There was a time when a Cannes jury could sit through – and lavish prizes on – movies about city kids planting crops in Yunnan or teaching children in Shaanxi until the water buffalo came home.
But while the sub-genre has reached a saturation point, its most representative writers may have trouble moving forward and writing about China's present. Most of them haven't lived in the country for at least a decade.
Dai Sijie, who was sent to live in rural Sichuan in the early 1970s and has been living and writing in France since the early 1980s, is a likely example.
His quasi-autobiographical first novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (which he later adapted into a film), was a delightfully light-hearted story of two lads who make the most of their time as manure porters by trying to use their knowledge of Western literature to woo the prettiest girl in their countryside village.
In his second novel, Mr Muo's Travelling Couch, first published in French in 2003 and in English two years later, Dai has stepped up and taken a stab at the more contemporary setting of China in 2000 – even if that pre-Olympic, pre-WTO year already seems more distant than it probably should. The book's 264 pages are a brisk and thoroughly entertaining read.Dai's protagonist and alter ego is Muo, a forty-something intellectual who claims to be "China's first psychoanalyst".
Muo returns to the motherland after a decade in Paris reading Freud and Lacan to rescue his college sweetheart, who is stuck in a Chengdu prison after (what else?) selling sensitive photos to the foreign press. Of course, the person in charge of her case is the venal, vitiated Judge Di. Sick of monetary bribes, Di's condition for letting the girl go is that Muo provide him with a virgin to deflower.
Determined to win his love's freedom (and apparently untroubled by the prospect of serving up an innocent girl to a repulsive official), Muo sets off on a quixotic quest around China to find the right girl, interpreting the dreams of people he meets as a way of investigating their personal lives. Ever the psychiatrist, Muo cannot get his mind off the carnal. A running joke in this section of the book is that Muo, so versed in the academic literature and symbolism of sex from his studies, is himself chaste while there doesn't seem to be a single virginal girl left in his home country.
Dai sends Muo careering into one Chinese political hot potato after another. Aside from the corrupt judge and the imprisoned photographer (she was taking pictures of the police torturing a suspect), Muo stumbles across an execution ground; a lonely woman whose gay husband was driven to suicide; Han-hating minorities; and a library full of banned literature where he picks up Dr Li Zhisui's biography of Mao and flips straight to a page detailing some of the Chairman's own deviant proclivities.
These might seem cheap shots from a writer who, critics would point out, has not been able to see some of the progress made in China over the last 20 years. Is Dai saying he, like some high and mighty head-shrinker, knows China better than it knows itself? Not really.
The insinuated complaints are only half-serious and usually remain in service of the plot, which is a corker. Quite unlike the placid Balzac, the new Mr Muo is full of twists and absurdist moments. Dai includes plenty of tasty Freudian subtext for readers to chew on and, like his other work, it goes down easy.
Mr Muo's Traveling Couch by Dai Sijie, published by Vintage, US$13.00
Psychoanalytic stand-up comedy
Despite my modest fee, I took my psychoanalytic endeavors very seriously. Whenever my memory permitted, I paid tribute to my masters by quoting a passage from Freud, Lagan or Jung. It must be conceded that the language of psychoanalysis, with its specific terminology and phrasing, does not lend itself to translation. When I recited such passages, not in Mandarin but in the melodious dialect of Sichuan, the cabbalistic vocabulary took on a comic edge which provoked such uproarious laughter among the women crowding round to listen that you would have sworn I was engaging in stand-up comedy – a genre I normally despise.
My first client, a woman of fifty, had permed her hair and wore a fancy ring on her finger. She had dreamt of catching a fish. I asked her if the fish was large or small, but she could not recall. To convince her of the significance of this detail, I attempted to translate what Freud has to say on the subject: small fish stand for human sperm and big fish for children. As for the fishing rod in her dream, it obviously stood for the phallus. An indescribable pandemonium ensued, with all the women shouting and cheering at the tops of their voices. My client blushed and hid her face in her hands, while the crowd broke out in deafening applause. From one moment to the next the fear of unemployment vanished from their faces. I have the feeling they have adopted me and that Great Leap Forward Street has accepted me as a public entertainer.