Recently I have been travelling through Northern Europe, but that doesn’t mean I’ve left my Chinese Studies at home, as tucked under my arm against the chilly Baltic breeze has been a copy of I Love Dollars by Chinese writer and director Zhu Wen (朱文). *
I recommend reading the book first if you want a spoiler-less experience. Also, contains some adult themes.
Rather shamefully I dodged literature classes at university because I was still trying to overcome the agony and perpetual mediocrity of my GCSE poetry essays. So now, I am determined to catch up by consuming as many books as I can get my hands on.
Zhu Wen, now a film director in China, characterised through his catalogue of short-stories what many scholars such as Wang Ping (cited by Qi Wang**) describe as a new generation of nineties writers that sought to use the profane, the ugly and the unsavoury to bridge the disconnect between real life and shiny, socialist propaganda.**
Immediately apparent from the overt, capitalist outburst of the phrase “I Love Dollars,” Zhu Wen’s short stories cover the politics of sex, money and values in China through the eyes of a vaguely autobiographical young male protagonist. One thing he does leave out, as translator Julia Lovell notes in the preface, is actual politics. Lovell explains that this is the often seen as the historical bargaining chip of nineties writers – write whatever you want, but leave politics alone. This is particularly applicable in the post 80s landscape of a rapidly-changing China in the aftermath of student protests. (p. XVII)
Zhu Wen does not take this invitation lightly, and uses the full range of deeply visceral and crude vocabulary to narrate us through a modernising China and the raw selfishness, lust and disdain of the main character. I am particularly in awe of the work Julia Lovell has put into translating the staccato style of Zhu’s narration, forgoing speech marks and allowing the words to flow like the character’s chain of thought. At some point, I hope I can read some of the infamously shocking originals in Mandarin in order to gain a better insight into Zhu’s writing and Lovell’s translation methods.
Below, I have summarised the short stories with as few spoilers as possible and included what for me were some of the most potent and striking descriptions, although of course, reading can be subjective. From my own perspective, I love diving into media from other countries as they tend to deviate from the plot-lines that become so predictable in modern English films and books. In this case, Zhu Wen definitely did not disappoint in having me laughing on one page and frowning with discomfort on the next. I imagine that each person reading these stories will have their own valid and personal responses, and so I want to emphasise that the following is only a summary of my personal thoughts, rather than a cut-and-dry verdict.
I Love Dollars《我爱美元》
A tale of filial piety in the modern age, but rather than respect, money and shelter, our protagonist feels the only way to honour his father is to find him a prostitute. In the past, I’ve looked into the metamorphosis of what it is to be ‘filial’, to repay one’s parents, and its manifestations in society, but this was a new one for me. Sex, it seemed, replaces food and comfort on the scale of importance.
” I wouldn’t want to end up with some idiot who only knew how to offer a pious faceful of empty respect.” (p. 13)
The plot follows the character’s frustration and near bafflement at his father’s disinterest in chasing women. The character himself, throughout all the short stories, describes women in predominantly physical terms, a commodity, a nuisance, a tool, and usually evaluated by their sexual worth. What’s interesting however, is the character’s lust and apparent arrogance seems to dull and mellow as he ages and the stories continue.
A Hospital Night 《幸亏这些年有了一点钱》
A drama entirely contained within one night in Ward 16, as our protagonist reluctantly watches over his girlfriend’s father while he recovers in a for-profit hospital, clutching a copy of Resisting Death. What ensues is a titanic clash of wills between a suspicious elderly father and his daughter’s rather dubious ‘boyfriend’, told through the smaller every day challenges such as going to the toilet.
Ever present is the character’s aggravation with not only with the elder generation but with the world around him, a peninsula of nineties disassociation from traditional values. For goodness sake, he just wants to get by in life, and other people only serve to get in the way and complicate things. This is also one of the first instances where Zhu uses nicknames such as ‘dried fish’ and ‘ghoul’ to identify strangers – a rather human and subconscious trait. You can almost hear a perceptible eye-roll as he writes about a young businessman on his mobile phone:
“I get the picture, I wanted to say to him, I’ve seen just how very vital you are to the future of human civilization, so now you can lie down and quite happily die of your own importance.” (p. 67)
A Boat Crossing《三生修得同舟渡》
Our character begins to show more fragility as he seeks to escape from a city on a boat down the Yangtze River. I really enjoyed reading the character’s insight into every day interactions in China as he encounters various passengers – how he interpreted them and his reactions, as opposed to my outsider’s perspective.
The story eventually takes a surprising turn, but not before Zhu has vividly described the aching and rusty ship, you can almost feel the pages sag with the humidity that surrounds him. In her preface, Lovell notes that Kafka is one of the author’s influences, reflected in his paranoia with everyone he encounters. (pp. XV-XVI)
Some of Zhu’s plot points are unique to the etymology of Mandarin, which also crops up in later novellas. In China, people will often spell out their names by using other words to demonstrate the character, a similar English equivalent being “It’s Robin, like the bird.”
[Trigger Warning] In this instance, the character finds an opportunity to express his hostility towards the question of his name:
“Qiang, I said, qiang as in qianzhuang, strong, or jianqiang, determined. Somehow he failed to hear me and asked me again, which qiang? Qiang as in qiangjian, rape, I explained. This time he heard me.” (p. 128)
This is a jarring example of how the reader is sometimes pulled out of the progression with the story and relation with the character – at times his responses and explicit outbursts seem brutal, inappropriate and disturbing. These sudden deviations are also reflected in character behaviour, as seen with the story’s violent conclusion.
Reaching the end of the nineties, Zhu’s character becomes more and more vulnerable in the new society he once thrived on as a young man. Wheels begins with the explanation of the invention as the cataclysm of humanity – everything from accidents to wars can be attributed to the wheel.
Caught in the middle of an issue that is often talked about today in China, Zhu is forced into paying compensation to a man he is accused of hitting with his bicycle. Unfortunately, he has the added pressure of a local gang knocking on his door for the money.
In further social commentary, whether intentional or not, Zhu exposes the character’s preconceptions on the local populace of the city, a divide between those migrating for work and native residents:
“Get off! he shouted. My heart quailed when I heard his strong local accent: this was obviously going to be sticky.” (p. 153)
After starting out in self-confident snappiness, Zhu’s protagonist is reduced to seeking refuge under a duvet with packets of instant noodles. The cash and excitement nineties Wheel of Fortune no longer spinning in his favour.
Ah, Xiao Xie《小谢啊小谢》
Zhu Wen seems to favour enclosed spaces as focused arenas for interpersonal politics and dramas. In this story, we are transported to a Soviet factory in China, and the woeful treatment of employee Xie Weigang, otherwise known as Xiao Xie.
Similar to A Boat Crossing, Mandarin provides a key element to the story, with Xie’s name taking on as many insults as it is phonetically similar to. His fellow employees also use his name as a verb or noun of failure, sort of similar to the episode of The Simpsons where the phrase “a Homer” means an unexpected fortune.
“They’re crap, all of ’em, every one’s a Xiao Xie.” (p. 204)
More and more, we see Zhu’s character becoming sympathetic towards his surrounding acquaintances, in stark contrast to the previous outright admissions of having zero empathy for a distressed stranger.
Pounds, Ounces, Meat
In the shortest and final story, our protagonist finds himself settled with a girlfriend, although maintaining his cynical head right from an initial, abrupt exchange with a fortune teller.
While short, the story still contains an allegory of the changing face of China. In a quest to find scales to investigate whether a local butcher has scammed them out of some pork, Zhu and his girlfriend find themselves on the receiving end of an elderly woman’s rant on the youth of today, and their lack of skills, lack of respect and lack of initiative.
Generational divides are by no means new to any society worldwide, but the space of millennium China is a particular backdrop to conflicts over social change. It seems that Zhu’s seemingly arbitrary use of small-scale settings might not be so arbitrary after all.
After finishing I Love Dollars And Other Short Stories of China, I’m keen to shrug off my fear of actively reading and reflecting on literature, as well as learning more about the New Generation of writers and film makers and their commentaries on modern China. If you have any thoughts on Zhu Wen’s work, or ave any recommendations for further reading, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. Until next time!
* My copy of the novel was the 2008 Great Britain Penguin edition of: Zhu Wen (translated by Julia Lovell), I Love Dollars And Other Stories of China, (Columbia University Press, 2007).
** Wang Ping , “Preface” in New Generation (pp. 27-28), quoted in Qi Wang, Writing Against Oblivion: Personal Filmmaking from the Forsaken Generation in Post-Socialist China, (University of California, 2008) p. 47-48. Click here for the link to the author’s dissertation on Google Books.
None of the quoted sources have any affiliation with this article.