The above Time Magazine China Edition cover for 2 February 2004 shows the female author Chun Shu (春树 Spring Tree), nicknamed Beijing Doll 北京娃娃 who wrote a best seller describing her sexual experiences after dropping out of school. This may not sound like a promising start to a discussion of New Chinese Literature, but is nevertheless a fairly informative one. The openness and freedom of Chinese society have a rather limited base. It might suit the Time Magazine reporters to call Chun Shu a “radical”, but by and large, the new literature is concerned with personal issues – navel gazing rather than expressions of broader cultural ideas.

The predecessor of Chun Shu’s particular literary genus was the Pretty Women Literature 美女文学 from the previous decade, of which the best known representative was Wei Hui 卫慧, author of Shanghai Babe 上海宝贝. Chun Shu represented a new twist in the road forward, since she could hardly be considered an example of the soft, pretty babe. One might say that readers had by her time seen enough good looking girls’ sexual exploits and wanted a change, so that she, less pretty but more edgy, turned out to be the right person for the right time. In fact, a new name, Body Writing 身体写作, had to be invented for the genus to replace the no longer so applicable name of Pretty Woman Literature.

It would however be unfair to give the impression that New Chinese Literature is all about sex; far from it, in fact only a small part, for which the readers were mostly young adults. Adults are, however, very busy making a living in today’s open Chinese economy and have relatively little time to read books, and what little time available is more likely to be spent on sensational stuff, which explains the dominance of Pretty Woman Literature. On the other hand, teenagers and beginning college students now constitute a much larger book reading audience: they have more time than the adults and, benefiting from the new economy, they also have more pocket money than youths used to have. These readers, and the authors who cater to them, were born after 1980, hence the expression Post 80s Generation.

The births of this generation occurred well after Cultural Revolution had receded into history. By the time they began to mature, it was already the era of the open economy, with money playing the dominant social role that ideology used to fulfil. With neither traditions (the Humpty-Dumpty, shattered by social changes, could not be put back together afterwards even though political trends might have passed) nor ideologies to guide them, the generation finds it hard to look beyond oneself, and their literature is expectantly self-focused.

Of the authors three names stand out, Han Han 韩寒, Guo Jingming 郭敬明 and Zhang Yueran 张悦然, all of them getting their writing career start as winners of the New Concept 新概念 Writing Contest organized by the Mengya (萌芽 Seedling) Magazine of Shanghai, a periodical catering to youth literature. Han and Guo both wrote best sellers but have both been embroiled in controversy. Guo was accused of plagiarism involving some Japanese picture story books and a couple of Chinese authors, with one lawsuit resulting in an award of RMB$200,000 to the plaintiff. However, he continued to keep his hold on his fans and his enterprises prospered despite the negative events.

Han, after finishing just a couple of books, became a professional racing car driver, and recently was engaged in discussions on a  number of social controversies such as house demolition to make way for new construction; he even went on a mercy mission to Sichuan in 2008 after the earthquake there, though it is far from clear whether he was just interested in the publicity such events generate or has genuine social concerns – in others, was he taking a “stand” or just a “posture”? His speaking out about such issues, however, does have the impact of getting his followers, who would otherwise not be interested, to pay some attention.

The senior literature circles have a much more positive image of Zhang Yueran, who happens to have been a struggling undergrad student in my own work place, the Computer Science department of National University of Singapore, from 2002 to 2006 (during 2006 she was just finishing a few final courses part time and lived mostly in Beijing), and I got to know her briefly towards the end of 2005. I have written a few discussion of her in my blog (sinazen.com, in Chinese) as well as translating several of her essays and stories, to appear below.

While Zhang is very different from Chun Shu, she is also into the same cultural trends; some of her books are half text and half pictures of herself, while promotional material and journalists’ reports refer to her as the Jade Girl Authoress 玉女作家, a cleaner and more innocent version of Pretty Woman Authoress. In the following short story, however, she rather departed from this PR image:

The highbrow, please die first (see Chinese original  here http://www.douban.com/note/14101139/ )

Zhang Xiaotiao was having a coffee at a place called Coffee Bean & Tea Leave, but it was too sweet, and she vomited before she reached the washroom.

The coffeeshop was playing the songs of Nico, as Xiaotiao recalled when moving towards the toilet. Nico; she recalled something Xiao Fuxing said in his musical jottings: a woman, if she possesses beauty alone or talent alone, is blessed, but if a woman has both beauty and talent, then she is destined for misfortune. Zhang Xiaotiao agrees wholeheartedly with this, but it has not changed her dream since childhood of becoming a girl with both look and talent. In other words, she has always struggled to become a person of misfortune.

Her hand had four cigarette burn holes. How many times had she mentioned those marks? She had become like Aunt Xianglin as she keeps telling people about her burn marks, because it was the first act of self immolation she actually put into action. Until then she could not make up her mind to do it, because she cares for her looks and fears pain. Then she actually did it. Four holes, she kept telling anyone encountered on the web, I burnt four holes. Bosnia* said, shit, this could leave behind scars. Xiaotiao felt a little panicky, but she said, hehheh.

She was planning to finish her drink here and then have another one in a different place. But she forgot this was a public holiday, and many nice places were closed. Just the 7-11 convenient stores were open all hours selling necessities of life like bread and condoms. Today is Easter, but mentioning this no longer touches Xiaotiao. She has not gone to the church for four weeks, and did not even go to the baptism of that tall girl. A few days ago she had a dream, that she went to her own baptism, and jumped down from the top floor in front of the baptial pool, jumped right there with everyone looking on. Right, after being touched by grace, she would jump from the high point to end a life filled with the holy spirit. She even remembers that as she jumped somebody (or some angel) standing by saying “suicides do not go to heaven.” Xiaotiao was still feeling panicky, but she said all the same, hehheh.

Of course that was only a dream. Zhang Xiaotiao was not about to commit suicide just yet, because she just discovered that writing poetry was fun. She wants to try to try, to become a third grade poet, standing on the grand recital stage, admired by numerous male poets, reading a poem about circuses. (Xiaotiao’s elementary poems were all about circuses, because she was charmed by monkeys and fire rings, an addiction ever since she was a kid playing video games.) It is not too late to wait till then to jump, down from that recital stage. Since everyone there is a bit insane, her death would not stir up anything among them, whereas the worshipers in the church would be quite different. If she jumped, they would be greatly shocked, would cry in sorrow, and would form a circle to pray for her. Shucks, so troublesome. Zhang Xiaotiao prefers to die like a lamp being turn off, with just a clicking sound.

After she finished vomiting and returned from the washroom, she found that dark uniformed fat waitress had taken away her cup of mocha, which was as sweet as honey. Her mood became even worse. Though she found the stuff too nasty to drink, what right did that girl have to take it away before she finished it? She paid for it, and taking it away was almost like robbery. “I want to get out of here” Xiaotiao thought to herself with despair. She wanted to leave S republic, a dot on the map smaller than the wart under her eye. Almost end of October, and this place has not even given her a decent autumn. She felt like a hungry child in kindergarten, there by herself holding a spoon looking at the empty meal tray. Zhang Xiaotiao cannot manage without autumns; if she does not get an autumn she turns agitated and talkative. If nobody turns up to hear her complaint, she would consider disappearing, like jumping from a high place.

The day Xiaotiao put the burn marks on herself, she was with N# (N is a real poet, but she was not at all interested in being surrounded by male poets and standing on a grand high stage proudly reading her poems), but the cry she made was for her mother. This is completely understandable. In one of the modern literature classes she took, Xiaotiao learnt that when a human is in the greatest despair he/she returns to his/her earliest primitive stage; crying out for mother is instinctive. For example, in the play “Family” Zhao Yu wrote based on the novel of the same name by Ba Jin, on the wedding night the bride discovered that her husband Jue Xin did not love her and would not touch her, she called out in misery “mother!” Indeed, when Xiaotiao held the cigarette and pushed it down on her skin, she cried out “mother”.

Mom, I want to go home. They dont love me. They dont know how to take care of me.

Zhang Xiaotiao wanted to close the file, fold up the laptop and leave the coffeeshop. In her mind there are many poems about circuses she had no one to recite to. She was thinking of the monkeys, still jumping through fire rings, one, two, three, four, screaming loudly when the fire cinged their bottoms. Poor things, Xiaotiao said; one monkey’s waist getting tangled on the fire ring, telling Xiaotiao as she looked on: it is your turn next. In her mind she got panicky again, but, as you know, she still said like before, hehheh.

*Bosnia, web ID used by Zhou Jianing周嘉宁, also a post-80 authoress, graduate of Fudan University
#N Nude is the pseudonym of another student in our Department, who writes modern Chinese poems(she does not publish her real name)

This story, in Zhang Yueran’s distinctive style, paints the picture of a young woman in a state of desperate search for something dependably real in her life – since she still searches, the desperation is not yet final. Zhang Xiaotiao happens to be a web ID which the author herself used for some years; however, it should not be concluded from this the author actually committed the acts mentioned in the story: as far as I could see, she carried no burn scars. There is also some confusion about the time, as Easter and late October were both mentioned; the intention behind this discrepancy, if any, is unclear.

The story’s  humour and sharp observation of her social circle gave me optimism about her future development then, but it had not turned out that way. Reflecting her new social circle in Beijing after she settled there from December 2005, she became rather more like Chun Shu. Also in consequence, I lost contact with her, both in the social sense and the literary one.