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
stereo. I can't understand the excitement on his
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.
a stranger. We met in a bar. I don't know his name."
La, La, La--Mian Mian
A huge, crackling neon sign
over the window bathes 29 year-old Shanghai
Mian in scarlet and sour green light. Skin
sensuous one moment, anemic and lifeless the
lounges on the bed in a cheap Shanghai hotel
on one in an endless chain of cigarettes. Soon
prowl the city's bars and nightclubs, seeking out
doomed and the damned that populate her roman a clef
prose. Prostitutes, junkies, strippers and club
Gangsters, punks, groupies and pimps--all are
game for this nocturnal chronicler of China's seedy
underbelly. Typifying a new generation of writers
are shaking off the Party's creative shackles and
Chinese fiction into unexplored territory, Mian
milieu is marked by wretched love affairs, hard
promiscuous sex and suicide. Her own tale is one of
personal liberation, excess and redemption.
"Writing is much more than my
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
head-to-toe in black. "Writing saved my life."
Mian Mian's first, confessional book of
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
to be released to China's reading masses.
"Mian Mian is the most original voice of
Chinese fiction," says avant-garde Shanghai literary
critic Zhu Dake. "She doesn't lament her, and
harrowing past. She chronicles her life, and the
of young people on society's fringes, with an
Mian Mian's writing life began at the age of 17,
a Shanghai classmate slit her wrists. "Everyone
knows someone who has committed suicide," she
the flick of a chalky hand. According to the
Organization (WHO), China's female suicide rate
world's highest--21 percent of the world's women
in China, yet 56 percent of those who commit suicide
worldwide are Chinese. Even so, the tragedy was a
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
she fled south to the urban anonymity of
by the bright lights and free market vitality,
a debauched life of late nights, marijuana, booze
rock music. But harsh reality crashed the party when
she lost her virginity. "Basically, he raped me,"
says. "I thought: 'That's life.' I was young. It was
my first experience of men. I knew nothing else."
love also proved traumatic. After a few blissful
of much-needed stability, she was devastated to
that her sweetheart, the singer in a band, was
with her friend, a neighborhood prostitute. Self
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
same detached tone as her fiction. "He was
totally irresponsible. We were with friends,
and smoking, talking about music, men and women, how
to give a good blow job. When the sun came up, he
'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
years. "I was sick," she says matter-of-factly.
and ravaged by her addiction, Mian Mian limped back
to Shanghai at the end of 1994. Her
and Russian-teaching mother, tipped off by Mian
best friend, found heroin in her bag and
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
post-1989 materialist revolution in China. "China
so poor. Now, in the cities, there's money
Kids read foreign magazines, watch MTV, they are on
the Internet, they take ecstasy, ice, smack, and
Exhausted by her addiction, rehab, relapse and final
recovery, Mian Mian hid from the world in an
clinic. "When I left the hospital, I could barely
she recalls. "I didn't see a future for myself. I
to die." Moping in her darkened room, she watched
and listened to Janis Joplin. Whenever she felt
enough, she poured her torment onto paper. Two years
later, she had completed a short story, which she
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
explains Wang Hongtu, critic and senior lecturer in
Chinese literature at Shanghai's prestigious
adding that her non-conformist approach
increasing tolerance in China's cities of
lifestyles. "Writers of previous generations took a
more positivist approach to their work and society.
Writers who have grown up in the post-Mao,
Deng era are the first in China to stress the
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
Shanghai, she cranks up the house and techno
inspires her, and completes a new piece every
on average. "I tell it like it is, from real
I want to tell people that freedom is great, but
it can also be dangerous.
"I don't think of myself as a writer. I'm
stupid like everyone else. I grew up on the streets.
I have friends who are dead, friends in jail,
who are prostitutes, on drugs, drunk, married to
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
attacks on the jugular of male-dominated society. In
one of her stories, the narrator fantasizes about
love to a stranger.
"They changed that to: 'Seeing him makes me feel
Mian Mian scoffs. In another story, she used the
'I'm your zero' intended to reflect a feeling of
"The publisher said: 'We can't have that. You're
People will think you're talking about your 'hole'."
Similarly, the words 'I feel dry' were slashed.
crazy. I was talking about my head, not my body." To
maintain integrity, each of Mian Mian's four
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
they can change whatever they want."
Mian Mian has recently been approached by foreign
eager to translate her work. To reach a wider
she plans a series of short works dissecting the
relationships between lonely expatriates and
Heroin, she asserts, is a ghost of her past. And
the pinprick of oblivion still exerts its
that is where it will stay. These days, she
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
She still organizes parties, drinks to excess and
men. "Research!" she says with a staccato laugh. But
she also finds time to fine-tune Candy, her first
novel covering 11 "cruel" years in the life of a
Chinese couple. Once again, sex and drugs play major
roles, along with alcohol and insanity. Once
will be semi-autobiographical. But Mian Mian insists
she has not yet stripped herself, or modern
"My own life is far more extreme than the stories
writing now," she says dolefully. "I'm not quite
to tell my complete story just yet." Mian Mian
down into her black leather jacket, and the
garment accentuates her delicate features. Her eyes
betray a hint of vulnerability before she takes
drag off her cigarette and declares: "But I will
my whole story eventually."