Wang Shuo and The Future of the Past

My master’s thesis was about Wang Shuo and his “conversation” with Mainland China’s ’80s intellectual establishment. It was good enough to pass–despite Tian Xiaofei’s basic antagonism to my purpose and some admitted deficiencies. Nonetheless, I got a few things right, really, really right, which to this day no one has sufficiently appreciated. And on the eve of the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen, it’s worth revisiting.

Wang Shuo, of course, was one of China’s first post-Cultural Revolution commercially successful writers. He was able to make a living off his intellectual output and did not need to be attached to a stultifying danwei, nor did he need to spend most of his time doing grunt work to support himself, which was the other main option for intellectuals in those days.

He wrote a number of books which became runaway bestsellers, some of which would later be made into movies. He was avatar of the liumang culture–small time crooks, hoodlums etc who were after kicks, chicks and easy paydays. His characters spoke in the patois of Beijing hutongs (he himself wasn’t really a genuine Beijinger, but a military brat whose parents came to the capital post-Liberation). In a word, he was the new cool.

And his books bore elements of the absurd, of the post-modern. He probably did a fair amount of his writing stoned. Most of his stuff was set in the present, the novella Vicious Creatures was a nostalgia piece looking back to the waning days of the Cultural Revolution where school and parental authority had completely disappeared.

All this was pretty new to Mainland China in the late ’80s. It was just after the “Culture Craze” of the mid-’80s when intellectuals were suddenly able to get their hands on philosophy, music and art from the west and before Tiananmen changed everything. It was after the time of artists trying to rediscover the roots of anything that could be considered Chinese tradition, it was smack in the middle of the soul searching of Scar Literature where people were all about expressing the sufferings endured during the CR.

When I was in graduate school, Walter Benjamin and his “Angel of History” was the footnote de rigeur for every paper trying to make sense of the post-CR literary landscape. The crux of his argument was a painting by Paul Klee and Benjamin’s interpretation went something like this?:

“His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

So that’s how most all scholars conceived of Mainland Chinese writers of that time–a bunch of gawpers standing around a car wreck on the road.

There are plenty of different modes in Scar Literature, but basically it’s seen as narration of trauma as an act of healing–serious stuff. Wang Shuo’s writings, on the other, hand seem expressly unconcerned with history. His characters are all about “wan’r”–play–as expressed in the title of his book Wan’r Nide Xintiao–published in translation as Playing for Thrills.

In that book you have a group of small time liumang who run cons. The cons keep getting bigger and more complicated spiraling up until the main character Fang Yan finds himself at the center of the biggest con–one involving a headless body from a decade ago. He may have been involved. He doesn’t remember.

Wang Shuo’s works, though, have plenty in common with Scar Literature–at least the trauma part of it. There are moments in almost all of his books when a character experiences an almost physical meltdown culminating in some horribly violent act. The rape of Mi Lan in Vicious Creatures. The violent vomiting spree of the elder Ma in The Two Ma’s. The horrific sex change transmogrification in Please Don’t Call Me Human. These all occur at critical moments when the character is confronted by truth–Benjamin’s Angel of History.

But it’s not so simple for me. The analogy I use (and others as well) to describe his version of wan’r is that of poker, where the bets go round and round until someone calls someone else’s bluff and every must show their cards.

The moment when everyone has to show their cards is when the narrative collapses and the truth comes out. It’s a physically sickening moment of ultimate pain. And most importantly–this moment NEVER takes place in the past, but only takes place in the future.

This is the subtle genius of Wang Shuo and his literary world. He poses the question: who’s going to be the first to call the bluff? Who is going to be the one who says, Yes, I want to look reality square in the face. He dares: who is going to have the balls to finally do it?

He reorients the entire trauma discourse from the past and points it squarely toward the future, which is properly where it belongs.

Tiananmen, then, 25 years ago. If you want some facts read Harrison Salisbury’s Tiananmen Diaries. The Pulitzer Prize winner was in the Beijing Hotel watching the whole thing unfold writing detailed notes every couple of hours. The bullets flew, the blood flowed. Lots of Beijingers were mowed down in Haidian and Xicheng trying to stop the tank columns. You can re-live it through the stories like some kind of horror movie complete with villains and heroes, made all the better because it’s reality.

There was plenty of net chatter in the weeks leading up to the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen. Everything from cringe-worthy Twitter headlines like “Were the troops in ’89 on drugs?” to sad reports of intellectuals being disappeared to photo essays.

But it’s not the sight of charred bodies in Tiananmen Square that’s hard to bear, nor the disappearances. We see that shit on news networks all the time now. And activists get disappeared in China all the time. No one flinches. What’s horrible is nothing more and nothing less than your complicity in it. You were at the table playing the game the whole time. You could have called the bluff way earlier. You didn’t. You still haven’t. The Angel of History is nothing compared to the fact of your–everyone’s–complicity in those events–whether it be Tiananmen, the CR, or the Great Leap Forward or the latest missing activist. And the reason for your complicity is a rabbit hole which leads to some deep deep issues. We all killed those people. We might as well have pulled the triggers.

It’s your reality. You were responsible. And you don’t even know it. And because of that you will certainly kill again.

No, there’s no one outside it, except lost tribes in Papua New Guinea. But everyone who’s tied into the same economic system and fed the same global media slop–you’re responsible. If you were too young to do anything about it, your parents were responsible. The only difference between you and Li Peng is a matter of degrees. And if you spend time trying to refute that statement, you are wasting everyone’s time.

Even if you are an intellectual safely wrapped in the Ivory Tower writing about the desperate need to confront the past…especially if you are an intellectual safely wrapped in the Ivory Tower doing that.

The major theme of the post-Holocaust world is precisely that: complicity, and I mean that in the narrowest, meanest, most vile sense. And if you don’t know it, you’re a dangerously deluded person.

Such a blanket statement foregrounds two different visions of how to move this world toward a better course–disobedience or outright revolution. Revolution will happen with or without us as ecosystems collapse into new steady-states. Only failed actors demand  revolutions anymore. Disobedience, creativity and consumer disruption are the only actions which matter.

That and keeping your cards on the table from the very beginning.

PS to Tian Xiaofei:

In my thesis I outlined the arguments which ’80s mainstream intellectuals used to explain away Wang Shuo’s derision of intellectuals. Wang Jing, who was at Duke at the time, went so far as to claim that he was pissed at the academics because “he wasn’t one of us”. In my thesis I riposted, “Only someone in the backwater of academia would say something like that.” Tian Xiaofei superciliously noted on my thesis, “I would not consider Duke to be an academic backwater!” She missed my point–all academia is a backwater, not just Duke.

One thought on “Wang Shuo and The Future of the Past

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