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Book Review: Such Is This World @sars.come

July 3, 2012

Such Is This World @sars.come
Hu Fayun
Translated by A. E. Clark
Ragged Banner Press
Publication Date: June 2011
Hardcover: 536 pages; paperback: 528 pages

Wrapped around a short novel, this daring analysis of what is wrong with China today has a checkered history. Appearing first in 2005 on a Chinese website that was shut down one week later, the book, which many readers liked, went through increasingly abridged print editions until it was de facto banned. Disgracefully, a planned English version, according to the “surmise” of the present, and excellent, translator A. E. Clark, was abandoned because some potential American translators feared retaliation from Beijing.

Despite the “relaxation” some years back so fervently praised by foreign friends of China, which may have resulted in some critical opinion being expressed in limited contexts and even cautiously in the press, no one claims yet that organized criticism is permitted, and no statement or situation is guaranteed to be safe. Always, hovering above, there is Perry Link’s “anaconda in the chandelier,”[1] which moves seldom but whose slightest move is clear enough. Like that giant snake, as Hu Fayun’s characters either discover or have already experienced over their lifetimes, “They,” “shangmian” (上面, the Highers-up), or, bluntly, the Party, are always there.

Only the sensitively portrayed Ru Yan, the novel’s heroine, takes some time to grasp this. In her 40s, having come late to the pleasures of the Internet, on which for the first time in her discreet and modest life she can fully express herself, she suddenly “realized that in what she had thought was a little salon hosted by herself there was actually an old crone concealed and peering at everything from behind a curtain.”

I digress for a moment to say something about Such Is This World (English rendering of Ru Yan’s Internet name, 如焉) as a novel. I say digress partly because most readers of this journal are likely to be more interested in the politics of China and their effects on Chinese people, but also because the novel embedded in this book, although good, is short.

Ru Yan, a widow born in 1957, lives in a largish, unnamed, city. Beautiful in an understated way, she has a devoted son who teaches her to use the Internet so they can communicate while he studies in France.

Discerningly literate, she can quote yards of traditional poems and songs, and always moves discreetly away from office politics, gossip, and romance. She has an acutely well-observed relationship with her dog. Because of the Internet, which she joins initially to converse with other empty-nesters, she finds a new voice for herself and joins another group with unguarded pessimistic views on “the system.”

Slowly, but willingly, she is drawn into a romance and a brief but explosive sexual relationship with the tall, handsome, well-read, attentive, vice-mayor of her city, a previously married man. I give nothing away when I note that in China today, for a person of character and moderate courage like Ru Yan, no matter how strong their innermost feelings, such a relationship is unlikely to end well.

This story is enclosed within much interesting discussion about the nature of Chinese politics and the wider life; the focus moves ever farther from Ru Yan and fixes on not exactly other characters but, rather, spokesmen for various points of view. The female colleague and friend who introduces Ru Yan to her lover, for example, first presented as a believable person, becomes the word-for-word mouthpiece of the Party.

Ru Yan emerges suddenly at the end in a few paragraphs as an admirable woman who does something fascinating. In truly great novels, such as War and Peace and Moby Dick, there are moments when the story stops while the authors’ opinions suddenly emerge; but if these were absent the novels’ essential narratives, not to say their size, would remain intact. Hu Fayun either cannot or does not care to manage that.

Never mind. The two over-riding themes here are fear and limited hope.

The core issue, flagged in the title, is the SARS epidemic that originated in China in 2003. Because Beijing deemed it a literally deadly “guojiademimi,” state secret, it affected thousands around the world before it could be identified and treated. When poor Ru Yan begins to comment on the effects of this disease in her immediate family on her various Internet sites, previously devoted to empty-nesters, parents with children studying abroad, her screen is soon jammed with warnings and shutdowns. “It had been done without cursing or abuse, without anything obviously terrifying.... No, very gently and quietly it had been done; the other websites anyway still had lovely layouts and played pleasant music. Nothing had changed in her home, around her. But Ru Yan began to be afraid.”

The man who says some of the most insightful things in the book is Damo, a self-educated proletarian of the highest sensibility. When Ru Yan asks him why what she writes is blocked, he explains: “Because it was true. If you had made something up—that your dog had half-eaten you, say, or that an entire family somewhere had suddenly gotten vaporized—I promise you, no one would have turned a hair. The fact that they wouldn’t let you speak proves that what you are saying is true. This is practically a law of the universe. And when they are particularly swift and heavy-handed in silencing you, it proves that the situation they are covering up is extremely grave.” Earlier he told Ru Yan—and this is fundamental to understanding China today: “For many years the right to know the facts has been the greatest privilege of V.I.P.s, of the elite.”

Damo, a profound and literate man, is the sort whose analysis gives some hope for China’s future. Yet more profound is Teacher Wei, an often-persecuted ex-Party activist and spokesman, whose first wife and their son committed suicide because they “had problems,” namely her brother who escaped to Taiwan. The old man sighs: “A people that is not afraid to suffer, that is not afraid of hardship, or famine, or freezing cold—yet some nameless fear grips every heart. This is the horror of it ... writers endure the fear that comes with writing, and those who read them taste the fear of being readers.” Teacher Wei sees deeply and more than fearfully. Unlike the courageous Russian writers in Stalin’s day, he says, “We don’t have an untainted cultural vehicle with which to record our own lives....The terror didn’t stop them from creating great art to enshrine their memories. In a few decades we have lost the ability to express pain and grief.”

Hu Fayun certainly has not lost that ability. He has been abridged, bowdlerized, and effectively banned. He signed Charter 08. Liu Xiaobo went to prison for such acts. But Hu lives at home in Wuhan. He has heard the anaconda more than once. With him lives some of China’s hope.


Jonathan Mirsky is a historian and journalist specializing in Chinese affairs. In 1990, he was named British International Reporter of the Year for his coverage of the 1989 Democracy Movement in China. Until 1998, he was the East Asia editor of The Times of London.

Translator’s note

[1] Perry Link, “China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier,” New York Review of Books, April 11, 2002.