Wang in Love and Bondage:
Three Novellas by Wang Xiaobo

By Wang Xiaobo

Translated by Hongling Zhang and Jason Sommer


Reviewed by Wendy Larson

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright December 2007)


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Wang Xiaobo. Wang in Love and Bondage: Three Novellas by Wang Xiaobo. Trs. Hongling Zhang and Jason Sommer. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. pp, 155. ISBN 978-0-7914-7065-7 (cloth).

"My uncle's crime was just a misdemeanor, but it really got on people's nerves," writes Wang Xiaobo 王小波 in 2015 (part of the long novel The Silver Age 白银时代), the first of three novellas translated by Hongling Zhang and Jason Sommer in Wang in Love and Bondage . The title 2015 refers to a future when artists cannot paint without a permit and will not get a permit unless their paintings make sense. Wang explains: "This was because his paintings, with their riot of color, made no sense to anyone, and no one could tell what his paintings were about. Once, I saw a policeman hold up a painting and bawl at him sternly, Young fellow—stand up and tell me—what is this? If you can tell me what it means, I'll squat there instead of you! My uncle turned and looked at his own work, then squatted down again, saying, I don't know what it is either. I'd better do my own squatting" (4-5).

Squatting turns out to be an important symbolic act in the fiction of Wang Xiaobo (1952-97), which has become something of a phenomenon in contemporary China, especially among intellectuals. Now three novellas from Wang's widely debated fictional oeuvre are available in English for the first time. While Wang initially published stories in 1980, he did not become famous until his novella The Golden Age (黄金时代, also called The Golden Years) received a prestigious award in Taiwan in 1995. From 1968 to 1970, in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, Wang—like many of his ubiquitous Wang Er (Wang No. 2) characters—spent two years in the southern province of Yunnan, laboring to learn (or learning to labor) from the masses. After returning to Beijing, he worked in a factory for four years before becoming a student at Renmin University, where he studied commerce and trade from 1978 to 1982. He taught for two years and then continued his studies at the University of Pittsburgh, where he received an M.A. degree from the Department of East Asian Studies. Wang was a lecturer in the Beijing University Department of Sociology from 1988 to 1991, after which he became a full-time writer. He had only six years left to devote to writing before he succumbed to a heart attack in 1997.

Zhang and Sommer begin with a useful short introduction contextualizing Wang's life and work. Among other things, they mention the Wang Xiaobo exhibition held at the Lu Xun Museum in 2005 (fig. 1), evidence that his reputation as a writer continues to improve and that some, such as his wife (Beijing University professor of sociology Li Yinhe 李银河), who helped organize the exhibit, seek to help it improve. Zhang and Sommer also bring up several biographical details that are useful to know in reading his fiction: he was a fan of Mark Twain, his brother has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Tulane, and his father was a well-known logician. They also provide some excellent general interpretive comments: that Wang persistently refuses to portray intellectuals who went through the Cultural Revolution as "tragic heroes" (xi), that many of Wang's stories have to do with the "play of dominance and submission" (xiii), and that Wang's style is what distinguishes his work. Unfortunately, they indulge in some clichés with comments such as "Well, it is love that is the true sin, the thing that ultimately makes the authorities aghast, which leads us to conclude, following the trail of the irony, that what the authorities most fear, noted so clearly by the narrator, the author most values" (xiii). The elevation of love as a supreme value is not, in my opinion, one of the many subtle and fascinating points that Wang makes through his choice of style, theme, and topic.

Figure 1: photo of a visitor to the Wang Xiaobo exhibition held at the Lu Xun Museum in Beijing in the spring of 2005.

Nonetheless, Wang Xiaobo does to some extent deploy an "against the state" approach, although his focus is not truly on resistance. This is apparent in the second of the three novellas,The Golden Age, which is generally thought to be Wang's masterpiece. This 1994 work has struck many with its unorthodox treatment of sexual desire and relations, and critics gush about the experience of reading it. The Golden Age is about the relationship between Wang Er, here age 21, and Chen Qingyang, a 26-year old married female doctor. Since the novella is set during the Cultural Revolution, both are "sent-down youth" who have taken up Mao Zedong's call for young urbanites to haul themselves down to the countryside and work with the People. Their crime of illicit sexual relations results in the usual socialist punishments of public denouncement, forced self-criticism, and general social scorn, but these violent strategies of control somehow fail to take center stage in this parodic tale of black humor. Officials more interested in reading Wang's lurid self-confessions than in reforming him urge the couple to hole up in a hotel and keep working on the narratives so they will have something to read the next day. Despite the constant interest of the characters in sexual intercourse, one thing we do not see in The Golden Age is deep sexual obsession or the debilitating, fanatical emotions of love. Told by a much older narrator who has the benefit that ageing confers, the emphasis is more on a gentle, philosophical, meandering irony than on resistance to the state, even in a very personal form.

The third story was originally called “Sentiments Like Water" (似水柔情), but because it was made into the much better known film, East Palace, West Palace (东宫西宫), the translators have chosen the film title for the story. The plot centers on a homosexual relationship between a man and a young policeman, both of whom are married. Playing off the research Wang did with his wife Li Yinhe in their book on male homosexuals in China entitled Their World: A Study of the Male Homosexual Community in China (他们的世界—中国男同性恋群落透视), this fictional tale centers on emotional displays of power, submission, and domination. This presentation of homosexual relationships may strike Americans as based on stereotypes, but Wang hits home with his straightforward description of the persecution suffered by homosexuals in China:

Xiao Shi ordered Ah-Lan to squat at the base of the wall. Squatting on his left was an art professor, and on his right a construction worker, three of them altogether…The rule here was to make them take the lowest squatting position…They were made to squat this way so they could think about their errors, but normal people would only think about shitting while squatting like this. That was how the nature of their errors could be determined—their errors were very dirty, and other ways of squatting didn't represent that degree of dirtiness, didn't suit the nature of their errors, and so were forbidden. (124)

Although Wang often writes about love and sex, he frequently sets his stories during the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, when writing about physical intimacy was virtually forbidden. Yet even during the time when Wang was publishing, statements against overly energetic, invasive state control (including those that do not focus on resistance) had been common in China for years, and this anti-state perspective alone cannot account for the enthusiasm that readers feel for Wang's writing. While Chinese readers often praise Wang's anti-revolutionary ethos, they also fondly note the sheer reading pleasure that Wang's fiction provides. "Reading [his work] intoxicates us, giving a totally new experience of humor and wisdom. We don't need to keep looking for the implied meaning at all," comments Ai Xiaoming, a professor at Sun Yat-sen University and one of Wang's most persistent fans.[1] Others agree. It is remarkable to find that literary intellectuals, whose profession undeniably rests upon analysis and interpretation, deny that Wang's work needs to be analyzed at all, that its meaning can be best apprehended Daoist-like, through direct apprehension. Some appreciate his sexual honesty, his straightforward description of male and female sexual pleasure, and his elegantly simple language—which the translators have captured very well. Also important are the personal characteristics of Wang's protagonists: their completely non-ideological sense of reality, privileging of bodily desires, and subtly humorous perspective.

More important, Wang's fiction offers a deep critique of the Chinese past in its sense of time, softening the revolutionary time of political movements, with their characteristic expressions of passionate loyalty and historical innocence. His writing eats away at the immediacy, deeply held emotion, clear-cut expression of position, optimism, and drive toward progress that make up the revolutionary spirit. This more philosophical time combines with a quiet immediacy in the sexual encounters he portrays to produce a profoundly non-revolutionary sense of life and consciousness. As critic Yang Jian states, "It is difficult to imagine that someone like Wang Xiaobo could appear from inside Chinese culture."[2] Wang Xiaobo's characters often express a common mind-set: an unwillingness to directly confront opposition but a stubborn persistence in gaining the objects of their own desire, an attitude that pays respect to high moral qualities such as loyalty but also conveys a mildly rebellious hoodlum spirit. This hoodlum tendency, like the revolutionary spirit it seeks to disavow, may come from what went before and yet also carves a path forward. In this way, Wang injects an unsavory history with irony, lifting the burden of the past.

The translation by Zhang and Sommer is excellent. It both expresses the meaning of the original and also catches the simple, colloquial, and direct language that is Wang Xiaobo's trademark. His gentle mocking of the language of logic in The Golden Age, the charm he extracts through his concrete scene description in 2015, and the abbreviated vernacular in East Palace,West Palace all come through in the joint translation between a poet (who, I assume, does not understand Chinese), and a literature teacher (who clearly does), both of whom work at Fontbonne University. By translating Wang's work, they have provided a service to all of us who teach modern Chinese literature. Because the Chinese original is easy to read, and because the translators have captured this simple yet profound style, the book should be a welcome addition to modern literature courses in translation. I congratulate them on their effort and results.

Wendy Larson
University of Oregon

Notes:

[1] Ai Xiaoming 艾晓明, "Another Take on The Golden Years" (重读黄金时代 ). In Ai Xiaoming and Li Yinhe, eds., Romantic Knight: Remembering Wang Xiaobo (浪漫骑士: 记忆王小波). (Beijing: Zhongguo qingnian, 1997), p. 270.

[2] Yang Jian 杨健, History of Chinese Sent-Down Youth Literature (中国知青文学史)(Beijing: Zhongguo gongren, 2002), p. 447.