AUGUST 9, 2013
I FIRST ENCOUNTERED Han Han at the age of 12, in the spring of 2000, on the second floor of a Beijing academic bookstore. A seventh-grade student in one of the city’s most competitive junior high schools, I was scouring the shelves in search of books that would help me tackle the five hours’ worth of daily homework assignments and seemingly endless array of quizzes and exams. There, surrounded by the bright and noisy covers of Getting to Know Trigonometry and New Concept English Grammar, was a picture of a naked infant, cringing in a fetal position and hovering above a dark blue background — the cover of Triple Door, Han Han’s first novel. Written when he was just 17, the semi-autobiographical story details the life of an antsy Shanghai teenager as he slouches through his claustrophobic daily life in the country’s creativity-deadening educational system, loathing the environment defined by empty rules and unreasonable expectations, yet feeling driven to try to excel in it. The book resonated with Han’s peers. Tens of thousands of copies sold in weeks; it became the year’s best-selling book in China.
A dozen years later, Han Han’s core set of readers, members of the so-called “’80s generation” (children born in that decade), have left school, where they unhappily toiled for years, and have plunged into a rapidly changing society where fresh challenges await. Youth from rural areas swarm into cities in search for wealth and opportunity, only to stumble onto a spectrum of social barriers and a widening income gap; children of middle class families graduate from universities with high hopes, but find themselves facing a dismal job market; the large number of Chinese youth who have chosen to study abroad gain new perspectives from their experiences, but struggle to reconcile new ideas with beliefs instilled by Chinese education.
China has never had a generation that has witnessed such diverging fates. Unlike their parents’ generation, whose lives were swept out of their hands by political movements and social disasters, the 1980s children have grown up with relative material comfort and enjoyed the luxury of choices created by the economic reforms. Unprecedented freedom has created a range of worldviews varying as much as the generation’s experiences, and capturing them is a seemingly impossible task. Yet Han, having reinvented himself as a popular social commentator and blogger while also launching a successful parallel career as a racecar driver, is taking the challenge in stride.
Han’s latest book (and first in English), This Generation: Dispatches from China’s Most Popular Literary Star (and Race Car Driver), translated by Allan Barr, is a compilation of selected blog posts from 2007 through 2012. In these online essays, Han discusses a range of issues weighing heavily on the minds of members of our generation — corruption, nationalism, and censorship, among others — in a variety of voices and postures. Barr faithfully preserves both the essence of Han’s arguments and his literary style in his translation and makes the pieces digestible for Western readers by tying up some wandering sentences and clarifying the occasionally elusive logic in the original Chinese texts. Though a small part of Han’s humor, based on Chinese wordplay, does not always carry over into English, more than enough survives to give the reader an authentic taste of the writings of someone who is China’s funniest and also among its most influential commentators on contemporary issues.
Corruption, a recurring focus in Han’s writing, has repeatedly brought debate in China’s circumscribed public sphere to a boil in the past several years. Angry murmurs circulate on social networks. Critical columns in local newspapers tiptoe along the boundary of state censorship. To speak on the issue as an opinion leader like Han, however, whose blog has gathered over 580 million hits since established in 2005, is a much trickier task. Here is where Han’s signature style comes in: with a dash of ironic humor, he pokes fun at officials and cadres without making the kind of direct attacks that have put many other outspoken social commentators in danger.
After a local party official was arrested for taking 60,000 RMB (roughly $9,500) in bribes and harboring a mistress, Han wrote an article praising him as a “fine cadre” for his small appetite: “In an official culture where decadence is the norm, [he has] to count as the most innocuous, environmentally friendly elements.” To complete his act, Han set up a public opinion poll on his blog, asking his followers to weigh in with their opinions on the official. Ninety-six percent voted favorably. A pleased Han then announced that he had decided to set himself up as a “strategic collaboration partner” to government websites, conducting the same polls as the officials among his followers, and to “see how [his] poll results compare with theirs.”
Han is equally eloquent on the issue of censorship, something he constantly contends with as a writer and mocks with wry nonchalance. He says, for example, that when speaking to Chinese journalists, he never worries about crossing a line since he knows that eventually “there’s nothing that will get into the paper that is not aboveboard.” In an essay discussing political suppression in North Korea, he explains: “We can’t interfere in other countries’ internal politics and we can’t comment on our own — all we can do is to comment on the former.” When the government issued a directive in 2010, banning “indecent content” in text messages, Han complained about its failure to clarify indecent. He plans to “constantly forward indecent messages of various kinds, until [his] cell phone has been disabled” in order to determine the standards.
Officialdom, however, is not Han’s only subject. As he reflects in the final essay of the book: “[A] good writer shouldn’t just train his sights on the high and mighty, he should also be ready to clip the wings of the masses.” Indeed, one issue he sees rooted in the masses and discusses regularly is nationalism, which has stormed the nation in recent episodes of perceived foreign affronts. Here, he replaces his shrewd vagueness with clear, painstaking reasoning and, occasionally, stern chiding.
In a 2010 post on a round of Chinese protests over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands (a conflict that more recently resurfaced this fall), Han’s words reach the fanatic nationalists like a bucket of cold water. He demands that they reexamine their own situations first: “People who’ve got no land to their name go to fight for someone else’s land, people stripped of dignity fight to defend someone else’s dignity — just how low can you fall?” and “When a people cannot demonstrate peacefully in response to a domestic problem, any protest they make about something external has no more meaning than a dance extravaganza.”
Other times, he reverts to his cynical, world-weary voice, which also works well to dampen nationalistic fervor. Why don’t other nations work themselves into hysterics in the face of foreign insults, Han asks his fellow countrymen, after they collectively lashed out at a French actress for her unsympathetic comments on the 2008 earthquake that killed tens of thousands in Sichuan province. “I guess they are just not as cohesive a force as we are and are unable to come out with such a neat message.” To the nationalists who argue their protests are motivated by selfless patriotism, Han responds with his characteristic sarcasm: “If, given the chance to be born a second time, you chose to be born once more in this country, I agree that this would show true patriotism and excellent moral fiber.”
Cynicism, boredom, self-deprecation — Han’s cunning deployment of these devices has allowed him to dodge censors and develop a reputation as the opinion leader of his generation and beyond. He mocks the authorities, especially but not only local level officials, yet he rarely attacks the one-party system; he makes pleas and bargains, but doesn’t turn them into pointed demands. Is there a more radical Han behind his tactically vague words, his readers ask hopefully, waiting for the prime occasion to launch a full-blown strike at the authorities? Is his measured criticism a strategy of self-preservation, a mask over the more forceful pushes he will make one day on behalf of his tens of millions of voiceless followers? In three essays at the end of the book, Han dashes these hopes.
“Perfect democracy will never appear in China,” he wrote, “so all we can do is to pursue it one step at a time.” Among the obstacles he sees are not only the pervasive and deep-rooted authoritarian regime, but also the people itself, or, in his view, the two are not entirely separate problems. The vast communist party, he argues, has reached a size that it takes on the character of people, so “the Party’s shortcomings are the people’s shortcomings.” The fundamental obstacle to democracy in China, he believes, is cultural and social in nature: Chinese people lack the “personal caliber and education level” needed for a smooth-functioning democracy, and are so alienated from each other in the current society that they lack the civil spirit to fight for a fairer system for all.
Government commentators endorsed Han’s arguments, which fall close to their own, but many of his followers feel betrayed. The eagerness with which they had projected their hopes and beliefs on him perhaps tells us more about them than about Han’s charisma: “In the heart of we baixing, Han is the one who speaks for us,” one Han follower writes in a blog post, using a Chinese word meaning “the common masses” that is offered up in deliberate contrast to “officials” and other members of the elite. “We have so few of them in public. We put our hopes in him,” she explains, “because to believe in him is to believe in the hope of justice. It’s not because Han represents justice … it’s because we need it.”
In his book, Han characterizes my generation as a “disconnected” one. Communist ideals, together with its unifying power, waned in the 1980s and never took root in our hearts; new barriers such as widening income inequality and stalled social mobility further erode the generational cohesion. Better education, unprecedented access to the outside world and increasing domestic transparency facilitated by social media have enabled us to identify the issues discussed in Han’s writing, but many have chosen to focus on the narrow path immediately ahead. Bogged down by the pressure of living, denied a free channel of speech, and thus locked in our individual worries, what to do but to, say, calculate how long it might take before you can save enough for a down payment on your first apartment?
Han’s writing won us over for so vividly capturing the thin layer of commonalities shared by my generation and the mood born out of this social environment: a dash of irony, a sprinkle of resignation, and a pinch of self-loathing. Reading him, I find myself nodding at his various characterizations of social woes, chuckling at the their absurdities and occasionally recoiling from the sting of their truthfulness. Despite the chilling social realities described in Han’s essays, like many of my peers, I had taken his very existence as a reason for optimism and a source of consolation: his commentaries provide a kernel around which an alternative public discourse can form to challenge the official one, and a bond of solidarity can establish in the disconnected generation. As it turns out, though, Han is also exhausted, as the burnt-out tone in his later essays suggests: “Those so-called criticisms and what I had thought to be enlightening speeches, most things I have pushed for in the past, are just words repeating themselves,” Han wrote in one of his recent essays. “We [the Chinese people] are not good at generating constructive discussions and making concessions, and are still ganging up and throwing ad hominem attacks at the opposite camp. Everyone grows tired in the end, both those pro-government and those against it.”
Twelve years ago, when Han could not bear the meaningless grind of the Chinese national education, he dropped out of high school at 17, exiting the system and slamming the door behind him by publishing a best-selling satirical novel. But today’s Han perhaps more resembles the protagonist of his first novel, the unfulfilled student who laughs at his obstinate teachers and laments the dull textbooks he has to pore through, but doesn’t leave his desk.