Book Review: The Golden Age 黄金时代 by Wang Xiaobo 王小波

In 1997, two decades after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Wang Xiaobo died prematurely of a heart attack. This was five years after his debut novella The Golden Age made him one of the most widely read and discussed authors among disillusioned youth in China. While initially met with hostility from the literary establishment, he’s now a cult favorite.

The novella (his most iconic work) is a bold foray into love and sexuality under a totalitarian regime — a Kafkan take on the link between chastity and political orthodoxy (a rather Orwellian theme, think: 1984). The narrative is a story framed within a story: the narrator, Wang Er, recounts his affair with a young doctor Chen Qingyang in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, from the vantage of twenty years after. The triangulation of sex, language, and power in the story sets the stage for an absurdist love story on multiple levels. For one, there’s the Maoist sublime at the backdrop of the action, wherein each person’s body is subsumed in ideological fanaticism and a libidinous impulse directed towards the state. For another, there are the two protagonists, who use their bodies in defiance of Party politics through bizarre sexual escapades — the most delightfully weird scene is them having sex in the wilderness, beside a water buffalo. An ironic parody of the rural country, which lies at the heart of China’s “Down to the Countryside” movement (上山下乡), the novella oscillates between resistance and regression, transgression and farce. Sex in The Golden Age functions not just as protest but also as a metaphor for state power and the voluntary, even pleasurable, collaboration of those subject to it.

What I like most is how Wang presents the Cultural Revolution as absurd and obscene in its theatricality and codification of desire. By having his protagonists consecrate the profane dimensions of desire, Wang celebrates a temporary escape from the prevailing ‘truth’ of puritan devotion to the state. The carnal pastime, however, is an almost nihilist negotiation with one’s own body and psyche — Wang’s deadpan language, cavalier tone, and flattened emotional affect powerfully evoke the collective ennui of that era.

While many academics have long perceived the Cultural Revolution as a sadomasochistic theatre, where the state dominates and the individual submits, a different portrait appears in The Golden Age.  The story is an unlikely sexual carnival, à la Mikhail Bakhtin. Through Wang Er’s deadpan humor, cavalier tone, and reverence towards sex, the carnivalesque energy thrums, parodying and undermining the socialist agape. The sexual detail in the narrator’s confessions to the authorities (检讨书) and the festive spectacle of the couple’s struggle sessions (公开批斗会) point to the subversive nature of language. By indulging in the absurdity of their situation, the characters escape mere victimhood and reclaim their bodies and minds from Party ideology.

The Golden Age hints at revolutionary nostalgia — not for the Maoist agrarian utopia, but for the lost possibility of love even in a time of extreme violence and total upheaval of meaning. By reigning in explicit violence and unleashing its dark energy through the absurdist carnival of sex, The Golden Age ultimately gestures to love as the forbidden password to liberation.

You kissed my belly button, right? I was right on the edge—I almost fell in love with you in that moment.

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