Han Han: ‘Why Aren’t You Grateful?’

In the New York Review of Books, Ian Johnson critiques a new book of translated essays by Han Han, This Generation: Dispatches from China’s Most Popular Literary Star (and Race Car Driver), and looks at the limits of his approach to writing and to politics:

What makes Han different from critics of earlier eras is his use of ironic humor instead of historical allegory. Writers in the early twentieth century like Lu Xun explored this voice, but Han makes it his. Born in 1982, he dabbles in the modern forms of evasion: ennui, irony, boredom, and sarcasm. He’s witty and wry and when he’s on, he’s really on. A good example was a blog he wrote last year called “The Disconnected Nation” (also reprinted in The China Story, an illuminating collection of essays edited by the Australian sinologist Geremie Barmé about contemporary China, available in a free downloadable pdf).


Too often, however, Han seems to lack other arrows in his quiver. Some of the essays are tedious—he goes on and on in one essay about how people should have been allowed to donate old clothes to victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake; the government had wanted only new clothes. It was a worthwhile criticism to make at the time, but hardly the most urgent part of the authorities’ mismanagement of the disaster; now, four years later, it seems obscure. His phlegmatism also dominates a 2010 post on an earlier round of protests about the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu islands—which were also the cause of the recent anti-Japanese riots. He said protesters should concern themselves first with whether they have a decent job or family “rather than worrying about something so remote.” It’s a fair point, one supposes, but sounds like the advice from an overly sensible, mortgaged-to-the-hilt middle-aged father rather than an edgy young blogger. Go home and play with your kids is actually more than that—it’s wrong. In a country where too few people concern themselves with big affairs, the answer should rather be to stay engaged while learning to think more critically and skeptically. Perhaps it’s no wonder that some critics claim in excruciating detail that his father—a frustrated author himself who once used the pen name Han Han—contributed to his son’s essays, or even wrote some of them outright.

Han’s exhausted, burned-out attitude is even less convincing when he discusses political reform. At the end of last year, he published three essays that caused a small uproar in China. Han advocated a go-slow attitude toward democracy, essentially saying Chinese people were not ready for it yet because they weren’t well-enough educated and behaved. The arguments were fair enough, but applicable to almost any country on the planet, especially, in this election season, the United States. The three essays have been interpreted (for example by the editor Chang Ping, whom I interviewed in January) as showing how many Chinese have given up hope for change and so resort to explaining why it shouldn’t happen. They certainly show how careful Han is not to overstep the golden rule of dissent in China: measured criticism is okay, but not advocacy of systemic change.

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