Novelist Han Han:
A City Built on a Heap of Money Won't Shine
Racing champion, novelist, blogger and all-round fly in the ointment of Chinese officialdom, Han Han argues that the future of Shanghai lies, not in its World Expo, but in greater freedom of expression.
A City Built on a Heap of Money Won't ShineBy Sherry Lee, Shu-ren Koo
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 443 )
If you don't know China's literary rebel Han Han and the "Han Han phenomenon" that he unleashed, then it will be hard for you to grasp China's complex zeitgeist and its future.
Born in Shanghai in 1982, the 27-year-old is the star writer of China's new generation.
Han's first novel Triple Door, published in 2000, has so far sold more than two million copies. His blog is believed to be the most widely read worldwide with well over 300 million visits since it was launched in 2006. Han also doubles as a professional racecar driver – among other achievements, he was Group N winner of the 2009 China Rally Championship. That same year Hong Kong-based Asia Weekly voted him Person of the Year, and Time magazine interviewed him for an article titled "China's Literary Bad Boy." And Han Han accomplished all of this after dropping out of high school as a freshman.
A racecar-driving author with handsome looks and a sharp, dispassionate writing style, Han Han's trademark blend of complexity and radicalism gives his works considerable literary power.
Han prides himself on seeking the truth. This urge to speak his mind has helped him to maintain a capacity of independent thinking in the group-oriented society of China.
Having crisscrossed China on his car racing assignments, Han has seen China's real face outside the affluent metropolitan areas of Beijing and Shanghai. On these trips he has seen poor workers, witnessed how people choose to remain silent about injustices in order to make a living. He has also noticed that a sense of inferiority lurks behind ostensive national confidence and pride.
Han tries to record the truth. Among the issues that have drawn his attention are issues of everyday life such as the forced demolition of private houses by the government, but Han also voices his views on where China should be headed in the future.
"China might have a Constitution, but that's just bullshit. Nobody respects it at all. Everyone is trampling on it," Han said in an exclusive interview with CommonWealth Magazine. In China such provocative language would most likely be deleted by censors.
Han Han has been pushing the envelope of freedom of expression in China. In order to gain maximum freedom in his work, he chose to become his own boss, setting up his own office. Thanks to the proceeds from his books and the cash awards and endorsement proceeds from his racing career, Han has been able to create his own literary space where he can breathe freely.
While Han Han is not optimistic about the future development of Shanghai or China at large, his emergence as a celebrity writer also shows that there is an opportunity for change in China.
How does Han Han feel about his own influence, and what are his views about Shanghai and the World Expo that will open there in May?
I was born in 1982. Actually the entire generation born after 1980 can be considered independent thinkers. China has never been short of independent thinkers.
I write stuff online purely because it's somewhat less censored. Many say that freedom of expression has made great strides in recent years, but this progress was triggered by technology. It's not that the authorities wanted to make changes – they were forced to do so. Nevertheless, it's a good thing that there has been some progress. That's why I hope there will be even better technologies in the future, so that it will become impossible to block anything.
Many people say that Shanghai is more cultured than Hong Kong! Right around the founding of the People's Republic of China (in 1949), many plays, movies and literary works came from Shanghai. Back then Shanghai truly was a cultural center. But I don't know why Shanghai developed into what it is today. Probably it's because Shanghai is nothing but a springboard for many officials who want to get into the central government. They think that if they are able to manage Shanghai well, they will be able to manage China well. As a result, once they come to Shanghai, officials or leaders do their jobs very, very cautiously. The newspapers in Shanghai, for instance, have very, very, very tight controls.
In reality, it's already been proven that with such a strict controls and such a stressful living environment, it's not possible to create outstanding literature or art.
If you asked me which big Chinese city is a cultural desert, then I'd say Shanghai. One hundred percent, it's Shanghai. In comparison, culture suffers less destruction in Hong Kong and Taiwan. It's in these two places that Chinese culture lives on.
Today's Shanghai doesn't have culture. The city was built with a heap of money, and then they pushed up the housing prices sky-high. If I was the mayor of Shanghai, I would feel very embarrassed. I would ask people to stay away for the time being, and come back after I got something done. Present-day Shanghai actually doesn't have anything to be proud of.
Shanghai has nothing to show off. It doesn't have any film directors or writers or artists. There's not a lot to this city.
When it comes to the World Expo, I don't like it at all.
The Expo may be well organized or successful. But whether it's the Beijing Olympics or the World Expo, during the event period any article you write containing negative or questioning remarks will be immediately deleted. Such a city doesn't qualify as an international metropolis.
Looking at Shanghai from a cultural angle, when American dramas are hot, everyone watches American dramas, and when Korean dramas are hot, they watch Korean ones. A while ago Japanese dramas were hot, so people watched them. Then Taiwanese variety shows were popular, so that's what people watched. We will eternally be copying others. Sometimes even our cloned products are not good copies.
It's definitely not that the people here lack ability, it's just that they don't have enough room. They want to have more breathing space, but that's what the government is afraid of. There's a contradiction between the two. It's the same for myself. I hope to be given more generous standards, so that I can breathe more easily.
My only hope is that this country will be able to achieve something that we can truly show off. Otherwise, when I tell people about my country, and they ask, "What films has your country produced? What literature?" all I'll be able to come up with is Confucius. That's really boring. At the moment, I'm only experimenting, trying things out.
Foreigners look at us the same way we look at Shanxi coal barons. In other words, they don't respect you, but now that you have money, who wouldn't go make some money off you?
I only hope that speech and newspapers in China can become freer, and more open. My motivation is simple – only if this is the case can I criticize other countries and export my own culture. If this is not the case, there's no way we could export our own culture, since what could you talk about with other countries?
Only if we have culture can everyone feel great national pride. When everyone feels proud of their own assets, their own cultural assets, then this city will be truly good.
What I can do in our current society is write even more articles to change society with more cultural things. I don't have as huge an influence as people say. I'm just a writer. If change is really going to take place, then it would probably require me multiplied by a hundred.
The problem is that only people within a certain circle can read my articles, but it's still not easy to expand readership beyond that circle. Outside, migrant workers still go about their lives as before, the female textile workers still do their jobs. They read the party paper and watch TV news broadcasts just like always.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz
Born in 1982
Current Positions: Professional racecar driver, author, editor
Education: Dropped out of Shanghai Songjiang No. 2 Senior High School
14 books including novels such as Triple Door and essay collections. Triple Door sold two million copies, making it the bestselling literary work in China in the past two decades.
Musical Works: Lyrics for his debut album Han 18-R released in 2006
Magazine: Literary magazine Chorus of Solos, whose publication is still under negotiation with the Chinese authorities.