I Read Han Han's "Party (独唱团)": Part I

By Canaan Morse, published

Fourteen pieces of visual art, nine brief essays, a poem and nine stories.
The longest written piece is eleven pages long.
The most commonly used phrase is 耿耿于怀, which means “to take (sth.) to heart,” usually connoting resentment, the memory of a past injustice.
There are four pieces I would look at again, four that I would recommend.

A lot of angst in this first edition. Angst of the adolescent, high-school variety, presented either in living color or within the slightly more transparent medium of memory. Struggles for self-expression against unsympathetic authority, sexual frustration, the martyred love of solitude. The flavor is strongest in the essays, which are mostly restricted to a page or two in length and are not spacy enough for a performance of any subtlety. Two thousand words is, for most of us who don’t write that well, only enough for one setup and dramatic reversal, a few memories and a contrast with reality, a handful of misty observations tied together in a moralizing conclusion. Luo Yonghao’s piece “The Story of a Male Qiuju” (罗永浩,秋菊男的故事) is a little more than that, and I’ll get to it later.

Fortunately, more visible (and more surprising) than the magazine’s cultivated angst is its humor. Perhaps due to the hazardous ambiguity of Chinese society, its contemporary authors constantly demonstrate a talent for grey, tongue-in-cheek humor as well as for straight-up farce. Let’s talk about Anybody Asks Anybody (所有人问所有人), this supposedly omnidirectional cannon, for just a second. As a mechanism for posing hard questions and getting them answered, it can’t help but fail; there are still certain questions one can’t ask and certain people who can’t be reached. As a stage for satire, however, the feature is successful; when the Party staff describe to the anonymous “Spider-man” why the Shanghai Dept. of Automotive Management won’t answer his question, they lead the reader down dead ends of bureaucracy and into the internet side-roads that provide real information, telling us more than if the Department had actually answered themselves. See number 22 for the same thing.

Notes on Pieces:

I had a strong reaction to Yan Ming’s photograph series “My Pier” (我的码头), shots of Sichuan near the Long River in the vicinity of Chongqing. If you ignore his prose, the pictures are very interesting;

A rather raggedy young boy sitting on a forklift, gazing open-mouthed at the sky—did he wander his way there, or does he actually operate the machine? A palpably Western tone to the photograph; two more pieces on the opposite page, both remarkable for their captivating fusion of Chinese scenery—such Chinese scenery, see the idea of rivers, mountains and towns in the background—and a Western photographic aesthetic that sanctifies the ordinary; an excellent picture of a naked boy crouched at the riverbank is ruined by poor printing quality; the photo of the middle-aged woman in fur and heels descending dirty, damp steps, wet lights in the distance, brings forth a sense of the absurd; the mild irony of a Minnie Mouse walking home from work past a wall like a pile of shattered coal. The whole world seems to be eternally wet.

If I had to venture a criticism, it would be that living beings (humans and that one monkey) are given too central a place within the artist’s field of vision, especially in a land of such singular topography. Who made us so important?

Luo Yonghao’s essay “The Story of a Male Qiuju” is not terribly deep, but it is honest and witty, while the relative freshness of its subject matter to a foreign eye—the swindling English school, the court, the honest lawyer—makes it worthy of a read. Having myself worked for one of those “schools” for two unbearable months in Panjin, Liaoning—a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants operation called “Laid-Back English”—the narrative’s straightforward description echoes with me. I want to say something here about protest against government being a more mature form of angst, but it's not coming together. If Luo Haobo gave himself a little more space to think and describe in, this could have been a good short story; but a heavy plot line gets shortchanged in a brief narrative, and phrases like “我感到巨大的委屈……铺天盖地地压了下来” clang like aluminum sheeting in the wind.

Mi Meng’s “Jin Shengtan Really Hurts” (好疼的金圣叹) is not an essay, but belongs to a different, distinct genre: the anachronistic comic satire of ancient historical or literary figures, which I've come across online before. They’re usually farces, and they work because the imagined distance between the romanticized “Classical” figure and the contemporary vulgarisms used to narrate him is so great as to be absurd. I’m assuming they put the piece up front because Jin Shengtan himself was a real figure, and many of the descriptions of his “badass actions” (牛逼事儿) are, in fact, more exaggeration than invention. The edgy anachronisms that energize the prose—Jin Shengtan has a micro-blog with 200 thousand fans on it, while a reporter does an interview with the already-dead author Shi Nai’an—result, as usual, in easy laughter and a low chance of re-reading.

That’s it for the essays. Take a good look at Yao Mumu (爻木木)’s painting Red Zebra on page 38.

Fiction’s next…


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