System Failure

Author Han Han has become a pop phenom, and a reluctant role model, by lashing out at China's status quo.

March 03, 2003|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- It's 3:30 a.m., and a young man driving a $50,000 Mitsubishi sports car is roaring down the Avenue of Eternal Peace, occasionally topping 100 mph and screeching to a stop at every red light.

Han Han, the 20-year-old behind the wheel, is just showing off, and why shouldn't he? The high-school dropout published his first novel at the age of 17 and is perhaps the most successful fiction writer in China in a decade. His four books have sold more than 2 million copies, earning him roughly $400,000 and, to his dismay, the status of hero.

His meld of whimsical observations and jabs at the Chinese education system has tapped into young people's angst about their exam-driven lives. His work is the cultural antithesis of the achievement ethic, exemplified by the best-selling Harvard Girl, a non-fiction account of a girl from Sichuan province making it to the Ivy League.

Han's two novels are Three Doors, which has sold more than a million copies, and Racing Like a Teenager. They and his two other books feature short scenes with biting observations about school life, travel, consumerism and girls.

"I have long been thinking about one thing: `Why do we need babes?' " Han writes in a typically cynical passage. "It is probably because they can change your life habits and make you feel the world is full of hope. But when you feel that you are about to get what you have been longing for, the babes will move on to others and help them share the same idea that the world is full of hope."

He sometimes directs his venom at fictional officials, such as a high-ranking judge busy taking bribes: "And he sentences those who take bribes, by the way."

Han's distaste for the establishment is alternately mature and juvenile. In his ideal world, he says, school would be held two days a week with five-day weekends, and classes would be 10 minutes long, with 45-minute breaks.

He's as much the kid behind the wheel as the man with a pen in his hand, claiming to be unsure he'll ever write again. A reluctant symbol to those youth in China dreaming of a way off the achievement track, Han himself is still searching for his way.

"Writing is very difficult to judge," Han said, fidgeting with nervous energy as he sat in a Cantonese diner shortly before his early morning drive. "But racing, if you're fast, you're fast. If you're slow, you're slow. It's very easy to draw the line."

On this evening, he is dressed in black from head to toe, his hair drawn back in a ponytail, save for the strands hanging over one side of his face. He doesn't socialize with other writers and doesn't pose as a sophisticate. Digging into a dessert of ice cream washed down with a Coke, he rejects attempts to assign deeper meaning or significance to much of anything, including his own work. He said he doesn't know if his success signifies anything at all about his changing country.

"I've never thought about things like that. I never associated my writing with some trend or China's reforms. That's other people's business," Han said. "People ask me, `What is the meaning of literature? What is the meaning of life?' I think ... I don't waste my time thinking about these things."

Others' views

But scholars and editors in Beijing and Shanghai, where Han attended boarding school, are thinking about this new literary star. They wonder if he is merely a well-marketed product or if his writing may have lasting value. They wonder what his success tells us about a generation of teen-agers -- and debate whether the education system needs to be tweaked to accommodate people like him.

The debate itself is a moral victory for Han, considering that one of the central themes of his writings is his abject disregard for schools and the education system.

In part because of his status as a dropout and self-imposed outsider, his remarks on schools stand out as the most provocative. He takes on students, teachers, standardized tests and an education system that he views as corrupt.

"For those who curse both the principal and teachers," he writes, "... if the school would add 10 points to their college entrance exam score, or appoint the prettiest girls in the school to be their girlfriends, they would surely write in their journals: Thank you for giving me such opportunities."

Chinese authors have written pointed social commentary before, but until recent years, experts say, Han's novels would never have been published.

"When I was 17 or 18 years old, there was a group of young writers around me who also had similar work. This kind of rebellious work was happening all the time," said Yang Kui, 34, vice chief editor at the Chinese Writers Association publishing house, publishers of Han's work as well as Harvard Girl. "But they were ahead of social development at that time, so it could not be published or marketed."

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