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August 5, 2009 in the China Beat


Copyright August 5, 2009 Julia Lovell. Used by permission.


Chinese fiction of the 1990s was not short on shock value. If we think of the decade’s cultural tone being set by Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 command to unleash commercial forces, then the years that followed proved rich in works that would have done the old man proud. Quick off the mark was Jia Pingwa, who triumphantly became one of the earliest, most notorious cases of a serious writer surrendering to lurid populism, with his 1993 novel, The Ruined Capital (Feidu): a best-selling, soft-pornographic tale of a male writer’s travails through the corruption of contemporary China. Things were not looking much more restrained by 1999, when Weihui, in Shanghai Baby (Shanghai baobei), had her young heroine Coco jettison her dreamy Chinese artist boyfriend for a torrid affair (featuring a hard-to-forget toilet sex scene) with a German accountant called Mark.

Just halfway between these two literary moments came the quiet publication of something genuinely outrageous. In 1996, a 28-year-old thermal engineer-turned-avant-garde novelist called Zhu Wen produced a novella, around 150 pages long, entitled Didi de yanzou. Translating the title alone makes me blush, though I will do my best to gloss its subtleties. An unimaginatively literal rendering would make it “My Little Brother’s Performance”, but in Chinese “little brother” (didi) happens also to be one of the language’s many slang usages for penis. If I were then to add that it’s set in a university (in east-coast Nanjing) and features a cast of late adolescent, sex-starved male undergraduates, you might reasonably infer that the story is a Chinese first-cousin to the Western teen-sex comedy — American Pie and its many sequels and spin-offs. It certainly enjoys a good share of the genre’s gross-out crassness.

Here’s a basic summary. The novella starts as it means to go on, with its unnamed narrator meandering through campus in an ill-fitting suit that he has mortgaged off a random fellow-undergraduate with his penultimate condom, looking for girls in short shorts and aimlessly shouting “copulate!” outside classrooms full of diligent students. Our narrator’s roommates are a similarly disreputable lot. There’s Zhou Jian, whose first contribution to the group is to offer them the sexual services of his older cousin (without mentioning this to her in advance). “She must have been frigid,” reasons the narrator, after she has refused every one of them.[1] In one uplifting scene, they take her out for a graduation dinner in the anticipation of getting her so drunk they can all, one by one, have their way with her. (Unfortunately for the hopefuls, they fail to regulate their own intake, and wind up biliously under the table, while she remains decorously compos.) Then again, there’s the spineless Haimen, as desperate to join the Communist Party as he is to ingratiate himself with his degenerate classmates; or the subnormal Lao Wu, who gets put away for attempted rape in the middle of his academic career. The best of the bunch is probably the narcoleptic Jian Xin, whose sole, lofty ambition is to sleep his way through university.