Wang Shuo 王朔
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The enfant terrible of Chinese literature in the 1980s and 90s, Wang Shuo was born in Nanjing to a military family of Manchu origin, but grew up in Beijing. During the Cultural Revolution, his parents were sent down to the countryside, leaving Wang and his brother behind in the city. With schools closed for part of this period, he and other young friends spent much of their time roaming the streets, getting into various scrapes and sometimes trouble with the police. This era forms the backdrop to Wang’s 1991 story ‘Wild Beasts’ (动物凶猛), later adapted into Jiang Wen’s film In the Heat of the Sun (1994), the first mainland Chinese movie to win best feature at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards.
After a spell in the navy, during which he reportedly spent much of his time cutting work and womanizing, and several years working in business of varying degrees of legality, Wang Shuo burst onto the Chinese literary scene in the mid 1980s, becoming the prime exponent of what was known to its conservative critics as ‘hooligan literature’ (痞子文学), and one of the first Chinese writers to succeed in commercializing his work. His stories, set in the fast-changing urban environment of China’s 1980s’ economic reforms, often highlighted the darker side of society and the gap between a more irreverent young generation and its traditional Communist elders. Many of his works were turned into movies, including Samsara (轮回, directed by Huang Jianxin), about the struggles of a crooked entrepreneur, and The Troubleshooters (顽主,also known as The Three T Company), starring Ge You (both 1988). With its Beijing slang and wisecracking main characters, who set up a business that promises to solve its clients’ personal problems, The Troubleshooters captures the ferment of China before the Tiananmen protests.
Such stories were denounced by party critics as reactionary and dissolute – but the Sinologist Gérémie Barmé sees echoes of traditional Chinese vernacular stories like Outlaws of the Marsh and other ‘knight errant’ (wuxia) literature in Wang’s work, describing his heroes as “the modem-day bastard progeny of the knight-errant, urban tricksters armed with a caustic wit which they use to lunge and parry as they make their way in a mendacious world.” Yet Barmé also acknowledged that Wang’s defiance of social norms could stray into “a humour of cruelty, with its object innocent (or pretentious and therefore not so innocent) young women, university students, intellectuals and writers” — and Wang has faced accusations of misogyny in his portrayal of female characters.
Wang also made a foray into the realm of detective fiction (though he later described this as a mistake), with novels such as Playing for Thrills (玩儿的就是心跳, 1989), which had an intriguing central character and an evocative Beijing milieu, but a plot that left many readers scratching their heads. After the crushing of the 1989 protests, Wang Shuo’s writing came in for fresh criticism. Yet one of his most satirical novels, Please Don’t Call me Human (千万别把我当人) appeared in Harvest (收获) literary magazine in September 1989. An absurdist and often grotesque satire on Chinese politics and national pride, it revolves around an international sports competition in which China’s representative is a Beijing pedicab driver who has learned martial arts skills from his father, the last survivor of the Boxer movement of 1900.
And in the early 1990s, the ever adaptable Wang reinvented himself as a TV screenwriter, resulting in what was known as the ‘Wang Shuo phenomenon’: 1990’s Yearnings (渴望) was followed by 1992’s The Story of the Editorial Department (编辑部的故事), co-written with the film director Feng Xiaogang. This witty satire of life in a magazine office gripped audiences, and provided rare light relief to a nation still reeling from the events of 1989 and the political hardline that followed. Wang’s 1991 novel I’m Your Dad (我是你爸爸) meanwhile, blended comedy with serious themes, including the relationship between a father and his headstrong son. The film version, ‘Father’ (冤家父子), directed by Wang and starring Feng Xiaogang, was initially banned in China, but won top prize at the Locarno International Film Festival in 2000. It was followed in 1999 by Seemingly Very Beautiful (看上去很美), which described the life of a small boy in a regimented Beijing kindergarten in the 1960s (filmed by Zhang Yuan in 2006 as Little Red Flowers).
After years focusing on TV and movie scripts, often in collaboration with Feng Xiaogang, and dealing with bereavements including the deaths of his father and brother, Wang returned in 2007 with My Millennium Chill (我的千岁寒), a collection of essays, a film script and a short story. This book — for which he was reportedly paid several million RMB, a huge sum in China — combined Wang’s love of Beijing dialect with a new-found interest in Buddhism. It was followed by the novel A Conversation with our Daughter (和我们的女儿谈话, 2008).
Relatively few of Wang Shuo’s works have been fully translated, and the author has not always accepted offers to translate them. Yet despite his stop-start writing career and frequent changes of creative direction, he remains a significant figure on the contemporary Chinese literary scene, never afraid to express his opinions of other authors. A new 15-volume set of Wang Shuo’s works was published in China in 2021. As Dylan Suher put it in Asymptote Journal, ‘Wang reinvents himself every three or four years, and completely disavows whatever version came before. Mercurial, simultaneously sentimental and cynical, crassly commercial but wonderfully lively—Wang Shuo’s work reflects the Chinese popular culture he practically invented.’
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