Reading “Gatsby” in Beijing

At The New Yorker, Evan Osnos suggests that Baz Luhrmann’s new film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby “could hardly find a more fitting audience than in China in the opening years of the twenty-first century.”

Perhaps no work of fiction has returned to me more often over the past eight years in China than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s slippery tale of James Gatz of North Dakota, who thrust himself into a new world in desperate, doomed pursuit of love and ambition—a life in which the “dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.” I’ve stood in Shanghai, bathed in the lights of a new skyline, and thought of Gatsby’s glimpse of New York, with “the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps.” And at times it’s been hard to think of anything but Fitzgerald’s “universe of ineffable gaudiness”—upon seeing, for instance, the Korean boutique in Beijing with the English name “PRICH: Pride & Rich.”

But to Chinese readers, who have read Gatsby (in translation or in English) for decades, the story has acquired new layers of relevance in recent years, as the initial rush of China’s boom has given way to a more complex economic phase. When Chinese readers talk about Gatsby today, some see a cautionary tale of materialism run amok; others point to the potential danger in the gap between riches and power; and still others recognize the dawning realization that that one may never grasp the dream he so desires. “After Gatsby was gone, no one cared,” a Chinese blogger named Xiao Peng wrote not long ago. “Not his business partners or his friends or his guests. Once everything became clear, Gatsby’s life evaporated like smoke.”

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