November 2004

Iris Benaroia


Beijing Doll by Chun Sue

She drops out of school, she sees a shrink, she dyes her hair, she sleeps with an armada of boys, she’s Chun Sue — girl hero of the semi-autobiographical Beijing Doll — and she’s talking about her generation.

Published in 2000, and written when the author was between the ages of 14 and 17, Beijing Doll is Sue’s confessional foray into China’s disillusioned teenage subculture. It’s a tale that caused such a fracas the Chinese government banned it in Mainland China upon publication. (Sue, incidentally, was also featured on the cover of the Asian edition of Time magazine.) The teenager of this tale, unsurprisingly, is dissatisfied at home, hates school and ridicules those blighted by the disease of normalcy. Sue guilefully shuns society’s expectations for her gender with its droll, submissive rules that find Chinese women prepping for the centuries-old chastity belt of school, marriage and children.

Her rebellion is underscored from the book’s opening when she tells us she begins life as Lin Jiafu, meaning “a fine hibiscus,” but changes her name to the much more gritty Chun Sue. Like most teenagers, Sue wants to find herself, and her quest in its surface gestures -- compulsively dying her hair and sporting T-shirts of alternative music bands -- are simply outward markers that signal the search for identity. But all that is crust, really, and while it’s entertaining, it’s not what makes the book compelling. Rather, it’s the feeling that you’re sharing in Sue’s nascence as a writer. For underneath the juvenile rancor and brouhahas with boys is an artist whose talent is big and evident from the book’s outset; from its clever little opening, “Some simple introductions and some loves,” which is essentially a list of rules for the reader to follow to “better understand what’s in the book,” to its first beautiful dulcet title, “Birds soaring up from a thousand peaks.”

The cast of characters is many, and it’s hard to follow what real significance each person has for Sue; some incidentals are band members she hangs with -- in addition to being a high schooler, Sue is a music journalist -- others illuminate her values, separating the phony from the real. One such iconoclast, for example, is a classmate Sue respects because of her individuality. Unlike everyone else, the new girl with the unorthodox background (rumor has it she lives with her grandfather) sports short hair parted on one side, instead of the severe standard-issue middle part. Sue tells us:

“We all wore the same uniform, but she added a scarf around her neck, brown with white polka dots and probably no more expensive than those you can buy on street corners. But that silk scarf drew our attention like a magnet. It started a fad. And even though our silk or satin scarves might have cost more than hers, on her it just seemed more fitting, more natural. The truth is, I never got very close to her. She was an enigma. She reminded me of some of the characters I’d invented, and on several occasions I imagined her as a girl who existed only in my fantasies.”

Conversely, Sue detests forgeries, particularly those disguised as outsiders, such as Li Qi, a shallow artist she sleeps with and who eventually discards her. Notice Sue’s shrewd and erudite observation:

“From the moment this pathetic hoodlum showed up on the streets of Beijing, all sorts of good-hearted people helped him out. In the heart of our motherland’s artistic circles, his family paid his rent, his pals pitched in with food. The country was populated by girls who had been tricked into falling for his phony idealism and hung around waiting for him…With his bourgeois mentality and proletarian identity, this heartless self-styled artiste never did anything worthwhile except eat and wait for the sun to set. How did he have the guts to go on living?”

Sue, who not only loves Sonic Youth but Kafka too, roots for the existentialists, while maudlin manners revolt her. She discloses, “I’ve got this crude idea that anybody who fucking scorns life, who sees life as a pile of shit, who feels that life is meaningless and offers nothing but constant suffering, is fearless, courageous… in a word cultivated.”

Granted, Sue is melodramatic at times, and her admissions often mopey, but she is a teenager after all. And what would a teenage confessional be without teenage angst? While it’s easy to take one look at the book’s hot-pink cover, with its punk-font and snapshot of Sue sporting trainers, and trundle by -- don’t -- this book is a canny portrayal of teenage discontent. In her vinegar prose, Sue has the streak of Dorothy Parker about her. It’ll be interesting to see what her adulthood brings.

Beijing Doll by Chun Sue
Riverhead Books
ISBN: 1594480206
223 Pages