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
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.
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.