On a recent afternoon at the Shanghai Tianma Circuit race-car track, the 1,000-strong crowd was treated to the sight of one of the competitors — still dressed in his driver's jumpsuit — walking slowly past the officials' stand, one arm held aloft with the middle finger of his hand extended. "My only regret," he later wrote on his blog, "is that I couldn't show both fingers at the same time because I happened to be having a phone conversation."
The driver was 26-year-old Han Han: best-selling novelist, champion amateur race-car driver, wildly popular blogger and, as his self-consciously provocative antics at the track underlined, China's most media-savvy celebrity rebel. Since 2000, when he burst onto China's literary scene at the age of 17 with his first best seller, Triple Gate, Han has shrewdly mined a seam of youthful resentment and anomie through his stories of anguished characters in their late teens and early 20s. One of China's top-earning authors, he is widely seen as a torchbearer for the generation born after the beginning of the country's opening to the outside world, a group the Chinese call the "post-'80s generation": apolitical, money- and status-obsessed children of the country's explosive economic boom. Even China's most notorious anti-Establishment figure, 52-year-old artist and activist Ai Weiwei, called Han "brave, clear-minded, dynamic and humorous" and predicted that he would be the "gravedigger" for the older generation of writers and artists. (See the top 100 novels of all time.)
Han, a high school dropout, has built a franchise by tweaking his elders, once stating, "No matter how rude and immature they are, how unskillfully they write, the future literary world belongs to the post-'80s generation. They must be more arrogant. A writer must be arrogant." Yet despite his youthful bravado, Han, who has published 14 books and anthologies, generally stays away from sensitive issues such as democracy and human rights. His calculated rebelliousness, says Lydia Liu, a professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, exemplifies the unspoken compact his generation has forged with the ruling Communist Party: Leave us alone to have fun and we won't challenge your right to run the country. "He is known for being a sharp critic of the government and the Establishment but he isn't really," says Liu. Instead, she says, Han is a willing participant in a process that channels the disaffected energy of youth into consumerism. "The language in his novels and the narrative strategies are very easy to read," says Liu. "Basically it's all the same book."
In person, Han, the son of an editor of a small Shanghai newspaper, is carefully groomed in an epicene, metrosexual way that is unusual among Chinese males of his age. Affable if slightly wary, he is an old hand at interviews, deftly batting away questions that don't suit him, including most concerning the current state of Chinese literature and his place in it. "It's stupid to try to evaluate one's own works," he says, lacing his answer with frequent expletives. "If you are too humble, people won't take you seriously; and if you think too highly of yourself, it's not good for you either." As for other writers, Han flaps a manicured hand: "I don't do this kind of comparison. And frankly, I don't think your readers will be interested in Chinese literature at all." Nor is he. "I don't read fiction now," he says. "All I read are magazines. I stopped reading books seven to eight years ago. I think I've read enough."
If Han seems flippantly dismissive on the subject of fiction, social and political issues draw a more serious response. Asked whether China will ever have a democratic system of government, Han becomes pensive: "I can accept the fact that there's no real democracy or multiparty system in this country in the foreseeable future. There are more urgent and realistic issues, such as press and cultural freedom. At least those issues are not hopeless. And I prefer doing things that are not hopeless."
Certainly, his fellow Netizens feel that his efforts are by no means hopeless. Han's blog, which has registered well over 200 million hits since it was started in 2006, making him one of the most popular bloggers on the planet, covers everything from the minutiae of the amateur racing world to diatribes about the hot social issue of the day on the Internet. "Neither fame nor wealth have changed his honesty or the sharpness of his criticism," says novelist Zhang Yueran of Han. "To me he's like the little boy in The Emperor's New Clothes, whose provocative attitude doesn't allow people to be self-satisfied."
At a time when China's authorities appear to be continually increasing censorship of the Internet, it's remarkable that Han has not been muzzled. But there apparently are limits even for rebels with no particular cause. Han's latest project is a literary magazine that remains nameless following a rejection by the government of Han's proposed title, Renaissance of Art and Literature. Asked why the title was rejected, he blurts an expletive and launches into a characteristic rant: "Oftentimes [the authorities] are just messed up in the head. No one knows what they are thinking." Least of all Han. "Lots of people ask me how I strike a balance in my writing and not annoy the authorities," he says. "The answer is, I don't know." Perhaps not, but this ignorance is bliss — for it allows Han to remain popular both with China's hundreds of millions of readers and the authorities who would control what they read.
— with reporting by Jessie Jiang / Beijing