The Problem with Me: And Other Essays about Making Trouble in China Today
By Han Han
Simon & Schuster
After dropping out of high school, budding troublemaker Han Han wrote a scathing satire of education titled Triple Door. A runaway success, the novel sold more than two million copies upon its release, in 2000. Now, in his new collection of translated essays The Problem with Me, the self-mocking Shanghai-based author doubts its popularity was deserved.
“I’m surprised whenever I think of this. Triple Door is immature, with a showiness that distracts from the plot,” Han writes in one of the essays.
Han is also famed as a rally car driver, and the writer with a gift for dodging both death and censors does himself down throughout much of the new book. Still, he has succeeded in both careers, thanks to a willingness to keep testing his mettle, irrespective of the risk. The Problem with Me is partly dedicated to every car he has ever struck.
Sounding oddly like a motivational coach, Han urges his readers to simply have a go. Try, tank and continue. Follow your dream, because everyone has a talent.
“I believe that every one of you seated at the computer has been blessed by the creator with a special ability; it’s just that many of you haven’t discovered it,” writes Han, who is represented by Hong Kong’s Peony Literary Agency.
Many computer programmers may have the musical chops of Mozart, and many receptionists may have the acting ability of Hong Kong’s Maggie Cheung Man-yuk, according to Han.
“I’m just luckier than a lot of people: I found something I like and that suits me. In many ways, I’m dumber than you and I’ll never learn,” he writes.
Han has many bugbears, but is especially stinging about modern poetry, which he believes is inferior to modern song lyrics. Some poets have hit back, such as the influential Chinese bard Zhao Lihua, who says Han’s writing is “impetuous and insolent”.
Han’s rhetorical question is why, if they are so eloquent, poets react to his mockery in prose. Poets should refute his case in verse – prove the glory of their cause, he states in an essay titled Poets Are Desperately Not Writing Poetry.
The ire that his derision attracts probably bothers him little. Like another public intellectual, Briton Stephen Fry, Han is not deterred by people claiming to be offended.
In particular, Han berates easily outraged sorts who react when they hear anything negative about their own demographic, citing the time he remarked on female students at the Shanghai International Studies University.
They flipped. For some reason, Han says, panning your own school or city is socially acceptable, but woe betide the outsider who dares to judge. “That’s not honour. That’s stupidity,” he writes in an essay that refers to fellow satirist Wang Shuo, whose views have been used by the media to stoke controversy.
Han recounts how journalists told him that Wang disdains the generation born after 1980, then sought his
reaction. “I wholeheartedly agree,” he replied. He goes on to state that if someone attacked Chinese car racing, he would be overjoyed.
Born in 1982 to middle-class parents, Han describes himself as a “rural loser” who started with nothing: no power or influence. His first essay, titled Unhappy Days, was published when he was attending junior middle school. He later won entry to Shanghai’s Songjiang No 2 High School, because of his sporting prowess and an urge to impress his girlfriend.
“My girlfriend went to a prestigious high school that I couldn’t get into, so I tried hard to develop what I was good at. Around that time I discovered I could run really fast. I got into the best high school in town based on that,” he writes in an essay about his parallel careers, titled Actually, I’m a Writer.
In 1999, during his first year at high school, he won top prize in a writing contest, with an essay on the national character titled Seeing Ourselves in a Cup. Yet, when examinations rolled up, he failed seven subjects and was kept in school for another year. His predicament made him think about China’s education system, which he criticises in another essay, titled The Problem With Teachers.
“The Chinese education system is terrible because the teachers are terrible,” he writes. If they were attractive or had good grades themselves, they would shun the profession, Han adds. He’s probably exaggerating but it’s often hard to tell.
Han also makes light of the crashes that have punctuated his stellar racing career. Despite winning the China Rally Championship and the China Touring Car Championship, he came close to bankruptcy. His writing royalties helped him stay afloat – and sustain the cheeky chutzpah that underpins his appeal.
The one time he sounds seriously angry is when addressing the January 2012 Shifang incident: a giant environmental protest in Sichuan province, southwestern China. According to Han, the incident exposed the despotic nature of local government, which used stun grenades on its people.
“Strong flashes may cause momentary dizziness, but terrible actions can’t be covered up. Do you think you’re making Men in Black 4? They should know that each flash of light freeze-frames that historical moment, and there’s no way to eradicate it,” he writes in a savage critique titled The New Masters Have Arrived.
It is not easy to knock the humble Han, but one small gripe with this 224-page book is that the question-and-answer interviews it contains feel a bit like padding.
Another possible criticism is that the parts about car racing can be slightly dull, despite bursts of mayhem. Also, his bid to rebuff rumours about his work being ghostwritten is strangely tame. More snark might be justified, seeing as one detractor, technology expert Mai Tian, has recanted.
Despite the pressure of censorship, or worse, Han plans to stay in China, for amusingly unheroic reasons – such as the fact that he has not married a “foreign chick”. He has positive motives, too, including ties to friends and family.
Proving his knack for criticising the system without riling Beijing, the high-school dropout deftly signals how he really feels about China. His medium: a message to his migrant friends.
“I hope you will breathe for me a couple more gasps of that free and clean air, and I hope that you may create new things in a more just environment. What has benefited you will sooner or later benefit us,” he writes.