3 / The Globalized Square: Annie Wang’s Lili
Among the authors examined in this book, Annie Wang is an anomaly. She is the only one who currently lives both inside and outside of mainland China: leaving in 1993 to study journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, she has since moved back, first to her native Beijing in 1999, then relocating to Shanghai in 2004, and now dividing her time between the two Pacific coasts. Concurrent with this geographical shuttling is a bilingual writing career. Moving with ease between languages, and comfortable with high and low cultural forums alike, she has built on her corpus of Chinese fictions with Lili (2001), her first novel in English, as well as an immensely popular column-turned-novel that is universally dubbed the Chinese Sex and the City. Wang thus belongs to a new generation that cannot be neatly categorized as either exilic or diasporic, embodying instead a model of the contemporary globe-trotting transnational subject. Her place in this study, however, is not only apropos but all the more valuable as a result, for she brings into relief a flight path of the post-Tiananmen literary diaspora that may well become the dominant one for younger writers to come. In this regard, Lili serves as a revealing index of the paradoxes of globalization. The novel registers many of the tensions of a transnational aesthetic, not just by explicitly thematizing a geopolitical difference between the PRC and the United States, but also in marking Wang’s own equivocal stance toward global and bicultural capital, especially given her emphatic self-positioning as a Chinese woman writer. This chapter will hence proceed mainly from text to context, from an analysis of the novel’s portrait of the Square as a paradigmatic site of capitalist flows and neocolonial desires to a discussion of Wang’s authorial negotiations with Chinese and American literary markets. But first, since she is above all a keen observer of how misogyny and gendered power can ally with neo-orientalism and geopolitical power, let us begin with a related cultural document, one that internationalizes the most iconic, and phallic, image of Tiananmen—the Tank Man.
Part I. Female Hooligans and Global Capital
THE TANK MAN, INTERNATIONALIZED
One of the most memorable scenes in Antony Thomas’s documentary film The Tank Man (2006) shows four Beijing University students being presented with a photograph—that of a lone Chinese man, dressed casually in dark trousers and a plain white button-down shirt with sleeves rolled up partway, carrying what look to be ordinary plastic grocery bags in both hands and facing a column of tanks in the middle of a wide boulevard. To the American and British audiences at whom this film is directed, the photograph will quickly bring to mind the most prominent visual emblem of the 1989 Tiananmen movement: the Tank Man, that unidentified citizen who blocked the path of army tanks on Changan Avenue on June 5, since made famous by the international media as an icon of individual defiance against totalitarian power. In Thomas’s film, however, the Beijing University students, all of whom appear to be about twenty years old and would have been at most three or four at the time of the massacre, pause in long silence before this picture. When asked whether it holds any meaning for them, they seem to fumble for answers. “Looks like some military ceremony,” one woman whispers to her neighbor. Then more loudly to the interviewer: “Well, I can see four vehicles. I’m not sure about the context. It might be a parade or something. I really don’t know. I’m just guessing.” Another woman concurs: “I really can’t tell anything from this picture. There’s no context.” Finally, the one young man in the group asks, “Is this a piece of artwork? Did you make this up?”
The documentary’s point is clear. Since 1989, the PRC government has not only suppressed historical facts about the democracy movement and the military crackdown but also worked to impede the circulation of information—and the passing down of cultural memory—concerning the incident. Thomas’s pedagogical voice-over in this key moment of the film drives this point home:
Beida, the University of Beijing, and the most prestigious in all of China. In 1989, Beida was the nerve center of the student movement that would inspire a popular uprising. Today’s undergraduates enjoy all the benefits that have flowed into China A [the prosperous China of capitalist growth, versus China B, the social underbelly of China’s capitalism]. Largely the children of the elite, they enjoy freedom of travel and a lifestyle many Western undergraduates might envy. But what do they know of their recent history? . . .
Whatever they [the four students] may have heard about 1989, it was clear that they had never seen the Tank Man picture. . . . The image was shown once, in 1989 on China Television, re-branded as an example of the army’s restraint. But the picture was quickly withdrawn and never shown again. No one under 20 in China is likely to have seen it. (“Tank Man Transcript”)
Thomas is noticeably careful not to overstate his case about China’s historical amnesia. He acknowledges that, even if Tiananmen is an officially censored topic in the PRC educational system and state media, the students may well have heard about it from informal sources. Nonetheless, he insists that the Tank Man remains a wholly unknown and unremembered figure for the post-Tiananmen generations. As he notes in a post-production interview, there was, as always, a government minder monitoring the filming session that day, so “if any of those four [students] knew that they were looking at an infamous, banned picture, at the very least, there would have been a nervous sideways glance. But there’s nothing” (“Tank Man: Making”). For Thomas, the Tank Man is nothing less than a flash point in the universal human struggle for freedom, and the Beijing University students’ nonrecognition of this image epitomizes the enormity of the PRC’s mind control and the post-Tiananmen generations’ historical ignorance. The documentary performs its cultural authority on and participates in the knowledge production of Tiananmen precisely by dramatizing a stark division between its own knowledge possession and the Chinese subjects’ lack thereof.
Still, some American viewers of the film remain skeptical of Thomas’s claim, finding it hard to believe that an entire generation of Beijing college students would have no reference point whatsoever for the Tank Man. Some speculate that the four students might have been merely pretending not to recognize the photograph, perhaps out of fear of persecution for speaking to the foreign media about a Tiananmen-related topic. When this possibility was posed to Thomas in an online live chat the morning after the documentary first aired on PBS, he responded adamantly: “If they were pretending, they were actors worthy of Oscar awards. I studied their expressions very carefully and for many times during editing. There wasn’t a glimmer of recognition from any of them. . . . No one in that room had any knowledge of the Tank Man’s act of defiance.” There is a certain irony to Thomas’s response: even as the Beijing University students in this filmic encounter repeatedly invoke the necessity of context for photographic interpretation, expressing a persistent desire to restore image to history, Thomas in his metacommentary evinces an opposite desire to flatten history into image, to reduce the historical processes and lived experiences of generational memory or its erasure to (his own) purely individual visual analysis.
The question here hinges on how we are to interpret the students’ “silence,” if we take this term to include their professed nonrecognition of the picture. For Thomas, this silence can only signify bafflement and ignorance, a cultural “tragedy.” For the skeptical viewer, though, his absolute refusal to entertain other interpretations smacks a bit of the cultural outsider’s excessive self-assurance and may even imply a kind of colonialist attitude, one that, despite its lofty commitment to human rights advocacy, denies the Chinese students a deeper interiority, a more complex awareness of the volatile conflict of interests between domestic concealment of knowledge and foreign demands of exhibition. Indeed, even as Thomas indicates that he fully realized the Tank Man “experiment” to be “very dangerous” for him and his crew to conduct, that they risked having their tape confiscated at the time, he never goes on to address the greater potential danger of his actions for the Chinese students, or the way his experiment placed them within a tug of power between the nativist/nationalist regime of knowledge and his own Western liberal agenda. Instead, Thomas comments at length on taking pains to thwart the communist authorities by creating an impression that his film was nonpolitical. Not only did he not discuss the photograph with the students afterward, but he displayed the photograph only after talking to them “on all kinds of innocuous subjects for 20-plus minutes to relax them,” then deliberately moved on to “another bunch of innocuous questions,” so that the Tank Man would seem to be just one passing item among many (“Tank Man: Making”). These maneuvers probably helped to protect the students to some extent, but his emphasis throughout is on successfully producing his film rather than probing how the students might have navigated the cultural politics and probable perils of being interviewed by Western journalists on a censored topic.
The most complicating detail in this scene occurs when the young man in the group, prior to answering the interviewer, whispers to the puzzled woman beside him, “June 4.” To his credit, Thomas keeps this footage in the film, but he later dismisses the young man’s comment as ultimately unrevealing of the students’ broader historical awareness. “My firm opinion,” he says in an interview, “is that [the young man] was the only one who sensed that the photo had something to do with the events of 1989, but the Tank Man meant nothing to him” (“Tank Man: Making”). Yet this moment in the film clearly shows that the Tank Man image triggers a mental file for the young man, even if we can only guess at the true extent of his knowledge. Then again, in accordance with Thomas’s description, it does appear that the young man’s prompt fails to conjure deeper associations for the young woman next to him, whose smile remains a mixture of unguarded innocence, perplexity, and embarrassment. The other two women look uncomfortable but strangely expressionless; there is no obvious clue to their thoughts.
What the film captures here, I would submit, is a spectrum of ignorance and half-knowledge, and a tension between partial recognition and the self-censored display of such recognition. Even if we find no telltale sign from the students’ facial expressions, no nervous sideways glance or overt gesture of simulated ignorance, the cultural amnesia suggested in this scene seems somewhat more uneven, and probably far more complicated in its inner negotiations of terror and guilt, ethnic pride and cultural self-loathing, than the film’s exegesis would have it. Of course, these psychic negotiations are not incompatible with but exist along a continuum with the loss of historical knowledge that will inevitably result from more than a decade of official censorship. The intersection of these two mechanisms—the state’s external suppression and the psyche’s internal repression—may well define the post-Tiananmen generations’ specific form of historical forgetfulness: not a uniformly blank slate, but in some instances, as with the young man’s reaction to the Tank Man picture, a flash of recognition followed by a disavowal, a failure to acknowledge, identify with, or take public ownership of one’s national history in the presence of others. Whether he would have spoken more freely in the absence of either foreign cameras or government monitors is open to debate. In any case, compared to the mental vacuum of complete oblivion posited by Thomas, this latter type of historical amnesia, in its implicit complicity with the communist apparatus of erasure, may constitute the more disquieting mode of cultural tragedy.
At a macro level, what The Tank Man raises in this episode is the problem of reconstructing historical memory of, and wielding knowledge about, Tiananmen in an international and cross-cultural context. Who possesses this knowledge and who does not? Who has the cultural power to convey this knowledge—or stage its ignorance—and for whose edification? A perusal of the documentary’s production team and sources of authority will show that it consists mainly of Western journalists and scholars, with an impressive cast that includes Robin Munro, Orville Schell, Timothy Brook, Jonathan Mirsky, John Pomfret, Perry Link, and Nicholas Bequelin. A few Chinese dissidents are also briefly cited, including former student leaders Feng Congde and Xiao Qiang as well as activists Harry Wu and Han Dongfang. Conspicuously absent are the most famous student leaders of the Tiananmen movement such as Chai Ling, Li Lu, and Wuer Kaixi, all of whom by 2006 had become the representative faces of Tiananmen to Western audiences via several earlier documentary films and numerous public appearances and newspaper reports. It may be that The Tank Man aims to present an alternative view of Tiananmen from the one previously tendered by those student leaders in exile (a topic I will explore more fully in the next chapter), hence its minimal reliance on their testimonies. In fact, the film’s predominantly Western cast makes it a prime example of what Tu Wei-ming calls the third “symbolic universe” of “cultural China”: “the international communities of scholars, students, officials, journalists, and traders who provide a global forum for China-related matters” (Preface viii). Moreover, by virtue of its academic distance, Thomas’s film arguably offers a more balanced account of Tiananmen than does any prior documentary on the subject. But at the same time, by dramatizing somewhat too heavy-handedly the dichotomy between its own host of Western experts and the implied masses of ignorant Chinese youths today, the film risks falling into a colonialist representational position. The more severely it draws this binary between haves and have-nots, possession and deficiency, along a West-East axis, the more precariously it teeters on the edge of a neo-imperialist division of power/knowledge.
In the next chapter I will discuss how Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma domesticates this issue of Tiananmen’s memory/amnesia along a vertical, intergenerational axis within China itself. In this chapter, as an entry point into Annie Wang’s Lili, I will begin by noting that Thomas’s geopolitical partitioning of knowledge about Tiananmen converges with a gendered politics of knowledge subtly at work in the Beijing University interview. While the one Chinese male student in the group is presented as coming closest to the kind of historical consciousness possessed by the largely male film crew from the West, the three female Chinese students under scrutiny, by contrast, are narrated as retreating into a semiotic register of ambiguity and inscrutability. In this pivotal scene of the film, the young man mediates Western memory/knowledge and Chinese amnesia/ignorance even as the latter nexus is emphatically gendered female.
This hierarchy of power/knowledge about Tiananmen along intersecting lines of nationality, ethnicity, and gender establishes the central theme and core critique of Annie Wang’s novel. Of the four Tiananmen works in this study, Lili is the one that most thoroughly internationalizes the representation of Tiananmen—and also the one that most explicitly engages with its own diasporicness as a text representing Tiananmen to Western readers. Wang’s portrait of late 1980s Beijing as an international capitalist hub, though at times seemingly anachronistic, serves to resituate Tiananmen discourse within a more current framework of China’s globalization. This anachronism allows her to tackle concerns of a contemporary Chinese neocoloniality within a global capitalist order that has produced new relations of power between Westerners and Chinese as well as among Chinese themselves. If we adopt Wang’s neocolonial perspective and scrutinize The Tank Man for nativist subversive tactics, we might detect a strange parallelism between Thomas’s insistence on the students’ ignorance and the students’ emphasis on their own ignorance, between their repeated questions about the photograph’s context and their remarks about their own lack of knowledge of this context—as if these students, like the shrewd and image-savvy hunger striker in Lili, are only too eager to perform the expected gaps in consciousness in front of foreign cameras. Thomas’s film and Wang’s novel therefore designate two opposite poles in the cross-cultural geopolitics of knowing Tiananmen. Both set out to represent the incident for Western audiences in the first years of the new millennium, but while The Tank Man implicitly defines the West as the site of historical understanding and world memory of Chinese trauma, Lili reclaims and rearticulates this memory by rendering the West’s entry into post-Mao PRC, not in the liberal vocabulary of human rights advocacy or democratic education, but as a neo-imperialist penetration that opens up China only by wedding capital to orientalism.
Among diasporic fictions, Wang further charts a middle path in reconfiguring Tiananmen’s relation to the nation. Where Gao Xingjian deterritorializes the episode altogether by setting his play in an unnamed country and existentializes the Square by emptying it of place and time, both Ha Jin and Ma Jian address the massacre through a strictly national frame anchored in the PRC, thereby perpetuating an intellectual tradition that C. T. Hsia has notoriously called the modern Chinese writer’s “obsession with China.” Wang, however, circumvents both the nation’s erasure and its hegemony by plotting the transnational scope of global capital. Indeed, her novel may be read as at once transnationalizing and denationalizing the representation of Tiananmen. On the one hand, her depiction of 1980s Beijing as an allegorical neocolony exposes the porous boundaries of the new China, nowhere more evident than in the hybridized lives that congregate in that capital city. Yet money and goods flow decisively from West to East in her novel, and this one-way traffic is contingent on not just international circuits but also the inequality between nations and peoples. In short, the category of the nation remains meaningful for Wang in mapping subjects within the global coordinates of economic and cultural power.
At the same time, she supplements a criticism of America’s global dominance with a trenchant demythologizing of “China” within the Tiananmen narrative. Unlike the other male writers of Tiananmen fictions, Wang does not assume the voice of social, moral, or political authority in relation to China. To be sure, Gao’s Middle-aged Man, Jin’s Jian, and Ma’s Dai Wei all consider themselves outsiders to power and thus marginal figures within the nation-state to some extent: the first is a self-described existential fugitive, the second an unwitting political pawn, the third a victim of government-sanctioned military violence. Nevertheless, each inhabits a privileged periphery and is put forward by his author as the representative voice of a proper counterdiscourse, whether in terms of a universal human condition or the particularities of PRC civil society or political governance. Wang’s protagonist, by contrast, continually finds herself silenced by gender and class as much as ethnicity in debates about the nation. While Gao and Jin as well as Ma couch Tiananmen’s meaning primarily in terms of an ideological struggle among different social elites (intellectuals, students, and the Communist Party leadership), Wang alone desacralizes Tiananmen by shifting attention away from these elite groups toward a figure at the fringes of national politics: the female hooligan. Her novel is relentless in uncovering the persistent inequalities internal to Chinese society itself, especially along axes of gender and class, which legitimate some claims to national identity while excluding others. Lili is thus at once a feminist critique of Chinese nationalism’s patriarchy and a demythologizing of student elitism. Wang’s fiction, we might say, analeptically occupies the symbolic space and time of Tiananmen in order to lay bare the unequal power relations between as well as within nations, the geopolitics as well as the social power reproductions of capitalist China. In this respect, Lili can be read against the ethnographic eye of Western documentaries such as Thomas’s—not as a more authentic insider account of Tiananmen by a spokesperson of the native intellectual elite, but as a diasporic female autoethnography that probes China’s globalization from the vantage point of a neocolonial subaltern, borrowing this voice to de-idealize “China” for both Western and Chinese audiences. This literary self-positioning carries its own advantages and pitfalls, of course, and as I will ultimately argue, Lili epitomizes exactly this equivocal capital of contemporary Chinese transnational literature.
“I believe everyone has his Eastern and Western sides, just like yin and yang. That’s how the universe becomes one. I’m here to find my Eastern side.” So announces Roy, the novel’s central male character, to Lili in their first meeting (32). Throughout the novel, Roy constantly—and unironically—broadcasts views that combine adulation of China’s romanticized past with condemnation of China’s material present. An ex-Berkeley hippie and anti–Vietnam War protestor turned liberal journalist and Sinophile spiritual seeker, and in the course of the novel, the well-intentioned but high-minded love interest of the titular heroine, Roy is readily identifiable as an updated caricature of the classic Western orientalist adventurer. In this first encounter with Lili in Inner Mongolia, he already gives voice to a host of clichés about “the East.” When asked what constitutes his “Eastern side,” he replies: “I’m not sure, really. Maybe it’s something about achieving peace in my consciousness by emptying my mind and weakening my ambition. . . . To me, Chinese civilization forms the foundation of all East Asian cultures. There are just too many things to take in” (32–33). In his quest for mystical wisdom, he will later tour Taoist and Buddhist temples around Beijing, interview Lili’s Buddhist-practicing grandmother in her hermit’s retreat, and finally spend two months meditating with monks and reciting scriptures in a monastery. Despite his professed desire to “take in” Eastern thought, however, he exhibits an underlying unwillingness or resistance to truly incorporating the other’s culture for self-transformation. So, at the end of his monastery sojourn, when asked by Lili whether he has converted to Buddhism, he is quick to reply, “No, I still consider myself Jewish,” even as he goes on to lay simultaneous claim to Buddhism: “But Buddha is in my heart” (144). For Roy, “the East” is perfectly assimilatable as distilled civilizational remnants and abstracted philosophies of a distant past. It does not essentially disturb his sense of cultural self—as a subject of Western modernity. His detour into the monastery, like a brief layover for the cosmopolitan jet-setter, is also the last we hear of his religious pursuits.
Lili, whose first-person voice provides a running ironic commentary on Roy throughout the text, is already alert to his orientalism in their initial conversation. As she muses to herself: “In China I see everything but peace. People are wearing greed and impatience on their faces. . . . Maybe his East exists only in ancient China” (32). In this early observation by Lili, Wang briskly redirects our attention from China’s tradition to its modernity. The transcendental “peace” sought by Roy resonates with particular irony when juxtaposed against the novel’s eventual culmination in Beijing’s mass protests. Fittingly, then, the next significant exchange between the two takes place against the backdrop of Tiananmen Square itself. On their way home from their first date, as they pass by the Square (in a scene occurring months before the start of the demonstrations), the sight of Mao’s portrait instantly inflames Roy. “I can’t understand how one person can so dominate this vast nation,” he declares (45). He then launches into a speech on American versus Chinese national psychology, contrasting the former’s independence of thought with the latter’s predisposition toward mindless political worship: “We dare to question our leaders. We don’t get in trouble if we criticize our president. How about here? Mao’s policies have harmed so many innocent Chinese citizens, yet you still sing eulogies of him.” When Lili remains quiet, Roy intuits that he has crossed a line and concedes: “I admit that we Americans still idolize our leaders—John F. Kennedy, for example.” But he cannot help adding: “But God is God, and Satan is Satan” (46). Roy’s reverence for Chinese antiquity goes hand in hand with a demonization of Chinese modernity; the Buddha and Mao personify his bipolar vision of China.
In this largely one-sided debate about China’s national psyche and politics, Wang underscores—not the relative intellectual merits of the two interlocutors, as Gao does with the Middle-aged Man and the Young Man in Taowang—but the cultural power and political immunity necessary for someone to enter into this discourse in the first place. In fact, the thematic weight of this scene rests not in Roy’s almost parodically orientalist avowals but Lili’s perspicacious yet mostly unspoken self-reflections. Her first reaction to Roy’s provocative statement about Mao, for instance, is defensiveness. “Ever the journalist!” she scoffs to herself. “He is digging for news even on a date” (45). Her wariness of the Western ethnographic eye, of being perceived as the native informant, intensifies as the conversation continues:
I grow suspicious. I have heard that Western journalists often interview Chinese by treating them to lavish dinners and shows and then prying information out of them. Such Chinese “sources” usually get into big trouble afterward and are punished for “breaching national security.”
I don’t want to get into trouble for talking about politics with a Western journalist. Only crazy Yuan would do a dumb thing like that. I don’t want to meet any more prison guards. (46)
Lili is keenly conscious of the potential hazards of engaging in political discourse, a fact of which Wang reminds the reader at every opportunity. The narrator’s interior monologue therefore serves as a vehicle for Wang to convey not simply her disdain for American orientalism but also the Chinese subject’s canniness in confronting it.
This passage can usefully be read alongside the Beijing University interview from The Tank Man, since what Wang elaborates here is the missing “depth” behind the documentary’s superficial profile of Chinese youths today. Through the interiorizing lens of Wang’s novel, we may speculate that the female university students in Thomas’s film might also have heard about Western journalists and their interviewing tactics, that they, too, might fear recrimination by communist authorities and so feign ignorance through silence. Absent government monitors, though, Lili is perhaps freer to point out the Westerner’s cultural paternalism. As she quips: “What else do you think the Chinese need or don’t need? . . . Roy, maybe you are smarter than the Chinese, and maybe it’s true that yours is the greatest country in the world, but we Chinese don’t like Westerners’ giving us orders.” But even as she resorts to this ready-made position of national autonomy, she immediately acknowledges to herself, if not aloud to Roy, that she is “quoting clichés from the People’s Daily” (47). In talks about China’s politics, Lili knows that her own voice is far from autonomous, that she is caught between orientalist and communist truisms, silence and mimicry. She understands that, at its heart, the dispute about “China” involves power rather than “truth” or “justice”: “I argue not because I wish to defend China; I am not a government lackey. I argue because Roy already has everything: money, education, respect from others, freedom to travel. And now he also wants to be right all the time. This is called deli bu raogren—meaning that once you have truth and justice on your side, you always want to have the upper hand. He would make a good Party member. I talk because it is the only way I know to save face” (47).
It is crucial to note that Wang presents orientalism as an unavoidable premise for contemporary Sino-American relations and not as a false consciousness to be overcome. The narrative invests very little energy in rescuing Roy from his cultural arrogance or bringing him to a less superior attitude toward modern China. Although Lili discerns and internally mocks Roy’s orientalism from the outset, she does not dwell at length on or exert much effort in enlightening him. As the passages above imply, such pedagogical acts in turn presuppose a position of domestic power/knowledge, a position Lili well knows she does not occupy. Instead, Wang stages several scenes in which Lili confronts just those sources of authority that aim at cleansing Chinese women of Western influences, in contexts highly tied to the state’s disciplining of the female hooligan’s body. The novel opens with one such scene. Arrested on charges of “corrupt lifestyle and hooliganism”—that is, for being unemployed and sexually promiscuous before marriage—Lili is sentenced without trial to three months of “rehabilitation through labor” (3). The prison guard incessantly berates the female inmates as “a pack of scumbags” (4), as “wanton” and “evil slut[s],” and in one instance publicly slaps one woman for wearing lipstick, denouncing it as a foreign pollutant and antirevolutionary “poison” (6). Already in this first chapter, Lili articulates her marginality—or more exactly, her criminality—within the nation-state via class as much as gender, identifying herself not merely as a Chinese woman but a “bad woman”: “The Communist Party is very proud of its role in liberating Chinese women from . . . ancient customs. But a woman’s private life is still not her own. Those who lose their virginity before marriage are still spat upon. The only difference between feudal times and our own is that back then ‘bad women’ were seen as amoral fox spirits, whereas now they are labeled corrupt bourgeois” (8). The indigenous label of the female hooligan, of “shehui zhazi, meaning the scrapings from the bottom of the social barrel” (24), completely demarcates Lili’s place in this post–Cultural Revolution moment of PRC society; it is the way she comes to be seen, not just by agents of the law, but by her parents and neighbors as well.
Deviant female sexuality accrues extra meaning, however, within the framework of China’s globalization. Toward the novel’s end and during the Tiananmen protests, after Lili has been living with Roy for some months, she is visited by two men from the Ministry of National Security, undoubtedly the most repugnant characters in the novel. As they interrogate her about her relationship to the American journalist, they, too, like the prison warden, criminalize her sexuality, but this offense now takes on an additional layer of national betrayal. Exasperated by Lili’s calm but impudent retorts, one of the men yells: “You disgusting bitch! How can you be so shameless? You like being fucked by foreign cocks, don’t you? You think they are big, don’t you? China is corrupted by foreigners’ hookers like you” (273). The other man adopts a different approach, cajoling Lili to cooperate with them by appealing to her patriotism. Roy, he claims, “is a class enemy of our nation” who “has consistently and maliciously demonized and insulted the Chinese people and the Chinese government,” and “beautiful young women like you are good targets for those vile foreigners” (274). In effect, the government agent mobilizes the rhetoric of anti-imperialism and anti-orientalism to conscript Lili into national obedience, even as he implicitly threatens her with sexual violence by massaging her shoulders and fondling her back. Both episodes highlight Lili’s vulnerability within the state in terms of gender and class: before both the jail warden and the security police, the female hooligan can be made subject to verbal abuse and physical harassment, incarceration and molestation, with utter impunity. If Lili cannot enter into an equal dialogue about China with Roy, she is even more powerless to defy the domestic authorities in their disciplining or punishment of her body. And in both instances, the state exacts national and sexual compliance by masking its own coercive strategies as a protection against Western hegemony.
In anchoring itself in the female hooligan’s perspective, Wang’s novel proposes that orientalism may be the lesser evil next to the combination of China’s inveterate sexism and communist authoritarianism. The plot hence concentrates on developing rather than debunking Lili’s romance with Roy, on her gradual accommodation to rather than challenging of his worldview. Indeed, if orientalism is often theorized as a gendered structure of domination where the East is metaphorically feminized, Wang further suggests that, in the contemporary phase of China’s globalization, it is precisely Chinese women who stand to gain cross-cultural agency within both the PRC and the global economy.
One episode amply illustrates this. Walking together one day in the posh neighborhood of Jianguomenwai, “Beijing’s ‘global village’” (50), Lili and Roy meet a beggar woman with three young children in tow, all dressed in rags. “We haven’t eaten for three days,” the woman wails. “I’m from the countryside and have no relatives or friends here. Please, soften your hearts and take pity on me” (53–54). Roy immediately hands her a ten-yuan bill; she lavishes Buddhist blessings on him before happily trooping off with her brood, but not before flashing Lili a knowing smile. An instant later, Lili recalls having met the woman several years ago at a Beijing party, looking like a “fashionable movie star” in a “chic short black dress.” As she had confided to Lili on that occasion, her dream was to leave China and live abroad. Addressing Lili as a fellow hooligan, she had said with frankness:
“It’s no fun being Chinese. You know that, don’t you? This place is doomed. It’s dirty, poor, corrupted, and crammed with uneducated people. Nowadays everything is for sale, and everyone has green eyes out to get everyone else and is jealous of everyone else’s wealth. Did you see on the news the other day where thugs from Henan killed seventeen people driving fancy cars in Shenzhen, using knives to cut their throats and genitals? It’s crazy! To tell you the truth, I’ve had enough of this fucking place. . . . Don’t shit me, girl. We’re undesirable scum, with no diplomas, no high-ranking fathers, no good reputations or good jobs. The only chance we have is to get out.” (54–55)
Capitalist China, on her description, is a killing field where Chinese prey on each other for material self-advancement. Those with neither money nor connections can thrive only by leaving the country, but to leave, they need money. The woman’s solution to this catch-22 is a kind of entrepreneurial self-orientalization: she pays “country kids and retarded people to beg with her in different areas of Beijing,” especially the wealthy sectors occupied by foreign tourists and businessmen (55). With her earnings she hopes to buy South American citizenship papers for herself and her boyfriend, immigrate to Panama or Columbia to open a Chinese restaurant, and eventually have a baby and put down roots in the United States. Meanwhile, instead of preying on other Chinese, she and her boyfriend have organized underground gangs that literally capitalize on foreign capital by acting out foreigners’ expectations of mass rural poverty and then exploiting the latter’s sense of self-righteous pity. Paradoxically, then, globalization enters into this post-Mao world as both mishap and blessing, producing intraethnic violence as much as interethnic exploitation, national disillusionment as much as expanded horizons of desire and fantasy. When Lili warns Roy of these “street hustlers” and he dismisses her warning, she comments sardonically: “Oh, I see what it is: you love to show off your superiority, don’t you? It makes you feel good when these people beg from you, right? I guess you’re the savior of the world here” (56–57). Significantly, Wang does not undercut the beggar woman’s “profession” by calling its morality or social efficacy into question, nor does she attempt to portray the illegal syndicate as equally predatory toward the subaltern subjects it recruits, which would surely complicate the straightforward anti-orientalist critique of this scenario. On the contrary, Wang confirms the beggar woman’s diagnosis of foreigners by having Lili call out Roy’s cultural complacency and messiah complex. The novel thus intimates that, as Westerners appear ever more naïve and outdated in their interactions with the new China, a generation of urban Chinese women, by contrast, plays an increasingly pivotal role in the international flow of capital. In this specific cross-cultural encounter, money passes from American to Chinese hands as a direct result of the female hooligan’s self-orientalizing performance. As we will see, this deployment of subterfuge as a tactic of power-gathering—what might be termed capitalist trickster politics—will resurface again in the novel’s Tiananmen chapters.
For now, Wang shows Lili to be not wholly dishonest toward Roy but also not entirely unmanipulative in her reliance on his foreigner’s status. After their argument about the beggars, for example, he takes her shopping at the International Trade Mall and pays for all her expensive purchases. As teenage clerks fawn over her, Lili thinks guiltily to herself: “To them I’m a Chinese woman with a ‘white devil’; I can feel their subtle, unfriendly, nosy stares. It is their animal instinct. Female monkeys do the same to one another. . . . I blush and can’t help feeling like a beggar accepting handouts from this rich Western man. But actually I’m worse than a beggar—I am like a concubine” (58). Comparing herself unfavorably to her chance acquaintance, who at least preserves sexual independence, Lili admits that her relationship with Roy is far from purely sentimental. It is only by attaching herself to a foreign man that she can at last enjoy the luxuries afforded by Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policy: “hot water, marble floors, fragrant Zest soap, American-size towels. A life with privacy” (103). This socioeconomic self-advancement has its psychic toll, however, as she shamefacedly dubs herself a “monkey” and “concubine.” The entry of Western capitalism into Deng-era China, Wang insinuates, has transformed Beijing into the consummate contact zone, and Beijing women into neocolonial beggars and mistresses. Even as these women gain greater control over their domestic situations by profiting from foreigners, they end up compromising their dignity and integrity.
Moreover for Lili, even as she gains greater mobility by traveling around Beijing with Roy on his ethnographic adventures, seeing “things that a normal Chinese woman would not otherwise see” (75), this newfound gendered mobility and its attendant lessons eventually separate her even farther from other Chinese female lives. Having early on repudiated her mother’s example as a serious musician who spends her life teaching for a pittance, Lili goes on to reject every other mode of female life she comes across in the novel. One is that of the religious hermit as embodied by her maternal grandmother. Prompted by Roy’s interest in Buddhism, Lili reconnects with her estranged Grandma, whom she admires as a tough trailblazer who lived and loved courageously, who survived with fortitude the deaths of husbands as well as successive campaigns of political persecution. Yet Lili finds herself unable to embrace the otherworldly detachment and emotional barrenness of her grandmother’s current life, which seems to reduce life itself to “just six syllables—Om mani padme hum” (138).
In a similar vein, Lili refuses to take refuge in an idealized notion of the countryside as the site of pre-capitalist innocence. Her journey with Roy to the ironically named Up Village provides abundant reason for this. This section of the novel is narrated as a series of tableaus on peasant female misery. The first woman Lili meets, though only twenty-seven and hence one year younger than she, is so wrinkled that she looks older than Lili’s mother (164). The second woman, “thirty-six and not bad-looking, but deaf and mentally retarded,” is married by a matchmaker’s arrangement to a man in his late fifties who “badly needed a woman to have sex and children with” (168). This woman’s preteen daughter goes unnamed because her father did not want a girl, has a huge scar on her scalp because her father did not care enough to find her medicine after a childhood accident, and is crippled in both legs by polio because no treatment was available (169). The third woman, a cantankerous old widow, lives with her mentally handicapped son in a shack with no glass on the windows and no sheets on the clay bed (171). Facing these impoverished women, Lili feels self-disgust and shame, recognizing her urban privilege for the first time: “Here I am, towering over all of them, wearing a leather coat and high boots, coming into their home with my foreign boyfriend. Yes, I am a ‘fake foreign devil’!” (164). She is at once shocked and embarrassed that, ensconced in the capital just two hundred kilometers away, she has “never imagined that such poverty could exist in a place so close to Beijing. The voices of these peasants are unheard, their image unseen in that neon city” (167). Even the relatively better-off women in the village, though materially provided for, are still treated by the men as servants, secreted away from company to cook in the kitchen per feudal custom (177). Wang thus stresses that the brunt of rural hardship is borne by women, since they must in addition endure the persistent misogyny and abuse of peasant men. As Lili bitterly thinks to herself, “Drinking spirits and beating their wives are the peasants’ favorite pastime” (180). At the same time, Wang emphasizes Lili’s voice here as that of a privileged outsider who is not without her own social hypocrisies and blanket judgments. If Roy is the ethnographer in China, Lili is an autoethnographer in the village. Tellingly, Wang does not absolve her heroine of partial responsibility when the couple’s country voyage ends with the murder of a baby girl and the suicide of the girl’s mother. Just as Roy’s eternal cultural paternalism time and again brings misfortune to those Chinese he tries to help, so his attempt to play “savior” by adopting a poor girl infant—an enterprise about which Lili has misgivings but to which she basically consents—indirectly causes the deaths of two female peasants (210). In the end, witnessing what she construes as the hopeless poverty and inveterate sexism of the countryside leads Lili to reaffirm her choice of life: “To me poverty is the absence of opportunities. Roy and I can come to this place, observe the nudity of a retarded man, and listen to his mother’s sad story, but they can’t get out of this dead end of their lives. This is what all poverty is about. That’s why I would rather be a rich foreigner’s mistress than live an honest life here” (174). At the end of her travels, what Lili resolves is not to take flight, either in mind or body, from China’s globalization but to inhabit it fully, within all its contradictory and compromising consequences. This entails living with Western capital, orientalist conceit and power inequities included. What outsiders and locals alike, and Lili herself, often condemn as opportunism and greed is here reframed as the sociopsychic by-products of a changing world order.
Within this cultural space, Wang further delineates two opposing modes of life for Chinese urbanites. On one extreme are former movie actresses who “marry out.” Many of Roy’s American friends, as Lili learns at their housewarming party, are married to China-born Chinese wives, a “new fad” among foreigners and local women alike. These unions are emotionally hollow, but the women flaunt them as a status symbol in the new China. “My husband knows enough Chinese only to say ‘I want it’ and ‘I don’t want it,’ but the only thing he really ever says is ‘I want it’; he’s never said ‘I don’t want it,” one woman boasts. “Meanwhile, the only Chinese I say to him is ‘I don’t want it!’” (104). As one of sundry social effects of Western capital/ists in China, interracial marriages are presented in the novel, not as a product of cross-cultural understanding, much less love, but as a means of mutual commodification. Within this system, young urban Chinese women are only too eager to take advantage of American men’s Asian fetishism. Lili’s relationship with Roy approximates these marriages, for Roy, too, has a history of falling for Asian women. The one individualizing detail he offers about his Japanese American college sweetheart, for instance, is that she played the koto “beautifully . . . filled with simple, plain tones” (36). Although Roy differs from the other American men in that he not only speaks Chinese fluently but possesses more knowledge about China than does Lili herself, casually citing a Confucian proverb that escapes her even in their first exchange (33), this difference serves to accentuate all the more the inequality of education and cultural authority between them, the distance between his Berkeley pedigree and her hooligan upbringing.
The other mode of living with Western capital is exemplified by the minor character Yao, whose name signifies a double, and double-edged, structure of lack/want (yao). As a figure of neocolonial desire, Yao embodies an ambivalent model of chauvinism and complicity. A former history major in college, he is now a private tour guide, one of many “getihu” or independent entrepreneurs who have started their own businesses under Deng’s liberalization policy (150). As such, he can turn his knowledge of Chinese history into personal profit by driving foreign tourists to ancient sites in his private jeep. Yet the profession of tour guide, as innumerable postcolonial narratives have argued, is itself fraught with the ideological baggage of colonial history. Yao’s case is no exception, but he, too, like the beggar woman, plays a subversive role on his own orientalist stage, albeit with less camouflage and more rancor. At one point, he shows Roy and Lili around the Imperial Summer Palace, that paradigmatic site of China’s colonial trauma. With his usual ethnographic condescension, Roy remarks: “Why are there so many walls in China, anyway? I don’t like walls; they block freedom and segregate people. Maybe it was better for the Chinese that the Western nations did invade. At least that helped break up the corrupt Manchu government.” To this, Yao rejoins with a sound-bite lesson on the history of Western imperialism in China, replete with “opium, gunboats, and colonialism” (155–56). So, even as he lives off of Western capital in the present, Yao cannot refrain from attacking its past in highly jingoistic terms to his current benefactors. The result is a mixed psychology of self-contempt and race hatred. As he admits to Roy: “On the one hand, the past has taught us to hate Westerners; on the other I personally have to love them because I get only Westerners as customers, never locals. That’s why I follow you like a dog. I’m not shy; I want to get ahead” (156). Yao’s self-description as a “dog” echoes Lili’s “monkey” one from earlier, testifying to a common cultural abjection on the part of those Chinese who “get ahead” by feeding on Western capital. Finally, at the trip’s conclusion, a more heated altercation arises between the two men—precisely over the payment for Yao’s services. When Roy hands him sixty yuan, the latter is furious and insists on being paid in U.S. dollars: “Are we Chinese so worthless in your eyes that you’re willing to spend more money on dog food than on a hardworking Chinese tour guide, a college graduate?” (158). It would seem that the debilitating sense of being treated like a dog haunts Yao, even in the absence of intentional disrespect from the racial other. Wang here showcases the ambivalence of the native within the PRC’s new global economy: divided between nationalist pride and capitalist yearning, collusion and vengeance, Yao refuses to be debased by international double standards and demands equal pay for his labor along a first-world currency, but his penultimate posture in the novel, caught by Lili in a backward glance, is ambiguously torn between “frustration and disgust,” frozen between staring at the money and actually pocketing it (158).
Conspicuously, Lili remains silent throughout this whole episode. As she notes to herself: “I want to help Roy, but I know my participation would only add fuel to the fire: Yao would just ignore me or maybe even attack me for being a Chinese ‘sellout’” (158). Once again Wang underlines the gendered imbalance of power in nationalist debates about China. Despite Lili’s and Yao’s shared cultural abjection, Wang none too subtly stresses a gendered difference between them when she has Yao confess to displacing his racial anger onto women. “I use the money I earn from you guys to go to nightclubs that have blonde Russian waitresses,” Yao brags to Roy at one point. “We say that to screw white women is to get revenge on the intruders of the eight nations. . . . Why should I always serve Westerners; why not the other way around?” (156). By embedding Yao’s sexism within a more fundamental wound in the national psyche, Wang invokes a familiar model of colonization as symbolic racial castration (Fanon; Eng). Indeed, Yao is as much a caricature as Roy, and his narrative function no less par for the course. As a prototype of China’s neocolonial emasculation, he is necessarily blind to his own class and gender privileges, the educational background and masculine security that afford him a degree of mobility and fluency unattainable to the female hooligan. In line with this portrait is his naïve parroting of official propaganda. Unlike Lili, Yao does not evince any critical self-awareness vis-à-vis the communist regime’s internal hegemony. When he parades the Imperial Summer Palace before Roy and lectures the American on the Opium Wars, what he suppresses is the communist state’s own calculated appropriation and enshrining of this site—as evidence of national historical injury, hence an instrument for inciting continued antagonism against the West and a method of manufacturing political consent at home. What’s more, Yao counters Roy by reiterating an imperialist script that is not even his own but the Communist Party’s, justifying the state’s ethnic repression as national self-rule: “To us,” he tells Roy with unqualified assurance, “the Manchus are as Chinese as the Tibetans” (155).
Together, the exogamous movie actresses and the native informant/nativist avenger outline two extreme paths of dwelling with, and within, orientalist capital. Both are declined by Lili. Yet it is only after tracing the contours of these myriad zones of life that Wang at last opens the curtain on the center stage of her novel: Tiananmen Square. That is to say, it is squarely on the messy and quite prosaic terrains of China’s globalization—and emphatically not the lofty terms of a domestic struggle for political authority between intellectuals and the state, students and the Party—that Wang locates her Tiananmen drama. In doing so, she reimagines Tiananmen from a largely masculine and elite discourse to one that revolves around the politically fringe figure of the female hooligan, now resignified as the pivotal desired object as well as desirous agent of orientalist capital. In turn, she shifts Tiananmen’s analytical context from the politics of governance to that of culture—in its late capitalist formation as a sphere of commodification and mass consumption. This constitutes the most distinctive implication of Wang’s novel: the myth of Tiananmen as the grand clash between communism and democracy, totalitarianism and freedom, is to her much less adequate to explicating ordinary lives in contemporary PRC than the banalities of popular consumer culture. For Wang, globalization has meant that even political dissidence in communist China now at best takes the form of, and at worst becomes devoured by, capitalist consumption. Tiananmen symbolizes this new reality at its core, not its radical rupture. In this light, Lili is nothing short of a wholesale demythologizing of Tiananmen and a timely repackaging of it as cross-cultural capitalist theater—dramatized for the novel’s Anglophone readers as a not so remote experience of globalization that includes them, precisely as readers.
ROCK AND ROLL SQUARE
Timely, I say, in the sense of a temporal updating that is also a historical anachronism. Although Lili is ostensibly set in the mid- to late 1980s, its atmosphere of a ubiquitous commodity culture and its characters’ sophisticated familiarity with Western imports seem to index the hypercommercialization of the 1990s rather than the cautious liberalization of the previous decade, which has been characterized more modestly as a period of “marginalized capitalists” and “disguised capitalists” (Tsai 50–60). In the wake of Tiananmen, Deng Xiaoping faced the task of regaining political authority against Party conservatives who faulted his liberal reforms for the pro-democracy movement, and in a strategic but risky bid to rebuild his prestige, Deng boldly called for even greater economic expansion for China in his 1992 southern tour (Fewsmith, 2nd ed. 21–79). The 1990s henceforth became the decade of accelerated capitalism that put the PRC on the track to becoming a global economic power. As the political economist Yasheng Huang asserts, “Globalization is the story of the 1990s, not of the 1980s” (54).1 Perhaps it is de rigueur in the current intellectual climate to read a millennial cultural text such as Wang’s through the theoretical lens of globalization with all its denationalizing potential, though I suspect that this interpretive maneuver, if made too swiftly, can obscure a vital historical link between Tiananmen and globalization itself. While Wang’s anachronism serves to demystify Tiananmen within a nationalist narrative, it may also confuse cause and effect, obfuscating the direct role that the massacre played in pushing the PRC toward globalization. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that our present stage of global capital, in which China now overtakes Japan as the world’s second-largest economy and challenges the United States’ place as economic world leader, is historically contingent on the fact of the Beijing massacre, on Deng’s shrewd shifting of both domestic and international attention away from politics to economics, away from repressive measures to the opening of markets, in the post-Tiananmen years. Wang’s thematic priorities can be viewed as one product of this historical legacy.
So, it is the globalizing Beijing of the 1990s that resonates in Wang’s portrayal of that “crazy, distracted city,” in all its material indulgence and decadence:
Fancy hotels, supermarkets, discos, Kentucky Fried Chicken, construction sites, open-door policies, “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” “spiritual pollution,” export permits, handicapped role models, learning from the solider Lei Feng, t’ai chi, Sigmund Freud, existentialism, “the Four Basic Principles of China’s socialism,” the one-child policy, foreign-exchange currency, Japanese soap operas, pest-extermination campaigns, nepotism, young nannies, kung fu novels, the new rage for studying abroad, breakdancing and the “moonwalk,” Wham and George Michael, getting rich quick, the notion that foreign moons are bigger and rounder, color TV sets, dishwashers, refrigerators, sewing machines, ESP, New Tide literature—Beijing is chaotic, overwhelming, waiting impatiently to change itself again and again. (40)
Wang’s description of consumerist confidence in Lili’s Beijing, where characters from all walks of life behave with utter savoir-faire in the cultural landscape of late capital, is in sharp contrast to the 1980s China presented in both Ha Jin’s The Crazed and Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma. In the latter texts, pre-Tiananmen China exhibits all the growing pains of a socialist society making its faltering transition into capitalism. Where Lili casually catalogues dozens of eclectic commodities and trends by way of summing up her childhood city in the above passage—her very syntax replicating the modes of reification and rapid consumption that epitomize commodity culture—signs of capital are paused over with much greater marvel by Jin’s protagonist. Jian takes special notice, for example, when a classmate cooks with a new electric stove “at least 1,500 watts strong” (31), and he recounts how Professor Yang’s two-door refrigerator, bought in Canada during a conference trip, is nothing short of a campus legend among faculty and staff (43). If this rather crude excitement showcases the provincial setting of Jin’s novel, the college students of Ma’s Beijing are only slightly more urbane when it comes to capitalist goods. A key object in Beijing Coma, for example, is the camera. A commodity that Dai Wei at one point acquires through his Hong Kong girlfriend and then resells in Guangzhou for a profit of one thousand yuan, which covers a full year’s rent for their room (75), the camera is far from a commonplace item in the novel even among those well-off university students who eventually assemble in Tiananmen Square, which explains their heavy reliance on foreign cameras to record the movement. Roy’s presence in Lili therefore facilitates Wang’s retroactive conjuring of a metropolis where the availability of Western commodities can be taken for granted even by a street hooligan.
On a biographical level, we can attribute this anachronism in the novel to Wang’s place in history. Born in Beijing in 1972, she was only sixteen in 1989 and hence two academic generations behind the college students who initiated the protest movement. Unlike Gao and Jin, she was on-site to witness the demonstrations firsthand, visiting the Square every day (“Conversation”), though unlike Ma, she was fortuitously placed there by nativity and did not have to travel far. Most importantly, though a self-described “Deng Xiaoping kid” (“People’s”), she came of age as a writer only in the post-Tiananmen phase of Deng’s regime. So, she has perhaps backward superimposed the 1990s cultural environment onto the 1980s milieu of Lili. On a narratological level, however, and whether intended or not, this anachronism functions to dislocate the Tiananmen chapters from their real historical moment. Instead of historical realism, the generic codes of which typically mask the temporal lapse between the written event and the writing act, what Wang gives us is a novel that denaturalizes its Tiananmen references and reveals them as belated signifiers, retrospective constructions of a future time. This narrative effect is not incongruent with Wang’s account of her own stylistic choices and thematic investments. As she comments in one interview: “People have called [Lili] documentary fiction, but I don’t like the label because I’m less interested in the events and more in giving an insight into an individual’s psyche” (qtd. in Stanford). She is also forthright in noting that Lili is not “a political book,” that “it offers an emotional rather than a political history of Tiananmen.” Most telling of all is the texture of her memories of the Square: “I went to Tiananmen Square for the rock and roll atmosphere, not democracy. I was 16 and full of energy, not politics” (qtd. in Crampton).
And it is exactly this ambiance of rock and roll that saturates Wang’s fictional reincarnation of Tiananmen Square in Lili. In contrast to Gao and Jin, Wang does not leave her Tiananmen fiction outside the Square. Yet her Square, unlike Ma’s, is not fastidiously realistic but contains shades of the hyperreal. As the protest movement picks up momentum, Lili, hitherto aloof from and apathetic to mass politics, finds herself drawn to the Square every day: “It’s magical and I am spellbound. I don’t understand democracy or human rights. It feels like a rock concert, where sharing the excitement with others is more important than listening to the performer’s lyrics” (236). The rhetoric of pathos rather than logos threads through these chapters. Repeatedly, Lili expresses her presence in the Square not as political self-education but as emotional enjoyment:
I like to go [to the Square] simply because I enjoy being with others, seeing colorful banners and wild clothing. People come to make friends, listen to rumors, and share drinks, cigarettes, and the latest news. Some come to the square to feel powerful by breaking the rules, others to feel important by delivering speeches to an eager audience.
Every day there are demonstrations and parades through the streets of Beijing. Some of the marchers obviously have no idea why they’re marching; they’re just joining in the excitement. . . .
I don’t participate in the activities; I am simply curious. I don’t have the political consciousness of Yuan or the college students, nor do I have Roy’s journalistic interest. I am just one of the millions of unsure Beijing citizens. (230–31)
The atmosphere is that of an enormous party, not a somber political rally. Unlike the conversations about “China” between Roy and Lili, here in the Square gossip supersedes debate. The language of feeling, of emotion, predominates over that of thought or reason. That crucial moment of epiphany, of the subaltern subject awakening to a sense of national self-consciousness, is entirely absent. Instead, Lili underscores her continued incomprehension of even the most basic political concepts. For instance, when an unnamed student leader, “a handsome northerner with curly hair . . . his voice husky but hypnotic” (237)—the obvious fictional counterpart of Wuer Kaixi—addresses the crowds, Lili is so moved by the general passion around her that she joins in the slogan shouting for the first time, even though she has no intellectual grasp on the content of her words:
This eloquent young student leader is a good and powerful talker. His fervor inflames the audience. There is a thunderstorm of applause. Many people have tears in their eyes. Strangers hug me, their tears dampening my cheeks and their hot breath tickling me. It is impossible for me to remain unmoved. I hug them back and feel a sense of camaraderie.
“Democracy now! Democracy now! Democracy now!” the audience chants. I chant with them. I don’t know what democracy is, but it’s a mantra. The physical vibration of the word can create positive energy. (239)
This scene is soon followed by a parallel one in which “the number-one student leader”—an unnamed Chai Ling—gives a long sentimental speech about “that sacred word democracy” (246–47). Once again the “crowd begins to chant with the girl,” and once again Lili feels herself “deeply touched,” not by the words’ substance but by their solemnity and earnestness, so much so that she begins to march with the hunger strikers, physically becoming part of the protesting throng (248). By the third day of the hunger strike, Lili has been transformed into a volunteer nurse, working with the medical teams to help transport collapsed students to the hospital (257). Five days straight in the Square later, she still admits to not understanding democracy and not knowing what the students truly want, though she stays because she likes “this new feeling of being needed by and connected to people” (264).
Throughout these chapters, Wang withholds the names of the real student leaders who make cameo appearances so as to emphasize Lili’s outsider status in the Square, even as her detachment converts into participation. Ironically, then, while Lili can rattle off with ease the names of foreign music stars such as Wham and George Michael, the most well-known student leaders in her hometown remain unknown to her. She recognizes that, even in the midst of a national democracy movement, a domestic class hierarchy persists between students and citizens: “College students are the pioneers of the movement, heroic and loved by everyone. Historically, students are the backbone of almost every major social movement in modern China. Now they are on hunger strike, in the limelight. Citizens like me are on the fringes: we merely watch, listen, applaud for them, support them, and admire them” (253). Finally arguing back against Roy in their discussions about China, she further gives voice to a class-conscious view of the hunger strike as an elitist political strategy: “The whole non-violent thing sounds too elite; I just can’t understand it. All I know is that there are millions of poor people in China. All they want is to have enough to eat” (244). By aligning the antiheroic Lili with the anonymous millions who poured out in spectacular support of the movement that spring, Wang clearly aims to redirect “the limelight” from the students to the citizens, from the elite to the masses. This, too, can be read as part of her demythologizing of Tiananmen, a deflating of it from the elevated realm of political idealism to the mundane one of the populace’s humble needs. Perhaps she is paying homage to the plebeian constituents of a movement that, after all, inspired even the thieves of Beijing to go on a sympathy strike (Black and Munro 365 n. 3). Implicit in this rewriting of Tiananmen is the idea of democracy itself: is not this magnified view of the Square and of Beijing, Wang seems to ask, much more democratic in spirit than the isolated focus on students and intellectuals versus Party leadership?
Wang’s analogy of the rock concert is of course not strictly metaphorical. In the visual archive of Tiananmen, some of the most iconic images involve the rock stars Cui Jian and Hou Dejian singing such signature tunes as “Nothing to My Name” and “Descendants of the Dragon” to swaying hordes of students. In fact, popular music was an integral part of the culture of Tiananmen both before and during the demonstrations. As Hou Dejian observes: “Popular music, of course, came from the West. When young people try to express themselves, to sing about their own concerns, it is really a form of liberalization. That’s why this music played a very important role during the movement. When someone takes part in a rock concert, that kind of crazy feeling is all about self-liberation and about self-expression” (“Gate”). Echoing this sentiment, Wuer Kaixi credits Cui Jian with capturing the spirit of his generation: “His song ‘Nothing to My Name’ expresses our feelings. Does our generation have anything? We don’t have the goals our parents had. We don’t have the fanatical idealism our older brothers and sisters once had. So what do we want? Nike shoes. Lots of free time to take our girlfriends to a bar. The freedom to discuss an issue with someone. And to get a little respect from society” (“Gate”). In these and other historical reflections on Tiananmen, the relation between political action and popular culture is always enunciated as a mutually reinforcing one, with the latter playing a supplementary role to the former. The songs “express” preexisting feelings; they do not determine the mood of political disenchantment and spiritual void. In reference to the protests, it is never in doubt that cultural “self-expression” is solidly harnessed to the political agenda of “liberation” and “freedom.” Implicit here is a rather traditional literati assumption that the students act as masters of themselves, that no matter how “crazy” they get, they are ultimately in control of the forces of culture.
Wang, however, upends this politics-culture hierarchy when she proposes that, for the students as much as the ordinary citizens in the Square, Tiananmen is through and through a capitalist spectacle. Tiananmen in Lili is not a political movement embellished with the occasional rock concert. Quite the reverse: for Wang, the machinery of mass consumption has taken on such existential magnitude in capitalist China that it can now turn around and consume the masses themselves, swallowing up even rebellious voices of political resistance. Pop singers arrive to speechify on the importance of a free press, shouting slogans and being chased by female fans for autographs (231). Student leaders wave their hands like “movie star[s]” to swarms of admirers screaming, “I love you” (239). Groups of student demonstrators don different styles, some singing rock songs rather than the national anthem, others “dressed in the outfits of Beijing’s punks,” still others “wearing black sunglasses, mimicking the Mafia of Hong Kong” (226). The Square becomes a theater of free-floating mimicry, with protesting students imitating pop stars imitating political dissidents, all eager to perform for eager spectators. All, “in an eerie fashion,” appear like “extras on a movie set” (250). Even street peddlers copy the celebrities by tantalizing audiences with “police-brutality stories,” propelling themselves into “temporary star[dom]” (233). For their part, the crowds chant democratic slogans with as much gusto as they do the names of their favorite idols of the moment. In an impish quasi-fictional move, Wang transcribes the lyrics to Hou Dejian’s “Descendants of the Dragon” but assigns the song to the invented character of Lili’s U.S.-born rock star cousin, Johnny Cardiac. Hitherto indifferent to both China’s politics and his mainland family, Johnny suddenly materializes in the Square, wearing “an outfit consisting of a potato sack, a pair of sunglasses, and a white headband marked with the words Love and Freedom—a hippie wanna-be,” and makes a speech about Chinese pride. The people roar with approval, and he launches into two patriotic songs. Lili, though skeptical of his motives, makes explicit Wang’s suggestion here about the formidable potential of consumer culture to mobilize the masses: “As Johnny sings, his eyes are closed, tears pouring down his cheeks. Maybe the student movement has changed him, or maybe he’s just a good faker. But as a pop star, he has a power that most intellectuals lack. I have seen poets, scholars, and professors give speeches in the square, but Johnny unites and mobilizes people—educated and not, young and old—like no one else” (261). Capital may be materially absent in this free concert, but the infrastructure of capitalist commodification and consumption is everywhere visible in these sketches of the Square.
In the context of Wang’s novel, this revaluation of Tiananmen from elitist politics to capitalist consumption is not necessarily progressive or retrograde. On the one hand, Lili feels bound to a greater collective for the first time in her life; on the other, this emotional connection is problematically characterized by an unremitting ignorance. She gains unprecedented access to a national arena through the student movement, but she never comes to an understanding of “democracy,” and her actions are more self-alienating than self-actualizing. “The chant makes me not me anymore,” she narrates at one point. “I have become a stranger to myself” (248–49). The import of this cliché is ambivalent. Is the female hooligan’s transformation into a Tiananmen participant a model of political citizenship or of mindless mob following? Is her sense of fulfillment a genuine mode of democratic empowerment or the late capitalist revival of false consciousness? Both possibilities are evoked by Wang. As with Johnny Cardiac, there lingers an indeterminacy around Lili. The significance of Wang’s text, however, does not lie in settling these questions decisively. Rather, it lies in what the questions themselves make salient: the need to rethink political agency in globalizing China and to reframe the concept as inexorably embedded within the dynamics of capitalist consumption. This is not a quietist refutation of agency altogether, à la Gao’s argument for existential flight. As with the everyday politics of dwelling with and within orientalist capital, Wang offers two opposing examples on the spectrum of political agency as enacted in the Square.
At one point during her visits to the Square, Lili is invited to live in a tent with three female students who have joined the hunger strike. With this move, Wang opens a narrative window onto the inner space of student life. No longer a physical outsider, Lili now provides the reader with an insider’s look at a segment of student activism. What she finds surprises her: more so than the throngs outside the tent, these women are revealed to be shallow consumers of popular culture, using their radio-cassette recorder not to get updates from the Voice of America or the BBC but to listen to love songs by Johnny Cardiac all day. To pass the time, they smoke and gossip on trivial topics: “Smoking distracts them from their hunger pains. They talk about boyfriends, generation gaps, young mistresses kept by rich old men, hometowns, dorm stories, pop singers, perfume, and ways of cheating on tests. None of their conversation is about the movement, except when they argue about which student leader is cutest. They giggle a lot. They are happy” (251–52). They chatter about heartthrobs, Chanel perfume, Reeboks, and movie actresses—everything but democracy. To Lili, their statements are “so girlish, so unpolitical, so unheroic” that she has a hard time reconciling their shallowness with the student leaders’ solemn rhetoric outside the tents: “They seem so carefree and so obsessed with beauty—they’re even more superficial than I am. But they are also college students fasting for some kind of ideal that I don’t understand” (252). Wang makes no attempt to develop or deepen these women, nor does she detract from their commitment to the cause. As the hunger strike drags on, Lili watches as they “become weaker and weaker, far less talkative,” their lips paling, their hair “tangled and unkempt,” their bodies reeking—“but still they refuse to leave” (256). For Wang, these women embody one set of contradictions of political agency in the capitalist Square.
The other emblematic figure in the novel’s Tiananmen chapters is a male hunger striker who goes by the name of Jackson. When asked by Lili why he uses an English name, he replies: “My Chinese name doesn’t sound good. Michael Jackson is my idol, so I named myself Jackson.” Unlike the three female hunger strikers, though, Jackson is not just another worshipful consumer of popular culture and Western goods, nor is he a naïve idealist about the radical measures adopted by the movement. While he wears a board that histrionically announces, “I Love Life, I Need Food, but I’d Rather Die Than Live Without Democracy,” he confides in Lili that he has squirreled away a stash of candy in his pocket (244–45). The sign, he explains, is “only a gesture”: “The government isn’t honest with us. Why do we have to be honest with it and risk our lives? We aren’t stupid like our fathers, are we? We want to embarrass the government, not die trying.” Nonetheless, he urges Lili to protect his secret, since he knows the students need to “win the sympathy of the citizens” for the hunger strike to succeed (246). Savvy to the ways of antigovernment protest, Jackson exemplifies a breed of domestic trickster politics, one that pragmatically resorts to subversive tactics to navigate between state and citizen power in the interests of larger political ends. Similar to the beggar woman in the face of orientalist capital, he is not averse to self-commodification and deceitful manipulation of others’ goodwill. Above all, like his namesake, he fully grasps the capacity of the iconic image and the public spectacle to mobilize the masses in the culture of late capital. In role-playing the persona of a heroic and self-sacrificing patriotic youth, he taps into a familiar cultural mythology in twentieth-century China but updates it for a contemporary audience whose short-lived attention can only be sustained by easily consumable and commoditized images. Neither Gao Xingjian’s hotheaded ideologue nor Ha Jin’s self-absorbed individualist, Jackson is Wang’s much more flattering portrait of the Tiananmen student as a shrewd and purposeful political agent in the age of China’s globalization.
Relevant here is Joseph Esherick and Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s concept of “political theater.” In their study of the Tiananmen students, Esherick and Wasserstrom argue that it would be imprecise to characterize the protest movement as a truly pro-democracy one if the term minzhu is taken to mean a Western-style plural-party system. Most participants in the movement sought to reform socialist society, not to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party, and few students at the time had any deep knowledge of democratic governance. What’s more, Esherick and Wasserstrom point out that many students consistently displayed an “elitist reading of minzhu” and a “distrust of the laobaixing or untutored masses” as well as a “lack of concern for the needs of workers and peasants” (31). In a parallel vein, Elizabeth Perry postulates that the Tiananmen movement failed ultimately because of the limits of the students themselves, who acted with an elitist blend of “intellectual traditionalism” and “Confucian morality” that excluded the participation of the rank-and-file, especially of entrepreneurs and workers: “The shared assumptions of rulers and rebels served to reinforce preexisting authority relations, ensuring that China’s protest movement did not become its revolution of 1989” (147). On this issue, Wang does not go so far as to depict the students as uncaring or callous toward the citizenry, but she does use Lili to voice a commoner’s sense of alienation from the students’ elitism. What reverberates strikingly with Wang’s theme of theatricality, however, is Esherick and Wasserstrom’s contention that Tiananmen was less a philosophically coherent political movement than an instance of Chinese political theater—a “cultural performance before a mass audience . . . that expresses beliefs about the proper distribution and disposition of power . . . and other scarce resources” (39). By marching through the city streets, occupying Tiananmen Square, and embarking on a hunger strike, the students were acting out the symbolic components in a familiar script of public protest in China drawn from “a historically established ‘repertoire’ of collective action . . . emerging out of traditions of remonstrance and petition” (32–33). The students’ performance was therefore “designed to impress and move an audience, not a lecture designed to inform” (40).
Consonant with Esherick and Wasserstrom’s argument, all the Tiananmen students in Lili, from the unnamed leaders with their movie-star mimicry and pathos-soaked oratory to the diverse hunger strikers, all aim to impress and move, not inform. Wang has no qualms, however, about ironizing and postmodernizing the notion of political theater, which in her novel is far from a somber reenactment of Confucian rituals but is instead the frenzied culmination of contemporary China’s commodity fetishism. In this sense, she banalizes the students to some extent, peeling back their self-orchestrated image as extraordinary political heroes. Yet she does so not to castigate the students as bad-faith actors but to embed them within the continuum of a consumerist mentality that they share with ordinary citizens like Lili. Akin to Esherick and Wasserstrom, too, Wang accentuates an indigenous lineage of plebeian protest when she has her various anonymous student leaders repeatedly summon May Fourth as “the first step in the patriotic democracy movement of Chinese students” (238). Most telling in this respect is the conspicuous absence in her novel of the Goddess of Democracy, that giant papier-mâché statue built by undergraduates at the Central Academy of Fine Arts and erected in the Square just days before the massacre. This sculpture was partly modeled on the U.S. Statue of Liberty, and few Western chronicles of Tiananmen have failed to mention it, often with the subtle insinuation that Chinese dissenters must rely on Western idols for inspiration—even though, as the art historian Wu Hung emphasizes, the Goddess of Democracy was “a borrowed symbol . . . modified into an indigenous image” and was certainly “not a copy” (43–45). Wang’s eliding of this key “theatrical” detail, particularly noteworthy against her backdrop of pervasive mimicry in the Square, suggests a modicum of nativist loyalty yet. Overall, the theory of political theater provides a constructive supplemental context for reading Wang’s representation of the Square as a spectacle—not least because it, too, like her examination of global capital, helps to situate Tiananmen within an analytical framework focused on historical changes in social power relations, a framework that goes beyond mere moral or cultural censure.
Part II. Equivocal Transnationalism
BILINGUALISM AS DIASPORIC FEMININITY
By the 1990s, with five books already successfully published in Chinese and a solid fan base within mainland China, Wang could easily, and much more comfortably, have elected to write Lili in her native language. The Tiananmen novel, however, will serve as her linguistic rite of passage into English. Intriguingly, when asked in interviews about her language choice for this work, Wang consistently foregrounds issues of gender rather than political censorship:
The reason I chose writing it in English is because I couldn’t write the “bad girl” Lili in Chinese. It’s interesting that words are always associated with their cultural context. Some attractive concepts become undesirable in Chinese. For example, privacy refers to something that one doesn’t want others to know about, something almost evil. Individualism means selfishness. The direct translation of ambition is a wild heart, again a negative expression in China. These negative connotations of words contradicted what I believed, blocking the free flow of my thoughts. Moreover, I wanted to explore subjects like female sexuality and class differences, which were taboo in China. Lili is a disaffected girl who lives a life of violence, sex, betrayal, distrust, self-loathing, shamelessness and cynicism. Her character was too much for the Chinese principle of sobriety and decorum, especially in early 1990s. (“Conversation”)
For Wang, the Chinese language is deeply rooted in conservative moral values of “sobriety and decorum,” especially regarding female sexuality. While she acknowledges that political pressure is a real concern for Sinophone writers, she invariably puts greater emphasis on the cultural expectations and perceptual limits imposed by the language itself. English, by contrast, enables her “to write without self-censorship and worries about cultural land mines” (“New”). Wang is, of course, well aware of the state censorship around June 4, firsthand evidence of which is the much-abridged Chinese translation and mainland edition of Lili, with most references to Tiananmen expunged (Stanford). Yet she rarely explicates her linguistic switch to English in terms of political suppression. Instead, she repeatedly evokes the voice of female impropriety that English affords her: “When people write in Chinese, they worry they will get punished. When I write in English, I don’t want to worry. I can use profanity, street language, bad girls” (qtd. in Weisenhaus).
Wang is not alone in linking English to a specifically female sense of writerly authority and autonomy. Her broad-stroked account of the Chinese language’s demonization of “privacy” and “individualism” may smack a bit of Western stereotypes, but it is precisely via the perceived freedom of English that many Chinese diaspora women writers likewise find release from the psychological inhibitions of their first language. Yiyun Li, for example, speaks similarly of the ability to escape self-censorship as a reason for writing in English: “I can’t write in Chinese at all. I think it’s more like self-censoring, than other people censoring me. I don’t know—I just feel so much more comfortable writing in English” (Y. Li). Liu Hong too refers to the mentally liberating effect of English: “Writing in English, I can be free. It’s not just political, it’s personal. I feel I can be almost a different kind of personality. I’m more open, more able to express myself. I’m less worried about what other people or my family might think” (qtd. in Angel). A common thread running through these remarks is a feeling of personal comfort and expressiveness in English, as opposed to a debilitating self-consciousness of the judgments of imagined readers in Chinese. In short, English is one of the main pleasures of diaspora for these women authors. While language choice does not cut strictly across gender lines in diaspora literature, it is telling that Wang, in an essay canvassing contemporary “Chinese émigré authors,” aligns herself much more readily with Geling Yan and Anchee Min—both of whom write in English (though Yan also writes in Chinese)—than with Ma Jian. The latter she characterizes as “stubbornly defend[ing] his unwillingness to read or write in English” and whom she quotes as averring rather smugly: “I’m a genius. I write because of my talents and inspiration. I don’t need another language” (“New”). In this context, then, we can read Wang’s oft-cited metaphor of her English infancy as the supreme articulation of her feminist perspective: “The 26 English letters make me a child again, naïve, bold, fearless, primal. I could profane, question, and break the stranglehold of traditional Chinese culture. Lili is the manifesto of my youthful revolt” (“Conversation”). In a literary tradition where patriarchal authority is habitually allegorized as age, her invocation of childhood may signal not just generational iconoclasm but a distinctly female self-positioning.
Notably, Wang is the only writer in this study to command a sizeable readership in the PRC—and hence the one, from the perspective of reception and consumption, most wide-reachingly bilingual and transnational. Ha Jin composes solely in English and is an established figure in the U.S. literary scene, and though he is actively involved in the Chinese translations of his own work for Taiwan and Hong Kong publishers, he must rely on these translations to reach a mainland readership. The explicitly anticommunist stance of his novels also ensures his marginality there; as he indicates in one interview: “It’s not possible for some writers to get published in China. They are able to publish their own books, but they can’t be economically independent or reach a large audience. All my books have been translated into Chinese, but you can’t find them on mainland China, and no official Chinese paper would ever review them” (Rightmyer). By contrast, Ma Jian writes solely in Chinese, but as I will clarify, the circulation of his recent work in its original language of composition is so limited that it must pass through the route of translation into English before it becomes known for the first time to most Sinophone readers. Finally, although Gao Xingjian writes in both Chinese and French and is widely recognized in Europe as a bilingual author, the censorship of his work by the communist government, combined with the avant-garde nature of his post-exile writing, has kept his mainland readership minuscule. Wang herself comments on this point in her essay: “Four years after U.S.-based Ha Jin won a National Book Award and three years after France-based Gao Xingjian was honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature, the work of these two internationally hailed Chinese authors is still largely unseen inside China. Sadly, the China-born authors now emerging on the world’s literary stage remain largely unknown inside their native country. Some are still banned” (“New”). Of the four writers here, only Wang succeeds in galvanizing a broad audience in the PRC by tapping into popular genres of fiction as well as making use of mass media forms such as the newspaper column and the weblog. And she is the only one to have returned to reside part-time in the PRC since her departure in 1993, moving back to Beijing in 1999 and relocating to Shanghai in 2004 to run a fashion magazine (Wang, PostGlobal). She now divides her time between Shanghai and California—a trajectory that, as one critic points out, “is not unique but instead emerging as a typical career path for a number of young writers who are currently catching transnational attention” (Ommundsen 337).
These brief biographical details suffice to highlight the vast distance separating Wang’s female subject position from Lili’s. In the novel, Lili does not know any foreign languages and is acutely aware of her marginal status within China’s new global economy, where English is the language of power and Americans the people of money. Wang, by contrast, can speak of her own bilingualism with the glibness of a cosmopolitan consumer. When asked online by her Chinese readers whether she would continue to compose fiction in Chinese, she answers: “I think I will. Just like I eat burgers as well as rice, listening to rock and roll as well as meditative Chinese music I live with both Chinese and English” (“Conversation”). This statement is a far cry from Lili’s constant reminder to the reader that multilingualism remains a form of precious cultural capital withheld from her. Wang, of course, belongs to a much more privileged class background than her eponymous heroine. Her father was a senior editor at the official PRC newspaper People’s Daily, and she grew up in an environment of relatively liberal education both at home and in the larger cultural scene of 1980s Beijing. In fact, Annie (whose Chinese name is Wang Rui) and her two older sisters, Charlotte (Wang Wei) and Emily (Wang Fei), are minor cultural luminaries in China, collectively known as the Wang Sisters and sometimes the Chinese Brontës. This is a family mythology the sisters have partially self-created through their coauthored 1997 autobiography, Three Wang Sisters’ Skies and Dreams, as well as their mother’s recent best-selling multimedia memoir of them, The Story of the Chinese Bronte Sisters (Bates 55). As Wang admits, she and her sisters are hardly oppressed Chinese women or hooligans jaded by their destitute past. They can more properly be branded as a new species of post-Mao urban “intellectuals” who have risen to prominence in the post-Tiananmen era. As she elucidates in one interview: “The Wang Sisters represent the group of Chinese intellectuals (I cannot think of a better word) who love high culture and non-commercial art. We’re like the American version of PBS-viewers. We grew up in the 1980s Beijing cultural circle. Materially speaking, we were not wealthy, but concerts, classic music, poetry, painting, art exhibitions, ballet, and salon style get-togethers where we discussed art and politics were an important part of life” (“Beijing’s”). Elsewhere, Wang describes herself as 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” (“People’s”). The sensation of Annie Wang the bilingual transnational female writer, then, is a product of multiple advantages in both family and historical circumstance. Her casual equation of languages to food and music symptomizes a feature of her class of post-Tiananmen yuppies, for whom cultural identity is constructed via individual consumption choices more than shared ancestry or social codes and beliefs. Even the label “bourgeois bohemian” is expounded in terms of personal material ownership and transnational mobility. In this framework, languages take on the characteristics and functions of commodities: as goods to shop for and acquire, as markers of cosmopolitanism and status within a globalizing China. Wang’s self-assured attitude toward her bilingualism is an index of her generational gap from an older writer such as Ha Jin, for whom English, as he never tires of pointing out, comes with painstaking slowness and was initially a means of “survival” in America (Migrant 32).
Lili, on the other hand, falls into an in-between generation that follows Jin’s but precedes Wang’s, a generation comprised of runaway kids whose parents were subjects of the reeducation policy but who themselves were too young to be incorporated into Mao’s ideological machinery during the Cultural Revolution. As Lili recalls of her gang of hooligan friends: “Our generation just missed becoming Red Guards—and also missed the disgrace that came later. After our parents and older siblings were sent to the countryside, some of us were left alone, while others were looked after by relatives who often gave their young charges a hard time. We hung out on the streets, lived for kicks and sex” (61). If the Red Guards were symbolically Mao’s children, those just a few years younger effectively became generational orphans—not old enough to be the Party’s instruments or enemies, but just old enough to take their lives into their own hands, run away from the countryside and their families there, and piece together an alternative commune in the city. Wang is, of course, not the first to diagnose the phenomenon of hooliganism as a direct consequence of the Cultural Revolution, nor is she unique in linking it to the dilemmas of China’s new market economy. Her heroine represents to some degree the hooligans’ collective victimization by a socialist past and ambiguous fate in a capitalist present, surviving though not truly thriving on the pursuit of material wealth in a social system that despises them as deviant elements. Significantly, Wang’s scrutiny of the social present via the national past is carried out via a narrative appropriation of the hooligan figure along axes of class and generationality. One might thus read Lili as itself a work of diasporic intellectual nostalgia for hooliganism. The question then becomes: Why?
For one answer, we might turn to the metamorphoses of PRC literature across the very generational chasm dividing the hooligan Lili from the “bobo” Annie—to wit, the pre- vs. post-Tiananmen rift. The transition of Deng’s China from the modest liberalization of the 1980s to the accelerated capitalism of the 1990s has meant a withering of the intelligentsia’s cultural authority. In the new landscape of commodity fetishism dominated by rock concerts, movie stars, and brand-name fashion, Chinese intellectuals find their high-minded concerns about national politics and social conscience ever more peripheral. Furthermore, the types of highbrow literature that writers such as Gao Xingjian, Ha Jin, and Ma Jian strive for, each with his own aesthetic preferences, to be sure, but all united in the ambition to pen elite literature, become increasingly outdated for post-Tiananmen mass readers and consumers. Avant-garde absurdist theater, nineteenth-century-style realism, the epic national allegory—these are the aesthetic forms of choice of our three male Tiananmen authors, but they are seldom successful as literary genres in post-1989 China, not because they are censored, but because they don’t sell. It may be an ironic result of globalization’s disjunctures, to use Arjun Appadurai’s word, that these writers have earned renown, not in the capitalizing terrains back home, but in the international publishing venues that capitalize on their exilic or anticommunist stances. The diaspora, then, may open up an afterlife for Chinese writing in more ways than one: as a political safety zone for Tiananmen fictions, certainly, but also as an evacuation site for obsolete cultural and aesthetic modes. Appadurai would call this dimension of diaspora a “mediascape,” itself a product of globalization and not without its ideological and financial aspects, which constructs “imagined worlds” of the place of origin through “image-centered, narrative-based accounts of strips of reality” (9). The rub here, of course, lies in the traditionalist and elitist forms of these Chinese diasporic narratives, their aesthetic self-distancing from the electronic mass media that typify their very epoch.
The 1990s for the PRC, in Jing Wang’s apt phrase, were a “desublimated era” (268). If the “zeitgeist of the 1980s” was characterized by a nationalist and elitist optimism—“a decade designated as ‘the new era,’ reigned over by intellectuals, and marked by unrelieved humanistic sentiment and the will to de-alienate” (262)—the 1990s were “the Golden Age of Entertainment” (266) as well as “an age of Attitude” (263): “The age of innocence is gone. . . . Mockeries reverberate. Verbal spews are street theater. It has become a national knack to satirize a society gone mad with consumerism while quietly going along with the greed” (261, 263). The defining face of this new decade was Wang Shuo, best-selling author of hooligan fiction, champion of ordinary folks, “spurner of elite culture” (269), and most crucially, “the first specimen of a ‘marketized’ literature that promotes ‘bestseller consciousness’ (changxiao yishi) above all else” (262). Many of the trademarks of Wang Shuo’s novels can be spotted in Lili: a cynical hooligan protagonist, a mockery of intellectuals and a deconstruction of elite discourse, an elevation of the riffraff and miscreants of China’s new capitalist economy, and a reveling in the material and carnal desires of consumer culture. Additionally, as Jing Wang points out, despite the supposed antagonism between the hooligan and the intellectual, Wang Shuo himself depends on the educated elite for his readership as well as popularity and thus has a semiotic relationship with them: “His is a parasitic persona whose rise (and perhaps future downfall) is closely intertwined with the destiny of the intellectuals whose literary taste he commands and at times reproduces” (284). So it is not surprising that the hooligan narrator would get co-opted by Annie Wang the self-confessed bourgeois intellectual. Even her nostalgia for the hooligan as a rather romantic icon of national trauma and spiritual hollowness can be read as a second-order and belated reiteration of the melancholic wistfulness of Wang Shuo’s antiheroes. As Yibing Huang observes, underneath the ennui and insolence of Wang Shuo’s characters in fact pulses an intense sentimentality, “a nostalgia and yearning for the world in which [the hooligan] grew up and which now has almost entirely evaporated” (72). And like Wang Shuo, Annie Wang is absolutely in step with the forces of the literary market.
Of course, Annie Wang cannot be wholly reduced to a late-coming replica of Wang Shuo. We would be remiss to ignore, for one, the gendered perspective she insistently imports into the hooligan narrative, especially the damning portrayal she presents of hooligan culture as buttressed by masculine egotism and a denigration of women. One exemplary passage drives this point home. Lili, while the girlfriend of a gang leader, was regularly asked to offer herself sexually to his buddies, “the same way he shared food and cigarettes with them,” and she would comply in order to survive: “I became a trophy, a ‘comfort woman’ in his gang. The other members became more loyal to him because their big brother was so generous that he didn’t even get jealous when they slept with his woman” (95). This hard-hitting moment in the novel may not be standard fare for 1990s hooligan fiction, but it is readily recognizable within another pertinent context—that of Chinese diasporic women’s writing.
Indeed, Wang’s gender exposé of hooligan society is best read, not as a direct feminist challenge of Wang Shuo or hooligan literature per se, but as a marker of her novel’s diasporicity. Lili, after all, is first and foremost an English-language text, and its audience-conscious author surely knows that the theme of Chinese women being brutalized by a sexist society and a ruthless regime is one of the narrative staples of diasporic female literature—a genre that has likewise become phenomenally popular during the decade of Lili’s composition, but in the West.2 Primarily autobiographical, this genre typically focuses on the public and private ordeals of women throughout twentieth-century China. Most critics cite Jung Chung’s Wild Swans (1991) as the inaugural text, though Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai (1987) remains a notable forerunner, and their numerous successors include Anchee Min’s Red Azalea (1993), Ji-li Jiang’s Red Scarf Girl (1997), Hong Ying’s Daughter of the River (1998), Adeline Yen Mah’s Falling Leaves (1998), Ting-xing Ye’s A Leaf in the Bitter Wind (1999), Gao Anhua’s To the Edge of the Sky (2000), and Aiping Mu’s Vermilion Gate (2000). If it is difficult to imagine Wang Shuo taking up the subject of June 4 with gravity, Annie Wang’s salient adoption of this event as the backdrop of her novel is thoroughly in tune with the strident invocations of China’s tumultuous history by other diasporic women writers before her. So, when she incorporates into this Tiananmen narrative a gruesome and seemingly gratuitous episode of Lili’s childhood rape—“Three times in one night” (29)—by a Communist Party secretary during the Cultural Revolution, we may not be injudicious to read it as another fictional appropriation on her part, this time along the grains of Chinese diasporic women’s writing.
So, it would be accurate to say that Wang is not simply a critical observer and sometimes satirist of capitalist China but also an exceedingly market-savvy diaspora writer. The capitalist fever that permeates Lili also defines the milieu in which Wang sees herself as embedded as a writer, a milieu she embraces and from which she derives financial success even as she parodies it from both sides of the Pacific. She is not one to don the robes of the old-fashioned intellectual who sneers at pop culture and market trends. On the contrary, as a bilingual author writing for both Chinese and Western audiences, she is highly mindful of and quite pragmatic about capitalizing on literary vogues in both China and the West. This means more than a general awareness or casual acceptance of market pressures on literary production. In her essay on Chinese diaspora novelists, Wang puts her journalistic research skills to good use and shows her firm grasp on the concrete ins and outs of international publishing as well as the profit differentials between Chinese and American markets. “Each year,” she writes, “China publishes almost 180,000 titles, half of which are textbooks. (The U.S., by contrast, publishes about 60,000 new titles annually.) The publishing industry is China’s third-largest taxpayer, behind the tobacco and liquor industries. Because of the huge potential of China’s book market, international publishing groups like Bertelsmann are waiting to pounce.” It is perhaps not fortuitous that this discussion of the Chinese literary market occurs in the midst of Wang’s interview with Wang Shuo, who is cited as “one of the rare Chinese authors who has made his fortune by writing for the domestic Chinese market” but who nevertheless has “mixed feelings” about Chinese publishers. “They’re all profit-seeking,” Wang Shuo is quoted as saying with a tinge of lament. “They use me and I use them. Most of the time, they care only about making big money. They have a huge first print run of my book. Afterwards, they don’t bother printing 10,000 copies per year because it’s small money. That’s why you can hardly buy my previous books now” (“New”).
In this transnational circuit, the figure of the female hooligan does double duty for Annie Wang. On the PRC side, the hooligan is a fictional persona Wang can annex for its cultural cachet in the post-Tiananmen era. Unlike Wang Shuo, she does not belong to the generation that grew up in the cracks of the Cultural Revolution, nor did she live the hooligan lifestyle of unemployment, aimless drifting, and petty criminality in the post-Mao years. Lili is not a thin disguise for her youthful rebellious self, however much she promotes the “bad girl” authorial image. Most of all, hooliganism for her is not an ethos bred by personal experience and staked as an anti-establishment cultural aesthetic during a period of national transition. By the time she started composing Lili in the early 1990s, the “Wang Shuo phenomenon” had already swept over China, with “swarms of discontented youths” in Beijing flaunting “cultural T-shirts” scribbled with his signature pet phrases (J. Wang 262). At the same time, on the Western side, the ill-treated Chinese woman is a fictional persona Wang can expediently assume, since she already has the ethnic and gender alibis. Yet, unlike Jung Chung, Nien Cheng, Anchee Min, Hong Ying, and the other Chinese diasporic women writers of an earlier generation, Wang herself did not endure social upheavals or historical tragedies. Lili’s trajectory of hardship, deprivation, and orphaning is not Wang’s, nor are the female hooligan’s class-inflected experiences of gender abuse and violence. Absent these autobiographical anchors, Lili is at its core a hybrid work of ambidextrous assimilations.
This bilateral cultural capital enjoyed by Wang entails its own ambivalences, however. For one thing, the immense commercial success in the West of Chinese diasporic female literature has led to some stern responses on the part of critics. The prevailing concern is that of self-orientalism. On the milder end, Helena Grice, grouping diasporic female texts under the rubric of “Chinese American/British narratives” that “write Red China,” proposes that their “critical reception . . . may be symptomatic of a cultural resurgence of orientalism” (104). By locating orientalism in these texts’ reception rather than authorship, Grice gives herself room to foreground the feminist work they perform in bringing to light “previously obscured or suppressed perspectives” and inserting “a range of female voices into the cultural discourse revisiting China’s twentieth century history” (125). Harsher in their assessment of the genre are Xueping Zhong, Wang Zheng, and Bai Di. Concentrating specifically on Cultural Revolution memoirs, Zhong et al. deplore the “all-too-familiar lenses of persecution, violence, victimization, sexual repression, and so forth” dramatized by these female narratives (xiii). What they contest is not so much the individual authenticity of each memoir as the genre’s collective exoticization of Maoist China. In the United States particularly, they claim, “stories exposing the tragedy of the communist rule found a huge market among Americans, ranging from liberals crusading for human rights to anticommunist conservatives. . . . The collective imagination of the Mao era in America, in turn, becomes heavily shaped by these dark age narratives” (xx–xxi). This “dark age” tendency notwithstanding, Zhong et al. fundamentally affirm the potency of diasporic female writing when they advocate for their own autobiographical “counternarrative” of the Mao era (xxvii). In contrast, Lingchei Letty Chen denounces the entire corpus of “expatriate” Cultural Revolution memoirs. She is the critic most unsparing in indicting Chinese diaspora writers, male and female alike, for self-orientalism: “Two common mnemonic practices among Chinese diasporic writers are self-victimization (capitalizing on the authenticity of the suffering ‘I’) and self-exoticization (emphasizing on abjection to create an eternal incomprehensibility that characterizes the exotic Orient). Together they form a new discourse of self-Orientalization” (“Translating” 30). On Chen’s verdict, expatriate memoirists deliberately exploit orientalist stereotypes and Cold War anxieties about communist China in order to leverage moral authority and cultural capital, all in the pursuit of commercial gain. Her primary target is Jung Chung’s Wild Swans.
These criticisms are mainly directed at Cultural Revolution memoirs, but Tiananmen fictions are no less susceptible, since they are similarly written by diasporic authors for global readers and center on an equally notorious episode of communist brutality. Moreover, since the allegation of self-orientalism hounds female writers with particular ferocity, Annie Wang is perhaps more vulnerable to attack than the male writers of Tiananmen. Above all, she too, if on a smaller scale than some of the other female writers, has successfully tapped into the demands of an international publishing market. Sooner or later, then, and notwithstanding its overt treatment of capitalist self-orientalization as a trickster tactic, Lili will be caught up in the critical maelstrom.
Actually, the self-orientalism conundrum is not new for Chinese cultural producers who aspire for global visibility. For a cognate discussion, we can turn to the slightly earlier controversy that surrounded Fifth Generation filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. Their films about feudal and rural China achieved international acclaim in the mid-1980s and 1990s but were at the same time widely castigated by Chinese viewers and reviewers for primitivizing China and pandering to foreign audiences. As Jane Ying Zha comments: “All my American friends love Zhang’s movies, all my Chinese friends hate them. . . . Why? What offended the Chinese in these movies? . . . It could be summed up in one thing: selling oriental exoticism to a Western audience” (qtd. in Chow, Primitive 176). (This is, of course, prior to Zhang’s recent reclamation by the PRC government as its chief propaganda director, most notably in the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.) Rey Chow has tackled this issue at great length, ultimately arguing in favor of the filmmakers as executing “a kind of postmodern self-writing or autoethnography . . . also a form of intercultural translation in the postcolonial age” (Primitive xi). As a premise, Chow theorizes twentieth-century Chineseness in terms of a dual-layered visuality. “To be Chinese” in the modern world, she contends, has meant not simply to come into possession of the gaze via technologies such as film, but more intricately, to inhabit this subject position of the gazer while retaining traces of having formerly been gazed at as the objectified colonized other. Vision itself “bears the origins of ethnographic inequality,” so that “in the vision of the formerly ethnographized . . . what are ‘subjective’ origins now include a memory of past objecthood—the experience of being looked at—which lives on in the subjective act of ethnographizing like an other, an optical unconscious” (Primitive 180). This invocation of an “optical unconscious,” a term Chow derives from Walter Benjamin, ensures for her argument that no act of visual self-representation by a Chinese filmmaker to a foreign audience can be free of its colonial lineage. She is then able to appeal to this “irrevocably” auto-ized mode of ethnography to defend Zhang Yimou and his cohort from accusations of self-orientalism. Contemporary Chinese cinema, she posits, is not neo-orientalist; it is “a new ethnography,” “the Oriental’s orientalism”:
It would hence be imprecise, though not erroneous, to say that directors such as Zhang are producing a new kind of orientalism. For if orientalism, understood in the sense Said uses it, is in part a form of voyeuristic aggression, then what Zhang is producing is rather an exhibitionist self-display that contains, in its very excessive modes, a critique of the voyeurism of orientalism itself. (Mis)construed by many as mere self-display (in the spirit of airing one’s dirty laundry in public), this exhibitionism—what we may call the Oriental’s orientalism—does not make its critique moralistically or resentfully. Instead, it turns the remnants of orientalism into elements of a new ethnography. Like a Judou turning around, citing herself as fetishized woman and displaying to her voyeur the scars and wounds she bears, this ethnography accepts the historical fact of orientalism and performs a critique (i.e., evaluation) of it by staging and parodying orientalism’s politics of visuality. In its self-subalternizing, self-exoticizing visual gestures, the Oriental’s orientalism is first and foremost a demonstration—the display of a tactic. (Primitive 171)
To be sure, Chow puts a great deal of conceptual weight on the inescapability—in the form of unconscious remnants or memory traces undergirding visuality itself—of China’s colonial past and ethnographized status. While she deftly avoids and rightly rebukes the position of “defensive nativism,” we might be tempted to question her convenient labeling of the Fifth Generation directors as “postcolonial” and her interpretation of their aesthetics as “parodic” (Primitive 178, 171, 202). Still, we can usefully read Annie Wang’s entwined motifs of self-orientalism and spectacularity as a latter-day extension of Chow’s thesis. That is, we can read Lili as an autoethnographic staging and parodying of China—and more specifically, of Beijing and Tiananmen Square—as sites of a neocolonial spectacle for and within global capitalism. Antony Thomas’s The Tank Man is only one specimen within this configuration. Certainly, compared to Zhang Yimou, Wang wears her parody much more on her sleeves, not to mention her pointed satire of the Western ethnographic eye and her intentional hailing of a Western audience via language choice. The paradigm of autoethnography resonates especially with Lili’s remark that, in the Square, “everybody is both an observer and a participant”—a metatextual allusion to the discourse of cultural anthropology, and also an implicit counterpoint to Roy’s euphoric self-description as “a witness to history” (236). The Square, Wang intimates, is not an innocent theater where any passerby immediately assumes the role of historical witness. Instead, it is a power-infused arena where ethnography is enacted, by Chinese and Westerners alike, vis-à-vis the imagined object of “China.” Chow’s theoretical maneuvers can help elucidate some of these complexities in Wang’s novel and deflect overly general charges of self-orientalism.
Of late, this ameliorated notion of autoethnography has been transferred to a context even more closely tied to Wang’s, that of Chinese diasporic femininity. Sharon Hom, in her introduction to a collection of memoirs, essays, and poetry by “Chinese women traversing diaspora,” designate these female narratives as precisely “a type of auto-ethnographies, field reports written by native informants from/to reconfiguring fields” (5). Olivia Khoo further innovates on this model of diasporic female autoethnography by formulating the idea of a “Chinese exotic.” Just as Chow differentiates between old-fashioned colonial orientalism and contemporary “Oriental’s Orientalism,” so Khoo suggests that, unlike old hegemonic species of colonial exoticism, the Chinese exotic is a “new mode of representation”—produced not inside the PRC but within sprouting Chinese diasporic spaces (2). Khoo argues that contemporary China, no longer seen as the primitive other as along Chow’s analysis, now enters into a phase of “capitalist development of diasporic . . . modernities,” and accordingly, “spectacularised images of Chinese femininity” undergo a shift (5). “The Chinese exotic,” she maintains, “is also differentiated from colonialist or imperialist exoticism in that it conceives of women and femininity, not as the oppressed, but as forming part of the new visibility of Asia, connected with the region’s economic rise and emergent modernities. What is exotic now is no longer the old (primitive) China within Asia, but the idea of a new Asia (Asia the cosmopolitan, the rich, the modern, and the technological). Similarly, what is exoticised about new images of Chinese femininity are precisely these things” (12). Insofar as these fresh exotic images of Chinese femininity reflect the economic rise of Asia and the emergence of Asians as capitalist agents, they “can be negotiated so as to create the possibility of positive agency for its subjects” (170). In other words, Khoo too attempts to redeem self-orientalism as a powerful and potentially self-empowering representational mode for Chinese cultural producers in the era of global Asian capital.
Khoo’s theory of new Chinese diasporic modernities offers another valuable framework for understanding, not so much Lili on a textual level, but Wang’s place within the macro cross-cultural politics around Chinese diaspora literature today. In fact, insofar as Lili stays fairly true to the prototype of the oppressed Chinese woman along an older genre of diasporic women’s writing, Khoo’s Chinese exotic fits this novel less well than Wang’s next work in English, The People’s Republic of Desire (2006). In the past decade, Wang has become much better known internationally for this latter novel, which originally ran as a weekly fiction column in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post from 2001 to 2004. Enormously trendy and popular, this column—often dubbed the Chinese Sex and the City—acquired a huge fan base, in print and eventually online.3 No longer just “Beijing’s Badgirl,” Wang’s persona has been updated to that of a “fumchi” (“female, upwardly mobile Chinese international”) (Riminton). This is the very image Wang promotes of her latest heroines: four young urban professionals, successful and sophisticated, whose foremost desires are sex and money. “They are very intelligent, capable, beautiful, but they can’t find husbands,” Wang sums up (“People’s”). Analogous to the author herself, the narrator is a Berkeley-educated returnee from America who works for an English news agency in early 2000s Beijing, where she and her friends are utterly steeped in a “Westernized” lifestyle of consumer goods and casual sex. The atmosphere of rampant commodification from Lili gets a postmillennial upgrade as Wang sheds both hooligan disguise and historical anachronism. If Lili encapsulates an internal incongruity between Wang’s post-Tiananmen, hypercapitalist, transnational moment of writing and Lili’s pre-Tiananmen, neocolonial, not-yet-globe-trotting moment of narration, the protagonists in The People’s Republic of Desire at last catch up with their creator as their fictional and her real-life epochs converge. Clearly, the “comfort woman” reference from the earlier novel constitutes only one identificatory posture in Wang’s larger corpus, as she shows herself to be quite nimble in staging a range of Chinese female subject positions within the capacious, and ever-evolving, field of diasporic women’s literature. Hers, we might say, is a flexible feminism.
Even this brief overview of The People’s Republic of Desire will quickly summon up another genre relevant to Wang: that of contemporary “chick lit.” As Wenche Ommundsen notes, chick lit is associated with a host of pejorative connotations such as “formulaic, market-driven plot,” an “obsession with consumerism,” and “politically regressive portrayal of young women,” so that as a whole it is frequently derided as the “cultural equivalent of junk food” (329). Yet Ommundsen also persuasively argues that the genre is not simply a shallow and opportunistic by-product of the market economy but can be better understood within intersecting contexts of postfeminist writing, global capitalism, and multiculturalism. Given its “capacity to accommodate cultural difference and produce local variants which speak directly to the pressing concerns of women in a wide variety of circumstances,” chick lit makes for “an ideal site for the study of globalization.” So: “To regard chick lit as merely the complicit product of the new cultural norm of individualism defined by consumption, or even as one of its main instruments of propaganda, would be to ignore the genre’s capacity for ambivalence, variation and cultural mutability. From frivolous and facile to complex and sophisticated, from complacent to politically astute, from formulaic to genre-bending, chick lit both reinforces and critiques dominant trends in contemporary culture” (333). Within this continuum, Ommundsen regards The People’s Republic of Desire as a particularly complex if ambiguous case. On the one hand, the novel can be “best described as social commentary masquerading as chick lit” (335), reporting on contemporary China’s rapidly changing social landscape while poking fun—so says Wang herself—at Chinese yuppies’ obsession with brands and fads, at its most ambitious exposing the “soullessness and chaos” of the times. On the other hand, the novel serves up that which it ostensibly parodies with so much fidelity and gusto that it has ironically been used, as Wang herself indicates, as a “fashion guide among some yuppies and yuppie wannabes in China” (qtd. in Chhibber). The novel’s message is thus “difficult to pin down,” since it can be construed as simultaneously “chick lit or a parody of chick lit,” a “straight reportage of social customs in China” or a caricature of them (Ommundsen 337). In the end, though, Ommundsen contends that “Chinese chick lit in English . . . signals the demise of diaspora literature as we have known it, and the beginning of a more truly transnational and transcultural era” (333–34). Like Khoo, she stresses these diasporic female texts’ contemporariness, since the vision of China they deliver consists of a two-way migration between equally global and modern settings, not “between China as the past and the West as present and future” (342). Despite recurrent disparagements of the genre, then, she affirms chick lit authors for having the “saving grace of honesty,” for offering an “accurate diagnosis not only of their own dilemmas, but of the numerous paradoxes of the contemporary world” (339).
Ommundsen’s explication of chick lit as a self-conscious index of globalization that explodes older conceptions of diaspora literature perfectly suits The People’s Republic of Desire. It is slightly too contemporary, however, for Lili. There, Wang’s engagement with Tiananmen elevates the novel above the chick lit label and into a more highbrow category. It is this Tiananmen focus that compels Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith, for instance, to situate Lili within the framework of human rights fictional discourse, as “a novel of transformation and faith in the possibilities for China’s political future, including enhanced rights, dignity, and justice for its citizens.” Schaffer and Smith embed Wang within a larger matrix of contemporary diasporic narratives, which they view as performing the crucial function of circulating human rights issues globally in our time, “extend[ing] the regime of human rights into China and back to the West again in telling stories” (218). This earnest treatment of Lili, though, fails to take into account Wang’s acerbic satire of Roy’s liberalism, and intertwined with it, the facile wielding of human rights discourse by Westerners in Chinese contexts. Indeed, as we will see in the next chapter, Schaffer and Smith’s appraisal can be applied much more fittingly to Ma Jian and Beijing Coma. For now, let us conclude by underscoring these contradictory evaluations that orbit Wang as a diasporic female writer of popular global fiction. Her Tiananmen novel in particular epitomizes the equivocal capital—linguistic, cultural, financial, political—afforded by contemporary transnationalism. As literature becomes progressively captured into the mechanisms of an international publishing industry, works amenable to human rights advocacy such as Tiananmen fictions may actually be more, not less, susceptible to commodification. In this light, we can say that capitalist self-commodification is at once content and form of Wang’s oeuvre, that she co-opts marketable trends as briskly as she gets co-opted back into trendy markets both East and West. Yet, precisely because of its ambidexterity, Lili is an exemplary text for disentangling the emergent contradictions of globalization.
The theoretical paradigm that best articulates Lili’s diasporic logic, I think, is Donald Nonini and Aihwa Ong’s “Chinese transnationalism,” or what Ong later terms “flexible citizenship.” “There is nothing intrinsically liberating about diasporic cultures,” Nonini and Ong justly point out (325), since diasporas, “like any cultural formations, are grounded in internal hegemonies and systems of inequalities” (324). As we saw in the previous chapter, diaspora can be, and has often been since the early 1990s, theorized as a potent configuration that displaces and/or expands on provincial boundaries of cultural identity (Hall; Gilroy, Black; Clifford), and this deconstructive blueprint has been variously transferred by scholars to investigations of Chineseness in the last few years (Hom; Ang; L. L. Chen, Writing; Ng and Holden). Lili too deconstructs essentialist notions of Chineseness along lines of gender and class, but the theme of orientalist capital and the related element of Wang’s own ambidextrous assimilationism entail that no exploration of the novel or its author would be complete without a scrupulous address of China’s globalization. In this context, Nonini and Ong sketch out an indispensible model for retheorizing contemporary Chineseness, which they claim “can be understood only in terms of the multiplicity of ways in which ‘being Chinese’ is an inscribed relation of persons and groups to forces and processes associated with global capitalism and its modernities” (4). In other words, “to be Chinese” today is not to possess a preexisting cultural identity with the additional capacity of being influenced, enhanced, or corrupted by global capital, but rather to already and necessarily be shaped within its dynamics. The distinguishing modes of subjectivity in this milieu are “mobility,” “flexibility,” and “accumulation”—“wild and dangerously innovative powers” that can also become harnessed by and “incorporated into the open-ended logics of flexible capitalism itself” (20). Chinese transnationalists can now break out of old molds of identity and identification but can also “be disciplined either to support hegemonic views of regimes of truth . . . or to undermine them” (26). As for the quandary of ethnography, Ong, too, perceives self-orientalism as a flexible tactic that may be deployed complicitously or agentively: “In a world of Western hegemony, Asian voices are unavoidably inflected by Orientalist essentialisms that infiltrate all kinds of public exchanges about culture. I use the term self-orientalization in recognition not just of such predicaments but also of the agency to maneuver and manipulate meanings within different power domains” (“Chinese” 195). Adapting Ong’s term, we might call Annie Wang a supremely flexible literary citizen, whether apropos femininity or generationality, language use or generic material, shuttling with adroitness between Western and Chinese markets, suavely accumulating their respective literary trends and converting them into both cultural and financial capital. Lastly, as Ong asserts, this “flexible citizenship is shaped within the mutually reinforcing dynamics of discipline and escape” (Flexible 19)—a condition that circumscribes satiric critiques as much as capitalist collusions. And Wang, undeniably, does both.
Let us end by returning to Lili, on the note of its own denouement. As the Tiananmen movement draws near its bloody closure, the novel’s final few chapters throw up a series of hastily and chaotically unfolding plotlines: the reunification of the hitherto fragmented Chinese family; the metaphorical resurrection and remasculinization of the Chinese father-qua-intellectual; the sudden reappearance of Lili’s ex-boyfriend gang leader and their tearful reunion, before his no less abrupt melodramatic death in the massacre; Roy’s deportation back to the United States by communist authorities; and Lili’s discovery of her pregnancy with Roy’s baby and the anticipated but unnarrated birth of their biracial child. This frenzied finale puts into play a host of paradoxical narrative desires, including a fantasy of restoration of the traditional family structure, a redemption of the patriarchal intellectual for the Chinese family and nation, a laying to rest of Cultural Revolution traumas such as the hooligan legacy, a severing of the vexed romance with the Western orientalist, and a promise of female independence in post-Tiananmen China, albeit with an ethnically hybridized afterlife. These desires, however, are all left unresolved.
The novel’s final paragraph is especially cheeky in flaunting its ambiguity. After telling the reader that she survives the crackdown, Lili adds: “The Lili of Beijing died that night, but a new Lili was born somewhere else. Somewhere where freedom and respect bloom” (307). Wang undoubtedly wants the reader to ask, where is this “somewhere”? She teasingly hints at the possibility of a diasporic, perhaps even American, rebirth for her heroine, but she just as coyly withholds the exact location of this future. Were we to decipher this last line biographically, the answer would be straightforward. Wang, as she has repeatedly stated in interviews, was “so disappointed by Tiananmen and the death of idealism in China” that she eventually went abroad to study at UC Berkeley in 1993, and instead of “sink[ing] under the weight of history,” she decided to “have fun with [her] writing”: “China needs some humour. We all need humour in our lives” (qtd. in Chhibber). We know that “fun” and “humour” led to The People’s Republic of Desire. But we also know, given all the points of disconnection between Wang’s and Lili’s lives, not to take easy recourse in the author’s biography.
Rather than pinpoint this “somewhere,” it is perhaps more illuminating to unpack the meaning of the word’s very indeterminacy, to comprehend this textual ending’s eluding of place as the very sign of the novel’s contemporary situation. That is to say, the spatial vagueness of “somewhere” may itself signal the sense of deterritorialization that characterizes globalization’s geographic imaginary—of the world as composed not of discrete national units with policed boundaries but transnational flows and networks and virtual spaces. Appadurai would call these spaces the “scapes” of globalization: “The new global cultural economy has to be seen as a complex, overlapping, disjunctive order, which cannot any longer be understood in terms of existing center-periphery models. . . . The suffix-scape allows us to point to the fluid, irregular shapes of these landscapes, shapes which characterize international capital as deeply as they do international clothing styles.” Appadurai names five such scapes—ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, finanscapes, and ideoscapes—which together form “the building blocks of . . . imagined worlds” (6–7). Wang’s cosmopolitan lifestyle, globe-trotting between Beijing and Berkeley, Hong Kong and Shanghai, happens within this same global cultural economy. The utopian timbre of Lili’s future “somewhere” hence evokes at once an implied “nowhere” as well as the “imagined world” of a Chinese transnationalism that is already the case for her creator. Similarly from this perspective, the novel’s delineation of a neocolonial center-periphery model is already outdated, not just an anachronism but an archaic remnant outstripped by Wang’s reality.
Two additional points remain to be made about Lili’s final emptying out of national geography. First, read against the conclusions of Gao’s Taowang and Jin’s The Crazed, the unspecified site of Lili’s projected destination can also connote a gendered ambivalence about diaspora. For Gao, political flight is only one strand of the universal imperative of existential flight, without which there is only death, while for Jin, escape from the PRC to the democratic West represents the sole path of survival for the intellectual-scholar. For both, self-exile is an autonomous act of the masculine individual who stands independent of all kinship structures and social ties. In Lili, however, emigration is a difficult process, and Wang’s resolute focus on women further highlights the unequal gender dynamics surrounding the matter. As seen above, “going diaspora” can carry the undertone of not just cultural-ethnic betrayal but sexual prostitution. As Lili bemoans with exasperation at one point, “Why is it patriotic for a Chinese man to sleep with a foreign woman and unpatriotic for a Chinese woman to sleep with a foreign man?” (273). And yet, as the novel makes plain, one of the few routes by which nonaffluent Chinese women can leave China is to “marry out”—an option that Wang holds out for Lili via Roy. The spatial ambiguity of Lili’s future “somewhere,” though, marks Wang’s hesitancy in concretizing this option. As a result, the novel ends on a note of marital uncertainty, with the “new Lili” suspended between domesticity and flight, homeland and diaspora, single mother and orientalized wife.
Second, and in tension with the aforementioned gender reading, the figurative deterritorialization at Lili’s closure is related to Wang’s bisection of China in the rest of the text. Although there is no question that the narrative unfolds in the PRC, the novel’s national geography is partitioned somewhat simplistically into Beijing and Up Village, the city of global capital and the countryside of abject poverty. Except for a short opening detour into the dreamlike Inner Mongolia, there is no in-between zone of life, no middle space in the jagged terrains of China’s globalization. This imagined geographical dichotomy is advantageous for Wang’s narrative, for it makes more clear-cut Lili’s decision to embrace capitalism and socially advance herself as a “rich foreigner’s mistress,” since the alternative would be, on the binary terms of the novel, a life of rural misery. Lili’s national imaginary, then, is scarcely nuanced even from the outset. This feature of the novel may in turn account for the salient absence of a group of people who are arguably of central importance to any examination of Chinese lower-class women within global capital: namely, the millions of migrant female workers whose cheap labor oils the engine of the PRC’s present-day economic boom. The stories of “factory girls” so movingly detailed by Leslie Chang, for instance, are wholly passed over in Lili, and this critical blind spot contributes to the ongoing invisibility of these women as the world’s new subalterns. Indeed, if all the desired commodities in Wang’s oeuvre are labeled “Western,” then local labor can be conveniently hidden, along with all its associated social problems—and this is not yet to confront the more familiar and current phenomenon in which even “Western” brands now ubiquitously bear the “made in China” label. Wang’s Beijing upbringing and multiple metropolitan residences in adulthood may ultimately shield her from a great deal of transformation in the hinterlands of her native country.4
In the final analysis, though, we can recontextualize Lili within the history of Tiananmen discourse and interpret Wang’s inattention to urban laborers as a refusal to redirect attention to workers as the alternative nexus of the movement. Not only were workers the second-largest and thus a highly visible group of Tiananmen participants in 1989, but their identity as a class of underdogs and the chief victims of the massacre has been so valorized by intellectuals both Chinese and Western post-Tiananmen that Wang has perhaps deliberately refrained from writing in the voice of their defender. This intellectual tendency to champion workers is partly evidenced above by Perry’s as much as Esherick and Wasserstrom’s arguments, but I will illustrate it at greater length in the next chapter. By contrast, much less discussed are issues of gender and sexuality in relation to Tiananmen, and Wang pointedly begins her novel within this analytical gap. As Lee Feigon notes, there were “very few women leaders of the Chinese struggle for democracy in 1989” (167)—and this applies not only to the students but also, as academic advocates of a non-gender-specified rubric of “workers” rarely mention, to the laboring classes as well. This general dearth in female leadership can explain the lack of gender studies of Tiananmen, but by the same token, the stark imbalance in gender power should compel a more sustained look at the gender dynamics of protest politics. In this regard, Feigon rightly points out that, since “males still dominated the upper levels of the movement, both in composition and tone” and that “women were relegated for the most part to traditional kinds of supporting roles,” Tiananmen definitely “did not mark a radical new chapter for gender relations in China” (167–68). Furthermore, as we will see in the next chapter, although one of the most prominent leaders in the student movement was a woman—the self-declared Commander in Chief of the Square, Chai Ling—she has since the mid-1990s come under fire from PRC intellectuals, diaspora scholars, and Western critics alike, becoming one of the most intensely vilified figures in the worldwide discourse on Tiananmen today. Wang alludes to this furor when she has the trickster hunger striker Jackson tell Lili that “the number one student leader . . . has many followers, though some students don’t like her because they think she’s selfish and manipulative.” “But me,” Jackson adds, “I like her. She’s a good speaker, really powerful” (246). Yet Wang also hints that a truly feminist inquiry into contemporary China cannot settle for a simple reclamation of this lone female icon. In fact, as Feigon clarifies, Chai herself was hardly the paragon of progressive gender politics in 1989, at times “appear[ing] to see herself as simply a stand-in for the men who should have been in her position,” at other times “pander[ing] to an image of herself as a mother figure” (171–72), and at bottom no less elitist than her male counterparts in her approach to matters of gender discrimination, willingly subordinating the feminist agenda to “more pressing problems” of national politics (168). And after all, Wang is too skeptical of self-made national heroes, and too canny about the ephemerality of media culture and stardom, to attempt to resanctify a fallen political leader, female or otherwise. No one so far, however, has protested the neglect of female hooligans in the grand chronicle of Tiananmen, and it is from this empty space of world memory that she gives life to Lili.