My Way and the Highway
He is one of China's most successful and controversial authors, and he's only 21. Paul Mooney talks to Han Han about his meteoric rise to literary stardom - and his love of fast cars
BY PAUL MOONEY IN BEIJING
HAN HAN GRINS shyly when asked about rumours that he races his Mitsubishi Evolution V 160km/h down Beijing's stately Avenue of Eternal Peace in the wee hours of the morning. 'That's kind of immature,' he says with a trace of embarrassment. 'I don't do that any more.'
He does admit, however, to having torn around one of Beijing's highways while it was still under construction. 'My friends and I used to race on the Fifth Ring Road before it opened,' he says. 'It was just to see how fast we could push our cars.'
Dressed in faded denims and a T-shirt, the would-be racing driver and published novelist has packed a lot into his 21 years and is already the voice of a generation. When he wrote his first novel, The Third Way, at 17, he interwove a tale of teenage romance with a scathing critique of China's education system.
'If you like to read, you can learn more on your own than at school,' he says. 'Going to school and learning are not the same. You can learn a lot just by studying on your own.'
He backed up his claim by controversially refusing an invitation to attend the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai. 'You can't really gain any knowledge at a Chinese university,' he says. 'I'm an independent person and wouldn't be able to adjust to the regimen.'
He says most Chinese attend university to obtain a degree to help with career development. 'But I don't need any of those things anymore.'
Such explicit dissent in a culture built on consensus shocked his parents' generation, but struck such a chord among his contemporaries that The Third Way sold more than 1.2 million copies. With just one novel, Han Han was on his way to becoming one of the best-selling writers in China.
He celebrated by buying his first car, a Chinese-made Citroen, which cost US$12,000, a fortune in a country where the per capita average disposable income for urban residents is US$939. 'I've liked cars since I was a kid. I spent a lot of time playing with toy cars,' he says.
Further success followed when Han Han published his second book, a set of essays titled One Degree Below Zero about teenagers, girls and cars. He now has five novels under his belt, has sold about 2.8 million copies, and spawned numerous imitators. Dispatches 2003, another collection of essays, is out this month. Han Han used his earnings to upgrade to a Toyota Celica, which he drove for two years. 'It felt like a girlfriend who's not exactly right for you,' he says smiling. 'It just didn't feel good driving. It was awkward.' Then he found a car that was just right. 'I tried my friend's Evolution and immediately felt it was perfect for me.'
And while Han Han was picking out cars, his novels were fuelling a national debate - not just on the education system he had criticised, but on the new face of young China he has come to represent. He is one of China's 'Little Emperors', the generation born under the country's one-child policy, spoiled by their parents and the country's unprecedented economic prosperity.
Han Han's peers see themselves as champions of individuality, western-influenced consumers who speak their mind. His criticism of the education system hit a nerve both with his contemporaries, who face huge pressure to conform and succeed at school, and with his seniors, who have responded with vitriol. It amuses Han Han that his audience consists of the young, who identify with his stories, and the middle aged, who are desperate to understand what chimes with their children. 'The older people want to know why their kids are reading my books,' says a pleased Han Han.
His success has spawned many imitators, but he shirks at the suggestion he is a spokesperson for his generation. He says he isn't a rebel, just someone who says what he thinks. Han Han says he is often criticised for his individualism and disdain for authority. 'I don't care,' he says with a shrug. 'No matter how good you are people will still criticise you.'
But Han Han is not just a rebel icon for youth. Critics praise his writing. 'He's definitely talented and his writing shows he's read the Chinese classics and poetry,' says Zha Jiangying, the author of China Pop. Zha says Han Han has a good sense of humour, and she compares him to Wang Shuo, one of China's leading contemporary writers. Zha says Han Han 'gives you a sense of the feeling of his generation'.
In his preface to The Third Way, Beijing art critic Cao Wenxuan says: 'There are almost no traces of a child to be seen [in Han Han's writing]. He no longer looks at the world with the unique pure eye of a child ... He uses a nitpicking eye, a suspicious eye, and even an unmerciful eye.' Cao says Han Han will not please everyone. 'He's too sharp, and because of this sharpness he's going to displease some people.'
Julie Zhu, a junior at Capital Normal University, says Han Han was popular among her contemporaries in high school precisely because of his pointed pen. She compares him to Lu Xun, widely regard as one of China's greatest contemporary writers. 'He was popular among the young because he dared to laugh coldly at a lot of things in society,' says Zhu. 'It is no surprise that his daring and dash appeals to teenagers.'
As a college junior she's become less inspired by Han Han's criticisms, some of which she considers unfair. 'Actually, compared to three years ago, his reputation and social attraction are fading,' says Zhu. 'Or probably my fellows and I are growing up.'
Han Han denies he is trying to start a social revolution, to bring down Chinese society, or to shock. 'People call me a rebel, but I'm not so rebellious,' he says. 'I only do what I want to do, and I don't care if anyone approves or not. If I were a rebel I wouldn't drive an Audi or a BMW.'
Han Han seems bored when asked about his writing, but comes to life when the conversation turns to cars. The rest of the country might be divided by his writing but for him, it's not as interesting as the Evolution V, which he bought in Hong Kong recently for US$28,000. He had to pay to import it, but the price was still considerably less than he would have paid in China (US$48,780). His mood quickly changes again when the discussion turns back to his craft. He speaks disparagingly of other writers, and has little time for them, preferring to socialise with car aficionados.
While he has not completely abandoned writing, he says he won't write another novel until he has gathered enough worthwhile things to write about. 'I'm not greedy,' he says.
He concedes that fiction has made it possible for him to indulge his passion for cars, something most Chinese can only dream about.
These days, he's no longer zipping around Beijing in the middle of the night - instead, he confines himself to the capital's sole racetrack and rallies around the country. In a race in Shanghai this year he came in sixth, a showing that one local reporter described as 'not bad'. 'This race proves that Han Han has formally moved from being a writer to a race car driver,' the report said.
Han Han makes it clear that cars take precedence over writing. 'I don't write much any more because I'm more interested in cars,' he says.
Asked how he would support himself without writing, he says he hopes to live off racing.
'I'm different from other writers,' says Han Han. 'They eat, sleep and drink what they want to write about next. I have to have a lot of experiences before I can write. I won't write another novel until I've done some more things. If you don't have a life, then you can't write.'
Although China's racing season has stopped for the winter, Han Han is preparing to ship his Evolution to Shanghai, where he says there are more open roads suitable for drag racing. He's also considering going to Britain or Finland to gain experience as a professional racing car driver.
One has a feeling that it may be a while before he moves from behind the steering wheel to back in front of a computer.
© 2013 Paul J. Mooney