A Chinese Culture Club

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By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, April 18, 2006

THE PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF DESIRE

By Annie Wang

Harper. 445 pp. Paperback, $13.95

Annie Wang's second novel written in English has no discernible plot, meanders with no apparent purpose, bears far more resemblance to journalism than to fiction -- yet is interesting, amusing and pertinent. It is very much a book of the moment -- its subject is the "new" China -- and probably it will vanish as soon as the moment does, but it tells us a lot about what's going on right now in the world's most populous and exciting country. It is of considerably more consequence than its actual merits would seem to suggest.

Like Niuniu, the narrator of "The People's Republic of Desire," Wang is a native of China who has spent a lot of time in the United States, has absorbed and holds dear a great deal about American culture, yet has returned to China out of loyalty to her roots as well as a desire to participate in the extraordinary transformation taking place there. This is how Niuniu describes herself :

"Megacity girl, Asian, 5'2", 110 pounds, liberal, Democrat, and a cosmopolitan journalist. Plans to vote for Hillary Clinton once she runs for president; very much against American invasion in Iraq; believes that the UN Security Council should be used to balance the hawks; enjoys the busy city life of Beijing, Shanghai, New York, and Hong Kong; watches Ally McBeal and Oprah ; has gay friends and girlfriends who have had abortions; does not understand professional wrestling in any way, shape, or form."

In other words, a Thoroughly Modern Millie, Beijing-style. She's in her late twenties and writes for "the Beijing bureau of the English news agency World News," and she spends a lot of time in the company of her three friends: Beibei, several years older, who runs an entertainment agency and makes twice as much money as her husband, to whom she is routinely unfaithful, and vice versa; Lulu, another journalist, whose "dream is to be a good wife for a man she loves, but . . . [who] keeps bumping into married men and liars"; and CC, "business manager at an international public relations company called Ed Consulting," a "little princess" with "an acute identity crisis: she doesn't know whether she is Chinese or English."

They are, all in all, pretty much the women you'd run into on K Street, except that they're Chinese. They face the usual dilemmas and difficulties confronted by attractive young women in most countries, except that these are compounded and complicated by being in China at this particular moment in that country's history. All of them are looking for love and not having much luck finding it, torn as they are between East and West, and dealing as they must with men whose expectations are entirely different from their own. As another woman, a professor of psychology, puts it: "Chinese men like their women to admire them, not the other way around. They can't stand their women to be better than they are, especially in the education field. The more educated women are, the more difficult it is for us to find husbands nowadays."

All of which suggests, accurately, that "The People's Republic of Desire" is chick-lit, and doubtless some readers will be captivated by the romantic entanglements in which these four women find themselves. As such stories go theirs are mildly interesting, but they are essentially window dressing in what really is a report from the front lines of change in China.

As Wang is at pains to emphasize, what's going on boils down to a fundamental conflict between city and country. During a visit to Beijing last fall, staying at what is essentially an expat community, I was astonished to see, only a couple of miles from this fairly tony and decidedly Western development, a two-lane road in which one lane had been closed so that farmers could spread corn to dry. While BMWs and Volkswagens inched past, men and women with bundles of straw strapped to their backs walked slowly along the shoulder, and people on bicycles transported small bundles.

This aspect of contemporary China has been widely reported and thus scarcely comes as news, but Wang rather astutely contrasts the world of her four principal characters with that inhabited by so many other Chinese. Niuniu and her friends freak out over American music, movies and movie stars, live and die by the Internet, wear whatever is most fashionable and hip, yearn for American passports, proudly call themselves xiaozi , or petit bourgeois, which may have been "dangerous during the Cultural Revolution" but now "is one of the most glorious words in the Chinese lexicon, representing an emerging army of cool people." They own cars, or at least carry driver's licenses ("It's like a membership card"), they eat at the most expensive and visible restaurants, and they generally are on display as much as possible.

Venture outside Beijing, though -- or Shanghai, or Hong Kong -- and it's a completely different world: "With all of China's sweeping changes and economic reforms, the suffering of the poor is something that is often overlooked by the more successful city dwellers. Whether city people choose to ignore the poverty of their countrymen or whether they simply don't know about it depends on whom you ask." Beibei admits to feeling "guilty about my wealth" because "part of the reason I'm able to lead a luxurious life is there are so many poor Chinese people -- cheap laborers." Niuniu herself is taken aback by "the miserable world that some women still live in today . . . a world of dog-eat-dog poverty, despair, sixteen-hour workdays, struggle, tears, never seeing the light of day, unfairness, prostitution, rape, discrimination, abduction, and slavery."

No doubt Niuniu (i.e., Wang) is sincere in saying this, but the real center of her world is with-it Beijing. It's a world of which she accurately can say: "Conspicuous consumption may be an American invention, but it has been perfected in China," where "being wealthy is a justification for being rude," where a friend who "works for a Beijing newspaper, drives a European car, and has just bought a condominium costing 800,000 yuan" (about $100,000) is "considered 'just so-so.' " Everyone, it seems, "is a braggart and an attention-seeker." As Wang writes in her preface:

"Back in China, I hear people discuss at length the experience of their first taste of Starbucks coffee, the first time they drove a Buick, chatting on the Internet, experiencing a one-night stand or watching an adult movie. Divorce, oral sex, affairs, boob jobs, abortion, homosexuality, overcharged libidos, impotence -- these once-taboo subjects have become daily conversations among urban women who take great pride in owning a bottle of Chanel No. 5. It's cool to be a sex dissident as long as you are not a political dissident."

It's the stuff of news stories we read and hear every day. "The People's Republic of Desire" puts a human face on what often seems -- whether one is in China or half a world away -- a social and cultural revolution too vast to comprehend. It's not much of a novel, but it's pretty good human-interest journalism.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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