1/14/20

&: Minor Novels of the 1990s Reading Club: City Tank (4)

(artists and foreign women, ancient color TVs, self-loathing, Yu Dafu)

Back to 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. 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, while waiting for his friend at a dance hall, he meets a sweet American student, and gets in a scuffle with her boyfriend. Right then, Qin Song arrives and pushes him into a Citroen to get him to the party.

Sitting in the car are Qin Song 秦颂, the obese woman from the unnamed embassy, and An Mo 安沫, Qin Song's girlfriend.

We get the story of An Mo, an artist from Nanjing, who showed up in Beijing's East Village to stay with her man. She disappears one day and returns with a bunch of scrap iron. Qin Song figures she's building an enclosure to keep chickens in, but instead it's a cage for herself. She wants to reenact Kafka's A Hunger Artist, and installs the cage on a shopping street outside of Fulingsi 隆福寺. The stunningly beautiful woman in the cage attracts a crowd, which attracts the Public Security Bureau, who go looking for Qin Song. The cops get her out of the cage and she lectures them on hegemonic masculinity and feminine self-expression. In the end, they're just as amused as everyone else and decided to let her go with a warning, after confiscating the cage.

An Mo is not discouraged. She gets another cage and set it up outside a theater in Xisi 西四. This time, she locks herself inside. The cops arrive and can't talk her out, so they go to a construction site and come back with a reciprocating saw. Once they've dragged out the sobbing An Mo, they load her into a car and drive her down to the station. Once again, the police decide to be lenient. Qin Song gets called down again and has to pay a fine. And that, it turns out, is why he was late to get Zhu Wen.

The artists enter the cocktail party, introduced as "Chinese itinerant artists" 中国流浪艺术家. This is a party for the end of the Fourth World Conference on Women. Everyone is returning to their country (again, this is just H国—it's not Korea, but Holland? Am I missing something?). Zhu Wen snags a dry martini, then starts looking for something to eat and a girl to talk to. (And a quick reminder: I'd rather you pick up the original! A quick and dirty translation is included because it's more fun to read than my summary.)
Suddenly, a blonde woman in a red dress stepped forward. She smiled at me and said, "It looks like we match." I was wearing a shirt the same color as her dress. "According to your Chinese custom, it's fate that we meet. This is what you call yuanfen, is it not? My name is Ellen Ogilvy. My family is from Scotland, but I am a citizen of the country that is hosting you today."
Her Chinese was surprisingly fluent. "My name is Zhu Wen. Pleased to meet you." I took her hand. It was so beautiful and delicate I couldn't stop myself from bending a knee and kissing it. The woman shook with laughter. I knew I had made the right move. It fit the atmosphere, at least.
"Miss Ellen, may I ask what sort of artist you are? Installation? Performance? Painting? Perhaps a curator or a framer?"
"Please, call me Ellen xiaojie."
She was wearing a blazer over her dress that was tight around her hips and then flared out over her skirt and her round ass. She had a mischievious smile. Her eyes looked huge and she'd painted her eyelids bluish black. She had thin lips and a big mouth. When she smiled, it was like a bouquet of dahlias.
"A framer? Please! Why not just guess interior decorator?" She smiled. "I've been in China for six years now. I'm in sales at a folk art company in Shanghai. What about you? A performance artist?"
"Me?" A shard of ice from my martini caught in my throat and when it finally melted, I said, "No, I'm a painter. I also do installation pieces and collage."
Zhu Wen and Ellen get into a somewhat contentious discussion of the state of Chinese art. She finally asks him:
"Why are you Chinese artists are always chasing after the West? Modernism, postmodernism, then it was pop art, performance art, installation art... Why can't you use your country's own artistic language? Just look at Chinese folk art, full of imagination, esthetically complete..."
"Well," I said, "basically, we're looking for a common language, something that we can use to talk to the rest of the world with. We can't do that with our own artistic language. Like, fucking pop art, they've got it in the West and we do it here, too, but we're trying to represent what's going on in Chinese society, using things from our own culture, but we have pop art as a common language. Right? I don't think there's any other way." I was getting sick of the conversation. I put an arm around her waist and pulled her close. "Ellen, I like you, and I get the feeling you like me, too. Am I wrong?"
He decides the time is right to move in for a kiss.
A spark flashed between us! Our lips were sealed together as if magnetized. At that moment, I felt as if everything in the world was spinning. I felt dizzy. My head felt like a crack blasted open in the earth, glowing with magma…
The breath of spring! A kiss within a kiss, a spark of electricity, soft spring water, cool and fresh... When the Viking spacecraft photographed the surface of Mars, they discovered a man's face, made from stone, and a pyramid, and when they sent probes over Venus, they found the remains of tens of thousands of cities, with a network of tens of thousands of roads connecting them. In a moment, I slipped into a tunnel in spacetime. I could suddenly see in an instant all of the celestial bodies of the solar system spinning around each other. I could see all the traces left behind by humanity and other advanced species—how long had humanity been around? Why did the Mayans disappear? Why did they abandon the advanced cities they built? Where did they all go? How did they create such a precise calendar? How did they know to place each building in their city according to a corresponding star? How did they record on their stone tablets events that happened hundreds of millions of years ago? Was anyone even alive then? When later generations excavated the pyramids the Mayans used for their sacrifices, why did they find batteries and transformers? Where did they get stainless steel? In Arizona, archeologists found trees that had been cut down with metal tools. But those trees were cut down hundreds of millions of years ago! In a mine in Colorado, they discovered a four inch copper arrowhead in a human skull. Archeologists decided the mine had to have been in use for millions of years. In South Africa, a miner found a cache of metal orbs, which geologists dated to two billion years earlier. We haven't been able to smelt metal for very long, and we've only had electronics for a few decades—so what does all of that mean? Archeologists studying the fossil record can prove that color TVs existed more than four thousand years ago. What the hell does it all mean? It means that humanity is trapped in a cycle of creation and destruction.
And he goes on like that for a while. This is not crucial to the plot or what I'm about to say about the chapter, but that's what you're missing out on, since I skip over most of Zhu Wen's poetic reveries when selecting excerpts.

Ellen pulls away from him. Suddenly, someone—a cultural attaché that is compared to a cow—starts singing a song from Carmen. While he listens, wrapped up in the elegant atmosphere of the embassy, he suddenly comes back to earth: when he walks out of there, he’s going to be back in China, trying to get by with a few hundred yuan, pedaling around on his busted bike…

Qin Song and An Mo put on a performance of a piece they’ve been working on, where they blindfold themselves and touch the earth, like the blind men touching the elephant, accompanied by the Moonlight Sonata. Like, the way I imagine it, they’d rub Russia and say, “This is the arm,” and then run their fingers across the eastern seaboard of the United States and say, “This must be the tail.” (Again, you are missing out by not reading the original, because Zhu Wen goes into another lengthy daydream centered on a world-as-body allegory.)

Ellen invites Zhu Wen to dance and he’s suddenly struck by another attack of low self-esteem. The thought of taking Ellen to see his filthy apartment sickens him. He looks around and can’t imagine what how he ended up there. He thinks to himself, "I'm here now, but when I walk out the door, I'll be back on Chinese soil, a broke artist." He curses Qin Song. The people at the embassy party are from another world, where they "treat art as simply decoration, a craft to practice in idle times. They eat a good dinner, then look around for something to do—'What should I do, cut the lawn or fool around with some paints?'" Even as he holds Ellen's hand, he feels a deep chasm opening between them.

He steps away from Ellen, chugs a tumbler of tequila, then slips into a blackout.
I heard later that Ellen had been looking all over for me. I was hiding from her. I didn't want to see her. I was scared of what was really in my heart. I was scared of giving in to what I really felt.
Robin Visser suggests that these scenes might be intended to be farcical (see the chapter three discussion of self-loathing) and tosses out a parenthetical suggestion of a link to Yu Dafu’s 郁达夫 short story “Sinking”《沉沦》.

I'm not sure how much sense that makes but it did come to mind, for me, too, reading Zhu Wen’s low self-esteem tirade. It's an interesting distraction, at least, and I can put off talking about the postcolonial art theory stuff for a while, and get into something I'm a bit more familiar with.

I think everyone still reads "Sinking" in undergraduate Chinese literature courses. I can’t remember if I was forced to get through the original or if I had this translation by Joseph S.M. Lau and C.T. Hsia from the Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature, which I'm going to refer to in a second. Apart from being a nice break from Lu Xun and Guo Moruo 郭沫若, it's a story that's self-aware and introspective and dark, and it feels more modern than anything else in Chinese, until you get to Mu Shiying 穆时英 and Shi Zhecun 施蛰存 in the '30s, and those other writers that were influenced by modernism and, like Yu Dafu, were reading Japanese writers. It's the story you pull out when you need to talk about the sick man of Asia 东亚病夫 and national humiliation, but there's more going on, and, most importantly for this comparison, I think it's meant to be read ironically.

Yu Dafu wrote “Sinking” in the early 1921 and, like his protagonist, was studying in Japan at the time. The narrator of "Sinking" finds himself routinely humiliated by Japanese women, although the humiliation exists in his mind only, and is tied up with a national shame, at China falling victim to imperialist powers and unable to defend itself. As the story draws to a close, the Chinese student gets wasted in a brothel and once again feels the humiliation of being Chinese:
It was specifically the corner of the waitress's petticoat that was perturbing him now. The more he wanted to talk to her, the more tongue-tied he became. His embarrassment was apparently making the waitress a little impatient, for she asked, "Where are you from?"
At this, his pallid face reddened again; he stammered and stammered but couldn't give a forthright answer. He was once again standing on the guillotine. For the Japanese look down upon Chinese just as we look down upon pigs and dogs. They call us Shinajin, "Chinamen," a term more derogatory than "knave" in Chinese. And now he had to confess before this pretty young girl that he was a Shinajin.
"O China, my China, why don't you grow strong?"
The story closes with him walking into the sea, his final words: "O China, my China, you are the cause of my death! ... I wish you could become rich and strong soon! ... Many, many of your children are still suffering." That the nationalistic self-hatred of both men is meant to be read as ironic, though, is what I got out of the comparison. The protagonists of “Sinking” and City Tank lived in completely different times, the former in a time of collapse and chaos, the latter in a time of a rising China caught up in a wave of swaggering nationalism.

And maybe there is something to be said here, linking the two conversations—sexual and artistic: Zhu Wen becomes something like a piece of folk art 民间艺术, being appraised by Ogilvy. She spots him in the crowd, as if on the auction block, and makes an offer.

But let me quote Robin Visser here again to sum things up:
The anxiety about cultural identity that permeates the discourse on aesthetics in City Tank is not imagined. During the inaugural Shanghai Bien- nale in 2000, "the most relevant question—one much discussed by about forty seminar speakers over two long days at the show’s inauguration—was whether [China's] art can remain, in any meaningful sense, 'Chinese' at all." Such discussions call to mind Roland Barthes’s decoding of "Italianic-ity" in a French pasta advertisement that draws on "a specifically 'French' knowledge (an Italian would barely perceive the Italianicity of tomato and pepper), based on a familiarity with certain tourist stereotypes." In other words, definitions of cultural identity reside with those who name it rather than with those who embody it. By the late 1990s Chinese artists had begun to recognize the limitations of performing the nation by merely conceptualizing Cold War dichotomies. Instead, they shifted their aesthetic strategy, choosing an approach that expressed the effects of globalization on identity by playing with stereotypes of "Chineseness."
Maybe City Tank itself is worth looking at, too, in this context. Barmé says the main question used to figure out if something was worthwhile in the '90s was: will foreigners like it? 老外会喜欢吗? Books like City Tank, you'd have to answer that they probably wouldn't. The books (and films, especially) that have done well in translation, talking mostly about the English-speaking world, tend to fit a certain model: national allegories, exotically and purely Chinese, and depicting the country as fucked up and oppressive. City Tank has none of those elements: it's not a national allegory, and it's about a cosmopolitan and modern location, and the city itself is wealthy and modern, even if that wealth hasn't yet trickled down to Zhu Wen. Ogilvy would probably chastise Qiu Huadong for chasing after the West, rather than using models from his own culture.

I'm sorry. This is another one of those debates, covered in City Tank, that have been written about at length in English and Chinese, and I don't think there's much that I can contribute. (I'll suggest—because I was just looking at them—"Mao to the Market" by Peter Hitchcock in Whither China: Intellectual Politics in Contemporary China, "Nationalism, Mass Culture, and Intellectual Strategies" by Xudong Zhang in the same book, Geremie R. Barmé's chapter on the art market in In the Red, and Robin Visser's Cities Surround The Countryside, Urban Aesthetics in Postsocialist China, which I quoted from right there.)

Let's keep going.

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.