I Love Dollars and Other Stories of China

By Zhu Wen

Tr. by Julia Lovell


Reviewed by Jason McGrath

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June 2007)


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Zhu Wen. I Love Dollars and Other Stories of China. Tr. Julia Lovell. New York: Columbia University of Press, 2007. 256pp. ISBN ISBN: 0-231-13694-3, cloth $24.50.

Though already often eclipsed in media attention by younger writers born in the 1970s or even the 1980s, the generation of Chinese fiction authors born in the 1960s occupied a key moment in mainland China's cultural history. Dubbed the "late-born generation" (wanshengdai) or "newly born generation" (xinshengdai), with their works variously lumped under such labels as "new-state-of-affairs literature" (xin zhuangtai wenxue), "post-new-era literature" (houxinshiqi wenxue), "new urbanite fiction" (xin shimin xiaoshuo), and "new experiential fiction" (xin tiyan xiaoshuo), the generation came to embody the transformed condition of Chinese literature in the 1990s, which appeared as vastly different from that of the early reform era up to the transitional moment of 1989 to 1992.

One of the most prominent and gifted of this generation of writers was Zhu Wen, a university graduate from Nanjing who quit his job at a state-owned factory in 1994 to become a freelance writer. In a series of short stories and novellas as well as one full-length novel written over the next few years, Zhu Wen helped to define the spirit of a new generation: the ideological rootlessness and accompanying hedonism and nihilism of the postsocialist age.[1] At the same time, many of Zhu's works were significant literary accomplishments--though perhaps not as aesthetically groundbreaking as the avant-garde literary movement they superceded--and it is therefore with great pleasure that students and scholars of contemporary Chinese culture will welcome I Love Dollars and Other Stories of China, a collection of five of Zhu Wen's early novellas and one short story, skillfully translated by Julia Lovell and published this year by Columbia University Press.

Though I Love Dollars (Wo ai meiyuan) was the name of an early collection of Zhu Wen's stories, Lovell's translation includes the eponymous novella from that collection as well as several stories and novellas drawn from a number of Zhu's other publications from the latter half of the 1990s. The novella "I Love Dollars," which kicks off the new translation, is in fact one of the weaker pieces in the collection. Posing as semi-autobiographical and aiming for shock value, the first-person narration recounts a visit from the father of the narrator (a freelance writer), and in particular the latter's attempts to find some cheap (or free) sex for his dad, culminating in an appeal the narrator makes to his own girlfriend to have sex with his father.

Such casual misogyny, though particularly evident in this story, is a frequent feature of Zhu Wen's fiction, at times accompanied by homophobic humor and no small amount of mock-heroic sexual grandstanding. The first-person narrators of "A Hospital Night" and "A Boat Crossing," for example, both must fight off aggressive assaults from sex-crazed women, while a character in "Ah, Xiao Xie" seeks professional advancement by attempting anal sex with a factory manager rumored to be gay.

Though it is tempting to dismiss such details as titillating sensationalism designed to sell stories, the role of sexuality in Zhu Wen's fiction brings out a broader tension between an implicit critique of the new conditions of postsocialist China, on the one hand, and an embrace, even celebration, of those same conditions, on the other. Zhu Wen's very status as a "free writer" (ziyou zuojia) not dependent upon official literary institutions--a position pioneered by figures such as Wang Shuo and Jia Pingwa a few years earlier--was made possible by the extension of the freewheeling market economy to the cultural sector in the early 1990s. Indeed, the literary sensation of the "Rupture" (duanlie) movement that Zhu spearheaded in 1998--a publicity stunt featuring a questionnaire in which several young authors declared their radical independence from all previous literary institutions and influences--was characteristic of the jockeying for attention under the newly crowded cultural marketplace at the turn of the century. At the same time, in the attitudes of nihilism and boredom (or wuliao) adopted by virtually all of Zhu Wen's protagonists, it is difficult not to see an implied critique of the postsocialist condition, which often appears at heart as crass, ruthless, and ultimately meaningless.

This tension is apparent in a veritable historical thesis on sublimation offered by the protagonist of the novella "I Love Dollars" who engages in an intermittent debate with his father over the centrality of sex to life. Of his father, the narrator reflects: "Thinking about it, I realized Father was a man with quite a libido, just that he was born a bit before his time. In his day, libido wasn't called libido, it was called idealism" (9). Just as here he describes utopian politics as sexual sublimation, elsewhere the protagonist pronounces war to be merely "a way of letting off libidinal steam" (13) and an appetite for food to be a channeling of libido (20). When his father suggests that he should perhaps write about things loftier than sex ("ideals, aspirations, democracy, freedom, stuff like that"), the narrator insists that "it's all there in sex" (34).

Second only to sex as an obsession for the narrator is money, and he rationalizes that sex is necessarily a commodity and implies that women are naturally prostitutes. In the process, however, the fictional freelance writer unveils his own craft as a form of prostitution, as in the following blustering reflection of his generation's status in literary history, which must be taken in part as Zhu Wen's own self-caricature:

Yes, he yearns for money; his blood jingles through his veins, mimicking the musical tinkle of gold; he's prepared to work, honestly, but he wants honest respect, and honest money, more and more of it, in return. Price is the only true gauge of honesty. 10,000 yuan per 1,000 words has to be better than 30: keep the dollars flying at him, and inspiration will never dry up; poverty is far more corrupting than money. I respect my forebears, but those long-suffering earlier generations of writers who weren't interested in money or in sleeping with more than a dozen women doomed themselves to mediocrity. The next generation was just as bad: though they got a taste of sweetness, of money and women, they were either too nervous or too pretentious to write anything decent about either. But the next generation, my generation, is different: greedy for everything, everywhere, smashing, grabbing, swearing. (31)

Fortunately Zhu Wen's fiction, at its best, is far more interesting and complex than this self-parody would indicate. The most engaging works in the present collection are those that depart from the teasing autobiographical suggestions to instead depict in rich detail life incidents that veer suddenly from the mundane to the outrageous and delight especially in dark humor and wry detachment. In their absurdist twists, such stories occasionally recall Vietnam-era American writers such as Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. "A Hospital Night" and "Pounds, Ounces, Meat," for instance, extract a great deal of hilarity and inventiveness from such prosaic events as staying overnight in a hospital with a girlfriend's sick father, or seeking to verify that a meat vendor's measurements of a chunk of pork were accurate. Also frequently displayed are Zhu's admitted debts to Kafka and Borges, and even more immediate affinities with some similarly influenced, slightly older Chinese writers such as Yu Hua and Su Tong. The bursts of random violence that end "A Boat Crossing" and "Wheels," for example, are reminiscent of Yu Hua's early avant-garde stories, and the protagonists' exposure to such violence contains a similar implied historical critique of the ultimate failure of China's ruling classes to provide people with either spiritual or physical security.

In her helpful preface, Lovell notes that political criticism, while rarely direct, is "ubiquitously implicit" in Zhu's fiction (xvii). Indeed, while occasionally figures such as Communist Party or state-owned factory officials are directly satirized, the broader and more devastating critique is of a certain constitutive vacuity of the postsocialist condition itself.[2] Zhu frequently has his protagonists report such self-observations as "my mind was a total blank" (48), "there I stood, head empty of thoughts" (142), or, in one of the more poetic passages:

The noise of the city outside the car windows now seemed very distant, receding into remoteness as the taxi tunneled steadily, like an insignificant little beetle, into the vacuous center of my mind, into the absolute, screaming blank inside my head. (33).

It is with the occasionally disturbing confrontation of this underlying nihilism that Zhu Wen's stories transcend being merely clever celebrations of the hedonistic new consumer lifestyle that in effect has become the legitimating ideology of the postsocialist age. Instead, despite the obvious hints of autobiographical detail (as when the protagonist of "Pounds, Ounces, Meat" lands a new girlfriend after finding her with a copy of Zhu's Chinese story collection I Love Dollars), the real strength of these stories is their penetrating observation of the rationalizations, self-absorption, and empty pleasures with which their protagonists and other characters seek to obscure an underlying, anxiety-provoking void.

One may quibble over the choices of works translated in this volume--I would argue, for example, that the as-yet-untranslated novel Shenme shi laji, shenme shi ai (What's trash, what's love) and the related episodic novella Xiao Ding gushi (Stories of Xiao Ding) represent the best of Zhu Wen's writing; however, there are several revelations here for anyone searching for good recent Chinese fiction in translation. Facing similar problems of slang phrases, regionalisms, and obscure cultural references, Lovell comes close to matching the mastery of Howard Goldblatt's translations of the seemingly untranslatable Wang Shuo.[3] Rather than using footnotes, when necessary she adds occasionally lengthy explanatory asides within the text itself so that the reader unfamiliar with China can follow along. These can be occasionally jarring to a Chinese literature specialist, but they increase the value of the volume as a worthy addition to undergraduate course syllabi--as do the translator's preface and a handy pinyin pronunciation guide. Indeed, for a highly readable glimpse into the contradictory nature of contemporary urban China--with all its energy, alienation, greed, amusement, pleasure, anxiety, and stimulation--there are few sources in English that would serve as well as I Love Dollars.

Jason McGrath
University of Minnesota

Notes:

[1] By the turn of the century Zhu Wen had essentially started a third career, this time as a filmmaker. He was a screenwriter for Wushan yunyu (Rainclouds over Wushan; dir. Zhang Ming, 1996) and Guonian huijia (Seventeen years; dir. Zhang Yuan, 1999) and director as well as screenwriter of Haixian (Seafood, 2001) and Yun de nanfang (South of the clouds, 2003).

[2] I discuss this aspect of Zhu Wen's fiction further in my forthcoming book Postsocialist Modernity: Chinese Cinema, Literature, and Criticism in the Market Age (Stanford University Press).

[3] See Wang Shuo, Playing for Thrills: A Mystery (New York: Penguin, 1998) and Please Don't Call Me Human (Boston: Cheng & Tsui, 2003).