Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Yellow Peril

Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Yellow Peril

Article excerpt

The best-selling author in China after the great Chairman Mao may be a slight, little man named Jia Pingwa. Instead of the Little Red Book, Jia has written a big yellow book--yellow being the color that signifies sex and pornography in China. In The Abandoned Capital (Feidu), Jia's thick, juicy new novel about contemporary life in an old Chinese city, the red fire of revolution has long faded. What burns in the hearts and minds of today's Chinese men and women is a flame much more ancient and enduring: sex. And what does life mean besides a good fuck? Well, for the citizens of the abandoned capital, it means eating, bribing, scheming, and generally gypping each other.

This novel has taken China by storm. Described by journalists as "the event that has caused a great literary and publishing earthquake in 1993," The Abandoned Capital sold a half-million copies within the first few months of its publication and, with more than ten pirated versions available, countless more later on.

Wild accolades from both critical and popular sources have showered on it. The novel has been hailed, for instance, as "an epic work of the Chinese intellectual soul" and "an extraordinary monument of contemporary Chinese literature." Meanwhile, the novel and its author have taken as much beating as touting. A lot of intellectuals and literary Chinese men and women have condemned the novel, outraged by its "unbearably vulgar sex scenes" and "despicable male sexual psychology." If Jia must write nakedly about sex, they demanded, why couldn't he at least write about it with some beauty and depth, as D. H. Lawrence had done? All decent, educated Chinese readers admired Lady Chatterley's Lover, which had only been released in China a few years earlier. Why couldn't our novelist elevate sexuality to render it some spiritual meaning? Instead of creating a world of emotion and romance, Jia had us toss and tumble in an arena of flesh! A Beijing graduate student drew the distinction between Lawrence and Jia this way: while reading both of them may cause a young man to masturbate, with Lawrence he may feel a bit ashamed of himself afterward, but never with Jia!

Government officials at "the antipornography office" weren't happy about the situation, either. For years now they have been fighting China's swelling "yellow trade," which has been enjoying a boom in the new climate of economic openness and prosperity. The common variety of yellow trade involves porno video tapes made in southeast Asia and Europe, which get smuggled in across the southern borders and then reproduced and sold all over China; porno literature on private bookstalls across the country; and all manner of undercover sex services, which are usually disguised as massage parlors, karaoke bars, or beauty stylists. The antipornography officials have been waging battle by arrests, bans, confiscation, even an occasional execution. But this time they were caught in a strange bind: The Abandoned Capital is penned by a famous, serious novelist who has not only a stainless political and moral record, but also a reputation for having produced in the past only "pure literature." Is it possible for someone like that to have written a "yellow book," or "a filthy novel showing moral turpitude," as some people have claimed it to be?

Meanwhile, a lot of elite critics openly or privately deplored yet another case of a gifted, serious writer "selling out" under commercial pressures and "degenerating" into the low ranks of pornography and ditan wenxue, "literature for the sidewalk stalls." The Chinese writers' imagination is withering rapidly, they lamented, and now they must resort to catering to the sex-hungry soul of the average Chinese in order to gain fame and profit. What a sad example of the vulgarization of literature!

All the same, the novel kept on selling, and people kept on talking about it. For every verdict of condemnation, there would be a matching comment of admiration and encouragement. …

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