&: Diary (9)
(July 28th, 2019) Hot in Xi'an, felt like opening an oven, walking out of the hotel lobby. Took a taxi with *** ****** across town, in from the Second Ring Road. Walked over and wandered around the expo for a while. Always surprising, I still think, the mixture of people at these kinds of things: parents dragging their kids over to look at test prep books, young urban women flipping through a Natsume Soseki translation, older couples browsing the selections from state publishers, rich and poor... Coming to something like this—the National Book Expo—it does remind me again, what an uphill battle it is, selling books on the other side, why Chinese publishers can't understand the lack of enthusiasm for their books, which sell in the millions at home and we're lucky to sell them to an academic press, authors that attract crowds of fans and nobody's interested in them outside of East Asia. I stood around with *** ****** and *** ** from *******, sat with her for a while, until I got word that Jia Pingwa had arrived. I went outside to smoke a cigarette just as a powerful, drenching rain began to fall.
Back to that, the way these books and authors are revered in their home country compared with how little attention they receive abroad, you have to see how Jia Pingwa is treated in Xi'an. I spent a couple days with him earlier in the year, and whenever we were in Xi'an, he was recognized wherever he went, and he almost started a riot at Shaanxi Traditional Opera Institute Theater when we tried to sneak into a performance of Women Generals of the Yang Family. I wrote about it before, but it's strange, to be in his presence and to be photographed almost constantly, by his own staff, by fans, by people on the street attracted by his small entourage. Even going around the city, the pressure was off: I was no longer in the position of distinguished guest from abroad but simply a minor member of Jia's group.
I knew that, on stage together, nobody would be listening to anything I said, or they wouldn't remember it. I knew I couldn't fuck it up too badly. Wang Chunlin spoke with the passion of a tent preacher about the greatness of Jia, how he stood above all contemporary novelists. Jia Pingwa rambled, as he usually does. I stumbled through my remarks. My spoken Chinese has degraded to a point where I struggle to throw around literary terms. Everything else, I can still get by fine. The limitation can be helpful, I think. It forces me to express an idea in simple terms, as briefly as possible. When it was all over, Jia Pingwa took a seat at a card table and started signing books. I guess the fans paid extra for the privilege. It looked like those idol handshake events in Akihabara, a burly security guard forcing people away from the front of the table if they lingered too long. I stood in the front row, my own little meet-and-greet, with Wang Chunlin, taking pictures with people that I have to imagine didn't know who I was, probably didn't know who Wang Chunlin was, either. Had my WeChat QR scanned a dozen times, later receiving heavily filtered copies of the photos taken.
Got in a Buick with Jia, ** ****, and Ma Li, who convinced ** **** to extend my stay by a few days, drove over to the author's main studio. I know everyone's been there before, but it was my first time. The antiques crammed into every space are probably worth millions. I'm sure he's written an essay about the place I could look up. A reception area, a loft with a studio for calligraphy, a bedroom, then a room with his desk, piled with books, an ashtray, a chair covered in shaggy pelts. I remember getting choked up, going to see an opera with Jia the last time in Xi'an, thinking about reading Ruined Capital with Xinran, sitting on the sagging bed in my room or the stone benches along Yunlong Lake, then, years later, meeting the man himself. I felt that way again, looking over his handwritten manuscripts, an outline for a novel in progress, a battered Zhang Ailing collection open on the desk with his notes in the margins.
Went out for dinner Jia, Ma Li, his editor, the head of the press, staff from the press. Drank twenty year Huashan Lunjian with mediocre Sichuan food. ** **** told a dirty story about Wang Shuo. Much talk of marital infidelity, the charms of Japanese women vs. the charms of women from various regions of China, gossiping about writers. Went back to my hotel room to finish off a bottle of Huashan Lunjian, watch RT.
(July 29th, 2019) Said it before, I treasure my time in China way back when, when I had nothing to do, complete freedom (at least with my time, money was tight) to do whatever I wanted, take a train, minibus, hitchhike out to wherever, screw around, drag myself back home hungover. All that stuff I wrote about taking drugs, fucking, writing, just generally screwing around, it came from, like, seven years, broken up between the ages of twenty-one to twenty-nine. The stupidest most free years of my early adulthood were spent in China, so I guess I still associate it with reckless, artistically fruitful behaviors, with snorting, fucking, dancing, hitchhiking, fighting. So, but when I come back, I'm seeing the country from the backseat of a taxi, maybe from the window of a hotel. Even if I did anything reckless, I'd be too nervous to write about it, maybe bury it in something else, but these days, I'm too busy writing for money to figure, like, let me sit down this afternoon and type out a story about bad expatriate behavior, file it away. I've said before I'd like to write a book about China—not a book about China, but a novel set in China. And I wouldn't need to write it, since the material has already been written, even published a few times, in literary magazines, some online arts magazine, some other bullshit. I'm a frustrated writer that just happened to live in China, not a Sinologist, I keep telling you.
I spent the morning walking around Tumen, partly because it was nearby and partly because I had just read Hu Zongfeng and He Longping's translation of The Earthen Gate. Not sure what I hoped to see there, maybe some evidence of a village swallowed up by the city. It seemed that whatever had been built in the first and second waves of urbanization was already being replaced, or in the process of being replaced. Took a taxi across town to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes with Giray Fidan, a true Sinologist, who developed an interest in Chinese philosophy as a young man, a professor of Chinese, with a book coming out about Kang Youwei's tour of the Ottoman Empire, working on a translation into Turkish of A Dream of Red Mansions.
Took a taxi back across town, went for a walk north of Tang West Market. *** ** from ******* called me down to her hotel room to drink a bottle of red wine, got there and sat drinking wine, then pink and blue Rio with a *** ** and a couple young women from Writers Publishing House, eating dried okra and shanzha candy, going out into the hallway every now and then to smoke with one of the Writers Publishing women. Topics of discussion included: date of Party membership (two out of four present), Devils on the Doorstep, Thai horror films, Scandanavian horror films, areas of Beijing where gay and transgender prostitutes work, whether or not Guo Jingming is gay, Angelababy.
(July 30th, 2019) Went to a museum with *** **, who took pictures of every single exhibit.
It's a fact of being a dirtbag for most of my life, especially in China, I'm still surprised to meet a person like her, Party member, steady job, born and raised in Beijing, shares anecdotes about traveling to Spain and New Zealand. I'm very familiar with the 低端人口, always rented in the worst parts of town, worked shitty jobs, spent time in a detention facility in Datong, first love was a girl whose parents were 下岗 workers, never lived in Shanghai or Beijing, knew some artists and writers but they were mostly barely middle class but they mostly just managed to get into some quasi-creative field and have enough free time or take a few years off to paint or write and maybe got lucky or hadn't yet bottomed out. I knew some rich people, but they were far from respectable. They had made their money filling sea containers with crap, shipping them off to the West Coast, or off coal or heavy equipment or trucking. Even the rich girl I dated in Guangzhou, she was local, parents had a few apartments in Liwan, I think, but I went over to her place once, cramped, found out she had a sister that was born off the books and hidden out in the village. She was probably going to go to a good school and—it was different, though. That was some kind of old Cantonese merchant money, and they were still tied to the village. Even at UBC, most of the 富二代 were from—like, in the grand scheme of Chinese wealth—from fairly modest backgrounds, rather than, say, serious (relative) old money, and, same thing, their parents made money off bullshit, selling crap. Not that *** ** has any money, I don't even know. But that respectability, something I rarely came across before. Her grandpa was probably a general or something. Who knows? Even the older people in publishing, they're old enough to have lived through some shit, plenty of stories about drunken antics with writers, shit like that. I don't know. Maybe it's because I've never lived in Beijing or Shanghai.
Had lunch with ** ****, who told the dirty Wang Shuo story, invited ** **, because I didn't think I had enough left in me to get through an entire lunch face-to-face with ** ****, who is friendly enough but is notoriously difficult, infamous in the world of Chinese publishing, supportive but tough. ** **, too, I didn't want to meet face-to-face. She **** ****** ** *** ***** ** *****. * **** **** *****. *** **** ** **** ****. She's a dancer, wears princess dresses everywhere, like an actress in some postmodern period drama, ends all her WeChat messages 亲. I found it odd, with her esthetic, that she's into Jia Pingwa, although perhaps it does make sense. She doesn't go for the entire throwback style and not like the streaming tradwife style, either, making sausage in the Zhejiang countryside, but some new age version, the princess dress somehow slightly Central Asian, tattoos across her shoulders. She's doing a doctorate at Suzhou University, or she's already done it, with her dissertation on Jia. I met her after the Expo event. We ate at an Anhui restaurant under the Second Ring Road. ** **** and I sat across a metal pan of braised duck. She took the bones and I took the square patties of duck blood. She stripped the meat off each bone, then crunched them up, saying, "我爱啃骨头." ** **** told me a story about once refusing to leave Xi'an until she got a manuscript from Jia. ** **** boasted of sales figures and told me that when she arranges Jia's speeches at Yale and Harvard, she'll make sure I'm along as a translator. She told me to move immediately to Beijing, or at least Xi'an. I nodded politely. ** ** didn't speak. I studied the edge of a strange tattoo on her wrist, mostly covered by her sleeve.
In the evening, went to visit Jia's second studio, then out to a restaurant. A man played the 尺八 for us, while a nun took our picture with her phone. When Jia clasped her hand as we left, I thought of Meng Yunfang and the young nun, Huiming (I noticed Howard Goldblatt translated 年方二八 as "twenty-four," but I'm sure that means she was sixteen, which makes what they've got going on even more forbidden). Got back that night and went out to meet with **** ********, * *** **** **** ******* *** ********** ** *** *** ***** *** * ***** **** *** *** ******. Went back to the hotel to sit at the desk in the room, smoke cigarettes, try to write something.