Han Han and the post-80sWritten by Julen Madariaga on May 5th, 2009
Chinese ultra-blogger Han Han is starting a magazine. He announced it previously on his blog, and his last post is already giving the details to send in article drafts and job applications. I learned this last night from my friend 2Ting, who was eagerly preparing her CV and intro letter. The literati of the post-80s are very excited, it appears.
Han’s magazine, which still doesn’t have a name to avoid imitations, is presented in this blog post. A very Chinese and a very Han Han announcement, interesting for several reasons. But before I speak of it let me give some background on Han Han. I’ve been planning to write about him for ages, and never found the time until today.
Han Han is 2Ting’s idol. He is also the idol of thousands of others post-80s Chinese, and he has become - in spite of himself- a symbol of this often caricatured generation. His bio is interesting: while attending middle school he won a first prize in a famous literary contest, then he dropped out of high school and started writing popular novels and driving race cars. By now he has become one of the best selling authors in China, and, if I got my stats right, the most read personal blogger in the World.
Han Han’ s appeal to the Chinese youth is based on his character and his life as much as on his incisive writing style. For modern day Chinese students, stifled by a cut-throat education system and the high expectations of their parents, there is no room for the big ideals. It is not Communism or Democracy that worries them, but rather the daily struggle to improve their grades. And the fairness of a system that should allow them in the future to find a job according to their efforts.
In this world, dropping out of school has to be the ultimate rebellion. Han Han fought the system and Han Han won. And not only he won, but he took to denouncing the gaps in the establishment, directly challenging the older generations that hold the power today. Add to this that - I am informed- Mr. Han is “hot”, and you got the bearings to start to understand the Han Han phenomenon.
Like a sort of Robin Hood of the Sinosphere, Han Han writes about injustice. He complains and makes fun of things that are wrong, by people who have power (political or other) in the older generations. Like his readers, he is not interested in the big words, you do not see “Charter” or “democracy” on his blog. You see a mayor in Chengdu who spent too much for a luxury “earthquake relief” car, or a rant against some older writer who sold his soul (some of his feuds with artists and critics are legendary).
By my own estimate, Han Han’s blog must be the most read personal blog in the World. The numbers are baffling. Each of his posts has hits in the hundreds of thousands, and comments are counted in the thousands. According to the stats on sina.com.cn, he is long past the 200 million hits. Impressive, even if we discount the part driven by returning low-value commentators. Typically, the 100 first comments on a post are whining about not being the first (the “sofa!”). Then it quickly degenerates into a series of ecstatic “chichis” and “jiayous”, which is the way Chinese express their cheering approval.
The lack of explicit political involvement is what makes many foreign readers ignore Han Han and turn to other -smaller- bloggers who write in tune with their expectations. This probably also explains why Han Han has managed to get away with so much, while being censored so little. The Censors have barely touched his blog, only once in a while blocking the occasional post. Like the thousands of tolerated protests organised in the countryside, most of the times he is just writing against a case of local injustice, and he rarely crosses the line of attacking Beijing.
But westerners and officials alike might be underestimating Han Han’s influence. His fans belong to defined and very concentrated sectors of the population, including one that has been identified as potentially conflictive in times of crisis: the young graduates from university that are unable to find a job. Looking further down the line, the post 80-s will start entering their 30s next year, and gradually they will gain some power and cease to be ciphers. Han Han is in a strategic position.
It has been said that his writing lacks a message, or that he is just a student fad, perhaps because he doesn’t fit our mould of a”chinese intellectual”. But he never was meant to be an intellectual. He is a man of action, who hops from high school to the race cars and on the way home plots his next witty line. He is the kind of man that makes change happen, rather than theorising it. The following extract of his magazine announcement can give a taste of what I mean.
This is the bold announcement posted on the 1st May, approximatively translated and abridged by Uln:
The magazine I edit is calling for manuscripts. Any kind of documents, including novels, short stories, news, essays, commentary, etc. For this magazine, I have decided to give the highest salaries in the field. 2000RMB/ 1000 characters for original cover stories. 1000RMB for other original stories, etc. These prices are around 10 to 40 times higher than average of the industry.
The magazine will also have a section for the points of view we completely oppose. The magazine considers the author is mentally disabled. These will include articles against humanity, against common sense, against justice and freedom. We will publish these articles and remunerate them 250*RMB/1000 characters. And this is also a high standard, for 250s don’t fall from heaven, and there is also a cost for the 250s to be born.
(*NOTE: For some reason, the number 250 in Chinese means “stupid”)
That is already a promising declaration of intentions. Fighting injustice with irony, that is very much the style of Han Han. In a country like China this kind of writing can go a long way. Until, of course, one of the 250s is powerful enough to take away their publishing licence.
The texts will only be paid 15 days after publication, to give enough time to the readers to find any plagiarism. If this is the case, a note will be published in the cover and compensation of 1000RMB/character given to the original writer, and 500RMB/character to the one who finds it. The magazine will not admit original authors that plagiarize themselves under a different name to claim both payments.
The salaries for the staff editors will be of 6500RMB/month, which will increase if we manage to keep the business afloat.
Some people advised me against this kind announcement, but I didn’t listen to them. When I asked some guys in other publications what was their monthly budget for writers, they said it was negligible. I am fed up of the situation in this country and I want to help improve it. I am a well known writer and a champion driver and with my income I can hardly buy a flat in Shanghai. In other countries these professions are more respected and you earn enough to buy Ferraris, etc. I want to ensure in my magazine that writers receive the proper compensation for their work.
Remarkable announcement, and, as I said, very hanhan. Also very Chinese, showing the money straight from the first paragraph. The likes of Han Han are not ashamed of what they are, and I can’t see a better way of getting his hordes of fans feverishly updating their CVs. I wonder how he is going to deal with the avalanche of manuscripts.
A funny paragraph is the one about plagiarism. It is a recurrent theme in Han Han’s posts, as he has been himself a major victim. The whole system of low wages for creative jobs is partly due to traditionally low awareness of intellectual property. To understand the extent of the problem, just consider that Han Han’s novels are plagiarized before they are even written: some crook commissions a writer to put together a novel with the bits of information that leak about Han’s next work, and in a week it is on the tricycle market. In these conditions, original books in libraries rarely sell for more than 15RMB (2$). Any increase would get the tricycles flocking to your doorstep.
But finally, one might ask, what is the magazine about? In the world of Han Han, the particular theme doesn’t seem to matter so much. As we saw above, humanity, freedom, justice and common sense are the principles that will guide it. Principles without capital letters, because there are none in Chinese. Perhaps the following phrase, which sounds better in the original, can give some more hints:
We don’t have a standpoint, we just discern right and wrong. Too many people around us have standpoints, they don’t discern right and wrong.
So be it.
This article is dedicated to my friend Ting. I really wish you can make it into the Han magazine