Hu Fayun’s Such Is This World@sars.come

Ruyan@sars.come is the original Chinese title of this novel, a beautifully written book that got wide attention when it was published online in China a couple years ago, and a book that has since been “banned” by the Chinese government, for whatever that’s worth.

Hu Fayun has written the book I’ve dreamed of: historical fiction that truly captures what China was like during the time of SARS, and that in doing so opens a panoramic historiographical window on modern China.

Just as impressive as the book is its translation by A. E. Clark, who has annotated the text with more than 400 footnotes, rather unusual for a novel, and these notes provide nothing less than a primer on modern Chinese history and politics. References to Chinese literature and poetry, slogans from throughout the Mao era, the names of the various purges Mao initiated and their victims, the songs of revolution, euphemisms for the Great Famine and the TSM, hundreds of colloquial expressions and lines with veiled meanings…. These painstaking notes help hold together a book that, to most Western readers (and probably most contemporary Chinese readers), would often be mystifying, or at least incomplete.

Before I go on about the book, let me mention that the breakout of SARS in 2003 defined my outlook on China for years to come. It was my first face-to-face encounter with the government’s capacity for deceit and flat-out dishonesty and I wasn’t at all ready for it. If you dig back into my posts in April of 2003, you’ll find it was all I wrote about. I was obsessed — just like everyone else in Beijing. It was SARS that made me take blogging seriously, and it was SARS that turned this into a “real blog,” as opposed to a place for me to jot personal notes. For several months, it was SARS that caused me to look on the CCP with nothing but contempt and loathing.

That explains why this book resonated with me, why I read it with such fascination, though even had I not been in China at the time I’d still find it invaluable.

Set in “City X,” Such Is This World tells the story of a 40-something widow, Ru Yan, whose son gives her a PC and a little dog before he leaves to study in France. Ru Yan discovers the Internet, and new doors open for her everywhere, universes she never knew existed, tools for talking with her son via video, and forums that allow her to express herself, and that allow her creative talents to blossom. Describing a video chat with her son:

In the video frame he waved to Ru Yan, and then the window closed. His voice, too, disappeared in the darkness. Ru Yan thought of fairy tales she had read when she was little, with their mirrors and crystal balls and genies’ lamps haloed in the light, where supernatural beings appeared and disappeared without a trace.

She joins the Empty Nest forum for parents whose children are studying abroad, and her life takes on a whole new dimension. Under the screen name Such Is This World, her essays are picked up and published on other sites, and her life has a new purpose. Through the forum she becomes friends with a brilliant essayist, Damo, and through him Damo’s mentor, Teacher Wei, once a renowned party official and theoretician, a victim of Mao’s purges and later of the Cultural Revolution. By telling Damo’s and Teacher Wei’s past, the author immerses us in the horrors of Mao’s China, an irrational world in which one day you are purging people under you, and the next day they are purging you, where words innocently uttered years ago can put you at terrible risk today,where no one is safe, where guilt by association can instantly ruin the lives of individuals and families whose sole crime was having known the wrong person.Teacher Wei’s family is ripped apart, partly by his association with the disgraced writer Hu Feng, who criticized Mao’s writings, with disastrous consequences for Wei. Later his wife and children’s lives are all but ruined when it’s discovered that decades ago Wei’s brother emigrated to Taiwan.

Tales of guilt by association and never-ending persecutions is a recurring theme in the book. Banishment to the countryside, condemnation during the Cultural Revolution, getting swept up in this purge or that — most of the characters have been traumatized. The most eloquent voice on the sufferings China has gone through is Teacher Wei’s.

In a few decades we lost the ability to express pain and grief. We lost the ability to express love. What we got instead was something paltry and preposterous….When the revolution came full circle and hit me on the head; when I was cast down so low, with almost no hope of ever being rehabilitated, only then did certain questions occur to me. But by then the cataract of revolution was unstoppable, and thousands upon thousands of intellectuals were engulfed in the flood and washed away.

Ru Yan’s Internet essays come back to haunt her when she writes too honestly, especially about a strange new disease that soon creates dread throughout the country. It is with the introduction of SARS about half-way through the book that it takes on a new and page-turning intensity. Her essays destroy a promising romance between Ru Yan and a highly regarded deputy mayor and subject her to hateful abuse in the Empty Nest forum.

Three incidents converge at once. The hysteria over SARS, the US invasion of Iraq, and the murder by the police of the young graduate student Sun Zhigang. Again, this resonated with me because it was SARS and Sun Zhigang that most molded my view of China that same year. Yes, there was much more than that to China, but in 2003 I was there, alone, and these disasters became a big part of my world. Hu Fayun reminds us of the outrage the murder generated, and all that it said about the government and its vile “vagrancy” law, that was soon after eliminated. Hu recreates the terrifying scenes of yellow tape covering houses and buildings that housed SARS victims. It brought back to me the day when SARS was discovered in my own office building. I can still hear the shouts in my office, the panic. The book also brings back the insanity I witnessed every day, the huge snaking lines at the supermarket, the face masks everywhere, the empty streets, the taxis that refused to pick me up — Such Is This World @sars.come brought it all back as if it were yesterday. (If you’re new to this blog you may want to visit my April 2003 archives to understand just how much my life revolved around SARS.)

But SARS is really a small part of this book. The book is about freedom, about artistic liberty, about integrity, and of how even the most ardent of reformers can be bought and paid for by a government dangling goodies and perqs. It’s also all about Mao and the fear he incited. It’s about the intellectual vacuum that Mao ushered in. One of the most poignant moments comes when Teacher Wei cries out that no great author or artist captured first-hand the horrors of Mao’s China. Russia in WWII had the great Vassily Grossman, who chronicled both Stalingrad and Treblinka, and Victor Klemperer who documented the day-to-day sufferings of Germany’s Jews as the noose tightened. Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon chronicling the miseries of the Western Front of WWI. And on and on. But no one, Teacher Wei despairs, was there to capture the pain and misery of post-revolutionary China. Terror. The book is really all about terror, for terror was what life under Mao was all about, terror of being informed on, of being attacked by Red Guards, terror of saying just about anything that might be perceived as critical of Mao or the party. Terror, and cynicism, too, as sincere believers in reform become disillusioned and powerless.

According to pieces I’ve read, Ru Yan has become something of a hero to many Chinese, which makes sense. She expresses herself freely and, though by nature unpolitical, she stands up to authority, especially in one of the most grueling scenes of the book, when security guards butcher pet dogs on the streets, literally pulling them apart, another idiotic government decree to fight SARS. But this leads me to my one issue with the book, namely a stretching of one’s credibility. Ru Yan’s essays on both the massacres of pet dogs and the spread of SARS to her northern Chinese city get picked up by bloggers and news sites around the world. This leads to companies canceling their plans to hold conventions in China, and makes the entire world afraid of the country. This is a bit much, as China-based foreign correspondents were pumping these stories out on a daily basis, and the idea that one Chinese woman posting essays in an obscure chat room ignited the international attention that isolated China is hard to swallow.

Doesn’t matter. This is a great novel and an unequaled look into contemporary China and how/why it is what it is today. I don’t know if it’s for sale yet in the West, but when it is, buy a copy. It has everything — suspense, intrigue, history, pathos, romance, sex (briefly), philosophy and politics. A great novel with a great translation.

A note on the somewhat awkward title, Such Is This World @sars.come. From the translator’s footnotes:

The Chinese title ruyan@sars.come involved an untranslatable pun on a phrase and a name, both pronounced Ru Yan… The spelling “.come,” though emended by many a journalist, is not a typographical error but rather a punning experience to the coming of the SARS epidemic which shapes Ru Yan’s experience both on the Internet and off.

For excerpts of the book, go here. For a biography of Hu Fayun go here.

Update: You can order the book here. Your order will help ensure that great Chinese books like this will continue to be translated and distributed.