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JULY 4, 2011 ISSUE

The Han Dynasty
How far can a youth-culture idol tweak China’s establishment?



Blogger, best-selling novelist, essayist, race-car driver,
and Byronic gadfly, Han Han has come to represent the
skepticism of his generation.

n December, 1999, a publisher in Shanghai
received a handwritten manuscript by a first-time

author named Han Han, who had recently dropped
out of tenth grade. He had spent more than a year
writing a novel, “Triple Door,” in the back of the
classroom, on his way to flunking seven courses. It
was the story of a Chinese high-school student slogging through “hours of endless
emptiness,” copying lessons “from the blackboard to the notebook to the exam,” while his
mother fed him pills intended to boost his I.Q. Another publisher had pronounced it
gloomy and out of step with the times—books about Chinese youth were more often
akin to “Harvard Girl,” a road map to the Ivy League—but an editor was enthusiastic
and printed thirty thousand copies. They sold out in three days. Another thirty thousand
copies were printed, and they sold out, too.

In the global canon of teen-angst literature, the novel was tame, but in China it was
unprecedented: a scathingly realistic satire of education and authority, written by a
nobody. China Central Television moved to tamp down the frenzy with an hour-long
discussion on its national broadcast. But on TV Han Han projected insolent glamour,
with a boy-band shag haircut that swept down and across his left eye. When educators in
tweeds and ties fulminated against “rebelliousness” that “might contribute to social
instability,” Han smiled, cut them off, and said, “From the sound of it, your life experience
has been even shallower than mine.” He was instantly famous—a seductive spokesman
for a new brand of youthful defiance, which the Chinese press dubbed “Han Han fever.”

“Triple Door” went on to sell more than two million copies, putting it among China’s
best-selling novels of the past two decades. In the next several years, Han published four
more novels and several essay collections faithful to his subjects: teen-agers, girls, and
cars. They have sold millions more, though his current publisher, Lu Jinbo, does not hail

them as great literature. “His novels usually had a beginning but no end,” Lu told me

them as great literature. “His novels usually had a beginning but no end,” Lu told me
recently. Five years ago, Han started blogging, and his focus took an unmistakable turn
toward some of China’s most sensitive matters: Party corruption, censorship, the
exploitation of young workers, pollution, the gap between the rich and the poor. It was as
if Stephenie Meyer had abandoned the “Twilight” series and started directing fans’
attention to the misuse of public funds.

Han proved even more successful online than in print. In 2008, he surpassed a movie star
to become China’s most popular personal blogger. His site—a simple chronicle in the
style of a diary, on a powder-blue background with a photograph of a yellow-Lab puppy
in the corner—has had nearly half a billion visitors since it began. Only Chinese stock-
tip bloggers have drawn more.

Once or twice a week, Han takes the highway from downtown Shanghai to the suburban
village where he grew up in a farmhouse now occupied by his grandparents. “As soon as I
started making money from writing, I started buying sports cars” and racing, he said, as
we inched through rush-hour traffic recently. We were in a roomy black GMC van, with
captain’s seats and tinted windows, driven by Han’s confidante and rally partner, Sun
Qiang. (Han keeps the van for long trips; he is afraid of flying.) “Other drivers looked
down on me, because they thought, You’re a writer; you’re supposed to be driving into
walls,” he said.

At twenty-eight, Han stands five feet eight inches tall and weighs less than a hundred
and thirty pounds; he has the soft cheekbones of a Korean soap star and glittering black
eyes shaded by sheepdog bangs. He favors a uniform of grays and whites and denim—
Chinese pop culture’s prevailing aesthetic. His manicured, swaggering persona is a rebuke
to the rumpled archetype of the Chinese intellectual, and owes equal debts to Kerouac
and Timberlake. In person, he is warm and laconic, and speaks through a smile that tends
to camouflage the searing edge of his comments.

On the spectrum of Chinese dissent, Han holds a commanding but highly ambiguous
position. At times, his is one of China’s most outspoken voices. (“How many evil things
has China Central Television done in the past? Replacing truth with lies, manipulating
public opinion, desecrating culture, abusing facts, concealing wrongdoing, covering up
problems, and creating fake images of harmony.” That post, like many of his, was struck
down by censors, though fans reached it first and circulated it broadly.) He can also be
calculatingly elliptical. When Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese writer, won the Nobel
Peace Prize last October, Han Han toyed with censors and readers by posting nothing
but a pair of quotation marks enclosing an empty space. The post drew one and a half
million hits and more than twenty-eight thousand comments.

His criticism places him in frequent combat with China’s armies of online nationalists.


His criticism places him in frequent combat with China’s armies of online nationalists.
Last December, a fervently pro-government Web site listed him among the “slaves of the
West” and superimposed a noose on his picture. Thus far, he has maintained a fitful
détente with the government. When unrest swept North Africa and the Middle East last
winter, the Party launched the most intense crackdown on free expression in years. After
the detention of the politically provocative artist Ai Weiwei, on April 3rd—he was
accused of unspecified “economic crimes”—the writer Ma Jian speculated in an op-ed
piece printed outside China that the next targets would be Han and three other
prominent critics. “The regime will not stop the persecution until the only voices to be
heard are its own ‘official’ artists,” Ma wrote.

For nearly a decade, Han Han has maintained a parallel career as a race-car driver, with a
respectable record in circuit competition for Shanghai’s Volkswagen team and in off-road
rally races for Subaru. It is a world of sponsorships and champagne showers,
disorientingly at odds with his writing life. By and large, his readers care nothing for auto
racing, but the overlapping identities have yielded a singular celebrity: Han adorns the
covers of style magazines while independent Web sites—Han Han Digest, Danwei,
ChinaGeeks—translate and analyze his utterances. At times, his readers hang on his
words even before he utters them. On Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, he once typed a
single entry—“Wei” (“Hello”)—and three-quarters of a million followers signed up to
await his next one. (He has yet to return.) He began a television interview recently by
saying “If you speak Chinese, you know who I am”—a boast not quite as ridiculous as it

He is the only government critic with corporate sponsorship—he has advertising
contracts with Vancl, a low-cost clothing chain, and with Johnnie Walker, which pairs his
brooding image with the line “Dreaming is realizing every idea that flashes through one’s
mind.” He has lent his name to a one-of-a-kind luxury Swiss watch by Hublot, which
was auctioned for charity and inscribed, in English, “For Freedom.”

pproaching Han’s home town, Tinglin, we branched off onto smaller roads until
we confronted a creek spanned by a concrete bridge that was only inches wider

than the van. At the wheel, Sun Qiang hesitated. Han peered through the gap between
the front seats, and adopted a mock-serious tone: “This bridge is the test!” We crossed
intact. “I’ve had mishaps there many times,” Han said.

Mist hung over fallow fields crisscrossed by footpaths. The fringe of Shanghai, like those
of other big cities, is a patchwork of small farms and factories, a short drive from
staggering wealth. We reached a two-story brick farmhouse, fronted by a small plot.
Han’s grandparents—small, swaddled in padded cotton clothes—ambled out to greet us.
A golden retriever went berserk. We passed through a living room that carried the cold

damp of the countryside, and reëmerged in a small courtyard, where Han smiled

damp of the countryside, and reëmerged in a small courtyard, where Han smiled
awkwardly and indicated for me to climb through a window into his wing of the house.
“A small design flaw,” he said. “We didn’t put a door on this side.”

Within was a rural teen-ager’s fantasy lair: a beat-up Yamaha motorcycle leaned against
one wall, a mammoth television screen against another. A second giant screen was
accessorized with a steering wheel and pedals set up for driving games. In the center of
the room was a pool table, and Han racked up the balls and broke. He is in constant,
restless motion. To indicate his rare and full attention, he turns both of his phones face
down, as they buzz and bleat in protest. On the pool table, I made a shot, then flubbed
the second. He sank the rest.

The transformation of his home town figures prominently in Han’s view of China. In
writing and conversation, he returns repeatedly to the connection between individual
aspirations and unaccountable local governments. Explaining why many of his
grandparents’ neighbors have accepted modest payments from the state to give up
valuable land, he said, “People will do anything to get a small apartment in town. It
doesn’t matter if it’s only eighty square metres, they’ll take it, because it means they’ve
gone from country people to city people.” He went on, “And then the government will
level the buildings, and sell that land to a factory or real-estate developer who might
build apartments to sell to others.”

Under different circumstances, that would be a path for improving the neighborhood,
but, with little oversight, local officials have few incentives to insure that new factories
pay good salaries or protect the land. Han indicated a tall industrial compound in the
distance, a chemical manufacturer, which he blames for fouling the stream where he used
to hunt for crawfish. On his blog, he once wrote:

My grandfather can identify the day of the week by the color of the water.
The stench is everywhere. The Environmental Protection Bureau says the
water quality is normal, though the river is full of dead fish. . . . At various
points, my home town has planned to build Asia’s largest industrial harbor, and
Asia’s largest outdoor sculpture garden, and Asia’s largest electronics shopping
center. So far, all it has produced is thousands of acres of rubble, unfinished and

We wandered out in the cold, and I mentioned that his criticism can sound at odds with
his reputation as the avatar of a generation raised in the most prosperous period in
Chinese history. He said the scale of China’s growth obscures the details of how the
spoils have been divided. “For rally competitions we travel widely, because they’re on

gravel roads, often in small, poor places. Young people there don’t care about literature or


gravel roads, often in small, poor places. Young people there don’t care about literature or
art or film or freedom or democracy, but they know they need one thing: justice. What
they see around them is unfair.”

To illustrate his point, he mentioned a news clip he’d seen recently about a seventeen-
year-old migrant worker who stood in the aisle of a train for sixty-two hours to get
home. It was the kind of ordeal that Chinese papers regularly feature as a portrait of
fortitude. But Han had come to see it differently. “The guy had to wear adult diapers,” he
said, appalled. It became the basis of his next blog post, three days later, about “young
people used by the process of urbanization.” The post concluded, “Work for a whole year,
stand in line for a whole day, buy a full-price ticket, wear diapers, stand the whole way
home—how dignified!”

n the days that Han writes, he sleeps until midday and usually works—fast and
alone—into the pre-dawn hours. He is married to Lily Jin, a high-school friend

who is chic and circumspect. She serves as his assistant and gatekeeper. “Han Han trusts
people very easily, almost credulously,” she told me. “In the past, he’s been cheated by
other publishers, and lost money because of it.” They had a daughter last year, an event
greeted by the Chinese gossip magazines with all the ceremony of a royal siring (“Han
Han Becomes a Father, Talks for First Time About Daughter”). Han rarely gets through
an interview without volunteering that he still has “girlfriends,” as in “I want to stay in
this country; my girlfriends are here.” But it’s difficult to know how much of the towel-
snapping is a glib deflection. Pressed for specifics, he says, “I like to watch other people’s
lives, but I don’t like people to peek into mine.”

He is a proudly self-described “country bumpkin,” prone to ham-fisted asides, such as his
declaration that women directors should stick to films “about love or life.” (He says he
meant to refer only to Hu Mei, the director of a Party-backed bio-pic of Confucius.)
Unlike other prominent Chinese critics of the government, he has few ties to the West;
he has visited Europe but not America, and cares little for Western literature. He is still
acclimating to attention from abroad. Simon & Schuster plans to publish a volume of
essays and blog posts in English translation next fall, to be followed by a novel.

Han long ago recognized his “rebel” identity as a cliché. “If I were a rebel, I wouldn’t drive
an Audi or a BMW,” he once told a reporter. Yet it endures; even China Daily, a state-
backed English-language paper, heralded Han’s busy schedule with the headline
“REBEL WITHOUT A PAUSE.” Actually, when he isn’t racing, the rebel keeps quiet
rhythms: he doesn’t smoke, barely drinks, and has no interest in night clubs.

Han is almost reflexively described as a symbol of China’s youth, which is not an
unalloyed compliment. He hails from the first generation born after Mao and the advent
of the one-child policy—the baling hou, or “post-’80 generation”—which serves as a
reference point in discussions of values and the national character much the way that

baby boomers do for Americans: a generation that came of age amid radical social

baby boomers do for Americans: a generation that came of age amid radical social
transformations which alienated its members from their parents and left them either
newly self-aware or self-indulgent, depending on who’s talking.

Han’s parents worked for the government: his mother, Zhou Qiaorong, dispensed
benefits at a local welfare office; his father, Han Renjun, had aspirations to write fiction,
but ended up at a local Party newspaper, an editor with little appetite for advancement.
“He didn’t like the kind of life in which you have to drink every day and kiss your leaders’
asses,” his son said. Before the parents knew if they were having a boy or a girl, they
agreed to name the baby Han Han, the father’s abandoned pen name. In recent years,
their son’s heckling of the establishment complicated their government jobs; he offered
to support them financially, and they took early retirement.

Han was a fidgety, outdoorsy child, but his father stacked the household’s best literature
on low shelves, where the boy could reach it; the political tracts stayed up high. “I usually
tell people that I don’t read, but of course that’s impossible,” he told me. “I also tell other
race-car drivers that I never practice, but I do, secretly.” Reading the Chinese classics
alienated him from his school curriculum. “I don’t believe anyone who truly loves
literature can also love Mao Zedong,” he said. “These two things are incompatible. Even
putting aside his political performance, or how many bad things he did, or how many
people starved to death because of him, or how many people he killed, there is one thing
for sure: Mao Zedong was the enemy of writers.”

A gifted long-distance runner, Han gained admission to Songjiang No. 2 High School.
He wrote occasionally, and when he was sixteen he heard that a Shanghai magazine was
looking for young writers to enter the New Concept Essay Contest. He’d entered
contests before. “You’d be asked to write about something that you’d done that was good
—say, helping an old lady across the street or returning a lost wallet. Never mind that the
more realistic scenario would be you putting the wallet in your pocket.” But New
Concept intended to be different, and Han’s assignment in the final round was abstract:
A judge dropped a plain piece of paper into an empty glass—that was the topic. “I had
some random idea about how the paper falling to the bottom of the glass tells you about
life,” he told me, adding, “All bullshit.” He took first place. (The essay still circulates
among fans.)

At another moment in Chinese history, he might have been sidelined for his
idiosyncrasies, but in 1999 China was being bombarded by new ideas. Internet use had
begun a steep rise—the number of Chinese users quadrupled that year—and a climate of
openness prevailed as the country prepared to join the World Trade Organization.

The year Han won the essay contest, he failed his courses and was held back. On the
verge of failing again, he dropped out, which made him desperate to publish his
manuscript, “to prove myself,” he said. “I had told my classmates and teacher that I was a

good writer and I could make a living from it, but they said I was crazy.” After “Triple


good writer and I could make a living from it, but they said I was crazy.” After “Triple
Door” was published and Han Han fever took hold, the book became more than simply a
critique of China’s education system. It electrified young people, because Han’s very
existence gave them “the right to choose their own idol,” as the Shanghai writer Chen
Cun put it.

Han was out-earning his parents, but he was bored. Everyone his age was in school, and
he gravitated to a high-speed go-cart track in Shanghai—“the only place for
entertainment that wasn’t prostitution or gambling,” as he put it. A friend in Beijing
insisted that he could find sponsors to form a racing team. Han moved north to the
capital, part of a vast tide of hopefuls surging in from around the country. They lived as
rebels, but with limits. After midnight, he’d speed down the Avenue of Eternal Peace,
beside Tiananmen Square, stopping at every red light.

“Every night, we sat together in a bar, debating, ‘Should we buy Ferraris or Porsches?
Because pretty soon we’ll be rich!’ ” But in the end his friend’s assurances were nonsense.
“In two years, the only sponsorship he ever got was from the convenience store
downstairs, which provided one case of mineral water,” Han said.

Han eventually won a spot on a team and earned a reputation on the track for prudence.
“He makes more calculations when he is preparing to take a risk,” his teammate Wang
Rui told me. Sun Qiang, Han’s navigator, said the most difficult moments to manage are
when drivers fall behind: “They tend to get impulsive, to try to catch up. When that
happens, one can become irrational.” Han silenced doubts about his seriousness as a
driver in 2007, when he won the China Circuit Car Championship. None of the drivers I
met have the remotest interest in his writing life. “I’d rather know as little as possible,”
Sun said.

an stayed in Beijing for four years, driving and writing; volumes of his essays
included “Press Release 2003” and, in 2005, “And I Drift,” as well as the novels

“Like a Speeding Youth” (2002), about a pair of struggling ghost writers, and “Riot in
Chang’an City” (2004), the story of a reluctant martial-arts master. His books, often
marketed under brooding dark covers, were moody and observant, but none could
recapture the energy of his début. In truth, he didn’t enjoy writing. Writing subsidized his
racing. “Wrecking a car might mean I’d be forced to write a book to dupe my readers,” he
wrote later.

In 2005, five years after his literary début, Han was low on cash and feuding with a
publishing house over royalties and piracy. Then he encountered Lu Jinbo, a writer
turned publisher. Seven years his senior, Lu was a businessman, partial to pinstripes and
blustery declarations. He had unvarnished advice for Han: “His image as a ‘problem
child’ was out of style. People were no longer so curious about him,” Lu said. Lu saw the
makings of a splashy new deal: he offered Han an advance on his next book of two

million yuan, about a quarter of a million dollars—colossal by Chinese standards. The


million yuan, about a quarter of a million dollars—colossal by Chinese standards. The
contract made headlines and confirmed Lu as the father of what he calls “astronomical

“I’m f inishing up. Can you get me a cab?”

I met Lu for a beer at a bookstore-café after a
reading by another of his authors, and his manner
put me in mind of Don King: he rhapsodized about
Han’s intellect, compared him to Nelson Mandela,
and predicted that universities will one day teach
“Han studies.” He also offered his views on what he
called “the brand.” “Han Han is a social
phenomenon, a cultural idol, and even a bit of a semi-religious leader,” Lu said.
“Religious in the sense that you don’t need a specific reason to like Han Han.” He drew a
distinction between Han’s devotees and those of Yao Ming, the first Chinese all-star in
the N.B.A. “His talents will be gone someday—but Han Han’s? His fans like everything
about him.”

“I wanted him to become a critic and a thinker, with the image of a good kid,” Lu told
Youth Weekend, a Chinese magazine. First, they ditched Han’s black cover art in favor of
bright white, and he urged Han to follow his interest in pop music. To those tempted to
see Han as a dilettante, it didn’t help his case when he recorded a pop album in 2006
called “18 Jin,” the Chinese equivalent of “Rated R.” The lyrics were decidedly P.G.
(“Happiness is being happy in different ways.”) These days, Lu says the reinvention was
not his idea. “He’s got his own ideas on everything,” Lu told me. “He won’t change for
others, even when he’s wrong. For instance, he’s extremely lazy, and he’s always late. But
he refuses to change. He’s got girlfriends, but he won’t change, even when he’s caught by
his wife. He wastes money and drives himself into financial trouble, but he won’t change.
All of this shows that he’s stubborn. Or, one might say, free.”

Summing up Han’s appeal, Lu said that he stands out from other pop figures because of a
rare asset. “In China, our culture forces us to say things that we don’t really think. If I say,
‘Please come over to my place for dinner today,’ the truth is I don’t really want you to
come. And you’ll say, ‘You’re too kind, but I have other arrangements.’ This is the way
people are used to communicating, whether it’s leaders in the newspaper or regular
people. All Chinese people understand that what you say and what you think often don’t
match up. But Han Han isn’t like this. He doesn’t consider other people’s feelings and
just says what’s on his mind, or he’ll say nothing.” In short, Lu said, “If Han Han says,
‘This is true,’ then ten million fans will say, ‘This is true.’ If he says ‘This is fake,’ then it’s

hen Han Han began blogging, five years ago, he embraced the Web primarily as

When Han Han began blogging, five years ago, he embraced the Web primarily asa realm for combat. A literary critic, Bai Ye, questioned the work of youngwriters, and Han responded with a screed titled “The Literary Circle Is One Big Fart:
Don’t Be Pretentious.” He pilloried popular musicians, contemporary poets, and the
rigidities of the national writers’ association. One of his earliest supporters, the culture
writer Xie Xizhang, recanted, telling the press, “If I were Han Han’s father, I would
smack him in the mouth.” (Han’s fans inundated Xie’s blog with caustic comments.) “I
was swept up in the novelty of everyone arguing,” Han says now. “I began to realize later
that the arguments were pointless; many of those with whom you’re arguing actually
share a common enemy.”

But it was a freak event that truly jolted him. During a race in Russia in June, 2008, his
mentor, Xu Lang, then China’s best rally driver, was trying to unearth a car from the mud
when he was struck in the face and killed by a tow hook. His wife, at home, was pregnant
with their first child. Han was devastated. As distant as it was from his writing life, the
accident stoked his fixation on injustice. “Good people die, bad people enjoy a good long
life without punishment. It made me want to live more fully, to be a good person and to
punish those who are not,” he told me. “If we wanted a better China, we couldn’t sit
around and wait.”

Online, he lampooned the self-importance of officialdom, asking why the government
lowered the flags after the deaths of politicians but not after disasters that claimed many
civilian lives. (“I have a Chinese-style solution: flagpoles should be doubled in height.
This will satisfy all sides.”) He flicked at rumors that senior leaders had high-priced
mistresses. (“If you spend a hundred yuan on a woman’s intimate services, it’s obscene; if
you spend a million, it’s refined.”) He mocked the Party strategy of trying to drum up
support by plastering the Web with pro-government messages. (“Just because you see
people clustered eating shit doesn’t make you want to squeeze your way in for a

He excelled at “edge ball,” the Chinese writers’ term, drawn from Ping-Pong, for grazing
the limits with a ball without missing the table. The Chinese Web was a laboratory for a
new era of black political humor, and it did not require him to pretend that he held
policy prescriptions. Vivid and bawdy, the posts were celebrated not for originality but for
saying what so many others only thought.

Even as Han criticized China’s stifling of expression, his visibility reflected how much
wider the realm of Chinese intellectual life had become over the past decade. For every
writer still barred from travelling abroad, and every novel prevented from publication,
another popped up unmolested in a third- or fourth-tier city that was once a cultural
desert. At the end of 2007, the number of bloggers had more than doubled since the
previous year, and though they risked jail for what they wrote, their cumulative power
could not be ignored. In 2009, when the government announced that new computers

would be shipped with a filtering software called Green Dam, Chinese users revolted.

would be shipped with a filtering software called Green Dam, Chinese users revolted.
They argued that its porn filter, for instance, was so shoddy that it blocked images even
of Party leaders whose portraits featured large patches of skin. Facing a backlash from
computer makers as well, the government retreated; Green Dam—“a policeman stationed
inside the house,” as Han put it to me—was abruptly scaled back.

Han focussed on bread-and-butter issues, railing …

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