Raymond Zhou

My pen pal Han Han

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-12-04 08:11

Hello, Han Han:

You don't know me and I'm not exactly a fan of yours. So, don't throw this letter away as fan mail.

My pen pal Han Han

I happened to come across Time Asia's recent profile of you. And I read your response in Youth Weekend. I empathize with you. You may have found a way to shake off the shackles you were born with, but you ended up in a trap set up by the Western media.

You thought a Time interview would bump up your career another notch. Remember what the New York Times piece did for Guo Jingming? He got the moniker, "China's most successful writer", and what did you get out of the Time deal? You came off as a potty-mouthed, egotistical, effeminate, consumerism-driven brat, the equivalent of a drag queen in the US.

But isn't that a portrait you painted of your archrival, Guo Jingming? Well, except for the expletives, which means Guo now has a more unsullied image than you do.

You should have picked up a trick or two from Guo and had someone translate a few lines from the Time piece, preferably out of context. The quotes from Ai Weiwei or Zhang Yueran would do fine.

Western media tend to duly record the things they like, such as the circulation number for China's "preferred" publications, even though it tends to be laughably inflated. Yet they get into a critical mode when it comes to things that don't fit their nice and nifty framework. Whatever you said was presented in a way that people came away with more misgivings than appreciation.

While Guo got the crown, you were tagged as a "bad boy", which does not carry a positive connotation in Chinese translation. I know you don't mind, but "rebel with no particular cause"? That's gotta hurt.

You don't understand. If you persuade 10 million people, especially youths, with subtly subversive arguments, you are still nothing. Yes, you even defended Sharon Stone. But to a correspondent bent on serious subjects, that could be another juvenile antic. But if you boil down everything to a slogan, which you shout or unfurl in a public place, now that's something the outside world can understand. Sure, foreign reporters have researchers and translators, but much of what you write is not translatable. It's the unsaid that makes you unique and keeps you from being "muzzled". Leung Man Tao called you "the future Lu Xun of China", but blatant that he was, Lu did not get across to foreign readers, even with super English translations.

This humiliation follows on the heels of Time's earliest coverage of you, in 2000, when you were lumped together with Wei Hui and Mian Mian, torchbearers of girlie lit mixed with libido. Had you known that, you'd been better off shifting to romance. All you needed to do was provide glossy photos and let the ghostwriter fill in the text. You could have sold more copies that way.

 My pen pal Han Han

Photo graphics by Luo Jie and Feng Yongbin.

To earn respect from the overseas press, you have to present yourself as an activist or dissident. You have to sprinkle your conversations with words like "democracy", "human rights" and "the planet we live on". You have to put on a grave appearance when describing the tens of millions who are starving, preferably with tears in your eyes. And don't forget to mention the melting of icebergs and the suffering of polar bears. Before you know it, you'll pick up international awards as if they were fan letters.

Or you can bribe government censors to shut down your blog for a month. Have them launch a wide-ranging campaign against you. Organize students nationwide to denounce you. The shortest cut to Western credibility, I must add, is to get yourself thrown in jail. Until that happens, you are simply another "willing participant" - even though you are the most prominent non-member of China's Writers' Association.

By the way, that association hates you. The Establishment clenches its fist. Guo Jingming and his followers sharpen their knife. Yet, they do not come out to say anything bad about you. That essentially transforms you into a Don Quixote - with a racecar instead of a lance.

Now Time magazine brands you a calculated rebel without a cause who carries on in an "epicene and metrosexual way". That's probably worse than your school making you a "three-good" student or a Lei Feng reincarnate.

It reminds me of the set of airbrushed photos of you and Guo as a pair of lovebirds. You were the prince and he the lovelorn princess. You recently confirmed this bond by saying your difference with Guo is in "gender". If that's true, doesn't that make you two a lesbian couple now?

Which, inadvertently, makes Li Yuchun the real man in China, or she wouldn't have become the poster boy for democracy on the Time cover. Next time you pose up for a Time photoshoot, ask Brother Chun for fashion advice.

On second thought, you shouldn't sit for another Time interview. Brother Chun did not give them the chance to talk to her, and they put her on their cover. You said no to US President Obama. Unlike Hecaitou, as close a Han Han wannabe as I can think of, you knew you couldn't squeeze any substance from a so-called dialogue with youth. Look how the experience has traumatized Hecaitou. His question about Twitter was relayed to the US president by the US ambassador. Now he was transformed from a big Obama admirer to a big Obama basher simply because Obama responded he "supports free speech", but did not say he "opposes censorship", which seems to be the only right answer to Hecaitou. His sardonic diatribe against Obama's "compromise" in his blog - and printed in Southern Metropolis Daily - would be great material for Rush Limbaugh.

Yet you succumbed to Time. It could have been a momentary weakness, but you squandered the extra points in rebelliousness you had just earned. If they can't talk to you, they'll have to rely on those around them. That's a special circle that does not correspond to your fan base. But generally, the more aloof you appear, the more highly they'll regard you.

Another approach is the Wang Xiaofeng way. After Time put him in the "You" category in their 2006 Person of the Year feature, he wrote a fictional account of how he bought off their editor to hand him the honor. Now that's what I'd call unconventionally rebellious.

You said you were "set up". You can learn a thing or two from Brother Wang. He was "set up" by a foreign news agency when it made him into a dissident from an interview with him. What did he do? He turned the table and set up a ruse for them by shutting down his blog and going into hiding. Failing to reach him, the agency concluded it must be the fault of the government and published a story as they imagined it.

Enfant terrible you may be, you'll probably not repeat this scheme because it has been done before. You'll have to come up with something worth your wit and novel-writing skill (which Time puts in doubt). It has been fun playing fast-tracking David when the Establishment happily assumes the bumbling role of Goliath. But when your target is a sacred cow from the West, you'd better learn the rope, matador. Driving a racecar may win over autograph-seeking girls, but not soundbite-seeking members of the press.

Regards, Raymond Zhou

My pen pal Han Han

(China Daily 12/04/2009 page18)