Wang in Love and Bondage by Xiaobo Wang

[30 October 2007]

By Megan Milks

The late Chinese writer Wang Xiaobo, who died, at 44, just a month before he would see a three-volume collection of his fiction go into print, was a renegade in a couple of ways. In his novels, he skewered the hysteria and repression of the Cultural Revolution, while also delving into—in some of China’s first explorations of the topics—sadomasochism and male homosexuality. At the same time that they critiqued cultural and moral conservatism, Wang’s fictions separated themselves from the predominant form of fiction in China at the time: ‘scar literature,’ which romanticized the tragic intellectual’s experience during the Cultural Revolution.

Wang’s fiction, at least in the three novellas collected in Wang in Love and Bondage, steers very clear from romanticizing anything; his work is infused with black comedy, and his style is too satiric and weird to ever get lumped in with hegemonic social realism. Perhaps this is why he never could win the praise of the Chinese literary establishment: he was anti-establishment—any establishment.

The novellas in Wang in Love and Bondage explore sex and subjectivity in different, all transgressive, ways. In “2015”, Wang Er (or “Wang Two”) is a crossdressing artist in the near future, whose work is so bewildering and unnameable that the government takes away his license to paint. He gets sent to the Art Reeducation Institute, where he is given shock treatment; then he gets sent to a labor camp, where his supervisor, a sadistic policewoman, acts out the dictatorship’s domination on his body. The story is narrated by Wang Er’s nephew, who shadows his uncle, ostensibly because he, too, wants to become an artist. The world here is bleak and vaguely futuristic, a kind of surreal idiocracy that is achieved primarily with the narrator’s tone, a combination of the naïve and the blasé.

In “The Golden Age”, the middle novella, two main characters resist totalitarianism with sex. The narrator, another Wang Er, convinces a female acquaintance who is accused of promiscuity (a crime worthy of detainment and public humiliation) to fight back at the authorities by becoming what she is accused of already being. When she eventually agrees to this, Chen Qingyang, Wang Er’s acquaintance, is finally able to view sex as a worthwhile human endeavor; indeed, when she falls in love with Wang Er, she is committing the highest crime and therefore the act most worth doing. Wang (the author) plays with time to unusual effect in this novella. The story is told nonlinearly, with a number of the sections overlapping and backtracking even as time moves forward.

“East Palace, West Palace”, the basis for the Zhang Yuan film of the same name, tells of the sexual relationship between two men, a masochistic bisexual crossdresser, and an in-the-closet police officer. This is the most engrossing of the three novellas; while the first two are interesting stylistically and politically, this is the first place where the characters seem real, not merely spaces for the writer to dramatize political conditions. Ah-Lan and Xiao Shi have a brief but passionate love affair that ends abruptly, leaving Xiao Shi to come to painful terms with his own homosexuality while Ah-Lan moves away with his wife. The arc of the story demonstrates Xiao Shi’s conversion into homosexuality—over the course of the piece, he becomes one of the desperate men in the public park that he so giddily mocks in the story’s beginning. It’s a painful story, made more compelling by its fragmented form; the novella is divided into 38 sections that switch back and forth from present to past. In the present, Xiao Shi is reading the book that Ah-Lan has written for him, all the while not understanding how Al-Lan’s story line mirrors his own. In the past, we are treated to the back story of the two men’s affair.

“East Palace, West Palace” is also the place where Wang’s ability to write beautiful prose becomes most apparent. Here are two examples: “In our society, homosexuals are like icebergs in the ocean who meet sometimes and part at other times, completely unable to act on their own” (154). “Ah-Lan would push her back down on the bed, unbutton her, loosen her bra, and push it up—until Public Bus looked like a fish with a sliced-open belly” (143). Lines like these betray a sympathy with his characters and a capacity for delivering striking metaphors that Wang does not show in the other pieces of the book, where he focuses mainly on creating a jesting, somewhat bewildering tone, akin to that of some of George Saunders’ stories.

Uniting all three novellas is Wang’s obvious interest in, beyond sex, the political act of writing; in each one, his main characters engage in writing as a form of confession. The narrator of “2015”, having failed at a career as an artist, becomes a writer and writes the story of his uncle, whose art is repressed by the state. That story, of course, is the story we are reading. In “The Golden Age”, Wang Er is made to write down his confessions over and over again, in great detail, describing his transgressive relationship with Chen Qingyang. Those confessions make up the story we are reading (which explains the fragmentation and overlapping in time I mentioned above). In “East Palace, West Palace”, Wang demonstrates the limits of the power of words to transgress. Ah-Lan can only express his love for Xiao Shi in the story of a heterosexual love affair—and Xiao Shi, not recognizing himself in the man and his lover in the woman, cannot realize what Ah-Lan is trying to tell him.

The translators’ introduction provides the context with which a reader outside of the politics of the Cultural Revolution can understand the novellas’ intersection with them. As well, Hongling Zhang and Jason Sommer discuss some of Wang’s other work, both his fiction and the satirical essays with which he made his name—leaving one with the hope that, if Wang in Love and Bondage is the first translation into English of Wang’s work, it is not likely to be solitary for long.

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