On the Road in Chinese History

By Austin Dean

Han Han—author, blogger, high-school drop out, racecar driver, provocateur, and spokesperson for a car-seat manufacturer—recently branched out into movies, directing The Continent. The film follows the story of three young men from an island off the east coast of China as they travel together to take one of their ranks to his new teaching position in the far west of China. Along the way, they meet up with old friends and come across new acquaintances of dubious character; hijinks and reflections on life, love, and friendship, ensue. The film has drawn a good deal of criticism. There have been accusations that Han Han is stealing ideas from others in the film, and commentaries on what he symbolizes in the current Chinese cultural moment. In other words, it was a pretty normal news cycle for anything involving Han Han. Overlooked in these larger debates, however, is a subtler point: that the road trip is now a part of the Chinese as well as the American imagination.

Han Han burst onto the scene with the novel Triple Doors, which was published when he was still a teenager. It pilloried the Chinese education system and expressed youthful angst in a way that led some compare it to Catcher in the Rye. With his diverse range of interests and activities, paired with the sharpness of his social commentary, particularly in his wildly popular and sometimes censored blog posts, Han Han came to be seen as representative of the generation born after 1980. As he said in a speech several years ago, “If you speak Chinese, you know who I am.” That sounds impossibly arrogant. But with long, thoughtful articles featuring titles like “When we talk about Han Han, what are we talking about?” appearing in newspapers, that declaration may be the same sort of mix of accuracy and over-the-top bravado as John Lennon’s infamous claim that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.

One thing that people talk about when they talk about Han Han is plagiarism. In 2012, doubts about the authenticity of some of Han Han’s early essays circulated in the Chinese blogosphere, which slowly built to an extended showdown with the anti-fraud crusader Fang Zhouzi. Fang accused Han Han’s father of authoring a piece. Han Han posed with pictures of the manuscript and threatened to sue Fang.

Han Han’s directorial debut suffered from the same serious charge of plagiarism and the more mundane one that he had simply made a bad movie. When the film hit screens in July, Professor Xiao Ying at Tsinghua University said that Han Han had ripped off Hollywood movies like Thelma & Louise and Easy Rider, and that his “exposure as a fraud will be the biggest scandal of the Chinese literary world.” Other accused him of borrowing too heavily from the opus of Jia Zhangke. Beyond these charges of thievery, one review simply called the film “witty but otherwise empty.”

Making a bad movie is no crime and the accusations of plagiarism ring hollow. Jia Zhangke apparently did not have any qualms with the film: he actually made a cameo appearance. In fact, this is the second time they’ve been involved with the same movie, since Han Han was one of the people whom Jia interviewed on screen for the film he made for the 2010 Shanghai Expo. It hardly sounds like the stuff of creative piracy.

The predictable contours of any story involving Han Han obscure another important theme that The Continent raises: the road trip in Chinese history. Perhaps China’s most famous novel, Journey to the West, is, at its heart, a road trip story. Written in the Ming Dynasty, it is based on the travels of the Tang Dynasty monk Xuanzang as he searched for important Buddhist sutras in India. Xuanzang and his three companions—the Monkey King, Pigsy, and Sandy—find out that the way to enlightenment is filled with a number of obstacles and a lot of humor.

In the early twentieth century, the idea of the open road and the road trip did not get embedded in the Chinese imagination to quite the same extent as it did in the American. Writing in the early 1920s, Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Chinese Republic and a key figure in the Nationalist Party, lamented the “stagnant” nature of China. He meant this literally. Due to a lack of roads suitable for automobiles and a scarcity of cars themselves, the Chinese populace did not circulate as much as it could or should because “all the old great highways have disappeared, and the automobile has not yet been introduced into the interior of the country.” This was unfortunate, Sun thought, because “a man must move whenever and wherever he pleases with ease and rapidity.” He looked forward to a day when there would be arteries throughout China and that cars would be manufactured so cheaply that  “everyone who wishes it, may have one.” Sun even wrote to Henry Ford, hoping that the industrialist would do work in China as he had done in the United States “but on a vaster and more significant scale.” The goal was to get the Chinese people on the road and on the move.

For most of the twentieth century, however, the road trip did not exist in China. In the 1930s, there were about 50,000 cars in the country, and not that many roads suitable for automobile traffic. From the 1950s through the late 1970s, the number of cars slowly increased, but these were all owned and operated by government organs. In the last several years, though, the themes of car ownership, and the liberation of the open road, have entered the Chinese cultural imagination.  As one young car owner said in a Time magazine article, “I find that life on the road can lead me anywhere. It’s endless possibilities.” That quotation would not be out of place in American history at any point in the twentieth century.

As automobiles continue to cover and clog the streets of China, themes of road trips and examinations of life on the road will only play a more prominent part in Chinese film, television, and the lived experience of millions of people. The latest Chinese road trip movie, Breakup Buddies, has just begun showing. And today, on the start of the week-long National Day holiday to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, while some people may go to see that film, many families and groups of friends will begin their own actual rather than virtual travels on the country’s now extensive but often jammed roads. During the extraordinary events in Hong Kong, a number of mainlanders will spend the National holiday in an ordinary way: on the road.

 

 

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