Chinese Literature The People's Republic of Desire by Annie Wang
Most Westerners have generally a good understanding of the momentous changes that have taken place in the Chinese economy. Visitors to China are immediately taken aback by city skylines dominated by construction cranes set against pollution-darkened skies. Stay-at-home observers need only look at the percentage of "MADE IN CHINA" labels at the local Walmart to realize that China has become the factory floor to the world. The economic liberalization that made such progress possible only started in the 1980s. What is the effect of such rapid change on a society that was still suffering under the Cultural Revolution only one generation ago? Annie Wang shares her insight on this interesting topic via her novel "The People's Republic of Desire".
In her novel, she follows four cosmopolitan women who are sitting at the top of the new economy. Niuniu, the book's narrator is a Chinese American, Berkeley-educated returnee that is equally fluent in Chinese and English, and works as a writer for a Western magazine. Given her Westernized values, she is called a "fake foreign devil". Beibei is financially the most successful one as the owner of her own entertainment company. She is married to a philandering husband but has come to terms with him by taking her own, younger lovers. Lulu is a fashion magazine editor with a long-term affair with a married man, a devotion that has already caused her to have several abortions. Finally, CC is also a returnee with an identity crisis: she hasn't quite figured out whether she is Chinese or English. She is dating a Welshman who came with her to China but now he is being chased by Chinese girls under the pretext of learning English. CC, however, is not the least bit interested in Chinese men. So what happens next? Well, if you were expecting a traditional novel with some sort of build-up followed by a resolution, I have to warn you: not much. Things do happen but there isn't a plot per se. What we get instead, is a series of chapter-long vignettes thorugh which Wang makes her incisive and often funny observations about the new China, the battle of the sexes, the old vs. the new (or more accurately, the new new vs. the plain new). Her area of expertise is very obviously that of the Western educated Chinese returnee. A college degree from a prestigious American and other Western countries is a guaranteed ticket to the upper echelons of the new China. Often employed by Western companies, they enjoy salaries that are several times that of their peers with no foreign exposure. They enjoy Starbucks, designer labels, and other signs of conspicuous consumption to a degree that would embarrass their Western counterparts. Alas, all is not bliss. A male returnee must shake off doubters who wonder whether they returned because they could not succeed overseas. Female returnees who hope to find a mate of the same social level (i.e. another Western-educated returnee) may find it difficult to do so because male returnees may still prefer a less worldly mate who would look up to them. It seems that the "Sex and the City" gals have it easy after all compared to their Chinese counterparts.
What striking about this group is that they hardly exhibit any traditional Confucian values. Or even socialist values. Gone are the days of 1989 idealism that brought us the Tiananamen square protests. Everyone seems to be concerned about making a quick yuan, everyone wants to look younger and more beautiful. Everyone seems shallow. Makes you wonder what the whole communist revolution was really all about.
Wang is also good at highlighting observations about unusual facts that may surprise western readers. Did you know, for example, that many Asian faces that Westerners consider beautiful are not considered so in the East. Or that Western brands which may considered ho-hum in the West such as McDonalds or Buick, for instance, are popular in China because they represent the western mystique. Or what about the danger of being too far ahead of the curve, such as owning as Bentley rather than a Mercedes, thus defeating the purpose of conspicuous consumption? An interesting device in this book is that many chapters include a summary of current popular Chinese jargon, such as "xin xin renlei" for the "new, new generation" or "xingui" for "nouveau riches".
Wang writes in a fluid style and she demonstrates a thorough understanding of the American as well as the Chinese psyche. I am not sure that the vehicle she used to make her observations was the most effective one. I sometimes wished that she had taken a straight "Letter from America" style a la Alistair Cooke instead. Nevertheless this book is worth reading because it is a treasure trove of information about a very interesting social issue that she is uniquely qualified to write about.