New York Times (Chinese), 3rd May, 2018
By Karoline Kann
Translated by Todd Foley
A peasant woman sold into marriage flees with her child from a mountain village; a missing woman is captured and involved in the corrupt affairs of numerous government officials; an attempt to cover up the car crash of an official’s son only makes matters worse; an image of an official’s smiling face at the scene of a bridge collapse prompts an internet manhunt…. No, these aren’t headlines from your smartphone’s news app—they’re all taken from Liu Zhenyun’s latest novel, Strange Bedfellows (吃瓜时代的儿女们; more literally, “Children of the Melon-Eating Era”1). The work has been greeted with much fanfare, with its first printing reaching 900,000 copies and Yazhou Zhoukan naming it one of the top ten books of 2017.
1:“Strange Bedfellows” is the name of Howard Goldblatt’s translation, currently underway.
The “melon-eating masses,”2 a popular term that has appeared on the Chinese internet in recent years, refers to netizens who observe online discussions but never participate (similar to “lurkers” in English). When people start referring to themselves as the “melon-eating masses,” we thus find ourselves in the “melon-eating era.” Liu Zhenyun’s novel describes some seemingly absurd—but actually quite realistic—people and events of this “era.”
2:In Chinese, “吃瓜群众.” “瓜” (gua, melon) actually refers to “瓜子” (guazi, melon seeds).
“I wasn’t at all worried about finding material for the novel,” said Liu in a recent interview, “because life provides an endless supply.” In a friend’s traditional courtyard residence in Beijing’s Dongcheng district, Liu was readying himself to meet a German photographer working on a collection of portraits of authors from all over the world. From among the several clothing options presented to him by an assistant, Liu selected a dark-hued, Chinese-style jacket. Several friends from his native Henan province were also hanging around waiting to go have dinner with him afterwards—despite having long since become a famous writer, he still retains close relations with his hometown.
When asked about the “melon-eating era” of his title, Liu explained that the protagonists of the novel are really the faceless masses of “melon seed snackers,” who drive the story’s plot through their sustained interest. They are netizens and public opinion, they are observers on the street, and they are the novel’s readers themselves. These stories have circulated on the internet and become our topics of discussion, which has led us to develop a kind of excitement and misperception, as if each of our “melon-eating” moments effects some change on this world. As a result, we snack on melon seeds ever more greedily.
The novel uses elements from news headlines to satisfy reader’s spectatorial desires. According to Liu, “the lives of the main characters in the novel all become distorted, but the spectators become excited by this distortion.”
Strange Bedfellows tells the stories of four main characters who come from different places and social classes and lead very different lives, yet who all become intimately connected with one another. The novel’s plot seems absurd: to get a higher price for sex, Niu Xiaoli pretends to be a virgin in multiple sexual encounters with government officials; Guang Gunhan brazenly marries a trafficked woman; an official’s son takes a naked woman out for a joyride and wrecks his car just when his father is up for an important promotion, casting a pall over his father’s prospects; a government worker in an anti-pornography campaign cooperates with a prostitute to set a trap; a photo of a smiling official at the scene of an accident prompts an internet manhunt that ends up exposing corruption; and a group of netizens helps a prostitute fight corruption, although they are less concerned with the corruption itself than they are with singing the praises of the prostitute, who they herald as an anti-corruption goddess.
Readers, however, are not unfamiliar with these types of stories. Whether it’s the car crash of Ling Jihua’s son; the case of Yang Dacai, the “smiling official” at the scene of a Shaanxi traffic accident who also became known as “Brother Wristwatch”; Zhao Hongxia’s compromising videos of several Chongqing officials; or the qigong master Wang Lin, who swindled a number of government officials and businessmen, we can easily find traces of the novel’s characters in real life.
According to Liu Zhenyun, the goal of his writing is not to help readers review events from the internet. These individual stories, he feels, are all just superficial. What’s really important is what lies underneath—that is, the philosophy of life.
“[These stories] in the novel are just details,” said Liu, “and it wouldn’t have mattered whether I used them or not. It’s just that these events from real life were too comical—and, needless to say, pathetic—not to make use of them. Everyone is familiar with these stories, and they enhance the sense of reality in the novel. This is why I take a phrase from one of my uncles for the epigraph: ‘if there’s a coincidence, don’t be part of it.’ Don’t take these coincidental events as anything more than an opportunity to enjoy some melon seeds together.”
In China, netizens love to jokingly use the phrase “unaware of the facts” (不明真相) to describe the melon-eating masses. China’s particular political and social environment makes this phrase worth some extra consideration. Every time there is a mass incident (群体事件), the local government will often use the phrase “the masses who are unaware of the facts” to describe the people. These masses who are “unaware of the facts” are easily “poisoned and stirred up by people with ulterior motives,” or by “hostile factions,” “outside influences,” or unseen “bad elements” obstructing the development of socialism. Ironically, these masses who are “unaware of the facts” are also the very source of first-hand information, the ones who are actually closest to the facts. Netizens have also gone further to create phrases like “the melon-eating masses have already seen through everything” and “the eyes of the melon-eating masses are sharp.” By playfully calling themselves the “melon-eating masses,” people are not referring to themselves as unfeeling or disinterested, but rather are using a very Chinese style of self-mockery and humor to participate in events. They are the unseen force that propels the plot in Liu Zhenyun’s novel.
“The structure of a work requires imagination,” said Liu, “but I’ve never fabricated the details, because I’m just like the melon-eating masses—I have my eyes open every day, and these sorts of details are everywhere for the picking. If I can gather them so easily, why not? I once said that I am the least funny person in China, but life is full of readily available humor. So, thank you, life.”
Liu Zhenyun has always chronicled of the absurdity of our times. Born in 1958 in Yanjin County, Henan, he joined the army at age fifteen and returned home five years later to take the college entrance exam. After graduating from the Chinese department of Peking University in 1982, he was assigned to work at the Farmers’ Daily (农民日报), during which time he also began writing literature. In his 2003 novel Cell Phone (手机), modern technology brings convenience to the life of TV presenter Yan Shouyi, along with no small amount of trouble. His 2012 work I Did Not Kill My Husband (我不是潘金莲) tells the story of Li Xuelian, who spends twenty years of her life appealing to the authorities to turn her fake divorce into a real one. In The Cook, the Crook, and the Real Estate Tycoon (我叫刘跃进, 2007), published in 2007, migrant worker Liu becomes like a sheep thrown to the wolves after he picks up a bag containing a certain flash disk.
Like Liu Zhenyun’s previous works, Strange Bedfellows demonstrates the complicated and multifaceted nature of humanity: corrupt officials are not completely without a heart; prostitutes are not loose, shameless women; the seemingly kind and honest woman working at the snack shop might turn out to be a vicious backstabber; and, when facing some major life problems, first reaction of a presumably atheist Party member is to pray.
“Readers have said that the corrupt officials in my novels are entirely different from those in the news,” said Liu, “because the ones in my novels have flesh and blood. The steps they take on their paths toward corruption are often the result of all sorts of objective factors. The world has many different faces because of all these various factors, which is also the case for individual people and events.”
Although Liu Zhenyun’s works appear to touch upon many sensitive topics, they are still somehow able to avoid censorship and get published. When discussing the reasons for this, Liu said he feels it is because the problems he writes about are, first and foremost, about life—not politics or society.
“Literature is concerned with politics, but my works are more concerned with the people and the humanity within politics,” he said. “There is not a single character in my books who is evil. The choices they make in their lives are all quite reasonable. They are the people of life, and life is bigger than society or politics. Bigger still are people’s hearts and spirits, bigger than the frameworks of country or nation. I discuss the problems of life from a literary perspective, so I don’t encounter quite as much resistance.”
With a smile, Liu Zhenyun then added, “censorship of literature is relatively lenient, because officials don’t read that many books. Films, on the other hand, are strictly censored, because everyone watches them—everyone pays attention to them and critiques them.
Liu Zhenyun is a master storyteller—his stories seem to snowball, adding layer upon layer, with plot twists cropping up along they way. No matter where the snowball rolls, however, Liu always remains in complete control. Most of his characters are ordinary, unremarkable people. Although there are a number of government officials in Strange Bedfellows, they are still from the countryside, and they retain their down-home way of thinking. Take, for example, these two passages from the novel:
Liu Zhenyun prefers to write from the perspective of ordinary people from the lower echelons of society—a preference that most likely springs from his experience growing up in the countryside, which he still visits often through regular trips to his hometown in Henan. He jokingly refers to himself as part of the “low-end population” (低端人口).
“Yet I feel this ‘low-end population’ is also the wisest,” Liu explained. “The best literary inspiration can come from the vegetable market. Literature must prioritize those things in the world that are the easiest to ignore—this includes the stories of ordinary people. People like Trump take up too much of the world’s information resources—whatever he says on Twitter becomes news. But no one outside of our own villages hears what we country folk have to say, even though these rural voices are also worth hearing. Literature should pay attention to the people whose feelings are ignored by the rest of the world. This is my motivation for writing.”
According to Liu, each new work is a new investigation—only when he’s writing can he continue his exploration.
“Writing isn’t the same as opening a restaurant—in a restaurant, the flavor of the food has to be the same each time so that people will want to come back. But when writing literature, one must constantly be striving for new understandings of the relationship between life, literature, and the author. The thing every writer fears most is that they won’t be able to produce a new work.”