Criticizing Han Han

Han Han, the sarcastic blogger, race-car driver and novelist in China, may be the most popular writer in China. His popularity is even spreading overseas. For example, New York Times featured a profile of him in March this year. This month, Han Han made it into the voting for TIME magazine’s top 100 list. At a time when Han is enjoying unprecedented popularity for a writer of his age, perhaps a few objective words of criticism are in order. Here we translate extracts from two recent pieces in the Chinese press, one from scholar Xu Ben in Nanfeng Daily, and another one from current affairs commentator Li Tie in Time Weekly.

Xu Ben: Han Han lacks depth

Xu points out that Han’s style of writing is very special due to China’s political environment, and Americans probably could never understand it:

Firstly, Americans don’t need to use metaphors and guess works when commenting current affairs, like what Han Han is doing. They can speak out the truth directly. In American eyes, Han is using a very strange, and unnecessary, style of writing. Furthermore, it would be unimaginable in the US that such a style of writing would receive such an overwhelming audience […] Han’s opinions on current affairs can at most be regarded as talk shows, which are not suitable for deeper discussions on public affairs.

Han Han’s voice is a language game which defies common principles. It is quick, surprising, but not necessarily well thought through. This game will only exist in a society of lies. Because it is risk-taking and suppressed, it is exciting. What Han’s audience is looking for is a sense of excitement, or even entertainment, but not necessarily new knowledge or profound ideas. 

Xu then points out that Han likes to use exaggerations and ‘mannerisms’ to cater for his audience. If you need examples, readers of this blog will be familiar with the implicit use of sexism and pornography in his writing.

To round it off:

Han is not speaking knowledge, merely his feelings on certain issues. His authority comes from his observation and experience, not his scholarship. Han’s comments and writing are ‘amateur’ in nature. Unlike formal ‘articles’, he can decide on any topics he likes. What event is important, why it is worth discussing, how to discuss it, discuss to what depths, etc are all decided by him. Readers like him for this reason.

He is a person trying to speak freely in an environment which does not allow free speech. His comments and styles are Chinese, and only Chinese can understand them. Outside China, Han cannot be understood, or would be misunderstood. Han also understands this. That’s why he tells the TIME journalist, ‘Americans will not be interested in Chinese literature, just like I am not interested in American literature.’ Han seems to understand better than most professors that a East-West cultural exchange is possible only when their values converge. For now, only Chinese can understand the intricate thoughts about their own affairs.

Li Tie: Where is China’s Intelligentsia?

Li also subscribes to the view that Han Han lacks depth. But he points out that Han’s popularity may just be the symptom of a more important trend – the decline of the intelligentsia:

In whatever age, there would be some ‘strange talents’. But in general, they would not become the mainstream ‘public intellectuals’ or ‘opinion leaders’. Han Han achieves it. This in no way reflects that Han Han is great, but shows that our society has some problems. In a mountain without tigers, monkeys become kings. Where are the tigers?

According to common sense, the responsibility for enlightening the public should fall on the academia. This is because they have the advantages of building theories and analysing information. But since mid-1990s, we have seen a decline of China’s intellectual class.

Li tells us why:

One major reason is that since the mid-1990s, the obstacles to reform and social progress cease to be ideologies, but vested interests. We all know what the problems are but can hardly do anything about them because it will hurt some interests. Over time, problems and conflicts accumulate. Anyone who can think normally will see the problems; there is no need for academic intellectuals to point them out.

Another reason is the problem with the higher educational system. Poor remunerations and restrictive environments deter talents to conduct academic research. Institutional constraints also deter many post-70s and 80s researchers to become outspoken public intellectuals.

If you need an example of what ‘institutional constraints’ means, see our earlier posts on Zhang Bo Shu (Parts I and II).

Finally, if everyone knows what the problems are, but cannot openly express it, because China ceases to reform, what can you do? Yes, turn to the Big, Stupid Echo Chamber called the Internet, as Li writes:

If you know the problems, but are helpless about them, what will you do? Make a laughter and joke of it – how the weak expresses themselves. People begin to speak improperly, because there is nothing more that can be spoken about. Han Han’s gags and naughtiness hit the sweet spot of our age. And the Internet serves as the ideal place to spread his jokes, making him popular.

The Internet has brought about an explosive growth of information. The age where we beg for information and one office subscribes to one newspaper is gone. Netizens now are spending less and less time on an Internet page. What they want is fast food. And articles need to be short, crispy and fun. This is why microblogging is popular nowadays. And Han Han’s blog articles feel like microblogs.

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0 thoughts on “Criticizing Han Han”

  1. I completely disagree with both of them. First, only Chinese people can understand Han Han?? Are you kidding me?? I hate this kind of “foreigners can never understand China” argument. Second, Han Han must not be an scholar, but he definitely says important and deep things about China. He uses casual Chinese to go quite deep into China social reality.


  2. Both of them make some good points and some I don’t agree with. For Li Tie, though, I just want to ask: “So what’re you going to do about it?”


  3. I don’t agree with any of the points they make:

    Xu Ben:
    #1 Judging Hanhan as an intellectual completely misses the point. When did Hanhan ever claim to be speaking from an intellectual standpoint? #2 What gives Xu Ben the right to determine what “knowledge” or “profound ideas” are? Is it simply because he is an “intellectual” cloistered in the white tower of academia? #3 “For now, only Chinese can understand the intricate thoughts about their own affairs.” This may be the single stupidest sentence I have ever seen written by a so-called academic. Obviously Hanhan’s recognition outside of China really bothers this guy…I wonder why?

    Li Tie:
    Kai is 100% right to ask “So what’re you going to do about it?” Why is academia necessarily responsible for the enlightenment of the public and can they even be trusted with such a responsibility in China today? The reason someone like Hanhan actually has an influential public voice is because his economic well-being is not tied to corrupt and censored academic institutions. He is independently wealthy and can write any criticism he wants with the only response being a few lame critiques by intellectual “haters”. Most intellectuals in China today do not have such freedom so how can anybody trust their voice to lead the way?

    To me, both critiques reek of jealousy and insecurity. Hanhan’s implicit anti-intellectualism, freedom of expression, and “street cred” are threats to their overvalued stature as (useless) academics, thus the hatefest, which is nothing new to intellectual circles in China…(another reason why intellectuals have no public voice in China is they are too busy jealously squabbling among themselves…)


  4. Hi Andy,

    I’m going to write an article to talk about how non-Chinese perceive Hanhan and your article (mainly the part you quoted), along with posts from other blogs, will be quoted. Hope you don’t mind.

    Wang Er


  5. @Zai – I agree with most of the points in the reviews. It is almost impossible to understand Han Han unless you are a post 80s Chinese. This is even more true of his books than of his blog, the ones I have read are IMO untranslatable, especially the famous 三重门.

    OK, don’t get me wrong, you CAN understand Han Han if you know the context of China, and if you work hard and spend time studying the Chinese internet (like most of us here do) then you can even find it funny. But for an average foreigner, most of what Han Han writes is meaningless, because they cannot relate to it.

    I agree as well with the assessment that Han’s writing is “quick, surprising, but not necessarily well thought through”. There are many inaccuracies in his posts, and he rarely goes beyond the plain negative rant.

    Clearly his success doesn’t come from being a good analyst or novel writer, it comes mainly from his attitude that has fascinated a whole generation.


  6. @ Wang Er: Of course.

    @AndyR: I don’t agree that these two articles reek of jealousy and insecurity. What they are criticizing is not Han Han per say, but the phenomenon itself: its audience, the intellectual class, and the lack of reforms for China as a whole. “So what’re you going to do about it?” Everyone knows what needs to be done, but it is difficult to be done, so what they have chosen is the easy path: finding some consolation in Han Han’s writing.


  7. Julen,

    Of COURSE someone who is unfamiliar with the context and ongoings of the Chinese internet, as well as someone who is unfamiliar with the Chinese language would have a difficult time understanding Han Han. Just as someone who wasn’t familiar with the environment and situation of the time wouldn’t understand Huckleberry Finn. This goes without saying.

    What Xu Ben seems to be completely ignoring is that there is now a pretty massive community of people that are not Chinese and can still understand Han Han through translations and frequent reading of Chinasmack. It’s really not hard to figure out what he means when he says 三天不打上房揭瓦.

    I’m going to have to side with AndyR on this one, that these guys both reek of jealousy. It seems like they’ve simply got their panties in a wad that they’re still not as popular as Han Han, even with their advanced degrees and expect everyone to adhere to the Herr Professor mentality.


  8. for all the criticizing of Hanhan by these experts…all I want to ask is: where are your enlighten views on the issues he had said?

    That’s why he’s popular, because no one else of such public standing has the guts to say anything, enlighten or not.


  9. intellectual or not, Hanhan is courageous and critical,this very quality seems missing from the whole generation of Chinese intellectuals. That’s the reason why Hanhan is so popular. At least he has done his bit to enlighten.


  10. Hi all, I do believe those two scholars mentioned may have an urge to being famous. But isn’t the main quality of an artist to express and reach an audience. No matter why people are turning towards Han Han, he has the audience attention. If a writer has excellent ideas but updated way to convey them, he has to get back to reinventing his style.

    Instead of saying that this guy or another is not a good voice, at least their is a voice to be heard. So if (like mentioned) everybody knows what is wrong, than meet and discuss your ideas on how should true change be done.

    Progress is not a one man thing.


  11. I hope Hanhan reads some of the racist anti-Chinese comments on the website forum run by Michael Webster and Andrew Tait reporter for Global Times.

    Here are some of the comments:

    Posted by: Chad Pearson copy editor for Global Times living in Bejing, Canadian citizen on Jan 14, 2010 6:44pm Russia has a lot more women than men. The Russian women are a potential market for rich Chinese men who somehow can’t find a bride (hahaha), but the poor Chinese men are screwed. The funniest thing about this situation is that they did it to themselves. All those female abortions and murders are coming back to haunt them in a big way. “Man better! If China have many man, China very powerful! Woman weak! No want girl baby!” The fact is that the average Chinese guy doesn’t have a lot to offer. If he’s got money he’s got hope. D’oh!

    Posted by: Chad Pearson copy editor for Global Times living in Bejing, Canadian citizen on Oct 31, 2009 10:28am If you can speak Chinese, just tell Chinese people to —- off. Tell them to shut up. All the time. When they talk about you in Chinese, call them out on it. Call them stupid. Scream at them in Chinese. It scares the crap out of them. Ask them if they have a problem. “Ni you wen ti ma?” “NI YOU WEN TI MA?” After awhile, at least in the places you frequent, people will learn to shut the —- up and not disrespect you, simply out of fear. I don’t care if they don’t respect me, I want them to shut the —- up and quit treating me like a mutant.

    Posted by: Mike Robinson teacher living in Beijing, English citizen on Jul 9, 2009 3:48pm You can’t teach them not to do it, it’s impossible. You can’t tell them that it’s animalistic behaviour. if you do, you’re in the wrong. I’m back in England for the time being, but in Beijing we’ve got my mother in law living with us, and she is the most uncouth, ill-mannered pig I’ve ever encountered. She eats like a pig, spits in my house (admittedly in the bin because my missus has warned her) and never showers even though it’s f-ing roasting hot. she’s been there a month and she hasn’t changed clothes once, and she sleeps in her clothes. When I tell her to stop eating like a pig and stop making that unbelievably loud masticating sound, she gives me the dirtiest look you can imagine and shouts ‘ni bu li mao!’ so I can see the contents of her mouth. She hates me for it. Yes, me, I’m the one who’s ‘bu li mao’ So, no, you absolutely cannot stop them behaving like wild animals. If you try, you’re the weirdo and the bad guy.

    Posted Jul 15, 2009 11:06am by Bill, American citizen, living in Beijing and running two kindergartens in Beijing with his Sichuan wife.

    THE NONGMIN MENTALITY STARTS EARLY – My company runs kindergartens, and my office is in the same building as one of them. So, every now and then I like to take a break and go play with the kids. Here’s what happens almost every time. One of the kids will throw a ball at me, or playfully use his/her kung fu on me, and I’ll act like I’m knocked back or surprised, etc. He/she laughs with glee, and does it again. Then another kid notices and joins in. Within 30 seconds I’m being pelted with balls or being pummeled with tiny fists as the entire class joins in. It’s gotten to the point that now, as soon as I walk in the room, they all gang up on me immediately. Of course, it’s all in good fun, but it’s rather frightening to know that they’ll be doing the exact same thing in 20 years. P.S. I regret using the phrase “pelted with balls”. Knowing this forum, that will come back to haunt me.

    I hope he can use his influence and readership to get this digusting website shut down.


  12. I am sorry living in Shanghai, I can relate to what if being said at a certain extempt. Not to all but some of it. Shanghai people of previous generation are super rude ! If you are paying at the counter they will not wait juts give you a push though the staff in charge is still giving you back your change. You will get pushed sometimes pretty violently by grandmas or grandpas but not only, in order to be the first one to enter the metro.

    It is often that as a foreigner people talk in my back in Shanghai language, I understand bits of it so I know I am being moqued. Within all the times I feel different from Chinese is : when I am lucky : just a guy starring at me with wide eyes for the all duration of my trip in the metro, in the worst times : sales trying to give me crazy prices, people talking about me in mandarin or shanghaihua, people argueing that I can’t understand why a worker is at fault and that I can’t say anything about the way he handles his business because I am not Chinese.

    Just today a man ran behind me as we were entering the metro, I was walking calmly to an empty sit 1 meter from me, the guy behind ran over my foot (i was wearing scandals) and tried to pass on my side to sit. I was able to sit down but looked at him with very angry eyes, getting his sit was more important than respecting me. Such behavior is greatly spread though younger generations of Chinese seem less rude. I set high expectation on them.

    It’s only when you live in China that you build such opinion. I still love Chinese people don’t get me wrong. But I just get more and more easily angry and very rude because there is alot to bear and many people who have no shame.


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