One in 1.3 Billion: The Phenomenon of China’s Han Han

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

Race car-driving author Han Han is seen as the voice of China’s young generation and read by 300 million people, but will what he represents be lost in translation?

By Duncan Jepson

Han Han, famous in China for both writing and race car driving, is fast becoming a sensation outside China — even though little of his work has been translated for foreign audiences. The New Yorker magazine profiled him earlier this month, calling him “a youth culture idol,” and the New York Times has enlisted him to write editorials for the paper over the coming months.

This is an interesting phenomenon, especially considering that most people don’t really understand China —  and that includes a good number of Chinese themselves. It is going to take years of exchange and communication for foreigners even to make sense of it. The society is deep and opaque, often confusing everyone by its chaotic movements and colliding events, with people seeking meaning where often there is none. It takes a person of keen observation and eloquence to communicate what is happening, particularly to the vast majority of the population residing in the thousands of smaller cities, towns and villages outside the well-educated and global major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

Han Han speaks for himself, but at his peak, he is heard by an audience of nearly 300 million Chinese, many of whom are in the younger generations. He is an individual, still rare in the vast population, and he is only 28. A strong element of his popularity is that his voice speaks for so many who are currently unable to articulate and express themselves. He plays with the authorities, making sharp points to needle them and subtle jokes to trip them up, as the vast majority of the population would like to do themselves. He also works in various contemporary forms of media that allows different access to his work. He is not just a blogger, for which he is most famous in the West, but works through magazines, music, essays, short stories and action (his racing is more than just speed and petrol).

In the western media he is known mostly for his blogging, which I think suits the stereotypical image the West prefers of the “basement-rebel” battling along the Great Firewall of China against the Party. The truth is that he did not start blogging until 2005 and it was his first novel, Triple Gates, as yet still unpublished outside China, which brought him fame and attention at the age of 18. Many foreigners observing his approach with the authorities suggest that he doesn’t confront the Party enough but it could be suggested that this is missing the subtleties of modern China. While most of the country is still very poor, it is no longer the emerging country of the eighties. Head-on confrontation with the Party of the nature remembered recently, the anniversary of the Tiananmen ‘Incident’ was earlier last month, will now achieve far less than simply encouraging people to think for themselves and that is exactly what Han Han’s writing achieves.

His writing uses word play, idiom and structure in Chinese that may be difficult to translate, but it is something that is fully appreciated by his extensive audience. His blog readers number in the hundreds of millions and his novels sell in the tens of millions, which are the sorts of gigantic numbers that attract western notice. In September 2010, British magazine New Statesman listed Han Han at 48th place in the list of “The World’s 50 Most Influential Figures 2010” which is significant considering there is little foreign language material, though translated comments and columns are starting to appear in Western media.

The potential difficulty for foreigners to read his work when it is translated — and it will have to be translated carefully to do it justice — may be one of context. Western media portrays modern China as a hard, ominous and unkind place, though Imperial China was considerably nastier to its people, keeping them illiterate and poor. But actually the country is more chaotic and uncontrollable, at times often absurd, and it is this truth that Han Han describes to the people who live with it everyday. He speaks of the pointless rules, venal officials, ineffective education and welfare and the journeys of wasted and lost lives in his novels such as Like A Speeding Youth and An Ideal City.

There are fewer meaningful popular voices speaking for and to Chinese youth than most foreigners realize. The situation exists not necessarily because the evil censors are lurking at every corner, an illusion Han Han has mentioned that westerners exaggerate to themselves. It is often, as anyone who has dealt with Chinese censors knows, that they are not consistent among themselves and over time. To some of those who hear of his work, Han Han may seem just the l’enfant terrible of China, to others the spokesman of a generation. The reality is more that the vast majority of people making up the general readership in China are just starting to search for their own individuality, and Han Han provides a strong and clear voice expressing to millions the absurd truth about the place in which they all live.

Han Han’s collection of blogs and essays, Youth, will be published by Simon & Schuster US in the fall of 2012.

DISCUSS: Why Haven’t More Asian Authors Attracted a Global Audience?

READ: About Han Han’s Chinese publisher Lu Jinbo in “China’s Young Publishing Mogul”

Duncan Jepson was a founder and is currently Managing Editor of the Asia Literary Review. He is a lawyer and filmmaker. His first novel, All the Flowers In Shanghai, will be published in 2012 by HarperCollins. His most recent article for PublishingPerspectives was “Asia’s Literary Writers Now — Quietly — Demand Your Attention.”

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.