Red Hot China

In her new story collection, People’s Republic of Desire, author Annie Wang follows four young women navigating a post-Tiananmen sexual revolution.
By Pueng Vongs

Annie Wang started writing about Chinese society as a 14-year-old student journalist in Beijing, where she was born into an elite family. She has since written ten books. In 2001, she wrote her first book in English, Lili, a novel considered a breakthrough look at the generation that came of age during the period of the Tiananmen uprising. Her second English-language book is a collection of short stories centered around four young Chinese women who struggle to find love and happiness in the new China. It’s Sex and the City—Chinese style. Entitled The People’s Republic of Desire (Harper Paperbacks, 2006), after her popular column in the South China Morning Post, the fictional stories depict a China anxious to discard the economic deprivations of the past. In this ironically revised version of Mao’s class struggle, those who have wealth and status flaunt it before the many who don’t. Conservative Confucian values are thrown out in pursuit of greater riches. Men buy fame and mistresses. Successful women buy lovers, turning the tables on centuries of patriarchal tradition. Wang, who returned to China in 2001 after completing a bachelor’s degree in communications at Berkeley, now runs a fashion magazine in Shanghai.

You are part of this highly regarded mobile new generation born after the Cultural Revolution and who lived under Deng Xiaoping’s thawing policies. In your book, you talk about how China is a country obsessed with youth and the future. The suffering of the past is forgotten.

I am totally a Deng Xiaoping kid. When Mao died, I was very little. I heard stories from my parents about how horrible the Cultural Revolution was, but we grew up in the era of Karl Marx and Coca-Cola combined. It was very mixed messages all the time. One day the American people are nice, another day they have polluted us spiritually. People talked constantly about nationalism—how we’ve been wronged by foreign forces and in the last 150 years there has been shame on the Chinese. But on the other hand, Western music and literature were introduced—some good stuff—things like jazz, Allen Ginsberg, J. D. Salinger when I grew up. I remember my first taste of Coca-Cola. It’s a conflict between the East and the West. Love and hate.

Today, there is not much literature or art that talks about the Mao period. You want to be associated with the rich, not with the poor and the miserable. A lot of the history is so heavy with cultural baggage. The young don’t want to hear about it—how their parents suffered or how their grandparents have suffered. They just want to enjoy the good times.

In your first novel, Lili, you wrote about disaffected Chinese youth breaking down under Communist rules and the strict social structure. Their ultimate rebellion was Tiananmen. Is that passion for democracy still there?

No, the passion for politics is not there. I think people were very idealistic in the 1980s. Authors and poets and thinkers were respected and admired because at that time people started to do more soul searching. They asked what went wrong during the Cultural Revolution: How could people be so horrible to each other? But then because of 1989 the soul searching stopped and people started to find another way to save China. So they thought the economic way could solve China’s problems. Or at least the government thinks that way. They feed people information that way.

Your stories paint a picture of a society singularly driven by the desire for money and power. How true is this portrait?

It’s 200 percent true. There’s a rush into materialism. It’s just beyond the imagination of many capitalists how a Communist country can be so capitalistic. I think it’s in the veins of the Chinese to make money, to be practical.

People have been poor for so long. I was considered very privileged. My family had a telephone and most people didn’t. But still I have it in my memory that people had to wait in line for four hours to get fish. Four hours! I was in line and when I got closer, the fish were all gone. These people want to catch up with the rest of the world. The government encourages this economic growth and they welcome Louis Vuitton. So why not? It’s not just money this applies to, but also sex. There was capital punishment for having sex before marriage during the Cultural Revolution. And now, you can’t be a political dissident, but you can become a sexual dissident.

Women have broken out of passive, dutiful, patriarchal expectations and are now having multiple lovers, watching porn, getting divorced. Is there a new sexual revolution going on?

Absolutely. It’s not just with women but also men, especially older men who have been very good cadres for 30 years. These two groups, I’m telling you, are having fun. But it is a backward system for educated women, for intellectual women, women in their 30s and early 40s. I see a lot of them single. They are very intelligent, capable, beautiful, but they can’t find husbands. Beibei, the character in my novel, is an example. She is highly successful and takes another route. [The character takes many young male lovers.] In Chinese society, men are not ready yet for a strong woman. And there are so many women out there, so demure, like little girls, so girly. But at the same time they are not shy. They are willing to have sex with Westerners in exchange for just a Western meal, or because they want to practice English. If you are married, they don’t care. In marriages of the people I know, infidelity is almost 100 percent. Either it is the man or the woman.

Is it true that some Chinese will do outrageous things and cause controversy for fame? What are the craziest things you’ve seen lately?

People have redefined the definition of shame, a Confucian value. Now there is shamelessness. Before people were very modest. Now they just want to brag about everything. Why? People are very competitive and opportunities are still relatively thin. So people have to fight to get ahead. So you can’t be modest anymore, and if you want to be very a good girl and very appropriate, no one pays attention to you. People are learning how to get attention very fast, and they are so creative. There’s a woman who thinks she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, and she talks about how many men have pursued her. Nobody believed her, but she was very consistent. Every day she posted tons of pictures to the Internet bulletin boards of Beijing and Shanghai universities doing all kinds of weird moves. She got famous and she got an endorsement from some company.

A sense of honesty isn’t there anymore. People want to make money in all kinds of ways. I have a friend who just bought a Hummer, a long stretch one. He drove it around in Xintiandi (new chic area in Shanghai) and instantly got famous. His wife is in Canada taking care of their baby and I saw news about him going out with a movie star.

You discuss a new social stratum in China defined by income and status.

I used to live in Silicon Valley. People I have interviewed or was associated with have become billionaires back in China. And childhood friends that I was associated with in Beijing, the very privileged with all the right connections, became very rich. I was very surprised when I went back to see these nouveau riche. They are called xingui and they are at the top. They are real estate developers. High-ranking officials’ daughters and sons are also a part of this group. They work for foreign enterprises or even a Chinese company and can make $100,000 a year.

Under them are the wannabes, xiaozi, or petty bourgeoisie. They make about $600 or $1,200 per month, but they know all the name brands. They don’t necessarily possess them, but they know all of them. They want to live a good life like the nouveau riche and they work very hard for it. They like to drink coffee and from time to time they like to go to a Western restaurant. They like to spend one month’s salary to go to a jazz concert or to the Rolling Stones show.

I’m a bobo, a bourgeois bohemian. I have a house in California, I have a house in China. I own a car there. I wear several brands, but I’m not rich.

What impact did your South China Morning Post column have?

I started to write the column in 2002 and quickly it became the most popular column in the Post and especially on the Web site. I got a lot of response from Europe, America, men and women. Among Chinese, and this is a little unfortunate, my columns have been used as a fashion bible. They looked at whom I made fun of, and people followed it to know where to go, or the brand they should wear, or the thing they should talk about. But it was a satire.

In the background of growing wealth in your book, you discuss the hardships of the poor. Protests are intensifying in the countryside. What do you see happening with this rising tension between rich and poor?

Sometimes I feel guilty going to American supermarkets or Wal-Mart. Things are so cheap for me. I think of the lives of workers and the migrant workers in Shenzhen I met. They are at the bottom of the global economic chain. They work 12 to 16 hours a day and they have maybe two or three days off a month. They live in a dormitory room with 8 to 20 people.

But still some of them are pretty happy because life is much better than life in the countryside. Right now the major conflict is land. Some of the villagers protest because local party sectors sell land to real estate developers and they get the lion’s share. They give the peasants compensation next to nothing. So this has been the major conflict. The prices for things peasants produce are controlled and can be very unfair. The more they sell, sometimes the more they owe to the government.

But right now I like the job President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are doing. Before, no one talked about AIDS or peasants’ issues. Now they are starting to talk about these things. I think they know the situation very well and they know how serious it is.

Was it difficult for you to readjust to China after spending a decade in California, two years at Berkeley?

When I first came to the United States, I considered myself a Chinese nationalist, like many, many Chinese students. But then quickly I thought this was the right place for me. I thought maybe I became brainwashed in China. So I quickly found a difference between me and my Chinese friends here. They still sing songs, old revolutionary songs. They are very nostalgic about the Communist period. But I blended in well in America. I thought like people here. Individualism and freedom of creativity, these are things I really value. When I go back even now, I don’t talk to some of my friends in China about politics. When we talk about politics, we talk about Taiwan. They wear all the Western brands, but they say the problem with the U.S. is they want to bully China. Some of them compare McDonald’s and KFC to a conspiracy like opium. But their lifestyle, everything is American.

At Berkeley I was so anti-establishment. I went to Burning Man and burned gas on everything. Now I don’t do that anymore, it’s too low for me [laughs]. I’ve started using top brands, I’ve totally changed.

Pueng Vongs is an editor at New America Media in San Francisco. Her last article for the magazine was “The Long Afterlife of Chairman Mao.”
From the July August 2006 Indo Chic issue of California.
Image source: Photograph by Anne Dowie
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