First published on 11 Jan 2013. Updated on 17 Jan 2013.
In a daring move during the mid-’90s, Zhu Wen quit his state-allocated job at a thermal power plant to write full time.
The gamble paid off. Zhu’s short story collection I Love Dollars was published to almost immediate notoriety within China’s literary community. The incensed, hedonistic tales of greed and moral emptiness captured the zeitgeist of post‑Mao China.
I Love Dollars (translated by Julia Lovell in 2007) is best known for its title story, in which the narrator– a swaggering, fast-talking writer –takes his old-fashioned father out on the town. This is a man who is happy to write for anyone for money; he fully embodies the New China motto of ‘get rich quick (and screw anything and everything in the process)’.
By contrast, his father is a relic of a bygone socialist era. Art, to him, for better or worse, should be employed for the social good: he wishes his son would write something more positive, something for others to aspire towards and ‘look up to’.
Filial duty provides the largest disconnection between the two generations. The narrator does not want to shirk his responsibilities as a son, but he interprets this to mean showing his dad a good time by finding him prostitutes and teaching him the value of cash.
‘We’ve all got things we could learn from money,’ says the narrator, ‘from the beautiful dollar, from the strong yen, from the even-tempered, good-humoured Swiss franc, from their straight-up, honest-to-goodness, absolute value.’
I Love Dollars is sometimes achingly funny; but more often than not it is depressingly sad. When an ex-husband of one character makes millions he is soon satiated sexually by a pretty high-school girl who has dropped out of studies, with her parents’ permission, to ‘keep his bed warm’. These are the voluntary victims of China’s efforts to open up and reform.
Zhu’s concentration on the everyday – narrated in a colloquial, interior style – makes him an important member of the so-called‘New Generation’ of writers who moved away from grand narratives to something more personal. His 2001 directorial debut, Seafood, relaying a friendship between a prostitute and a policeman, won a prize at the Venice Film Festival.
It is this caustic eye, depicting a morally corrupt China in all its sordid goriness, that renders Zhu, in the words of one critic, a ‘rebel through and through'.