We’re Still in Love with the Romance of China’s Past

By Nicole Mones

Been to China lately? There are a lot of new things to see. Avant-garde monoliths — the China Central Television (CCTV) tower, the National Center for Performing Arts and the National Stadium, to name just three — rise in Beijing. Shanghai’s skyline looks like a fantasy straight out of The Jetsons. Guangzhou has been transformed almost beyond recognition.

China has spent the last 15 years rebuilding its cities to be aggressively, almost desperately, modern. As the Summer Olympics focus the world’s attention on the Middle Kingdom, its new architecture is turning cartwheels to send the message: Look. We’ve arrived.

But Americans and other tourists rarely bother with these monuments to the future, instead seeking out historical sites. I did the same when I first traveled to China to start a textile business in 1977. I constantly photographed rice paddies and water buffalo, even as embarrassed Chinese tried to redirect my attention to what then passed for modern buildings and factories.

I wanted the China I saw in my mind, romantic and mysterious. I was like Henry Kissinger, who described his secret meetings with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in 1971 in his memoirs. At their first encounter, the American diplomat was offering up a starry-eyed speech about coming to this “mysterious land” when Zhou stopped him. “You will find it not mysterious. When you have become familiar with it, it will not be as mysterious as before.”

Exactly. Yet 37 years later, Americans and the West cling to the mystery of China in a way that may be preventing us from seeing the nation as the complex new world it has become. It’s a world growing at warp speed and struggling to reconcile an unstoppable flow of information, money and personal desires with a heavy-handed form of governance. It’s a world we Americans need to understand. Unfortunately, we prefer a nostalgic, exotic, vanished land.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the narrative arts. As an American who did business in China for 18 years before beginning to write novels about contemporary China, I feel the tension between the romance and the reality. When I do book signings, the first audience question is often a wistful one: Is anything left of the old, traditional China? Anything at all?

It’s revealing that the movies and novels about China that are popular in the West are rarely popular in China, and vice versa. Our two cultures are immersed in opposing images and stories about what China is, which distracts us from more complicated and subtle realities. Americans tend to be drawn to films that feature martial arts, opium dens, concubines, picturesque old cities and war-torn lovers. An especially pointed example is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a film suffused with the yearning for a lost homeland that director Ang Lee absorbed growing up in Taiwan, a land of exile. “The film,” Lee has said, “is a dream of China, a China that probably never existed, except in my boyhood fantasies.”

Directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige have made many films, but they’ve reached American moviegoers mainly through works about the past, such as Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell My Concubine and Red Sorghum. Their films about life in China today, including The Story of Qiu Ju, Together, King of the Children and Not One Less, earned respectful reviews but hardly did gangbusters at the US box office.

Contemporary fiction set in China follows suit. Asian American writers such as Gail Tsukiyama, Lisa See and Amy Tan have achieved popular success almost entirely by setting their stories in the China of foot-binding, silk workers, cloistered women and classic operas. Critics have been as pleased as readers, who flock to these stories as authors rush to create more of them. The result has been the rise of a new, nostalgic genre, something like the Western — highly popular, but about China. Call it the Eastern.

The leading emigre writers Ha Jin and Anchee Min also write mainly about the past, but they’ve developed a less romantic branch of our old-China narrative, what I think of as its dark side: stories of Communist-era suffering. Americans love the Cultural Revolution the way we love a good villain in a horror story. Dai Sijie tweaked this form to great success in his novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by giving Western literature the power to transform Chinese lives. We love seeing our own cultural traditions ride to the rescue. Predictably, Dai’s next novel, Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch, which left the Cultural Revolution behind to take a clever look at the modern Chinese psyche, sold only modestly in the United States.

In China, meanwhile, novelistic explorations of the Cultural Revolution can seem dated. China’s “wound literature” of the late 1970s and the “root-searching literature” of the early 1980s aired this collective trauma at a time when everybody you met on a train had a sad story to tell. As this cultural trend played out, China seemed to process the horrors of recent history and move on.

If Chinese fiction fans aren’t obsessing over the Cultural Revolution or romantic Easterns, what are they reading? There’s a clue in recent million-selling novels featuring carnivalistic explorations of Chinese urban life today, with its instant gratifications and ennui. Wang Shuo’s Playing for Thrills tells the story of a shiftless former soldier who gambles, drinks, pursues women and may have been involved in a murder, while Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby follows a hedonistic young woman as she tries to find herself in a world of clubs, sex and brand names. These louche-lifestyle novels, huge hits in China, were released with considerable fanfare in the United States, where they caused barely a ripple. They aren’t Easterns. They aren’t the China stories Americans want.

Nevertheless, brave publishers continue to introduce contemporary Chinese writers, attempting, book by book, to open the door on what China is today. Two forthcoming titles seem to have at least a chance of attracting America’s attention. Xiaolu Guo’s Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is the story of a young migrant woman who tries to build a life in Beijing — an iconic storyline in China today, where the “floating population” exceeds 100 million. The author’s last novel to appear in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, was shortlisted last year for the United Kingdom’s Orange prize, awarded to the best new novel in English by a woman. China High, by the pseudonymous ZZ, is the debut memoir of a young Chinese-born, American-educated man I know who was riding a wave of success as a Beijing attorney a few years back when he got arrested for recreational drug use. Stuck in a Chinese prison, frantically texting friends on the outside for help and mentally revisiting his life, he comes to know and be affected by the motley unfortunates who crowd his concrete cell — con men, thieves, a transsexual prostitute. Asked to explain his title, ZZ has said: “You think you know China? Take a hit of this.”

We’ll see whether the West is ready for stories like these, for a new narrative tradition that presents this wildly contradictory, fast-growing, crucially important country as it actually is — a country of good and bad, old ways and new, with as many facets as its 1.3 billion people.

You may wonder whether I’m putting my money where my mouth is. After three books set in modern China, am I doing anything to help? Dear reader, forgive me. I’m writing a historical novel.

Mones’ most recent novel is The Last Chinese Chef.

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