Wei Hui‘s debut into the literary world six years ago was marked by controversy, furore, criticism and ultimately commercial success — Shanghai Baby was banned by the Beijing Government in April 2000 for its worship of Western culture and blatant representation of female sexuality and its author denounced as “decadent, debauched and a slave of foreign culture.” Subsequently, 40,000 copies of the novel were publicly burnt, Hui’s editor was fired and Shanghai Baby predictably shot to the top of best-seller lists around the world.
Marrying Buddha is the sequel to Shanghai Baby, the continuation of a semi-autobiographical account of Hui’s own experiences, loosely fictionalised in the form of aspiring novelist Coco (named for Mademoiselle Chanel, of course) living in Shanghai’s own fin de siècle. Chain-smoking, pill-popping, excruciatingly fragile and spoilt Coco has a fetish for wearing (and destroying) black silk, bedding adolescent boys and frequenting Shanghai’s most exclusive nightspots with her best friend Xi’er, the recipient of China’s first male-to-female sex change operation. According to Hui, Coco is a “typical new Chinese girl, representative of a new generation of socially and sexually liberated young Chinese women.” In Marrying Buddha, Coco leaves Shanghai for New York in the aftermath of 9/11, and ignites a passionate new relationship with Muju, the Yamamoto-clad Japanese-Italian independent film producer with whom she constructs the the theme of duality explored throughout the book. Described as the yang to Coco’s yin, Taoist Muju introduces our protagonist to sexual experiences with an undercurrent of spirituality, creating both a seemingly profound awakening and deep confusion. Then enters Nick, the suave and wealthy New Yorker who threatens to sweep Coco off her feet and unravel her newfound spirituality and dedication to monogamy. Overwhelmed by the state of affairs, Coco takes a sabbatical to Putuo Island, and the monastery where she was born.
Again promptly banned in China, Marrying Buddha is far more ambitious than Hui’s previous novel, dealing with complex and intimate paradoxes such as love versus desire, antique versus modern, spirituality versus hedonism, and the constant East versus West. Hui explains the relationship between sex and spirituality: “I think of sex as a ritual … it is our tradition. … We as a country not only created kung fu, we also created the art of tantra. It’s really another way to reach a height at which your mind is enriched. It’s a form of enlightenment. In Buddhism we have the happy Buddha, and sex is just a part of that — though it might sound totally strange for cultures who don’t share that tradition.”
Quite simply, Marrying Buddha is a better novel than Shanghai Baby, less littered with contrivance and cliches — Shanghaiist recalls gems like “our bodies are already tarnished, our minds beyond help.” The immediacy with which Hui writes flows more elegantly this time around, giving the impression of simplicity and honesty. The descriptions and dialogue are less awkward, perhaps due to a better translation — there are moments of sparkle and irony that is better-grasped and more acerbic than before.
Despite her newfound maturity, Hui still falls short with Marrying Buddha — our heroine is still self-indulgent and superficial, describing in excessive detail her adulation of Prada, Ferragamo, silk, jade, Mercedes-Benz and wealthy men to provide all of the aforementioned. As with Shanghai Baby, Hui continues with her penchant for liberal namedropping — Dostoevesky, Hesse, Dylan Thomas, Pablo Neruda , even Helen Fielding and Yoko Ono get a look-in. Hui fails to capture the zeitgeist of any of the cities visited by Coco in her travels — Shanghai, New York, Havana, Buenos Aires — and her perspective on her homeland remains shallow and incomplete. Not quite as sensual as Anais Nin or as witty as Carrie Bradshaw — women who Hui both idolises and emulates, judging from the scattering of Sex and the City in the novel — Marrying Buddha is perfectly readable, but fails to inspire or provide profound spiritual, cultural or artistic insight. Perhaps that is the trap of writing for self-exposure, an unfortunate stylistic trend which has been adopted by China’s literary new guard.
Marrying Buddha, Wei Hui, Constable and Robinson, June 23, 2005.
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