Women Writing About Writing: Cosmopolitanism, Narratology and Biography in Wei Hui's Shanghai Baby and Zhuang Yu's Bu Shi Wo Shou Ni

Women Writing About Writing: Cosmopolitanism, Narratology and Biography in Wei Hui's Shanghai Baby and Zhuang Yu's Bu Shi Wo Shou Ni

1. Introduction
Born seven years apart, Chinese women writers Zhuang Yu and Wei Hui are well-known authors considered representatives of their writing schools in Beijing and Shanghai, respectively. Both grew up in China’s reform era, and thus their experiences differ significantly from those of previous writers (male and female) who came of age during the Cultural Revolution. Wei Hui is a member of the 70s generation, and Zhuang, born at the end of 1979, is alternatively considered a member of the 70s or 80s generation. Zhuang and Wei Hui’s writing are distinct in both style and content, though the similarities between their works are also striking. This paper will examine the semi-autobiographical works Bu Shi Wo Shuo Ni by Zhuang and Shanghai Baby by Wei Hui. While both are first-person narratives by a protagonist writing a novel about her own life, Wei Hui’s novel explores sexuality and drugs to such an extent that it was banned in China. Zhuang’s novel, on the other hand, writes the protagonist’s search for meaning through sharp, humourous dialogue and a narrative that temporally jumps between the present and memories of the past. Why did the two authors choose to write about writing? How did each realize an autodiegetic narrator, who tells us how she wrote her own novel? More problematically, how did the novel novels end up so different, despite structural similarities? In this, I will examine the relationship between the authors’ biographies, and the narrative voice and ‘reader’ each constructs. Also, I will use Hillenbrand’s conception of cosmopolitanism in East Asia to compare how Wei Hui and Zhuang write about culture, consumption, and life in a metropolis.

1.1 Wei Hui and Zhuang Yu: a brief introduction
Zhou Weihui 周卫慧, known by her pen name, Wei Hui, was born in 1973 in Ningbo, Zhejiang (Ross; Gleeson). After high school, Wei Hui underwent a year of military training, compulsory for students at elite universities, then studied Chinese literature at Fudan University in Shanghai, and published her first story at 21 (Ross). After university, Wei Hui worked as a reporter and editor, and published several collections of short stories. She achieved notoriety overseas after her hot-selling novel, Shanghai Baby, was banned. She later moved to New York, and has since published two more full-length novels, Marrying Buddha (我的禅) and Dog Dad (狗爸爸). Wei Hui lives between New York and Shanghai.

Zhuang Yu 庄羽 was born September 23rd, 1979, in Shandong Province, China, and was raised by her grandmother in a rural area (庄羽 “我的……”). Zhuang studied biology and journalism at university in Qingdao, and published her first novel as a university senior (杨晓丹 32). After university, she studied abroad in Toronto, Canada, and also worked as a newspaper editor and reporter until 2006. Zhuang gained notoriety when she successfully sued popular 80s author Guo Jingming for plagiarism in 2003 (32). Zhuang has written eight novels and also written and edited television scripts. She currently lives in Beijing.

1.2 Autodiegetic Narrators and Implied Readers
Different narrative voices can relate the same story in vastly different ways. An author’s “choice of narrative mode...” greatly influences “the receptive stance and esthetic [sic] involvement of the reader” (Morrissette 1). Although the ‘real’ author, the implied author, and the narrator are different, readers tend to equate the author and narrator unless the test suggests otherwise (Lanser qtd. in Aczel 474). In Zhuang Yu and Wei Hui’s novels, both authors use an autodiegetic narrator—a narrator who is also the protagonist—to deliver the story. Thus, readers naturally consider the narrator’s voice to be that of the implied author. In both cases we will consider, the authors add a degree of reflexivity to the narrative, as the narrator’s character is writing a novel as the story progresses, and suggests that the text we read is the novel she is writing. Readers have a tendency to connect or conflate implied authorial voice with the real author (Lanser qtd. in Aczel 474), the extra-fictional person who might divide the book into chapters or write an introduction (Aczel 475-77). Particularly for Wei Hui, the semi-autobiographical elements of her novel raised questions among readers as to the relationship of the narrator and the plot to her biography. Autobiographical elements complicate the relationship between the narrator, text and real author in both books.

Besides discussing biography, we will also examine the implied author’s relationship with the implied reader. The writer constructs an imagined audience, and a “reader has to play the role in which the author has cast him, which seldom coincides with his role in real life” (Ong 12). While in some novels the narratee is another character, in Shanghai Baby and Bu Shi Wo Shuo Ni, the authors place fewer limits on the identity of the reader. While the reader cannot know for sure what the relationship between narrator and actual author is, but “one can know whether or not the narrative ‘you’ resembles oneself, and the way one experiences the fiction is affected by how personally one can take its addresses to ‘you’” (Warhol 812). We will examine how, and to what extent, the authors create an engaging narrative, as opposed to a distancing one.

1.3 East Asian Cosmopolitanism
Given the parallels in narrative structure, setting in Chinese metropolises, and the protagonist’s role as writer between Bu Shi Wo Shuo Ni and Shanghai Baby, how do they differ? In her discussion of appropriation and misappropriation of the ‘Murakami mood’ in Greater China, Margaret Hillenbrand examines the cosmopolitan themes of Shanghai Baby and two related novels. While cosmopolitanism “resists tidy definition,” it involves transnational connections to “political, economic, or intellectual networks” outside the bounds of community or nation-state (Hillenbrand 717). In East Asian popular culture, it represents a dreamworld that “is urban and middle class, inhabited by beautiful young people who work in white-collar professions and who are comfortably estranged from the demands of family and tradition” (716). Cultural citizenship in this urban, young, affluent class involves intelligent consumption as part of “a slick, metropolitan lifestyle” (724). In an interesting parallel, Haruki Murakami’s own fiction uses an I-narrator, and this “has encouraged a certain slippage of identification between the writer and his creation” like in Wei Hui’s work. In Shanghai Baby’s adaptation of Murakami’s cosmopolitan mood, there is “something noticeably ornamental about the Western cultural codewords [therein] …the West and its culture are largely décor for a fictional construction ... to house preeminently local realities” (732). The mood is also manifest as “a peculiar joie de vivre … the adolescent desire to make the world anew” (734). In my analysis, I will explore how Wei Hui writes cosmopolitanism, and how Zhuang Yu’s Bu Shi Wo Shuo Ni, while also describing the lives of young professionals in a metropolis, differs.

2. Shanghai Baby and Bu Shi Wo Shuo Ni: Analysis
Wei Hui’s novel Shanghai Baby is about a young Shanghainese writer named Coco (or Nikki), who is embroiled in a love triangle between her impotent Chinese boyfriend and a very potent German expatriate, with whom she has a passionate affair. Coco writes her novel day by day, and at night her “life is dedicated to the pursuit of sensation” (Cowley). By the end of the novel, her depressed, drug-addicted boyfriend has died, and her German lover has been reassigned to the home office. While the novel is concerned with questions of identity, it is also framed in Western popular culture; one author described the novel’s “…brand names, recreational drugs and slick-style obsessions” as “Bridget Jones[’s Diary] with blow jobs” (Cowley). Due to the book’s explicit sexuality, it was banned and burned in China (Cowley; Gleeson).

Zhuang Yu’s Bu Shi Wo Shuo Ni centres on Zhang Yuan, a young writer living in Beijing who has just fallen out of a ten-year relationship with her university sweetheart, and eventually marries a wealthy friend instead. Zhuang follows the lives of Zhang and her circle of friends from university, and “…uses a self-effacing, humourous tone to describe a group of metropolitan youth lost and perplexed on the road of life” (庄羽 不是我说你 Cover). Though Zhuang’s characters use obscene language and drink heavily, there is none of Shanghai Baby’s explicit sexuality in her novel.

2.1 Autodiegetic Narrators and Reflexivity: Coco and Zhang Yuan
Throughout Shanghai Baby, narrator Coco is working on writing her novel. On the first page, she introduces herself to readers and says she has already “published a collection of short stories” (Wei Hui 1) and soon moves in with boyfriend Tian Tian and quits her job to write full time (23-4). Her family (19) and friends (11) know she is an aspiring writer, and she often shares passages of her manuscript with Tian Tian. The reflexivity of narrator-as-writer becomes problematic when Coco passes “a stack of manuscript paper” around to her friends at a party and includes an excerpt, which is almost identical to an earlier passage in Shanghai Baby (14-15; 40-1). This suggests that readers consider the text of Shanghai Baby as the end result of the novel Coco is writing throughout. The line “[l]ike me, my heroine …is ambitious, has two men, and lives on an emotional roller coaster” suggests Coco is writing a novel similar to her story, but not identical to it (93). In the final chapters of the novel, the Coco says “My novel is coming to an end now” (254) and describes her doing final edits to her manuscript (261). Paradoxically, she also says she can’t “take any further responsibility for the characters and story created by my imagination. Now that they’ve been put down on paper, it’s time for them to live and die on their own” (254). As readers, we cannot be sure if what we are reading is the same story Coco talks about writing.

Zhuang Yu’s Zhang Yuan is likewise a professional writer. Early in the novel she mentions getting takeout to eat while writing (3). Zhang Yuan’s friends ask about her recent progress and writer Tang Hui (whom she later marries) offers her writing contracts through his contacts (30-1). After her breakup with long-time boyfriend Liang Xiaozhou, the narrator tells readers she needs to earn more money, and “there’s only one way, and that’s to write a lot, and turn every word into renminbi [Chinese currency]” (87). Like in Shanghai Baby, it is unclear whether Bu Shi Wo Shuo Ni should be taken as the narrator’s writing. The narrator frames the work as “telling a story,” and even apologizes once after a long aside to readers (88). Zhang says she wants to write “a book about my university life and the changes after graduation,” and the people she met in university, called These Years Without You (138). Later in the novel, she says she has “already written half of the work These Years Without You” (193). Like the manuscript excerpt in Shanghai Baby, there is one direct link between the protagonist’s writing and the novel: Tang Hui advises Zhang that “the narrative formula now popular is: ‘In autumn of such-and-such a year, in such and such a place, so-and-so was in such a way’” and the following paragraph begins, “In autumn of 1992 on campus, Liang Xiaozhou was happy as a fish in water…” (25). At the end of the novel, Zhang Yuan tells readers that “this story is over,” using both the verb ‘to write’ and ‘to tell’ (248). The text ends with the marker “end of text” and a date and location stamp (249). Zhang’s reflexive desire to write a novel about her friends and their experiences in the ten years since they met at university, along with the formatting of the brief, final chapter, implies that reading Bu Shi Wo Shuo Ni is reading ‘These Years Without You,’ though the pieces differ in title.

2.1.1 Narrative Engagement and Addressing Implied Readers
As we will discuss in the next section in greater detail, a reader can never know to what extent the implied author’s voice correlates to that of a book’s extra-fictional author. He can, however, effectively assess whether he identifies with the implied reader or narratee without a suspension of disbelief (Warhol 812). Thus, a narrative which places numerous restrictions on the identity of the implied reader is said to be distancing. Narratives which place few restrictions on the reader, like Shanghai Baby and Bu Shi Wo Shuo Ni, are called engaging. The two novels actually differ significantly in the extent to which the narrator addresses the implied reader directly, and how explicitly the author constructs her ‘audience’ of imagined readers.

Both Wei Hui and Zhuang Yu’s novels open with an introduction in media res to the protagonist’s life. Wei Hui introduces herself to readers, but never directly uses the second person (Wei Hui 1). The narratee is almost completely unspecified throughout; occasionally a specified ‘you’ is implied. In descriptions of a scene or hypothetical situations, the narrator sometimes even refers to a “you” who would take a third bite out of a “hash [pot] brownie” (37). Indeed, Wei Hui’s narrator usually keeps the reader engaged by not over-specifying her implied audience. Zhuang’s narrator acknowledges the potential difference among her implied readers, and spends a significant portion of the novel in conversation with readers, to whom she refers in singular and plural second person, and as ‘readers.’ In the first chapter, Zhang begins a monologue, but quickly draws the reader in with the rhetorical exhortation, “Look,” which in Chinese specifically addresses ‘you’ (庄羽 1, 3). Soon, she acknowledges her audience, “my reader(s),” and stresses the non-specificity of the implied reader by offering “of course, you can call me as you like: female, girl, young lady, woman…” (4). Zhang again talks to readers at the beginning of Chapter 3, saying, “I trust that as readers, you completely agree with me on this point” (87). Like Wei Hui, Zhang also brings ‘you’ into a hypothetical situation, telling “my male readers” what to do “if a woman says ‘I don’t know’ to you” (143). She also places herself temporally with her readers saying, “my readers, I’m looking forward to seeing how things turn out, just like you” (146). Again at the opening of Chapter 4, Zhang directly addresses her readers, and refuses to specify an implied reader; “no matter what your psychological evaluation of me is … I’m just like you thought” (159). In the short, final chapter of Bu Shi Wo Shuo Ni, the narrator finally specifies the implied reader: she claims to know that ‘you’ has certain questions about the fate of various characters, as readers see themselves reflected in her friends (248). Zhang encourages readers to live their own lives, though everyone will “get to the same place by different roads” (249). Zhuang Yu’s careful refusal to distance the implied reader from the narrative goes further than Wei Hui’s efforts, and the protracted, direct engagement with the narratee contrasts with Wei Hui’s more removed interactions.

2.2 Writing from Experience: Wei Hui, Zhuang Yu, and Biography
Readers have a tendency to conflate implied authorial voice with the real author, and sometimes even identify character with author. Both Shanghai Baby and Bu Shi Wo Shuo Ni have been described as “semi-autobiographical” (Ross; “庄羽最新力作《不是我说你》”). To what extent does the experience of the protagonists in the novels correlate with that of the authors? This section examines similarities and differences.

In the Postscript to Shanghai Baby, Wei Hui says that, though she tried to conceal her own presence in the novel, she found it difficult, and it is still semi-autobiographical (周卫慧 ch. 33). The narrative voice, whom we assume is Coco, writes that she too “didn’t know how to disguise myself effectively to my readers” (Wei Hui 92). In interviews, Wei Hui said that “only about 35% of the book is really me,” and protagonist Coco’s “…spirit is 100% me, we’re like twin sisters” (Gleeson). One interviewer claims that “all of the main characters are based on real people. Tian Tian is based on a former boyfriend who also suffered from impotence … Mark, the German lover, is back in Germany and Wei Hui has not spoken to him about the book” (Ross). Indeed, Wei Hui mentions talking to her German former partner on the phone in the Postscript to Shanghai Baby (周卫慧 ch. 33).

Wei Hui is a graduate of the Chinese department at Shanghai’s Fudan University (Ross), and Coco also studied “Chinese at Fudan” (Wei Hui 3). In Shanghai Baby, Coco visits and describes numerous real locations, such as YY’s, the Cotton Club (10), and the campuses of ECNU and Fudan (32-3); she even visits the Busy Bee Bar 忙蜂酒吧 in Beijing. These details add to the novel’s realism and make it easy to envision Coco, or the extra-fictional author, living the events of the plot. This is particularly true when she uses specific locations, rather than a non-specific location like “Tian Tian’s place, a big three-bedroom apartment on the western outskirts of the city” (3).

In Bu Shi Wo Shuo Ni, Zhang Yuan attended Yanshan University, in Qinhuangdao, Hebei Province. The character Zhang started university in 1992, ten years before the main events of the novel (庄羽 不是我说你 9). Qinhuangdao is also mentioned once in Quan Li Quan Wai圈里圈外 , the novel immediately preceding Bu Shi Wo Shuo Ni (庄羽 圈里圈外). Author Zhuang Yu, however, was born in 1979 and was not of university age in 1992; furthermore, as far as we know she studied biology in Qingdao, Shandong, on the Yellow Sea side of the Shandong Peninsula (杨晓丹 32). Though it is irrelevant to the story, Zhang Yuan is also a biology major (庄羽 不是我说你 26). Clearly, Zhuang is modelling the protagonist on herself, and writes the setting based on her experiences in a similar seaside university. In Bu Shi Wo Shuo Ni, the characters visit many real locations around Chaoyang District in Beijing, from Sanlitun and branches of Yonghe King 永和大王 and McDonald’s to the Jiemofang 芥末坊 bar. The one entirely fictitious location is Tang Hui’s restaurant, Chaohaixuan 朝海轩, which Zhang comes to own.

Zhuang Yu and Wei Hui both claim a special relationship with their protagonists. To each author, the protagonist of the novel is based on her, but represents who she would like to be, rather than who she is. Zhuang Yu says that “actually I’m pretty introverted and not great with words. I wish I were more open and quick-witted, but in reality I’m not. So, in my works I depict the kind of person I want to become” (杨晓丹 33). Wei Hui says that “when I look at my main character Coco, I think she has more guts than me” (Gleeson). Thus, the authors intend their work as fiction, but with their real experiences as a point of departure.

Both authors include one element that uniquely ties their novel to their extra-fictional biographies. While other similarities between the authors’ lives and those of their protagonists could apply to anyone, these two instances blur the line between narrative voice and the author in particular. In Shanghai Baby, Coco says she recently published a collection of short stories (1). We learn that the collection is Shriek of the Butterfly, the same title as Wei Hui’s first collection of short stories (Wei Hui 182). In Zhuang Yu’s case, the narrator—whom we identify as protagonist Zhang Yuan—does not refer to the real names of Zhuang’s works (though the phrase 圈里圈外, alluding to Quan Li Quan Wai, comes up in the text). Rather, the narrator refers to a line from a previous work, saying “I even said, right in my last novel, something like: ‘In this day and age, other than a dog, who’s loyal to man?” (37). This quote is almost identical to a line in Quan Li Quan Wai, which was published in 2003 while Zhuang was writing Bu Shi Wo Shuo Ni. The line between narrator, protagonist and author is thin in both novels. Except for the two examples above, it is well maintained, with personal experience a departure point for fiction. In general, Zhuang distances her novel from her biography slightly further, though her choice of the protagonist’s name signifies the connection.

2.3 Cosmopolitanism: a tale of two cities?
Hillenbrand identified numerous markers of the cosmopolitan in Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby (731). Western culture is simultaneously inspiration and decoration for Coco (732), whose idols are Coco Chanel and Henry Miller (Wei Hui 1). Wei Hui’s protagonist enjoys the ‘young, urban, affluent’ lifestyle we discussed earlier, and consumes both culture and material goods to act the part: when Coco begins writing, she must be properly equipped with Suntory soda, fruit salad dressed with Mother’s Choice, Dove chocolate bars, and piles of Mild Seven cigarettes (24). Wei Hui prefaces every chapter with quotes from Western celebrities, musicians, writers and poets. When Tian Tian leaves for Hainan, he packs his bags with markers of cosmopolitan consumption, cultural and material: “Ted Lapidus cigarettes … Gillette razors … a Discman, Dylan Thomas’s selected poems, Salvador Dali’s diary, [and] a filmography of Alfred Hitchcock” (88). Indeed, these material and cultural elements seem essential for creating what Hillenbrand calls the ‘Murakami mood’ in Shanghai Baby.

The “joie de vivre that revels in youth for youth’s sake” and “adolescent desire to make the world anew” are also part of the cosmopolitan mood in its Wei Hui incarnation (Hillenbrand 734). Coco’s self-introduction in Shanghai Baby buzzes with youthful ambition. She says, “Every morning when I open my eyes I wonder what I can do to make myself famous. It’s become my ambition, almost my raison d’être, to burst upon the city like fireworks” (Wei Hui 1). Money never seems to be an issue for Coco and her friends—few of whom, save Mark, work career-oriented jobs—who instead pursue the pleasures of drugs, sex, and foreign culture. Indeed, Shanghai Baby glorifies what Wei Hui and Hillenbrand call linglei (alternative), a bohemian lifestyle, as the main pursuit of many characters. The mood of Wei Hui’s novel “has a lot to do with the fact that [Coco lives] in Shanghai” (1). It is a metropolis, like Beijing, but one where “China and the West met intimately and evolved together” (25).

Zhuang Yu’s writing is also about affluent, professional youth in the metropolis, but it certainly does not reflect the same East Asian cosmopolitan mood. While this difference may be explained in part by the Beijing setting, Hillenbrand identifies Beijing-raised Chun Sue 春树, who published Beijing Doll 北京娃娃 in 2002, as another example of China’s linglei cosmopolitanism (Hillenbrand 718). I will propose a hypothesis as to why cosmopolitanism is absent from Zhuang’s writing, but first, let us examine the how.

Zhang Yuan and her friends are fairly affluent, professional, urban youth; however, their attitude towards culture, consumption, and life differs greatly from the ‘Murakami mood’ of East Asian cosmopolitanism as adapted by Wei Hui and others. Several of protagonist Zhang’s friends have some connection abroad: Liang Xiaozhou is a commercial pilot on international routes, one of Zhang’s dorm-mates emigrated to the United States, and Liangzai and Mosquito flee to France when Liangzai’s fraudulent business is investigated (庄羽 不是我说你243-5). The group is also professional, with a pilot, doctors, writers, business- and military men among them. Even before marrying Tang Hui, Zhang Yuan is upper-middle class. When she breaks up with Liang Xiaozhou and addresses readers about her needs for money, she says she has “enough that I could do nothing, and stay at home for five or six years,” but “Look, I still have a dozen years yet to pay on my mortgage. Every month I have a few thousand bucks living expenses. Before Liang Xiaozhou left, I was getting ready to buy a car…” (87). Zhang is affluent, and well beyond the means of ordinary Chinese, though still far from China’s super-rich.

Unlike Wei Hui’s Coco, Zhang Yuan earns her keep by writing commercial novels and television scripts, not just working on “a novel that would take the literary world by storm” (Wei Hui 6). She manages to spend thousands of yuan each month by enjoying a metropolitan lifestyle and eating out at “Guijie [a food street in Dongzhimen], Kenny Rogers Roasters, and Little Wangfu. I also like Pizza Hut’s pizza” (庄羽 不是我说你87). Although Kenny Rogers was originally an American chain, it now operates primarily out of the Philippines. Guijie and Little Wangfu serve Chinese food. Zhang Yuan seldom eats Pizza Hut because “Liang Xiaozhou always says it’s full of vulgar xenophiles, and he firmly opposes taking our business there” (87). Indeed, Zhang seems to care little for all things Western and cultured consumption in general. The novel opens with her “wearing a black sweater that, since I bought it, had never seen the inside of a washing machine. I sat on a dirty deck chair outside the apartment, smoking, as if I had just arrived in the city” (1). Perhaps symbolically, Zhang switches from Mild Sevens (the Japanese cigarettes Coco smokes) to domestic Zhongnanhai cigarettes at the beginning of Bu Shi Wo Shuo Ni (1-2). Later in the novel, she berates Liangzai—who, along with another friend, defrauded other businesses of one hundred million yuan, and is now fabulously wealthy—for buying a Rolls Royce and a Rolex watch when he probably doesn’t know how to write ‘Rolex’ in English (159).

3. Discussion
Zhuang Yu and Wei Hui have written novels about a young woman writer living in the big city, writing about her own life. Though the authors have taken pains to create a protagonist separate from themselves, numerous biographical elements colour both novels. The autodiegetic narrator encourages readers, with the help of bibliographic clues, to blur the lines between the implied authors (Zhang Yuan and Coco) and the real, extra-fictional Zhuang Yu and Wei Hui. While both authors avoid distancing the narratee, Zhuang Yu directly addresses the implied readers numerous times, and carefully under-specifies to engage as many real readers as possible.

From a narratological perspective, Zhuang and Wei Hui are fairly similar. Zhuang does not, however, write an East Asian cosmopolitan mood, as Wei Hui does. Zhuang’s difference is not entirely due to age; Chun Sue, four years her junior, wrote cosmopolitanism in Wei Hui and Mian Mian’s footsteps. Nor is the difference entirely the product of city, for while Beijing is less westernized than Shanghai, Beijing Doll was published before Zhuang wrote Bu Shi Wo Shuo Ni. After the government banned three violent, sexually explicit linglei novels in a row, authors and publishers would be foolish to produce any more. I suspect, however, that Zhuang Yu had no inclination to write another Shanghai Baby or Beijing Doll. Zhuang, like the other authors, wrote from experience, incorporating biography into her novel. Since she grew up in rural Shandong and attended university in Qingdao, Zhuang was not exposed to as much foreign culture. Nor did she have (or likely have the affluent family to support) a wild, rebellious youth. Thus, Zhuang Yu’s novel fits into a larger trend of semi-autobiographical writing among late twentieth-century Chinese women writers. Since she does not have the rare, privileged background necessary for a cosmopolitan, bohemian, alternative lifestyle, Hillenbrand’s ‘Murakami mood’ is absent from her work.

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