Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Make Way for Han Han

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chair of the History Department at UC Irvine, the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (OUP 2010), and a co-editor of Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land (UC Press, 2012). His reviews and commentaries have appeared in venues such as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the TLS, Time, the Atlantic, and Dissent.

Q: When a foreigner comes over and gives you a slap in the face, you take it lying down and don’t fight back. Are you just trying to show how cool you are?
A: No foreigner has come over and given me a slap.
Q: Han Han, a foreigner rapes your mother, and you still won’t put up a protest.
A: No foreigner has raped my mom.
Q: The motherland—that’s your mother.
A: The motherland is the motherland, my mother is my mother.
—From “Q & A with Chinese nationalists,” an April 23 2008 blog post

[I’d like to see China become] a country that doesn’t resort to land sales and real estate and low-end assembly production to achieve high GDP—and high per capita GDP . . . A country whose culture has an impact on the world, whose literature and art other countries imitate. A country that has as clean an environment and as free an atmosphere as other places, where you can enjoy the spectacle of seeing power confined in a cage . . .

—From “Talking Freely, Wine in Hand,” a May 7, 2010 blog post

These quotations are from This Generation: Dispatches from China’s Most Popular Literary Star (and Race Car Driver), which Simon & Schuster released on October 9. The publisher is hoping that this book will make enough of a splash that 2012 will be remembered as the year that Han Han made it big. Or, rather, made it big in the West. For the work’s thirty-year-old author is already arguably as big as you can get in China. Each new post he puts up on his controversial blog garners hundreds of thousands of hits. And his face is ubiquitous, at least in major cities, where it graces magazine covers and appears in countless ads for products he endorses.

In China, moreover, Han is not a newcomer to fame. He’s been in the public eye for roughly one third of his short life. His star first began to rise soon after he dropped out of one of the top high schools in the Shanghai area. The reason it rose was his first novel. A work sometimes likened to Catcher in the Rye in terms of theme and tone, it became a bestseller and earned Han enough money to fulfill his biggest dream: buying a car.

In August, in a piece I wrote on Han for the Atlantic’s online edition, I explored one of the most curious things about the writer: that he has stayed largely under the radar in the West, in spite of a string of profiles of him appearing in leading English- language newspapers and magazines, including the New Yorker. The question now is whether the entertaining and engaging essays in This Generation, which address issues ranging from daily life concerns to official corruption and take varying forms, from mock interviews with himself to rants to gently reflective essays, can do what those profiles have failed to do—make him a household name outside of his own country.

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