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  All materials © 1999 
  Beijing Scene

Beijing Scene, Volume 6, Issue 5, November 12 - 18

Mian Mian: Chronicler of China's Chemical Generation

by Gary Jones

photo © 1999 Mimi Kuo/Tom Keller and Associates

Shanghai prose and party queen Mian Mian reflects the harsh realities of post-Mao material China in her books about wretched love affairs, hard drugs, promiscuous sex and suicide.

"My first time is brutal. The Doors are playing on the stereo. I can't understand the excitement on his face. I don't know my own needs. In his embrace, I am like a sad silent cat. Sudden bleeding inside my body. I go to the bathroom. A fussy face in the mirror. He is a stranger. We met in a bar. I don't know his name." La, La, La--Mian Mian

A huge, crackling neon sign bolted over the window bathes 29 year-old Shanghai writer Mian Mian in scarlet and sour green light. Skin flushed and sensuous one moment, anemic and lifeless the next, she lounges on the bed in a cheap Shanghai hotel dragging on one in an endless chain of cigarettes. Soon she will prowl the city's bars and nightclubs, seeking out the doomed and the damned that populate her roman a clef prose. Prostitutes, junkies, strippers and club kids. Gangsters, punks, groupies and pimps--all are not-so-fair game for this nocturnal chronicler of China's seedy underbelly. Typifying a new generation of writers who are shaking off the Party's creative shackles and spurring Chinese fiction into unexplored territory, Mian Mian's milieu is marked by wretched love affairs, hard drugs, promiscuous sex and suicide. Her own tale is one of personal liberation, excess and redemption.

"Writing is much more than my life," the vivacious, reformed heroin addict says, flashing a tight smile. Her kind, curious eyes are framed by a harsh, geometric bob, and her famished frame is clad head-to-toe in black. "Writing saved my life."

Mian Mian's first, confessional book of cosmetically-fictionalized short stories La, La, La was published in Hong Kong in 1997. Three fresh volumes--Acid Lover, Every Good Kid Deserves Candy and Nine Objects of Desire--are about to be released to China's reading masses.

"Mian Mian is the most original voice of fin-de-siecle Chinese fiction," says avant-garde Shanghai literary critic Zhu Dake. "She doesn't lament her, and China's, harrowing past. She chronicles her life, and the lives of young people on society's fringes, with an analytic eye."

Mian Mian's writing life began at the age of 17, when a Shanghai classmate slit her wrists. "Everyone in China knows someone who has committed suicide," she says with the flick of a chalky hand. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), China's female suicide rate is the world's highest--21 percent of the world's women live in China, yet 56 percent of those who commit suicide worldwide are Chinese. Even so, the tragedy was a turning point. Explaining her first attempt at writing, she adds: "Life was so dark back then. I don't know why, I just felt I had to get it down. I needed to write the pain out of me."

Like so many restless youth of her post-Mao generation, she fled south to the urban anonymity of Shenzhen. Seduced by the bright lights and free market vitality, she embraced a debauched life of late nights, marijuana, booze and rock music. But harsh reality crashed the party when she lost her virginity. "Basically, he raped me," she says. "I thought: 'That's life.' I was young. It was my first experience of men. I knew nothing else." First love also proved traumatic. After a few blissful months of much-needed stability, she was devastated to discover that her sweetheart, the singer in a band, was sleeping with her friend, a neighborhood prostitute. Self esteem in tatters, she bedded a procession of faceless men, as recounted by La, La, La's feral narrator.

"I met a guitarist at one gig," Mian Mian says in the same detached tone as her fiction. "He was beautiful, totally irresponsible. We were with friends, drinking and smoking, talking about music, men and women, how to give a good blow job. When the sun came up, he said: 'Why don't we go to my place.' He was the best I've ever had. Even better because he left town the next day. I've never seen him since."

Mian Mian soon began using heroin--every day for three years. "I was sick," she says matter-of-factly. Penniless and ravaged by her addiction, Mian Mian limped back to Shanghai at the end of 1994. Her civil-engineer father and Russian-teaching mother, tipped off by Mian Mian's best friend, found heroin in her bag and committed her to rehab. After a brief relapse when she bolted back to Shenzhen, she finally went cold turkey at age 24. "We grow up fast now," Mian Mian says, reflecting on the wrenching generation gap that has emerged from the post-1989 materialist revolution in China. "China was so poor. Now, in the cities, there's money everywhere. Kids read foreign magazines, watch MTV, they are on the Internet, they take ecstasy, ice, smack, and they sleep around."

Exhausted by her addiction, rehab, relapse and final recovery, Mian Mian hid from the world in an out-patient clinic. "When I left the hospital, I could barely speak," she recalls. "I didn't see a future for myself. I wanted to die." Moping in her darkened room, she watched videos and listened to Janis Joplin. Whenever she felt strong enough, she poured her torment onto paper. Two years later, she had completed a short story, which she submitted to respected Literary World magazine (Xiaoshuo Jie). The editor told her what she needed to hear: she had talent, and a new lease on life.

"The most striking aspect of Mian Mian's writing is that she places a high priority on personal perception," explains Wang Hongtu, critic and senior lecturer in Chinese literature at Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University, adding that her non-conformist approach highlights the increasing tolerance in China's cities of alternative lifestyles. "Writers of previous generations took a more positivist approach to their work and society. Writers who have grown up in the post-Mao, materialist Deng era are the first in China to stress the individual's needs over the collective." "I prefer simple, direct language," explains Mian Mian, who types in the dark and always at night. Holed up in a secluded villa outside Shanghai, she cranks up the house and techno music that inspires her, and completes a new piece every four days on average. "I tell it like it is, from real experience. I want to tell people that freedom is great, but that it can also be dangerous.

"I don't think of myself as a writer. I'm troubled and stupid like everyone else. I grew up on the streets. I have friends who are dead, friends in jail, friends who are prostitutes, on drugs, drunk, married to shitty men. I write because I need to write, to make sense of life. Honesty is everything to me."

Being a woman does not help. Mian Mian reports that prudish censors are continually deflecting her incisive attacks on the jugular of male-dominated society. In one of her stories, the narrator fantasizes about making love to a stranger.

"They changed that to: 'Seeing him makes me feel sad,'" Mian Mian scoffs. In another story, she used the phrase: 'I'm your zero' intended to reflect a feeling of emptiness.

"The publisher said: 'We can't have that. You're a woman. People will think you're talking about your 'hole'." Similarly, the words 'I feel dry' were slashed. "They're crazy. I was talking about my head, not my body." To maintain integrity, each of Mian Mian's four books has a different publisher. "They all want to pay me, to package and market me. But I don't trust them. As it is, I can argue or walk away. Once I have their cash, they can change whatever they want."

Mian Mian has recently been approached by foreign publishers eager to translate her work. To reach a wider audience, she plans a series of short works dissecting the disfunctional relationships between lonely expatriates and Chinese.

Heroin, she asserts, is a ghost of her past. And though the pinprick of oblivion still exerts its attraction, that is where it will stay. These days, she sticks to the occasional social joint--the amnesiac effects of ecstasy uncomfortably remind her of the steady diet of tranquilizers she was force-fed while in drug rehabilitation. She still organizes parties, drinks to excess and seduces men. "Research!" she says with a staccato laugh. But she also finds time to fine-tune Candy, her first full-length novel covering 11 "cruel" years in the life of a young Chinese couple. Once again, sex and drugs play major roles, along with alcohol and insanity. Once again it will be semi-autobiographical. But Mian Mian insists she has not yet stripped herself, or modern China, completely bare.

"My own life is far more extreme than the stories I'm writing now," she says dolefully. "I'm not quite ready to tell my complete story just yet." Mian Mian shrinks down into her black leather jacket, and the oversized garment accentuates her delicate features. Her eyes betray a hint of vulnerability before she takes another drag off her cigarette and declares: "But I will tell my whole story eventually."

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