1/13/20

&: Minor Novels of the 1990s Reading Club: City Tank (3)

(artists and women, to screw foreigners is patriotic, self-loathing)

We're still reading Qiu Huadong’s City Tank. To recap we’ve got Zhu Wen, an unsuccessful artist, living in East Beijing. 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 he went out for dinner with some art world friends. In the second chapter, he hangs out with his friend Zhou Sese, who he sees trying to give a lecture on the contemporary Chinese poetry renaissance to a classroom of rowdy, materialistic youngsters that won’t listen to a word he says. They go hang out by the river where Ge Mai killed himself and reminisce about other recent literary suicides.

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

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



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

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

I like the idea of writing an introduction with the World Conference on Women as an anchor, then going into the misogyny of contemporary Chinese novels, but I don't have it in me. There's plenty to read on the subject and I'm not going to add anything.

It seems to me, a lot of these '80s and '90s urban novels were written in a time of limited sexual revolution in a deeply conservative country. These writers were getting to the evection of the libidinal self, or however David Foster Wallace put it, a few decades late (that is how he put it, and I know for sure because I just came across that line again in Elaine Blair's very good essay for the New York Review of Books, "Great American Losers"). Robin Visser called the "celebration of individuality and social freedom often expressed in sexual licentiousness" one of the "hallmarks of urban fiction of the 1990s" ("Urban Ethics: Modernity and the Morality of Everyday Life" in Contested Modernities in Chinese Literature).

I would also say, compared to Roth or Updike, it's much easier to read Qiu's novel as parody. Zhu Wen is not a misogynist hero but a bumbling pervert who pays for sex and can't get it up. I will once again recommend Geremie Barmé and the "To Screw Foreigners is Patriotic" chapter of In the Red, which opens with a scene of from A Beijing Man in New York《北京人在纽约》in which Wang Qiming王启明, played by Jiang Wen 姜文, bangs a white prostitute, and closes with a poem by Ouyang Sun in which he offers to inundate Australian women "with fresh cum / of the Yellow River and the Yangtse"—but it neatly summarizes the atmosphere of the time, including the feeling of self-loathing that had infected the literati.

But so, let's read the opening of the third chapter. (And a quick reminder: I'd rather you pick up the original! It's a breezy, modern novel, so it's easy to get through. An intermediate reading level is enough. You'll be reading the digital version, so it's nothing to look up words or references. It's not like back in the day, when you had to sit with a dictionary and look up characters by radical. A quick and dirty translation is included because it's more fun to read than my summary.)
I wanted to sing! Eight hundred yuan in the mail from the crazy bitch that almost ended up my wife! I really felt like singing. Eight clean, crisp banknotes. It was probably the richest I'd ever been in my life, so you can imagine how fucking poor I'd been. I wanted to be an artist and I thought I was pretty damn good at it, but I wasn't having much luck making a living at it.
I didn't know what I was going to do with the money. I felt a bit guilty about it, too. Yan Tong had treated me so much better than I had treated her. I couldn't tell you how many times I got crazy and hurt her just for fun. She was a good girl and I was an asshole. There's no denying that. But what was I supposed to do? Out of that two hundred she'd put in my shorts, I'd given fifty to that sweet Dongbei whore, and I'd given the rest to Zhou Sese. I didn't want him going around with a busted leg for the rest of his life. After I'd gone to see him, he spent the next two weeks in bed. That's not the kind of thing anyone should have to go through. It almost killed him, mentally. But the bastard had kept writing, even while he was in the hospital. He wrote a poem called "Suffering," while he was in there. You can probably imagine what that one was like. One day I went to see him and he was sitting up in bed, writing this poem he called "Happiness." It was for this girl that had gone to visit him and even brought him flowers. She looked as pure as a ray of sunshine. I could see why he'd write a poem like that for her.
Zhu Wen spends the morning trying to figure out what to do with the money, then decides he might as well go get a pizza over at Jianguomenwai. A pizza and a beer costs him a hundred yuan, which seems expensive. On the way to refill at the salad bar that he sees a gang of pretty foreign girls. He decides to go over and shoot his shot with one of them, once he’s done eating. But he gets absorbed in thinking about all the horrors of the world, the millions starving and homeless and dying from preventable illnesses, and that cheers him up. Even if he’s scraping by in Beijing, he thinks, he’s got a better life than most people on the planet. Riding his bike home, he’s struck with inspiration: it’s time to do another installation (Zhu Wen, apart from his work as a painter, also dabbles in installation art).

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

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

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

And we're off to the embassy party.

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.