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OCTOBER 23, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 16


Fritz Hoffmann/Network Photographers for TIME.
China's best-selling fiction comes from all corners of the country. Tibetan novelist Alai has won national acclaim for his novel 'After the Dust Settles'

Pushing the (Red) Envelope
China's literary scene is being revved up by apolitical, school-age tell-alls and risqué sex romps
By HOWARD GOLDBLATT

Millions of Chinese have heard of Shanghai Baby, the shockingly frank grunge novel by Wei Hui, who prides herself on being "China's first banned pornographic female novelist." But how many have heard of Yu Xiu's Flower Season, Rainy Season or Han Han's The Three Gates? Quite a few, apparently, for even with all the publicity surrounding Wei Hui's evocation of China's urban counterculture and the even darker stories and novels by Mian Mian, whose collection La La La was the first contemporary work of fiction to portray China's urban drug scene, the sales and popularity of Yu Xiu's and Han Han's novels appear to have outstripped their more sensational counterparts.

Yu Xiu's Flower Season, Rainy Season, published in 1997, skips over the antics of the bar-hopping, bed-swapping, pill-popping children born in the '70s in favor of the more mundane, yet far more typical, lives of China's teenagers. Calling upon her own high-school experiences and those of her fellow students, Yu Xiu writes realistically and with quiet, if less than fully mature, grace about young people who are about to join the work force, who are sorting out their emotions and who are witnessing the effects—good and bad—of China's breakneck economic reforms. Yu Xiu turned out to be a trendsetter, for in recent years a flood of novels and stories by and about teenagers (and even preteens as young as 10) has snagged a vast readership. Publishers are focusing on these budding novelists partly because the genre is successful but also because they are wary of touching more daring works by people like Wei Hui and Mian Mian (who also goes by the name Kika), or the more sophisticated satires and exposEs of veteran writers like Shanghai's Wang Anyi or Muslim novelist Zhang Chengzhi.

Han Han, an 18-year-old high-school dropout, may be the most talented and interesting member of this teenage clique. While his novels of campus life have been well received, especially his latest, The Three Gates, his public comments on the education system he chose to leave for a literary career have sparked considerable controversy. His literary offerings are welcomed by readers young and old, who see in them reflections of their own lives and problems. But his apparent disdain for school life and the learning process may have created a real obstacle for him and for the growing number of teenagers who are tired of learning. These kids are writing about life before they've done much living; once they've graduated from campus motifs, will they understand enough about society to write well?

The authors who have created the most problems for themselves, though, are still the "shock sisters"—Mian Mian and Wei Hui. Wang Shuo, 42, the onetime "bad boy of Beijing," who has plenty of experience in writing banned books, has characterized Mian Mian (also a high-school dropout) as someone who "writes with her body, not her brain." She, of course, would put it differently. But neither she nor Wei Hui nor other "glam-lit" novelists can deny that in their tales about young people on the fringes of society, the body—its pleasures and its pains—is central to the story told. The descriptive language, the general absence of artistry and the "unhealthy" characters in their work have all proven to be lightning rods for criticism from conservative officials and intellectuals alike. (Of course, such attacks have only increased the cachet they enjoy among loyal readers.)

But sex, violence, ennui, the generation gap and other social concerns are not the exclusive domain of glam-lit writers, about whom one critic has said, "Theirs is a mixture of courage and an absence of shame." Other, slightly older and more established novelists continue to attract readers with their tales of social and cultural nonconformity. Zhu Wen's recent novel What's Garbage and What's Love? wonderfully evokes the lassitude of urban youth with too much disposable cash and too few ideals, while other '60s-generation writers—most notably women like Sichuan's Hong Ying, Beijing's Chen Ran and Guangxi's Lin Bai—continue to write about sexuality, especially female sexuality and even lesbianism, in stories with a more experimental narrative style.

Nowhere does sex play a bigger role in fiction than on the Internet. The anarchy of the Web, the freedom from publishers and the promise of a large, anonymous and highly participatory readership make it an irresistible forum for would-be novelists. Homosexuality—a taboo subject in print—is among the most popular themes of cyberfiction from China. So, too, are crime stories, romances and science fiction.

Sci-fi, in fact, is one of the most popular genres in print literature as well, particularly among the young. The Tibetan novelist Alai, whose 1998 book about his homeland, After the Dust Settles, was a huge best-seller, is chief editor of the journal Science Fiction World, which has a monthly circulation of nearly 500,000 readers. This is the sort of number that was once reserved for mainstream, sanctioned literary publications. Now they must compete not only with "sexier" magazines, but with television, movies and video games.

Devotees of "serious" literature, while in shorter supply than in years past, continue to produce and consume high-quality writing, even though such works sometimes appear to be more popular abroad than at home. Mo Yan is an exception: although his two latest novels, The Republic of Wine and Big Breasts and Wide Hips were ordered pulled from the shelves, hundreds of thousands of pirated copies can be found in bookstalls across China. Other writers of the '50s and '60s generation—people like Yu Hua, Han Shaogong and Jia Pingwa—still appeal to critics and editors, who can be forgiven if they demand a higher standard of artistry than the youngsters have provided so far.

Meanwhile, Wang Shuo has become a prizewinning filmmaker and a patron of younger writers. Wei Hui has publicly admitted, in the face of mounting domestic criticism of her book, that "Sometimes I don't know who is right. Maybe I am wrong." Mian Mian does not want to be called a writer at all. And the teeny-boppers fight to become the next generation of Nobel hopefuls in a country whose literary scene is as varied as the society in which it operates.

Howard Goldblatt is a professor of Chinese at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His recent translations include Mo Yan's The Republic of Wine and Wang Shuo's Please Don't Call Me Human

Write to TIME at mail@web.timeasia.com

the arts ALSO IN YOUNG CHINA: THE ARTS
Singing the Blues: Why Chinese rock doesn't rock

Looking Inward: Today's artists are beginning to explore individual rather than collective themes

Riot Grrrls: Mian Mian and Wei Hui face off

Literary Boom: Youth fiction is far more varied than the sex-and-drugs glam-lit that nabs headlines

What's Hot: The fads du jour among urban youth

Father and Son: Two generations of filmmakers reflect on their differences—which turn out to be less than they had feared

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