Review: ‘This Generation’ by Han Han

This book review was published in the South China Morning Post on October 28th, 2012

This Generation

by Han Han

(translated by Allan Barr)

Simon & Schuster

Joanna Chiu

Han Han is such an outsized personality in China, with millions of Chinese hanging on to his every word, that it is easy to forget he is still virtually unknown in the West.

Publisher Simon & Schuster is trying to change that with the first English-language anthology of the writer-racecar driver’s most provocative blog posts.

Han grew up in a small town outside of Shanghai, and dropped out of high school at age 17. A year later, he published Triple Door, skewering the mainland’s educational system and becoming an overnight sensation as the author of China’s bestselling novel of the past 20 years.

After a string of other successful novels, Han started blogging in 2006. His wry, irreverent takes on current affairs were a hit, resonating with a rapidly growing group of young, politicised “netizens”. By 2010 he was named one of the most influential people in the world by Time magazine.

In This Generation: Dispatches from China’s Most Popular Literary Star (and Race Car Driver), translator Allan Barr did a great job of preserving Han’s trademark wit and wordplay, which he used in part to evade government censors.

Western publications have produced numerous features on Han’s work and status as a cultural icon in his homeland, but for English readers, This Generation provides a way to judge Han’s work for themselves.

Readers are likely to find the anthology a fascinating window into life in China. The conversational blog format and Han’s over-the-top sarcasm makes it an accessible and even an entertaining read, despite heavy topics including Chinese officials’ corruption, environmental degradation and the plight of poor rural residents.

In a post where he mockingly rebuts allegations that the Three Gorges Dam has dried up China’s largest freshwater lake, he writes: “Critics are missing the point entirely … A lake with water in it can’t be parcelled off and sold. What Jiangxi province should do is seize the opportunity and dam the headwaters of Boyang Lake, getting rid of that remaining 10 per cent … they’ll be raking in the cash!”

Han’s posts can be sincere and heartfelt, too. In an essay about the spate of worker suicides at the Foxconn factory (which manufactures iPhones), he writes: “There is no way out for these young people. This is so sad: warm blood that should be coursing through veins – spilled on the ground, instead.”

The anthology ends with a trio of some of Han’s most controversial posts from 2011 – controversial because they advocate reform of the current system instead of revolution. Activists such as Ai Weiwei have accused him of becoming soft, and the government has even praised him for his moderation. But others think he is promoting a realistic understanding of democracy.

“If China has a revolution in the future,” Han writes, “I will stand by whoever is the weaker, and if they become strong, I’ll side with their rivals. I’m ready to sacrifice my own view in order to see that different sides coexist. Only that way can we achieve everything we’re seeking to accomplish.”

Han, who has just turned 30, is married with a three-year-old daughter. In an interview with the Financial Times earlier this year, he said: “I want [my daughter] to stay in China … but my country right now is not good enough. So, even though I am a weak individual, the only thing I can do is to try to help make the country that I dream of.”

This Generation shows Han is a dynamic writer whose opinions have grown more complex over time. The anthology is likely to win him more fans around the world.

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