, then was releasing mainstream hits domestically, started a production company, and worked with everyone he should have worked with. Zhang Huan 张洹, the performance artist who we saw appear pseudonymously a few chapters ago, covered in fish guts and flies, just did a collaboration with Hennessy on a limited edition bottle.

Another example appears in the next scene when Li Shuangyuan 李双元 (this is Zhu Wen’s art critic friend, who helped him sell some paintings before) shows up and Zhu Wen asks him about the Chinese artists that had already left Beijing to strike it rich. Gu Wenda 谷文达 is doing well, Li Shuangyuan says, since he started working with hair (the image over there is from an early exhibition of his hair art, which was disturbed by a Russian performance artist who smashed it up and was later arrested, but I apologize for not being able to find the reference to that now). But the thing is, the critic observes, to sell art to Americans, you have to always come up with things they’ve never seen before, like holograms or something.

But anyways, Zhu Wen leaves angry, again, pissed off about all the networking bullshit at the screening and his friend Wang Sen trashing the film. Then we pick up the story of Old K, whose novel, Sperm of the Sun, is nearing completion, and who has introduced Zhu Wen to a gallery owner named Song Jingtao 宋景涛.

The gallery owner arrives in the East Village and Zhu Wen expects him to show some interest in buying some paintings or commissioning some work. That’s exactly what Song Jingtao does, but he’s not interested in Zhu Wen’s own work—he wants copies. He hands Zhu Wen a book of prints, pointing out one by Jin Shangyi 靳尚谊: “If you can turn out a copy of this within a week, I can give you four thousand for it.” Zhu Wen says he’ll think about it, but starts freaking out once he’s alone in his room. He goes out to look for Huang Hu 黄虎 and Wang Sen, who are shooting their documentary (this is mentioned in the first chapter: they’re filming the city with the camera held at knee-level).

Wang Sen and Huang Hu are not particularly sympathetic. Once again, Zhu Wen is trying to live a life of artistic purity, while everyone else is getting rich. The pair just finished shooting a makeup commercial for a Shanghai company and their next plan is to shoot a low-budget action film for a Beijing company. Wang Sen shows him the copy of Old Hollywood/New Hollywood: Ritual, Art, and Industry that he’s been reading. Everyone is ready to sell out, except for Zhu Wen. “You’re out here starving like a stray dog,” Wang Sen says, “come in and have a few good meals.” Zhu Wen decides to make the paintings, and also works as an art director on Wang Sen’s film. The money is good, he figures, it doesn’t hurt to have some fun every now and then.
But every time I ran into Zhou Sese, I was reminded that there was something to going it alone and making a living from art, even if it meant going hungry. The city keeps grinding away and only a few can withstand the assault. After he got out of the hospital, Zhou Sese moved to a place closer to me, so I started to see him more often. He told me that he needed love more than he needed bread. I admired that about him. There weren't many people that lived for their hearts and minds instead of their stomachs. When he left school at fourteen, back in Hunan, he jumped feet first into the real world. He was a real wanderer. There wasn't much in the world of crushing manual labor that he hadn't tried to get by. He was haunted by thoughts of what that left held for him, if he didn't make some attempt to rise in the world, but he knew he had to keep going. It was his imagination that kept him going, though, because, even if his world was not beautiful, his thoughts were. That was how he became a poet.
Zhou Sese longed for love with more urgency than most people. It was a kind of motherly love that he desired most. The girl of his dreams was waiting out there for him. He was sure of it. She would one day appear as if dropped from the sky. That girl would be able to put down all the evil of the world. He told me that he often woke up from dreams, saw the sunlight coming in through the window, and found himself weeping.
He once gave me a novella he'd written, Beijing Lost. After a long tirade against the current state of things, he wrote: "Poets must develop a new way of approaching their world and they must write poems for this new world, but poetry must remain mindful of the legacy of the ancients and the guidance that can be found in centuries of verse. We cannot afford to give up our inquiries into that which is not concrete and scientific. The poet must have confidence, even though the heroes of the age are robbers, whores, corrupt officials, and profiteers."
Chapter 9: as an STD panic grips the city, Zhu Wen finally busts.

Chapter 10: Zhu Wen's experiences creamy discharge and pain during urination, then heads off to the mountains, and I discuss whether Chinese novels really are under-edited.


&: Minor Novels of the 1990s Reading Club: City Tank (7)

(confession, literary scams, fevers, madness)

This is the seventh chapter of City Tank by Qiu Huadong, summarized and partially translated. (Previous entries: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6)

Most recently... In the fourth chapter, Zhu Wen meets yet another foreign woman, argues with her about art, goes in for a kiss, then gets blackout drunk because he thinks he's not good enough for her. In the fifth chapter, we get a look at life in the East Village artists' colony, with a Zhang Huan stand-in covering himself in honey and flies, and two famous foreign artists stopping by for a visit. In the sixth chapter, we meet Yu Hong, the wealthy woman that needs art lessons, and Gai Di, the rock n’ roll singer with a dead girlfriend.

It’s easier to write about something that makes me feel nothing. I am not much of a literary critic. I’m happiest with something that I can rummage through for trivia or play with intellectually. I would prefer to say how something works than what it does. When I stray from that my tendency is always to confession. Like, this story made me feel this way and this is why it made me feel that way. I feel a sad identification with Zhu Wen at the end of the chapter, rejected by those close to him and pining after the girl who chose not to follow him. “I wanted to gaze into her eyes again, those mad, empty eyes, deep and dark as an abyss.” Like Zhu Wen and the indifferent advertising exec who dances with him at the party, I reflexively want to spill my guts. I want to tell you when I felt the same way.

Now, with this chapter, I wonder: what would it say about me to identify with Zhu Wen? I don't know. We can see what Zhu Wen's problem is: he's abandoned a stable life somewhere else to seek his dreams in Beijing, but even though he's liberated himself physically, he hasn't liberated himself spiritually. He's fighting in a sexual revolution that he doesn't really believe in, and he'd rather be back in that rainy little town, with his traditionally-minded girlfriend. The women in Beijing disgust him, looking over his head to watch his wealthier and more powerful sexual rivals pick and choose from among them, or spilling their guts to him, instead of listening patiently to his complaints.

So, rather than saying anything about Zhu Wen and why this chapter moves me, this chapter summary is taken up mostly by my translation, which is maybe slightly more impressionistic than it was in previous summaries.
Autumn came in with a sudden gust of cool breeze that had all of us walking with our collars pulled up tight. Autumn is preferable to summer, especially up north. The skies are clear and high and peaceful, clean as a baby's ass. It's normal for there not to be a single cloud in the sky. Autumn coming made me aware of how short life is. I had one thing to say to all these cattle that had come to the city to become artists: "Breed, cows, life is short!" That's the line from One Hundred Years of Solitude, isn't it? What I meant was: start creating something, before it's too late. What are you? Simply machines to turn food into shit? With autumn arriving again, that was my first warning to them.
(I went back to check Zhu Wen’s memory of the book. He has the line as “'繁殖吧,母牛,生命短促啊!” In English, it’s rendered as, “Cease, cows, life is short,” and in Spanish, it’s "Apártense, vacas, que la vida es corta." Later Chinese translations have the line as “让一让,母牛们,生命短暂啊.” I think I prefer it as 繁殖 rather than 让一让, though.)
The poet Zhou Sese showed up, trying to get me to visit the writer Old K. I call him a "writer" but I know he prefers to be addressed as an "author." But the way I understand it, the words "author" and "writer" don't mean quite the same thing anymore. You can work at an advertising company and still claim to be a writer, you can write for a corporate newsletter and still style yourself an author, an academic can call themselves a writer, a newspaper columnist can himself an author. Whether you write pornography or poetry, and call yourself whatever you want. The way Zhou Sese told it, Old K had written just about everything, from advertising to poetry and everything in between, and he'd mastered every form. Now that he had done that, Old K planned to become a serious "author." That was the only way he was going to win a Nobel, he thought. Old K was a whore for literary world respect. Even the pen name he'd adopted was meant to remind readers of Kafka (the first letter of the great modernist's name and the final initial of the character in The Trial). Trying to get famous is like carving your name on a piece of shit. Even if you succeed, it's all going to get flushed in the end.
I haven't told you yet about Zhou Sese's love life. He was a good, responsible man, but he'd always been unlucky in love. Maybe it was because he treated the entire enterprise too seriously. I thought he should probably lower his standards. He'd broken up a short time before with a girl from Shanghai that was going to school in Beijing. The girl was very fond of him. She thought it was her duty to love and care for him, so that's what she did. They spent a happy year together, then, right as she was about to graduate, her parents caught wind of the affair and pushed her to end it. The reason was simple: Zhou Sese was a poet. Remember, her parents were from Shanghai. You know how they are. The shrewdest, sharpest people in the country. There was no way they were going to let the daughter they'd invested twenty-plus years in be married off to a poet. Whatever intangibles Zhou Sese brought to the relationship were not included in the calculations of his girlfriend's parents.
Zhou Sese's girlfriend—Kong Lin 孔琳—goes back to Shanghai for the New Year and her parents introduce a more appropriate boyfriend: a handsome local boy, who just happens to be a hot shot stockbroker. “The rule of exchange is the rule of the day,” Zhu Wen observes. “Consciousness, ethics, knowledge are about as valuable as toilet paper—maybe even less valuable, since you can’t wipe your ass with your morals.” Zhu Wen fantasizes about beating some sense into Kong Lin, but he knows it would be useless.
When Zhou Sese arrived, I asked about the poem he'd told me about before, "Himalayas." He told me he'd made some progress, but I cut him off before he could start reciting it: "Didn't you say we're supposed to go see Old K? He's having a little party, right? We should go take a look. Should be something to eat, at least. He's always got a bunch of ham sausage." The idea of meat always got me excited. We hurried over to Old K's place.
Old K was twenty-eight and lived in a brand new apartment that had been given to him by his work unit. Old K arrived in Beijing five years earlier, dispatched by his university. He had made a living that whole time by writing alone, switching between various newspapers. He ended up finally at a weekly tabloid called Shopping Service Weekly that covered human-interest stories, entertainment, and culture, but mostly served as a sort of retail guide. For Old K, it was another rung up the ladder. When he first arrived, he had been writing copy at an ad agency. He turned out slogans like: "Double Nine Feminine Napkin, Double the Comfort." After that, he jumped to a People Magazine-style weekly and sold column inches to entrepreneurs that wanted some publicity. He wrote inspirational stories about how the hard times CEOs faced in their childhood—picking up garbage to recycle and stuff like that—was the foundation of their success. He accounted for a good percentage of the national intake of Maotai each year. After that, he got involved in social reportage and published a series of pieces on homosexuals, the girls that worked in dance halls, migrant worker women. For one expose, he posed as a john and tried to pick up prostitutes in various hotels around town. After that, he published a sort of sociological thesis on impotence, based on his own research into physiology, psychology, and the social factors behind soft dicks. He passed himself off as an expert in the sociology of the male and got himself invited to conferences in Europe. As soon as he got back, he published a book of essays that was nothing more than various anecdotes about him meeting famous people. Rumor had it that he had either eaten the ass of a French prostitute or helped her cut her pubic hair. Both rumors sounded equally credible to me. He fell in love with an actress and helped her promote her in the newspaper. She eventually made the jump from a state touring troupe to a TV series. Her role as a 1930s Bund prostitute made her famous overnight. She got a stick up her ass and Old K couldn’t stand it anymore.
So, anyways, after a vicious fight, they break up and Old K decides that he should write a tell-all book about their affair. The book sells into the hundreds of thousands of copies “almost catching up with Abandoned Capital” (or Ruined City, whatever you prefer to call《废都》).

Old K sees the sales figures for the Collected Works of Wang Shuo《王朔文集》 and decides to put out his own multi-volume set, with the memoir packaged up with love letters exchanged with the address, essays, his travel diary, as well as the profiles of entrepreneurs and a few of his favorite advertising slogans. That turns out to be a hit as well. His next project, having seen the success of Taiwanese romance writers, is a series of novels written under the pen name Hu Meili 胡美丽. Following on from various "fevers" of the 1990s, the country is gripped by Hu Meili Fever.

And a break for trivia...

What's going on with these fevers? I guess you could say these are secondary infections of the Culture Fever 文化热 of the 1980s, if that makes sense, when there was a brand new consumer class, who wanted to buy artistic products and talk about them, and maybe also the influence of Hong Kong and Taiwan consumer culture, which was also called Kong-Tai Fever 港台热.

And, once again, I quote Geremie Barmé's In the Red, that encyclopedia of '90s Mainland culture and society:
The consumer age also led to a new style of campaign, not a repetition of the theatrical political movements of the past, yundong, but ever new waves of media-generated and media-enhanced frenzies and crazes (re, xianxiang, and chao, as they are variously called). These crazes included the rise and fall of a broad spectrum of ready-made fashions, from the reconsumption of Chairman Mao that began in the late 1980s, to the Hula Hoop fever of 1992, as well as the media-fired cultural debates of 1993–1996 ... Manufacturing re (literally “fevers”) became the focus of many publicists, be they official (the party, for example, attempted to engender a “fever for the study of Deng Xiaoping’s works” in 1993 and new “patriotic fevers” at various times) or private. The style of these party-PR campaigns was imitative of Kong-Tai commercial culture, and much of the language used for the promotions, whether it be in the political or the cultural realm, was taken from the Kong-Tai media.
I'd say Jia Pingwa 贾平凹 and his bestselling novel, which ended up being banned between 1993 and 2009 counts as a sort of fever, maybe even to rival the Hula Hoop fever that was going on around the same time. Qiu doesn't call the Wang Shuo boom a fever, either, but I think it counts.

And Qiu Huadong provides us a longer list: there's Jin Yong Fever 金庸热, Sanmao Fever 三毛热, Qiong Yao Fever 琼瑶热, Xue Mili Fever 雪米莉热, Wang Guozhen Fever 汪国真, and Xi Murong Fever 席慕蓉热. Except for Wang Guozhen, whose kinda sappy poems were a hit in Beijing in the late 1980s, these writers were from—in some sense of the word—Hong Kong or Taiwan. Jin Yong, the great wuxia novelist, was only widely read in Hong Kong and the diaspora, before he exploded in the Mainland boom in the '80s. Sanmao was a Taiwanese writer whose romantic travels captivated a new audience as early as the '80s (and perhaps fed into the Going Abroad Fever 出国热) (and brace yourself for a new Sanmao Fever with the publication this month of a translation of her Stories of the Sahara《撒哈拉的故事》by Mike Fu). Qiong Yao, who I know very little about, made her name in Taiwan in the '60s with romance novels. She was still cranking out books into the 2000s, long after the fever. Xi Murong is another name that I'm not sure I recognize, either. She spent most of her life in Hong Kong and then Taiwan, and was famous for sentimental poetry, which I've never read.

Xue Mili was another case altogether. Beginning in 1987, books under her name started appearing on Mainland bookshelves, with the jacket describing her as a woman from Hong Kong. They were pure pulp stories about bad-ass girl bosses and secret agents. I have never come across one of the Xue Meili books, and, honestly, this is the first time I have heard of her.

Not all was as it seemed with Xue Mili, it turns out:
The secret identity of Xue Mili was abruptly exposed in the May 3, 1989 issue of Literature Press ... which declared: "This Xue Mili is not a woman and does not hold a Hong Kong passport: 'she' is actually several men from the remote [Chinese] hinterland. Some of these men have previously written respectable literary works on rural mountain life, and some have even won literary awards." The article criticized these promising young writers for abandoning their bright literary future and for writing "filthy" pulp fiction to meet the vulgar demands of the market. It also exposed their "degenerate" approach to writing. They had stolen their plots from pirated crime videos and imported best sellers; descriptions of exotic places that the writers had never visited were borrowed from maps and travel guides of Hong Kong and elsewhere; and worse still, the novels were produced by a kind of assembly line process, with one person conceiving the outline and basic plot, then several others collectively fleshing out the details at the rate of one book per couple of weeks. (This account and the details above and below are from Consuming Literature: Best Sellers and the Commercialization of Literary Production in Contemporary China by Shuyu Kong.)
There was another Xue Mili Fever shortly after City Tank was published, which saw Sichuan Art and Literature Publishing House collecting the Xue Mili books and the disgraced authors of the original novels writing a tell-all book about the caper and the shittiness of being a literary author in the '80s and '90s.

Speaking of literary ripoffs, I am reminded of Jia Pingwa collecting bootleg editions of Abandoned Capital, including some that contained very few elements of the original work. Apart from obvious bullshit, there was also less obvious bullshit, like Imperial Capital《帝京》by an author calling himself Lao Jia 老贾, described charitably by one reviewer as a "companion piece" Abandoned Capital. It was a time of literary hoaxes and scams and ripoffs, which is what Qiu Huadong is getting at here, putting Old K in a fancy apartment furnished with expensive stereo equipment and disco mood lighting, all paid for off scams.

After cashing out, that’s when Old K got the idea that it was time to win a Nobel. He asks Zhou Sese: “What does Marquez have that I don’t have? What does Toni Morrison have that I don't have?” He borrows stacks of literary fiction from his poet friend and gets to work studying it. He tries his hand first at an epic poem that doesn't really work, then he gets real inspiration: write about these Beijing artists! The book he plans to win the Nobel with is called Sperm of the Sun (this is mentioned in the first chapter). This is the way he has described it to Zhou Sese:
"The way I see it, we're all the sperm of the sun! Let me ask you, what is sperm? It's the most dynamic living thing in the world! Those little tadpoles are what allows us to propagate our species. If you filled a teacup full of cum, you'd have enough sperm in there to impregnate five billion women. That's enough to repopulate the planet. That is the power and the function of sperm. And the sun, the sun is what supports and controls life and death on this planet. And the artist is the sperm of the sun, the thing that sprays into the pussy of our societies and then is born as human civilization and history. At any moment, we could see the birth of twins, triplets, quadruplets of human civilization! Just think about it, all of you are the sperm of the sun! You have a mission. Therefore, to strike a blow against Western cultural hegemony, to describe the true state of Third World culture, and to express my utmost esteem for all of you, I plan to recite the first chapter of my novel in Li Shuangyuan's ultra-avant-garde multimedia performance space."
When they get to Old K’s house, he gives them a tour. It’s pure ‘90s nouveau riche playboy style, and, just as the rumors had it, his studio is full of a massive collection of foreign pornography.

Suddenly, there is a knock at the door and in walks Wu Limei 吴丽美, executive at an ad firm called Elephant, thick, super long eyelashes. Zhu Wen rushes over to introduce himself. More girls arrive: Wang Tao 汪涛 and Zhang Xuemei 章雪梅, both nurses and both incredibly tall, and Ke Manman 柯漫漫, who Zhu Wen speculates has never brought herself to orgasm with her own hand (then Old K whispers to him something to the effect of, Go for it, she’s a spitfire in the sack).

And the men there are: Li Shuangyuan 李双元, the art critic, Tan Liyang 谭力扬, a bureaucrat, who brought the nurses with him, and another, unnamed guy that looks like a 1930s French Concession secret agent. (They don't really figure into the events of this chapter.)

Old K throws on a CD, the music starts going, and the drinks are flowing. Everyone pairs off for a while, leaving Zhu Wen left out, but after a while, Old K sidles up to him to say: I saw the way you were checking out Wu Limei, go ask her to dance.

Zhu Wen asks her to dance. What follows is a lengthy ode to her sublime thickness. But eventually he decides it's time to do more than dance—he should try to engage her in light conversation:
"So... Elephant, huh? You guys sell elephants or what?" That was my idea of a joke.
"The idea behind the name is that we can talk up a mouse until it looks like an elephant. We do advertising, marketing, and design. You should give us a call sometime. Maybe we could help you out. I heard you're an artist. How much does one of your paintings go for?"
"I'm actually doing installation works right now. The canvas can no longer contain me. There's nothing you can do for me. Well, maybe there's something... Let's go back to my place and I'll show you."
She twisted away from me and shouted, "Pervert! I know what you people are like, you artists, with your long hair and your dirty socks. When's the last time you took a bath? I know what's on your minds. Perverts, all of you."
"You don't understand," I protested. "You don't know what our world is like."
He looks for another dance partner and seeks out one of the tall nurses. He only comes up to her nose and dancing is a bit awkward. He attempts to apologize for a misstep and the nurse interrupts him, absentmindedly saying, “Uh-huh.”
She was looking down on me, literally and figuratively. I suddenly had the urge to pour my heart out to her—or to anyone at all who would listen. Since I was dancing with her, I decided I might as well tell her what was on my mind. I started telling my story, starting with how my girlfriend was a crazy bitch, how I was chasing my dreams as an itinerant artist, how I was moving toward new frontiers in art, how I was close to starving to death. I gave her everything I had. I felt like I was on the verge of clawing out an ounce of flesh to present to her. She nodded along and said, "Uh-huh-uh-huh-uh-huh-uh-huh." She hadn't heard a word I said. I looked up and saw that she was staring over me at Old K. When I realized what was happening, I felt a wave of revulsion. That woman disgusted me. Anyone that uh-huh-uh-huhs and nods along with a man pouring his heart out, all while looking at another man—what kind of woman is that? A sick woman.
She was nothing but a plastic person. She would always be looking over my head. I didn't exist to her. All she cared about was being next in line for that lying bastard Old K. I couldn't swallow the rage that was bubbling up inside of me. Fuck her, I thought to myself. A goddamn nurse was looking down on me. I never thought that would happen. I felt supreme loneliness.
I sat by myself for a while, trying to figure out what had made me go along with Zhou Sese. I'd hoped I'd be able to fill my belly, at least, but all I got was a couple weak drinks. I went to the kitchen and started looking for something to eat. I devoured half a roast chicken and a bunch of smoked quail eggs.
Zhu Wen collapses on the couch, finally satisfied. That's when Ke Manman emerges from the darkness.
"I want to dance with you," she said.
She was inviting me. I stood up and put an arm around her waist. "Why did you want to dance with me?"
"I think you and me are a lot alike. We're both lonely. Have you ever been divorced? This is my first. Two years married, a year since we ended it. Do you know what it's like to be married? It's like being forced to walk around in shoes that don't fit right. I've got to leave this country. The thing is, I want to have more than one kid. It's not that I'm against family planning, but I don't want someone else planning my family for me. I want to have a whole bunch of half babies, half white and half Chinese, all running around me, like a bunch of chickens! That's why I need to go to either Canada or New Zealand. I can't stand Chinese men. They're filthy. They're selfish. They're sadistic. They're hypocrites. No morals. I made that mistake once and I won't do it again. My husband thought he was going to keep me locked up. I don't want to live in a cage. So, the way I see it is..."
She kept going. I'd thought she was cold but she was in fact overflowing with dreams and intense desires. She was just like me. Everyone was looking for someone to dump their emotional baggage on. I tried to listen but I probably looked a lot like that tall nurse, nodding along and mumbling, "Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh-uh-huh."
That fatal loneliness gripped me again. The world was emptied of everyone except for me. The mountains in the distance, the sun set over them only for me. The rivers that ran to the sea, they flowed only for me. The wildflowers in the field, they opened only for me. Loneliness is a potent hallucinogen. I'd smoked weed before and that didn't compare to this. It just left me giggling and weeping. I felt as if I was floating in that dark room. I suddenly thought about my Yan Tong: her pale face and her crazy eyes. Have you completely lost your mind yet, Yan Tong? What is it like for you, down there in that rainy little bullshit town? You told me you'd go crazy without me. Were you telling the truth? My body seemed to rotate in the dark, sparking with pain. I couldn't stop thinking about her, my Yan Tong, sick in the head. I wanted to gaze into her eyes again, those mad, empty eyes, deep and dark as an abyss. I wanted to plunge into her like I was falling down into a Yarlung Tsangpo ravine. I wanted to lay my head on her belly and sob. But she wasn't there. She was a thousand miles away, slowly losing her mind.

Chapter 8: Zhu Wen attempts to sell out, and I discuss Jie Lu's academic work on the novel and how all the artists mentioned in this book are millionaires now.

Chapter 9: as an STD panic grips the city, Zhu Wen finally busts.

Chapter 10: Zhu Wen's experiences creamy discharge and pain during urination, then heads off to the mountains, and I discuss whether Chinese novels really are under-edited.


&: Minor Novels of the 1990s Reading Club: City Tank (6)

(Tibet, dead girlfriends, a big bathtub)

We're still reading Qiu Huadong’s City Tank, the story of Zhu Wen, an unsuccessful artist, living in Beijing's East Village in the mid-1990s.

In the third chapter, Zhu Wen gets eight hundred yuan in the mail from his ex-girlfriend, goes for pizza, gets invited by Qin Song out to an embassy party, and, on the way there, meets a sweet American girl with a boyfriend. In the fourth chapter, Zhu Wen meets yet another foreign woman, argues with her about art, goes in for a kiss, then gets blackout drunk because he thinks he's not good enough for her. In the fifth chapter, we get a look at life in the East Village artists' colony, with a Zhang Huan stand-in covering himself in honey and flies, and two famous foreign artists stopping by for a visit.

The sixth chapter moves away from the East Village performance artists and wandering Native Americans, and puts us back on the tail of Zhu Wen, who is about to run into a woman we met previously in the dance hall, and we catch up with Gai Di 盖迪, who is mentioned in passing in the first chapter.

Zhu Wen has some money left, but he's tired of starving. He’s put Qin Song in charge of selling his paintings, and a few Canadians are interested, but he hasn’t seen any money yet. He goes out and comes back with a sheaf of newspapers and scans the want ads. And what luck! There’s an advertisement seeking an in-home art tutor.

The ad was placed by a woman named Yu Hong 喻红 (a name shared a painter from Xi'an, who also made her name in the 1990s art scene that Qiu is writing about in City Tank). The final offer is three lessons a week at fifty yuan a pop. He figures her for a bored housewife with money to burn, especially when he finds out she lives in the Oversea Chinese Village 华侨村. Even though he’s not sure what he could possibly teach her, other than basic technique, he arranges a meeting for that afternoon.

On his way to the meeting, he runs into Gai Di, the lead singer of a local band. Gai Di has just returned from a Tibet. He tells Zhu Wen that his girlfriend is dead. Zhu Wen pats him on the shoulder and says, "Stay strong, brother!"

He arrives at the fancy compound and gets buzzed up. When he meets Yu Hong, he can’t shake the feeling that he’s seen her someplace before. As he settles into a Kent chair in her massive living room, he finally remembers: she was the woman that approached him after the fight at the bar (see: summary of the third chapter). It was his bitchy comment that night about her being a fake art lover that pushed her to learn how to paint.

When Zhu Wen jokes about being a live-in teacher, Yu Hong quickly agrees. Zhu Wen asks about her husband and learns that he has little to do with his wife, and she spends most of her time at home alone. Before the lesson begins, Yu Hong suddenly insists that Zhu Wen take a bath first:
The bathroom was huge, probably close to a couple hundred square feet, with a massive tub, a high-end toilet, and a full-length mirror. Everything was tiled with gleaming white porcelain, white as a movie star's teeth. On the back of the toilet was a volume of Simone de Beauvoir's Selected Work. The thought of Yu Hong sitting on the toilet reading Simone de Beauvoir made me laugh. That's what these rich women do. It's ridiculous. They have all the time and money in the world, free to sit on the toilet and read Simone de Beauvoir. What does that mean? It means that they've never been liberated and they've never rebelled against anything.
He luxuriates in the bath for a while, imagining the private life of his new benefactor. When he gets out, he discovers that she’s left him a surprise.
When I got out of the bath, I found a pair of underwear. New underwear! Yu Hong might've been a Philistine, but at least she cared about the cleanliness of her artist friends. Without women, this would be an even filthier world. They're like a type of disinfectant. They purify bad breath and semen, and give us plump little babies.
I slipped out of the bathroom and Yu Hong's little dog ran over and stared me down again. It was intimidating. While I was in the bath, she'd been feeding him liver. "This is all he'll eat," she said. "I love this dog. But I've been thinking, maybe it's time for a new pet." She flipped her hair back and said, casually, "How was the bath?"
"Good bath. I feel like a new man. Wait, what kind of new pet? A monkey?"
"No," she smiled, "maybe a pangolin. I've always liked pangolin. I even ate one, once."
"You're crazy. It'd eat its way out of here and dig into the subway. They're ugly as hell, too."
"They can only dig like that in the dirt. A pangolin can't go through concrete. Should we get started?"
The lesson begins and they sketch for a while, then Zhu Wen shows her how to paint by dripping blobs of paint on the sheet and blowing them into trees. There's something sweet and innocent about the scene, with Zhu Wen returning to his roots, I guess, and enjoying the company of Yu Hong, who is intelligent and perceptive. For all the talk about art in the book, you might start to wonder why all these people are down in the East Village starving. This is the first time anyone expresses any enjoyment of the craft of it.

Yu Hong enjoys herself, too, and is fascinated by the lives of the vagrant artists, who seem to live on another planet. Zhu Wen gets paid, but it doesn't end there. He invites her out to the Palm Beach Bar 棕榈滩酒吧 to see Gai Di play:
I could tell Yu Hong was a bit nervous. She told me she'd never been to a place like that before. The way she said it, it was like we were walking into a lion's den, rather than a bar. I told her that everyone there was cool and that we'd just have a seat somewhere. The dance floor was getting full and the sound of music was rattling my ear drums. Yu Hong was dressed slightly too formally, in a long gown with the back cut out. She looked out of place. But whatever, she was a classy lady, so it made sense. I still couldn't figure her out. I looked around for Gai Di and spotted him over at the bar, drinking with his band and scanning the dancefloor. I figured he probably hadn't seen me. It was too fucking dark in there to see anything. I could just make out that each member of the band had their instruments by their sides. That must mean they were getting ready to take the stage soon.
"That guy over there," I said to Yu Hong, pointing at Gai Di, "the tall, skinny guy, sipping the beer, that's Gai Di."
"That guy? Why does he looks like he's angry at the world?"
"His girlfriend just died. They were out in Tibet. I met her a few times. They grew up together. Her name was Lu Liang. Very sweet girl. One day, she started talking about all this spiritual stuff, about what was going to happen to her after she died. She ended up running off to Tibet. He went looking for her. She was in a little village out there. I guess she came down with typhoid, before he got there. He only got to spend a short time with her before she died. She died in his arms." I was only sort of making it up.
Yu Hong listened but I could tell she didn't really understand the story. I suppose it came down to not understanding Tibetan culture. Han culture is all about this life, but Tibetan culture is focused on what comes after. It's two different things. It was hard to understand a Han girl rushing off to Tibet on a pilgrimage, though. I looked across the bar at Gai Di. I wasn't sure what I thought of the story either, and I couldn't sort my feelings out.
Zhu Wen relates the story of the first time he met Gai Di. He was busking in a park:
I sat down to listen. Beijing had no shortage of this type of wandering musician, but there was something pure in the singer's voice—something that moved me. Maybe it was the purity of youth. Maybe it was the naked desire in his voice. He was pouring his soul into it. As I sat there, listening to him, I wondered if I might be able to get to know him, maybe make friends with him. When he was done singing, I saw two pretty American girls in jean shorts go over and drop a few coins in front of him. They were followed by a seventeen or eighteen year old Chinese girl, who dropped even more. What was I supposed to do? I felt in my pocket and took out a crisp fifty yuan bill. When everyone was gone, I went up and gave it to him. "Let's go get something to eat. I'll get you some Xinjiang barbecue—fifty skewers!" That was the first time we met. We liked each other right away. The only problem was that he was a bit younger than me. Compared to him, I came off pretty calm and rational.
Zhu Wen relates the story of Gai Di, who despite his Beijing residency, wound up running away from home, eventually stumbling into a contract with a Hong Kong music producers looking for homegrown campus singers, and then breaking the contract to hit the streets again.

Back at the Palm Beach Bar, the band takes the stage and Gai Di sings a passionate ballad about his dead girlfriend.
He'd ended up losing her, I thought to myself, but she had found herself. She had moved on to another world. She had been born brand new.
We were still living, though. Red worms swimming around in the dyeing vat. Gai Di stepped off the stage and I ran over to hug him. I pulled him back to sit with me. Yu Hong had already ordered a couple bottles of good brandy. She had read our minds. I didn't know what she was spending all that money for, but I didn't care. We started to drink and Gai Di told us what had happened in Tibet.
Mountains all around, he said, with snow on them that would never melt. He said that life was hard in Tibet, but everyone was happy, because they knew that their present life was nothing, that they were just dust in the wind. Gai Di went all over Lhasa looking for Lu Liang but he couldn't find her. He slept during the day and went out at night to sing in the bars. One time, he got into a thing with a Kham boy and the kid wanted to stab him, but as soon as he heard Gai Di sing, he put the knife up and said that they were brothers. He met an old Buddhist woman who told him to head west. She said you had to go west to find the source of everything, to find the road home. Gai Di took her advice. He went west and that's where he found Lu Liang. She was close to the end, but she smiled when she saw him.
Zhu Wen drinks too much and gets too sad. He falls down and smacks his nose on the floor. "At that moment," Zhu Wen thinks, "I felt so much pain in my heart, it was like I was feeling the pain of all humanity. And nobody could save me. Nobody!" In a blackout, he tells everyone to fuck off, collapses again. He's vaguely aware of being taken somewhere in a car, and when he sees Yu Hong's face looming over him, he tries to tells her to fuck off, too, but he starts vomiting midway through. He asks himself: "Why do I have to be in so much pain?"

Chapter 7: Zhu Wen is at a low point in his life as he gets rejected by various woman at a party held by Old K, and I discuss how I can't write about how I identify with him.

Chapter 8: Zhu Wen attempts to sell out, and I discuss Jie Lu's academic work on the novel and how all the artists mentioned in this book are millionaires now.

Chapter 9: as an STD panic grips the city, Zhu Wen finally busts.

Chapter 10: Zhu Wen's experiences creamy discharge and pain during urination, then heads off to the mountains, and I discuss whether Chinese novels really are under-edited.

&: Minor Novels of the 1990s Reading Club: City Tank (5)

(Gilbert and George, dead flies and honey, propositioned in a park, the Wandering Hunter)

Back to Qiu Huadong’s City Tank, the story of Zhu Wen, an unsuccessful artist, living in Beijing's East Village in the mid-1990s.

In the first chapter, he met a prostitute from the Northeast and couldn’t get it up, then chased her off as soon as she was nice to him, then planned an exhibition with some art world friends. In the second chapter, he hangs out with his friend Zhou Sese, who gets shouted down by teenagers who are supposed to be listening to his lecture on poetry, and then they hang out by the river where Ge Mai killed himself and reminisce about other literary suicides. In the third chapter, Zhu Wen gets eight hundred yuan in the mail from his ex-girlfriend, goes for pizza, gets invited by Qin Song out to an embassy party, and, on the way there, meets a sweet American girl with a boyfriend. In the fourth chapter, Zhu Wen meets yet another foreign woman, argues with her about art, goes in for a kiss, then gets blackout drunk because he thinks he's not good enough for her.

This chapter makes reference to a handful of real world events, but it begins with something more mysterious… What do we do with the first half of this chapter, which starts with Qin Song and Zhu Wen standing on the roof of a luxury hotel, looking out on the countryside around Beijing, and then quickly slides into the story of a Native American Vietnam veteran coming to visit? Is it meant to be a dream? Maybe. But it starts with Zhu Wen waking up from a dream of fields of wildflowers on the outskirts of the city.

The Native American—the “Wandering Hunter”—is welcomed into their village, drinks with them (who’s there? Zhu Wen and Qin Song, Qin Song’s girlfriend, An Mo, and also Feng Yue 冯月, the photographer Yan He 严河, and the painter He Xiangcao 何香草), and shows them a bullet wound. After the “Wandering Hunter” burned down a village in Vietnam, the lone survivor—a young boy—shot him in the ribs. He sings them the history of his people and how they were wiped out by Europeans. Zhu Wen weeps, imagining the destruction of the noble clan, while looking around at the filth and depravity of his artists’ colony on the edge of the Fourth Ring Road. Finally, the “Wandering Hunter” grabs He Xiangcao and carries her off.

The next morning, the “Wandering Hunter” emerges from He Xiangcao’s room, and he wanders off into the sunrise.

What does it all mean? Maybe there’s some point about consumption of global culture, recycling this Western literary trope into a Chinese urban novel (the scene of the Native American Vietnam vet consumed like a slice of pizza by Zhu Wen?), something about the commodification of culture, or maybe it’s meant to connect back to the post-kiss daydream about the cycle of humanity and the disappearance of the Mayans… I couldn’t tell you. That’s why I like it.

We quickly return to the reality of life in the East Village:
"Come and eat!" It was the voice of the woman that ran a kitchen on the east side of the village. A dozen or so of paid her a bit of money every month to cook lunch. I was standing behind Qin Song in line to get my food. He turned around when he noticed me.
"Hey," he said, "you've heard of Gilbert and George, right? They do a bunch of photography and performance work. They put on a show in Beijing last year. It was a way bigger deal than Jörg Immendorff or Miró or whoever. These two are living masters! They're actually going to see my performance today!"
Qin Song was like an excited little dog.
I put out my plate to get served: one scoop of vegetables and then two mantou. "What the hell is this? Cabbage and tofu? You didn't even use any oil. Might as well give me a bone to gnaw on, like a damn dog." Qin Song, Feng Yue and I all started bitching about the food at the same time. The fat, freckle-faced Miss Liu stared back at us.
"Where the hell did all the money go?" someone else shouted from the line. "Did you cram it up your box and lose track of it? We wanna eat meat! Where's the goddamn meat?" Miss Liu frowned and said, "What you give me would be barely enough to a couple chickens. I might as well, too. At least a hen lays eggs. What do I get out of you? If you want to eat meat, pay for meat."
We all walked off, still grumbling about the food, concluding that there was nothing we could do. I had just put the three hundred yuan I had left in the bank and vowed not to touch it. I had treated Yan Tong badly enough. I couldn't bring myself to blow the money she had sent me. I figured, if she ever visited me in Beijing again, I could buy her a skirt or something. I followed Qin Song and Feng Yue through the village and went into my room and ate.
I decided to lay down for a while. I couldn't stop thinking about Yan Tong. I was remembering her bristly little bush, the warmth and softness of her body... What is it like to be loved by a crazy bitch? Suffering. I didn't know how that situation could possibly turn out well. One fate would be to turn into her little husband, a typical Chinese husband, carrying out my filial duties, working myself to death for my wife and kids... I couldn't decide if I had it in me.
Zhu Wen is roused from his reverie by a disturbance outside:
I figured I'd better go out to have a look. Everyone in the village was crowding around to see what was going on. I saw a bunch of kids running behind Feng Yue. His bald head was still gleaming, but his body seemed to be covered in something. When I looked closer, I saw that he was covered in flies. I figured he must have smeared himself with something—maybe honey, maybe fish guts? Something had to have attracted the flies. I guessed it must've been some kind of performance art, but I couldn't figure out what the hell he was trying to do.
Zhu Wen's befuddlement is certainly played for laughs, since we are about to witness Qiu Huadong reenacting in City Tank one of the most important works of contemporary performance art in history. This is a Zhang Huan 张洹 performance piece, "12 Square Meters” 《12㎡》in which he covered his body in honey and fish oil on a hot day in the summer of 1994 (it might have been at the end May, and it might have been at the start of June, right ahead of the big anniversary), rolled around in a public bathroom, then submerged himself in a nearby pond (once again, see: Robin Visser's "Spaces of Disappearance: 1990s Beijing art, film, and fiction in dialogue with urbanization" in the Jie Lu-edited China’s Literary and Cultural Scenes at the Turn of the 21st Century).

In a photo by Rong Rong 荣荣 (is Qin Song playing the Rong Rong role in this chapter?), Zhang Huan waits for the flies to gather. It seems unlikely that Qiu Huadong was there to see it himself, so the photos by Rong Rong are probably how he experienced it, too.

In an interview (this is quoted in Katie Hill's "Why the Manic Grin? Hysterical Bodies: Contemporary Art as (Male) Trauma in Post-Cultural Revolution China," which is a chapter in Burden Or Legacy: From the Chinese Cultural Revolution to Contemporary Art, edited by Jiehong Jiang), Zhang says: "I could feel [the flies] eating the liquid in my body. Some were stuck but did not stop eating. I could even tell that they were more interested in the fish liquid than the honey because there were more flies on the left part of my body, where that liquid was."

Visser suggests the performance was about "the intentional cheapening of the body (the human, the city) by sweetening its appeal to the craven flies hovering about (real estate developers, profiteers)," and I suppose that's as good an explanation as any. I've been trying not to record my own confusion and vague hostility toward these performance artists. My first thought, though: everyone in the village should've thanked him for clearing the flies out of the bathroom.

And we return to Qiu Huadong's reenactment .
Behind Feng Yue and the kids came Qin Song, snapping pictures. An old man standing beside me said, "It's a crime against heaven!" A few women that were walking up the road spotted Feng Yue and dashed out of his path. Feng Yue kept walking, as if marching to the gallows to martyr himself. Nobody could stop him—except the police, and there weren't any cops around. Feng Yue came to a pond at the edge of the village and walked into the water. As he got deeper, flies started to fall into the water, until there was a layer of them across the surface of the pond.
He'd been preparing for the performance for a month, according to the police report. They arrived shortly after he finished, tracking him down at the room he rented. They ripped down everything he had tacked up on the walls and dragged him off. None of us had been around when they'd come, but we stopped by the next morning and found a note on the door that said: "I will return."
Zhu Wen remembers Feng Yue and his disturbing presence in the village. His philosophy of destroying the old to bring about the new was developed in a small, rainy town in Hunan. He had been raised beside a cemetery in Hunan, always in the shadow of death. He recalls a story about Feng Yue at the Central Academy of Fine Arts: he was painting a model, a beautiful woman, and produced a canvas that reduced her perfect form to a pile of meat scraps. His professors were furious and vowed to get him kicked out. He held his head high and left by himself.

Feng Yue never returned to the village.

And back to the story of Gilbert and George. This is certainly the reenactment of a real life event, as well, although Qiu Huadong plays with the chronology a bit (the Zhang Huan performance was in the summer of 1994 but Gilbert and George visited the East Village several months earlier, in September or October of 1993).

The arrival of foreign artists in Beijing was a big deal at the time, and Qin Song recounts a few other notable visits, including one by a German painter, Jörg Immendorff (see: Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-garde Art in New China by Kate Smith for more on those Western artists visiting, although she doesn't have much to say about Gilbert and George). Two two British performance and photo artists were in town for their own exhibition and received an invitation to see what was going on in the East Village.

In this photograph, Ma Liuming 马六明, resident of the East Village and a frequent collaborator with Zhang Huan, is flanked by the two British artists (Qiu Huadong has Zhu Wen describe them as upright gentlemen of a kind never seen before in the East Village, wearing fine Italian suits, and I guess, again, that he is going by these photographs, too, not having been there to see the performance), still dripping blood.
The artists showed them their studios, hoping for a response to their work... Ma Liuming recalls how he, along with East Village artists, felt "frustrated when they could not get a response from Gilbert and George on their works: perhaps they did not appreciate it, or were unable to understand its artistic context." In reaction to this lack of response, Ma Liuming took off his shirt and started a performance that he titled Dialogue with Gilbert and George, in which he staged a series of poses using red paint to cover his body, as though it were blood coming out of a transfusion. Throughout the performance, which lasted for approximately 20 minutes, Gilbert and George remained highly composed, but not completely in character. Perhaps, they were not ready to become the audience of a work by another performance artist. (This is from Performance Art in China by Thomas J. Berghuis, which also contains the picture below, and several more of their visit, as well as Ma Liuming's performance.
Considering their reaction, it’s interesting that Qiu Huadong has Zhu Wen musing on how depending on the approval of foreign artists kills local talent

In City Tank, it’s Qin Song who performs for them.

Qin Song puts on Pink Floyd’s The Wall and starts his performance, which involves him groping around in a trance, and ends with Zhu Wen giving him a kiss. Gilbert or George pronounce it the finest performance art they’ve seen in the country so far, and Qin Song starts a lecture about how sexuality is the way that people connect. When Gilbert and George leave, Zhu Wen and Qin Song bullshit about what they fear the most (Qin Song is scared of the cops).

Alright, and now the chapter’s fourth act, the arrival of Xu Yi 徐义, a painter from Sichuan with sad, pretty eyes:
He told us he'd been living over by Yuanmingyuan for a while, but the group of artists over there hadn't all been to his liking. Someone sent him our way. Our little village was becoming more lively by the day. When Xu Yi had first arrived in Beijing, he'd been completely broke, so he slept in a bus station. During the day, he set himself up in a park and sold portraits for ten yuan each. When another painter set up at another corner in the park, he dropped his price to five yuan. That broke his heart, though, so he figured he'd forget about art for a while. He tried to make a living washing cars. The city grinds people down. He went out each day with a plastic bucket and a rag, making five yuan a car. After a while, he was washing cars in his dreams. He decided he'd go crazy if he kept at it. Eventually he got chased out of the bus stop by an old night watchman and started crashing in the space between parked buses. Eventually, the night watchman caught him sleeping there, too. He skulked off and didn't return.
Xu Yi decided he might as well just sleep in the park. He went over to Dongdan Park and bedded down in a thicket. Just as he was falling asleep, a man started shaking his shoulder. The man told Xu Yi that he'd been following him all day, from Beihai to Dongdan, and he wanted him to know that he was in love with him. This man was a homosexual. Xu Yi was a bit frightened because he had never met a homosexual before. I'd heard before that gay guys used to cruise in Dongdan Park. They did the same thing in a couple of the subway bathrooms. Xu Yi told the guy he understood, but he wasn't interested. The man wouldn't take no for an answer, and Xu Yi had to run for it, eventually spending the night outside a hospital morgue.
Zhu Wen has some thoughts on itinerant artists that hope to free themselves of society’s constraints and become great artists. But, fuck it, Zhu Wen decides, he was the same once, too, and Xu Yi had a rough life. His father died when he was five, his mother remarried, and his stepfather beat the shit out of him. When it looked like things might get better, he got passed over by the art school he wanted to attend, so he decided to go a different direction and pursue “non-mainstream art.”

Xu Yi got together the money to put on a piece of performance art, which sounds just as absurd as all of the other pieces of performance art in this book, and involved him writhing around and writing things on his face.

The chapter shifts abruptly to an anecdote about an artist named Zhong Xing 钟星, who came back to the village claiming he had met a prostitute, who fucked him for free, all because he was an artist! Zhu Wen concedes that the story might be true, but he finds it more likely that Zhong Xing simply ran out when she took off her skirt. But this is to set up the conclusion, which is something like: Xu Yi and Zhong Xing are both alike, both full of shit...
We are all specks, pitifully scraping by in life. What we take as bizarre or rude in others is essentially meaningless, a fraction of an instant in the planet's cycle of birth of destruction. What does it mean to dream of becoming a great master of your artform? It means as much as smear of dog shit on the bottom of a shoe. It's a joke. We are all beetles, flipped onto our backs by the hand of the universe, struggling in vain to flip ourselves back over. I take pity on the people that share this planet with me. They fight so hard, but the whole while, they're nothing but specks on a speck floating through the darkness of the universe.
Chapter 6: Zhu Wen gets a gig teaching art to a wealthy woman that needs art lessons, and we meet Gai Di, a rock n’ roll singer with a dead girlfriend.

Chapter 7: Zhu Wen is at a low point in his life as he gets rejected by various woman at a party held by Old K, and I discuss how I can't write about how I identify with him.

Chapter 8: Zhu Wen attempts to sell out, and I discuss Jie Lu's academic work on the novel and how all the artists mentioned in this book are millionaires now.

Chapter 9: as an STD panic grips the city, Zhu Wen finally busts.

Chapter 10: Zhu Wen's experiences creamy discharge and pain during urination, then heads off to the mountains, and I discuss whether Chinese novels really are under-edited.