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 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 LGBTQ 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’ elaborates and lurid admission, 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 Old Man Lius 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.
The night after the suicide, Wang Er gets up at 2 in the morning thinking of the man’s brains. He walks to the site and sees that the pieces are lit up by flickering candles that seem to make them dance. Denied a chance to mourn, the children are keeping a wake over what is left of their father, a scene that the narrator recalls over and over in the novel.
The author’s focus on these details is purposeful. At the end of the book, the narrator recalls that his generation was raised to do something heroic with their lives. When they were young, that meant imitating Mao and being zealous Communists, but their idealism only ended up bringing violence and suffering. Now middle-aged, Wang Er is unsure how to do anything meaningful. His girlfriend tells him he has to break out of the silence that has plagued him since his youth, to “write down everything, including the unbelievable things and the things you don’t dare to write about.” He must report what he has seen — not just the big issues but also the small, telling details that might let the past speak to the present.
THE GOLDEN AGE, by Wang Xiaobo | Translated by Yan Yan | 272 pp. | Astra House | $26