A unique landscape in the Chinese literary world of 2002 is the young writer Zhang Zhe's controversial campus novel Tao li (Peach and Plum).
Published by People's Literature Publishing House in June 2002, the book ranks second in its publisher's bestseller list of last year, only next to Harry Potter.
Compared with some other campus novels that occasionally emerged during recent years, Peach and Plum is original in some marked ways. Its narrative language is plain but measured, without the touch of affection and pretentiousness.
Its perspective is new and very instructive to current social reality: Zhang Zhe depicts the campus as an open arena where intellectuals collide with the challenges of money and desire.
Through the indifferent eyes of one obscure "I," Peach and Plum records the restless, fretful life led by the narrator's four fellow graduate law major students and their common tutor Shao Jingwen, the patriarch. As the author puts it in the very beginning of the novel, he is the "boss" of their academic clan.
In a market-orientated commercial society, some skills, such as expertise in law, economics and finance, are getting more and more important in Chinese social life. Consequently intellectuals are facing heavy material temptations that their predecessors never had to confront.
The portraits of the practical and worldly-minded law major students and professors sketched in Peach and Plum offer some caricatures of the increasing dilemma facing intellectuals.
Under Zhang Zhe's pen, campus and market are at the same open platform to bargain happily with each other.
Professors offer their skilled services to those who can pay, and as a reward enjoy beautifully packed offerings -- including sex. Students treat their "bosses" with respect and admiration, feel privileged to be their students, and wait impatiently for their own turn to join the field.
Character depiction isn't the merit of Peach and Plum, but Zhang Zhe does impressively represent the fully developed character of one of his heroes of the book, the "boss."
Early in his life, this former literary youth changed the course of his life for good when he swore to help his wronged peasant father with the arm of law, and switched his major from literature to law.
The indignation of the smart young man only goaded him to seek revenge for his own grievance, but did not arouse him to challenge the social support behind the villain.
Later, growing into a most capable law expert and getting acquainted with the full shady side of society, he didn't hesitate to turn the arm of law into a lucrative instrument. Through the "boss," people get a good glimpse into the spiritual weakness of a certain kind of modern intellectual.
As for the four students, ranging in age from their 20s to late 30s, they just busy themselves in all kinds of love games for the time being. Covered by a thin layer of freshness, they are already being tainted by the insincere nature of the world.
All the conquered and lost skirmishes of love surrounding the amorous male students construct the main framework of the novel, and work up a light-hearted comic atmosphere throughout it.
All the protagonists in Peach and Plum are obeying seriously what the commercial culture decrees as necessary tools for an "elegant modern life," lest they would miss any detail.
However, the more they try, the deeper they are trapped in a low and superficial bourgeois mannerism. Readers sadly see that the prominent "boss" is even embarrassed by such trivial things as not knowing the pop star Xie Tingfeng, the man-made idol produced by commercial culture.
Just as critic Zheng Jian put it, "The heroes in Peach and Plum provide excellent specimens of people distorted by commercial culture."
Light-hearted as it is, Peach and Plum covers some phenomena too heavy and brazen to be comfortably dismissed as mere comedy.
Wang Meng, the famous contemporary writer, said of himself that he "felt like laughing all through reading the book, but couldn't laugh after closing it."
Zhang Zhe studied from 1996 to 1999 as a graduate student in the Law School of Peking University. There are the features of Peking University everywhere in Peach and Plum short of its name.
Any news connected with this most prestigious educational institute in China is liable to stir domestic public interest. The fact undoubtedly contributes to the sale of 80,000 copies of Peach and Plum since it was published last June.
The Chinese Language and Literature Department of Peking University held a "free-talk" symposium on Peach and Plum when the novel first appeared.
Many students attending the symposium gave Zhang credit for having successfully captured some of the campus idiosyncrasies, and admitted the phenomena under Zhang's pen are not uncommon in some of the high-level educational institutes of today.
In an interview with China Daily, Fu Jun, a doctorate candidate studying in the Law School of Peking University, said: "I think Zhang Zhe has been faithful to real life. That's exactly what is happening around us. He doesn't spin facts, he merely exaggerates gestures to achieve certain comic effects."
The book has been hailed by many critics as a trenchant dissection of the existent state of contemporary Chinese intellectuals.
On the back cover of Peach and Plum is a printed comment from 92-year-old Yang Jiang, wife of the late writer Qian Zhongshu (1910-98)' and also one of the most venerable writers and intellectuals of China: "Qian Zhongshu wrote his Wei cheng (The Besieged City) in a bid to paint the existent state of the young Chinese intellectuals in the 1930s and 40s, I wrote my Xi zao (Take a Bath) in a bid to paint their existent state in the 1950s. As to the lives of the intellectual youth living in the turn between the 20th and 21st centuries, I know little of it. The novel of Zhang Zhe has greatly surprised me."
Though Yang Jiang hasn't related what is so surprising to her in the novel, the fact that she mentioned Peach and Plum in the same field as The Besieged City and Take a Bath is in itself a strong recommendation, and a seeming license for critics to compare the book with the ingenious masterpiece The Besieged City.
But Zhang Zhe doesn't boast that he has penned such a masterpiece.
"I just recorded what was being staged around me within a special circle in a special period of time. Whether or not it could be taken as the epitome of mainstream intellectual life, I'll leave it to others' judge."
The narrative tone of Peach and Plum easily reminds readers of the "New Realistic Writings" which is prevalent in literary periodicals of recent years. Writers using such a tone in their stories speak with a neutral or aloof voice, refraining from giving their own values.
The problem is, however, just as writer Li Rui suspiciously pondered, "Do they conceal their values with respectable efforts and skills, so as to achieve a more profound extension for interpretation, or do they not have values at all?"
Sometimes it does seem that some authors, though they have not spoken out, are rather enjoying the worldly calculations and material cultures of which they write about with such gusto in their books.
Peach and Plum is not unimpeachable in this respect. Some critics say that there is more or less an absence of values in the novel, not only on the surface of the text, but also deep down in the core of the story.
Despite the accidental tragic ends some of its heroes meet, there is no harsh words, no serious counteracting forces whatsoever, that disturb their buoyant, elated life. Nor does anything serve to awaken them from their fretful pursuits of material gains and insincere emotional relationships.
"The spiritually distorted heroes in the book do not seem lost, for they have never tried to find the right course in the first place. They just enjoy their life unrepentantly and unimpededly. The author seems to write to the effect that these peoples are almost enviable," said Yang Fan, another Peking University student.
Literary Youth Tries Various Careers
Zhang Zhe was born in 1967 in central China's Henan Province. His original name was Zhang Bo. At the age of 10, he joined his parents in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
He lived there for eight years before entering the Chinese Language and Literature Department of Southwest Normal University in Chongqing.
After graduation, he worked as an economic journalist for different media outlets until he was admitted to the Law School of Peking University in 1996. He recently resigned from his job at the newspaper Nanfang Weekend, in order to "have more spare time to carry out some personal plans."
Presently Zhang is working as the producer of a TV series adapted from Peach and Plum, which is scheduled to be completed in June this year.
After that, "I'll travel to Japan to do some promotion for the Japanese translated version of Peach and Plum, and then I'll concentrate on writing my next novel for several months," Zhang said.
Like the "boss" in Peach and Plum, Zhang Zhe transferred from a literature major to law major. But unlike the former, he has never given up his literary dreams.
Starting out writing poetry, Zhang got his first novel published in 1994, and never stopped writing, despite actively pursuing different careers the entire time.
"I believe all these experiences have been helpful to my writing," he said.
(China Daily February 24, 2003)