It is a truth of any society that yesterday’s lot of young critics can become disillusioned with those who come after them. In China, that has played out over successive generations and changes of power. The May Fourthers who protested for a new, more democratic China in 1919 felt that the cause had been lost by the 1930s. Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution, whose passion was co-opted into Mao’s vision for China, bemoaned the lack of political convinction of the youth to follow them. And the generation of students who protested on Tiananmen square in 1989 have spoken out against what they saw as vapidity among those too young to remember it.
It was Han Han, a teenage literary phenomenon, racing-car driver and blogger born in 1982, who first pushed back against that criticism of his “post ’80s” generation. “Society,” he wrote in a 2008 essay called “This Generation”, published in English in a 2012 collection of that name, “gives this generation plenty of negative labels. They’re ‘self-oriented,’ we’re told, or they ‘don’t care about politics’. This is unfair.” That was the charge laid against them by their elders. But Han Han, now 34, is no longer the young gadfly biting at the heels of his society and its leaders. He is a husband and a father of two, and it is his turn to give way to the next generation.
A new collection, The Problem with Me, adds another three dozen essays, blog posts and interviews to the index of his writing available in English. While a few of them are more recent than those in the last collection, Han Han by and large stopped writing by the end of 2012, focusing instead on his racing-car career and putting his creative energies into side projects, including a roadtrip movie. Instead, we are offered a wider tasting board, with essays spanning his school and university years, until the height of his blogging fame — before those platforms were overshadowed by the microblog Weibo and messaging service WeChat, where he has a less public presence.
Han Han is a joy to read: funny, sharp and with a knowing false modesty and wry amusement at his own fame that is hard not to like. Translators Alice Xin Liu and Joel Martinsen capture his acerbic wit, no small feat given the challenges of translating Chinese puns. Han Han takes on a range of social topics, including petty local cadres, grassroots democracy and the “deplorable education system”, while savvy enough to avoid those that sail too close to the changeable political winds. As we see him grow — from an 18-year-old writing about soccer and his dormmates to a 30-year-old railing at society and its scandals — we see China grow with him.
It is as a new father that Han Han finds his most critical voice, furious at food safety and child abuse issues that plague China. “Everything we do, we do for our children,” he writes in a 2012 post “The New Masters Have Arrived”. “These people are the new masters of the future. They’re here. The world is yours, and ours, but in the end it’s theirs.” It is the same sentiment expressed about his peers in the early 2000s, when he was just starting to write. And while he may now be the role model for a new cohort of troublemakers, some of his latter essays are tinged with a hint of nostalgia for his heyday, an era more permissive than the current Xi Jinping years.
In that regard, Han Han’s silence speaks volumes. The closest equivalent to him in China today is perhaps Jiang Yilei, a 29-year-old woman who records and live-streams video blogs under the name Papi Jiang. Her shtick is a fast delivery and digitally-altered high-pitched voice, making fun of everything from regional accents to dating woes. But while she touches on social issues, including gender equality and parental pressure, her topics are not political. Even so, she ran foul of the authorities last April, when China’s top censoring body chided her for her “vulgar language” and took down her videos temporarily. If she is Han Han’s successor, then the gadfly has lost its bite.
The final essay in the collection revisits a previous post and shares the same title — “This Generation” — but is written four years later, in 2012. (English publications of Han Han, it seems, are fated to be perpetually four years behind.) “When I debuted I was the rebel, defying my seniors,” he writes. Now China has new youth icons, and the conversation has changed. Yet Han Han, less relevant but still revered among those his age, is still hopeful for the transformative potential of his peers. “I’m convinced we’re supposed to bear witness to many things,” he closes. “I’m particularly looking forward to the social changes brought along by this generation once it amasses power.”
It is China’s youth who have led the vanguard of the nation’s progress, from 1919 to 1989. That legacy can be harder to identify today, given the chilling effect of Tiananmen and more individual priorities for many young people. But Han Han’s generation was the first to grow up in an outward-looking, post-Mao China, and they are shaping its future direction through their different politics and values, even while the country is in a period of political crackdown. We would be well-advised to understand them, and Han Han’s iconoclasm is a good place to start.