Chinese from each recent epoch have found a reason to care about U.S. literature.
- By Helen GaoA Beijing native, Helen Gao is a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy and an MA candidate in East Asian Studies at Harvard.
BEIJING — In the winter of 1963, as China recuperated from a horrific famine, a group of college students in Beijing repelled by the bombastic Communist Party agitprop around them decided to get together to do something bold and dangerous: talk about Western literature.
These students were the sons and daughters of prominent Chinese intellectuals and powerful Communist Party leaders, having the type of family ties that granted them access to rare copies of internally translated Western literary works that were deemed poisonous and off-limits to the general public. The students found something of a spiritual home in those narratives of existential angst, middle-class disillusionment, and, particularly, the rejection of conformist postwar U.S. society. "Some of us hand-copied [J.D. Salinger’s U.S. novel] The Catcher in the Rye, to practice calligraphy," recalled Zhang Langlang, a member of the group, in an essay finally published in November 2013. Another friend, Zhang said, memorized long passages from On the Road because "the mental world of its characters was the closest to ours." Like their literary heroes, the students felt they were languishing in a similarly suffocating society where "there is no sense of self, no love, no individuality," as Guo Shiying, a member of a similar literary group, lamented. "People do not communicate. Instead, they contradict and torture each other."
In China’s rapidly changing society, American literature’s resonance has not diminished, but instead has changed with it, finding renewal in each successive generation. Take, for example, The Catcher in the Rye, a classic tale of adolescent existential angst. In the 1980s, the novel’s attack on conservative social mores resonated with the liberal and iconoclastic zeitgeist of a newly opened China; in the early 1990s, its cynic and frustrated tone gave expression to the despondency of Chinese youth, who had just seen their democratic ideals crushed by the massacre of student protesters in central Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. The 21st century, which has brought China unprecedented material wealth and social inequality, has granted the book new relevance. Huo Er Deng, or the Chinese incarnation of Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye‘s protagonist, speaks a language uncannily similar to that of a stressed student in a competitive Shanghai high school, or a disgruntled migrant worker serving a difficult boss, or a bored scion — in Chinese slang "rich second generation" — struggling to lead a meaningful life. Indeed, who would understand "phony" better than a generation weighed down by spiritual discontentment and the pressures of modern life, one whose grievances are still muffled by party control?
Since it embarked on economic reform in 1979, China has published more literature from the United States than from any other foreign country, according to Wang Lixing, an editor at Yilin Press, which focuses on introducing foreign books to China. Among the top 10 best-selling foreign fiction in China in 2012, four — The Kite Runner (No. 3), The Da Vinci Code (No. 6), The Catcher in the Rye (No. 8), and The Lost Symbol (No. 10) — have been written by U.S. authors. The once-subversive and potentially life-risking act of reading American novels has become such a popular pastime with China’s literati and general public that some have felt compelled to voice skepticism toward the phenomenon. In a January forum at the Jaipur Literature Festival, an annual event held in the North Indian city of Jaipur, Chinese-British writer Xiaolu Guo questioned the value of U.S. literature, calling it "massively overrated."
When it comes to serious literature, the United States wields less clout in the Chinese market than does its popular fiction. Highbrow Chinese readers favor foreign authors from other lands, like Japan’s Haruki Murakami, the Czech Republic’s Milan Kundera, and Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez. But Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, and William Faulkner, among other U.S. literary giants, have also carved out a Chinese niche. One reason for U.S. literature’s enduring appeal lies in its emphasis on character building and storytelling. American writers "are good at expressing deep human feelings," said Wang, responding to Guo’s comment in a telephone interview. "Compared to Chinese literature, which tends to present stories as flat pictures, American literature is a big change."
That emphasis on character development makes it easier for Chinese readers to relate to protagonists with whom, on the surface, they share little in common. That sense of shared humanity is visible when a fan of The Catcher in the Rye frames his own feelingvof disenchantment in distinctively Caulfield-esque terms. "Our society feels like a lousy factory. Just a few years after leaving school, everybody has become the same idiot coming out of the same mold," wrote a web user named Ding Xiaoyun in a popular review of J.D. Salinger’s novel that was posted on Douban, a Chinese site akin to Goodreads. Ding concluded that Chinese people "are, in Salinger’s words, so ‘phony’." This may explain why, 30 years after being formally introduced into China, The Catcher in the Rye is still selling at the brisk pace of over 300,000 copies a year. "A miracle," said Wang, in a market where selling in the high thousands constitutes a hit for foreign literature.
The class-conscious elitism of New England private schools and the high-class pretension of 1940s Manhattan remain foreign to most Chinese readers. Still, they believe that the vanity and hypocrisy of mainstream society that Caulfield described can easily be found on the campus of a Chinese university, or in the office of a party organ. "Those people have fancy diplomas and countless friends. They are party members and student government leaders," and "everything becomes a means to buy that ‘goddamn Cadillac,’" as a result, wrote one Douban user, quoting his literary hero. "But I have none of those things. I feel as if I were Caulfield, wandering amid the bustle of New York City and wondering where the ducks have gone for the winter."
Achieving outward markers of success barely helps to leaven the feeling of alienation. Another reader, who occupies a coveted spot in China’s bureaucracy as a civil servant, confessed that "the hypocrisy of this society exhausts me" and that he constantly feels "out of my depth" among the "Machiavellian office politics." "I have been thinking about The Catcher a lot recently," he wrote.
The state, on the other hand, sees its own concern in a generation imbued with Caulfield-esque restlessness and angst. In the 1960s, it had authorized the novel’s translation and circulation among high-level party cadres, believing it "exposed the truth of the spiritual state of a capitalist society." Now authorities paint the book as a metaphor of things closer to home. "The well-endowed rich-second-generation are the ‘Holdens’ around us," declared an editorial on the website of Guangming Daily, a state newspaper, shortly after Salinger’s death. "Rich second generation" Chinese, the editorial chided, "care only about their own enjoyment and gloat over others’ pain." Compared with Holden, "their life is even emptier."
Its misfits and rebels may grumble, but China’s dizzying transformation attests to the energy and optimism of its dreamers and strivers. Another resonant character — one whom Caulfield would rightly have called "phony" but who ultimately shares his underlying fear and ennui — is Jay Gatsby, the title character and protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, whose fantastic tale of exuberant ambition and relentless self-invention could double as the narrative of 21st century China. The novel, which depicts Gatsby’s dubious and ultimately failed pursuit of great wealth and fame in order to impress a lost love named Daisy Buchanan, has always enjoyed high prestige in China’s literary community. It saw its sales grow in the second half of 2013, boosted by the well-received Chinese release of director Baz Luhrmann’s lavishly produced U.S. film.
"There was something gorgeous" about Gatsby, the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway, observed about his friend, who possessed "heightened sensitivity to the promise of life" and "an extraordinary gift for hope." In modern Chinese eyes, that gift, which Nick and U.S. readers view with ambivalence, becomes an admirable and even redeeming trait of the bootlegger. "I am drawn to Gatsby, in fact, by his artlessness, his naiveté," read a book review published in the Oct. 16, 2013, edition of China Youth Daily, a state-run newspaper. "Facing a situation spiraling out of control, he still believed that the strength of his will and his resolute persistence were enough."
Indeed, countless young, ambitious, and often confused Chinese share Gatsby’s steadfastness in pursuing his dream, from the Henan migrant worker getting an unfortunate perm at a Shanghai hair salon to the illustrious Peking University graduate donning a banker’s suit at Goldman Sachs. Extraordinary success, many here contend, requires extraordinary measures. To them, Gatsby’s tragic ending is less his personal failing than a result of his environment, a Jazz Age that unconsciously foreshadowed the materialism and ferment that characterize contemporary China. In such an epoch, the only way Gatsby knew how to express his burning love for Daisy was through money. "You can hardly blame him," the China Youth Daily book review opined. "Gatsby’s misfortune lies only in the fact that he dressed his innocent ideals in a filthy coat."
Such a compassionate conclusion also springs, in no small part, from readers’ recognition of the broader parallels between Gatsby’s society and that of their own: the ostentatiousness of the wealthy, the callousness of the powerful, and the fragility of love in the face of rampant materialism. Several readers have compared Gatsby to Tang Jun, former president of Microsoft China, who was discovered, like Gatsby, to have faked his academic credentials in exchange for career advancement and whose fall in July 2010 elicited no small amount of public sympathy. Others have mused on the disparity in the family backgrounds of Gatsby and Daisy, labeling the protagonist a "phoenix man," a Chinese term for a successful male with a humble upbringing who suffers an unfortunate reputation on the marriage market.
Yet, among all the social ills that plagued the United States in the 1920s, perhaps few resonate more deeply in contemporary China than the hollow and moralistic official discourse that attempted to mask it all. Since the beginning of President Xi Jinping’s "mass line" campaign launched in July 2013, for instance, Chinese newspapers have bustled with headlines that laud the "frugal and unpretentious style" of major government meetings or the advantages of "core socialist values." For the majority of the citizens, such rhetoric only serves to deepen their cynicism toward the depressing realities around them. "At [Gatsby’s] time, the United States imposed prohibition laws, but in private, hedonism ruled society," read an essay in Chinese magazine Business about extravagant parties in China. "Similarly, in today’s China, newspapers are filled with morality lessons, whereas in reality people have lost their moral compass."
Ultimately, Gatsby stumbled and fell before he could reach "the green light," a metaphor for his unattainable ambitions. While Gatsby’s rise from his humble origin to stratospheric heights tantalizes Chinese strivers with grand ambitions, his tragic fate also squares with a sense here that society is capricious, allowing limited upward social mobility. One reader spelled out this anxiety on Douban: "People like me are deprived of the courage to dream, by peers with powerful fathers, by soaring apartment prices, and by dim career prospects." Despite China’s seeming abundance of new wealth, the reader wrote, "there is not enough room and resources…. We have no playing field of our own."
Humbled by cautionary tales fictitious and real — from Gatsby’s crushed ambition to Tang’s public humiliation — Chinese are hedging their proverbial bets. In some places, the result is particularly ironic.
Since the beginning of January, nine estates at Sands Point on Long Island, New York, have found new owners. Five — including two with eight-figure price tags — went to Chinese buyers, according to Jennifer Lo, a broker at New York-based real estate firm Douglas Elliman. Located on the North Shore of Long Island, Sands Point was the famed "East Egg" in The Great Gatsby and home to Daisy’s chic mansion. "We get so many inquiries from China these days," said Lo, who handles the area. She describes most of her clients as Chinese businessmen and officials who have scrambled to move assets abroad in order to dodge the onslaught of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. The deep-pocketed plutocrats are not taking any chances, Lo said. On the spot where Gatsby pursued his dream with a "romantic readiness" for his future, Chinese are making their moves with pure pragmatism. "One million or 10, they don’t care about the price," she said of the Chinese buyers. "If there is a method to get their money out of the country, they will use it."
Worrying about one’s accumulated wealth is a Chinese problem of particularly recent vintage, but history has taught people here the value of caution and the cost of transgression. Today, newly minted Chinese millionaires protect their assets, some certainly garnered under the table, with painstaking vigilance. Back in 1963, members of the college book group eventually became victims of their own clandestine conduct. School officials discovered the group’s activities after only a few months, and the students were labeled "counterrevolutionary" and sent to farms or to prison. Unlike the other group members, Guo Shiying, the son of a famous pro-communist scholar, refused to repent in the years that ensued. He ultimately fell to his death from a prison-room window in 1968, his body tied to a chair, after days of torture.