Desire: a materialistic hunger, a sexual thirst, a superficial craving for beauty, status, youth. Or, a soul-deep longing for a lost wholeness; a yearning to fall in love, to be free, to belong. This is the palette of lust with which Annie Wang paints modern China’s portrait in The People’s Republic of Desire. Narrated by the young journalist Niuniu, the novel considers contemporary Chinese identity through the diverse desires, experiences, and viewpoints of China’s women and men.
After spending eight years in America, Niuniu finds her homeland unfamiliar at first — it has become a place that values status over virtue, a place where “it’s more shameful to be poor than to be a whore.” These days, divorce and abortions are the norm, Starbucks is a symbol of high culture, and people will do anything for a few moments of fame. While Niuniu relies on her childhood friends, Beibei and Lulu, to reacquaint her with Chinese culture, she also befriends fellow returnee CC — and the four women strive to survive in a world allegedly made for “bad girls”.
Short, entertaining chapters coupled with Wang’s unembellished phrasing make the novel a very quick read, but beneath its marshmallow-light surface, the novel raises weighty questions — first, by challenging the traditional definition of “home”. Certainly a woman’s home is no longer simply wherever her husband is, and certainly people no longer respond to the question, “Where are you from?” by naming the birthplaces of their ancestors. How far back, then, do one’s roots extend today — and does it even matter in a nation where it’s now common to fake one’s origins? And what about America, the country to which so many Chinese relocate — is it worth being treated like a second-class citizen there, as long as one enjoys unparalleled freedom and an education? Or is it better to remain in China, where it’s much easier to become an elite member of society?
As a returnee, Niuniu provides readers with a balanced narration, approaching the novel’s issues with the objective distance of an outsider yet the intimate knowledge of an insider. Niuniu’s unique viewpoint is key to the novel’s greatest strength, the fairness with which it presents issues, because readers with Western perspectives can both identify with Niuniu and gain a closer, more personal understanding of Chinese perspectives. The novel’s even-handed approach to its issues is enriched by the inclusion of countless characters — rich, poor, young, old, Western, Chinese, conservative, and chic — who offer conflicting opinions on matters such as gender roles. Beibei, for instance, has taken young lovers ever since discovering her husband’s infidelity. She argues: “Men had legitimate lovers for thousands of years in China … why can’t we women have our male concubines?” But Beibei’s lifestyle seems unimaginable for a woman like Lulu, who has suffered three abortions to please her abusive boyfriend. Other women go to different extremes — those who are proud to be gold-diggers, those who strive to be home-wreckers, and those who measure a woman’s power purely by the power of the man she marries. By presenting this and every other issue through a diverse array of voices, the novel confirms the impracticality of strict categorizations, successfully avoiding stereotyping.
As the novel progresses, Niuniu pinpoints the main problem with modern China: its lack of confidence. She recalls ancient China as a time of dignity, when the Chinese valued themselves a noble and confident people, and she observes today’s Chinese falling to the shameful level of mimicking Western society — a situation most startlingly seen in modern Chinese standards of beauty, by which typical Western features are deemed beautiful, while typical Chinese features are deemed unattractive. Niuniu complains:
“It’s ironic to imagine a group of Chinese sitting around mocking Richard Gere for having narrow eyes. They expect their idols to look European, not like them. It’s part of the inferiority complex the Chinese nation suffers from.”
But China is changing swiftly, as Niuniu discovered upon first returning to her homeland — so while the country may be caught now “in a stage where it can only imitate”, there are still those brave enough to question the condition of their nation, those brave enough to say, “We should create our own aesthetics.”
Although the novel is foremost a provocative exploration of modern Chinese culture, beneath its challenges and criticisms there is the hint of a promise in the end — a promise that a new China, sure of its identity, will someday emerge. For if China were a woman, Wang seems to remember the China of older days as one from a romance novel — a woman whose silky black hair was like fluid in the wind, dancing rippleless against the whiteness of her dress — a woman whose heart was soft with wisdom and solid with dignity. The China of today might have hair of red, purple, green, or blue to match her flashy miniskirts and to mask her insecurities. But she is the same woman, just a little less innocent and a little less sure of herself. This China, Wang believes, will one day recover her confidence.