The first time I heard of author Wang Xiaobo was in the autumn of 1997, several months after he died of a sudden heart attack in his Beijing apartment. A friend recommended Wang’s books, and I was immediately drawn in by his visceral humor and honesty when discussing the ills plaguing Chinese society and culture.
Born in 1952 in Beijing, Wang was sent to the countryside in his late teens to work on farms during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). He spent several years in the southwestern province of Yunnan and the eastern province of Shandong before returning to the capital in the early 1970s. His experiences inspired him to start writing.
His first novel was published in 1980. One of his most popular stories, The Golden Age – about a city boy’s confession on his scandalous affair with a married doctor while working in a farming collective – won the United Daily Literary Award for a Novella in Taiwan in 1991.
Wang worked briefly as a lecturer of sociology at Peking University and Renmin University in Beijing. He gave up teaching in 1992 because he was tired of academic red tape, and became a freelance writer.
In 1996, he penned the script for the first Chinese movie to discuss homosexuality. East Palace, West Palace – a reference to bathrooms in two parks on either end of the Forbidden City and a favorite haunt of gay men – was smuggled out of China for post-production in France. It premiered at the Mar del Plata Film Festival in Argentina in November 1996, winning the award for best script, and was screened at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival.
Wang’s literary star rose only after his death on April 11, 1997. He was 45. Although the irreverent essayist had a cult following in the LGBT community and other niche groups, his work only reached a wider audience in the late 1990s. Critics often compared him to James Joyce and Franz Kafka. Many contemporary authors say his style influenced them.
I’ve read almost all of his novels and essays. And some of his books are still my favorite daily reads. If I can use just a few words to describe the most striking quality in his writing, it is its innocence and frankness.
Wang once said that the most important things in life are simple and clear, but our culture always takes simple things and complicates them. His fiction and essays aim to cut through this web of complexity.
He also said the three most beautiful pursuits in life were wisdom, pleasure and sex. But we have created so many rules and principles, such as altruism and collectivism that hold back men and women from pursuing these ideals.
Wang also took a swing at collectivism in several of his satirical works. In one short story, a man dies in a flood while trying to salvage a telephone pole owned by a collective. When his neighbors mourn and raise questions about whether his death was in vain, an official declares sacrificing one’s life for even a straw that belonged to the collective was worthwhile.
Wang was labeled “too individualistic” because he rejected altruism and collectivism. The core of individualism is not self-centeredness, but the belief that no one should be hurt for the sake of collective interest, he said.
Wang’s unpretentiousness is not only seen in his work but also in his personal life. He fell in love with Li Yinhe, a renowned sociologist who later became his wife, at their first meeting, she wrote in a 1997 article.
The two met in 1977, when Wang was interning at a Beijing newspaper. Li was an editor and after their first long chat, Wang abruptly asked her whether she had a boyfriend. And the rest is history.
I’ve read many of Wang’s love letters to Li and was touched by his words.
Before I discovered Wang’s writing, I was a big fan of Lu Xun, one of the leading figures of modern Chinese literature. His writing style is sharp and witty. Like a surgeon he dissected this ailing body politic to reveal its rotten organs, but it is painful to read his stories with their grim view of reality.
Wang also dug into the dark corners of the Chinese psyche, but he is a gentler explorer. His stories are tragic, with a touch of humor that makes the bitter lessons easier to swallow.
Wang was pushed out of the literary establishment of his time because he refused to be shackled by tradition or nationalism, and instead pushed for individual liberties.
His stories not only unmasked social ills, but they also reminded us that the true essence of life lay in the pursuit of wisdom, pleasure and sex.
Wu Zhihong is a psychologist, writer and columnist