This book was published in China in late 1989, several months after the Tiananmen crackdown. It wasn't translated into English until 2000.
Wang was prominent in China from the mid-1980s; in 1988-89, four of his works were filmed. A number of early stories and novels followed the lives of cynical urban youths during his nation's shift from socialism to a market economy. His early writing demonstrated an ear for language and an eye for the gap between convention and reality. This book has been called his funniest and most devastating political satire. He's been called a "spiritual pollutant" by his government.
This novel followed the adventures of a martial arts boxer who was chosen by a private-sector committee to represent China and revenge defeat by a foreign wrestler. The committee gave lip service to preserving the nation's honor, but was no less concerned with the profits they expected to make on him. They required full mobilization at all times, political correctness -- or at least the appearance of it -- and training in every possible method -- qigong, ballet and so on. Each member's self-interest was masked by appeals to the greater good.
The individual at the center -- the boxer -- was required to make ever-greater sacrifices in accordance with the committee's whimsical decisions. He did this without complaint, because unlike most other characters he lacked an agenda and was sincere. Other plots followed the boxer's aged father, a participant in the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, who the authorities wished characteristically to condemn for historical mistakes, and the fate of the boxer's neighborhood, which was fenced off and destroyed by the authorities, who auctioned off the contents to the highest bidder.
The main things I could get from this book were the author's condemnation of his society's utter lack of concern for the individual, who was at the mercy of any entity that claimed it was acting for the greater good. And the author's contempt for the hypocrisy of those who cloaked greed in appeals to the national interest. Near the book's end, authorities were asked, "What will you do if the Communist Party ever returns to power?"
In its irony, ear for language, dark view of people and groups, and political manipulation of a naive hero, the book often seemed like the Chinese counterpart of A Cool Million, a 1930s novel by the American Nathanael West. Wang's conception and sarcasm were brilliant: the story's development allowed him to comment on everything from committee operations to media advertising to the position of women in society. Many of the committee's campaigns seemed to end in scenes reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, in mass demonstrations or mass denunciations.
Especially interesting was the author's use of various types of language -- proverbs quoted by most participants at the drop of a hat, the speech of committees, the pungent words of members behind the scenes, the language that common people used with officials. The parodies of bureaucratic language as well as speech directed at officials must be some of the most provocative of the period. On the other hand, the novel's execution often seemed slapdash and cartoonish, and some scenes and details remained obscure.
"Comrades, we must act prudently, just beating up some foreigner won't do it. Our ultimate purpose is to establish a national model."
"The publicity should focus on how we took a pile of s*** and a puddle of p--s and turned it into somebody. We must make this clear to the masses."
"I have strict orders from old Zhao to reach his profit quota."
"Is there anyone here who actually treats you as a human? They're all using you for their own purposes, and they'll destroy you in the process. They'll turn you into whatever their hearts desire."
"If you close your eyes, I no longer exist, I only sense my existence from your reactions. If you're happy, I feel that my life is of value."
"You have retrieved the golden goblet of national integrity . . . you have lived gloriously and will die with honor . . . Flying across the mountain pass, you raise your glass to toast the bright moon; in dreams the universe is vast, awake one's life is long . . . The little boat leaves from here, the rest of one's life is claimed by rivers and oceans. When bright mountain flowers are in full bloom, your laughter will emerge from the thicket . . ."
"Revered and wise and beloved pioneer vanguard architect beacon torch demon-revealing mirror dog-beating club father mother grandfather grandmother ancestor primal ape imperial father ancient sage Jade Emperor Guanyin Boddhisatva commander-in-chief, you have been busy with a myriad of daily matters suffering untold hardships old habits die hard overworked to the point of illness addicted to labor shouldering crushing burdens mounting the clouds and riding the mist soaring across the sky helping those in danger and relieving those in distress restoring justice banishing evil and expelling heresies curing rheumatism and cold sweats invigorating the yang nourishing the kidneys and the brain building up the liver harmonizing the stomach easing pain suppressing coughs and relieving constipation . . ."
[In a TV commercial, the newly minted hero] buries his face in a book and says with profound emotion: "Whenever I get tired of reading, my thoughts turn to the East and to Chill-Way refrigerators."
"We, all of us, have razor-sharp tongues but hearts made of tofu. If we . . . weren't forced to serve the greater good, do you really think we could turn into what we've become -- beasts in human form?"