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Make Way for Han Han

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Q: When a foreigner comes over and gives you a slap in the face, you take it lying down and don’t fight back. Are you just trying to show how cool you are?
A: No foreigner has come over and given me a slap.
Q: Han Han, a foreigner rapes your mother, and you still won’t put up a protest.
A: No foreigner has raped my mom.
Q: The motherland—that’s your mother.
A: The motherland is the motherland, my mother is my mother.
—From “Q & A with Chinese nationalists,” an April 23 2008 blog post

[I’d like to see China become] a country that doesn’t resort to land sales and real estate and low-end assembly production to achieve high GDP—and high per capita GDP . . . A country whose culture has an impact on the world, whose literature and art other countries imitate. A country that has as clean an environment and as free an atmosphere as other places, where you can enjoy the spectacle of seeing power confined in a cage . . .

—From “Talking Freely, Wine in Hand,” a May 7, 2010 blog post

These quotations are from This Generation: Dispatches from China’s Most Popular Literary Star (and Race Car Driver), which Simon & Schuster released on October 9. The publisher is hoping that this book will make enough of a splash that 2012 will be remembered as the year that Han Han made it big. Or, rather, made it big in the West. For the work’s thirty-year-old author is already arguably as big as you can get in China. Each new post he puts up on his controversial blog garners hundreds of thousands of hits. And his face is ubiquitous, at least in major cities, where it graces magazine covers and appears in countless ads for products he endorses.

In China, moreover, Han is not a newcomer to fame. He’s been in the public eye for roughly one third of his short life. His star first began to rise soon after he dropped out of one of the top high schools in the Shanghai area. The reason it rose was his first novel. A work sometimes likened to Catcher in the Rye in terms of theme and tone, it became a bestseller and earned Han enough money to fulfill his biggest dream: buying a car.

In August, in a piece I wrote on Han for the Atlantic’s online edition, I explored one of the most curious things about the writer: that he has stayed largely under the radar in the West, in spite of a string of profiles of him appearing in leading English- language newspapers and magazines, including the New Yorker. The question now is whether the entertaining and engaging essays in This Generation, which address issues ranging from daily life concerns to official corruption and take varying forms, from mock interviews with himself to rants to gently reflective essays, can do what those profiles have failed to do—make him a household name outside of his own country.

There have been, as I noted in the Atlantic, some Westerners who have been very interested in Han for some time now, myself included. We are, however, an unusual group, mostly people who can read Chinese and are either young expats living in Beijing or Shanghai, journalists covering China, or scholars, like me, who write about contemporary Chinese culture. For us, it’s not Han’s novels that matter (I’ve never read one), but his online essays. These run the gamut, as This Generation shows, from the silly to the sarcastic, the empathetic to the enigmatic, and the poignant to the politically charged. Often, censors scrub them off the Web within days or even hours of their first appearance, but by then many loyal Chinese readers have reposted them on other sites.

My own fascination with Han dates back to November 2009, when I read “Han Han: China’s Literary Bad Boy,” a lively short profile that Simon Elegant did for Time magazine. It was further piqued over the course of 2010, an unusually eventful year even for Han Han, who has had an action-packed existence ever since leaving high school. In 2010, he set out to launch a magazine, only to have it shuttered by the state after one issue. His career as a rally racecar driver began to take off. He wrote a series of particularly pointed posts about nationalism, including the one in interview format quoted at the start of this piece. And he had a memorable part in “I Wish I Knew,” a documentary by filmmaker Jia Zhangke.

My interest in him grew dramatically in 2010 and has kept increasing since. By now, some might say it is edging toward the obsessive. I’ve begun to wonder if I’m bringing him up so often in discussions that my grad students will eventually start a drinking game linked to my saying his name. (For now, they just exchange knowing “here he goes again” glances when I do something predictable, like ask a visiting speaker what she thinks of Han Han.)

I’d be worried about the intensity of my interest, if I didn’t know that other Western trackers of Chinese culture and politics are similarly fascinated by Han Han—in part because of how hard he is to pigeonhole in terms of style, career path, and political inclinations. For several years now, his writings have been translated and discussed frequently on the top English Web sites that track developments in China. A translation of his searing 2011 post on the high-speed train crash (and the ensuing official cover up of what went wrong) is included in Red Rising, Red Eclipse, an important new book edited by the Australian Sinologist Geremie Barmé. And a thoughtful and illuminating chapter on Han Han by Singapore-based scholar Yang Lijun, which I have been fortunate enough to read in draft form, will be included in a major book due out from Rowman & Littlefield next year titled Restless China.

Foreigners with only a passing interest in China may be much more interested in discovering what Ai Weiwei will say about the topic du jour than what Han will write. In the circles I frequent, by contrast, the exact opposite is true.

This was certainly the case during the recent wave of anti-Japanese demonstrations. I don’t remember seeing any tweet around then referring to Ai Weiwei, but on September 15, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ian Johnson (whose twitter address is @iandennisjohnson) posted this: “Whatever happened to Han Han? He was so funny and critical on nationalist protests a few years ago. Now, silent.” Two days later, Johnson followed up with this tweet (that came with a link to the relevant post by Han Han appended to it): “He's back: Han Han on the protesters being used by govt then discarded.”

Han Han’s post on the 2012 anti-Japanese demonstrations appeared too late to be included in This Generation, but that book does contain the hard-edged condemnation of the 2010 nationalist outbursts as nothing more than a government “show” that Johnson alluded to in his September 15 tweet. This comes toward the end of the slim volume, which is made up of selections from Han Han’s blog that are offered up with minimal notes and other explanatory materials. The pieces are arranged, for the most part, in chronological order, with the earliest dating from 2006, the year he began to blog, and the last a piece he wrote early in 2012. The one departure from chronology is that the 2010 post from which the book’s title is taken, “This Generation,” is placed at the start of the book.

How was the decision made as to which posts would be included in This Generation? And who decided how they would be presented? During a recent visit to Pomona College, I put this question to Allan Barr, who did a superb job last year as the translator for the English-language edition of Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words and was involved in the production of This Generation. Barr told me that he was given permission to select and order as well as translate the posts, and that in making his choices, he looked for essays that gave a sense of Han’s range and talent, seemed to have the most potential to engage Western readers, and could run with only limited footnotes yet still make sense to the uninitiated.

The result is a volume that tilts a bit toward Han Han’s more overtly political pieces, but is otherwise quite representative. It includes some of the political pieces that led certain readers to assume, incorrectly, that Han was sliding toward a full-blown dissident stance toward the government in 2010 and early-to-mid 2011. And the trio of much-debated late 2011 posts questioning China’s readiness for radical change that led others readers to claim that Han had sold out and become nothing more than a shill for the government.

This, too, was an inaccurate reading of Han Han’s politics, I would argue, as evidenced by his most recent posts. Not only the one on September’s anti-Japanese outbursts, which implied that the government needed to take responsibility for inappropriate acts of violence by demonstrators they had encouraged to lash out against Japan, but also one published over the summer that expressed support for environmental protests. And the final piece in This Generation, in which he says that he plans to “keep pushing” for changes he believes in, even though he’s determined in future not to “suck up” to anyone other than his young daughter, who he hopes will grow up to live in a China more worthy of the deep love he feels for it.

Will Simon & Schuster’s gamble on Han Han pay off? I have no idea, as it is always hard to tell which Chinese authors will find an audience in the West. If This Generation fails to gain a wide readership, though, this won’t be because of any failing on Barr’s part. He manages to convey well—and this is no easy feat—the sort of word play and wit that makes Han such an interesting blogger to read. His selections also showcase effectively the varied nature of Han’s posts, which make use of both ribald jokes and refined literary techniques and can veer toward the juvenile one moment, the high minded the next.

There probably never will be a drinking game pegged to mentions of Han Han’s name, but in a sense the Westerners interested in him I know could be said to have already begun playing a different sort of game relating to him. Namely, we try to outdo one another in figuring out which Western figure is most comparable to him—and the sheer variety of directions in which such ruminations can lead is to me at least an indication of part of what makes him so intriguing.

The first time I played the “who is Han Han like” game was last March, when my friend Rob Schmitz, who covers China so well for American Public Media’s “Marketplace” program, was in town to give a talk at my university. Discussing Han Han, we realized that not only did we share an interest in him but also had a common problem: figuring out how best to convey to non-China-obsessed people how special he is. We went back and forth about the characteristics that made him distinctive, including how often he defied the expectations of those who thought they had him pegged. Suddenly, Rob blurted out something like: “That’s one thing that makes him so much like Dylan—well, early Dylan anyway.”

I wasn’t sure about this at first, especially knowing how proud Rob is of his Minnesota roots and thus finding it a bit suspicious that he had latched onto that state’s most famous writer. On reflection, though, I saw how the analogy could work pretty well. Dylan was famously hard to categorize in his early years, and he tried his hand at many different things, including acting in and directing films. He was claimed as an icon by movements for social change, yet resisted being tied too directly to any particular struggle. And he made choices that outraged onetime fans.

The next time I played the game, it was with a very different kind of journalist: Tim Struby of ESPN Magazine. Struby, the first sports reporter ever to contact me, emailed me out of the blue because he had seen my piece in the Atlantic and hoped that I could provide some insights on Han Han the controversial writer for a piece he was doing on Han Han the driver. In our exchanges Struby brought up one analogy from the world of sports (“the most outspoken athlete since Ali”) and another from the world of literature (Han, he thought, had a lot in common with Orwell, another person drawn to political essays).

Here, again, I found parallels worth pondering. And the same goes for still other analogies I’ve heard mentioned. I was intrigued by a tweet, written in response to my Atlantic piece, that suggested that Han Han was a Chinese counterpart to Paul Newman (a celebrity with liberal political views who took up racing) and I remain fond of a line in the New Yorker profile that brought together two very different American figures in a single sentence: “[Han Han’s] manicured, swaggering persona,” the magazine’s Evan Osnos wrote, "is a rebuke to the rumpled archetype of the Chinese intellectual, and owes equal debt to Kerouac and Timberlake.”

My own contribution to the game spins off in a still different direction—toward the world of political humor rather than sports, music or literature. At least at times, what Han Han’s blog does is offer readers a sophisticated and funny alternative to official versions of the news. This makes him the closest thing that China has to Jon Stewart—or Stephen Colbert.

Readers of This Generation who want to test this proposition should turn to p. 209 where a Colbert-like post I particularly like begins. The essay, called “Three Gorges is a fine dam,” was posted in May 2011. It finds Han Han singing the praises of a grandiose undertaking that’s been criticized by environmentalists and also derided in some Chinese circles as a security risk, the notion being that if tensions heated up with the U.S., Washington could bomb the dam in order to cause the Yangzi River to flood. Han Han dismisses both worries. The environment in much of China is being ravaged in so many ways that the damage done by the dam hardly makes a difference, he writes. And surely, he says, the Americans are too smart to do anything that would send floodwaters racing to destroy factories where iPhones and other gadgets we are addicted to are produced so cheaply.

The fun of this Han Han game is that there is no definitively right answer. It will certainly be easy for readers to flip to another page than the one I’ve suggested and decide that, in that chapter, Han is nothing like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert in his approach. Still, it can be an enjoyable game to play—and thanks to Allan Barr’s skillful translation and Simon & Schuster’s decision to bet that they can help the Chinese writer in question expand dramatically the circle of his foreign fans, more people in the West can now take a stab at coming up with a better answer than mine to the “who is Han Han like” question. 

Published Nov 15, 2012   Copyright 2012 Jeffrey Wasserstrom

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