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.

Happy National Day! // my cover of “Home” by Kit Chan

“Celebrations Together”: Artwork by Khong Ka Yeung, Rulang Primary School

Happy 55th birthday, my dearest Singapore! 🎂☀️🇸🇬

Each year, NDP (National Day Parade) is special partly because of the songs that I grew up with. I remember singing the NDP songs in school halls, classrooms, on the bus, with friends, teachers, family, strangers—all in unison and at the top of our voices. Tanya Chua’s Where I Belong (2001), Stefanie Sun’s We Will Get There (2002), Kaira Gong’s My Island Home (2006)… Funny how I know all their lyrics by heart.

This year, on Singapore’s 55th, I want to do a cover of Kit Chan’s Home, which came out in 1998, the year I was born. It’s one of my favourite NDP songs. Earlier today, when I was thinking about how to write this post, I was looping Home and then, it occurred to me that this song says everything I want to. The moment the instrumental begins, it’s like my heart clenches reflexively with pride, homesickness, and belonging. Or as one Youtube comment says, it’s “the feeling whenever my plane touches down at Changi airport.”

To Singapore: Thank you for being my home, my sanctuary, my anchor, and the place I will always return to. In times like these, with closed borders, suspended plane routes, slowing trade, the rise of internet sovereignty, and stay-home quarantines within four walls, home takes on a whole new meaning.

This song is for you:

Home by Kit Chan (cover by Selina Xu) ❤️

Whenever I am feeling low
I look around me and I know
There’s a place that will stay within me
Wherever I may choose to go
I will always recall the city
Know every street and shore
Sail down the river which brings us life
Winding through my Singapore

This is home truly, where I know I must be
Where my dreams wait for me, where the river always flows
This is home surely, as my senses tell me
This is where I won’t be alone, for this is where I know it’s home

When there are troubles to go through
We’ll find a way to start anew
There is comfort in the knowledge
That home’s about its people too
So we’ll build our dreams together
Just like we’ve done before
Just like the river which brings us life
There’ll always be Singapore

This is home truly, where I know I must be
Where my dreams wait for me, where the river always flows
This is home surely, as my senses tell me
This is where I won’t be alone, for this is where I know it’s home

This is home truly, where I know I must be
Where my dreams wait for me, where the river always flows
This is home surely, as my senses tell me
This is where I won’t be alone, for this is where I know it’s home

For this is where I know it’s home
For this is where I know I’m home

Lots of love,

“Staying United”: Artwork by Goh Kate Lynn, Pei Hwa Presbyterian Primary School

2019: A Tale of Many Cities

Selina Xu Kaiping 碉楼

滚滚长江东逝水,浪花淘尽英雄。
是非成败转头空。
青山依旧在,几度夕阳红。
白发渔樵江渚上,惯看秋月春风。
一壶浊酒喜相逢。
古今多少事,都付笑谈中。

《三国演义》开篇

Roiling waves of the river flow,
Rippling tides sieve out heroes,
Wins and losses now hollow.
The earth lies here still,
Many sunsets come and go.

A snowy-haired elder perches by,
Seasons ebbing in his eyes.
History’s many tales
All washed down with wine,
Drowning in laughter with old friends.

(my translation)

Romance of Three Kingdoms Wuhou Temple 三国演义武侯寺

The huge stone engraving sits in a courtyard of the Wuhou Temple, carrying the opening verse of Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Chengdu. Centuries ago, once the Kingdom of Shu. The Temple memorializes Zhuge Liang, who ought to have been forgotten by time — only a prime minister of a kingdom that lasted 43 years, dating back to close to two millennia ago; not to mention, China was split into three — no one could call himself emperor (帝), only king (王). Being neither king nor emperor, Zhuge Liang has posthumously found outsized fame. When I was a kid, my parents would say, Be as smart as Zhuge Liang. His is one of the first names that come to mind when one thinks of wisdom, strategy, or yin and yang (八卦). Ironically, in this temple named after him lies the tomb of Liu Bei — the King of Shu, who Zhuge Liang had served.

But why? Because of one book.

No one would remember Zhuge Liang, Cao Cao, Liu Bei, or Guan Yu, were it not for Romance of the Three Kingdoms (which, alongside Dream of the Red Chamber, Journey to the West, and Heroes of the Marshes, are deemed as China’s four great literary classics).

The temple is crowded with visitors. Every corridor, every statue, every inch of the bamboo-shrouded red walls are surrounded by bobbing heads and peering faces. Several of the famous generals whose statues loom are, in fact, fictional. So pervasive has been Three Kingdoms that legacies are invented and History reconstructed. Like everyone else chasing the words of the guide, my grandpa, my father, and I are devotees to a book that has grown larger than life — one that reigns over modern Chinese consciousness.

A Western pop cultural parallel that immediately comes to mind is Hamilton, which I caught this summer in New York. It celebrates history in the making and, in a musical spectacle, tears open the sinews of History to show us how it is written, construed, and remade. What captivated me most wasn’t those contemporary bits, but how it seemed that the audience was watching the arches and domes being constructed for a narrative-in-the-making. Letting the music wash over us was to partake in Hamilton‘s version of history; commemorating Zhuge Liang in a temple where a literary overture resides front and center is to blur the line between fiction and history.

You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

Selina Xu Chongqing 磁器口

这个冬天,我最后的足迹遍布了各大古镇:从开平的碉楼到顺德的逢简水乡,从成都的宽窄巷子到锦里武侯祠,从重庆的洪崖洞到磁器口再到民国街。中国的大江南北充满了历史残留的韵味与商业化的喧哗。不经意间,我扑捉到了很多很多梦想篇幅的一小边角:阁楼酒吧和茶馆驻唱的歌手、执着于快要失传手艺的老人,还有能写出《三国演义》的罗贯中。我们如此平庸的活着,怀揣着亦伟大亦渺小的梦想,品味着人生百态——不正是舌尖上的人生吗?

在重庆山城里,我扶着爷爷,闻着火锅的味道,淌着长江的风,看着姑姑录抖音。爷爷给我讲了他在文化大革命时候的故事、1966年来看武侯祠时的光景,还有他在十六岁时独闯哈尔滨的孤独与憧憬。我想到了命运的波折和转机,以及上帝神奇的手。我的爷爷出生于浙江,在哈尔滨谋生,在四川成家。他的孙子如今在东京,而孙女风尘仆仆地终于从新加坡飞到了他的身边叽叽喳喳。

在东莞,我握住了年迈的外婆躺在病床上的手,嘴巴里是咸咸的。小时候,我在公园里骑车,外婆总是追在我的后面跑。她是全世界最善良的人,总是为别人着想,为别人流泪。现在,她想吃一颗巧克力,我却不能给她。在医院里,我想到了疾病与死亡,想到了我的青春意味着长辈的衰老,想到了自己的幼稚与无知。怎么这么快我就已经成为了大人呢?

Chongqing Peijie Hotpot 珮姐老火锅

In 2019…

I turned 21.

In 2019…

I draw a map of cities. I embraced the new year with fireworks in Taiwan, visited startups in Beijing and Shanghai, scaled the insides of a pyramid in Egypt, watched 9 Broadway shows in one New York summer, turned 21 in Los Angeles, crossed the deserts to Vegas, cried over a book in Halong Bay. The final days of the year are spent in a roundabout of cities — the frigid winds by the Yangtze River and the misty fog of Chongqing, laced with the smell of hotpot; in bamboo-shrouded temples and dirt mounds masquerading as kingly mausoleums; by moss-covered bridges and dusty ancestral shrines.

Despite milestones and numbers, 2019 does not strike me like a circle, or a period, or a threshold. I think of the year as a phase, a transition, a map of footprints, another collection of stories to catalog in the library of my life. I think of growth — uncomfortable, alienating, redemptive, then hopeful. I feel the surge of days, the flipping pages of years. I see the new decade open before me, first like a horizon, then like a ravine. The minutes tick like I’m standing at the edge of an unfurling abyss, on the precipice of the untold. My hair rustles in the face of time’s inexorable pull. A quiver, and we free fall into the roaring twenties.

Thank you, 2019, for your blessings, lessons, wonders, adventures, and growth. Thank you, God, for showing me life’s difficult questions and inspiring me with the faith and strength to shoulder them. ❤️❤️❤️

Hello 2020!

Selina Xu Hongyadong 洪崖洞

May 2020 treat you each with love, ❤️

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Happy 54th birthday, Singapore!

Happy happy National Day, all my Singaporean friends! 🎂🇸🇬✨

It’s weird how frequently I’ve thought of you, Singapore, in the day-to-day of my job. Like when the White House published a memo attacking China’s developing country status in the WTO and the first thing my eyes were glued onto in the text (read here) was Singapore. Or when it was LGBTQ Pride Month and we were looking for stills from different countries – Pink Dot’s Repeal 377A eventually made it onto the show, a brief glimpse, just for a second or two. 💗 Or when my boss tells me about his sons studying “Singapore Math,” which seriously cracks me up (it’s actually a thing in the U.S.).

Also, when you’re 54, I’m 21. This means I’m finally choosing between the dual nationalities which I’ve held for most of my life. (I was born in an Auckland hospital and got onto my first plane ride as a month-old tiny baby to Singapore.) But actually, the choice was made long ago. When I think of home, you are the first place that comes to mind. In a few days, I’ll be back on the island and will be officially taking my oath to be Singaporean only — for that, I’m grateful. Somehow, I’ve found you by choice instead of by birth or by heritage, and that makes our ties all the more precious and alive.

I was watching PM Lee’s NDP message on The Straits Times website today at work and he felt almost fatherly. I was enraptured by that familiarity — his inflections, mannerisms, the earnestness of SG politicians (of a technocrat breed), and inklings of the nanny state that really does seek to take care of you (I cannot imagine any U.S. politician genuinely saying, “Each one of us must strive to improve ourselves, do our best, and chase our dreams.”).

And, although you’re not perfect, you’re still mine. Somehow, being elsewhere around the world only makes me think of you — your ingenuity and almost strait-laced wholesomeness, your efficiency and embeddedness in a global nexus, and also your singlets and slippers, hawker centre uncles and aunties, lahs, humid heat, and all that fills my heart with a fierce fondness across the Pacific that can only be called love.

Happy 54th birthday, dear Singapore ❤️

Lots of love,

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The Big 21

On May 31, 2019, I turned 21.

bsh

Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner 

The big 21 is sundrenched in Californian heat, pulsing in road trip vibes, and peppered with desert sand and surrealist tree-like cacti with muscled arms (think: the Whomping Willow in Harry Potter). Outside of the window are lonely gas stations, abandoned houses, and then a humongous pink ice cream rupturing the barren, earthy landscape. Glitzy outlets in deserts. 50’s diners in ghost towns. A candy factory by the highway. Wasteland dotted in green thorns.

The big 21 is 1,500km over three days. Being on the car for hours at an end, with my legs up on the seat in front, light filtering through the windows, my fingers shuffling songs on Spotify, basking in the shadow of mountains. Highways nestled in endless expanses of land. So much land that my dad says, America must be blessed. There’s so much history — historical injustice — and circumstance wrapped up in that statement, but as the land whizzes past, it seems true.

The big 21 is perching on a hot, red rock at Grand Canyon West’s Guano Point, wind ruffling my hair, and sun in my eyes. It’s gazing into the canyon abyss on a glass skywalk. It’s the glory of nature’s hand, so close to mankind’s own feats, but those pale in comparison.

rptnb

The big 21 is returning from that display of nature to the haven of capitalist excess. It’s being surrounded by temptations in the desert oasis that’s Las Vegas. It’s weaving in and out of the glittering sprawl of casinos, amidst the intensely colored slot machines making cute sounds. It’s marveling at the incredible, gravity-defying feats of Cirque du Soleil acrobats at KÀ (which had multiple VERTICAL combat scenes?! and people strewing rose petals as they make an arc over the air). It’s learning the danger of unchecked desires. It’s beginning to make new principles.

rbsh

The big 21 is spending the day at Universal Studios Hollywood (it’s really becoming a tradition! my 20th was at Universal Studios Japan 🥳). It’s licking cotton candy (shaped like Marge’s hair from The Simpsons) off my fingertips, drinking Butterbeer at Hogsmeade, taking my favorite Revenge of The Mummy ride (which I almost know by heart now), seeing the Bates Motel set from Psycho, wearing a bright blue birthday badge and hearing birthday wishes from buoyant voices all day long. It’s feeling like a kid still, and acutely aware and grateful that I’m 21 but always my parents’ baby.  

The big 21 is feeling grateful for all the love and wishes from friends, old and new. Growing up is realizing that some people might only stay with you for a short station in life’s journey but that some people do stay, for a very long time. Time and distance can change things, and somehow I am further apart from friends geographically unlike younger days when we all lived within twenty minutes’ drive. For the friendships that last, I am immensely grateful. For the friends who I’ve met at Harvard, I’m so thankful that college life has been spent by your sides. To everyone who remembered, very blessed to have you in my lives. ❤

The big 21 is about family. Parents who will fly eighteen hours with me across the Pacific to celebrate my birthday. Parents who tolerate my childishness (even when I’m now legally an adult T_T) while treating me like an equal in many matters; who educate me when I make mistakes while always growing and reflecting alongside me; who give me the freedom to fly far away and explore to my heart’s content while opening their arms in wide, warm embrace each time I return to their harbor. 爸比妈咪,我爱您们!💕💕💕

rptnbbsh

The big 21 is realizing God’s hand in guiding my life in the smallest, most moving details. At so many points on the West Coast, I’ve realized His wisdom only in retrospect. Thank you, God, for carrying me on Your shoulders. I hope to keep growing into a better version of myself under Your love and to do You proud.

The big 21 is also about this blog, where I pen these thoughts down. I started this in 2017. Now, this is my 57th post. Over 30,000 of you have visited, and many of you have kept reading. My last wish here is to keep growing alongside more of you, to keep writing, and to tell life’s magic in stories that can stay. Thank you for reading the story of my life. ❤

Wishing you, dear reader, all the love and happiness in the world,

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Selina Xu Birthday Cake