BEIJING — In the winter of 1963, as China recuperated from a horrific famine, a group of college students in Beijing repelled by the bombastic Communist Party agitprop around them decided to get together to do something bold and dangerous: talk about Western literature.
These students were the sons and daughters of prominent Chinese intellectuals and powerful Communist Party leaders, having the type of family ties that granted them access to rare copies of internally translated Western literary works that were deemed poisonous and off-limits to the general public.
The students found something of a spiritual home in those narratives of existential angst, middle-class disillusionment and particularly the rejection of conformist postwar U.S. society. “Some of us hand-copied [J.D. Salinger’s U.S. novel] ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’ to practice calligraphy,” recalled Zhang Langlang, a member of the group, in an essay finally published in November 2013. Another friend, Zhang said, memorized long passages from “On the Road” because “the mental world of its characters was the closest to ours.” Like their literary heroes, the students felt they were languishing in a similarly suffocating society where “there is no sense of self, no love, no individuality,” as Guo Shiying, a member of a similar literary group, lamented. “People do not communicate. Instead, they contradict and torture each other.”
In China’s rapidly changing society, American literature’s resonance has not diminished, but instead has changed with it, finding renewal in each successive generation. Take, for example, “The Catcher in the Rye.” In the 1980s, the novel’s attack on conservative social mores resonated with the liberal and iconoclastic zeitgeist of a newly opened China; in the early 1990s, its cynical and frustrated tone gave expression to the despondency of Chinese youth, who had just seen their democratic ideals crushed by the massacre of student protesters in central Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. The 21st century, which has brought China unprecedented material wealth and social inequality, has granted the book new relevance. Huo Er Deng, or the Chinese incarnation of Holden Caulfield, “The Catcher in the Rye’s” protagonist, speaks a language uncannily similar to that of a stressed student in a competitive Shanghai high school, or a disgruntled migrant worker serving a difficult boss, or a bored scion -- in Chinese slang “rich second generation” -- struggling to lead a meaningful life. Indeed, who would understand “phony” better than a generation weighed down by spiritual discontentment and the pressures of modern life, one whose grievances are still muffled by party control?
Since it embarked on economic reform in 1979, China has published more literature from the United States than from any other foreign country, according to Wang Lixing, an editor at Yilin Press, which focuses on introducing foreign books to China. Among the top 10 best-selling foreign fiction in China in 2012, four -- “The Kite Runner” (No. 3), “The Da Vinci Code” (No. 6), “The Catcher in the Rye” (No. 8), and “The Lost Symbol” (No. 10) -- have been written by U.S. authors.
The once-subversive and potentially life-risking act of reading American novels has become such a popular pastime with China’s literati and general public that some have felt compelled to voice skepticism toward the phenomenon. In a January forum at the Jaipur Literature Festival, an annual event held in the North Indian city of Jaipur, Chinese-British writer Xiaolu Guo questioned the value of U.S. literature, calling it “massively overrated.”
When it comes to serious literature, the United States wields less clout in the Chinese market than does its popular fiction. Highbrow Chinese readers favor foreign authors from other lands, like Japan’s Haruki Murakami, the Czech Republic’s Milan Kundera and Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez. But Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov and William Faulkner, among other U.S. literary giants, have also carved out a Chinese niche. One reason for U.S. literature’s enduring appeal lies in its emphasis on character building and storytelling. American writers “are good at expressing deep human feelings,” said Wang. “Compared to Chinese literature, which tends to present stories as flat pictures, American literature is a big change.”
Its misfits and rebels may grumble, but China’s dizzying transformation attests to the energy and optimism of its dreamers and strivers. Another resonant character -- one whom Caulfield would rightly have called “phony” but who ultimately shares his underlying fear and ennui -- is Jay Gatsby, the title character and protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” whose fantastic tale of exuberant ambition and relentless self-invention could double as the narrative of 21st century China. The novel, which depicts Gatsby’s dubious and ultimately failed pursuit of great wealth and fame in order to impress a lost love named Daisy Buchanan, has always enjoyed high prestige in China’s literary community. It saw its sales grow in the second half of 2013, boosted by the well-received Chinese release of director Baz Luhrmann’s lavishly produced U.S. film.
“There was something gorgeous” about Gatsby, the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway, observed about his friend, who possessed “heightened sensitivity to the promise of life” and “an extraordinary gift for hope.” In modern Chinese eyes, that gift, which Nick and U.S. readers view with ambivalence, becomes an admirable and even redeeming trait of the bootlegger. “I am drawn to Gatsby, in fact, by his artlessness, his naiveté,” read a book review published in the Oct. 16, 2013, edition of China Youth Daily, a state-run newspaper. “Facing a situation spiraling out of control, he still believed that the strength of his will and his resolute persistence were enough.”