&: Diary (14)

(June 22nd, 2019) These entries used to be a place mainly to talk about going places—I was in Xi’an or I was in Beijing or I was in Hong Kong or I was in Seoul or I was in Nagoya or whatever—but there’s nowhere to go now. If I left Japan now, there’s no way I could enter again. My visa would expire while I was outside, waiting to be let back in. I don’t have anywhere to go, either. I was planning to be in Beijing at the end of August, but it’s not looking good. And life goes on as it always has. I have work to do. I have checks coming in. I am settled in my corner of East Tokyo. Maybe I’ll never leave again.

I’ve said it before: if there’s a place to feel isolated, it’s Tokyo. The outside world feels far away. I hear things and wonder how serious they are. There’s no way to be sure. I think you could live here and not know that there was a pandemic. You might wonder why the grocery had put up markers on the floor to separate people line up for the cash register, or why the 7-11 put up plastic barriers in front of the tills. You could explain it away as Japanese cleanliness taken too far.

I guess you would wonder where all the tourists are. Their absence is the most visible sign of something going on. The city feels the correct size. I mean, like, in Uguisudani, where they are converting the love hotels to cheap lodging for South Asian tourists, there is still the necessary number of people milling around, but it feels like the place is being used for its necessary purpose.

I like the city without tourists, but this isn’t a call for Japan to remain Japanese. It’s too late for that, even if you wanted it. It’s being buried, for better or worse. How absurd for Aso Taro to talk about mindo 民度 in 2020! The national spirit and the people he imagines to believe in it are dead and gone.

The tourists won’t be back for a while. But businesses are agitating for the flows of migrant labor to be started again. The flights from Kathmandu will start again, bringing in the farm workers, the men that run the cash registers at all the convenience stores, staff the Indian restaurants… Maybe the Vietnamese will be brought back first.

I don’t care. I feel more at home in the projects north of Mukojima, where everyone is speaking Chinese, or a Vietnamese coffee shop in the enclave east of Nishi-Nippori, or even the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, back when I could wrangle an invitation.

But I mean, it does feel good, without the city supercharged with tourists. I can take the trains again. And nobody ignores me in shops anymore or refuses to speak, afraid I might be a tourist. When I went to Mitsukoshi a week ago to buy a birthday present for *****, I was accorded all the fine treatment usually only extended to PRC big spenders, perhaps under the impression I was the first tourist to make it back.

When the tourists come back, it will feel like normal again. It will also mean that I can finally leave again. The trips to Seoul or Hong Kong or Beijing—just three, four hour flights—feel like coming up for air.

(June 23rd, 2019) I’m happiest when I have some piece of work with a deadline but which I haven’t started yet. I was losing my mind a few months ago. Now, I have too much work to do. The entry that crossed out to write this one had me in a hotel near ****** ****** working on a novel. This was months ago. I spent the afternoon with **** ****, who had just flown in from Wuhan (and it could have made me more nervous then, had I known how things would play out, since this was at the end of January or the start of February).

I was talking about getting these stories together that I wrote five or six years ago now, back when I was back in Saskatchewan for the first time in a long time. I was unemployed and living with ****** in my father's attic. I signed up for a provincial jobs program to get everyone off my back, but they weren't giving me much work. I had lots of free time. I used to wake up, buy a tin of Copenhagen and a Mountain Dew at the Bun n' Bottle, then walk down to the library, sit in a carrel with a notebook, try to write for at least a couple hours, and then I'd get high and go for lunch, and maybe go back to writing in the afternoon. A lot of the material from that time comes from working in slaughterhouses. I can't remember if I worked at the pork plant during that period or not, but it was either then or before, and I was at least hearing stories about it from friends, and I had some experience at the beef plant and the pork plant.

I gave up on it. I’ll work on it again when the work dries up. I was writing it at least a bit to comfort myself, I realize now, imagining myself back there. It was like I was renting an apartment over the Uptown for a month, going down to the liquor store in the old train station, coming home with a bottle of Royal Reserve and drinking myself to sleep because I had to get up early and drive over to the flats to dig trenches with Leo and his boys, or still screwing around, getting high and writing in the library in Crescent Park.

I don't even know why. I’m not nostalgic. I hated my life. I was working at a slaughterhouse or digging trenches or working construction, living with a woman that hated my guts. But I think it’s like I wanted to remind myself that I could go back there. I don’t care. It’s been three years and two months since I had a real job, but no matter what happens, even if I go broke tomorrow, it’s not like I started anywhere great. I could lose it all tomorrow and I’d only be going back to where I came from. So, when I was staring at a thinning bank account, it was like I was telling myself, writing about that stuff, that there’s nothing to lose. I don’t know how to write that in a way that sounds defiant rather than inspirational.

And today, I spent the day procrastinating again. *** **********. I booked myself a room at a hotel, telling myself: you can wait until then to start. I need that dose of desperation.


&: City Tank (second time)

I used to have here a chapter-by-chapter summary of Qiu Huadong's 邱华栋 City Tank 城市战车. It contained an incomplete translation of the first half of the novel, summaries, and some of my thoughts. It ran to just about 50,000 words. I took it down.

Where did it go? The only person that actually asked that question is Matt Turner, translator of Lu Xun’s Weeds 野草. There’s no particularly interesting answer.

The novel went out of print two decades ago. The book was revised and republished as Turmoil of the Day 白昼的躁动 in 2003 by New World Press 新世界出版社 and then as Gasp of the Day 白昼的喘息 in 2016 by Lijiang Publishing House 漓江出版社. I haven’t read either one. I was reading an ancient online edition.

I had the idea that maybe I could track down the updated version and fire off pitches to publishers. Joel Martinsen told me that he prepared sample chapters of some of Qiu Huadong’s novels, but that was a while ago. I don’t think that project took off, and it doesn’t seem like interest in Qiu Huadong has built over the years.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the main reason translators pitch novels or writers to agencies and publishers is just to let them know that you exist, and that you have the ability to read critically. I hate rejection, though, so I probably haven’t pitched enough people to finally get traction on anything.

Also, back to the summaries and translation, it felt unfair to work from a bootleg online edition of the unrevised novel. Also, that aside, a chapter-by-chapter summary saw me repeating myself a lot, and I didn’t want to go through the trouble of organizing it into a briefer essay.

I’ve got two deadlines coming and it’s the perfect time to procrastinate.

I’m going to try to salvage some of the summaries. This is what I wrote about the first four chapters.

My errors are still in there, even the ones I've already noticed.

If nothing else, maybe you can enjoy the translations.

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.)

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.

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 in 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.


It might help to have some knowledge of Beijing geography before getting deeper into City Tank. I’ve 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. East Village sprang up on the other side of the city. If you type Dashanzhuang 大山庄—the actual name for the area—into your map application, you'll just see a mark in the middle of Chaoyang Park. The entire area disappeared in the early 2000s, when the area was redeveloped. But, if you haven't pulled it up on a map this was east of Sanlitun, across the Third Ring Road, closer to the Fourth Ring Road. If you do have your map open, though, you can slide northwest a bit and find Line 10’s Liangmaqiao Station in Chaoyang. That was right around where Zhu Wen was vomiting into a canal at the start of the novel. Line 10 hadn't been run through there when Qiu Huadong was writing, but the Kempinski Hotel Beijing Lufthansa Center still stands, not far from the Hotel Kunlun and the Landmark Hotel, which are also referenced in the first chapter.

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 chapter, 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.
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.


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.

A lot of these '80s and '90s urban novels were written in a time of limited sexual revolution in a deeply conservative country. 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 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.
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 a 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.


Right then, Qin Song arrives and pushes him into a Citroen.

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.
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.”

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 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.

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.)