Review: Playing for Thrills


Playing for Thrills“Even after the train had pulled up alongside the long platform and come to a complete stop, I couldn’t be sure if this was the city I’d wanted to travel to, even though it looked like it.”—Wang Shuo, Playing for Thrills

I discovered Wang Shuo in a fitting location: an unpaved alleyway outside Beijing University’s east gate, barely wide enough for two bicycles to pass, the shadows steeply angled in late afternoon. The year was 2000. I was a regular at the hutongcafé, Sculpting in Time (long since bulldozed), spending afternoons sipping Chinese-style iced cappuccinos (overly iced and foamed) and reviewing Chinese texts on U.S.-China relations. A few storefronts down, a Tibetan man studying at Minzu (Minority) University ran an independent film store. One day, I wandered his shop’s cardboard boxes of pirated VCDs (the predecessor to DVDs), looking for something interesting.

“Have you heard of Wang Shuo?” he asked me.

I shook my head.

He held out a paper sheath housing two VCDs. “This is a film based on Wang Shuo’s novella, Wild Beast.” The wrapping read: 阳光灿烂的日子, In the Heat of the Sun, directed by Jiang Wen. For five yuan, I purchased the film.

“Tell me what you think,” he said, resuming a cigarette on the front stoop.

It became my favorite film. Released in 1994, In the Heat of the Sun explores a Beijing now being buried under the detritus of development: It’s one impetuous preteen boy’s perspective of the later stages of the Cultural Revolution. In it, the children of People’s Liberation Army comrades are alone in Beijing—their parents too preoccupied with revolutionary activities and their older siblings “sent down” to the countryside to serve as Red Guards. The film portrays an underbelly of the Cultural Revolution, unsupervised youngsters who skip school, get into fights, flirt, and ultimately turn the Maoisms of the time into rebellious farce (in one scene the protagonist, Ma Xiaojun, finds condoms in his father’s dresser drawers—right next to Chairman Mao badges).  What drew me to In the Heat of the Sun was its slippery narrative, its use of nostalgia as not just a tool of memory but of historical anti-propaganda. The story is told from the perspective of an older Ma Xiaojun who’s now a rich playboy in 1980’s China. The camera flits between memories and the film’s present, shot from unusual visual angles (in my favorite scene, filmed from Ma’s perspective, we are underwater in a public pool, while at the surface, feet kick, preventing him from coming up for air). In these ways, the work undermines the tradition of the Chinese realist film and official versions of history. The film is eerily prescient about Beijing’s explosive development. The narrator announces in its prologue: “Change has wiped out my memories. I can’t tell what’s imagined from what’s real.”

Wang’s writing, especially in his novella Wild Beast (the basis for In the Heat of the Sun) is known in China as ‘Hooligan’ literature (liumang wenxue, 流氓文学, or pizi wenxue, 痞子文学), works that include vulgar language, cynicism, and often, youthful, irreverent narrators and plots. Wang is considered the founder of this Chinese literary underbelly; a “wild beast” himself, Wang grew up in Beijing, and was involved in petty crimes and street gang fights during his teenage years, and like Ma Xiaojun’s  parents, Wang’s were sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, leaving him and his brother alone in the city.

I searched unsuccessfully for years for an English translation of Wild Beast (and equally unsuccessfully for an English-subtitled version of In the Heat of the Sun to show friends). I knew reading the original Chinese would be a time-consuming translation task due to the work’s shifts between crude language and dense literary prose, but no English translation existed. Finally, I turned to Wang’s only translated works, both by Howard Goldblatt (who also translates Mo Yan): Playing for Thrills and Please Don’t Call Me Human.

Playing for Thrills (pub. 1989, trans. 1997) has some of the Beijing nostalgia of In the Heat of the Sun, but takes as its narrative basis a murder mystery that can feel, at times, contrived for the sake of plot. The work shares with In the Heat of the Sun a similar set of characters: young men and women who do not fit within the square bounds of Party and Nation. They are petty criminals, listless people, traveling at a moment’s notice on a train south, staying up late playing cards, and drinking.  The protagonist, Fang Yan seems to spend most of his life gambling and hanging with friends, and it is never explicitly clear how he makes a living in the present-day narrative, but one assumes it’s not through honest means. Early in the novel, we learn he’s being pursued by police as the prime suspect in the murder of one of his friends, Gao Yang, whose beheaded body has recently been found in a ravine in southern China. But Fang hasn’t seen Gao in a decade. To prove to himself either his innocence or his ability to recollect, he attempts to reconstruct his memories to figure out who killed his friend. This takes up much of the book. The narrative jumps between time periods and scenes, as Fang speaks to friends (none of whom are particularly helpful) about the year of Gao’s murder. He learns he was preoccupied with a love interest at the time, a woman he’d forgotten until this murder came to light.

I had hoped In the Heat of the Sun’s preoccupation with reality and the imagination wasn’t purely the filmmaker’s interpretation and would be reflected in the English translations of Wang’s writing—I wasn’t disappointed.

Playing for Thrills, like In the Heat of the Sun, has a relativist’s mockery of the elusive nature of time, memory, asking whether we can trust anyone to reliably tell a story. Here is Fang attempting to reconstruct a scene from memory:

Conflicting images of a courtyard drenched in the sun’s rays and a courtyard cooled by dark shadows were both strong. Now if the former was the true image, then it would have been before noon; but if the latter was accurate, then it had to have been after noon. A third possibility is that we arrived in the morning and were still there that afternoon.

Similarly, as Fang delves into the mysteries of his own past and that of his friends, the novel shifts between narrative descriptions of old Beijing and the year of Gao’s death and long stretches of dialogue between Fang and his ex-girlfriend. In doing so, Wang throws the reader (and the police?) off Fang’s trail. In one scene, he tells his female companion, “Seven or eight out of every ten sentences that come out of my mouth are pure bullshit. Maybe I start out by telling the truth, but sometimes not even that.” There are even several allusions to Fang Yan himself being a writer, which complicates the relationship between protagonist and author. This is made clearest when the ‘I’ of the first person narrative, for so long Fang himself (or so it seems), turns into an authorial ‘I’ in the book’s last pages: “The protagonist of my book is a compulsive gambler who never does an honest day’s work. One day he finds himself suspected of a murder. Forced to delve into his memories by calling on old friends, he produces a book of life that is missing seven of its pages.”

On the most literal level, Fang Yan reminds us what it was like to have lived in the city in the ‘80s and ‘90s:

The street was my destination, but I kept circling through the network of lanes;  where one ended another began, and it was sort of like walking on a rolling ball,

going round and round with no end in sight. People noises, mixed with the whine and bumps of electric trams out on the street nearby, were clear as a bell, that and the amplified shouts of ticket collectors, but it was out there, and I was in here, emerging from one brick-walled lane only to find myself in yet another.

In Wang Shuo’s writing, Playing for Thrills included, Beijing reflects the labyrinthine nature of memory and history. As I first lived in Beijing’s hutong alleyways in the mid-‘90s, it’s no surprise his work resonates with me so deeply; I share with Wang the experience of the city prior to its massive spatial and economic transformation.

Wang Shuo’s later translated work, Please Don’t Call Me Human (pub. 1989, trans. 2000), is a satire of Chinese politics and society, an ambitious attempt to plumb what it means to live in a country that proclaims itself ‘Socialist with Chinese Characteristics.’ The work does not fit within his previous fascination with Beijing’s hooligan street culture. Instead, it follows the story of Tang Yuanbao, a “Latter-day Big Dream Boxer” on whom the hopes and dreams of China rest (including the aptly named National Mobilization Committee, or MobCom). After a video circulates in China showing a foreign wrestler easily beating Asian competitors, MobCom takes it upon themselves to find a man strong enough to avenge this hit to national pride. They find Tang in a typical Beijing neighborhood courtyard with “pots and pans cluttering the yard” and “crickets in the old date tree,” and tell him “the Chinese people look to you.” He will have to “beat the shit out of” the foreign wrestler. Charged with saving face for the entire Chinese nation and race, Tang bends easily to the wills of his MobCom handlers. By the end of his strict training regimen (and the book itself), he’s a much different man altogether, and the work ends with a horrific image of the extreme lengths some will go to in order to ‘save face’ in China.

With Please Don’t Call Me Human, Wang reaches beyond the usual scope of his work, intending a much larger political message than that contained in the small dealings of Beijing street hustlers. But his overwrought plot and dialogue (“Don’t forget, the whole Chinese race is depending on you”) fall flat compared with the lively, devil-may-care flavor of his previous works. Wang seems to intend this book as a send-up to propagandized Chinese literature of past; as one of the characters inPlease Don’t Call Me Human states: “In my view, Chinese literature has a long way to go before it takes its rightful place on the world stage.” One has the sense Wang is purposefully trying on an outfit that doesn’t quite suit him, teasing a nation that hopes he’ll eventually become that kind of ‘traditional’ (certainly not ‘hooligan’) writer. Still, with 20 novels in print, selling over 10 million copies, Wang’s hooligan writing has plenty of readers. ‘Capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ has worked in Wang’s favor, despite what censors or propagandists may wish.

Which returns me to Wang’s early work and my favorite: Wild Beast.  It remains unpublished in English translation so I tried my hand at the early pages to illuminate what about Wang’s writing continues to attract me. Wang’s descriptive prose can be long-winded and too intently literary; still, his first-person perspectives and straight-forward observations bring us directly into the mind of Ma Xiaojun, a protagonist who, while roaming the streets of Beijing one summer breaking into empty homes, seems to care about nothing, but has an exquisite sensitivity to the world around him. The novella opens this way:

I admire those who’ve come from the countryside. In their memories, there’s always an unending aftertaste of homeland—and even though this homeland is actually a poor and withered out-of-the-way place, still it brings them happiness. Whenever they are totally lost, they know they’ve stored those thoughts in the safe-deposit box of their memories, always there to retrieve, to give them comfort and forgiveness when needed.

When I was very small I left my birthplace and came to this city—since that time, I’ve never left. I’ve made this city my homeland. This city where everything changes so quickly—buildings, avenues, even people’s clothing and topics of conversation. To this day, the city has completely changed its appearance, becoming totally new to us, a modern city according to what we know.

There is no trace of the city’s historical remains; everything of its past has been stripped immaculately clean.

(translation mine)

As this passage shows, Wang has a remarkable ability to traverse time—a cool nostalgia, neither over-wrought nor eagerly simplistic. He brings to his readers a palimpsest of a city and a changing nation. Wang, who seems acutely aware of the artistic and political dangers for Chinese writers of honestly portraying this time and this place, chooses instead to examine them through the vagaries of dream, memory, and satire.


Kaitlin Solimine was a Harvard-Yenching scholar and wrote and edited Let’s Go: China (St. Martin’s Press). She was a Fulbright Fellow in China and the Donald E. Axinn Scholar in Fiction at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Her fiction has been published in Guernica Magazine, Kartika Review, and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.

Review: Playing for Thrills

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