In 1991, a little-known writer in Beijing named Wang Xiaobo sent a manuscript of a novel to eminent historian Cho-yun Hsu, his former professor at the University of Pittsburgh. The book was about China’s Cultural Revolution, the political purge from 1966 to 1976 that killed more than a million people and sent scientists, writers, artists and millions of educated young people to work in the countryside.
At the time Wang was writing, Cultural Revolution novels tended to be fairly conventional tales of how good people nobly suffered during that decade of madness. The system itself was rarely challenged. Wang’s book was radically different. THE GOLDEN AGE (Astra House, 272 pages, $26) — the title itself was a provocation — told the tragic and absurd story of a young man who is exiled, witnesses suicide, endures bullying and beatings from local authorities… and spends as much time as possible having sexual relations.
Professor Hsu submitted the manuscript to the judges of one of Taiwan’s most important literary prizes. Wang’s story of lust and loss won, astounding the Chinese literary world and making the author one of the country’s most influential and popular novelists.
Wang’s position in the Chinese literary canon is notable because he was never a member of the state-sponsored writers’ association, unlike better-known figures such as Nobel laureate Mo Yan, Yu Hua or Jia Pingwa. Wang seemed to have come out of nowhere, and he was gone almost as quickly, dying of a heart attack in 1997, at the age of 44. In just a few years, he wrote an avalanche of novels, stories, essays and journal articles, many of them published posthumously.
Only one section of “The Golden Age” had been published in English until a new translation by Yan Yan came out this year. The novel chronicles the coming of age of Wang Er, whose life closely parallels that of Wang Xiaobo. Like the author, he was born in 1952, grew up in Beijing, took part in the Cultural Revolution as a teenager and was sent to work in the countryside.
But as Wang Er finds himself in a series of failed relationships in the capital, Wang Xiaobo married one of China’s most formidable scholars, Li Yinhe, in 1980, who had a profound impact on him and stayed with him. to his death. One of the first generation of sociologists trained after Mao’s ban on the field was lifted, Li went to Pittsburgh to earn her doctorate, accompanied by her husband, who earned a master’s degree in Asian studies. Back home, the couple published a first study (for China) on homosexuality, and Li later became a champion of the LGBTQ movement.
For Wang, homosexuals were just one of many groups whose voices were drowned out by the state’s media monopoly. His thinking crystallized in a hugely influential 1996 essay, “The silent majoritywhich argued that the state silences not only people of different sexual orientations, but most Chinese people, from migrants and minors to farmers and students. It is a call to action for civil society, to end the silence – and it remains an inspiration to many Chinese today in a new era of crushing state control.
The idea of how to resist power underlies “The Golden Age”. Initially, Wang Er is stationed in the tribal border region of Yunnan, cattle breeder and in love with a doctor practicing in the same commune. He is 21 years old, dynamic and hungry. “In the golden age of my life, I was full of dreams,” he says. “I wanted to love, eat, and instantly transform into one of those clouds, part lit, part darkened.”
But he quickly contrasts these dreams with the harshness of life under a powerful state, likening it to a local method of castration of oxen. For most bulls, simply slicing the scrotum was enough. The capricious, however, had their testicles ripped out and ground to a pulp with a wooden club. “It wasn’t until later that I realized – life is just a slow, protracted process of getting your balls crushed,” observes our narrator. “Day by day, you are getting older. Day after day, your dreams fade away. In the end, you are no different from a mashed beef.
One way to read “The Golden Age” is to focus on sex — and there’s a lot of it. But few of them are described in realistic detail; instead, it becomes a device by which the hero and his lover, Chen Qingyang, stand up to the state. Exposed for having an affair before marriage, which was taboo in Mao’s day, they are forced to write erotic “confessions” for horny Communist Party officials and take to the stage to describe their deeds to crowds. insect-eyed farmers.
Their increasingly elaborate and sinister confessions, repeatedly demanded by their superiors, fall somewhere between harlequin romance and the modernist poem: clean up.” Sex itself is an “epic friendship,” as in: ” We committed an epic friendship in the mountain, breathing steamy wet breaths.” (The narrator is asked to clarify “what is forward engagement and what is backward engagement” .) The confessions constitute an absurd critique of unchecked state power, mocking its instruments.
Later, Wang Er returns to Beijing in the late 1970s and becomes an obsequious academic, eventually hammered into submission. But he is haunted by a suicide he witnessed more than a decade earlier, before his time in the countryside, when he lived with his family on a college campus. A faculty member was so tortured that he jumped out of a building window. Officials took his body away for an “autopsy” (diagnosis: no foul play, although bruises showed he had been tortured). But they refused to clean up the brain pieces on the sidewalk, saying it was the family’s responsibility.
The night after the suicide, Wang Er wakes up at 2 a.m. thinking about the man’s brain. He heads to the site and sees that the rooms are lit by flickering candles that seem to make them dance. Deprived of a chance to mourn, the children watch over what remains of their father, a scene the narrator recalls over and over again in the novel.
The author’s emphasis on these details is deliberate. At the end of the book, the narrator recalls that his generation was raised to do something heroic with their lives. When they were young, that meant emulating Mao and being zealous Communists, but their idealism ended up bringing nothing but violence and suffering. Now middle-aged, Wang Er doesn’t know how to do anything meaningful. His girlfriend tells him that he must come out of the silence that has gnawed at him since his youth, to “write everything, including the incredible things and the things we don’t dare to write about”. He must report what he saw – not just the big problems, but also the tell-tale little details that might let the past speak to the present.
THE GOLDEN AGE, by Wang Xiaobo | Translated by Yan Yan | 272 pages | House Astra | $26