“Shanghai Baby” and “Candy”: Back When Young Female Chinese Writers “Wrote with their Bodies”

Controversial new kiss 'n tell novel by forty-something Jiu Dan, who shocked with her "Crows" at the turn of the century
Controversial new kiss ‘n tell novel by forty-something Jiu Dan, who shocked with her “Crows” at the turn of the century

Just finished translating a new semi-autobiographical novella (synopsis), The Embassy’s China Bride (大使先生), by Jiu Dan of Crows fame (乌鸦, 九丹著). This reminded me that at the turn of 21st century, three young Chinese female writers were busy boldly writing about their sexuality, orgasms and all, and being lambasted for it by the critics and Chinese society at large. The trio were Jiu Dan, who chronicled the exploits of “Little Dragon Girls” from China in Singapore; Mian Mian, author of Candy (糖, 棉棉著); and arguably the best known, Wei Hui, who authored the infamous Shanghai Baby (上海宝贝).  They were denigrated as “pretty chick-lit authors” (美女作家) who “write with the lower half of their bodies” (下半身写作), as some engagingly put it.  This designation conveniently allowed the critics to focus on the writers’ lifestyles rather than the content of their writing.

But that wasn’t the case with Zha Jianying, who holds a Ph D. in Comparative Lit from Columbia. Happily, I have just located my translation of her Analyzing Wei Hui and Mian Mian: Hollywood Ice Cream and Shanghai Lollipop. I don’t recall exactly when it was published, but I think I translated it in 2000.

Given that Jiu Dan — now a forty-something — has just launched The Embassy’s China Bride in Taiwan (potentially controversial in its own right), I thought it might be fun to put my translation of Zha Jianying’s critique up on this blog in order to give readers a taste of how these daring female writers were viewed when they first appeared on China’s literary scene. I should mention that Zha Jianying wrote me and roundly criticized me for a host of errors in my rendition. But since she wasn’t specific, I publish it below, warts and all. For a bilingual version with her original, see 卫慧棉棉.

Analyzing Wei Hui and Mian Mian:

Hollywood Ice Cream and Shanghai Lollipop

By Zha Jianying (translated by Bruce Humes)

I was in Shanghai less than a week but heard comments in several different venues about novels by Mian Mian and Wei Hui. It’s widely agreed that these “New Generation” writers are daring, superficial and tend to “write with their bodies, and think with their skin.” Their writing is said to be little more than sex and drugs.

Before I left Shanghai I bought Candy and Shanghai Baby at a bookstore on the new pedestrian-only portion of Nanjing Road. Said a friend on learning of my purchase: “You’d best take it with you on a flight for a quick read, and leave it on the plane when you get off.” But the condescending attitude behind these words just piqued my curiosity.

In recent years I’ve read few Chinese novels. Be it books given by friends or ones I’ve bought as a result of an occasional overheard recommendation, it’s a rare novel that I don’t abandon mid-way. Sometimes I wonder where the problem lies: With me? The novelist? Or our times? But I read Shanghai Baby in no time flat. Could it be because I read it on an airplane?

Last time I was on an airplane too when, as luck would have it, I got to see a Hollywood film released last year, The Thomas Crown Affair. The male and female stars were fashionable, good-looking, big-city types. The story revolves around an art theft, and the film comes across as both clever and excitingly romantic. Cool, really. Watching it was like eating ice cream . . . with your eyes.  Shanghai Baby possesses a similar beauty and rhythm, but it’s younger and more decadent, a bit like licking a lemon lollipop in the shadows of an ice-skating rink.

When you finish eating your Hollywood ice cream cone, you immediately put it out of your mind,  but that lollipop isn’t so easily forgotten. After all, it is “Made in China.” When I finished Shanghai Baby, I couldn’t help thinking to myself: “Ladies and gentlemen, hats off, here comes Wei Hui!” It reminded me of the headline for a 1960s newspaper review: “Ladies and Gentlemen, hats off, here comes Bob Dylan!” I don’t mean to suggest that Wei Hui is the new Bob Dylan. But this novel did indeed leave me with a distinctive impression: A new literary personality has entered the scene, and a new kind of urban novel has been born in China.

I should first admit my reading prejudices. I am a city dweller through and through whose romantic fantasies of

"The author doesn't forget to remind the reader that CoCo is wearing CK-brand underwear when she makes love with a foreigner in a public washroom."
“The author doesn’t forget to remind the reader that CoCo is wearing CK-brand underwear when she makes love with a foreigner in a public washroom.”

country life were destroyed when I was sent to till the land outside Beijing for one year. There is a gulf between me and the rural novel; the very smell of soil makes me yawn.

I do like the descriptions of countryside in Russian novels, and enjoy A Cheng’s novels about educated youth who have been sent “down”to the countryside. But that’s precisely because they are about aristocrats and urban intellectuals looking askance at “life in a foreign land.” When you really get down to it, my narrowness comes from having grown up in the city. Those I inhabited and loved have all been large and old cities: Beijing, New York, Chicago. But China hasn’t any modern metropolises, and thus can hardly give birth to “modern urban literature.” Chinese authors needn’t take the blame for that.

In fact, since the 1980s mainland China has produced some highly individualistic urban novelists, from Liu Suo-La and Xu Xing to Wang Shuo in the 1990s. But the cities and characters they portray very much retain the habits of the revolutionary era. Even when they rebel, the object of their rebellion is well-defined: The decaying status quo. Their “anti-heroes” still cling to the exaggerated poses of the socialist hero of yesteryear.

Of course, one finds a bit more of the searching, questioning young artist in Liu Suo-La’s work (her young female characters are ashamed of their superficiality and inflict psychological torture on themselves just for simple acts like going shopping or putting on a touch of make-up), while Xu Xing focuses more on the gloomy, bored lives of youth on the margins of society, and Wang Shuo is more likely to portray the impudent and slippery side of the children of cadres and military families. All these novels have a sense of the northern Chinese urbanite to them: Extravagant, as quick to criticize as to joke, boisterous and given to monumental feasting. Very exaggerated.

A Shanghai writer of the late 1980s, Sun Gan-Lu, had an entirely different style. His solution for writing about the city was to fabricate one delicate and exquisite daydream after another. The Shanghai of that era badly lacked material goods, and had too few places for fun and leisure. In the eyes of one who appreciates beauty, Shanghai was merely an expanse of pale poverty. What to do? There was but one way out: Transform revolutionary prose into a revolution of prose, and turn rural utopia into a city daydream. Since one couldn’t find these things in daily life, then let the imagination turn on the neon lights, stroll into an imaginary pub, and listen to that imaginary jazz music, traveling back in time. I tend to believe that Sun Gang-Lu chose not to take the path of realism, instead indulging in this experiment with form, in large part because he felt pressured to do so. It was a Shanghainese way of resisting a crude and harsh culture.

Wei Hui and Mian Mian are a different generation of Shanghainese. Revolution and revolutionary consciousness are utterly absent from the urban scenery they describe, as if they had never existed at all. Of course, they have not disappeared from the actual face of the city; anyone with normal vision can comprehend that just by walking five minutes on a street in Shanghai, where one will find that it has not been reduced to billboards of neon-lit men and women. But their novels have indeed neatly and thoroughly stripped away this layer of culture. Out of annoyance? Avoidance? Apathy? Perhaps the so-called ‘depoliticalization’ of society has given the New Generation a new set of eyes?

No matter why, let’s drop the subject — because talking about things revolutionary wouldn’t be cool or attractive. In this sense, each and every esteemed member of this New Generation is thoroughly “in tune with the trends of the times.”You could say they are virtually thriving in the midst of those trends. The pun on a political slogan — “Look to the (money in the) future”(note:”money”and “future”are homophones in Chinese) — has at last been realized, creating an urban “Flower of Evil” with richly Chinese characteristics.

In comparison to Wei Hui and her Shanghai Baby, the elder Wang Shuo is a flawed writer. Shanghai Baby is beautifully written, and the young author clearly combines the qualities of a natural feeling for writing with intelligence and a good education. Her first novel is uncommonly good, and it must be said that her language is pleasing. She has a tendency to use off-the-shelf phrases, but this unwillingness to sculpt her language unburdens her prose, making it a light and quick read. Her descriptions of people and scenery are concise, revealing and direct, emotional but not overdone or affected. Her writing offers rich experience but avoids profundity, and classifies as top-notch popular fiction.

The sex scenes are well done, representing a total breakthrough among contemporary mainland Chinese writers. Direct, uncluttered and utterly devoid of affectation, there is no hide-and-seek or lightning-minus-the-thunder sort of treatment here. Wei Hui moves straight to her theme, but always handles it in a technically correct manner. Take orgasms, for instance. She mixes cliches taken from kongfu novels and karaoke hits, and handles them in such an intelligent way that these formulas, long ago overused, come across as witty in this sexual context. The central theme of the novel is sexual desire, and every venue is a carefully chosen, happening place. Each character must be young and attractive in that way that Hong Kong fashion magazines define as trendy. You can imagine them striking one sultry pose after another, and I assume that Shanghai Baby would make a good film.

Shanghai Baby has painted a portrait of China’s New Generation as refined, carefree and western-oriented. And who are these New Generation types? The term counterculture appears in the book many times, but I’m afraid Wei Hui’s characters wouldn’t qualify as true countercultural denizens. They are too chic and refined, calculating and self-assured. When they poke fun at themselves it’s cute and a bit coquettish. In an era of pleasure, they have plenty of money — or at least never lack for it — and they know how to enjoy it. In the morally ambivalent environment where they exist, they are easy but decisive.

Every time they “go crazy” the line between sensuality/narcissism vs.rationality remains firmly drawn; they commit no political faux pas, do not debase things foreign, and do not harm themselves. Their indiscretion is never equivalent to stupidity. They play by the rules and they understand what is truly dangerous and what is safe. They are intelligent people who never make a mess of things, and never go beyond the pale.When you get right down to it, they are simply a band of strange and unusual youth, neither fish nor fowl, adept at flowing with the tide.

At the end of the 1990s, in terms of lifestyle and morality, this old ship that is China has finally sailed to the boundary line where the old gives way to the new. The street is filled with the seductive scent of old trees sporting new flowers. But like an old person who has had plastic surgery after a long illness,underneath that bright,fresh exterior lies hidden a deep sense of sorrow and fear. The most effective way to overcome that feeling of helplessness is to indulge now while there is still time. Shanghai Baby is peopled with nimble-witted hedonists. From the point of view of traditional mainstream society, they are moral degenerates and self-serving rebels. But in the eyes of the new mainstream, they are crystal bubbles moving with the tide to better display their beauty. They attract attention by behaving differently, and exploit that uniqueness to their own benefit.

Let’s examine the way the book cites a few idols of Western culture. At the outset CoCo, the book’s female protagonist, announces that her Number One idol is Henry Miller, and not without cause. When one mentions Henry Miller, one immediately thinks of the rebellion of the philosophy of unrestrained sensuality against a culture which denies sexual pleasure.  Members of China’s New Generation can indeed find inspiration here, but the similarity ends there. Also semi-autobiographical, Miller’s protagonist [note: the writer appears to be referring to Tropic of Cancer] is a poor fellow from Brooklyn who wanders off to Europe. His sensory pleasures are a rebellion against both sexual inhibition and commercialism, and the story is filled with rantings against the entire American puritanical capitalistic lifestyle.

CoCo’s rebellion,on the other hand, is one of a female student from a top school who feels compelled to “descend”into society and play a few pranks in order to establish her individuality and unconventionality. But when all is said and done, CoCo is still the spoiled daughter of a good family whose wild streak has its limits; when she has made a mess of things outside, she will return dead tired to her home where her mother will make her a bowl of congee, and then sleep it off.

What is more important is that Wei Hui’s characters are fundamentally the products of a commercialized lifestyle. They are very fond of material things and fairly snobbish. One can say that this attitude is itself a counter-reaction to a culture which was formerly anti-commercial and anti-material, and is understandable in the light of the tendency for hypercorrection to occur as a reaction to extremism. But because of this, sex in Shanghai Baby is essentially a commodity, and indulgence is merely a rejoicing on the material level. Although the unrestrained sensuality of the book gives it a very similar facade, in terms of spirit it is the inverse of what Miller was writing about.

Among the Western icons which the book cites are the 1960s beat generation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. At a time of widespread economic well-being in the United States, middle-class sons and daughters rebelled against the lifestyle of their parents; They intensely opposed materialism and the War in Vietnam, overflowed with idealism and utopian fantasies and even associated getting high with a kind of spiritual transcendence.  Shanghai Baby is polarized, a product of post-colonialism, decadent yet practical-minded, and nihilistic to the core. Partying every day and seeking pleasure at night, there are no ideals or utopia here.

If we follow this line of reasoning, regardless of whether one compares it to Henry Miller or the On the Road generation, Wei Hui’s novel is another sort of animal entirely. The book contains quite a few other diverse references which catch the eye like a rainbow-colored sheet of cellophane.  But overall, Shanghai Baby is in reality a smooth and glossy, vacuum-packaged “super-product,” a term I am also borrowing from the book. At the time when Wang Shuo wrote his novels they were dubbed “commercial,” but compared with this book they are riddled with gaping holes. That mouth of Wang Shuo’s never knows when enough is enough, and just goes on until he gets ugly, taking no prisoners and baring his feelings to all. This young lady, by comparison, has a nimble tongue and a well-rounded way of presenting her ideas.

I recall there was a British novelist who said that any novel that describes “sex and shopping” well is a good novel.  Shanghai Baby puts them both in the same melting pot and the result is a good read. That’s why a compliment about CoCo’s red satin embroidered handbag serves as a lead-in to the scene where she kisses a German lesbian. And the author doesn’t forget to remind the reader that CoCo is wearing CK-brand underwear when she makes love with a foreigner in a public washroom. These details are in fact quite essential: If CoCo were to reveal herself in underwear that one buys for just 10renminbi a pair on the street, the value of that splendid scene would tumble, transformed from an amorous encounter to a cheap screw.

"Sex and love are expressed in a straightforward manner in Candy too, rough edges and all, not as cute or pretty [as in Shanghai Baby]. . . But the pain of disappointment is more believable."
“Sex and love are expressed in a straightforward manner in Candy too, rough edges and all, not as cute or pretty [as in Shanghai Baby] . . . But the pain of disappointment is more believable.”
I am also reminded of America’s New Generation, dubbed the X-Generation. Their parents are the Baby Boomers who shook heaven and earth back in the 1960s. Their main characteristics: Indulgence in their own bodies, consumer consumption and high technology, and an ambivalent attitude toward politics. If you discount taking anti-depressives (doing drugs is hardly new) and specifically American issues like the boredom of suburban life, then there are actually quite a number of similarities between members of the New Generation in America and China. Even that sense of femininity (liberated but not dogmatic) which is perhaps a shared characteristic of females worldwide in this “post women’s lib”period. In fact, there are forerunners of this kind of narcissistic yet reserved female image in modern Chinese literature. Shadows are to be found in Ding Ling’s Ms. Sophie’s Diary, published in the 1920s, but back then even a girl and a boy kissing bordered on the unacceptable. Ding Ling looked down upon money worshippers, and wrote in such a way as to leave open the possibility that she could join the pro-communist writer’s league sometime in the future. But when you really think about it, had Ms. Sophie lived until the turn of the century, wouldn’t she have become CoCo?

The two males in Shanghai Baby are also thought-provoking. The Chinese male’s sexual impotence, which Zhang Xian-Liang [translator’s note: author of Half of Man is Woman] put down to political repression, has metamorphosed here into the result of pressure generated by money. Aren’t the sexual hang-ups of Tian Tian, the main male character, rooted in money? On the one hand he is incapable of banishing the shadow of his father’s death (he suspects his mother killed him for his wealth), yet on the other he lives off the cash which she sends him from abroad. The third party in this triangular love relationship is a symbol of money and things foreign: Mark, the top executive at a German firm in Shanghai — that man with “devilish blue eyes,” “that frighteningly large organ,”and “exceptional business results in China”— is juxtaposed with the juvenile, weak and impotent Tian Tian. Sex, power, money and self-confidence are all concentrated in this one Westerner called Mark. In the face of such an overwhelming competitor, Tian Tian is only capable of self-destruction. Pitiful Chinese men. And women.

My last words are reserved for Mian Mian. Based solely on her novel Candy, Mian Mian’s talent and technique as a novelist are no match for Wei Hui’s. Her storytelling language is neither refined nor earthy; when she doesn’t work at it, it just rambles on uncontrollably, but when she really tries, it becomes affected.”The sky was great and grey,””She was a detailed beauty,””His voice was perfectly melancholic,””He adored me like a bronze statue”. . . Good lord, didn’t her editor go over her copy? Even so, via her inept writing one can nonetheless sense her sincerity and faintly see a sketch by another urban youth. It’s a bit like listening to a shoddy rendition of the blues.

Mian Mian’s female protagonist is also vain, but she is always out of money. She dares to wear underwear that go for 10renminbi a pair on Shanghai’s Huating Street, but feels proud because they look like 50renminbi a pair on her. Sex and love are expressed in a straightforward manner in Candy too, rough edges and all, not as cute or pretty, and Mian Mian’s sense of design isn’t as strong. But the pain of disappointment is more believable.

In a word, the candy isn’t so sweet, but that baby is a real doll.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s