It might help to have some knowledge of Beijing geography before getting deeper into this City Tank. I never lived in Beijing, although I have visited it many times. The novel is full of references to places that I am only vaguely familiar with. I can pull up a map of Beijing and zero in on where some of the action takes place, but that map looks completely different than it looked at the end of the 1990s, and it’s impossible to visit most of those places now.
One of those places is East Village 东村. But to get there, you have to know what the West Village 西村 was. The West Village is also gone, now.
Beginning in the 1980s, students graduating from Beijing schools, like the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, found cheap lodging around Yuanmingyuan 圆明园 (and nearby Yiheyuan 颐和园, too, which I should mention since that is where Zhu Wen is headed in this chapter), the smashed remains of the Qianlong Emperor's palace, built from plans drawn up by a Jesuit brother. It stood for less than a century before it fell into disrepair, smashed up and looted by British and French soldiers in one of the Opium Wars, then scavenged and sold off during the later Qing and Republican Era, finally vandalized during the Cultural Revolution. You could look up Huang Rui's 黄锐 Yuanmingyuan: Rebirth《圆明园新生》which shows the ruins of the Western Mansion 西洋楼 looming like stone behemoths.
The artists of the 1980s were following a slightly earlier generation of pioneers, which included Huang Rui, who arrived shortly after the Red Guards cleared out and Reform and Opening began:
Other members of that same generation of rebels, now tempered by the struggles of the Cultural Revolution itself, returned to the Western Palaces in 1979. They were the editors of the samizdat literary journal Today (Jintian 今天) Mang Ke 芒克 and Bei Dao 北岛 who were joined by supporters and fans including a friend of the magazine, Chen Kaige 陈凯歌, later a prominent film-maker, to hold their own literary salon there. On that occasion, poetry was recited, stories told, speeches made, and a lot of alcohol consumed. They regarded the Yuan Ming Yuan as a public space free from official control, a cultural grey zone to which they could add their own stories. The poet Yang Lian 杨炼, a loquacious and prolific member of this group, composed an elegiac poem to the ruins.
It was in this tradition of bohemian fringe-dwelling that, from the late 1980s, the Yuan Ming Yuan became home to a community of artists, poets and cultural ne'er-do-wells. Because of its relative distance from the city, its borderland nature between urban and rural control and the fact that cheap accommodation could be rented from the local villagers, Fuyuan Village 福缘村, around what was one the Fuyuan Gate, the main entrance to the gardens for plunderers, developed for a time into the nexus of Peking's alternative cultural milieu. Many of the houses the artists rented were in the area of the Sceptre Lodge (Ruyi Guan 如意馆), where Jesuit missionary-artists like Giuseppe Castiglone had worked during the Qianlong reign.And, please, stop here, and read Geremie Barmé's "The Garden of Perfect Brightness: A Life in Ruins" (PDF) in full. It’s a tidy history of Yuanmingyuan, its destruction, its rebirth as an artists’ colony, and what happened to those artists.
So, I’d rather you just read Barmé's much more knowledgeable account of the end of Yuanmingyuan as an artists’ colony, but here it is briefly: pressure on the community around Yuanmingyuan began to build in the 1990s and there were waves of evictions, with artists being fined for illegal residence (I'm going by the account in Experimental Beijing: Gender and Globalization in Chinese Contemporary Art by Sasha Su-Ling Welland, but the number of artists, photographers, writers, and filmmakers around at the time means that there are innumerable accounts of the village and its dissolution). The community had produced its first superstar artists and the market for Chinese art was heating up (another Barmé recommendation: find a copy of In the Red, and turn to the chapter "Artful Marketing," which sets the scene—Beijing art world at in the 1990s—quite well), and there was a certain cachet to the vagrant artist image—so, you had artists fucking off to nicer quarters in Beijing or to New York or Berlin, and then younger artists that romanticized the scene trying to get in.
The community around Yuanmingyuan wasn't destroyed by the evictions and harassment of 1995, but constant threats led to the unofficial founding of other colonies. There's Songzhuang in Tongzhou, only ten miles out from the Fifth Ring Road, now part of Beijing, but deep countryside at the time. There was Caochangdi, too. And what would eventually become 798 Art Zone. And there was the East Village. This description collapses and distorts the timeline, because East Village forms before artists start getting evicted from Yuanmingyuan, but I hope it works as a rough sketch.
The tamest description of East Village calls it a "ramshackle collection of some 65 farmhouses bordering a garbage dump" (this description is from an Angie Baecker feature on Zhang Huan 张洹). Like the areas around Yuanmingyuan, it had become home to rural migrants, many of whom made a living in the recycling business. Beginning in the early 1990s, it attracted a group of artists that included Ma Liuming 马六明, Rong Rong 荣荣 (responsible for the photograph of the Beijing East Village sign), and Zhang Huan, who appears in City Tank pseudonymously, and in many other Rong Rong photos (find the one where he’s walking through East Village with Ai Weiwei 艾未未, only one where he’s smiling). East Village had a decidedly different character than other communities, less about a communal lifestyle and less open to foreign art collectors and journalists:
...the so-called East Village (Dongcun) in Beijing became the base for a group of migrant artists, who worked together closely and initiated a new trend in experimental art. Also unlike the communities at Yuanming Yuan and Songzhuang, the East Village artists developed a closer relationship with their environment—a polluted place filled with garbage and industrial waste—as they considered their moving into this place an act of self-exile. Bitter and poor, they were attracted by the "hellish" qualities of the village in contrast to the "heavenly" downtown Beijing. This contrast inspired them: all of their works during this period were energized by a kind of intensely repressed desire. (This is from: Making History: Wu Hung on Contemporary Art.)There are different accounts of how long the East Village lasted, but I trust Wu Hung's dates: the actual community existed between 1992 and 1994, and various artists kept working together until 1998 or so (see: Hung Wu's Rong Rong's East Village, 1993-1998, and A Chinese Independent Designer's History of Contemporary Art by He Hao 何浩, who covers some of the aftermath, including Rong Rong's time at Liulitun, which is where several East Village artists relocated, south of Chaoyang Park, before that area was also redeveloped).
In the first entry, Zhu Wen wakes up from a hangover, picks up a girl outside the Hard Rock, and goes to a dinner with a gang of artists, filmmakers, poets, and writers. We start the second chapter with Zhu Wen waking up from another hangover, planning to visit his friend, Zhou Sese, a poet, who lives over by Yiheyuan, near the West Village.
On his way to see Zhou Sese, who has gotten in a fight with some local toughs, Zhu Wen is excruciatingly horny. He gives a lengthy explanation of how women back then were becoming more and more dangerous, luring men in with hot pants and cleavage, then infecting them with gonorrhea, syphilis, and herpes. He compares his deep horniness to "a peasant revolt—the more the emperor tried to control his subjects, the more militant they became." Finally, thoughts turn from his boner to his friend Zhou Sese:
At Xizhimen, I got off the subway and transferred to the 375 bus, headed to Yiheyuan. Zhou Sese had been living over by Yiheyuan for quite a few years already and was fond of having guests over to hear him read his poetry and hold forth on his utopian literary theories. I'd heard that he'd recently been invited by a private firm to come by and put on a lecture. He went up to the front of the hall and wrote three names on the blackboard: Dante, Shakespeare, and Zhou Sese. He started the lecture with an introduction to Dante's poetic method, moving on to Shakespeare, and then he had launched into a lengthy explication of his own work. The audience stared back at him blankly. These businessmen had no expectations of the lecture and Zhou Sese himself, but at least one had been impressed enough to offer the poet a position as assistant general manager of his experimental farm. He had demurred, saying he needed to think it over. In the end, he had turned down the very attractive offer, electing to stay in his hovel near Yiheyuan, writing his utopian poetry. That was just one of the many reasons we all respected him so much. In such a materialistic age, it's no easy feat to turn down an easy life, and to hold onto the dream of being a wandering poet.Is there still a 375路 bus running in Beijing? I'm not sure. These days, you'd probably take Line 10 most of the way there. But so, when Zhu Wen arrives at Yiheyuan, he goes looking for Zhou Sese and gets directed to a lecture hall at a nearby university:
I found the hall and snuck into a seat in the back row. Zhou Sese stood at the front of the room, dressed all in white—a white blazer, white shirt, white slacks, a white bandage wrapped around his left leg—his black hair rising like a roaring flame over his head. His face wore a particularly solemn expression and he spoke in a low, deep voice that reminded me of whalesong. On the blackboard behind him was written: "The rebirth of contemporary Chinese poetry." This was a topic that he enjoyed speaking about. Even with his leg wrapped up, he refused to cancel his lecture. He looked like a tree, standing at the podium, or perhaps an injured bird of prey. I found myself unexpectedly moved. He didn't seem to have seen me enter.
"It's clear to me now that the renewal of contemporary Chinese poetry must come from an artist with a poetic spirit. 'Poetry' can't be simply a noun, but must be a verb. It has to be a living thing, bloody, constantly growing. To be a great poet means having wisdom, creativity, bravery, self-control... A great poet must have a conscience. They must liberate themselves, but they must be willing to take on the suffering of the masses, and have the determination lead them out of this filthy world. Who will support me?" He gestured passionately at the crowd, who kept absolutely still. There was deathly silence from the observers. They looked like choking victims in their final moments. What were they all thinking?
"What are your views on personal wealth?" another student asked. "Do you like money?"
"Poetry is useless. Right now, we need to be guided by concrete, rational ideas. I'm more worried about the auto industry and the housing market than I am poetry."
"You want to live like Gauguin or Van Gogh—but this is the Information Age! Whoever controls access to information, controls the world."
The teenage audience members kept popping up, and, at first, Zhou Sese answered each attack with patience and calm. He didn't look any more stressed than if he was taking a stroll in the park. But it wasn't long before he realized that he couldn't provide the sorts of answers that would satisfy them. Perhaps he thought these questions were below him. Perhaps neither side could understand the other.
I got a bit nervous for him. He kept his cool, but I could tell the questions were getting to him. In a way, he was trapped: even if the questions annoyed him, he had a lot of hope staked on these students, and he wanted to keep his connection to the younger generation. Finally, it was clear that the students were speaking a language that Zhou Sese did not understand, and he was responding to them in a language that they did not understand. The lecture slid into complete chaos. Any discussion of the renewal of contemporary Chinese poetry was completely abandoned. It's impossible for these young people to put any faith in poetry, I thought to myself. They believed in computers, in the information superhighway, in TV, in the lies that they heard in the media, in cultural fast food, in beautifying themselves and strutting around. Poor Old Zhou, they don't understand a word you're saying.
I stood and shouted across the lecture hall: "Zhou Sese! Get over here. Let's go. Don't waste your time here."Zhu Wen leads the thoroughly dejected Zhou Sese out of the lecture hall and they retire to the poet's rented room. There follows a long description of Zhou Sese's book collection. Zhu Wen finally gets around to what he's gone there for, and asks Zhou Sese who busted up his leg. We learn that Zhou Sese was in Beitaipingzhuang 北太平庄 and came to the defense of a migrant worker being harassed by some local thugs, who then turned on the poet, smashing his leg with a metal rod. Zhu Wen chastises him for risking his life to protect a stranger, but finds himself moved by his friend's courage. Zhou Sese fetches a notebook and begins reciting one of his poems. Zhu Wen figures the best way to cheer up his friend is to get him a prostitute:
"Make sure you wear a condom with these girls," I teased. "If you catch something, I don't want you to come crying to me."
He immediately shook his head. "No, I don't think that's appropriate. If you want to introduce a girlfriend to me, that's fine, but no—no, not that. I can't do it. Do you know how Babylon fell?"
"That's the one with the Hanging Gardens, right?"
"Right. It was a massive kingdom, close to a million citizens. That was truly incredible for the time. It was a powerhouse of trade and industry. It lasted for centuries, with no other power able to come close to it. The capital had a twenty-five mile wall around it, sixty feet high, and fifteen feet thick. There was no chance they would be attacked from the outside. But it was precisely that wealth and power, which made them impervious to assault from outside, that led to their downfall. It was the prostitutes that did it."
"It was prostitutes that brought down Babylon?"
"That's right. The rulers of the empire forced their subjects to convert to foul cults. The worst of those was the cult of the love goddess, Mylitta and Ishtar, an earth goddess, which involved devotees selling their bodies. The images of these two nude goddesses were carved on the city walls. The women of the city would bow to them. There were a group of sexual priestesses, who would live within a temple, working as prostitutes. There was no shame in it. They were called 'sacred prostitutes' by the government. Of course, the government took a cut of the profits, too. Eventually, other industries went into decline. Going to a prostitute was as ordinary as it is for us to smoke a cigarette. Venereal disease was rampant. The doctors they had then couldn't do anything to help them, either. They just sat around waiting for death to come. There were no longer any strong, healthy young men to defend the capital. Sometime around the 6th century, the Hittite Empire showed up and defeated them. All of the wealth generated by the prostitutes of Babylon and their masters ended up lining up their enemy's coffers."
The restaurant was deathly silent. A few people that had been listening in looked shocked. "What the fuck are you talking about?" I roared.The pair ride their bikes out past Beijing University's back gate to a canal that runs—or ran—near Tsinghua University, where the poet Ge Mai 戈麦 killed himself.
"He probably jumped in over there. Some people still say he might have just slipped. I'm inclined to agree that it was a suicide, though. His body floated until it hit that sluice gate. They found it a few days later. He flushed all his poems down the toilet. He thought he had a mark on him. He figured he could wash it away. That's why he jumped. You think he managed to wash it off?" I could smell Zhou Sese's boozy breath puffing at me in the dark. "Did finally manage to get free of himself?"
I had to say no to those questions. When I shook my head, I started to feel dizzy.
"March 26th, 1989, the great poet Hai Zi threw himself in front of a train in Shanhaiguan. Ge Mai killed himself in 1991. Gu Cheng did it in 1993. He killed his wife and then himself. Every two years. What does it mean to lose a poet?"The chapter ends with Zhou Sese quoting Haizi 海子 (quoting Osip Mandelstam?). The line is: 黄金在天上舞蹈，命令我歌唱 / "Gold dances in the sky: I'm ordered to sing."
I like the way that the three scenes in the chapter fit together: Zhu Wen lusting after teenagers in hot pants, who he imagines as deadly weapons that he must avoid, Zhou Sese confronted by teenagers that don't give a shit about poetry, and a meditation on the suicides of Hai Zi, Ge Mai, and Gu Cheng 顾城.
Qiu Huadong was barely halfway through his thirties when he wrote City Tank, but he would have been just at the age when you start to feel a fresh generation breathing down your neck. That breath would have felt even hotter in a city like Beijing, which was in the process of transforming itself completely, and in a country like China, attempting to vault itself into a new world by quietly stripping itself of what had previously defined it. Qiu was old enough to remember the Cultural Revolution, young enough to have been swept up in the idealism of the 1970s and 1980s. Throughout the chapter, Zhu Wen and Zhou Sese are confronted by teenagers, born after Reform and Opening. These kids are like vicious disease-carrying animals to Zhu Wen, who can’t stop getting a hard-on admiring them on the subway. When Zhou Sese tries to talk to them about poetry, it is as if he is speaking another language.
When Zhou Sese asks what it means to lose a poet, it’s a question from another time. Almost three decades on from the suicides of those Misty Poets (or Obscure Poets, whatever translation you prefer, but we will talk about the menglongshi 朦胧诗 later, I promise—I can't burn off all the material I have, with a dozen or so more chapters to go), we know the answer. It doesn’t mean shit. Zhou Sese is commanded to sing but everyone else has moved on.
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.