Sunday Herald 1/13/2002

China's Culture Shock


Annie Wang was born into the darkest days of the cultural revolution and grew up during the horror of Tiananmen Square. The past has left an indelible mark and she talks to Barry Didcock about how her new novel traces the story of turmoil in her native land


 

WHEN the People's Liberation Army rolled in to Beijing in June 1989, China was on the brink of chaos. Student demonstrations protesting over official corruption and demanding democratic reforms had brought millions on to the streets across the country but it was in the month-long demonstrations in the city's Tiananmen Square that the movement had found heart and voice. So much so that in the early hours of June 4 a jittery president Yang Shangkun sent in tanks to break it up. Over the next few days, hundreds of students died, shot indiscriminately, picked off by snipers or crushed by army vehicles. And in the teeth of it all, one man's courage in facing down a column of tanks gave cowering photographers an iconic image that today still burns with a sort of reckless majesty.

Now 29, Annie Wang was a 16-year-old schoolgirl at the time of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. The daughter of a newspaper editor, she enjoyed the life of the high-ranking party elite and, fatefully, her school -- one of Beijing's most exclusive -- was only a few blocks from Tiananmen Square. Like many of her generation she was fascinated by the reformist zeal of the protesters and appalled by the brutal crackdown which followed their crushing defeat. As momentum gathered she would spend her lunch hours in the square talking, listening, hanging out but most of all just absorbing the party atmosphere. When it crashed, she was left with an experience which still touches her today.

'I think the saddest part was the aftermath because there was nothing you could do,' she says. 'It's not just the tanks rolling in, it's the smashing of idealism, the smashing of your hopes. After the tanks, after the massacre, everybody had to give reports of what other people did. We were forced to watch propaganda documentaries which said how great the people's soldiers were for doing this patriotic thing to save the country.'

A columnist and radio presenter in China since she was in her teens, it's only now that she has been able to cement her experiences in book form. The result is Lili, 10 years in the making and the story of one woman's journey of discovery from the dark days of the cultural revolution to the reforms of the 1980s.

Estranged from her family, raped by a party official and then adopted by Beijing's violent street gangs, Lili eventually wanders into a relationship with Roy, an American journalist obsessed with unearthing the true China. Previously a blinkered and apolitical townie who trades sex for shelter, she follows him as he delves into Buddhism, encounters Beijing's avant-garde commune-dwellers and visits the country to see how the bulk of China's billion-plus peasants ekes out a living.

Given the book's subtitle -- A Novel Of Tiananmen -- you won't be surprised to learn how it ends, but it also works as a spiky essay on how different cultures view each other and how sometimes a fresh eye can help you see the familiar in a different light. An added accomplishment is that Wang wrote this novel in English.

So why the 10 year wait?

'Lili is a bad girl. At that time it was too much for Chinese culture. At that time they didn't have this kind of girl in literature. So I wasn't allowed to publish such a thing. I also felt I needed to use a new language so that I could set myself free.'

That new language came when Wang's family connections and academic prowess bought her a chance to escape China and study in America. In 1993 she enrolled at California's prestigious Berkeley College and now has US citizenship. So just as an American plays an important part in redefining Lili's world, so has America itself contributed to Wang's own understanding of China.

'When I was in China I was smart, I was an intellectual, but I was not three-dimensional,' she explains. 'America makes me three dimensional. We need that, we need this ying and yang combination. I don't think it's enough to have just one culture.

'America offered me the freedom to choose because when people were marching in the streets of Beijing 13 years ago there was no such thing as freedom to choose. That's what they were fighting for. Now that I have it, I could never take it for granted.'

Not that she would ever count herself an American apologist. 'I understand their idealism but I get very annoyed about their self-obsession. A lot of [American] people's attitudes towards other countries, especially the third-world countries, are not very objective.'

Ever the over-achiever, she has worked for the Washington Post and as an interpreter with the US State Department since graduating in 1996. Today, as we talk, she's in Hong Kong. Tomorrow, she leaves for Beijing.

It was there that Annie Wang was born in 1972. The cultural revolution still had four years to run and, while her parents escaped more or less unscathed, her grandmother wasn't so lucky. These family experiences inform the character of Lili's grandmother, a doughty Buddhist who was married three times -- but never to the men she fell in love with.

'I was three at the end of the cultural revolution but we grew up listening to the horror stories about what happened to this or that family member,' says Wang. 'What happened to my family, I heard from my mother. And the grandmother [in Lili] suffers so much like my own grandmother suffered. Being a woman who had several marriages, she had to suffer terrible humiliations.'

Similarly Wang missed the gang era of the late 1970s and early 1980s when those children whose parents had been sent deep into the countryside for re-education formed their own cadres of street toughs. She was, by her own admission, the teacher's pet, but she knew enough to paint a vivid picture of life among the Artful Dodgers of the Beijing backstreets.

In fact, Wang's upbringing was privileged. When she was young her father would take her to 'salons' where she would mix with and listen to journalists and philosophers. 'At the time I listened to their talk and saw how excited they were about the changes in China,' she recalls. 'And I also saw a lot of anger.'

Thanks to her family position and the gradual loosening of the laws she was also able to read books like Jack Kerouac's On The Road and JD Salinger's Catcher In The Rye. This exposure to Western culture -- or, more properly, 1960s American sub-culture -- made the Tiananmen protests seem like Woodstock and an anti-Vietnam demo rolled into one but many of these salonistas would find themselves in exile after the events of June 4, 1989. As Wang points out, though, they were the lucky ones.

'The people who stayed in China suffered much more because of this spying on each other and turning on each other. And also the culture suffered. There was no avant garde art any more, there was no more experimental drama any more. People had to be really careful about things. The literary scene stopped. I was very disappointed, so my only dream was to go to America.'

By the time she was in her teens Wang had a massive youth audience thanks to columns she wrote under her Chinese name, Rui Wang, in one of the country's biggest newspapers. 'If you're talking about my generation, most of the kids grew up reading them. I would appear in those every day, so they grew up with the things I wrote.'

Annie Wang may yet grow to be the voice of her generation, but currently that accolade rests with a crop of young Chinese writers whose oeuvre has been labelled 'pretty woman literature'. Wei Hui, author of the sexually explicit Shanghai Baby, is at the forefront. 'Women, parties, decadent lifestyles, things like that,' is how Wang describes the genre's favourite topics and there's no doubt it represents young China's growing obsession with the consumerist trappings of the West. Like Wang, Hui's impetus came from Tiananmen Square and its aftermath and from the work of the Beats but Wang is less than happy about being lumped in with what is patently the hottest thing in Chinese literature right now.

'When people see me they think she's not bad looking and she's in her 20s so they automatically add me into that. But it's just a promotional thing. In China people suddenly have this new concept of marketing and people want to get ahead using any sort of means. In order to do that they want a new label.

'I think Lili is above that. I am able to examine the cosmetic changes in China -- the girls talking about Coco Chanel in Tiananmen Square -- but at the same time I think I also examine the more important issues, the political, social, and historical issues.'

Above all it's China which remains Annie Wang's intellectual plaything, a subject to which she can never tire of returning. With Shanghai and Beijing booming, it's hard to counter her argument that 21st century China is the most dynamic place on the planet. Much as she likes America, it's that quickening of the pulse she experiences in China which keeps drawing her back to the place.

'Every time I go back I see a different Beijing -- there are new places, new fashions, new food, new words I need to learn. It's like hormones -- I can feel the energy. This country does not make sense as the United States does, it's not very logical, sometimes things are very raw. But it also has this primitive passion, this eagerness for change. I think that's something that's really, really exciting.'

Lili: A Novel Of Tiananmen is published on January 24 (MacMillan, 9.99)

 

 

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