&: Minor Novels of the 1990s Reading Club: City Tank (7)

(confession, literary scams, fevers, madness)

This is the seventh chapter of City Tank by Qiu Huadong, summarized and partially translated. (Previous entries: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6)

Most recently... In the fourth chapter, Zhu Wen meets yet another foreign woman, argues with her about art, goes in for a kiss, then gets blackout drunk because he thinks he's not good enough for her. In the fifth chapter, we get a look at life in the East Village artists' colony, with a Zhang Huan stand-in covering himself in honey and flies, and two famous foreign artists stopping by for a visit. In the sixth chapter, we meet Yu Hong, the wealthy woman that needs art lessons, and Gai Di, the rock n’ roll singer with a dead girlfriend.

It’s easier to write about something that makes me feel nothing. I am not much of a literary critic. I’m happiest with something that I can rummage through for trivia or play with intellectually. I would prefer to say how something works than what it does. When I stray from that my tendency is always to confession. Like, this story made me feel this way and this is why it made me feel that way. I feel a sad identification with Zhu Wen at the end of the chapter, rejected by those close to him and pining after the girl who chose not to follow him. “I wanted to gaze into her eyes again, those mad, empty eyes, deep and dark as an abyss.” Like Zhu Wen and the indifferent advertising exec who dances with him at the party, I reflexively want to spill my guts. I want to tell you when I felt the same way.

Now, with this chapter, I wonder: what would it say about me to identify with Zhu Wen? I don't know. We can see what Zhu Wen's problem is: he's abandoned a stable life somewhere else to seek his dreams in Beijing, but even though he's liberated himself physically, he hasn't liberated himself spiritually. He's fighting in a sexual revolution that he doesn't really believe in, and he'd rather be back in that rainy little town, with his traditionally-minded girlfriend. The women in Beijing disgust him, looking over his head to watch his wealthier and more powerful sexual rivals pick and choose from among them, or spilling their guts to him, instead of listening patiently to his complaints.

So, rather than saying anything about Zhu Wen and why this chapter moves me, this chapter summary is taken up mostly by my translation, which is maybe slightly more impressionistic than it was in previous summaries.
Autumn came in with a sudden gust of cool breeze that had all of us walking with our collars pulled up tight. Autumn is preferable to summer, especially up north. The skies are clear and high and peaceful, clean as a baby's ass. It's normal for there not to be a single cloud in the sky. Autumn coming made me aware of how short life is. I had one thing to say to all these cattle that had come to the city to become artists: "Breed, cows, life is short!" That's the line from One Hundred Years of Solitude, isn't it? What I meant was: start creating something, before it's too late. What are you? Simply machines to turn food into shit? With autumn arriving again, that was my first warning to them.
(I went back to check Zhu Wen’s memory of the book. He has the line as “'繁殖吧,母牛,生命短促啊!” In English, it’s rendered as, “Cease, cows, life is short,” and in Spanish, it’s "Apártense, vacas, que la vida es corta." Later Chinese translations have the line as “让一让,母牛们,生命短暂啊.” I think I prefer it as 繁殖 rather than 让一让, though.)
The poet Zhou Sese showed up, trying to get me to visit the writer Old K. I call him a "writer" but I know he prefers to be addressed as an "author." But the way I understand it, the words "author" and "writer" don't mean quite the same thing anymore. You can work at an advertising company and still claim to be a writer, you can write for a corporate newsletter and still style yourself an author, an academic can call themselves a writer, a newspaper columnist can himself an author. Whether you write pornography or poetry, and call yourself whatever you want. The way Zhou Sese told it, Old K had written just about everything, from advertising to poetry and everything in between, and he'd mastered every form. Now that he had done that, Old K planned to become a serious "author." That was the only way he was going to win a Nobel, he thought. Old K was a whore for literary world respect. Even the pen name he'd adopted was meant to remind readers of Kafka (the first letter of the great modernist's name and the final initial of the character in The Trial). Trying to get famous is like carving your name on a piece of shit. Even if you succeed, it's all going to get flushed in the end.
I haven't told you yet about Zhou Sese's love life. He was a good, responsible man, but he'd always been unlucky in love. Maybe it was because he treated the entire enterprise too seriously. I thought he should probably lower his standards. He'd broken up a short time before with a girl from Shanghai that was going to school in Beijing. The girl was very fond of him. She thought it was her duty to love and care for him, so that's what she did. They spent a happy year together, then, right as she was about to graduate, her parents caught wind of the affair and pushed her to end it. The reason was simple: Zhou Sese was a poet. Remember, her parents were from Shanghai. You know how they are. The shrewdest, sharpest people in the country. There was no way they were going to let the daughter they'd invested twenty-plus years in be married off to a poet. Whatever intangibles Zhou Sese brought to the relationship were not included in the calculations of his girlfriend's parents.
Zhou Sese's girlfriend—Kong Lin 孔琳—goes back to Shanghai for the New Year and her parents introduce a more appropriate boyfriend: a handsome local boy, who just happens to be a hot shot stockbroker. “The rule of exchange is the rule of the day,” Zhu Wen observes. “Consciousness, ethics, knowledge are about as valuable as toilet paper—maybe even less valuable, since you can’t wipe your ass with your morals.” Zhu Wen fantasizes about beating some sense into Kong Lin, but he knows it would be useless.
When Zhou Sese arrived, I asked about the poem he'd told me about before, "Himalayas." He told me he'd made some progress, but I cut him off before he could start reciting it: "Didn't you say we're supposed to go see Old K? He's having a little party, right? We should go take a look. Should be something to eat, at least. He's always got a bunch of ham sausage." The idea of meat always got me excited. We hurried over to Old K's place.
Old K was twenty-eight and lived in a brand new apartment that had been given to him by his work unit. Old K arrived in Beijing five years earlier, dispatched by his university. He had made a living that whole time by writing alone, switching between various newspapers. He ended up finally at a weekly tabloid called Shopping Service Weekly that covered human-interest stories, entertainment, and culture, but mostly served as a sort of retail guide. For Old K, it was another rung up the ladder. When he first arrived, he had been writing copy at an ad agency. He turned out slogans like: "Double Nine Feminine Napkin, Double the Comfort." After that, he jumped to a People Magazine-style weekly and sold column inches to entrepreneurs that wanted some publicity. He wrote inspirational stories about how the hard times CEOs faced in their childhood—picking up garbage to recycle and stuff like that—was the foundation of their success. He accounted for a good percentage of the national intake of Maotai each year. After that, he got involved in social reportage and published a series of pieces on homosexuals, the girls that worked in dance halls, migrant worker women. For one expose, he posed as a john and tried to pick up prostitutes in various hotels around town. After that, he published a sort of sociological thesis on impotence, based on his own research into physiology, psychology, and the social factors behind soft dicks. He passed himself off as an expert in the sociology of the male and got himself invited to conferences in Europe. As soon as he got back, he published a book of essays that was nothing more than various anecdotes about him meeting famous people. Rumor had it that he had either eaten the ass of a French prostitute or helped her cut her pubic hair. Both rumors sounded equally credible to me. He fell in love with an actress and helped her promote her in the newspaper. She eventually made the jump from a state touring troupe to a TV series. Her role as a 1930s Bund prostitute made her famous overnight. She got a stick up her ass and Old K couldn’t stand it anymore.
So, anyways, after a vicious fight, they break up and Old K decides that he should write a tell-all book about their affair. The book sells into the hundreds of thousands of copies “almost catching up with Abandoned Capital” (or Ruined City, whatever you prefer to call《废都》).

Old K sees the sales figures for the Collected Works of Wang Shuo《王朔文集》 and decides to put out his own multi-volume set, with the memoir packaged up with love letters exchanged with the address, essays, his travel diary, as well as the profiles of entrepreneurs and a few of his favorite advertising slogans. That turns out to be a hit as well. His next project, having seen the success of Taiwanese romance writers, is a series of novels written under the pen name Hu Meili 胡美丽. Following on from various "fevers" of the 1990s, the country is gripped by Hu Meili Fever.

And a break for trivia...

What's going on with these fevers? I guess you could say these are secondary infections of the Culture Fever 文化热 of the 1980s, if that makes sense, when there was a brand new consumer class, who wanted to buy artistic products and talk about them, and maybe also the influence of Hong Kong and Taiwan consumer culture, which was also called Kong-Tai Fever 港台热.

And, once again, I quote Geremie Barmé's In the Red, that encyclopedia of '90s Mainland culture and society:
The consumer age also led to a new style of campaign, not a repetition of the theatrical political movements of the past, yundong, but ever new waves of media-generated and media-enhanced frenzies and crazes (re, xianxiang, and chao, as they are variously called). These crazes included the rise and fall of a broad spectrum of ready-made fashions, from the reconsumption of Chairman Mao that began in the late 1980s, to the Hula Hoop fever of 1992, as well as the media-fired cultural debates of 1993–1996 ... Manufacturing re (literally “fevers”) became the focus of many publicists, be they official (the party, for example, attempted to engender a “fever for the study of Deng Xiaoping’s works” in 1993 and new “patriotic fevers” at various times) or private. The style of these party-PR campaigns was imitative of Kong-Tai commercial culture, and much of the language used for the promotions, whether it be in the political or the cultural realm, was taken from the Kong-Tai media.
I'd say Jia Pingwa 贾平凹 and his bestselling novel, which ended up being banned between 1993 and 2009 counts as a sort of fever, maybe even to rival the Hula Hoop fever that was going on around the same time. Qiu doesn't call the Wang Shuo boom a fever, either, but I think it counts.

And Qiu Huadong provides us a longer list: there's Jin Yong Fever 金庸热, Sanmao Fever 三毛热, Qiong Yao Fever 琼瑶热, Xue Mili Fever 雪米莉热, Wang Guozhen Fever 汪国真, and Xi Murong Fever 席慕蓉热. Except for Wang Guozhen, whose kinda sappy poems were a hit in Beijing in the late 1980s, these writers were from—in some sense of the word—Hong Kong or Taiwan. Jin Yong, the great wuxia novelist, was only widely read in Hong Kong and the diaspora, before he exploded in the Mainland boom in the '80s. Sanmao was a Taiwanese writer whose romantic travels captivated a new audience as early as the '80s (and perhaps fed into the Going Abroad Fever 出国热) (and brace yourself for a new Sanmao Fever with the publication this month of a translation of her Stories of the Sahara《撒哈拉的故事》by Mike Fu). Qiong Yao, who I know very little about, made her name in Taiwan in the '60s with romance novels. She was still cranking out books into the 2000s, long after the fever. Xi Murong is another name that I'm not sure I recognize, either. She spent most of her life in Hong Kong and then Taiwan, and was famous for sentimental poetry, which I've never read.

Xue Mili was another case altogether. Beginning in 1987, books under her name started appearing on Mainland bookshelves, with the jacket describing her as a woman from Hong Kong. They were pure pulp stories about bad-ass girl bosses and secret agents. I have never come across one of the Xue Meili books, and, honestly, this is the first time I have heard of her.

Not all was as it seemed with Xue Mili, it turns out:
The secret identity of Xue Mili was abruptly exposed in the May 3, 1989 issue of Literature Press ... which declared: "This Xue Mili is not a woman and does not hold a Hong Kong passport: 'she' is actually several men from the remote [Chinese] hinterland. Some of these men have previously written respectable literary works on rural mountain life, and some have even won literary awards." The article criticized these promising young writers for abandoning their bright literary future and for writing "filthy" pulp fiction to meet the vulgar demands of the market. It also exposed their "degenerate" approach to writing. They had stolen their plots from pirated crime videos and imported best sellers; descriptions of exotic places that the writers had never visited were borrowed from maps and travel guides of Hong Kong and elsewhere; and worse still, the novels were produced by a kind of assembly line process, with one person conceiving the outline and basic plot, then several others collectively fleshing out the details at the rate of one book per couple of weeks. (This account and the details above and below are from Consuming Literature: Best Sellers and the Commercialization of Literary Production in Contemporary China by Shuyu Kong.)
There was another Xue Mili Fever shortly after City Tank was published, which saw Sichuan Art and Literature Publishing House collecting the Xue Mili books and the disgraced authors of the original novels writing a tell-all book about the caper and the shittiness of being a literary author in the '80s and '90s.

Speaking of literary ripoffs, I am reminded of Jia Pingwa collecting bootleg editions of Abandoned Capital, including some that contained very few elements of the original work. Apart from obvious bullshit, there was also less obvious bullshit, like Imperial Capital《帝京》by an author calling himself Lao Jia 老贾, described charitably by one reviewer as a "companion piece" Abandoned Capital. It was a time of literary hoaxes and scams and ripoffs, which is what Qiu Huadong is getting at here, putting Old K in a fancy apartment furnished with expensive stereo equipment and disco mood lighting, all paid for off scams.

After cashing out, that’s when Old K got the idea that it was time to win a Nobel. He asks Zhou Sese: “What does Marquez have that I don’t have? What does Toni Morrison have that I don't have?” He borrows stacks of literary fiction from his poet friend and gets to work studying it. He tries his hand first at an epic poem that doesn't really work, then he gets real inspiration: write about these Beijing artists! The book he plans to win the Nobel with is called Sperm of the Sun (this is mentioned in the first chapter). This is the way he has described it to Zhou Sese:
"The way I see it, we're all the sperm of the sun! Let me ask you, what is sperm? It's the most dynamic living thing in the world! Those little tadpoles are what allows us to propagate our species. If you filled a teacup full of cum, you'd have enough sperm in there to impregnate five billion women. That's enough to repopulate the planet. That is the power and the function of sperm. And the sun, the sun is what supports and controls life and death on this planet. And the artist is the sperm of the sun, the thing that sprays into the pussy of our societies and then is born as human civilization and history. At any moment, we could see the birth of twins, triplets, quadruplets of human civilization! Just think about it, all of you are the sperm of the sun! You have a mission. Therefore, to strike a blow against Western cultural hegemony, to describe the true state of Third World culture, and to express my utmost esteem for all of you, I plan to recite the first chapter of my novel in Li Shuangyuan's ultra-avant-garde multimedia performance space."
When they get to Old K’s house, he gives them a tour. It’s pure ‘90s nouveau riche playboy style, and, just as the rumors had it, his studio is full of a massive collection of foreign pornography.

Suddenly, there is a knock at the door and in walks Wu Limei 吴丽美, executive at an ad firm called Elephant, thick, super long eyelashes. Zhu Wen rushes over to introduce himself. More girls arrive: Wang Tao 汪涛 and Zhang Xuemei 章雪梅, both nurses and both incredibly tall, and Ke Manman 柯漫漫, who Zhu Wen speculates has never brought herself to orgasm with her own hand (then Old K whispers to him something to the effect of, Go for it, she’s a spitfire in the sack).

And the men there are: Li Shuangyuan 李双元, the art critic, Tan Liyang 谭力扬, a bureaucrat, who brought the nurses with him, and another, unnamed guy that looks like a 1930s French Concession secret agent. (They don't really figure into the events of this chapter.)

Old K throws on a CD, the music starts going, and the drinks are flowing. Everyone pairs off for a while, leaving Zhu Wen left out, but after a while, Old K sidles up to him to say: I saw the way you were checking out Wu Limei, go ask her to dance.

Zhu Wen asks her to dance. What follows is a lengthy ode to her sublime thickness. But eventually he decides it's time to do more than dance—he should try to engage her in light conversation:
"So... Elephant, huh? You guys sell elephants or what?" That was my idea of a joke.
"The idea behind the name is that we can talk up a mouse until it looks like an elephant. We do advertising, marketing, and design. You should give us a call sometime. Maybe we could help you out. I heard you're an artist. How much does one of your paintings go for?"
"I'm actually doing installation works right now. The canvas can no longer contain me. There's nothing you can do for me. Well, maybe there's something... Let's go back to my place and I'll show you."
She twisted away from me and shouted, "Pervert! I know what you people are like, you artists, with your long hair and your dirty socks. When's the last time you took a bath? I know what's on your minds. Perverts, all of you."
"You don't understand," I protested. "You don't know what our world is like."
He looks for another dance partner and seeks out one of the tall nurses. He only comes up to her nose and dancing is a bit awkward. He attempts to apologize for a misstep and the nurse interrupts him, absentmindedly saying, “Uh-huh.”
She was looking down on me, literally and figuratively. I suddenly had the urge to pour my heart out to her—or to anyone at all who would listen. Since I was dancing with her, I decided I might as well tell her what was on my mind. I started telling my story, starting with how my girlfriend was a crazy bitch, how I was chasing my dreams as an itinerant artist, how I was moving toward new frontiers in art, how I was close to starving to death. I gave her everything I had. I felt like I was on the verge of clawing out an ounce of flesh to present to her. She nodded along and said, "Uh-huh-uh-huh-uh-huh-uh-huh." She hadn't heard a word I said. I looked up and saw that she was staring over me at Old K. When I realized what was happening, I felt a wave of revulsion. That woman disgusted me. Anyone that uh-huh-uh-huhs and nods along with a man pouring his heart out, all while looking at another man—what kind of woman is that? A sick woman.
She was nothing but a plastic person. She would always be looking over my head. I didn't exist to her. All she cared about was being next in line for that lying bastard Old K. I couldn't swallow the rage that was bubbling up inside of me. Fuck her, I thought to myself. A goddamn nurse was looking down on me. I never thought that would happen. I felt supreme loneliness.
I sat by myself for a while, trying to figure out what had made me go along with Zhou Sese. I'd hoped I'd be able to fill my belly, at least, but all I got was a couple weak drinks. I went to the kitchen and started looking for something to eat. I devoured half a roast chicken and a bunch of smoked quail eggs.
Zhu Wen collapses on the couch, finally satisfied. That's when Ke Manman emerges from the darkness.
"I want to dance with you," she said.
She was inviting me. I stood up and put an arm around her waist. "Why did you want to dance with me?"
"I think you and me are a lot alike. We're both lonely. Have you ever been divorced? This is my first. Two years married, a year since we ended it. Do you know what it's like to be married? It's like being forced to walk around in shoes that don't fit right. I've got to leave this country. The thing is, I want to have more than one kid. It's not that I'm against family planning, but I don't want someone else planning my family for me. I want to have a whole bunch of half babies, half white and half Chinese, all running around me, like a bunch of chickens! That's why I need to go to either Canada or New Zealand. I can't stand Chinese men. They're filthy. They're selfish. They're sadistic. They're hypocrites. No morals. I made that mistake once and I won't do it again. My husband thought he was going to keep me locked up. I don't want to live in a cage. So, the way I see it is..."
She kept going. I'd thought she was cold but she was in fact overflowing with dreams and intense desires. She was just like me. Everyone was looking for someone to dump their emotional baggage on. I tried to listen but I probably looked a lot like that tall nurse, nodding along and mumbling, "Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh-uh-huh."
That fatal loneliness gripped me again. The world was emptied of everyone except for me. The mountains in the distance, the sun set over them only for me. The rivers that ran to the sea, they flowed only for me. The wildflowers in the field, they opened only for me. Loneliness is a potent hallucinogen. I'd smoked weed before and that didn't compare to this. It just left me giggling and weeping. I felt as if I was floating in that dark room. I suddenly thought about my Yan Tong: her pale face and her crazy eyes. Have you completely lost your mind yet, Yan Tong? What is it like for you, down there in that rainy little bullshit town? You told me you'd go crazy without me. Were you telling the truth? My body seemed to rotate in the dark, sparking with pain. I couldn't stop thinking about her, my Yan Tong, sick in the head. I wanted to gaze into her eyes again, those mad, empty eyes, deep and dark as an abyss. I wanted to plunge into her like I was falling down into a Yarlung Tsangpo ravine. I wanted to lay my head on her belly and sob. But she wasn't there. She was a thousand miles away, slowly losing her mind.

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.