When a young, good-looking Chinese celebrity finally opened an account on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, he garnered 30,000 followers before his first post, the single character word for “hi”, which in turn drew 13,900 comments and 6,500 retweets.
You might guess this star is a singer or actor. He isn’t. He’s a blogger. Han Han writes China’s-and arguably the world’s-most-read blog, with about a million hits a post, and some half-billion visits. He is also a prize-winning racing-car driver, novelist and idol. In This Generation (Simon & Schuster, £8.99), a translation of his blog posts, the English-speaking world can see what the fuss is about.
The collection takes us from 2006 to 2011, when Han Han really hit his stride as a blogger, commenting on inequality, corruption and censorship. His mischievous sarcasm and direct but literate style is nicely captured by translator Allan Barr (even if the Chinese puns fall flat in English). But the real merit of the book is as a window into what the younger generation of Chinese think of their society.
Han Han, born in 1982, rejects labelling China’s younger generation as “dissolute, promiscuous, confused, substance-abusing, vacuous, depressed, and so on and so forth”. They might be all of the above, of course, but many of them (those who write and read blogs) are also informed about and engaged with their nation’s affairs to a degree that few outside China may realise. And—
contrary to another Western stereotype of them as indoctrinated and nationalistic—they are often critical of their system and society.
Han Han targets everything from a culture of selfishness to an education system that fosters parrot-like groupthink. He ribs the official media and delights when China Central Television burns down part of its new headquarters with a stray firework. He mockingly praises a corrupt official for accepting only 60,000 renmimbi (£6,000) in bribes in six months: “the first time that I’ve seen only five figures associated with the word bribes”. And he censures a system where a single power can support whatever bolsters its strength and clamp down on whatever it doesn’t like.
Daring stuff, it seems. Indeed, many of Han Han’s posts were “harmonised” from the internet soon after being published. But he is also canny about what not to write about (Tiananmen, Tibet, China’s top leaders) and freely admits: “Every time I write, I first have to engage in some self-censorship.” This is as much a case of knowing what is of no use to say as not daring to say it—and the price for saying some things in China is too high for any reader to demand of a writer. But Han Han’s ellipses are as telling of his generation as his monologues.