The novel Beijing Doll by teenage author Chun Sue, suggests otherwise.
The book is somewhat superficial, but then that is partly the point – the life of young people in China these days, indeed around the world, is dominated by fast-food joints, ephemeral and clich?d pop phenomena, and a sort of rootlessness that seem to be a consequence of technology and progress in the current phase of human history.
But while superficial, Chun Sue reads and thinks and cares. She struggles with her hormones, her family and her boyfriends. She yearns for freedoms, including the freedom to commit suicide, dye her hair, sleep with anyone she wants, play rock and roll – be unconventional.
Her parents, her school, authority generally, are all shown to be powerless in the face of a young lady in modern-day Beijing determined to break the rules. The book was published in 2002 (the English version was published in late 2004), and banned soon afterwards. Chun Sue is just too wild, and dangerously strikes too sharp a chord with other disaffected young Chinese girls out there.
It reads like a rambling diary, pretty clich?d, and it's hard to keep up with the parade of guys she is with from the age of 15, none of whom are depicted in any depth. As a novelist, she still has a way to go. But as a story, Beijing Doll is worth reading because Chun Sue herself is a bright-eyed impulsive honey and it's fun to get to know her, and because this is a valid picture of a side of the real China that is pretty inaccessible to outsiders – the world of young people, struggling with changes and trying to make sense of it all, basically on their own. Despite whatever preconceptions you may have about "communist China," they are surprisingly free to make their own mistakes.
How different from the past! For which, one reference point are the desperately vivid novels of novelist Su Tong, writing about the old China of the early part of the 20th century. Su is 20 years older than Chun Sue and he is the real thing – a novelist who can create a story with depth, build lifelike characters and relate believable dialogue. The world he depicts in such novels as Rice and Raise High the Red Lantern is viciously cruel, a world in which young people have none of the freedoms than Chun Sue arguably takes advantage of. In Rice (translated into English by Howard Goldblatt, who also translated Beijing Doll), a series of characters are trapped totally in their assigned roles, completely pinned down by tradition and poverty. Rice is in parts a tough book to read because the world it depicts is so bleak, so devoid of hope and the freedom of choice, of which Chun Sue does not seem to appreciate.
The China depicted in Rice is, to a large extent, gone. Women and daughters are no longer disposable, and the horrors of family totalitarianism have been largely lifted. But Rice is worth reading because there are echoes of its world in the modern Chinese world of Beijing Doll. One world led to the other, and there is a link between them.
The links include the frustration of Chun Sue's parents at their daughter's wildness and, dare I say it, the lack of a moral underpinning to Chinese culture in any era.
That's another topic. But the good news is that after decades of darkness, Mainland China now has novelists and artists who are producing works of value, reflecting the human condition from a Chinese viewpoint. Including Chun Sue.
Beijing Doll, by Chun Sue, published by Riverhead Books, US$10.50 on amazon.com Rice, by Su Tong, published by Penguin Books, US$14 on amazon.com