Huang Fan

 

 

(China)

 

 

 

The Eleventh Commandment, a novel, Chapters 10-16.

 

 

The Third Biennial Houtian Magazine Prize for Culture and the Arts 2009-2010: Novel

Jurys Remarks

The poet Huang Fan has now emerged to the reading public in the guise of a novelist. We find the author operating as an observer, daringly executing a sardonic narrative of the times. Incisive and vivid, he situates the depravity, moral absence, feebleness and antics of the Chinese pseudo-intellectual in the context of the existential crisis and the loss of faith occurring during a transitional period for economic and cultural ethics. In a way, the novel The Eleventh Commandment is a history of the mutations of the Chinese intellectual’s body and soul according to the circumstances of the era.

Prize-Winning Work: The Eleventh Commandment (2009, novel, Jilin Publishing Group reissue).

 

Translated by Josh Stenberg

 

 

 

 

Selected Translations from The Eleventh Commandment

 

 

10

 

The year Jiang Xia graduated from college, things did not go very smoothly for him. He had a position on staff all lined up, but it was snatched away from him by Ma Li, his toadying classmate. Ma Li had smooth moves: as soon as he realised that there was no way of distinguishing himself academically, he hatched a scheme. Ma Li racked his brains trying to guess what the head professor for the graduating class needed most. That professor was a thirty-nine-year-old man with a look of perpetual misery, and whose listlessness was aggravated by a wife at home with Parkinson’s disease. Every night, he lay glumly on his cotton pillow, while the forms of female students danced in his head. The girls were like fruit trees, and he was like the gardener, wandering sad and lonely between them while they paid him no mind. Ma Li was a risk-taker in any case, but in this instance he had really gone for broke. He had gone to the dodgier part of town, finally bringing back a rather inexperienced hooker. He told her not to moan too loudly while making love at least this first time, and that she should come in the guise of the innocent schoolgirl being seduced. He said he was willing to pay a little extra for the playacting. Her face still had traces of innocence about it, so that when he brought her back to campus no one doubted that she was indeed his cousin, come to enjoy the last few days of vacation.

After meeting the girl, the head professor could barely see straight. She was so different from his female students, her whole body exuding a whiff of purity, mingled with a hint of wildness. The professor became fidgety. When speaking, he couldn’t stop his hands—placed underneath the tablecloth—from trembling. Ma Li took them out to dinner, then to the bowling alley, and at 11 o’clock at night, to a dance hall lit with red lanterns. Then he produced an excuse for leaving them together. Before departing, he fished out a large tinkling keychain, removed one key and put it in the hand of his “cousin,” asking the professor at the same time please to take her back to the apartment he had rented for her just off-campus. The professor did not question Ma Li’s story of having to go help out at a friend’s advertising company. It never occurred to him that in reality Ma Li loitered the whole time in a deserted alley behind the apartment block. He retreated a few paces behind the trees, then hid himself among the flowering cypresses. The sightlines and his vision were both very good, and he could clearly make out when the professor went in, and when he came out again. He was like a general at the battlefield, filled with excitement and apprehension. That night, the professor did indeed sleep with Ma Li’s “cousin.” When Ma Li raced into the apartment, he saw the disordered bedsheets, covered with all sorts of hair. He repressed the urge to puke, tore off the sheets and threw them in the garbage. The following day, he saw the professor’s radiant countenance. He looked to be in very good spirits, and when Ma Li told the professor that his cousin had cut her trip short, the professor had answered, “Ah?” and gaped. Of course he knew that if he wanted to hook the professor, he needed some bait.

“But she said she really liked it here, and that she would come back whenever she was free.”

If he had waited until the coming year to force the professor to act, the positions would already have been assigned, and by then it would all be too late, no matter how much the professor might regret it. Ma Li knew the hook and the bait would tantalise the professor, would cause him to overlook Ma Li’s faults as a scholar, and would make him act with careful consideration when it came to the allotment of staff positions.

The victim of Ma Li’s scheme was Jiang Xia, since his academic record was recognised by teachers and fellow students as preeminent among his classmates. When he learned that he was not on the list of graduating students held over as staff, his eyes glazed over. No towering rage had followed, he had just wanted to cry, and when he couldn’t hold it back in front of his classmates any longer, he had burst out into loud blubbering for the first time. Still, he realised very quickly that crying would do nothing to help him. Even those who held him in high regard would think that his tears indicated weakness, resignation and submission. In his entire undergraduate period, he had never caused any awkwardness, never publicly exposed anyone’s ridiculous comment. But during this dejected silence, reading the untrustworthy name which had replaced him, his heart filled with unprecedented wrath. He put on a checked 100% cotton dress shirt and polished his shoes for the first time in several months, until they shone with splendor. He realised with gratification that he wasn’t just taking ordinary action, he was proving that if he applied his intelligence to the cause of evil, he would not go down in defeat to this stooge.

For four whole years, it had been his place to accept the admonishing words of the department leaders, but now it was his turn to ask them some questions. The department chair’s little fiefdom had a very solemn air, suffused with righteousness, as though the chair’s role was to serve all of humanity. It consisted of a room of moderate size, with two glossy red-lacquered wooden chairs, and a pale yellow sofa, all of which smelled a little of mildew and should have been thrown out some time before. Red-faced, thick-necked graduating students loitered the whole time in the room, the turmoil surrounding work allotment turning everyone a bit scruffy and green around the gills. Jiang Xia’s air of careful self-presentation and attire made him stand out. He patiently waited for some time, then discovered that this was pointless since several people simply squeezed past him to speak a couple of futile words to the chairman. These people had all gone a little crazy, since, just like Jiang Xia, they had been alotted work in various mountain districts or factories. Untiring and blinded by illusion, they surrounded the chairman, trying to snatch life from the jaws of death. In the face of all these pleading faces, the chairman would do anything rather than give any explanation. He just waited out the end of the working day, then with an expression of suffering in face of the clamour and noise, he rose. In the roiling mass, Jiang Xia found himself thrust directly in front of the chairman. He had all this time been preparing in all sorts of way for this moment, but he discovered that unlike the others he was unable to bring forth those grovelling words of sweetness and flattery. Instead, like a policeman who has caught a thief, he suddenly shouted, “Do you know what’s happened to me?”

“What happened to you?” There was a moment of silence in the room. The chairman, his path obstructed, was a little flustered. The more people there were, the less easily the chairman could speak the truth.

“I don’t know what the deal is with you. The head professor made all those arrangements himself.”

“But shouldn’t you make sure that it’s all fairly done?”

“I don’t know anything about any particular situations, so I’d better not say too much.” With great effort, the chairman forced his way out of the crowd, jumped on an unlocked bike outside the door, and sped from the scene like a bicycle thief. As he made his escape, he thought with sincere regret: if I had known doing nothing would bring me so much trouble, then I might as well have gone ahead and done something wrong. Stunned, Jiang Xia stood at the door for a moment, and then suddenly realised those careless words gave him the chance to put his scheme into action.

 

 

 

11

 

Towards evening, he went to Professor Qi’s home. This was the first time he had visited Professor Qi’s home on an unpleasant occasion. Mrs. Qi was so pleased to see him that she nearly folded him into her arms. Her smile was like a spring breeze, and took him so eagerly by the hand that he almost lost his balance. To the right of the dining table, there was an empty chair, and he understood that short of feigning pneumonia, there was no way he could refuse dinner. Mrs. Qi beamed at him, her hand dangling carelessly from his neck like a strand of hair he had let grow too long. He saw that Professor Qi was a little bit tipsy, his face aglow, with a glass of red wine in front of him on the table. “Come here, come here.” With wine-dimmed eyes, Prof. Qi raised his glass, but stopped to interrupt himself, “Oh, sorry!” Prof. Qi put down his glass, only now realising that he hadn’t yet filled Jiang Xia’s glass. The professor looked so ridiculous that Mrs. Qi began to giggle. In excitement, she brought her mouth up to Jiang Xia’s ear, and murmured something. It turned out that one of the professor’s projects had been granted a national prize, Second Class, and he had gone out to share his joy with everyone, not excluding prostitutes. Through the windowpane, Jiang Xia saw that the arrangement of the earthenware flowerpots looked very unusual, and he couldn’t stop himself from rising to check it out. The professor had arranged all the pots to form the character for “celebration.” The professor seemed to grow ever more contented, glugging his wine, disbursing his happy news. The atmosphere of celebration was contagious, and Jiang Xia suppressed his gloom, deciding not to mention his own misfortune.

He ate something hastily. The squid smelled delicious, but in his mouth it was as bland as rice. Mrs. Qi got up to play a Teresa Teng tape. Without a drink, his throat itched mercilessly, like it was covered in mosquito bites. Teresa Teng’s voice filled his mind with illusions. It was like Mrs. Qi had become his adored Teresa Teng, her shoulders bare beneath the crystal chandelier. She was only ten years older than he was himself, but either her status as professor’s wife made her seem more mature, or else it was because she had no children of her own; in any event she liked to draw him to her side, like he was a child. She was tall and shapely, her skin white and without blemish. For Jiang Xia, it was an amazing feeling just to be close to her, to breathe the same air. He had observed that no matter what she was dressed in or what the situation was, she always went out of her way to show off her charms. Pink high-waisted tights and a stretch fit tanktop were her home outfit this season. When dinner was done, she promenaded back and forth in front of the table, making the two of them laugh, showing her white thighs and her abundant cleavage, treating Jiang Xia as an intimate guest. Prof. Qi was used to her provocative behaviour, and no longer regarded it as exceptional. He showed all the emotion of a doornail.

Prof. Qi was remembering the year of their wedding, when he had just turned forty, the age at which, according to the Analects, a man left off being confused. At that time, people still acted with rigid propriety, and you hardly ever saw a woman of any charms. For him, her charms had been part of the lifelong homage he was willing to pay to her wisdom. Marrying her had filled him with wild joy. He had cudgelled his brains, and with great difficulty come up with a pet name for her, which, bearing an expression of great strain, he had come out with: “My little…Little Italian,” and when he had wanted quite seriously to explain it, her eyelids had fluttered open and she had coyly answered, “My old spongy-sponge.” Over time, her voice had gradually risen, and at home had eventually achieved a pitch of authority to which the professor had no powers of resistance. Whenever she wantonly opened her legs, teasing and mocking him with the words, “In you get, then! In you get,” he would stand before the bed, feeling flustered and anxious.

Jiang Xia’s throat was still feeling uncomfortably itchy, and so he had another sip of red wine. He realised that he couldn’t stick around like this. With Mrs. Qi at his side, his sensory apparatus went haywire. The most frightening thing was how the department chairman’s rigid face, that face which held everyone else captive, was being gradually replaced by Mrs. Qi’s caring expression. The next thing might be that he would resign himself to his new reality. Mrs. Qi was having a marvellous time, but Jiang Xia stubbornly insisted that he had to go. She was dead set against it. Trying to explain himself, he again made a faux pas, which flustered him even more. Mrs. Qi had asked him if maybe he had fallen for a girl? Instantly and truthfully, he had shaken his head. Mrs. Qi could then only sigh, and regretfully see him to the door. Just as she entered the courtyard, he turned back again, like he had forgotten some negligible matter. He asked her for the department chair’s address. Mrs. Qi turned her head and raised her voice to pass the inquiry onto the professor, still inside. A moment later, the professor’s voice, wobbly and delayed by drunkenness, soared out of the room, each word interrupted by a pause.

 

 

 

12

 

Jiang Xia knew very well that bribery amounted to the negotiation of a price tag. That wasn’t his strong point—it wasn’t his practice to package injustice into candy wrappers. In just a few days, his knowledge of the world had grown considerably, as he heard accounts of how a number of students had gotten good positions by bribing their way in. One student had switched the head professor’s old bike for a new one. One of them had presented the wife of the head professor with a Thai necklace and earrings—Jiang Xia really admired this tactic—how had they managed to put the jewelry on her?—In desperation, there was even a girl who had snuck into the office by night, wearing the most obstinate of expressions, and let the head professor fondle her firm breasts. Jiang Xia regretted that all this information had come too late, now that all sorts of fresh buds already lay crushed in the head professor’s hands. He felt frustrated about his ignorance, and it was these frustrations that made it difficult for him to go see the department chair with an attitude of respectful bribery.

He had a look around below the chairman’s apartment block, feeling as though the night was weighing heavily on his chest. He feared that he had once again lost his courage, that he was held back at the head professor’s door by confusion, by silence. “What should I do?” “What should I do?” he asked himself in fatigue, the way a fly asks the man with the fly-swatter. His mind was cluttered with all kinds of contradictory impulses, with each impulse leading to a diametrically opposed version of the future. All over the building, there was the sound of showering, and on the bathroom curtains the shadow of a naked woman appeared. She was washing down her curvaceous figure with both hands, behind a curtain so wet that it functioned like darkened glass, indistinctly displaying some of the body’s details.

Filled with trepidation, he rang the doorbell, forcing himself to give it three buzzes. The door opened with hesitation, and when the chairman saw him standing outside, he started a little and said, reluctantly,“Oh? So it’s you.” The chairman calmed down at once and let him into the apartment cordially but with little enthusiasm. It was obvious that the chairman lived pretty well, for the room was comfortably furnished. Next to the lacquered tea tray on the coffee table stood a box of melatonin pills—it seemed like the chairman hadn’t been sleeping well recently, and there certainly hadn’t been much to make him a happy man. Several times, Jiang Xia wanted to speak, but then held back. He had heard it said that as a young man the chairman had had a child. But the child had died, and now there was no trace of it in the apartment. Of course, a person couldn’t mention a sad affair like that, though if Jiang Xia had wanted to provoke him, no doubt it wouldn’t be hard. The chairman rolled up his sleeves, glanced at his wristwatch, planning to dispatch him with a few words. Jiang Xia had forgotten the few phrases he had prepared downstairs, but the chairman’s undisguised intention of sending him on his way angered him. Perhaps the chairman thought Jiang Xia was too weak to defend himself, and that this was an occasion where he could display consummate authority while fulfilling the demands of etiquette. He corrected this impression by vaguely alluding to the intrigues behind the allotment, of course only just an allusion, before stiffening his neck, and sprawling his legs rather brashly underneath the glass coffee table. The chairman looked at him in consternation, clearly feeling that the sudden uncouthness of this otherwise grovelling person was the portent of a coming storm.

“What? You want to withdraw from this year’s allotment?”

“That’s right, I want to take a gap year,” Jiang Xia said, screwing up his courage.

“But the allotment’s been made.”

“I know the allotments can’t be changed, but you can permit students to take a gap year, and withdraw from the allotment.”

“But on what grounds? It can only be done if there’s a really valid reason.”

“How about the reason they used when I got cheated out of my place? Isn’t that reason good enough?”

The chairman understood that Jiang Xia was referring to a claim the head teacher had made about him, namely that he was sick. When Ma Li had stolen his place, the head professor had needed to lie, saying that Jiang Xia’s health was uncertain, and he was therefore unsuited to being made an instructor. The chairman looked a little off-put, in fact he had been tormented by so many off-putting things for the last few days, and these unmentionable affairs surrounding the head professor constituted a threat to him. If it wasn’t properly handled, he would cause disapproval both above and below him in the pecking order. He didn’t realise that anyone would be so well-informed of what had gone on behind the scenes, and he sized Jiang Xia up with crafty eyes.

“It’s no use to just claim you’re sick. If you want to take a year off for medical grounds, you have to get some proof that will really stand up.”

“And if I can?”

“Let me tell you, some minor ailment won’t be any good.” The chairman didn’t think Jiang Xia had any serious illnesses.

“And what if I can produce the kind of proof you want?”

The chairman had figured Jiang Xia was bluffing, was just talking for the sake of it, and that he had already outsmarted himself. He advised Jiang Xia to accept the factory posting in the mountainous area, saying that he would find there a beautiful life and the tranquility one could no longer find in the city. It was just as though he could hear Jiang Xia’s interior moaning, for he seemed to feel that he had won the day. He rose to draw the curtains, saying casually, “If you have proof, then I give you my word.”

 

 

 

13

 
This concession was not itself enough to satisfy Jiang Xia. He was even more annoyed than before he had seen the chairman, since he had talked big, but didn’t have a shred of a medical proof to back him up. His eyes were bloodshot, just like all the other students who were unhappy with the allotment, and all he really had were the same crazy illusions. In order to enjoy the big lights of the city, and to avoid being sent to the remote mountain areas, he had become just as coarse and dense as a mountain dweller. Now he would have to take his chances with a hospital.

He had an impression of doctors as a group of people with special rights, the right to wantonly examine testicles and women’s private parts, as well as the right to derive wild pleasure from the way that the misfortune of patients contributed to the subtle progress of medicine. They were like the scum of the nation, smugly writing Chinese characters so badly that they looked like the Western alphabet and were completely unintelligible to the patient. They were always sure of success, their value increasing as the death toll mounted. The whole hospital always seemed to be run like a kitchen for boiling up medicines. It was nothing but a hubbub of voices, of patients being egged on by doctors to discover an unprecedented appetite for high-priced pharmaceuticals.

Jiang Xia had always been afraid the school doctor would take note of his bony chest, never removing his shirt when the doctor used the stethoscope. One of these afternoons, to obtain the medical proof he envisaged, he would have to leave campus, and go to the municipal hospital, the mere thought of which sent a shiver down his spine. He put it off for a few days, but then didn’t dare postpone the visit any longer. The whole way, he kept mumbling a prayer, “Heavens protect me, heavens protect me…” To obtain what he wanted, he would really need some magical assistance. He took the registration number and got in line behind a few other patients, half-dead with fear. After hearing a male doctor hoarsely complain about the number of patients, he quickly switched into the woman doctor’s line. When not asking casual questions about symptoms, the doctors were constantly exchanging jokes. From time to time, a silver bracelet slid out from beneath the doctor’s white sleeves, and she always lifted her hand to make it slide back again. It was just as she was raising her hand in this way that Jiang Xia reached the front of the line. Without lifting her head, she asked him what was the matter, in response to which Jiang Xia stammered and couldn’t answer. Impatiently, she repeated the question, to which Jiang Xia replied, in a helpless murmur, doctor, it’s like this, it’s, there’s a, there’s a…his voice trembled, and he kept having to swallow. The baffled doctor finally raised her head and looked him over. She had no way of knowing that what this patient really wanted was to tell her a whopper. His delicate features had grown nervously pale, and he looked as young as a high school student, and quite smart in his crisp shirt. He blurted out that life and death hung in the balance, that it all depended on her willingness to help. It might have been that his misery had already reached the saturation point, for he looked absolutely helpless. He had in the past appeared to be suffering, angry, entreating, but he had never before looked so helpless.

Calm down, calm down. Her face, as cold as iron, was beginning to thaw out, was producing a mild voice which surprised Jiang Xia. Looking at this helpless, overgrown little boy, the woman doctor was filled with tender affection. This boy stood before her, desperate, speaking cautiously, haltingly, creating the lovely illusion that she was speaking to a younger brother. She had no younger brother, but she had always wanted one, had always wanted to play the part of older sister, because her parents had separated and that had been the end of everything. She endured the reproachful noises made by the surrounding patients, and patiently waited for him to finish his account. She had some experience herself with head professors who held the power to make job allocations and provide recommendations. She was only a few years older than him, had been working for two years, and behind the composed façade she concealed revolting memories. In order to stay in the provincial capital, she had on one occasion indulged the pleas of the head professor. That humiliating scene was always before her eyes. She had felt like a hostage, properly dressed above the waist, standing in a clearing in the woods outside the city, stripped bare below the waist, blood flowing down her thighs and into the blades of grass. Faced with that professor’s constantly recurring desire, she had at last been unable to bear it and started screaming. It had only been once, but it had been enough, enough for her to be permanently disgusted by men older than her. She lived with her mother, and their one inexhaustible subject was their hatred for mature men. She disdained to distinguish between different kinds of men, there was only a distinction between men and boys, and that distinction was as heaven and earth.

She removed the lid from her teacup and took a sip. At present, all head professors were potential enemies. She lifted her rather flat face and said, come with me. Beneath a rain of complaints emanating from the surrounding patients, she led him to the first-floor X-ray room. On the south-facing wall, public health posters were taped, warning against TB. When she called out for“Godmother,” an old woman came out from the x-ray records room. For the two of them, there was nothing more routine than producing a false medical proof. For outsiders, it would constitute authoritative evidence, yet it took them no longer than ten minutes to produce a false result. They just made a quick survey of the chest x-ray rack, casually took a file and transcribed the diagnostic conclusions onto an empty medical certificate. Over the doctor’s signature, they affixed the blue stamp of the radiology department, which looked  like a mouth to mock the department chair with. Jiang Xia almost wanted to kneel down and kowtow to these two women. He spoke his clumsy and excited words of gratitude, his eyes misting over with tears, and he didn’t even clearly make out the words of consolation they spoke. In the end, he left them where they stood on the steps, and practically soared out of the hospital.

 

 

 

14

 

After three whole days of suffering, the chairman could finally give a sigh of relief, since those who persisted in seeking him out had dwindled to a very few. Those who had been driven crazy by their allotment discovered how childish and ridiculous their ideas had been. With the allotments already fixed, no one had the power to overturn them. They had obtained nothing. Perhaps they hadn’t gone crazy enough, they hadn’t gone as extravagantly crazy as Jiang Xia.

Jiang Xia almost knocked the chairman over as he came in, and tremblingly placed the medical certificate in front of him.

“Here’s the proof you wanted.”

The chairman’s eyes bulged as he took the certificate under close examination. It was the first time he had seen a diagnostic certificate from the municipal hospital, in any event. It seemed imbued with the anxious compassion doctors felt for human life. He was surprised that Jiang Xia hadn’t simply resorted to pleading and blandishment. He had to concede that the certificate appeared impeccable, and that Jiang Xia’s skinny body was giving off symptoms of madness that he found terrifying. Jiang Xia was taking a gamble on a year, just in order to escape an unsatisfactory allotment. Who could say for certain whether, having escaped the claws of one destiny, Jiang Xia would receive a better allotment next year? No one could foretell the result with any certainty. The chairman could hardly believe the certificate, but he no longer had any choice. Apparently, Jiang Xia was even more thoroughly nuts than the head professor.

A cool breeze blew in through the window, which cleared the chairman’s head a little. Why choose trouble when you can choose congratulations? Nevertheless, who knew what new turn the rich imagination of this youngster might take, what commotion might come back to confront him time and again. His heart had already been giving him trouble on account of the head professor’s rancid affairs. He was worried that if this stubborn, crazy youngster was added to the mix, he might be in for a serious problem. Never mind. This aggrieved young man could be sent over to the personnel department to give them grief next year.

The chairman took the medical certificate, his face wreathed in smiles.

“Since you have a certificate, I’ll be as good as my word. Just wait a few days.”

Three days later, Jiang Xia received notice that he had been granted a year’s deferment.

 

 

 

15

 

As Jiang Xia stepped off onto the platform in his hometown, who could relate the hypocritical compassion he felt for those fellow classmates who had not escaped the claws of fate, who had been compelled to send their luggage off into the mountain regions? He was so overcome with smug relief, that in his gladness he almost tripped over the soft garden hose, as he giddily exited the station, shouldering his two large bags.

When he entered his home, his mother and father came out, one behind the other, offering words of welcome. They spoke joyfully, but their faces began to express confusion. His younger sister had never been able to find a place, and his parents had borrowed money to send him to school, thinking that he would soon be earning money and helping to support them, when instead he had returned in great excitement with a year’s deferment from school. Just as everyone had been expecting a turn for the better now that he had finished college, he had instead returned with nothing but another mouth to feed. Formerly, he had been the golden boy at home, but now he had nothing to say for himself, and he had lost the sheen which had clung to him last semester. The most frightening thing was that, heedless of their advice, he was taking a liking to literature. His parents regarded books as filthy in the extreme, but he was reading them with gusto. In 1956, before the Anti-Rightist campaign, his father had published a few poems. After the campaign began, he and the guy in charge of investigating his diary had both begun to curse literature. He always spoke of literature to his son as though he were grimly writing an obituary. In the last few months, Jiang Xia seemed to have become a new person altogether, and literary practice seemed to be leading him to less and less realistic ideas. Supposedly, he was not Chinese, American or Russian, he belonged to World Literature, he was one of those men who had abolished local dialects. This idea confused his father. He pondered every word Jiang Xia said, trying to figure out where Jiang Xia had gone wrong. With trepidation he saw how literature, this monster that he loathed and respected, had taken possession of his son. He was sure that his son was only a slapdash apprentice writer, gathering up the dregs of words spoken by geniuses. He felt that time was pressing, because before Jiang Xia could start earning money, he would now have to write up all his fearful doubts about why on earth people wanted to earn so much money.

With a feeling of urgency, his father waited outside the town primary school gates for his tardy former classmate. He was a Chinese teacher, and also took charge of a little literary paper for students, called “Spring Bamboo Shoots.” He was a fellow with broad shoulders and no qualms about speaking his mind, and along with Jiang Xia’s father, they formed an impromptu assessment committee. When Jiang Xia was off borrowing books at the town library, they rifled through his notebooks, spreading bed and table with his wastepaper. They discovered that Jiang Xia had learnt nothing from the books, and that his blasphemous words were just the parrotings of famous men’s famous quotes. His own efforts were embarrassingly naïve. The assessment committee resolved to spend ten days to a fortnight convincing Jiang Xia to abandon literature. It didn’t occur to them that it would take only half a day. Unlike Jiang Xia’s father, his classmate began by praising literature, by reciting poetry, and then telling Jiang Xia a lot of anecdotes he hadn’t known about the lives of men of genius. When he was done, he cited his own experience, pointing out that he had struggled in the service of literature for most of his life (the devil only knew how he had struggled!) and up to the present had nothing to show for it. Jiang Xia was crumpling a piece of tissue paper with his hands, his words had been enough to calm Jiang Xia down, he was carefully considering it, this man—who had started higher than Jiang Xia—had been struggling for half his life…it looked like Jiang Xia’s future as a writer was less than brilliant as well, it seemed like he should accept that literature was not his destiny.

By springtime, an atmosphere of cold war reigned at home. There was less and less meat to eat, and this fact became a subject of amusement to him. Actually, he had nothing to complain about, for he felt he should recognize that animal instinct is part of humanity. Animal parents didn’t want to be guardians to their children for a day longer than necessary. That his parents had stinted themselves to allow their son to stay at home for so long ought to make him cry tears of gratitude. The sunlight, the books, the free lunch—all of these could bear testament to his inferior worth. His parents lost sleep over a single meal, while he spent the precious days and nights on hopeless, useless books. Leisure really had made him soft in the head.

Later he would remember that as soon as he mentioned leaving, the atmosphere at home had suddenly grown much warmer, like they could never bear to be parted with them. He had long since made his decision, he had even bragged about it to his family over the dinner table, he was sure to stay in the big city, with a good salary, and in the end maybe even in one of the affluent Eastern cities find a beautiful bride. The schedule for his return to school was frighteningly clear, and those as yet unaccomplished affairs were like so much dazzling scenery, as if his future already featured in the tourist guidebooks. When he returned to school, he was skinny as a rail, not a pound heavier than before, despite all the free lunches. He had thought the deferred year would be as restful as sleep, but it had turned out instead to be like a textbook, reminding him of the necessity of staying focused on money.

 

 

 

16

 

In her guestroom, decorated mostly in yellow, Mrs. Qi watched the arrow on the scale, and lamented to Jiang Xia, “You’re too thin, really you are, you should stay here with us and get your health back.”

The role he had to play now was that of a kind of phoney loverboy, with the key figures being a few wives and daughters that he needed to cozy up to. He had no confidence in his looks, though he was really quite handsome. Faced with his withdrawn nature and his timidity, girls tended to take the initiative of approaching him. Mrs. Qi arranged for him to stay with them, and he slept on an improvised infantry bed. She helped him make up the list of people he would have to call on, but he was hesitant, not knowing how to appear sophisticated and natural. Yet he had no choice but to get back into the swing of social activities. To just appear on someone’s doorstep was not always such an awkward duty, for he found that many women were not so suspicious, in fact that they were often touched by his stammering and bashfulness. He gradually came to realize all those little things that can make human interaction so marvelous. Sometimes, on his way back to Mrs. Qi’s, he would suddenly change directions and go see a family he had visited a few days before. Most frequently his visits were to a small house where the school’s party secretary lived. The secretary never looked very expressive, just reserved and calm, but when Jiang Xia shyly scratched his head and waved hello to the secretary’s wife and daughter, the secretary just sat down in front of the TV and said nothing more. The first time Jiang Xia came, he brought with him a letter of introduction from a high school classmate, since that man had been a college friend of the secretary’s son. Apparently Jiang Xia’s wide-ranging experience was very attractive to the lady of the house. Sometimes, she would speak a few words, reproaching the secretary for ignoring his guest. Perhaps it was that his exalted position had inured the secretary to the habits and customs of ordinary folk, but he laughed and answered, don’t go spoiling our guest, two people in the family are already chatting with him, if I started talking as well, wouldn’t that be overdoing it? Perhaps he had formed a resolution to watch the entirety of a certain TV series on the Beijing channel. From the excited blushes of the two women, even Jiang Xia couldn’t fail to notice that his affairs would soon be in order.

Thoughtful Mrs. Qi introduced him to the all the powerful factions in the school. He felt like a migrant construction worker, standing on the scaffolding and peering into the building where school bureaucrats in suits and leather shoes went up and down in the elevators. All of Jiang Xia’s activities occurred in the evening, but during the day he was just like a rat in his hole. Whatever advice Mrs. Qi gave him over the course of the day would turn into the evening’s first ingratiating visit. He shuttled about the campus, and the families he visited were all reluctant to see him go. In the rectangular mirror of the bathroom, he slowly realized a wonderful thing: an exemplary college student like him, with his appearance and reasonably good powers of expression, had become the subject of competition for the position of son-in-law to one of these women with their adoring looks. This pandering quickly became irritating, and he had to try to suppress his disgust, knowing now what a mediocre talent it was to inspire tender passion. Through these women, he began to shape his destiny and increase his influence, and in this he indeed exceeded his expectations. In the end, the heavens relented and a special position was created to enable him to be held over on staff the following year.

 

 

 

PRESSE ABOUT

 

 

Wenhui Readers’ Weekly, October 23

Huang Fan’s The Eleventh Commandment:

An Admonition To Transgress the Besieging Ten Commandments

Xiao Tao

 

 

This novel is a medical diagnostic for campus intellectuals in an era of deficient faith. Serendipitously operating in thematic convergence and an alternation of spiritual modes with related examples of traditional and contemporary writing, the result is something you might call polyphony. In the Bible, Moses leads the Jews out of Egypt and to Mount Sinai, promulgating the ‘Ten Commandments’ which can be summarized as the following injunctions: to worship no other god, to make no graven idols, not to take God’s name in vain, to keep the Sabbath, to honor one’s parents, not to murder, not to commit adultery, not to steal, not to bear false witness, and not to be covetous. The Ten Commandments are not only the regulations for ethical and moral behavior, they also represent the primitive formation of religious doctrine and law. So what does Huang Fan’s The Eleventh Commandment try to express? Between the lines, the intent is to exceed the ethical limits and moral standards of the Ten Commandments, the respect for law and the codes of conduct, and to complete a seemingly impossible literary revelation, exploding and subverting the besieging Ten Commandments, causing their total collapse, highlighting the spiritually decadent mental landscape of Chinese campus intellectuals of this transitional period.  The Eleventh Commandment implies a narrative strategy of undermining the Ten Commandments. By examining the plot and some of its contents, we can arrive at an approximate understanding.

First of all, let us examine these three commandments: to worship no other gods, to make no graven idols, not to take God’s name in vain. The novel begins with the respectful reception given by Professor Qi and his student Jiang Xia to a VIP visiting from the ministry. This means this VIP is an emissary from the gods, the agent for divinity here on earth. “Worship no other gods” clearly refers to Professor Qi himself. “Professor Qi was a proponent of the cycle of civilizations, according to which the strongest people in the last civilization would be reincarnated in this one.” This explains how since God is dead, the teacher must be the students’ idol. A student like Jiang Xia ought to “regard teachers with practically religious veneration, he must repress his own personality, in order to win the teacher’s favour. The professor would know at the appropriate moment how to reward those who had stood in awe of him.” “Not to take God’s name in vain” in my view, is implicitly relative to the aforementioned narrative of such types of behavior as self-deification and blind adoration.  Now, how should the commandment about keeping the Sabbath be represented? Of course the novel can only make extended or metaphorical use of scripture. After Professor Qi’s death, an immoral physical relationship occurs between his widow and his student, while she is also fornicating with the new director of studies.  This contemptible and debauched behavior, occurring as a matter of course before the dead man’s spirit has even been “laid to rest” can only be described as the bestial desecration of the Sabbath.

The narrative constitution of the novel is never fixed. The fragmented narrative viewpoints can extend from Shicheng Collegeto Shenzhen in the south, and range from the office to private homes, from birthplaces to dormitories, always shaping the development of the characters’ behavior and psychology, while indicating literary satire and metaphorical expression. “To honor one’s parents” is a basic ethical principle, but when applied to Jiang Xia’s grandmother’s funeral, we discover its contravention. The suspicion and distrust between family members, the greed and struggle, demonstrate how it is being breached. One can only sigh: old morality declines, and people’s hearts are not what they once were. As for the last four “thou shalt not” commandments, these strike me as the junctures of Huang Fan’s narrative which most highlight the forcefulness of his writing. “Thou shalt not murder”: but Jiang Xia kills Mrs. Qi in a fit of desire and jealousy; “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” as represented by the fornicating students and the surrounding sanctimonious figures, all of them unfaithful or divorced, self-indulgent and hedonistic, taking pride in discussing their sexual escapades. The commandment “Thou shalt not steal” has also been voided—the professors, professionally charged with teaching morals and dissolving doubts, have instead become the worst thieves and usurpers of state funds, which shows the obvious hazards of causing knowledge to be absorbed into systems of production. As for the commandments “not to bear false witness” or “not be covetous,”without wishing to repeat myself, it seems they can be included in the breaking of regulations and taboo, and in the wanton decadence of screeching birds, of the traces of whirling demons. The Eleventh Commandment’s structure shows that it is an intertextual work basically consistent with the Bible’s Ten Commandments (or even with the movie The Ten Commandments). However, the driving forces of the narrative code are the symbols of “power” and “sex.” Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and so sex is only the natural expression of absolute corruption. In tandem, the emergence of libidinous charm can only confuse, shackle, bind and drag an ordinary student and cast him into the eternal abyss. And this is exactly the prying and palpating, the observation, and capture, that this book employs regarding a fixed transitional period when Chinese national conditions were “under siege”from within and from outside. The feeling it gives you is a kind of uneasiness, anxiety and concern, which lingers on after you are finished reading.

 

 

(The Eleventh Commandment, by Huang Fan, Jilin Publishing Group, Ltd. August 2009)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

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BIO

 
Huang Fan (黄梵) (b. 1963) is from Huanggang (黄冈), Hubei Province. He is a poet, novelist and assistant professor. His works to date include Swimming Colours (浮色), The Eleventh Commandment (第十一诫), Paean to Nanjing (南京哀歌), Waiting for Youth to Pass (等待青春消失), Girls’ School Teacher (女校先生) and Chinese Wanderers (中国走徒). His debut novel, The Eleventh Commandment, was serialized on the Sina website, where it was viewed over three million times and recommended to teenagers as one of the two “novels most worth reading since the Cultural Revolution”. His poem Middle Years (中年) found its way into an anthology of “a hundred new poems of the century”. Huang Fan’s poetry is acclaimed in Taiwan; according to the feuilleton editor of the United Daily News (联合报), he is the “mainland poet with the widest readership in Taiwan”. Huang Fan has won a number of honours, including the Golden Short Stories Prize awarded by the magazine Zuojia (作家), the poetry award of the Beijing Literary Prize, the Biennial Prize for Poetry in Chinese, the Nanjing Literary Prize, the Biennial Culture and Art Prize of the magazine Houtian (后天) and a Chinese poetry fellowship from the Henry Luce Foundation based in the US. His works have been translated into English, German, Italian, Greek, Korean, French, Japanese and Persian.

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