I first read Hongling Zhang’s and Jason Sommer’s translation of Wang Xiaobo’s “The Golden Age” in the fall of 2016. It was a period when I was hungry for humor, socio-political knowing, and literature all at the same time.
My partner, Yehui, knew, and knows, my sensibilities, my yearnings, and my tendency in early drafts to rush into summary, sacrificing particularities in detail and texture. That is, she knew for me in writing that a face was a face and rarely needed to surpass its faceness. A button was a button too. Just as words were words, not landmines, containers, or gilded pathways meandering the infinite.
Regardless, I remember saying something like, “What else should I read?”
We must have been on a crosstown bus, a subway, or perhaps in our living room watering plants. “Read Wang Xiaobo,” she said. “If you don’t know his work, then you don’t know Chinese literature. And if you don’t know Chinese literature, then you don’t know enough about literature.”
Sure, I had closely read and studied Laozi and Confucius, reposing on the cozy hammocks of aphorism after aphorism, or Yu Hua and Mo Yan, and all their contemporary prizes and popularity, their wonderful plots. Still, that wasn’t enough.
Hence, I bought the only available translation into English of Wang Xiaobo’s work, Wang in Love and Bondage. Published by Suny Press in 2007, it’s a collection of three short novellas—“The Golden Age,” “2015,” and “East Palace, West Palace”—all of which can even be considered long short stories.
It’s 2022. More than three years have gone by. I’ve been drafting and revising a novella that demands I carefully study Wang Xiaobo. My project hinges on how logic is deployed in scenes in response to the uncanny and absurd. Soon, I forget my intentions and lose myself in Wang’s flawless arrangement. Within a paragraph of “The Golden Age,” Wang’s understated wit and distinctive tone is undeniable, conjuring up connections to Kafka’s logic-riddled restraint, Camus’s detachment, and Lu Xun’s dark humor.
Set during the Cultural Revolution, the story follows Wang Er and Chen Qingyang in Yunnan province. Wang Er is twenty-one and in the golden age of his life. He’s among the many students from Beijing who are sent to the countryside for re-education. There, he encounters Chen Qingyang, a nurse who’s a few years older than him, and who Wang Er visits periodically to have her inject steroids in his lower back in an attempt to alleviate a chronic injury, which has been caused by the team leader assigning him to plant rice seedlings instead of plowing, resulting in him having to constantly bend over in the fields. Their encounters lead her to seek help from Wang Er in an attempt to dispel the rumor that she is pòxié (破鞋). Yehui clarifies for me that these Chinese characters align closely with “ragged shoes”; however, the English translation tweaks “pòxié” into “damaged goods.” When I discuss this with Yehui, she reminds me that it’s hard to translate metaphors and idioms, that, yes, “damaged goods” is adequate. It doesn’t deceive. But it lacks the complexity and layered history of pòxié.
Without getting lost in translating experience into words, into language or into meaning, this “damaged goods,” with all its lack, can still capture Wang Xiaobo’s skill at structuring scenes through logical play.
Despite the fact that everyone believed she was damaged goods, she didn’t think she was. Because, to be damaged goods she had to have cheated on her husband, but she never did. Although her husband had been in prison for a year, she hadn’t slept with another man, nor had she done anything like that. Therefore she couldn’t understand why people kept calling her damaged goods.
The motivating question throughout the narrative is rooted in Chen Qingyang’s desire to understand and rid herself of the unfounded accusation. And Wang’s interjections of logic enriches the passage and the narrative. The story, like many stories, can still be compelling, thought-provoking, and engaging if it consists only of physical description, dialogue, and action, where Wang Er’s logical assessment of the narrative is cut to read something like, “She didn’t think she was damaged goods. Still, people called her damaged goods.” It happens too often that writers are taught, tricked, or made to believe that they should “streamline” a piece, rendering the prose efficient, a wonderful factory, whereby my revision to Wang Xiaobo’s passage would prove itself productive since it contains the original version without sacrificing “meaning”. The pace would improve. The plot would be no different. The tension and careful withholding would thrust the whole forward like a cold war rocket. It might even open readers up to more pathways to an interpretation and a deep, stimulating discussion buffet. But it would suffer. Immeasurably.
“The Golden Age” achieves so much in a limited space, only a fragment of which I’m equipped to discuss. The story not only seamlessly satirizes the complexities of revolution and the relationship between sexuality, expression and authority, but there often exists a subtle tenderness that recognizes the beauty of land and nature, how it’s embedded in, and witnesses, humanity in all its depravity. There is so much to admire in his eclectic work. At times, it can read like a collection of arguments, an essay, or a rebellious and patterned joke that’s brutally telling and representational, where Wang Er is both a scoundrel and philosopher. That drags the pressures of a mob against a subjective individual into the foreground, where truth is irrelevant and beyond the scope of the convoluted logic embedded in such a world and erotic play becomes a heroic and defiant act.
Later in the story Wang, exhausted by his inability to satisfy the senseless beliefs of the public, uses indirect logic to frame his and Chen Qingyang’s perplexing circumstance:
[…] if I wanted to prove she was not damaged goods and I could, then things would be too easy. The truth was I couldn’t prove anything, except things that didn’t need proving. In spring, our team leader claimed I was the one who had shot out the left eye of his dog, which was why the dog always looked at people with its head tilted, as if she were dancing ballet. From then on, he always gave me a hard time. Three things could have proved my innocence:
- 1. The team leader had no dog;
- 2. The dog was born blind in the left eye;
- 3. I’m a man with no hands who can’t aim a gun.
Finally, none of the three requirements could be established; the team leader did have a brown dog; her left eye was indeed blinded by a shot; I could not only aim a gun but I was also an excellent marksman. To make matters worse, I’d borrowed an air rifle from Luo Xiaosi not long before the incident, […] One day as I walked on the mountain, the team leader’s dog came into view. I happened to have Luo Xiaosi’s air rifle with me, so I fired a bullet and blinded her right eye.
Wang Xiaobo’s sardonic interruption shows how an overwhelming system can be rich with bizarre logic that provokes an absurd and perhaps anti-human response. That’s why Wang Er, incapable of proving his innocence, chooses to become guilty by blinding the dog. I’m reminded of Jerzy Kosinski’s afterword of The Painted Bird, where he writes, “that the confrontation between the defenseless individual and the overpowering society, between the child and war, would represent the essential anti-human condition.” Faced with an “overpowering society,” Wang Er and Chen Qingyang’s unforgettable story blurs the distinctions between love, eroticism, friendship, law, revolution and nature. They become emblematic for broader “anti-human” conditions, where truth is a construction, a scaffolding, or wet cement vulnerable to hands and footprints.
Later in the “The Golden Age,” Wang Er and Chen Qingyang are taken into custody, subject to denouncement meetings, interrogated, and locked in a motel, forced to write confessions. It was then that Wang Er began to feel like a real writer. Wang Xiaobo’s skill may be at its best here in using logic to simultaneously bring together the many dimensions of systems, impulses, and fetishes:
In my confession, I admitted that Chen Qingyang and I had committed crimes in numerous occasions on Grandpa Liu’s back mountain
She said all that happened came about because I talked about great friendship in my small house by the river. […]
I’ve had a feeling about this all along. So whenever I asked her for sex, I would say, Old pal, how about strengthening our great friendship now? Married couples have a code of ethics to strengthen, and we don’t have that, so we can only strengthen our friendship. She said, No problem. How do you want to strengthen it, from the front or from the back? I said, From the back. We were at the edge of the field then. Because it was from the back, we had to spread two palm-bark rain capes on the ground. She knelt on her hands and knees, like a horse, and said, You’d better hurry. It’s time to give Grandpa Liu a shot. I wrote all these in my confessions, but the leaders wanted me to confess in response to the following:
- 1. Who is Comrade Strain-thing Eh-thics?
- 2. What does “Strengthening the great friendship” mean?
- 3. What is strengthening from the back? And what is strengthening from the front?
After I cleared things up, the leaders told me not to play word games. Whatever my crimes were they said, I needed to confess them.
Wang Er and Chen Qingyang are timeless heroes, who liberate through a shared resilience and connection that rubs against myriad, anguish-inducing obstacles. What’s left is a reminder that words and ideas are too often imposed on simple individuals who have simple, genuine longings. The disquieting proximity of systems of control to language and history and how even within words—and how they can become manufactured and conveniently bent for a system—there exists a world and a universe within made worlds and galaxies.
In this way, Wang Xiaobo’s piece, and what it implies, conjures up threads that connect to María Ospina’s short story “Policarpa” (translated from Spanish by Heather Cleary), which wonderfully captures the wrenching connection between words made and words imposed. Here, in a story about a woman who seeks to publish a story about her experiences with the FARC guerilla movement, Ospina illuminates the ways that those in control of language—in this case, a publisher—can alter and suppress the truth.
It had been less than a day since I’d left the camp, and I was beat exhausted. But I couldn’t stop to rest because I was scared shitless afraid they were going to catch me. By that point in the morning, they must have realized I was gone had deserted and you can bet your ass they had probably sent a few of the others after me. I’d left around three, after my shift on watch, in the middle of a crazy heavy storm. I ran for a few hours along a narrow path before I reached a stream that leads to the Nukak Reserve. We’d taken that same path a few days earlier, when they sent us to find food snakes because we were running out of things to eat.
“This part about the snakes isn’t true, miss. Did you add that in? They sent us for fish because we’d been eating nothing but rice for weeks.”
“I wanted to get your approval specifically on that change. I think it’s more impactful this way. Besides, I’ve read accounts of combatants hunting serpents when their camps were running low on food. And you saw dangerous snakes, didn’t you?”
Marcela’s feet hurt. She hasn’t gotten used to the long hours standing still at the register. It feels good to take her shoes off under the desk. Without answering the editor, she begins reading again.
Both María Ospina’s “Policarpa” and Wang Xiaobo’s “The Golden Age” question and confront how stories and narratives are represented “within literature” and “within an overpowering society.” Through a simple edit of the word “food” to “snakes” Ospina exposes a profound dilemma that permeates many systems and structures. For Xiaobo, through a simple logical meditation on a dog’s eye or what “damaged goods” implies, the uncanny and bizarre become profoundly representational and timeless.
There’s a new translation of “The Golden Age” coming out this summer with Astra House (an imprint of Penguin Random House). Before I buy and read it, exploring the choice of words, I wonder why it was a novella and not a short story, and why it’s now being categorized as a novel.