Sex Confessions and Protest From a Disillusioned Communist

In 1991, a little-known writer in Beijing named Wang Xiaobo mailed the manuscript of a novel to the eminent historian Cho-yun Hsu, his former professor at the University of Pittsburgh. The book was about China’s Cultural Revolution, the political purge from 1966 to 1976 that killed more than a million people and sent scientists, writers, artists and millions of educated youths to labor in the countryside.

At the time Wang was writing, novels about the Cultural Revolution tended to be fairly conventional tales of how good people suffered nobly during this decade of madness. The system itself was rarely called into question. Wang’s book was radically different. THE GOLDEN AGE (Astra House, 272 pp., $26) — the title itself was a provocation — told the tragic-absurd story of a young man who is exiled, witnesses suicide, endures bullying and beatings by local officials … and spends as much time as possible having sex.

Professor Hsu forwarded the manuscript to the judges of one of Taiwan’s most prominent literary prizes. Wang’s story of lust and loss won, stunning China’s literary world and turning the author into one of the country’s most influential and popular novelists.

Wang’s position in China’s literary canon is remarkable because he was never part of the state-sponsored writers’ association — unlike better-known figures such as the Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan, Yu Hua or Jia Pingwa. Wang seemed to have come out of nowhere, and he left nearly as quickly, dying of a heart attack in 1997, at age 44. In just a few years he wrote an avalanche of novels, stories, essays and newspaper articles, many of them published posthumously.

Only one section of “The Golden Age” had been published in English until a new translation by Yan Yan came out this year. The novel recounts the coming-of-age of Wang Er, whose life closely parallels Wang Xiaobo’s. Like the author, he is born in 1952, grows up in Beijing, participates in the Cultural Revolution as a teenager and is sent to work in the countryside.

But while Wang Er ends up in a series of failed relationships back in the capital, Wang Xiaobo in 1980 married one of China’s most formidable academics, Li Yinhe, who had a profound impact on him and remained with him until his death. Part of the first generation of sociologists to be trained after Mao’s ban on the field was lifted, Li went to Pittsburgh to earn her Ph.D., accompanied by her husband, who earned a master’s in Asian studies. Back home, the couple published an early (for China) study of homosexuality, and Li later went on to become a champion of the L.G.B.T.Q. movement.

For Wang, gay people were just one of many groups whose voices were drowned out by the state’s monopoly over media. His thinking crystallized in a hugely influential 1996 essay, “The Silent Majority,” which argued that the state silences not just people of different sexual orientations, but most Chinese people, from migrants and miners to farmers and students. It is a call to action for civil society, for an end to silence — and it remains an inspiration for many Chinese today in a new era of overwhelming state control.

The idea of how to stand up to power underlies “The Golden Age.” At the start, Wang Er is stationed in the tribal border region of Yunnan, herding oxen and smitten with a doctor working in the same commune. He’s 21, buoyant and hungry. “In the golden age of my life, I was full of dreams,” he says. “I wanted to love, to eat and to instantly transform into one of those clouds, part alight, part darkened.”

But he quickly contrasts these dreams with the harshness of life under a powerful state, comparing it to a local method of castrating oxen. For most bulls, it was enough to simply slice the scrotum. Temperamental ones, however, had their testicles pulled out and beaten to a pulp with a wooden club. “It was only later that I understood — life is but a slow, drawn-out process of getting your balls crushed,” our narrator observes. “Day by day, you get older. Day by day, your dreams fade. In the end you are no different from a crushed ox.”

One way to read “The Golden Age” is to focus on the sex — and there is a lot of it. But little of it is described in realistic detail; instead it becomes a device through which the hero and his lover, Chen Qingyang, stand up to the state. Outed for having a premarital affair, which was taboo in the Mao era, they are forced to write erotic “confessions” for horny Communist Party officials and ascend stages to describe their acts to crowds of bug-eyed farmers.

Their increasingly elaborate and lurid admissions, demanded again and again by their superiors, fall somewhere in tone between Harlequin romance and modernist poem: “Chen Qingyang and I committed innumerable crimes in the clearing behind Old Man Liu’s because his fallow, fertile land was almost effortless to clear.” Sex itself is “epic friendship,” as in: “We committed epic friendship in the mountain, breathing wet steamy breaths.” (The narrator is asked to clarify “what is commitment from the front and what is commitment from the rear.”) The confessions amount to an absurdist critique of unchecked state power, making a mockery of its instruments.

Later, Wang Er returns to Beijing in the late 1970s and becomes an obsequious academic, finally hammered into submission. But he is haunted by a suicide that he saw over a decade earlier, before his time in the countryside, when he lived with his family on a college campus. A faculty member had been tortured so much that he jumped out the window of a building. Officials carted off his body for an “autopsy” (diagnosis: no foul play, even though bruises showed how he had been tortured). But they refused to clean the chunks of brain on the pavement, claiming that this was the family’s responsibility.

6 New Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel Salazar📚 Reading in Brooklyn

6 New Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel Salazar📚 Reading in Brooklyn

Our latest roundup includes a political satire-meets-murder mystery by Wole Soyinka, a new translation of a classic Latin American dictator novel, and a look into the long history of quarantine stretching back to medieval Europe.

Here are six new paperbacks that we recommend this week →

6 New Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel Salazar📚 Reading in Brooklyn

CHRONICLES FROM THE LAND OF THE HAPPIEST PEOPLE ON EARTH, by Wole Soyinka.

This novel, about a sinister criminal enterprise that sells human body parts for use in rituals and superstitions, is a political satire, a murder mystery and also a lament for the spiritual soul of Soyinka’s homeland, Nigeria.

6 New Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel Salazar📚 Reading in Brooklyn

DEAR MISS METROPOLITAN, by Carolyn Ferrell.

After nearly 25 years, Ferrell has followed up on her first story collection — an “auspicious debut,” according to the Times critic Dwight Garner — with a harrowing novel about three young girls who are kidnapped, tortured and raped for a decade in a Queens basement.

6 New Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel Salazar📚 Reading in Brooklyn

MR. PRESIDENT, by Miguel Ángel Asturias. Translated by David Unger.

A new translation of this surrealist 1946 work brings to life a nameless hell on earth where freedom is only possible through exile or death. At its center is one of the president’s henchmen, whose loyalty is tested as the regime becomes increasingly horrific.

6 New Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel Salazar📚 Reading in Brooklyn

UNSPEAKABLE ACTS: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s, by Nancy Princenthal.

This elegant account reflects on an insurgent generation of women artists whose treatment of sexual violence incorporated political activism, giving shape to acute pain and creating a new kind of art in the process.

6 New Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel Salazar📚 Reading in Brooklyn

UNTIL PROVEN SAFE: The History and Future of Quarantine, From the Black Death to the Space Age, by Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley.

Seamless in its narration and wide-ranging in scope, this inquiry into quarantine traces the practice’s roots and explores its effects on everything from politics to life in outer space.

6 New Paperbacks to Read This Week

Miguel Salazar📚 Reading in Brooklyn

BUILD YOUR HOUSE AROUND MY BODY, by Violet Kupersmith.

In telling the story of two young women who go missing decades apart in Vietnam, this novel covers the country from its colonial occupation to the present. Our reviewer, Alexis Schaitkin, called it “a thrilling read, acrobatic and filled with verve.”

Published on July 22.

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