Flunking almost all his classes except one (Chinese) and subsequently dropping out of school at 16, Han Han is not exactly a poster-boy for the traditional Chinese value of a scholarly education.
However, that hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of the country’s most influential literary figures – his books have sold millions of copies and he now authors the most popular blog in the world by page views. The China Daily calls him “the voice of a generation”. More recently, he was named one of the world’s most influential people by TIME Magazine.
Han first burst onto China’s literary scene with his debut novel, Triple Gate, a book written when he was only 17. In it, he attacks the country’s education system (surprise, surprise) and especially teachers, whom he sometimes likens to prostitutes. With two million copies in print, Triple Gate is China’s bestselling book of the last 20 years.
But Han was not satisfied to be a mere scribe. In 2003, he entered the pro-circuit in car racing, competing at a number of domestic and international events. Lovelorn groupies were soon hovering trackside as he went from prose to pole-position.
But Han’s popularity has really exploded in the last few years thanks to his online presence. His blog – notorious for attacking the establishment and chastising social injustice – has struck a chord.
With more than 407 million hits on his blog since it was launched in 2006, Han may well now classify as the most read living writer (although JK Rowling may take issue with this).
In a country where media content must pass the censors, how does Han get away with his more outspoken views? Well, sometimes he doesn’t. There have been instances where more controversial commentary would mysteriously disappear a few hours after it was posted.
Nevertheless, his blog in general has – so far – been permitted to survive. Ran Yunfei, a writer and blogger himself, says that Han is partly insulated by his huge fan base. His use of satire and black humour also helps to camouflage the seriousness of some of the topics that he writes about.
“He uses humour and wit to laugh at the injustices he sees,” Ran told the New York Times. “Perhaps the reason he’s tolerated is because he does not name names directly and he doesn’t go after the heart of the problem, which is China’s one-party dictatorship.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ran’s own blog is blocked by the authorities.
Han told the Southern Metropolis Daily that the goal of his blog is not to influence the public at large but merely to express his opinions without censorship.
“I don’t really think too much when I write. I basically write what I want. If they [the censors] don’t like it… they give you a call and tell you to cut this and delete that. But the internet’s reach is so fast and so wide. Even after I have deleted a posting, many people would have already read it,” says Han.
In one recent post about the Shanghai World Expo, Han attacked city officials for using the event to push local home prices higher. He claimed they were planning to sell the land for redevelopment at an inflated price once the Expo is over in October. “At the end of the day, it will be the homebuyers and the housing speculators who will pay the bills for the Expo,” Han lashed out. The post has since been taken down.
Han’s outspoken verve has made him a favourite of the Western media, which sees him as a champion of internet openness and freedom of speech. Han does his part to fulfil the role and agrees that the internet is encouraging more open debate.
“I think the government really regrets the internet,” Han told the New York Times. “Originally, they thought it would be like the newspapers or the television – just another way to get their view out to the people. What they didn’t realise is that people can type and talk back. This is giving them a really big headache.”
Han is not without critics, especially those in the literary crowd who regard him as a bit of a lightweight. In one article, Mai Tian, also a writer, accused Han of not having opinions of his own, and only being successful by telling the laobaixing, or ordinary people, what they want to hear. He added that Han’s many fans are evidence of an “ugly” cultural phenomenon. Jinan Daily ran an accompanying editorial with the headline: “Is Han Han’s success the failure of the nation?”
Say what you want about Han, the criticism has done little to dent his popularity. He grabbed headlines again recently with the release of a new, literature-themed magazine called Party.
Since its launch in early July, it has dominated the top spot on online booksellers like Amazon.cn and Dangdang.com. Tianjin Chinese-World Books, the publisher, has been frantically trying to keep up with demand. “We have been printing additional copies since the first day of the release,” says Liu Qi, spokeswoman for the publisher. “We were confident of the sales, but we did not expect it would be so popular.”
Getting his magazine published wasn’t straightforward. At the beginning of 2009, Han announced the launch of a magazine named (innocuously enough) Renaissance of Art and Literature. The government rejected the proposed title (as Han explained it, the authorities were “messed up in the head”).
He ended up changing the name to Duchangtuan (which means ‘solo band’ in Chinese) but branded it as ‘Party’ in English. Some think it is a clever move aimed at foreign media. Should the magazine be banned, the international press can fall back on headlines like “Party banned by Party”.
When asked about the new magazine’s name at the Hong Kong Book Fair last week, Han, an old-hand at interviews, was deliberately coy. “I don’t know, sorry, my English is very bad,” he said, elegantly dodging the question.
It’s not all going his way. Southern Metropolis Weekly quoted an insider saying 70% of the original content had disappeared from the first issue, though there was hope that some may resurface in the second issue (due out on August 30).
And despite Han’s own popularity, not everyone was a fan of his new offering. Several prominent writers are reported to have signed a petition which calls on readers to boycott Han‘s “pseudo literature”. They say that the mag is filled with weakly written content, says the Global Times.
But when you have a magazine that sells 1,100 copies per minute, you can well afford to ignore the critics…
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