Xi Jinping sat in his Audi A6 while trapped in the mother of all traffic jams somewhere near Beijing’s 4th ring road. To pass the time he was strumming his finger over Tantan profiles as quickly as a Baltimore crack whore flicking herself off on a “Black Girlz Gone Wild” video.
Xi was pretty depressed. He had given instructions to his personal chef to prepare him a delicious steak and strawberry jam sandwich for the journey. Looking at the sorry item in his tupperware container he could see that the chef had completely screwed up and added ketchup rather than jam. The bread didn’t even have any sugar in it. It was disgusting.
To cheer himself up, Xi reminded himself that he was head of the Communist Party and that, technically, he owned every piece of property in the entire country. He decided to drive off the ring road and go and collect rent from one of the 1,400,000,000,000 properties in his portfolio. There was one school in particular that he had in mind.
Wiping the ketchup off his special “rent collecting” windbreaker jacket, Xi knocked on the door of the Happy Giraffe English School. The cunts in these private English schools were raking it in, but Xi hadn’t seen a single People’s Money from them in years. As leader of the world’s oldest and most harmonious civilisation, Xi loved collecting money and pushing people around, so even now his jaundiced one-eyed python was twitching like a Cambodian orphan on a landmine. Hopefully the school would have a sexy receptionist that looked like Angelababy. Sadly, when the door opened his mounting erection shrank from the size of an autonomous province to the size of a mere special administrative region.
Standing before him was an awkward looking man-child with thick glasses hiding a pair of shifty looking eyes that resembled day old tea eggs in two small dishes of spunk. He looked like an idiot.
“Hello,” said the man. “My name is James.”
“Where’s the money?” demanded Xi. “I want my fucking rent.”
“We have no money, Mr Jinping Sir,” stammered James. “We just spent our last remaining petty cash on installing a new school bell. Would you like to hear it?”
“Go on then,” said Xi.
James looked embarrassed. “I’m sorry, you can’t. It’s broken. Would you like to look at a photo of my blue Geely hatchback instead? I’d show you the real thing but the security guards towed it away for parking it by the trucks. They’re stupid.”
Xi pushed aside the idiotic Director of Administration and barged his way into the school. In a fit of rage, he tore the school bell from the wall and crushed it beneath his extremely well polished shoe. Next, he tore off his windbreaker jacket and clothes and allowed the stale air of the crumbling property to encircle his glistening skin like flies around shit. He looked across at the cowering man in the corner – his eyes showed more fear than an average foreigner confronted with the characters 南海路 – and he felt his cock grow to epic proportions.
“If I can’t have my money, I’ll have you instead!”
James needed no encouragement. He had earlier finished half a bottle of Tsingtao and was as pissed as Uncle Ganbei on New Year’s Eve. James quickly whipped off his trousers to reveal a groinal area that was covered in pubic hair so black and so dense that Xi Jinping thought he was looking at Harambe as a child.
“Chairman Xi,” said the newly eroticised James. “I must insist that if you are to take me that we do it in a harmonious and patriotic fashion. Perhaps we can roleplay? I can pretend to be Taiwan, and you can be the Motherland rightfully reclaiming me?”
“Let’s do it,” roared the author of the Art of Governance.
Before James knew what had hit him, Xi Jinping reached out to him like the Port of Dandong reaches out to the world. Xi bent James over and was banging his arsehole like Ringo Starr on the drums during the final section of Ticket to Ride.
“Do you accept the One China policy?” growled the former head of the Communist Youth League.
“Yes! There is only one China and I’m an inalienable part of it!” cried James.
“Do you acknowledge the sovereignty of the Communist Party?”
“Yes! Drive your PLA tank through my streets of Taipei, beloved Chairman!”
Mere seconds later, Xi Jinping pulled out of James’ arsehole which now resembled the flag of Japan. And not the current flag of Japan either – the old one with all the rays coming out of it. Aiming at James’ head, the Chairman spunked a nine-dash line all over his face. As he stood over James, his cock now an empty shell and his balls hanging like punctured leather footballs, he felt he had made significant steps in bridging political divides. And getting his dick covered in shit.
“Thanks for the reunification debate, but I still want my money next week.” Xi pulled on his windbreaker jacket. He bent over the spunk-covered wreck that was James and was all ready to whisper “Harmony” in his ear and pat him on the fanny, when he noticed a young foreign man in the corner of the room holding a Coolpad.
“Who is that?” asked Xi.
James looked up. “Oh, that’s /u/Chinahandy – he’s this guy that follows me around and writes made-up stories about me online.”
“Oh yeah,” replied Xi. “I’ve got one of those guys too.”
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.
(Disclaimer: As always, my usual caveat. Nothing should ever be taken seriously on this blog, but book reviews are the exception. Also, for disclosure reasons, I will say that I was sent free copies of these 3 books after reviewing Isham’s last book The Exact Unknown – which I purchased myself. Isham has also reviewed my own book Party Members.)
I was a big fan of Isham Cook’s The Exact Unknown – his collection of fictional short stories detailing life in modern China. In my review I called it “a voice outside the stereotypes” and one of the rare works on China written with “such truth, wit and honesty”. As mentioned previously, Isham is one of the rare authors out there today who doesn’t shy away from writing about sex and other controversial matters as they exist in today’s China. When I published my own book Party Members I quickly discovered that most “mainstream” publications won’t deign to review a book if there’s even a hint of a footstep outside of the orthodox view of what can and what cannot be published. Since Isham covers sexual matters and delves into them in great detail, he suffers the same fate. You won’t see too many reviews of Isham’s books out there. You also certainly won’t see any excerpts published in the turgid LA Review of Books any time soon. More fool them, as I genuinely believe Isham to be one of the best observers of China’s absurdities writing today.
It was my pleasure to recently read three more of Isham’s books: At The Teahouse Cafe, Massage and the Writer, and Lust & Philosophy.
First up: At The Teahouse Cafe. I adored this book and after reading it my brain went off on a number of wild trajectories inspired by some of the issues covered within. At The Teahouse Cafe is a collection of essays full of Isham’s observations on Chinese society. The range of interests covered is remarkably impressive and broad. Little escapes Isham’s gaze. Topics covered range from “The Chinese art of noise”, dealings with Chinese medical establishments and the challenges that good music faces in China. My absolute favourite essays were “Black Forest Cake Blues” a list of travails that Isham experienced when trying to purchase a Black Forest Gateau in Beijing, and a fascinating essay on the differences between Starbucks in Japan and China. The genius of these two essays is that the author is able to take the smallest thing and extrapolate its background to provide a succinct commentary on Chinese society in general. For example, after receiving a shoddy replica of what a Black Forest Gateau should be from the bakery chain Wedomé, Isham is able to draw comparisons between the elusive Black Forest Gateau and what passes for reality or forgery in the Chinese mind:
I began to suspect they never had any chocolate layers and every time someone ordered a Black Forest they went through the same apology. Perhaps all of the cakes they sold were identical on the inside and differed only on the outside. Not that it would make much difference if they had used chocolate. I have yet to find a chocolate cake produced in a Chinese bakery that tastes like chocolate. If you were blindfolded you would not be able to identify the flavor. It’s just cake, the idea of cake, a jokester’s cake for flinging in the customer’s face, a symbolic “cake.” If they had filled the inside with jello or rice instead of cake, or simply left it hollow, with icing covering the surface of a cardboard shell, it would have been more honest. It was a classic example of a floating signifier, detached from the thing it is meant to signify. A negative cake. It was a “Black Forest” cake not by virtue of what it was but what it was not: any one of the other cakes on display. It filled the “Black Forest” slot that is obligatory in any bakery, a Chinese one included, regardless of what the thing was.
I couldn’t help seeing a connection between my Black Forest cake and the Chinese service industry. As long as this jokester’s cake is what the Chinese regard as a Black Forest cake, Wedomé will do good business. But what happens when local customers start becoming educated about cake? When the legions of service workers suddenly see through the pasteboard prop and realize that there’s more to life than waking up, making fake cake all day, and going back to bed? When they realize that everything they’ve been brought up to believe, the whole structure of expectations that gets them through the day, is nothing but a jokester’s cake?
The sweet reward of a cake can serve as an apt metaphor for many promised but elusive things. The cake is a lie.
As mentioned in fellow author John Ross’ review of At The Teahouse Cafe, there are the occasional pieces within the book that were too dry for my taste (a bit like Wedomé’s Black Forest Gateau). An almost scholarly article on Beijing’s disappearing canal network didn’t fall within my personal scope of interest. That aside, At The Teahouse Cafe is my personal favourite of Isham’s published books.
Whether you’ll enjoy Isham’s second book Massage and the Writer depends on how open-minded you are. If you’re conservative – either of the traditional “thou shall not fuck prostitutes” type, or the more malignant PC liberal type that views any sexual encounters between white men and foreigners as some kind of residual colonialist blight – then you’ll hate this book. Luckily for Isham, I have no problem with frank observations about sex. The sexual market, after all, overrides all other markets and is the silent background charger to so many other social interactions. Handled well, commentary about sex can be some of the most all-encompassing social commentary possible.
Massage and the Writer is another collection of non-fictional essays but this time focused on the author’s experiences with massage in a variety of countries and situations. The essays take us on a journey through China, America, Japan, Southeast Asia and beyond. Isham is very “open borders” on where he’ll stick his dick, and it’s not confined to women either – there’s a memorable paragraph about sucking off a young man in a Turkish sauna and a whole chapter on men massaging men.
Like the metaphor of the fake Black Forest cake as a window onto Chinese society, here Isham takes one theme – massage – and uses it as a lens to view a number of different cultures. The author believes that massage is one of the truest windows onto a nation’s soul. We learn about the constant threat of litigation and false rape threats when attending a massage school in the US, the open-planned massage rooms of Myanmar where nobody is ever alone; and how Islam in Malaysia results in massage services being “outsourced” to non-Malays.
Personally, I found the whole book fascinating, enlightening and insightful. With this particular topic though, it really depends on the reader’s own leanings whether they will enjoy it or not. One man’s five star review will be an expat magazine’s one star review – and for the exact same reasons. Isham may have called his other book The Exact Unknown, but the reason why you won’t see Massage and the Writer reviewed in, say, TimeOut Beijing is a very “exact known”: fear.
Finally, we come to Lust & Philosophy – Isham’s first novel and radically different from his other books.
This is a bizarre novel, and once again your mileage will vary depending on your own personality. The plot is a meandering stream of consciousness that begins with Isham’s attempts to track down an attractive but elusive woman he spots intermittently around the Haidian district of Beijing, but spirals into a history of Isham’s childhood and relationships whilst simultaneously detouring into lengthy observations on philosophy and literature.
It’s not an easy book to read. It’s a stream of consciousness rather than a real plot. How well-read you are will also determine your enjoyment of the novel. There are more than a few parallels between Lust & Philosophy and Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. Isham even gives us a little literary clue –hiscompany name that he uses to self-publish his works is called “Magic Theatre Books”: a sly wink to Hesse.According to the biography presented within Lust & Philosophy (I have no idea whether the childhood tales Isham narrates about himself are real or not), Isham goes through a period of wandering and homelessness just like the protagonist in Steppenwolf, and like Steppenwolf this novel transforms into an almost-mystical overview of one man’s life that travels back and forth between time and space. Once you understand what Isham is trying to achieve here the plot makes a lot more sense, but the average reader will most likely be at a lost as to what the hell Isham is writing about. His audience, accordingly, will be extremely niche.
Thus, Lust & Philosophy presents a natural final step in the order I have reviewed these three books: Isham will have a moderately wide audience with his essays in At The Teahouse Cafe, lose some readers due to the explicit content of Massage and the Writer, then most likely lose more with the challenging Lust & Philosophy. However, if you persevere with Isham, the rewards are there. The prose of Lust & Philosophy is some of his most beautiful work and there are a number of deep thoughts and threads to be found within. If the reader is willing to invest some time into reading the book carefully, and doing some individual research on the philosophical detours that Isham takes, then they will take away something of value from Lust & Philosophy.
Isham is a university professor by trade, and these three books reveal the very best of what a good university professor should be. Before the mind-narrowing curse of political correctness took complete control of Western campuses, it was the responsibility of a good professor to broaden his students’ minds with challenging, if sometimes uncomfortable, reading material. These three books, and his other book The Exact Unknown, are great examples of such material. Certain writers on expat and literary magazines and blogs would do well to step out of their self-imposed “safe space” and see what Isham has to say.
Maybe I should have let it go. Turned my big laowai nose elsewhere. I had just gotten out of a 24-hour spa and massage centre, and I was with some friends on the Upper East Side of Shijiazhuang’s hip and happening Museum of Hebei district. Yes, I was surprised to learn that there is a Museum of Hebei too. Whatever. That isn’t the point. We were going to lunch, trying to see if there was room in the Chongqing-style hot pot restaurant down the street. You were in a rush. It was raining. Or perhaps it was sunny. It’s hard to tell because either type of weather means you’d have your umbrella and your privilege up. This gaggle of laowai was in your way.
But I was, honestly, stunned when you saw us make towards the hot pot restaurant and tapped me on the shoulder to ask, “老外，你能吃辣吗？”
I am not a bigot, so I will not assume that some people cannot read the Chinese characters I just typed. Perhaps they can. Perhaps they cannot. Let’s just not base our assumptions on the colour of their skin or their accent. However, for the benefit of those who cannot read Chinese characters, I will help here by saying that the woman asked “Foreigner, can you eat spicy food?” Not knowing that doesn’t make you a worse person. Knowing that doesn’t make you a better person. Can’t we all just get along? Jesus…
I hesitated for a second and then turned to confront you. That must have startled you. You probably weren’t even expecting that I could understand you. I have become accustomed to that.
But you didn’t stop there.
You then pointed to me and asked “Can you use chopsticks?”
It was comical, in retrospect. In a civilised country you would have been rightly arrested and had your life and career destroyed for such disrespectful bigotry. However, here nobody challenges or stops to check their privilege. Instead you just continued your hate crimes, pointing at the hot pot pictures and doubting whether I could eat the chilli peppers or not.
“I can eat lots of spicy food!” I yelled back. “Even the McSpicy burger at McDonalds!”
It felt silly. But how else to prove I belonged?
This was not my first encounter, of course, with racist food insults in China. Ask any Caucasian-Chinese, and they’ll readily summon memories of waiters bringing them knives and forks, or disturbing encounters at the grocery store when the shop assistant suggests we try the cheese. When I posted on Twitter about what happened, an avalanche of people replied back to me with their own experiences. But I couldn’t see their responses because this is China and I don’t have a VPN.
Walking home later, a pang of sadness welled up inside me. And it wasn’t the inevitable diarrhoea following three hours of all-you-can-eat spicy hot pot.
You had on a nice winter coat – even though it was 28 degrees and you were sweating profusely. But I accept your tradition of believing that winter clothes must be worn after a certain date regardless of the actual temperature. I don’t make an issue out of it. I accept. Your iPhone was a 6 Plus. iPhones are designed in the West so technically you had appropriated my culture by using one, but again – I accepted. I tolerated. You could have been a fellow customer in other restaurants that I regularly dine at. Like KFC. Or Pizza Hut. You seemed, well, normal. You probably even write in extremely short sentences. Just like I do. It just feels better that way. But you also had these other feelings in you, and, the reality is, so do a lot of people in this country right now.
Maybe you don’t know this, but the insults you hurled at my ability to eat spicy food got to the heart of the Caucasian-Chinese experience. It’s this persistent sense of otherness that a lot of us struggle with every day. That no matter what we eat, how much mapo tofu we can handle, how much diarrhoea we get, our stomachs don’t belong. We’re foreign. We’re not Chinese. It’s one of the reasons that everybody thinks I only eat hamburgers and hot dogs for breakfast. That and the fact that I’m morbidly obese and have type-two diabetes. “Why are you so fat?” Chinese people always ask me. Now we can add fat-shaming to your list of sins.
I fled the United Kingdom for China because I was tired of bland food. I struggled to overcome a diet of fish and chips so that I could eat the types of spicy food that I truly identified with. I’m trans-spiced. I came to this land for the hot pot. For the Kung Pao Chicken. For the McSpicy. I even came here for the diarrhoea. Model minority, indeed.
Yet somehow I still often feel like an outsider.
And I wonder if that feeling will ever go away. Not the feeling of diarrhoea (that never goes away), but the feeling of otherness. My stomach is not your exotic curio. Don’t “other” my tastebuds. Work with me for the day when we can all have a hot pot… together.
But, afterward, my 7-year-old daughter, who witnessed the whole thing, kept asking my wife, “Why did she ask, ‘Can you eat spicy food?’ We’re not even eating spicy food anyway.”
No, we’re not, my wife said, and she tried to explain that the reason we decided not to go to the hot pot restaurant after all and instead go to McDonalds was because she found a voucher in her purse for 50% off all Big Macs that expires next week.
Your father spends most of his money on alcohol, she told my daughter. We choose where we eat based on price, not spiciness. But sometimes people don’t understand that.
I hope you do now.
(If you’re lucky enough to not know what the hell I am talking about you can head to the New York Times and read this drivel)
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.
I was jerking around on Reddit recently and threw around a few ideas for Chinese CCTV shows. It really isn’t that hard: my dog could come up with better ideas than CCTV and his idea of entertainment is sniffing his own arsehole.
If you have any ideas for CCTV shows, do submit them in the comments section. Who knows – maybe a top brass from the open-minded world of Zhongnanhai is reading this right now and might “borrow” your intellectual property rights for CCTV4! Let’s get started:
The World of Suzy Wrong
Light-hearted news review programme in which a 21 year old student with broken English called Suzie is asked about her opinions on world politics and current affairs. Following the show’s success, a Christmas Special is being filmed where Suzie addresses the World Health Organisation on what she believes is the best way to prevent colds.*
*It’s warm water
All the Tee in China
Challenging reality-based game show where teams of foreigners have to gain and use guanxi in order to see who can be the first to play a round of golf on every course in China. Hosted by Andy fucking Lau.
24 – Chinese Version
Tough CIA agent Jack “Tim” Bauer has 24 hours to post a letter, transfer money to an overseas bank account, and apply for a new residency permit in downtown Lanzhou. Will he make it in time?
The Port of Dandong Mysteries
Detective series set in the PORT OF DANDONG. A mysterious visitor arrives in NORTH EAST ASIA’S NUMBER ONE SHIPPING HUB. Can the police stop him in his scheme to prevent The Port of Dandong from REACHING OUT TO THE WORLD FROM NORTHEAST ASIA?
A documentary on the true face of modern Chinese society to the tune of Michael Caine’s The Italian Job.
Another episode of the crime-fighting superhero who can transform into a chair at the hour of need. Starring Andy fucking Lau as Gobshite No. 7.
Popular current affairs chat-show where world leaders thrash out hard-hitting issues. Whilst playing ping-pong.
Deng Xiaoping’s Dung Shopping
Re-run of the popular 1970’s consumer action show where late Premier Deng Xiaoping led an agrarian collective in the procurement of advanced Western fertilizer products.
The Great Ball of China
Nationwide survey of Chinese citizens in an attempt to settle once and for all the question that has plagued scientists for centuries: Who is the most popular Ball in China? 50s screen siren Lucille Ball, English crooner Michael Ball, or DJ Fatboy Slim’s alcoholic wife Zoe Ball?
Sit down, shut up, and do as you’re told
Family fun and games aimed at the under-fives.
Global Times Island
A ground-breaking reality TV social experiment where twenty contestants are left stranded on a remote island without access to any form of media except The Global Times.
Some of the show highlights include:
Week 1: Tibetan minority castaway Lobsang collapses from exhaustion after only five days on the island after being forced to perform traditional song and dance, and express his gratitude and eternal happiness non-stop everyday.
Week 2: The castaways language has almost entirely devolved into a baffling combination of rhetorical questions, angry xenophobic opinions, snorts and clumsy sounding slogans. The island is now renamed “Social Harmony Three Represents Island”.
Week 3: The Japanese pilot of a light aircraft crash-lands on the beach and is offered food and shelter in exchange for allowing every male member of the island to anally rape him and smear dogshit in his face uninterrupted for the next twenty years. The island is renamed, simply, “Diaoyu”.
Week 4: Upon discovering that one of the islanders has been having an affair with a sheep, the other islanders set up an internet site devoted to destroying his life and force him to change his phone number seventeen times in just one day.
Week 5: When 15 year old Xu Guangming is overheard expressing his belief that life on other islands is possibly better than life on their own island, he is forced by the village elders to write the words “Our island is a developing island” on the sand using only the blood from the wound on his penis inflicted whilst working a seventeen hour shift down an illegal mine shaft.
Week 6: News of a foreign African visitor to the island causes the island newsletter to publish an entire issue devoted to the meeting, and pictures of grass-skirted savages boiling Victorian missionaries alive in large cooking pots are posted around the island to make the guests feel welcome. The island is temporarily renamed “Happy Happy Jolly Darkie Island”.
Week 7: 65 year old islander Qian Dongshui has stomach ache, so as a safety precaution every living animal on the island is kicked to death.
Week 8: Since his arrival on the island, Wang Fan has done nothing but read the cartoon published on the editorial page of The Global Times. he begins to alienate the other islanders when he begins to walk around in a white t-shirt with the words “American hegemony” printed in large black letters whilst juggling three balls which respectively have the words “Racial tension”, “War in Iraq” and “Gun control” written on them.
Week 9: The island successfully bids to hold the 2016 International Coconut Shy Contest on its shores, and the elders begin removing every tree, flower, and natural feature from the island in order to make room for a planned “Coconut Village” where athletes can rest comfortably in fibreglass, rotating, neon-lit coconuts.
Week 10: The series comes to a dramatic end as the island is sold to the owner of a medium-scale fake Lego factory, and the castaways are all forced overnight to build rafts and flee back to the mainland.
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.
It’s been almost two months since my book Party Members has been out on the market. You won’t have seen it reviewed in any mainstream blog, expat rag or literature publication though as everybody I’ve spoken to is shit-scared about reviewing a book that savages the CCP (and is a little bit naughty). I’ll post more on this another time, but today I wanted to share some reviews written by you – good old Joe Public. Generally, reviews have been quite favourable.
The legendary author Isham Cookwrote a long and detailed review of Party Members. Isham writes beautiful book reviews worthy of his profession as a fully-credentialed English Professor. Rather than detract from his blog by pasting the review here, I’d urge you to go and take a look at his website. Have a read at some of his other work while you’re there too.
Reddit user and mod extraordinaire /u/tan_guan also wrote a great and well-written review on the /r/China reddit. I’d copy and post it on here but unfortunately reddit is blocked on my work computer in case I use it to access pictures of scantily clad young women with manjaws and hairy bush. Hence, you’ll have to click here to read it.
There’s a cutely named little blog called Balancing Frogs that hails straight outta the renegade province of Taiwan that also wrote a balanced but non-froggy review. Again, I’d like to direct any web traffic back to the blog where it came from so should you be interested you can read the Frog Balancer’s review on his site.
Troy Parfitt, author of Why China Will Never Rule The World:
It’s difficult to review this novel without giving too much away, so I’ll keep it relatively short. Party Members by Arthur Meursault is a dark comic novel about China’s (ahem, what’s a phrase that’s diplomatic?) sociopolitical issues. It tracks the life of Yang Wei, a low level cadre who wants to, for reasons I won’t go into, lest it spoil the fun, climb the rickety social ladder. To get rich is glorious and all that Deng Xiaoping jazz. And so Yang Wei sets about screwing people over, in every conceivable sense. But this is not your typical anti-hero novel. It’s not one of those novelized morality tests where the protagonist is pure sleaze, but pure sleaze with a grand plan and the writer wants you to examine your soul and ask, ‘Do I cheer him on or hope he fails?’ No, no, it’s a cultural expose. A dark and twisted cultural expose – extremely dark and seriously twisted – but it reveals more truth about China than you’ll find in a dozen volumes of non-fiction. All the glorious themes are present and it’s lavishly clear that the author has spent (done?) time in the Middle Kingdom. Meursault captures China’s exoticism precisely and by exoticism I mean rot. Oh, and the names. Yang Wei lives in a city called Huaishi (which probably means “Bad Affairs”), an expensive section of town is Taigui (“Too Expensive”), etc. The novel is hilarious, the writing solid, but the story is also tragic, a parody of China’s oppressive kleptocracy, where state officials are often little better than gangsters and where laobaixing, or common people, are powerless to redress their excesses. Party Members had me gripped from beginning to end. The detail is exceptional and little things that don’t seem significant come back into play. Plotlines thicken and overlap and by the final paragraph even the meaning of the title has expanded. In sum, this is a novel I wish I’d written. It deserves a large readership. Five stars.
I enjoyed this satirical novel, written under the Camusesque pen-name ‘Meursault’, which mercilessly rips into Chinese society with the cynicism and jadedness that betrays a long-time resident. It epitomises a negative attitude a lot of us have struggled with, and at times I wonder if the author really shares it or is just sending it up. Either way, the book works as a biting and funny satire, and there is real knowledge of the country between the lines. The writing is compelling, and it’s a page-turner even if sometimes you don’t want to turn the page. I’ll echo all the trigger warnings below, there’s lots of explicit content and it’s not for the faint of heart. But that’s what makes it so fun.
Quincy Carroll, author of the overly long-titled Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside:
I went into this novel not really knowing what to expect. Starting with the positives, Party Members is well written, and the author (Arthur), clearly had a unique vision, which he was able to execute successfully for his purposes. As far as I know, there’s no other book currently on the market quite like it.
As someone who has lived abroad in China, I was intrigued by the angle Meursault chose to take in writing this story about a power-hungry mid-level bureaucrat in the country’s interior (a satirical lambasting of the CCP/Chinese materialism/me culture), but I will admit that I entered with reservations about the fact that it was written by a Westerner. There are those who will say that I’m being unduly sensitive with that last comment, but the problem is one of representation—that and the fact that any perceived hypocrisy on the part of the author (whether warranted or not) will only serve to detract from the central message of the story.
That’s not to say that Meursault is off-base with his criticism; on the contrary, the topics he addresses (corruption, misogyny, etc.) are all scourges on contemporary China, but they’re scourges elsewhere, too. This could easily have been a novel about the Trump/Clinton/Boris machine or bankers on Wall Street (to be sure, Yang Wei, the main character, puts the term “big swinging dick” in an entirely different light), and I felt myself being pulled out of the narrative constantly because of these doubts. While it is easy for outsiders to focus on the absurdities of the Chinese government, I think that I would have found it more interesting and effective if Meursault had provided a more nuanced portrayal of Chinese society, since in my opinion, that’s closer to the truth. That was clearly never the writer’s intention, however. If you’re searching for something provocative, or you’re simply an old China hand who needs an opportunity to vent, then look no further: this is the book for you.
(Quincy’s review is the only critical one I’ve received so far. I respect Quincy and enjoyed his book – I’m not typing that bloody name again – but I 100% disagree with the points he raises here. Westerners absolutely can have valid and valuable opinions about China that simply cannot be expressed by Chinese due to their political constraints or cultural upbringing. I find Quincy’s argument that Westerners shouldn’t be critical of China or the CCP because of the “Trump/Clinton” machine or Wall Street to be the same empty whataboutist argument used by Chinese when they say “You cannot understand China – you’re a foreigner!” or “If you don’t like it – go home!”.)
J.Summers had this to say:
Kafka crossed with Tom Sharpe
This is an astounding book. It’s about the most no-holds barred take-down of the CCP and Chinese materialism you will ever read. It’s dark, with more dark humour laced on top – a cross between Kafka and Tom Sharpe. It’s packed full of laughs, plus incredible insight and humanity. Some of it’s very sad and filled with pathos. I read it cover to cover in a day. Trigger warning: it’s quite rude! Second Trigger warning: those enamoured by the mystique of China and the ancient, respectable, inscrutable oriental may get their PC dreams shattered.
I honestly feel this is an important work. It’s easy to overlook it because of its dark humour and filthy jokes but it is a deep and brutal shivving of all that is wrong with modern China delivered with stunning effectiveness by a shockingly talented writer. Those who don’t know China may blanche. Those who do, and who have gotten out with their sanity, will read it and shudder.RECOMMENDED.
The Real Story
Party Members focuses on the day-to-day goings on in China. It is full of explanatory stories and examples of many cultural traditions that exist there and how the CCP has manipulated these cultural traditions to suit its’ party doctrine. Chinaphiles and those wanting a “clean view” of Chinese culture will not be pleased – but those seeking the truth about what Chinese ( and much of Taiwanese) culture is truly about will find many previously closed doors opened. The books complexity may confuse some at first, but the interwoven plot will carry the message well. Examples right from present day news are mixed in with “traditional” culture examples to provide a rich context.
It is not a book for prudes> This must be made clear. It is quite graphic in topics that may “Offend” the sensitive SJWs. But these examples are deeply relevant to the book and are really at the base of much of Chinese culture.
Reading it is/was an exciting journey that explained a lot about the current situation in China, and by extension, Taiwan.
Highly recommended for the open-minded and those wanting a view of what China is and where the present day facade came from.I received an early copy for reading and review – Thank You Camphor Press.
Humorous and entertaining read
Disclaimer: I was given an advanced copy of this e-book in exchange for an honest review. The author of this book is a talented writer. I enjoyed his humorous take on modern day China, and he clearly knows China very well. Overall, I found the book quite entertaining, but many readers may be put off by the graphic sexual content throughout the last two-thirds of the book. I think I would have enjoyed the book more with extra China-related humor and fewer penis references, but the penis-references make up a key part of the story. Overall, I’d give the book 3.5 stars, but I don’t think that’s an option on Amazon.
Gerard Manogue (I really enjoyed this review):
This book had three main strong points: Firstly, I thought that Arthur Meursault, whom I assume is a foreigner, was very ambitious to write an all-Chinese cast. Some will obviously question the authenticity of that but I respect the author’s boldness, and he pulls this off well for satiric purposes. Also, the book was very well written stylistically, unlike many other books about China (looking at you Tom Olden) that are written by foreigners. Lastly, I will not comment on whether or not the China depicted in this book is representative of the “real” China (whatever that means) but I did think that Meursault’s vision, in all of it’s darkness, squalor, and sordidness, was quite unique. Some scenes brought about a very uncomfortable, visceral reaction, and even the most optimistic foreigners wouldn’t be able to deny some of the scary truths within these pages.
However, I did think that Meursault’s attempts to humanize some of the characters made the societal criticisms less effective, mainly because the book is more of an allegory (as satire usually is) and less of a character-study. For example, the first few chapters give an exposition of the protagonist Yang Wei, a sort of Chinese Everyman, and this exposition isn’t much more than a cataloging of everything that is wrong with modern China: the education system, government policies, societal expectations, filial piety, bad manners, terrible hygiene, etc., and how Yang Wei is the average product of all these flaws. Yang Wei acquires an insignificant government post, marries a woman with no personality, and spawns a typical “little Emperor” technology-addicted son, he is essentially pre-engineered into a world where one has to aspire to be mediocre. I didn’t think that this was bad, I actually thought it was well done and quite funny, and brutally honest in the best way. The jaded foreigner within me was rooting for Meursault to continue on. The story for the most part afterwards is cast underneath this satiric light. Later on though, we see the characterization and short-lived entrance of little Shanshan, and this snippet is probably the most hopeful, human portrait in the book. Moments of two-sidedness like this one are rare, and thus I found these moments to be a little out of place with the rest of the book, as Meursault is mostly railing on China for a comedic, seemingly black-and-white effect. While both Yang Wei and Shanshan are both portrayed as victims of a system much bigger than the both of them, Shanshan is meant to be sympathized with, whereas Yang Wei, and most of the other characters, are mostly meant to disgust, repulse, and as a result humor the reader. There is a noticeable lack of balance. Considering my overall impression of the book, something wants me to think that if Shanshan’s character was allowed to survive and develop further, she would have become like one of the many prostitutes that Yang Wei indulges in throughout the narrative, or more ambitiously, another government official’s wife with no personality. How is Shanshan any different from the child s***ing into the bucket of KFC? I understand that the book is meant to be about the darker effects of power and money, and how these things take people down terrible paths, but when the book is always so focused on the negatives, these little attempts at humanization don’t seem genuine.
I do also lurk on r/China from time to time and I am familiar with the whole “Rainy” archetype, which I find hilarious, and while I was really excited to see Meursault’s take on this phenomenon, I didn’t think the potential humor of this idea was fully capitalized on. Mainly this is because I think the whole idea of a Rainy must exist within a “foreigner male – Chinese female” dynamic, to put it roughly. Basically, I think that if Meursault wanted to have a Rainy in the book, he should have written a foreign character. The materialistic, iPhone-toting side of the Rainy was captured well enough, but the bad English, poor social skills, stalking, culture clashes with whatever English teacher unlucky enough to get involved with Rainy, etc., these vital elements of “Rainyness” were just not present. Another thing that I thought was a little inconsistent, if all of the characters are Chinese, and it is evident from the text that the characters are speaking Chinese together, then why on earth would Yang Wei or any other character in the book refer to her as Rainy? Maybe a little pedantic of a complaint, but nonetheless I did question the logic of this. Maybe I am trying to say that only a foreigner can see the “Rainy” in a Chinese girl. The character Bella in Quincy Carroll’s ‘Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside’ in my opinion was a more accurate caricature.
Though I did find this novel to be a tad mean-spirited in some parts, it is still a very fun and insightful read, while not being too heavy. It does play up to “ultra-unreal” tendencies seen these days in modern Chinese literature. Unfortunately the sexually explicit content, shock, violence, and descriptions of Yang Wei’s penis (that are borderline homoerotic at times) will probably prevent the book from being taken seriously in more “highbrow” circles. Overall though I did enjoy this book, and I do recommend it, especially if one currently lives or has spent time in China. Meursault does indeed have a valid and valuable perspective.
An astonishing book. I could not put it down. The writing is beautiful even though it is talking about the most horrific things and the plot is gripping.
This book is dark as hell. It describes the life of a minor Chinese Communist Party official and his ascent up the social ladder. On the way the author shows all aspects of modern Chinese life, as well as a few gross inventions of his own.
There are some stand out scenes in the book that are as hilarious as they are disgusting. The small boy relieving himself in the KFC. The main character pleasuring himself in an Audi A6. The invention of a drink called F-Max that is made of human urine. You won’t forget these scenes in a hurry.
There’s a lot going on behind the disgusting scenes. The book really gets under the skin of life in China and goes even deeper than that. A few plot threads get very nihilistic and readers of Nietzsche and Kafka will recognise many references to their thinking.
I only heard of this book because a friend showed me a copy. It deserves to be more widely known but probably won’t because of its rudeness.
I bought this book because it was recommended to me on reddit.com/r/china which is an internet forum well known for China bashing. I am very critical of the Chinese regime and have experienced much frustration living in China.
While I am not anti Chinese per say I think satire is sometimes the best medicine and this book really lays bare the s*** show that is life in modern China under the CCP. It is laugh out loud funny in places. It’s definitely a must read for foreigners who have spend some time and frustrations living and working in China however if you are in any way sensitive please be aware that this book is not a politically correct book. It will offend and in some ways goes a bit too far but you can’t help but know that the author is really on the money and his portrayal of modern China is very accurate.
One reason it loses a star is I feel it is too long.
The sections where Yang Wei is talking to his penis are a bit tedious and childish however the talking penis is an important metaphor. It just feels like the delivery mechanism for the metaphor could have been delivered differently.
Having lived in China and Taiwan for more than 16 years I thoroughly enjoyed this book
Disclaimer: I was also given an advanced copy of this e-book in exchange for an honest review. Having lived in China and Taiwan for more than 16 years I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The author displays a very keen understanding of Chinese officialdom! From getting married in China and trying to organize my parents in law pension I think I’ve met all the characters in the book. For those not so familiar with China I’m not sure how many of the “in” jokes will be noticed but anyone having spent time there will definitely appreciate it, I read it in a couple of days and long nights when I should have been sleeping. Highly recommend.
Director Liang (a good contrast to Quincy Carroll’s review):
Foreigners who have lived in China for several years, upon returning home discover that curiously, nobody really believes even the tamest tales of what happened while they were there, as if they are telling war stories at the breakfast table. The squeaky clean Chinese media, the language barrier and preconceived expectations create a “you wouldn’t believe it if I told you” resignation that only those who have been there could really understand. This book brings you all those stories, wrapped in a fanciful, somewhat sexualized and fanciful narrative, perhaps with the hope that after you suspend disbelief of the absurd, you might believe the merely strangely Chinese parts more easily.
It may seem Meursault is criticising Chinese people. But he actually shows us a world of government officials gone wild. He shows us the crushing matrix of servitude and indebtedness that curses all Chinese from birth. The actors of his world are powerful but inhabit a world of powerless, cowering extras who are used, abused, killed or robbed without concern or care – in other worlds the Everyday Chinese whose best hope in life is to have a boring existence. This is a country where dating sites will list sleeping as a hobby.
Yang Wei is one of the powerless (his name is literally “impotent” and “mediocrity was his to enjoy”) who discovers the secret of rising above the meaningless masses. His rise is interwoven with real incidents of abuse, both everyday and straight from Chinese newspapers. It’s as if he is “EveryOfficial”, an amalgam of all the mid tier officials in forgettable smog ridden cities of only 15 million people or so, nursing off the third rate teats of China’s less lucrative scams. And his journey is the 1990s and 2000s journey of China itself, a kind of Midnights Children with less chutney and more KFC.
And, as such, as a part of the lost majority of China, he’s least in touch with the actual meaning of the world he lives in. Is KFC foreign? Why is driving an Audi so important? Does he really need a Mistress on the side, given he has KTV girls and hookers? Why was he so powerless? How far should he go now he knows how to abuse the society he lives in? Does anybody care to stop him? What exact motive will actually drive someone to stand up to him? If you know none of the answers to these questions, are you truly powerful? Or just lucky enough to act in such a way that you ride the crest of a wave?
There are fun Chinese names to enjoy if you are an insider, but as very very few foreigners can read Chinese, Meursalt has not belabored these, they are just Easter eggs for fun. The book walks the line between entertaining you, but also reminding the reader of many issues and questions that beg for redress but you may have accepted (if you lived in China) or assumed incorrectly about (if not). One learns as much from what the characters in the book don’t care about and ignore or concrete over (history, culture, truth, justice) as what they do.
Some have said – how can a Westerner write about China? The author has lived in China for many years, speaks and reads near perfectly in Chinese, has studied classics and appeared in Chinese media. He has spent more adult years in China than many Chinese writers or artists. Is this all there is to China? Of course not. Do bad things happen in other countries? Yes read all about it on any newsstand. Is this a story a Chinese book seller would publish? As of the 2016, the year of publication of this book, they are a bit busy confessing their crimes on television.
As such, expatriate literature on China is an important viewpoint.
Even if it still probably won’t be believed.
If you ever wondered how Kafka’s “The Castle” would read if narrated from the point of view of it’s bureaucrats, or how much ass-kissing O’Brien had to do to obtain his position in Room 101, and would love to read a book about that, written in a Pynchon-esque, absurdist style, then this is the one for you.
Alternatively, if you have a familiarity with the murkier, dingier depths of China, outside of the shiny facades of Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen, then this will definitely evoke a rueful laugh or two.
Although perhaps a bit too unrelenting in it’s criticism of the wonderfully harmonious communist party,this book is clearly inspired by experience of the China that not many outsiders are acquainted with. It’s obviously written with a real passion for the Chinese people, but utter contempt for their government (something that many are unfortunately unable to separate in their mind)
DO NOT READ IF EASILY OFFENDED
However I would say this is probably the best thing to have come out of Xi Jinping’s China so far, except for, of course, his own cascading, erudite and unparalleled magnum opus: The Governance of China. The two books are perfect companions for each other.
laugh out loud moments. A must read for anyone who has spent time frustrated in China. An unfortunately accurate portrayal of modern day China.
Loses one star for being a bit too long. The Penis metaphor was initially funny but too many pages are dedicated to it.
A grim, pessimistic (and often gross) view of how to get ahead in China and the party. I’m not sure if enjoyable would be the right word for this book, but it was a ‘good’ read. I laughed, I winced and got angry as this ‘fictional’ story feels to be very close to the truth. Along with the main narrative about “how to be a dick!”, you learn about the different aspects of living in China, from the pressure exerted on sons to produce heirs, mistress culture, showing off/losing face and the ever elaborate Lunar New Year ritual, which are all instantly recognisable to those of us who live in Asia and resulted in many laugh out loud moments for myself. Be warned this novel is at times very graphic (remember it is a novel about a guy who listens to his penis on how to step on others to get ahead)!
And some anonymous reviews:
Anyone who has lived or spent serious time in China will appreciate so many aspects of the novel. It’s impossible to put down and really gives the reader pause to think throughout. It’s entertaining and serious, and daily life in China has been captured perfectly within the greater story line. A book you will remember reading and be thankful that you did.
Party Members will genuinely frighten anyone who has ever considered China as a viable travel destination
Deeply disturbing, slightly unnerving and pretty much the stuff of nightmares having said that this is a book that both exploits and entertains in equal measures. I had an advance copy of this book back in 2012-13 (that period of my life remains a bai jiu infused blur) and I distinctly remember reading the novel in one setting. I also remember needing to call home and tell my parents how much I loved them and looked forward to seeing them at Christmas. This book reads like one part American Pyscho (if he tried harder), one part Kafka’s The Transformation and one part dark thoughts. If you’re considering China as a viable carrier option, are currently in China and beginning to second guess your recent decisions to ‘see it out till Easter’, or if you’re simply unnerved by how well you’re life is going, then this is the book for you. Absolutely NSFW but if you get through a few chapters during your lunch hour, you’ll never look at KFC in the same light.
Brilliantly Twisted Stuff
I couldn’t put the book down. It was like a hybrid of a David Cronenberg movie/American Psycho with a character from Viz in there. Having spent a little bit of time in China, the many digs at Chinese culture had me laughing out loud. There are some hilarious parts in the book, some are genuinely sad, the ending will leave you aghast.
We left our intrepid band trapped in Tiananmen Square facing a platoon of tanks that had been sent by their arch-nemesis WTO Man as part of his nefarious plot to get China booted out of the World Trade Organisation for child-labour violations.
So let’s return to our heroes in…
Episode Two: WTO? No, no, no!
Announcer: Last time we met our beloved upholders of peaceful rising and harmony, the diabolical WTO Man had issued forth a battalion of tanks from Tiananmen Square to squish our heroes. How will the Work Unit escape this time? And will WTO Man succeed in his sinister plot to prevent child labour in China? View on, dear boys and girls, view on! And don’t forget: today’s episode features a very special guest appearance from Andy Lau!
Guanxi Gary: The tanks! They’re almost on top of us! We’ll never escape in time!
(The tanks rumble onwards, but their manufacture proves to be so shoddy, that upon impact the tanks all fall apart into a million little pieces.)
Chairman Mao: Thank the Party for corrupt manufacturing processes and unenforced quality standards! We’re saved!
Suzy Wrong: The People’s Liberation Army would only use its weapons in self-defence or to protect China’s domestic interests anyway. Like Taiwan and Vietnam. They cannot be used for evil.
WTO Man: You’re still too late Harmonious Societers! Within seconds these children will begin polishing my shoes, and then the whole world will see the truth about child labour. Who will buy your Three Kingdoms themed mobile games then?
Guanxi Gary: Come Harmonious Ones: to work!
(Guanxi Gary quickly pulls out the legendary Manbag of Han and reveals the mighty Chunghwa Gun within. He fires a torrent of cigarettes into the air which rain down upon government bureaus across Beijing. Within seconds, hordes of plain-clothed policemen arrive on the scene and drag the children away.)
WTO Man: What? What’s going on?
Guanxi Gary: Your plan was doomed to failure right from the beginning, WTO Man. Using the ancient powers of guanxi, I contacted the concerned authorities and reported that these children are the offspring of migrant workers. Under article 21(b) of the Provisional Charter on Migrant Children (2005 revised edition), these countryside brats had no right to gather in a group of more than four people on state-owned property. They have been taken away and will be sent to work in contracted mining quarries after having their vital organs harvested and delivered to retired cadre. It’s all over.
WTO Man: No! Never! Thankfully I contacted a number of foreign reporters who have observed this whole sorry scene of blatant human rights abuses. They’ve seen everything and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Guanxi Gary: I don’t think so. Suzy is already on the case.
Suzy Wrong:(to foreign reporters) … and so you see that this is in fact a domestic issue for China and an unavoidable consequence of a developing economy. Besides, the government has stressed that the use of child labour is strictly forbidden in the production of Three Kingdoms licensed products and have vowed to probe any allegations of labour abuse.
Foreign reporters: Thanks Suzy. And we’ll be sure to visit your hometown in Anhui Province that you told us so much about!
Suzy Wrong: Yes. It is very beautiful and is famous for its locally produced aluminium-flavoured soft drinks.
WTO Man: You may have won this time Harmonious Societers, but you’ll never catch me! Oooh, what’s this? A comfortable looking chair? I think I’ll just sit down for a minute before I make my escape. What the… who’s grabbing me?
Chairman Mao:(Mutating back into human form) Hah! You fell for the oldest trick in the little red book! Nobody escapes from the Chairman!
WTO Man: Bah! Curses! Etcetera, etcetera! And I would have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for you pesky Communists.
Guanxi Gary: And so the forces of Harmony and Socialism are once again restored to our glorious Motherland of 5000 years. Let this be a lesson to all those who wish to harm our Socialist Paradise: the Work Unit of the Harmonious Societers will never allow foreigners to openly hurt the feelings of the Chinese people. Unless, of course, it is in our interests to do so. Suzy, Chairman: let’s get in the Audi and return home.
Suzy Wrong: Wait a minute. Where’s Uncurious George?
(They all turn around to see a group of laughing families kicking the monkey’s head in and extinguishing cigarette stubs out on his eyes.)
Uncurious George: THIS IS A TRADITIONAL LEISURE ACTIVITY. IT IS NOT ANIMAL ABUSE. THERE IS NOTHING TO SEE HERE.
Andy Lau: I like sucking cock.
Announcer: Let us leave the Harmonious Societers now and wave farewell to their heroic adventures. But rest assured, whenever the shadow of disharmony threatens to cast its unwanted face over the Motherland, they will be back once more to save the day.
(Since the making of this show, Jiang Binbin who played Suzy Wrong unfortunately lost her battle against Honesty Cancer. She is now Chief Spokesperson for the Beijing Paralympics Committee.)
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.