Rarely in my insignificant lifetime have I hated a book more than this fucking waste of a rainforest. Trees died for this rubbish. It has haunted me for the last four years and I am sick of even the sight of it. If it was a person and I met it in the street, I would knock it down and spit on its back. Then laugh at its mother. It really is an enormous waste of time for everybody involved, which others agree with since nobody will buy or review the fucker.
Everything about the creation of this book annoyed me. Far too many nights were spent hunched over a Macbook like some pretentious wannabe journalist sipping his or her’s frappucino in the Beijing fucking Bookworm. At least those guys might build a career out of the 2,000 word essays on Hunan’s sustainable solar-powered revolution that they copy and paste and send over to the Huffington Post. What the fuck was I thinking? I wrote a 286-page book that is largely one long dick joke. The only writing job that is going to win me is possible part-time work writing erotic fiction for The Gay Times.
Do you know how annoying Microsoft Word is once you want to do more than write a memo? That fucking paperclip mascot laughs at me in my dreams at night. I swear one time his eyes glowed red and he whispered that he was going to kill my sister. Every time you make some slight tweak in the comments it crashes and you lose 20 minutes of work. “Oh, you should use Autosave,” you say. Fuck you. I didn’t even use a PC till I was eighteen and that was mainly to check out the fledgling website http://www.shit-city.com. These habits aren’t ingrained. You fix one thing in Word and it finds, rapes and murders ten other things. At one point I considered paying somebody to type the whole thing for me until I realised I didn’t know how to enunciate the use of semi-colons. Also, do you know how many semi-colons are in this thing? Hundreds of the cunts – and I still don’t understand what they do. I just thought they looked cute.
What a fucking joke. Garbage. Zero stars if Amazon will allow me to do so – and that’s generous. A relentless innuendo-filled rant about the oldest and greatest civilisation in the world. Do you know that China has 5,000 years of history? 5,000 years! That’s just a level of deepness and profundity that my simple brain cannot even begin to understand, even if I tried, which I didn’t. The great nation of China invented paper, and yet I had the audacity to pen a criticism of their culture on their own bloody invention. I’m not fit to even hold a piece of paper; let alone a pink one with a picture of Chairman Mao on it. I should be ashamed.
What the hell was I thinking? Literally more people will read the safety signs discarded at the bottom of a disused and unlit North Korean mineshaft then will read this piece of crap. If I did it for the money than I’m even more of a fool than I am for writing the bastard. If I’d put more hours into my job than I did with this fucking glorified paperweight I might have accumulated more than a dollar – which right now is 100x more money than I’ve earned off this trash. A writing career? I would have been better off freelancing myself to tramps and offering to write their begging signs in exchange for free blowjobs. Those guys suck more than my book.
Buy the book if you want. I wouldn’t, but you might enjoy giving it as a gift to somebody you don’t like. Annoy your neighbours. It’d be like sending them a dogshit in the post, but you won’t get shit stains on your hands. I do have stains on my hands however – the stains of shame that I have incurred by insulting the glorious Chinese Communist Party. Chairman Mao got over a billion people to stand up. I shouldn’t even be able to bend over after the ass-raping I deserve for writing this filth.
In short: don’t buy or even read Party Members. You’ll be better off reading Peter Hessler’s River Town. His book even had a chapter where he wrote about juggling baozi. Baozi! That’s the level of understanding Hessler had about China – right to the core. Not like me. I hang my head in shame and apologise to everybody involved in this whole sorry affair. My publishers should have known better. Let’s hope they learn their lesson when they see the shitty sales figures.
Deep within the heart of China, far from the glamour of Shanghai and Beijing, lies the Chinese every-city of Huaishi. This worker’s paradise of smog and concrete is home to Party Member Yang Wei, a mediocre man in a mediocre job. His content life of bureaucratic monotony is shattered by an encounter with the advanced consumer goods he has long been deprived of. Aided by the cynical and malicious advice of an unlikely mentor, Yang Wei embarks on a journey of greed, corruption, and murder that takes him to the diseased underbelly of Chinese society.
Will Yang Wei achieve his ambition of promotion to the mysterious eighth floor? Will he win the love of his beautiful but materialistic colleague, Rainy? And will his penis stop telling him to eat at fast-food restaurants? Just how far will Yang Wei go to achieve his pursuit of wealth, glory, and a better car?
Party Members is a bleak and black comedic fantasy about a world where to get rich is glorious, no matter who gets hurt in the process. Designer handbags, sex, karaoke, and shady property deals combine to paint a picture of modern China unlike anything seen before.
There’s some slight professional jealousy flowing through my veins right now as I begin this book review, for you see, Alec Ash stole my ideal life.
I guess I should explain.
Roughly ten or twelve years ago, I had dreams (and let’s be frank, dreams are all they were) of transforming myself into some kind of literary genius type figure based in China. Too poor and too unconnected to go down the traditional route of interning in London for five years in order to gain a foothold in the journalism industry, I basically tried to game the system by attempting to achieve it in China instead. China was cheaper, was a country that I held a passion for, and seemed to be a land of opportunity where any young and diligent young pup could build a name for themselves with enough hard work and talent.
Sadly, life didn’t turn out quite as planned, and I find myself today in the very same position that I was trying to escape from over a decade ago – stuck in the corporate life with no outlet for any creativity. Ash, on the other hand, has managed to achieve quite the name for himself within Beijing’s literary circles. He has helped to set up websites like Beijing Cream (Rest in Peace, Laowai Comics Guy) and The Anthill, has organised Whisky and Writers nights at The Bookworm (Beijing’s premier venue for sitting around looking pretentious behind a MacBook) and now he has a book out through Picador that is getting rave reviews on outlets like the FT, the New York Times and the BBC.
In short, a part of me really wanted to hate his book.
And then, because he is such a bastard, he actually wrote a very good book that is impossible to dislike.
In some ways, Ash is a reverse mirror image of myself. He covers a lot of the same ground that I cover in my own book Party Members – generational pressure, university exams, corruption, house prices, even regional TV talent shows – but somehow still manages to find some light within the darkness whereas I can only find darkness. Partly this is due to his subject matter. Wish Lanterns follows the lives of six young Chinese all born after 1980 as they struggle to build a foundation for their lives in and around Beijing. It would be a very grim book indeed if these young people didn’t have hope to build better lives for themselves. For sure, there is darkness – and more than a few of the dreams of Wish Lanterns‘ six protagonists eventually hit a dead-end – but there is life and hope along the way. If there was any truth to Xi Jinping’s nonsensical propaganda slogan of the “Chinese Dream”, then the content of that dream is to be found somewhere within this book.
The six protagonists are used as narrative devices to highlight different aspects of modern China. Each one has a different journey and their various class backgrounds and career choices gives Ash an opportunity to explore the entirety of modern China through these windows on their lives. Wannabe rockstar Lucifer gives us glimpses into China’s banal television industry; upper middle-class Politics student Fred (former China TEFL teachers will be unsurprised to learn that Fred is a girl) allows Ash to tick off the boxes of China’s political changes over the last three decades; party girl Mia highlights the edgy arty side of Beijing; and the slightly more ordinary (but no less interesting) three remaining protagonists of Dahai, Snail and Xiaoxiao are vehicles to explore the every day events of marriage, birth and death in the Peoples’ Republic.
Despite the different backgrounds of the various characters, they all share some of the same challenges. The heavy prospect of marriage and buying a house looms over every single one of them as they enter their mid-twenties; the pressure bearing down on some of them more than others. My favourite character in the book was Snail – a rural migrant from Anhui who more than any of the six protagonists experiences the most setbacks on his journey: internet addiction, lack of housing prospects and (in the book’s saddest moment) miscarriage of his first child. Snail named himself after the titular gastropod due to his childhood sightings of them in his countryside home and his foresight in knowing that his future home was to be wherever the turbulence of China’s social upheavals would take him. Yet he also shares another trait with his namesake: the weight of familial expectations and pressure slowing him down in comparison to his peers. It’s the struggle and hope that still remains within Snail despite the challenges that life throws at him that makes it hard not to respect the perseverance of many of China’s millennial generation.
Ash certainly knows his topic well and has done his research. I was impressed by his thorough knowledge of modern Chinese history, but I was ultimately more impressed by the little details that proved he had really gotten to know his case studies. On more than one occasion he mentions something that I was arrogantly sure I was the only foreigner in China who knew about it, for example the joke that Hebei’s capital Shijiazhuang is referred to as “shit plus dirt” or the ins and outs of mid-2000s PC games like Counter Strike.
Wish Lanterns is well written, in-depth, and doesn’t outstay its welcome. As loath as I am to mention Peter Hessler lest I get arrested by the Cliché Police, Ash actually succeeds in out-Hesslering Hessler as he manages to provide a wide-ranging full-scope overview of what life is like in today’s China, but doesn’t embarrassingly avoid some of the more risqué topics that Hessler frequently avoided. There is sex in the book (especially in Lucifer’s chapters); Ash doesn’t go as in-depth as other topics he covers, but at least it is there and not conspicuous by its absence as I found to be the case in Hessler’s River Town.
My above mention of Peter Hessler (I’m sure Ash is sick of hearing about him) brings me nicely to my final point about Wish Lanterns. There is one character missing in Wish Lanterns, and that is Alec Ash. In interviews, Ash has stated that he deliberately kept himself out of the book as he wished for the book to be about the subjects themselves and not about their foreign friend and his life in China (although there is one teeny tiny mention that Ash allows himself right at the end of the book). However, though Ash is missing from the book, in retrospect he is actually there all the time. The stories of Dahai, Lucifer, Mia et al are all told by Ash; and it is Ash who selects what is featured and what is deemed important enough to include. At the same time I was reading Wish Lanterns, I was also reading some essays by Isham Cook, especially one entitled The Ventriloquist’s Dilemma. Have a read. As mentioned at the beginning of this review, Ash has simultaneously managed to successfully build a career for himself within respectable publishing circles and has written a book that shines light and positivity on aspects of Chinese society whereas I’ve often only found despair. One wonders if this is due to a positive mindset within the author or if his balanced coverage of China is a prerequisite of the requirements of large publishers.
A relevant paragraph from The Ventriloquist’s Dilemma:
Let’s unpack this a bit with the help of Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of ventriloquism or “ventriloquation” (The Dialogic Imagination). To ventriloquize is to pretend to assume the voice of the Other. Of course, this is something creative writers do all the time; fiction and drama depends on the ability to capture a multiplicity of voices (what Bakhtin calls “heteroglossia”). In the case of nonfiction, however, the writer is bound by a compact with the reader to tell the truth, and by other constraints as well—ethical, legal, financial, etc., as mentioned above. These constraints are amplified in the case of journalists writing for the big publishers, where power and monetary interests are at stake. Here the writer’s relationship with the reader is more complex and bi-directional. He or she is no longer merely the author ventriloquizing the Other, but is just as likely being ventriloquized as the subject and instrument of power.
I highlight the above not because I wish to criticise Wish Lanterns, but because after reading the book it raised questions within myself about my own attitudes. It may be possible that the positives and hope that are expressed towards Chinese society within Wish Lanterns are due to the demands of an international publisher with interests in countries across the world, but if I accept that the truths within Wish Lanterns are filtered through the author’s voice (or the voice of his publisher), then I must also accept that the “truths” in my own more negative attitude towards China is filtered through my own perspective. The characters in Wish Lanterns who have it much tougher than I do, like Snail, certainly don’t wallow in gloom. I’m reminded of the final sentence in Ray Hecht’sSouth China Morning Blues:
“Well, this is my universe, my voice, my perspective, it’s for me, and at least that means I get to have the last word.”
Any book which provokes self-reflection and contemplation within the reader – especially unexpectedly – is a worthy read. Add to that the already significant achievement of creating a narrative that wonderfully captures the zeitgeist of modern China in a way that few others have and you have a very good book indeed. However, since this is my book review I get to have the last word: you’re still a bastard Alec for being more successful than me.
In just one week’s time it will be August 17th which can only mean one thing: the glorious release of Party Members – the greatest book ever written since the novelisation of Driving Miss Daisy.
You can pre-order your copy now, but to get you all excited, our team of dedicated researchers travelled around China recently to interview a few people and understand more about what the average Zhou on the street is feeling about the release. We handed out review copies to eleven people and here is what they had to say…
Zhang Xianfei – 26 – Professional League of Legends Player
“I don’t know much about Party Members or Arthur Meursault, but I do know about our glorious hero Sun Yang and that Australian bastard Mack Horton. He should apologise to China. Australia is a savage nation. #apologisetosunyang”
Yu Landuo – 33 – “Customer Service”
“What? What do you want? I’m busy. I don’t have what you want. No. I don’t understand. Try that counter over there.”
Elyse Ribbons – 37 – Fempat and coffee enthusiast
“Party Members could be improved by adding in more mentions of Elyse Ribbons. Do you know that she wrote her own play called “I Heart Beijing” and is a strong, independent and empowered young woman who is destined for great things? Check out my blog where I review the most AMAZING dumplings I found this one time. Please pay attention to me. Please.”
Chen Sanmei – 88 – Peasant
“Was that a book you gave me? I can’t remember what I did with it. I think I fed it to the pigs or wiped my grandson’s arse with it when we ran out of copies of the Global Times.”
Timothy Budong – 31 – Educator
“Dude, this book was a bit harsh on China. I carried it around inside my green backpack during an EPIC 3 hour bus ride. China is so amazing and has 5000 years of history, I don’t know why this Arthur Meursault has such a beef with the place. Now you will have to excuse me – my Foreign Liaison Teacher has promised me that if I do some free extra classes this afternoon then they might renew my contract this September! A-B-C-D-E…..”
Lan Yang – 25 – Global Times Journalist
“Party Members is brimming with scathing insults and mocking stories. If Arthur Meursault doesn’t like China, he should go back to where he came from.”
Wang Shanshan – 29 – Former English student
“You know Arthur Meursault? Do you have his number? He is a bad man. He promised me free English classes if I came to his apartment to watch some DVDs and then I never saw him again.”
Ernest Hemingway – Dead – Author and wannabe alcoholic
“Party Members is the best book I’ve ever read. It shits all over anything that I wrote and makes The Sun Also Rises look like an entry in a kid’s composition contest. Now pass me a drink please, I’m parched. Oh shit, I’m dead. It’s raining outside.”
(Another short story for your enjoyment. Like my book Party Members and my previous short story Dumplings, this story is also set in the fictional city of Huaishi)
Ding Bantian had accomplished many things. The walls of her office were lined with them.
Pride of place went to her PhD certificate that hung in a frame in the centre of the wall like the image of a god within a temple. The large black letters proclaiming Ding Bantian to hold a PhD in Chinese literature were the first objects to confront any visitor to her office. Surrounding the certificate on all four sides were a quartet of graduation photos: high school, bachelors degree, masters and finally the doctorate. In each of the photos a smiling Ding Bantian beamed with satisfaction at the scrolls of educational honour grasped firmly in her hands. None of the other certificates or letters of achievement that decorated her office quite matched the glory of the PhD certificate, though the accomplishments detailed upon them were certainly not insignificant.
Unlike the offices of most of her colleagues in the university, the certificates on her walls were not intermixed with photographs of family. There was only one family photo that Ding Bantian kept in the office – a faded photo of herself with her parents taken when she was in primary school – but today it was not in its usual place upon the wall. Today Ding Bantian held the photo in her hands, and she was crying as she stared at the image of the little family posing during a day trip to the beach.
“Is everything ok, Vivian?”
Vivian was her English name. It was only used by one person in the whole world, and that was the American teacher Tim who was addressing her now. Tim worked in the room facing Ding Bantian’s office. He must have heard her crying.
“I’m fine, thank you.” Ding Bantian wiped her tears away before she turned her head to face Tim. However, the streaks down her cheeks were still visible in the light of the afternoon. Tim took the hint and didn’t push the subject any further.
“Good to hear. If there’s anything I can do to help though just give me a shout. I’ll be in my office all day – got some papers to mark before the students return.”
“Thank you. I’m fine, really.”
“No problem. Hey, I thought you were supposed to be back home for the holidays all week?”
“I… I came back a little early. Too much work to do.”
“Tell me about it! Well, be seeing you Vivian.”
She nodded goodbye and watched Tim as he returned to his office. He was in his late forties and was a visiting scholar from Harvard. Like most foreigners he was slightly overweight compared to Chinese men, but he was always dressed well in a three-piece suit which helped to cover up his paunch. When he had first arrived at the university Ding Bantian had teased him for his bad Chinese and inability to pronounce her name; in return he had given her the English name of Vivian to help in their mutual communication.
Outside it was beginning to rain. Clouds were forming in the sky darkening the room; Ding Bantian placed the photo back on her desk and switched on the overhead light. Somewhere, in the nearby alleyways surrounding the university, firecrackers were being set off. New Year had already passed, but most people were still on holiday and the firecrackers would continue until the Lantern Festival.
She was still angry about what had happened over the New Year, however the worst of her rage was already over. Back here in her office, her display of certificates and achievements gave her comfort. No matter what her parents thought of her, they could never diminish all of the great accomplishments she had earned. Though only thirty-two, she was already a doctor in Chinese literature as well as an established expert on gender theory. She was a published author of two books discussing the role of women within Ming Dynasty literature, one of which was currently being translated into English with help from Tim across the corridor. In her new home at Shanghai’s prestigious Jiaotong University, Ding Bantian had the honour and recognition that she had worked so hard to achieve. However, as soon as she had returned home for the New Year, that honour and recognition had evaporated the moment she had stepped foot on the train to Huaishi.
Huaishi. Dirty backwards Huaishi. An ugly little place where people who read books were viewed suspiciously and the air stank of coal. It was a different world to Shanghai. There were no cosy little coffee shops where she could type out a thesis on her MacBook. There were no shops selling French jazz. There were no people who cared about her groundbreaking research on sixteenth century poetry. There was only family. That was the sole reason she had ever gone back.
The train was full of the rough migrant types that Ding Bantian now rarely interacted with in her new life in Shanghai. She had left all of that behind in Huaishi. The dark-skinned peasant women and uncouth men on the train almost frightened her. They reminded her too much of where she had come from and what she had worked so hard to escape from. Her only connection with Huaishi was her parents: a couple in their late fifties who subjected her to the same questions every New Year. Did she have a boyfriend? When was she getting married? Why wouldn’t she allow her parents to arrange a date for her? It was all so tiresome and they never asked about her work.
Her father was worse. A man on the train who was squatting in the aisle spitting out melon seeds onto the ground reminded her of him. They had the same untrusting face that scowled at the world. The look on the man’s face as he spat out the melon seeds resembled her father’s facial expression every time she mentioned the university or attempted to bring up her work. He had never agreed with her decision to leave Huaishi and pursue an academic career in Shanghai, though he had relaxed his criticisms in recent years as he became more and more obsessed with the stock market. Ding Bantian’s mother had been the first to discover the world of stocks and shares – joining her friends in daily trips to the bank to watch how the small amounts of money went up and down. Her mother had introduced her father to shares and the obsession had grown ever since. He was certainly not a success at manipulating the stock market but it had been a blessing to Ding Bantian in many ways. Now when her father began to criticize her lifestyle choices, Ding Bantian merely had to enquire politely about the state of his investments and the conversation would take a different direction.
As always, Ding Bantian had felt obliged to return home for the New Year holiday. She was never specifically invited back each year, but it was an unspoken tradition that could never be deviated from. Her habit had been to arrive on the afternoon of the New Year’s Eve just in time for the reunion dinner. Normally she was ready to get the train back to Shanghai before dinner was even served, however decorum meant that she always gritted her teeth and stayed for a full five days.
The train arrived at Huaishi’s decrepit main station. Hordes of workers travelling for the holidays were squatting in every available space of the decaying building. Ding Bantian had called her mother to see if it was possible to get picked up from the station, but the call went unanswered. Most probably her mother was too busy cooking to answer the phone. So instead she squeezed herself and her suitcase onto an overcrowded bus until she arrived at the rundown apartment block that had been her childhood home.
The lift never worked and her parents lived on the tenth floor. She struggled to carry her suitcase up all of the stairs and was breathless by the time she reached the front door. The front door of her parents’ house was never closed shut so she was able to walk straight in. To her surprise, there were two people she had never seen before sat around the table with her mother and father. They had already started eating. In fact, most of the food was already finished.
“Erm… what’s going on?”
She imagined how pathetic she must have looked; stood there gasping for breath on her parents’ doorstep. Her father was the first to look up and notice her.
“Ah, Bantian, you’ve arrived!”
Her father looked more relaxed than usual. Her mother too. Both of them were slightly red in the cheeks from alcohol. The other two people were a young couple in their late twenties or early thirties. On Ding Bantian’s arrival they looked sheepishly at her father for guidance.
“What’s going on?” Ding Bantian repeated. “Who are these people and why have you started dinner without me?”
“Sit, sit, take a seat!” Her mother got up from her chair and led Ding Bantian by the hand to the sofa. After she had done so, she uncharacteristically closed the front door behind them. “Your father has something he needs to talk to you about.”
Her mother rushed into the kitchen and closed the door. Whatever her father was going to say, it was clear that her mother didn’t want to involve herself in it. Finishing his beer, her father had pulled his stool across the room to sit directly in front of Ding Bantian. Behind him the mysterious young couple continued to eat. Ding Bantian wondered who they were. Perhaps the young man was yet another attempt by her parents to find her an appropriate suitor. However, her father quickly corrected her assumption with the very first sentence he spoke.
“You’re probably wondering who our guests are. Bantian, I’d like you to meet Zhang Xianshi and his wife Chen Shengyu.”
Upon mentioning their names, Zhang Xianshi and Chen Shengyu nodded their heads towards Ding Bantian, but otherwise continued eating.
“Zhang Xianshi is a financial advisor,” her father explained. “He’s been helping me with my investments.”
Ding Bantian looked over her father’s shoulder at the young man who was currently chewing on a piece of chicken. She eyed him suspiciously and wondered what exactly he had promised to earn himself a place at the family table on New Year’s Eve. No doubt it was some kind of pyramid scheme. People from Huaishi could be extremely gullible when greed blinded them to reality.
“We need to talk, Bantian.” Her father gave her a strange look, almost pitying. “You see, I have a problem with one of my investments.”
Ding Bantian sighed. “Which one is it now? The house? The shares in that mining firm? I’ve told you before to be careful about speculating with your savings.”
“It’s none of them. In fact they’re all doing rather well. No, this time I’m afraid the problem is you.”
“Yes, you. Unfortunately you have been,” he paused momentarily searching for the words, “a… bad investment.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Ding Bantian noticed that her mother was peeking out from behind the kitchen door. She hid her head when she noticed her daughter staring at her. Perplexed at what her father was talking about, Ding Bantian returned her gaze to him.
“A bad investment? Whatever are you talking about?”
“I mean that you’re not working out. You’re underperforming. Zhang Xianshi explained it all to me. We’ve tried to help you. Every year we try and set you up with good men who could be suitable husband material, but you’re never willing to cooperate. We’re just not seeing the return on our investment, so your mother and I have decided to cut our losses and reinvest our money elsewhere.”
Ding Bantian was getting angry now. The joke had gone on long enough. She raised her voice to her father.
“What are you talking about? Investments? I’m your daughter! We should be eating dinner together not talking nonsense.”
Now it was her father’s turn to sigh. “You’re a clever girl, Bantian, so I’m sure you can understand. We’ve spent a lot of time and money in bringing you up. We paid for your education, not to mention the costs of food, clothing and accommodation. Yet you’re thirty-two and we still don’t have a grandson. It just isn’t working out.”
There was a noise from the dining table as the young man called Zhang Xianshi also now stood up and dragged his stool over to the sofa area. His wife, seemingly oblivious to the conversation around her, continued to eat hungrily. She appeared to be growing overweight. Zhang Xianshi smiled at Ding Bantian and in an overly-formal manner handed her a business card with both hands that she accepted unthinkingly. He was a neat young man with tidy gelled hair and a simple but stylish suit that looked like it had been tailor-made. In one hand he held a blue folder full of papers that he placed on his lap as he sat down.
“I’ll let Zhang Xianshi explain,” her father said, almost with a look of pride when he turned to the man. “He’s good at explaining things.”
The man opened up the folder and held it towards Ding Bantian. Still in his overly-formal manner, he waved a pen at a table of numbers on one of the pages.
“You can see her – “ he began, “- a table of average salaries within the academic profession and a list of estimated projections. You will notice that even under the best circumstances the average take-home earnings of a university professor only range slightly above the median against other white-collar professions. In fact, once you adjust for the higher cost of living and rent in a city like Shanghai, your monthly income barely equals that of a low-level government official here in Huaishi.”
Ding Bantian, with a head full of confusion, barely registered the tables of numbers that the man was waving in front of her. None of what was happening was making any sense to her. The man was continuing in his presentation.
“- and even if we completely remove the financial aspect of your situation, the biological aspect looks just as pessimistic. At thirty-two your fertility is already waning. Even if you were to meet somebody within the next six months, once we factor in an average dating and engagement period of twelve months, we are left with a very narrow fertility window. Your eggs –“
“MY EGGS?” shouted Ding Bantian.
“- yes, your eggs, they –“
“What the hell have my eggs got to do with anything?” she demanded.
“- please don’t take this personally, I’m only relaying the statistics to you. As I was saying, even in the best possible circumstances we are only looking at a one-to-two year fertility window before it closes completely. That’s barely enough time to produce one child; certainly not enough to produce a second which is now permitted under the new government regulations.”
“What is the point of this?” demanded Ding Bantian again. Her father ignored her, encouraging the tidy young man to continue.
“The point is that unless circumstances change drastically, your parents will never gain the grandson that they have planned by investing in you. The numbers just don’t stack up. Please don’t just take my word for it, take a look for yourself.”
He handed the blue folder to her. It was full of tables and graphs detailing average wage projections, average fertility windows, and average costs of living. It was more detailed than one of Ding Bantian’s own doctorate theses. She threw the folder onto the ground and waved a finger at her father.
“Is this what you have resorted to? Every year you nag me about my lifestyle choices and try to pressurize me into getting married and having a baby. Now you’ve resorted to graphs and tables to try and convince me to give up everything I have worked so hard for in order to satisfy you!”
Her father shook his head.
“I’m not asking you to give up anything anymore. It’s us who are giving up on you.”
Silence filled the room apart from the noise of Chen Shengyu still eating noisily at the table. The woman could eat as much as three men. From the kitchen Ding Bantian’s mother had re-emerged and had joined Chen Shengyu at the dinner table.
Ding Bantian’s father picked up the blue folder from the floor. Dusting it down he opened it again.
“When Zhang Xianshi and I first met, it really was just about financial advice. He came highly recommended from some good friends and I’ve been amazed at how he has managed to turn some of my investments around. After we got to know one another better, he offered to turn some of my other investments around too. You see, both Zhang Xianshi and his wife are orphans – everything they have achieved in life they have done so without any support whatsoever. I respect that. Yet even with all their hard work they still need a bit of help to get on the property ladder. That’s where all our mutual interests align really. Zhang Xianshi suggested that if I could help him with his problems, then perhaps he could help me with mine.”
Ding Bantian snorted. “And what are your problems?” This time it was the young financial advisor who replied.
“As your father already said: unfortunately, you have not been a great investment and it is unlikely he will recuperate his losses. However, if your father chose to invest his money in a more viable alternative – for example my wife and I – he can confidently expect a significantly higher return than what we forecast he could receive from you. Shengyu is already pregnant with our first child, and we’re happy to try for a second, so we’re already ahead of the game. My client’s, sorry, your father’s long-term objective is continuation of the family line. To continue with his present portfolio – namely you – when it has failed to indicate any potential return is a significant risk. This has little prospect of changing unless somebody creates baby futures.”
Zhang Xianshi, still in a formal manner, laughed at his joke. Ding Bantian didn’t. The advisor licked his lips and continued.
“Hence, all we’re suggesting is that your father considers me legally as his son, provide some initial support with a housing deposit, and I can guarantee he will see a return on his investment: a beautiful grandchild, probably two. Not only that, but if you compare our respective buying power and potential earnings, myself and my wife represent a much firmer investment for future financial returns as well as biological ones. The SWOT analysis I’ve created proves with an 80% accuracy ratio that you would have great difficulty matching our offer. There’s no competition really.”
Now Ding Bantian was totally confused. She looked at her father, at Zhang Xianshi, then back to her father again. Both of them looked sincere, almost apologetic. Her mother over at the table couldn’t even bring herself to face her daughter. Chen Shengyu, as before, continued to eat.
“Is this a joke?” She looked her father firmly in the eye. He shook his head.
“It isn’t a joke. I’m sorry that it has come to this, but Zhang Xianshi can provide us with grandchildren and possibly even more money for our retirement. You can’t provide us with any of that.”
“What about my doctorate? What about my career? Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
Tears were beginning to form in Ding Bantian’s eyes. The room felt so cold.
“But what about ME? If you choose HIM as your child, what’s going to happen to ME?”
“As I said,” her father said, this time unable to make eye contact, “this hasn’t been an easy decision, but we are firm with our conclusion. You’re just not financially viable anymore. You’ve been a terrible investment and we’re divesting you from our portfolio. Your mother agrees with me. This isn’t easy on us either, you know? Actually, it’s probably best you leave now, before this gets anymore uncomfortable.”
Her father turned to Zhang Xianshi.
“Isn’t that right… son?”
“Yes, father,” he replied.
Not only did the room feel cold; it seemed to be shrinking also. The walls on all four sides were drawing in around Ding Bantian. For the first time she noticed that all of the graduation photographs that her parents had decorated their walls with were now missing; replaced by smiling images of Zhang Xianshi and his wife. Their smiling faces bore down on her. She felt intensely claustrophobic. The silence hung heavy in the room, broken only by the non-stop chewing noise of Chen Shengyu as she held a bowl of rice to her mouth and slurped the contents down her throat. Ding Bantian realized that the woman was holding her favourite yellow ricebowladorned with blue flowers that had been her favourite as a child.
“Can…” she hesitated. “Can I at least have dinner with you before I go?”
Her father glanced over at the table and shrugged.
“Probably not. It looks like Shengyu has finished everything. Perhaps your mother can check if there’s any leftovers in the fridge for you to take home.”
Two days had passed and Ding Bantian was still crying in her office when Tim the American teacher had found her. The pain and humiliation burnt through every vein in her body. She could still remember the laughing from her family and their new “children” as she had walked down the corridor away from her parents’ apartment. She would never see them again. Even if they were to drop this ridiculous investment plan and try to make amends with her, she would never forgive them. They had ignored all of her accomplishments – laughed at them even! – in exchange for a slimy financial advisor and his promises of grandchildren.
A renewed determination took over Ding Bantian as she replayed the humiliation over and over again in her head. With a growl she cast the photograph of her parents into the wastepaper bin. She would take this humiliation as a blessing. No longer was she to be held back by her uncaring parents who cared little for the life she had built. If anything she was free now: free to live her life to the fullest and in whichever manner she wanted. The narrow-minded prejudices of her family were no longer a consideration. She would continue with her career, build it into something greater than it was already. Her success would be her revenge. Not only that: she would follow her heart’s desire and reach out for all those things that her parents had always sought to deny her.
Within seconds she knew what she had to do. Reaching into her handbag, she applied lipstick to her lips and checked herself in the mirror that rested on her office table. Satisfied with the result, she marched confidently out of her office – every inch a strong, independent and empowered modern woman – and strode into Tim’s office on the other side of the corridor. He was busy working on some papers when she entered, but looked up as she walked straight towards his desk.
“Vivian! Is everything ok?”
Ding Bantian nodded. Normally she would be shy at what she was about to say. However, excitement at all the many things she could accomplish gave her a confidence that she never previously knew existed within her. Without hesitation she said the words.
“Tim, would you like to go out with me for dinner tonight? Just the two of us?”
Tim blinked in amazement. Then smiled.
“Are you asking me out on a date, Vivian?”
She smiled back.
“Yes. Yes I am. How about it?”
Tim’s smile grew wider. His eyes lit up. Then his smile broke into laughter.
“Oh Vivian! That’s very sweet of you, but you’re far too old for me. I only date girls who are in their twenties.”
If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members– a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.
In what is probably the most narcissistic post ever to appear on this blog (and there’s been more than a few of them, let’s face it, anybody who keeps a blog or writes a book is more than inclined to narcissism), today I am featuring an interview with yours truly that first appeared on the website Bookish.asia. Bookish.asia is a website that features book reviews and author interviews with a specific Asia focus. For the sake of full disclosure, it is also managed by the good people at Camphor Press who published my book, so they pretty much HAVE to interview me. Also, I have their kids chained up in a basement.
I can’t possibly imagine who would be interested in reading about me. I’m certainly not. I’m one of the most boring people I know – and that’s coming from a man who has been to Milton Keynes. The whole thing reminds me of Alan Partridge organising his own “An Afternoon with Alan Partridge” deep within the bowels of the Linton Travel Tavern to a group of bored pensioners.
Anyway, don’t say you haven’t been warned. Here you go…
Author Interview: Arthur Meursault
Arthur Meursault is the author of the dark comedy Party Members (due out in August). Set in the fictional Chinese city of Huaishi, it follows the exploits of Yang Wei, a mid-level government official led astray by greed and corruption.
Meursault left his native England as a teenager, throwing himself into the zeitgeist of China in the 2000s. He quickly became fluent in Mandarin, so much so that it earned him appearances on Chinese national television. With over seventeen years of China experience, he has a deep understanding of the country but a faded passion. Now he has decided to share his views in a novel that he isn’t expecting to be shortlisted for the Communist Party’s Book of the Month Club.
What first drew you to Chinese culture and made you want to study the language?
I’ve analysed myself and thought about this a lot over the years and I’ve reached the conclusion that it was just pure escapism. I was born in a rough and impoverished area of northern England that would be termed as “working-class” if anybody was still working. Either through a milk deficiency or some genetic throwback to a more effete ancestor, I was a little bit too soft, too small and too sensitive to really fit into that type of environment. When you’re a teenager growing up in that kind of area it’s natural to seek somewhere far away to escape to and “prove yourself”. In retrospect, it could have been anywhere – I might have developed a teenage obsession with Russia and be now speaking to you about my book set in Vladivostok – but China for one reason or another was the one I set my sights on. I quickly grew obsessed with the place and moved there as soon as I left school. If a lot of people are honest with themselves, a large percentage of young people in Asia are there for the same reason. If I’d been bigger and better-looking as a teen then some kind soul might have agreed to sleep with me and I probably would have stayed at home and got a job in a supermarket instead.
Did you enjoy your time in China?
This relates to the reasons for originally going to China. At first China is great for those lost souls who want to feel “different” and “special”: standing out from the crowd and the superficial false praise that the Chinese are so very good at doling out can fuel a wounded ego for ages. I had a great time for several years but was woefully naive: there are even videos of me on the internet of when I threw myself into Chinese Opera for a couple of years and won a national contest. I’d love to go back in time and punch my previous dancing monkey self right in his painted face. However, gradually as I matured and tried to do more than just get patronising pats on the head, I realised that the “specialness” and “difference” were not only false but a double-edged sword and that trying to be accepted for purely who you are is impossible as a foreigner in China. The disappointment and resentment kicks in soon after that. Learning the language well only exasperates the problem. It’s all downhill from there.
What was the inspiration for Party Members?
At one point I had an idea for a book called “China has Many Hells” that was going to be a Catch-22 type book featuring a gazillion characters, all miserable in their unique way. I wrote a few scenes and one of the ones I wrote was about an obnoxious Chinese dinner party where the guests are constantly trying to one-up one another with their latest iPhones. I’ve been in that situation in real life more times than I care to count and I didn’t even have an iPhone. Anyway, I enjoyed that scene so much that I wrote more and more into it, until I decided to just run with that story and dump the original idea for “China has Many Hells”.
The book is also heavily inspired by the obscure 1980s British comedy film starring Richard E. Grant called How to Get Ahead in Advertising. I might as well say that now before someone on Goodreads realises and awards me only one star.
To what extent are Yang Wei, Rainy, Pangpang and other characters based on real-life people?
They’re all based on real people, though only Pangpang is based on a single individual while Yang Wei and Rainy are composites. Yang Wei is basically a composite of every single nasty small-minded little person I ever met in China rolled into one. You can find him in every city in every province in China. Next time you read a news story about some corrupt official: that’s Yang Wei. Ditto for Rainy, but female.
Pangpang was a real life guy who worked at a factory in Shandong. He was a sales coordinator and terrible at his job. The guy was the fattest Chinese man I have ever met in my life: he could had been his own Special Administrative Region. At first I thought he was clumsy and likeable as he was always bullied remorselessly at the factory, but I later learnt he was also very corrupt and greedy, albeit not very competently. I actually got him fired when he stole a digital camera from my house and asked me for US$5,000 to give it back. The camera was probably only worth $200. After he was fired, he telephoned me once at 2am to invite me to a “party” at some bar on the outskirts of town. I politely declined. He then got a job in a pizza shop. I think he was much happier then.
How did you decide on names for your main characters?
Without revealing some of the twists in the book, it’s very important to know that Yang Wei’s name means “impotence”. When the book begins he is an impotent figure with no power over his own destiny: his rage stems from that fact.
Nobody gets any prizes for guessing why the fat character is called Pangpang.
Rainy is an interesting character (Christ, the narcissism of saying your own creations are “interesting”) and her name went through some changes. At first she was called Little Jade, which is a fairly common name throughout China. However, during the editing process I stumbled across a section on Reddit called the China Circle Jerk (or CCJ for short). I found it absolutely hilarious, especially their running jokes about stereotypical naive young Chinese girls who they would call “Rainy”. This was a much much better name than Little Jade, so Rainy got a makeover.
let’s be clear, it’s not just poor English that constitutes a rainy, it’s the meandering thoughts that go nowhere and a preoccupation with the lives of laowai and how they might be ensnared into marriage that’s a hallmark of rainy behavior.
Rainy has just enough self-awareness to know how odd her behavior is (“maybe there are some persons thought me is a crazy girl”) but she rationalizes it away. Fueled by all the bullshit expats have told her about life back home, she’ll do anything to get that ticket to waiguo, husband in tow and mix baby on the way.
The novel is set in a “third-tier city.” What does this mean?
A third-tier city has a KFC, but no McDonalds. It will also have a branch of Dicos. There won’t be a Starbucks, but there will be knock-offs like Moonbucks or elaborately designed independent coffee shops that serve Blue Mountain coffee for 88 RMB and are AWFUL. Everybody will say that the city is “very world-famous” for a certain dish that you’ve never heard of and on inspection resembles a smashed clam. There will be four foreigners living in the city. All four will be English teachers, and at least three of them will be alcoholics. Somewhere in the centre of town will be a “Tourist Heritage Site” of a Ming Dynasty temple that was built in 2007.
Is the city of Huaishi based on a real place?
Oh, hell yes. It’s an amalgamation of two cities in Shandong Province that I spent a lot of time in: Linyi and Dezhou. Eagle-eyed readers might recognise the braised chicken that Huaishi claims as its specialty dish to be one and the same as Dezhou’s “Paji” chicken dish. Linyi is the main influence though. Wikipedia tells me that every year Linyi produces three million tons of compound fertilisers, which should tell you how shit it is. When I was in Linyi it really was a shining example of the worst of Chinese society: there was a scandal involving women being forced into undergoing unwanted abortions that resulted in the human rights activist Chen Guangcheng getting jailed. I used to get plainclothes policemen following me in case I was an undercover journalist. I would ask them for cigarettes when I was short.
It’s rare to get such accomplished writing in a first novel. Had you done much writing before Party Members?
Good Lord, what delicious flattery. Thank you. I’ve had blogs in the mid-2000s, which were fairly popular (Yellow Wings and Sinocidal) and I wrote for a few expat rags, though I wouldn’t call paid advertorials for all-you-can-eat buffets at the Hangzhou Marriott proper journalism. I wanted to be a journalist for many years, but soon realised I wasn’t middle-class enough and couldn’t afford to intern for a decade. I seem to remember winning a national youth writing contest in the UK back when I was a teenager. It was a short story about a homosexual in World War One. No wonder I was bullied.
Party Members is a hard book to fit into a genre. How would you categorize it?
There was a wonderful article recently by a Chinese author called Ning Ken which called for a new literary genre in China called the “Ultra-Unreal”. I think that description fits the book perfectly: honest descriptions of a crazy society that would be considered unreal in other countries. You can read more on it here.
Personally, I like to think of my book as a kind of horror. When you think about everything that’s in the book – rape, murder, corruption – there’s no other way of classifying it other than horror. I do throw quite a few jokes in though, so I suppose “Dark Comedy” is more apt. Oh, there’s a talking penis too, so maybe it should be “Dark Comic Fantasy”.
The book cover is outstanding. Can you tell us something about it?
It’s great, isn’t it? Even if you don’t like my writing, you should still buy the book for the cover art. How’s that for a sales tactic? It’s by the dissident Chinese artist Badiucao, who is based in Australia and features his unique subversive style. I’m wondering who will get kidnapped first and dragged back to China to read a forced confession: him or me? I hope it’s not me; I’ve already booked a holiday to the Maldives for next year and getting kidnapped will be extremely inconvenient.
What messages do you hope readers will come away with?
Let’s be honest: not everybody is going to like this book, and I’m not just talking Chinese. When I was trying to get the book published it was shown to somebody quite senior in a large publishing house who dismissed it as a “rape fantasy” (even though there’s only one rape in the book at the very end, and she didn’t know that).
I hope that people will appreciate that the book is a criticism of certain elements of China and the Chinese and not meant as a diatribe against an entire people. I didn’t write Party Members in a Munich cell after a failed beer hall putsch (that’s my next book). I want people to be angry and horrified after reading the book. It’s pretty relentless, I admit that, but that’s why there’s also a lot of humour in the book too. There is absurdity in many many things about China and its system. Most of all I hope that readers will agree with me that unchecked greed can only end in one result: death and destruction.
Party Members is a damning indictment of the corruption and greed in China. Is that your personal take on China?
Absolutely. Anybody who says otherwise is either a liar or a journalist for The Economist. In fairness, some of the greed is due to historical circumstances and a pendulum swing-back from the austerity of the full-on Communist years, but there is a Chinese tendency towards greed and vulgar displays of wealth. I don’t begrudge people taking the capitalist road and earning as much money as possible, but more often than not in China that money is accumulated through corrupt means. Any honest person just gets stamped down.
Your book is extremely controversial. Are you afraid of any personal repercussions?
I wouldn’t mind a bit of excitement in my personal life: it can’t be any worse than going to the same office for 12 hours every day. Being kidnapped and placed under house arrest holds a certain appeal as it’ll give me time to write my next book. Salman Rushdie’s career only really took off after the fatwa and I’d love to be invited to all those posh literary parties with canapés and fizzy wine. However, friends, family and my publisher disagreed, which is why I keep a low profile and use a pseudonym. Still, getting my book to a stage where there are personal repercussions will at least mean it’s been a success, so I guess it’s a mixed bag. Hopefully Xi Jinping holds a rally to burn the book in cities across China. I don’t mind as long as they buy the book first. Oh shit, it’s China, they’ll be burning pirated PDFs of the book instead. Damn.
Why did you choose the name Arthur Meursault as your pseudonym?
Meursault was the name I used to use when blogging and commenting on blogs back in the mid-2000s. As mentioned earlier, I have a bit of a soft, sensitive side so I quite like French existential literature. Meursault comes from the Camus novel L’etranger (The Outsider) and it is one of my favourite books. I’ve occasionally seen it translated into Chinese as 外人. That’s only a single character away from 外国人 (foreigner) and an apt description on how I felt about my status in China. Hence, Meursault was born. Also, I once shot an Arab dead on an Algerian beach. That’s a literary joke by the way; please don’t report me to Interpol.
There are passages of Party Members which reminded me of Lu Xun. Are you a fan of his writing?
Very much so. I’m prone to cynical and nihilistic thoughts and I appreciate the darkness in Lu Xun’s work. His Diary of a Madman is one of the finest pieces ever written about China, and borrowed heavily from the 19th century Russian literature that I think represents some of the greatest literature ever created. I also have a soft spot for his last collection of short stories – Wild Grass – when he basically gave up on trying to raise political points and instead wrote these wonderfully misanthropic poems and stories full of total poetic despair.
What are some of your favorite fiction titles?
As much as I consider the French a country of degenerate cheese-eating poseurs, I love their literature. L’etranger by Camus, Mémoires d’un fou by Flaubert and Houellebecq’s Platform and The Possibility of an Island.
Any recommendations for China books?
Anybody who has an interest in China should at some point read Ralph Townsend’s Ways That Are Dark. It was written in the 1930s by an American diplomat in China and is the most shocking and damning account of China ever written. It’s over-the-top in many many ways and undeniably has some racist undertones; however, it is written in this beautiful flowing prose that modern writers just can’t emulate. His whole account of what he thinks of China is relentlessly dark: it reads almost like an example of Lovecraftian cosmic horror when he despairs over the futility of hope. It chokes you.
On a lighter note, I got much joy as a teenager reading the Kai Lung books written by Ernest Bramah at the end of the 19th century. They were collections of short stories set in Imperial China as related by a wandering storyteller. They’re largely forgotten now, which is a crying shame, as they were creative, funny, whimsical and had a unique way of portraying the classical Chinese language into English that I’ve never seen bettered.
Who are your favorite authors?
I’m the complete opposite of a modern-day US university course on English literature in that I generally like my authors dead, white and male. I devour classics. At one point in my life I refused to read anything by anybody who wasn’t dead by 1935. I’ve softened on that stance since then though. Party Members has some obvious inspiration from Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. H.P. Lovecraft never ceases to amaze me, though if I had to choose a favourite living writer it would either be Thomas Ligotti or Michel Houellebecq.
You have a blog (arthurmeursault.com) with some rather incendiary posts. Can you tell us something about it?
It’s a mix of some of my old and new writings on China, but primarily a vehicle to flog a few extra books. I don’t take it very seriously, except when I’m taking down CCP apologists like Mark Zuckerberg. Then I really put the boot in. The primary purpose is to entertain, so readers shouldn’t take anything on there too seriously. I’d rather write jokes than facts: I wish I could be a TV sitcom writer in Hollywood but I don’t know enough Yiddish slang. Occasionally I write book reviews of other China-focused book where I drop the sarcastic tone. I expect at some point I’ll run out of things to say about China and then I’ll either stop blogging or write about other things that interest me like 1940s Bugs Bunny cartoons or sniffing glue.
Your blog has a series of Yang Wei cartoons. How do these fit in with the novel?
They’re not connected in any way at all to the book except featuring the main character Yang Wei. Obviously, he’s more two-dimensional and cartoonish in the cartoons, plus he hasn’t undergone the transformation yet that happens to him in the book. And on that bombshell, it’s time for me to conclude this interview. Good night.
If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members– a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.