Hymens and the Olympics

Yu Hua's Brothers

Naked Gaze is a thoughtful, academically inclined blog about "politics, theory, and cultural critique". A recent post called Hymen Reconstructions ties together Zhao Yan, Anti, the Olympics, and Yu Hua's novel Brothers (兄弟). Excerpt:

Just as the most recent controversy over Zhao Yan’s incarceration has its roots in Hu Jintao’s visit to the US in April, Yu Hua’s Brothers similarly has its origins in his own trip to the US in the fall of 2003 (the novel is published in two volumes, with the first volume appearing last year, and the second volume published earlier this year). As he describes in his postface, about five years ago Yu Hua (who initially established his reputation in the late 1980s as a writer of exceedingly violent “experimental” short fiction such as the story 1986, before moving on to more melodramatic fare in the 1990s) started working on a novel which sought to narrate the entire century. After his trip to the US in 2003, however, he found that he had lost his appetite for long narrative, whereupon he started writing Brothers...

...Rather than attempt to cover the entire century (as did, for instance, his earlier novel To Live 活着), Brothers instead seeks merely to explore the relationship between the Cultural Revolution era, which Yu Hua compares to the European dark ages, and the contemporary era, which Yu Hua similarly compares to contemporary Europe.

Brothers traces the relationship between these two historical eras through the figures of two brothers (actually, stepbrothers): Li Guangtou 李光头 and Song Gang 宋钢. The work begins in the present, but then immediately segues into an extended flashback starting from a defining moment in Li Guangtou’s youth when, as a fourteen year old, he was caught trying to peer under the partition of a public outhouse to peek at women’s posteriors as they squatted down to relieve themselves...

More specifically, although Zhao first witnessed and reported the incident, it is actually Liu who, many years later, included it within a larger biographical piece on Li Guangtou. In Liu’s account, he “borrows” Zhao’s original description of the incident (much to Zhao’s subseuquent consternation), but subtly alters it in Li Guangtou’s favor by alleging that Li had actually been leaning down to pick up a key that he had dropped when he accidentally caught sight of the women’s bottoms. This article then receives tremendous national attention, helps put Liu Village on the map, and also Liu earns Li Guangtou’s favor, and as a result Li then hires Liu to be his personal secretary.

[Another character Liu Chenggong 刘成功]’s primary responsibility is to help manage the countless letters from beautiful virgins that the wealthy Li receives everyday. Li is so taken with these offers of love and devotion that he receives from these virgins that he decides to host a “national virgin Olympic competition” to select the most attractive virgin (which Liu then suggests they rename as the “First national virginal beauty competition”). When the idea of the beauty contest is initially introduced, a reporter asks why it is necessary to host a national “virginal beauty competition,” and Liu replies that the competition will help "promote traditional Chinese culture; help today’s women love themselves more, whereupon they will be more confident; but also to make today’s women healthier and more hygienic."...

...The problem, of course, is that it turns out there are very few true virgins available, and therefore the competition also spurs a run on hymen reconstruction surgeries.

The resulting scene of countless women throughout the country repairing their hymens in order to compete to win Li Guangtou’s affection, furthermore, has its immediate origins in a class-action paternity suit brought against Li (who, by this time, has become a quite wealthy businessman, in addition to being a veritable Don Juan and sleeping with countless women) by dozens of women who each claim he is the father of their child. The trial ultimately devolves into a farce when Li presents medical documentation proving that he had a vasectomy performed years before, and therefore could not possibly have fathered any of the children. Like the hymen reconstruction surgeries, Li’s vasectomy is a quintessentially private and invisible procedure which has now been made very public...

...If the hymen reconstruction may be read as a metaphor for China’ cosmetic improvements in preparation for the 2008 games, Li’s vasectomy can perhaps be read as a metaphor for the government’s process of systematically blunting appearance of overt power (its “virility,” to use the terms of the metaphor), precisely in order to more effectively leverage the power which it does have (in effect, playing possum, as I suggested in an earlier post).

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