Bridget Jones with blow jobs - Chinese novelist Zhou Wei Hui

July 23 2001 / New Statesman

Evelyn Waugh had this advice for a young writer: “Reviews matter very little in the case of a novel. The important thing is to make people talk about it. You can do this by forcing your way into the newspapers in some other way.” One writer who has certainly taken an unorthodox route to a kind of literary celebrity is the young Chinese novelist Zhou Wei Hui. Her sexually explicit novel Shanghai Baby (Robinson, 279pp, £6.99) has been banned and burned in China, and the author herself was recently denounced by the state as “decadent, debauched and a slave of foreign culture”.

Not surprisingly, Wei Hui (pronounced “Way Way”) is becoming something of a succes de scandale in Europe, as publishers scramble to buy the translation rights to her book. When I met her for a drink in London, she was at the end of a bewildering publicity tour, having spent her entire week being chaperoned from one anonymous television studio to another, a victim of what Saul Bellow called the “event glamour” of contemporary media celebrity. She was delighted by her success, but unhappy at the circumstances through which her aspiration of reaching a western readership had been achieved. However, she was proud of her book and proud that she had become something of an outstanding figure for her generation in China, an icon of change and anti-authoritarian renewal (her book continues to circulate like a samizdat pamphlet). “I receive so many e-mails every day from people encouraging me,” she told me. “They say how much my work means to them.”

Shanghai Baby is certainly a curiosity, perhaps China’s first authentic sex’n’ shopping novel. The narrator, a confused young writer called Coco, lives with her impotent boyfriend in an apartment in downtown Shanghai. She works on her fiction by day and, at night, enjoys a destructive affair with a muscular, blond-haired German, a veritable Boris Becker of the bedroom. (Their sex is rough and seldom pleasurable.) Coco is tough, street-smart, liberated and ambitious in a familiar western metropolitan way. She knows exactly what she wants and how to get it. Her life is dedicated to the pursuit of sensation, and her frame of reference is circumscribed entirely by western popular culture—at times the novel, with its brand names, recreational drugs and slick-style obsessions, reads like a Chinese version of Bret Easton Ellis, but without the violence. Or, more accurately, it is Bridget Jones with blow jobs.

Part of the surprise of Shanghai Baby is encountering a young writer in the act of discovering her own voice. The novel abounds in lurid similes, many of which simply do not work: “The Shanghai winter is wet and disgusting, like a woman’s period.” There is humour: “They [Chinese women] have more freedom than of 50 years ago, better looks than those of 30 years ago, and a greater variety of orgasms than women of ten years ago.” And there is unintentional humour, such as when Coco has sex with her pneumatic German: “He ate a mouthful of fruit jelly and then a mouthful of me, looking for all the world like a cannibal chieftain. When he straightened up and went inside I quickly lost control and exploded ... In that instant, sexual pleasure swept over me as if mountains were being toppled and seas emptied, until it seemed I was making love with every man in the world.” An instance of Vorsprung durch Technik, as they might say in Germany.

Yet one should resist that characteristic English disdain for overwriting, and too easily mocking those writers who at least attempt to mangle and stretch language, who experiment with metaphor and simply have fictional fun. (One recalls how viciously literary London turned against Arundhati Roy after her fine first novel, The God of Small Things, won the Booker Prize in 1997, and how her vivid prose was routinely mocked as “vulgar and ostentatious”.)

Wei Hui, the daughter of an army officer, studied classical Chinese literature at the elite Fudon University in Shanghai. She has been praised by literary academics in Hong Kong for the way in which she attempts to invent her own idiom, rich in allusion and vernacular energy, and find new ways of writing about Shanghai, which remains one of the most seductive cities in the world. J G Ballard, who grew up in Shanghai, has described the city as “teeming, cruel but always exhilarating”, a cross “between ancient Babylon and Las Vegas”. It is still recognisably the same city in Wei Hui’s novel. “Night-time in Shanghai always has a passionate and nerve-racking quality,” she writes. But much of her verbal exuberance is lost in translation. What remains is a novel that, in its deliberate evasion of politics and superficial celebration of style, can be read as a rather canny political tract, in which extreme self-affirmation becomes an act of rebellion, a turning away from China and from the revolutionary, public sel f of previous decades. “I grew up in a very strict family,” Wei Hui has said. “My first year of college was spent in military training. What happened after that was natural. I rebelled. I went wild. That’s what I wrote about.”

In person, Wei Hui is voluptuous and flirtatious. She has painted lips, a little girl’s laugh, and long, burnished fingernails. She discusses her desire to “discover her full potential as a woman”, thinks little of the boyfriends she has left behind (“the past is past”) and speaks of her love and respect for Mao Zedong’s “poetry and wisdom”.

So what next for Wei Hui? She has no plans to leave Shanghai, but concedes that she has begun to operate a form of covert self-censorship: “When I write now, I’m worried that my next book might be banned, too.” That is unlikely to happen, however, because no doubt she will inspire an entire generation of literary imitators. And the Chinese authorities will once more be compelled to make concessions to the pressures of globalisation, as this vast, unknowable country of more than a billion people continues to negotiate, more successfully than has the former Soviet Union, a precarious reformist road between communism and capitalism. Which means either that there will be many more smouldering pyres of books or, more realistically, that a benign acceptance will prevail allowing the modern Chinese woman, like her western counterpart, to be liberated into decadence, free to have her man and be eaten by him.