A mesmerised youth in the grip of the evolving capital: Feng Tang’s novel Beijing, Beijing – by Martina Codeluppi

Think about Beijing – what’s the first thought that comes to mind? Whether it’s politics, history, business, people, culture, smog, Olympics, Tian’anmen Square, university, food – our associations and experiences of a place are often associated with particular people at a particular time. The Chinese equivalent of Zeitgeist is shidai jingshen (literally, spirit of the age). And, just as English speakers might talk of Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y, Chinese speakers might talk of the One Child Policy, The 90s Generation, and Millenials. In today’s post, Martina Codeluppi reviews Feng Tang’s novel Beijing, Beijing, translated by Michelle Deeter, set in the 1990s.

Beijing, Beijing, by Feng Tang, tr. Michelle Deeter (Amazon Crossing)

During the Nineties, college students in the US were discovering grunge music. Students across Europe were having the Erasmus Experience. But what was life like for students in Beijing, a decade after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms had set the country on a fast track towards cultural opening and economic growth? In his semi-autobiographical novel, Beijing, Beijing, Feng Tang presents a group of three students at medical school in Beijing in the 90s, and the controversial challenges they face on their journey to adulthood in the last decade of the millennium.

Qiu Shui, Gu Ming and Xin Yi are three students at Peking University (the most prestigious in China), struggling to find their role in a Chinese society that is changing alongside its political and economic development. The massive turmoil in China in the Nineties is reflected in their individual lives, which are already crucibles of contradiction. Their dreams of personal success clash with the harsh reality of their everyday life, made of implacable sexual impulses and endless nights spent playing video games in the crowded dorm. The increasing pressure on the individual is one of the first consequences of Deng’s One-child policy. However, their parents’ efforts to invest in their future are not enough to drive their ambition beyond the tangible and trivial benefits of the first glimmers of independence.

“Is it really worth it to like something?” my mom asked. “It’s a waste of time, and time is money. You should use your time studying. If you study hard, then you can earn money in the future.”

China had already completed the reform and opening up process, and the Port of Shekou in Shenzhen promoted the slogan “Time is money, efficiency is life.” My mom took it to heart. […]

My mom was an expert at simplifying things. When Mao was still alive and there was a leader to follow, the Communist ideologies were crystal clear. My mom listened to everything the Chairman said and followed the Party. Encouraged by the Communists, she made tomato sauce every summer and stored cabbage every winter. Then the government instituted the reform and opening up, and my mom immediately changed her worldview: she equated everything with money.

Campus life is enlivened by Xiao Yue’s gentle curves. With her, the three youths build a strong friendship, establishing a solid group of four: Little Red Hot Meat (Xiao Yue), Little Loose Screw (Qiu Shui), Little Idiot (Gu Ming) and Little Dirty Joke (Xin Yi). Her looks please their eyes to the point of disturbing and blinding them. However, it is Little Idiot, the American-born Chinese exchange student, who will later end up marrying her.

Little Red Hot Meat Xiao Yue was our sex goddess. She was everybody’s sex goddess.

We studied pre-med at B University. In order to earn general course credits, we were required to spend one year at Xinyang Military Academy. Wearing her military uniform, Little Red Hot Meat Xiao Yue was like a volcano concealed by a forest, or a jade disc nestled in stone, or tantalizing hunks of meat sealed behind a freezer door.

Between med school classes and compulsory military training, the sexual education of the three young men is fulfilled though covert glances and pornographic films, in the constant attempt to mitigate their unattainable fantasies in order to fit real-life expectations and experiences. The story is narrated in the first person by Qiu Shui, who metabolises his anxiety towards looming adulthood in the form of a latent restlessness, caused by his persistent dissatisfaction. His frustration vis-à-vis the dream to become a writer will bear its fruits a few years later, with his first novel and his debut in the publishing industry. Nevertheless, the engagement in business will not be enough to remove the bitter aftertaste left by the failure of his sentimental life.

The novel develops through a series of flashbacks through which Qiu Shui recollects the salient episodes of his university life. The uncertainty of the future, which they once had tried to drown in low-quality spirits, becomes the instability of the present. He tells of everyday life sprinkled with a confetti of nostalgia for the blind excitement that used to course through their juvenile dreams, a life in which they must come to terms with the restlessness and confusion resulting from bursting modernisation.

The author’s fluid prose, spiced up by young and popular expressions, is in line with the candour of the contents he describes.  Feng Tang has been compared with Wang Shuo (Playing for Thrills and Please Don’t Call Me Human), who caught the mood of the 80s. Feng Tang is his successor, narrating the uniqueness of his generation in the pursuit of realism: a Chinese Holden Caulfield who challenges censorship.

About the author

Born in Beijing in 1971, Feng Tang graduated in gynaecology and, after practising for a few years, decided to devote himself to the world of business by pursuing an MBA in the United States. He now lives in Hong Kong, where he cultivates his passion for writing alongside his role in business management. An award-winning and controversial character of contemporary Chinese literature, Feng Tang has seduced readers of all generations thanks to the authenticity of his prose, which suits perfectly the genuine and sporadically impudent stories he likes to tell.

Beijing, Beijing, by Feng Tang, translated by Michelle Deeter (AmazonCrossing, 2015).

[Written for the GLLI – Paper Republic Collaboration, Feb 2017]

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