Books

In Wang Shuo's No Man's Land

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Below is an excerpt from Geremie R. Barmé's book In the Red, on contemporary Chinese culture.

The excerpt is from the chapter on Wang Shuo called ‘The Apotheosis of the Liumang’. With the subject matter concerning a "competition to prove national strength and restore wounded pride", the piece has particular relevance in the year of the Beijing Olympic Games.

For the annotated text, with full references, please refer to the book, available on Amazon.

This excerpt, along with Geremie R. Barmé's introduction, is printed here with permission from the author.

In Wang Shuo’s No Man’s Land

二十年以后,还是一条好汉
by Geremie R. Barmé

Today, Wang Shuo 王朔 is generally known for his canny media moves and less-than-inspiring new writings. Back in the 1980s, however, he was one of the masters of Chinese fiction and, by extension, social commentary. In late 1989, following the traumatic events of the spring-summer season in Beijing, Wang’s latest novel was serialised in the leading Nanjing literary journal Zhongshan. The Chinese title of the book reflected the author’s mordant wit, as well as his serious purpose. It was Qianwen bie ba wo dang ren 千万别把我当人, which roughly translates as Whatever You Do, Don't Treat Me Like a Human Being. Although available since 2003 in a rather clunky English translation published under the title Please Don’t Call Me Human, I still prefer to render the title as No Man’s Land.

No Man’s Land is Wang’s most political, and pointed, farce. Now, nearly twenty years after the novel’s appearance, it seems like an opportune moment to reconsider this long-forgotten example of the Chinese picaresque, a work of comic bravado that still has a certain resonance.

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Wang Shou's Please don't call me Human. Available on Amazon

It is impossible to review all of the themes and ideas of such complex novel as No Man's Land in a short précis. First and foremost, the story should be seen in the light of broader contemporary cultural issues. In particular the novel was written against the backdrop of a continued debate concerning the Chinese ‘national character’ that, from the late 1980s, was a central feature of the ‘cultural fever’ that engulfed the reading public and informed discussions about the direction of the country's economic and political transformation….

No Man's Land was first mentioned as a novel within a story. In ‘An Attitude’ [一点正经没有] the narrator Fang Yan announces to a clutch of fawning foreigners that his next literary work would be called Whatever You Do, Don't Treat Me Like a Human Being. The explanation of the title that Fang Yan gives is that in the book "one person pleads with his fellow Chinese: whatever you do, don't treat me as a human being. If you treat me like a person [ie, a normal Chinese] it'll be the end of me and I'll share everyone else's faults. Then our nation's problems will never be solved." In a number of Wang's earlier stories there were hints that some characters feeling completely de-humanized, or they sense a need to undergo a complete transformation, but in No Man's Land self-destruction and reconstruction become a motivating force, a national imperative, one that is realized through a mordant and deeply unsettling tale.

Set in a comic dystopia, No Man's Land is about a group of gemen'r 哥们儿 who are not unlike the ‘heroes’ encountered in Wang's earlier stories ‘The Operators’ [顽主] and ‘An Attitude.’ This time around, however, they are liumang 流氓 with political power, and they bring to mind Ying-shih Yü's dire view that 20th-Century Chinese politics had witnessed the rise and domination of the liumang. The story opens with the group discussing, in all seriousness, ways in which they can avenge the recent loss of face China has suffered because it was defeated at an international sports competition in Sapporo, Japan. The first scene describes a meeting of a self-appointed Central Competition Committee (Zhongsaiwei 中赛委), a group of gemen'r who soon show that theirs is a farcical mixture of the Central Advisory Commission of Party elders (Zhongguwei 中顾委), the Politburo of the Communist Party itself, local Party committee dullards, and a chaotic Chinese company board of directors. One of committee members says: “The only talent bequeathed to us by our ancestors, apart from knowing how to eat, is an ability to fight.” Only by beating up on someone else, says another of the group, "can we overcome the frustrations of the past century." The device of using a competition to prove national strength and restore wounded pride recalls numerous stories from martial arts fiction, cinema and television series about late-Qing and early Republican heroes defeating foreign boxers or karate masters with mysterious Chinese kungfu and fancy footwork. In No Man's Land, however, the brief of the Central Competition Committee is to find a Chinese Everyman who will not only redeem national pride but who is also willing to be sacrificed for the greater glory of his country.

Following an exhaustive search for local talent the Committee selects Tang Yuanbao, a crooked pedicab driver, a liumang or pizi 痞子, who coincidentally turns out to an adept in what is supposedly the most powerful form of Chinese kungfu, Dameng quan 大梦拳, literally ‘Great Dream Boxing.’ We soon discover that Tang has learned the art of "dreaming on" from his father, a centenarian who also happens to be the last living Boxer rebel from the turn of the century.

Yuanbao's rigorous training program starts with a physical check-up and an oath taking. He is enlisted to join the "organization" (zuzhi 组织), a term that generally denotes the Communist Party. After this induction, Yuanbao says in a take off of Party hyperbole, "From now on I'm no longer human... I'm not an ordinary person." Thereupon he is universally hailed as China's Number One He-man, a nanzihan 男子汉.

The novel is replete with elements of political farce. Sometimes the mocking of Party culture, biting references to the Beijing literary scene and Chinese history come so thick and fast that it is nearly impossible to disentangle them all. One particularly pointed incident occurs, for example, when the Central Competition Committee decides Yuanbao needs to undergo political indoctrination. Their hopes are soon frustrated when they discover there are no study groups left in the city—this is a reference to the decay of the Maoist-style study sessions during the 1980s. Finally, a covert underground Party cell—the last group of bona fide Communists to be found in the city—is discovered and Yuanbao is duly sent along. But as the cell members discuss the corruption of the bureaucracy, the need for workers' rights and another revolution becomes evident that they are Trotskyites. The episode concludes with them all being dragged off by men in white coats who claim the politicos are actually lunatics who have escaped from an asylum. Wang peppers the surreal narrative with other half-explained incidents, like one involving student demonstrations and a "massacre" in which protesters are mowed down by tanks that shoot water and flowers.

Another one of the main themes of the story is the eventual castration of the hero. This happens when the leadership learns that changes to the competition rules mean that only women can go to Sapporo. Having been declared to be the nation's Number One He-man, Yuanbo is now put under the knife, a cruel irony for a man who, through his victory at an international competition, was supposed to bear witness to the virility of his motherland. Readers of the novel would have immediately appreciated the reference to popular self-mocking critiques of China an emasculated land full of impotent individuals.

In the meantime, Yuanbao's father, Tang Guotao is arrested and questioned by the police on suspicion of betraying the Boxer Movement and for complicity in plotting the collapse of the Qing Dynasty itself. The father's interrogation runs as a sub-theme through the novel and Wang Shuo loses no opportunity to parody the style of police questioning which he had previously employed in his detective fiction. The whole episode, the interrogation and confession of Tang Guotao, can be taken as a satire on the Party's abuse of history and the purges of political leaders as Peng Dehuai, Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao, the Gang of Four and more recently Zhao Ziyang himself. Following the ouster of these Party leaders the ills of the nation were blamed on them, often to the point of absurdity. Similarly, Tang Yuanbao's father is found guilty not only of having betrayed the Boxer Movement, but also for an "undeniable responsibility for the various social disorders, evils and general corruption" in contemporary China. He is pilloried by his judges for being "the cause of all chaos, troubles, and misfortune...he is more dangerous than typhoons, earthquakes, fires, floods, air disasters, train crashes, car accidents, sunken ships, inflation, 'back door-ism,' excessive eating and drinking by bureaucrats all added together. He is Public Enemy Number One." Accordingly, the old man is sentenced to life imprisonment. His only response to the list of accusations levelled against is a simple question: "What are you people going to do when the Communists finally get back into power?"

The climax of the novel is the martial arts competition in Sapporo. Athletes from all over the world gather to compete in the championships for ‘the art of endurance’ (renshu 忍术). It is a contest that will determine which nation can tolerate the most humiliation and pain. The athletes are subjected to tests that include being bound (Tang Yuanbao allows himself to be compressed into a smaller and tighter shape than any of the others); being ridden piggy-back by a large fellow and expected "to run like a horse, crawl like a dog and bleat like a sheep" (Tang goes one better than his competition by drinking the piss of his rider and then giving the thumbs' up); having long needles stuck under their fingernails and in their chests (while some of the others succumb to the pain, Tang smiles broadly and encourages his torturer, concerned that his tormentor may weaken before he does); standing on a hotplate (a veritable teppanyaki for the sole; Tang saunters around ignoring the heat); being submerged in water as the temperature is lowered to freezing point; and a self-humiliation trial consisting of hitting one's own face (Tang beats himself until he is "as purple as an eggplant, his thick skin so swollen that it was as thin and translucent as paper"). China's champion not only perseveres through all of these tortures, he delights in the pain, even thrives on it while, one by one, the other competitors fall by the wayside.

Finally, Tang Yuanbao elects to perform his own trial of endurance, the ultimating feat of self-inflicted denigration. He takes a sharp blade, cuts around the skin at his neck and pulls off his face. The message is unmistakable, only an athlete from China can come out a winner even if he loses his face.

Yuanbao is acclaimed the undisputed world champion and receives his award in an Olympic-style ceremony. The Chinese flag is raised aloft while the national anthem is played. The ceremony is broadcast live to China and the nation celebrates ecstatically. The final scene of the novel describes a city over which the massive mushroom cloud of an atomic explosion appears. The cloud casting an increasingly large shadow over the landscape. The moment that the redemptive action of Tang wins the international endurance title for China a national apocalypse unfolds.

Wang Shuo had experimented successfully with distinctive Beijing dialogue and slang in his earlier novel Living Dangerously [玩的就是心跳] (where he employed long passages of unpunctuated dialogue and interior monologues), as well as in the story ‘An Attitude’ in which he repeatedly used triple idioms or clichés chengyu for effect. Although official Party discourse has been manipulated to considerable effect by other writers since the mid-1980s, and by Wang himself in such stories as ‘The Operators’ and ‘An Attitude,’ in No Man's Land he parodied Party language to an unprecedented degree. One example will have to suffice here. The inhabitants of Tang Yuanbao's neighbourhood of Tanzi Alley present a formal ‘letter of appreciation’ (ganxiexin 感谢信) to the Party leader who had saved them from the deprecations of the faux Party leadership represented by the Competition Committee. The letter smothered in the logorrhoea of Chinese political and commercial language. Tang Yuanbao's mother starts reading the letter as if it were a tearful incantation:

You have righted the wrong and crushed the bad in one fel swoop. Respected wise dear teacher leader helmsman pathfinder vanguard pioneer designer bright light torch devil-deflecting mirror dog-beating stick dad mum grandad grandma old ancestor primal ape Supreme Deity Jade Emperor Guanyin Bodhisattva commander-in-chief:

You who are busy with: ten thousand weighty matters each day, long-suffering one bad habits die hard and overworked to the point of illness done too often can be habit-forming shouldering heavy responsibilities speeding through the skies powerful and unconstrained staving off disaster and helping the poor dispelling the evil and ousting the heterodox, you who eliminate rheumatism cold sweats strengthen the yang and invigorate the spleen the brain who are good for the liver stomach pain relieving and cough repressing, and able to cure constipation.

You personally yourself in propria persona have come deigned lowered yourself honoured us with your presence to investigate look over police search patrol pay a visit to ask about express solicitude and come to our alley. For our alley this is the most magnanimous expression of concern a massive encouragement a great impetus a considerable relief formidable expression of trust and care a great honour and really a nice thing to do. We are little people knaves the black haired scum your children grandchildren tufts of grass little dogs and cats a gang of liumang the cretinous crowds the great masses the hundred surnames and we feel oh-so-lucky extremely moved exceedingly uneasy terribly embarrassed so very pleased brimming with enthusiasm very very overwhelmed by our good fortune grateful as all get out tears o'fill our eyes our hearts swell like the seas and we're utterly and thoroughly lost for words. Ten thousand words a million songs endless mountains and seas ceaseless groans and grumbles mumbles and whispers expressions and phrases all combine into one sentiment which splits the very heavens an hysterical sound cracking through the universe circling the rafters for three days deafening reverberating through heaven and earth moving all who hear it mysterious and beautiful beyond compare making people drunk pissed completely out of it so they don't know the taste of meat for three days for it is the overriding chord of the age: longlife longlife longlonglife longlife longlife longlonglife!

Yuanbao's mother faints dead away from exhaustion and her recitation is taken up by first one and then another neighbour. They are eventually cut short by the leading cadre who grunts that he's heard more than enough of this type of praise before. Even if all the inhabitants of the alley expired singing his praises it still wouldn't be enough to impress him.

There are currently 1 Comments for In Wang Shuo's No Man's Land.

Comments on In Wang Shuo's No Man's Land

Barme's an egotistical buffoon. I've never particularly liked him or his scholarship, and his comment regarding Howard Goldblatt's "clunky translation" reminds me why. For my part, I think the translation does a pretty good job of capturing the idiosyncracies of Wang Shuo's style. In the end, no one reads Wang Shuo for his mellifluous prose.

'No Man's Land' may, in fact, be a better title than 'Please Don't Call Me Human'. However, that's something that Barme should take up with Wang Shuo or his publisher - not the translator.

Those of you who read Chinese might like Wang Shuo's short story 动物凶猛. It is particularly well-regarded, very different from most of his other work, and served as the basis for movie 阳光灿烂的日子 (In the Heart of the Sun) - in which Wang Shuo makes a cameo appearance.

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