The Subversive "Pleasure of Thinking"

By Veg, Sebastian | China Perspectives, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Subversive "Pleasure of Thinking"


Veg, Sebastian, China Perspectives


The Subversive "Pleasure of Thinking" Wang Xiaobo, Wang in Love and Bondage. Translated and with an introduction by Hongling Zhang and Jason Sommer, Albany, SUNY Press, 2007, 155 pp.

Wang Xiaobo, born in 1952 in Beijing and one of the most widely read writers in China and the Chinese-speaking world today, wrote in his famous essay "The Silent Majority":

Most people are subjected to the benefits of speaking once they enter school at seven. In my case, I think it happened even earlier, because ever since I can remember, I was surrounded by people trumpeting at the top of their voice, making a constant din. (...) From what they said, I learned that one mu of land could produce 300 000 catties of grain; that was when we began starving to death. All in all, since I was a child, I have not had much faith in spoken words. The sterner the tone and the louder the voice, the less faith I had; this scepticism derived directly from my aching stomach. Compared with any act of speaking, starvation always represents a deeper form of truth.(1)

In the world in which Wang grew up, speaking, or "taking a position" in public was what he called a form of tax due the state, which he consistently refused to pay. As in Kundera's novels or Vaclav Havel's plays, language itself seemed to have become absurd by virtue of the system in which it was institutionalised as a political tool. Luckily for his present- day readers, Wang eventually decided to come out of his silence and publish the manuscripts that had accumulated in his drawers, noting that this represented something like "los- ing (his) virginity." But he immediately added:

Opening my mouth to speak did not mean that I had reverted to the feeling that it was my responsibility to pay the tax; if that had been the case, everyone would have seen me producing a huge bin of rubbish. What I felt was a different type of responsibility.(2)

In a brief period of five years, from the time he published his first and most famous novella The Golden Age in the summer of 1992, until his premature death of a heart attack in 1997, Wang Xiaobo achieved a meteoric fame. His fiction and essays swept through campuses in China at a time when most students were disillusioned with the self-righteous social criticism and cultural soul-searching "roots" fiction of the 1980s. (3) He probably remains, ten years after his death, the most widely read and discussed author among students and readers under 35, and has gained recognition even from the initially hostile literary establishment.

Hongling Zhang and Jason Sommer's translations of three short stories, the first of Wang's work to be published in English, are therefore to be welcomed, not only because Wang is a very enjoyable author (and he is generally well served by the translation, which emphasises his colloquial style, perhaps occasionally to excess), but also because his writing encapsulates something of the unique spirit of the nineties, and the mixture of jaded street-wiseness, hilarious in its desperation, and down-to-earth sincerity that sets apart the young people who grew up after Tiananmen. Zhang and Sommer have selected the stories from a considerable bulk of work, offering a good first taste of Wang's style. Wang's Trilogy of the Ages, his major work, is well represented by "The Golden Age," the title story of the first volume, which deals mainly with life in Maoist and post-Maoist society, and "2015" from the second volume, The Silver Age, which depicts a totalitarian future. (The third instalment of the tril- ogy, The Bronze Age, consists of three novel-length narra- tives drawing on historical subject-matter, conceived as China's answer to Braudel's Civilization and Capitalism, and was no doubt difficult to fit into a short introductory vol- ume.) Finally, the translators have included the story "East Palace, West Palace," adapted as a film by Zhang Yuan (screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, just weeks after Wang's death), using the film title rather than that of the original novella ("Sentiments Like Water"). …

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