November 2014

Jessica Michalofsky


Running Through Beijing by Xu Zechen, translated by Eric Abrahamsen

Xu Zechen is generally considered one of the new bright stars of China's literary scene -- People's Literature selected him as one of the "Future 20" best Chinese writers under forty-one. His new novel, Running Through Beijing, translated from Chinese by Eric Abrahamsen, tackles some of the heartbreaking themes of families fractured by China's rise to global dominance, a story made familiar to Western audiences by recent films like Lixin Fan's The Last Train Home. Set in present-day Beijing, the novel traces the steps of a handful of migrants who have come from the provinces to Beijing for a better life and end up selling pirated DVDs and forged documents on the city's gritty streets. But the tone of Xu's novel is punchier: where the film exposed the pathos of China's loss of tradition as it hurtles toward modernity, Xu's book mines the cracks in that collapse with a sort of punk sensibility.

The story begins outside a prison during a late-winter sandstorm. The novel's indefatigable protagonist, Dunhuang, has just been released from jail for selling fake IDs. Coughed out onto cold streets scourged with sand and washed with iodide-induced artificial rain, with no money in his pockets and nowhere to go, he quickly takes advantage of a chance meeting with Xiaorong, a young woman, who he naively (and wrongly) believes might be a prostitute, selling pirated DVDs on the street. Xu's economic prose uses the metaphor of heat to show the young couple's intense need for one another:

They went to a hotpot restaurant called "Ancients" next to Changchun Park. The girl said she was frozen through [...] From outside, the windows of the hotpot place were blanketed in heavy steam; only shadows milled within. Inside, there was a huge crowd, all red faces and thick necks, it looked as though half of Beijing had squeezed in. Countless beer glasses were hoisted over heads, the smell of alcohol and hotpot mixed with the chatter, all rising on billowing steam. Dunhuang hadn't felt such a welcoming intimacy in months, and his heart warmed so suddenly he nearly teared up.

Their relationship is a blend of opportunism and pure need. And Xu's rejection of romanticism is bracing. Dunhuang insinuates himself into both Xiaorong's business -- by offering to help her sell the pirated DVDs (a mixture of porn, action flicks, and art films) -- and her bed. Complicating the relationship picture is a debt Dunhuang believes he owes Bao Ding, his previous business partner and cellmate. With a kind of honor-among-thieves attitude, he decides to satisfy that debt by tracking down and taking care of the enigmatic Qibao, Bao Ding's girlfriend.

Like a modern-day Sisyphus, Dunhuang traverses Beijing, rebuilding his life one DVD sale at a time. Even, optimistically -- like the hero from The Bicycle Thief, one of the DVDs he peddles -- saving up for a bicycle to facilitate deliveries. When in a case of life-mimicking-art (or art-mimicking-art), the new bicycle he has saved for gets stolen, he decides "to hell with bicycles, people got around fine before bicycles were invented. 'I'll run -- let's see them steal my legs.'"

The 161-page novel definitely has something of the dystopian about it, exposing the present-day Chinese metropolis as a kind of morally void and environmentally degraded underworld. Yet, Xu's spare prose and unsentimental eye portray Dunhuang and the other Beijing inhabitants as animated by an antiestablishment spirit of resilience and a DIY ethic that is older, shrewder, and tougher than collective failure.

Running Through Beijing by Xu Zechen, translated by Eric Abrahamsen
Two Lines Press
ISBN: 978-1931883368
176 pages