This is what I'm going to do: I'm going to read this book—Qiu Huadong's City Tank—and write about it as I read it or until I think I've run out things to say. I will translate some of it, but I'd rather give a vibe or translate parts I think are special, rather than working through large portions (although, I will say, this does fit my personal criteria for work that I think is okay to put excerpts up of: it's widely available for free online in the original, it's more than two decades old, it's a relatively minor work, and the chances that it makes its way into a more official translation are relatively slim).
Qiu Huadong 邱华栋 is another writer, like Cao Zhenglu 曹征路, that I had a vague awareness of, but had never actually read. The two men write about the same places—big cities—and came to prominence around the same time, but while Cao writes from the perspective of men and women that arrive in the city to work in factories and on construction sites, Qiu writes about middle class strivers (Laifong Leung calls Qiu the "first writer to meticulously portray China's rising middle class") and the artists that they patronized, as well as art scene hangers-on and all the "lunatics, homosexuals, narcissists, and petty bourgeoisie" (as he describes them in the first chapter of the novel) that came along with them. These are the Beipiao 北飘, the "Beijing drifters," that washed up in the city in the ‘80s and ‘90s to make a go of things. (see also: Zhang Yuan's 张元 1993 film Beijing Bastards《北京杂种》and Wu Wenguang's 吴文光 film Bumming in Beijing 《流浪北京》[you can find this on Youtube]).
Qiu was at the center of a new school of urban fiction that has gone by various names, including xin zhuangtai xiaoshuo 新状态小说, new reality fiction (or, literally, new state of affairs fiction?), or simply xin shimin xiaoshuo 新市民小说, new urbanite fiction (there is more dicussion of this in Robin Visser's "Urban Ethics: Modernity and the Morality of Everyday Life," which I found in Contested Modernities in Chinese Literature, edited by Charles A. Laughlin). Qiu was making observations of what he called the dushi xin renlei 都市新人类 (Visser translates this as "new urbanites" in "Spaces of Disappearance: 1990s Beijing, art, film, and fiction in the dialogue with urbanization" by Visser, which can be found in the Jie Lu-edited China’s Literary and Cultural Scenes at the Turn of the 21st Century, which also contains Jie Lu's own paper on Qiu, "Rewriting Beijing.") Like Cao Zhenglu, Qiu is grappling with the question of what to make of a postsocialist society, where there is more mobility but also less security, and "how to locate the 'independent artist' [liulang yishujia, literally, 'transient artist'] in the commercial exchange economy of Beijing" (from Visser's paper).
Qiu cranked out countless stories set in the city, but his 1997 novel, City Tank《城市战车》might be the best example. (Leung translates the title as Chariots in the City, but I'll stick with the translation that Jie Lu and Robin Visser have used in their academic work on the book, because it's the first one I read and it stuck. Same reason why I can never think of Jia Pingwa's Feidu《废都》as anything but Abandoned Capital, even though the official translation by Howard Goldblatt has it as Ruined City. Coincidentally, Robin Visser offers yet another alternate Feidu title translation, referenced further on.)
City Tank tells the story of Zhu Wen 朱文, a painter from Wuhan, who leaves behind his girlfriend for a new life in Beijing.
But we'll work with what we have.
The novel opens with Zhu Wen looking out on the city:
From a distance, the people look like trees. Especially when night comes, the city looks like a massive abdominal tumor, floating among the lights, with the shadows of all the people coming and going shifting under the glow. This is a city of shadows, thick as a forest with faint grey shapes. The city is a forest with a shadow river flowing in the darkness.
When I woke up that afternoon, I felt a tightness in my chest, and I figured I must have smoked too much the night before. But right as I got up to the Lufthansa Center, I doubled over and threw up in the filthy canal. I could see the tomatoes I had eaten the day before. The vomit looked like blood and brains mixed together. I remember back three years before, when I'd seen a guy laid out on a street in Wuhan, his head split open, a big crowd around him. Nobody in the crowd said anything. I pushed my way through and got a good look. The mess of blood and brain spread across the pavement looked as pretty as ice cream. Years later, when I went to a gelato shop Jianguomenwai, I was reminded of it again. I didn't feel anything while eating it, though.
I crouched for a while beside the canal, emptying my stomach contents. I felt better when I was done. I studied yesterday's meals until they slipped below the water. I figured it wouldn't be long before they became a banquet for some fish. Nothing gets wasted in this world.
I was always hungry. I guess you could call me a starving artist. I hadn't been in the city long, but it seemed intent on stripping me bare of everything I had. What was I going to give the city? Could I pluck some of my pubic hair as an offering? I'm sure the city was not particularly interested in receiving that. But there wasn't much more that I could offer. If you don't want my body hair, then screw you. I started laughing to myself, thinking about it.
Around me stood the luxurious and massive concrete carcasses of the Hotel Kunlun, Jingcheng Mansion, the Hilton, the Great Wall, and the Landmark. I figured there could be at least a hundred thousand people inside of them, all engaged in whatever noisy, exciting pursuits that had brought them inside. They probably had as little idea as to what they were really doing as I had. Who really knows what the hell they're actually doing? Everyone buzzes around like a fly, busy all the time. Standing beside that stinking canal, the faces in the crowd seemed to drift further away, sinking away from me like my vomit had.
The city! You great blind beast, you conceited monster, we came before you in shame, vomiting our guts out.
There was a scent in the air that reminded me of ether and my head started to go cloudy. I had been having strange dreams. In my dreams everyone had been turned into plants. They all turned into pansies, smiling, leering pansies. I wish I could drag some personification of this artistic world in front of me and give it a kick in the balls. I starve because of art. My creations were not enough to fill my stomach. But my appetite just kept growing. There was going to be a day when I could swallow the Lufthansa Center whole. I'd heard it was opened with some Germans, and there was a Kempinski Hotel inside. I'd swallow them, too, and their five-star hotel. I'd swallow the whole damn city and everyone in it. I'd let those shadow people float around in my guts, crying out for help.[Please forgive me any errors I've made translating names of these Beijing locations.]What follows is a lengthy description of the viruses and bacteria that Zhu imagines he can see crawling on every surface, and then a memory of a trip to the Hard Rock Cafe location at the Landmark. He finds himself back in front of the Hard Rock, hoping to catch sight of someone he knows. None of his friends are around, but he notices a girl (this is Yang Mei 杨梅) in a black gauze skirt:
Just as I was about to leave and go look for something to eat, I saw that the girl in the black gauze skirt had sidled up beside me. "Hey, mister. You wanna take me in? Maybe we can have some fun." I turned and looked at her. I figured her for one of the kind-hearted whores that worked this end of town. Girls like that are easy to figure out. They're bound by their own rules and customs, and once you're done, they won't pester you for a tip. But I was broke. I studied her face. She had exaggerated each of her features with various cosmetics, and the eye makeup was so thick I couldn't tell whether or not she had double-folded eyelids. She had decent tits that were overflowing from her little black bra. Her voice sounded like car wheels on a gravel road. Maybe she wasn't what I thought. I thought I detected a hint of a Northeastern accent.
I leaned toward her and said: "I'm broke, sweetheart. I'm so hungry I could swallow this whole building in one gulp. I can't bring you in there. I couldn't even bring myself in there." At that moment, a gang of foreigners rushed past us into the Hard Rock.Zhu Wen remembers some money that his ex-girlfriend sewed into a pair of shorts and he decides to spend it on her. He drags her back to his room but can't get it up. As they lay in bed together after the abortive hookup, Zhu Wen and Yang Mei get to talking.
I stared up at the ceiling. She sat up in the bed, looked around, and then started to try to comfort me. She lay her head on my chest and started to run her fingertips across my belly. But nothing was happening. We started talking instead. She told me that she was homesick. She came from a small town in the flatlands below the Khingan Mountains. Her younger brother had just passed away, her father was confined to his bed, and her mother had been forced to go out and make a living with a small stall in the market. She'd finished high school and was headed off to university, but her father needed a kidney transplant, and there was no way to pay her tuition.
After the news came that she would have to leave school, she knew she had to come up with some other plan. She hesitated for about a week after making up her mind, then finally went to sell her body. Three months later, she left her family a bit of money, and then went down to Beijing. "There was no other way," she said. "I had to do it. I needed the money, so I became a..." I was curled up on the bed like a little baby, listening to his mother talk. She looked around the decrepit hundred square foot apartment and seemed to suddenly notice all of the paintings hung on the wall and the scattered art supplies. "Wait, are you a painter or something?" she asked with surprise.Zhu Wen breaks down crying while telling Yang Mei about his lack of success as a painter. She takes pity on him, tries again to comfort him, and makes a meal of instant noodles. After they share their meal, Zhu Wen loses his temper, fishes out the money he had hidden in the shorts, presses it on her, then yells for her to get the hell out. She ends up taking a fifty from him and leaving, but right at that moment, Zhu Wen realizes he’s made a mistake. He yells out into the night after her. She’s already gone. He goes back into his room and ponders burning all his art. And right at that moment, his cock, which betrayed him earlier, finally stirs to life.
Zhu Wen's neighbor, a performance artist from Zhejiang, Qin Song 秦颂, arrives to invite him out to dinner at the Balixiang Restaurant 八里香餐馆. The guest list for the dinner includes a number of people from Yuanmingyuan village, the leader singer of a local band, a poet, the art critic Li Shuangyuan 李双元, and the painters Duan Qiong 段琼, Feng Yue 冯月, He Xiangcao 何香草.
Robin Visser has written extensively about Qiu Huadong's urban novels, and sheds some lights on the cultural scene in 1990s Beijing and how the author reported on it:
In addition to fictional characters, Qiu refers to well-known 1990s artists and events such as the poet Gu Cheng's suicide, Gu Wenda's hair sculptures, Xu Bing's postmodern installations, Cui Jian's rock concerts, Zhang Yuan's documentary The Square, Su Tong and Wang Shuo's Collected Works, and Jia Pingwa's novel City in Ruins. Qiu complicates his character mix by using the occasional pseudonym for actual artists, and the names of real artists for his fictional characters. (This is from "Spaces of Disappearance.")The conversation around the table at the restaurant is about what you would imagine, with Li Shuangyuan relating the latest news from the Venice Biennale and pondering post-colonialism and cultural hegemony, and a pair of independent filmmakers talking about their latest projects. While the artists are distracted discussing Hans Haacke, Richard Hamilton, and Nam June Paik, Zhu Wen devours all the best dishes on the table. Talk continues of the meaning of Chinese contemporary art, with Old K 老K sharing with the artists his plan to write a book—tentatively titled Sperm of the Sun—about Beijing in the 1990s. Zhu Wen shares with the reader some gossip about Old K, including the fact that his apartment is decorated with spent condoms blown into balloons, his frequent liasons with pretty young girls, and the size and provenance of his pornography collecton.
The lengthy talk at the table, which I haven't translated above, is the first of several instances of accounts of intellectual and artistic debates taking place in Beijing at the time, as Visser writes:
In debates about aesthetics with Westerners, Zhu Wen passionately explicates the rationale for an aesthetic transition away from the root-seeking nativism of the 1980s. On one occasion he gushes, 'I long for a new form for Chinese art—one which meets international standards and uses contemporary values to become one branch of international culture rather than merely promoting the nativist notion "the more ethnic the more international"' (p. 11). The narrative is peppered with transparent references to 1990s academic debates condemning 'ethnic' art (such as films by Zhang Yimou), which is seen to manipulate stereotypical Chinese images to gain Western approbation. The artists engage in countless discussions of aesthetics, tossing off terms such as 'postcolonial culture', 'pastiche', 'imitation' and 'globalism' to demonstrate their grasp of contemporary terminology in Western cultural criticism. (My emphasis, and this is from the same Visser paper.)But more on those debates as we come to them.
The meal ends on a more hopeful note, with the artists planning an exhibition of their work. And, for now, that's where we'll stop
Chapter 2: Zhu Wen hangs out with Zhou Sese, who gets abused by teenagers, and then they reminisce about recent literary suicides, and then I discuss Yuanmingyuan and other artists' colonies.
Chapter 3: Zhu Wen comes into some money and decides to go for pizza, then, on the way to an embassy party, he meets a sweet American girl with a boyfriend, and I discuss Hillary Clinton.
Chapter 4: Zhu Wen meets argues with and then kisses a foreign art dealer, then he gets blackout drunk, and I discuss Yu Dafu and self-loathing.
Chapter 5: an American Indian visits and then the novel reenacts a famous performance art piece by Zhang Huan, and I discuss Gilbert and George and real life events in City Tank.
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.