Xu Zechen: Running Through Beijing

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Xu Zechen Running Through Beijing
  • Название:
    Running Through Beijing
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    Two Lines Press
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    Современная проза / на английском языке
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Running Through Beijing: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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Chinese literature published in the United States has tended to focus on politics — think the Cultural Revolution and dissidents — but there's a whole other world of writing out there. It's punk, dealing with the harsh realities lived by the millions of city-dwellers struggling to get by in the grey economy. Dunhuahg, recently out of prison for selling fake IDs, has just enough money for a couple of meals. He also has no place to stay and no prospects for earning more yuan. When he happens to meet a pretty woman selling pirated DVDs, he falls into both an unexpected romance and a new business venture. But when her on-and-off boyfriend steps back into the picture, Dunhuahg is forced to make some tough decisions. explores an underworld of constant thievery, hardcore porn, cops (both real and impostors), prison bribery, rampant drinking, and the smothering, bone-dry dust storms that blanket one of the world's largest cities. Like a literary it follows a hustling hero rushing at breakneck speed to stay just one step ahead. Full of well-drawn, authentic characters, is a masterful performance from a fresh Chinese voice.

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Xu Zechen

Running Through Beijing


I'm out.

As Dunhuang opened his mouth to shout, a dust devil rose up and filled his eyes, nose, and mouth with fine grit, obliging him to sneeze and rub his eyes. The little iron gate clanged shut behind him. He spat the sand from his mouth. The dust devil had already moved on. Tilting his head back he looked at the sky, a blur of yellow dust behind which the sun glowed, mild but rough, like a polished piece of ground glass or a copper mirror that had seen years of use. The sunlight had no power to dazzle, but it still made Dunhuang’s eyes tear up — it was sunlight, after all. Another dust devil leaned toward him and he dodged out of its way. It was a sandstorm, he’d heard of them on the inside. They’d talked of only two things over the past few days: his getting out, and the sandstorms. In jail, he’d seen the storms picking up, seen the yellow dust settling on the steps and windowsills, but there wasn’t enough room inside for it to really get going. If he could, he’d like to go back and tell that pack of old cabbage heads that if they wanted a real sandstorm, they had to get out into the wide open spaces.

Wild land stretched before him: a few trees showed new buds, but there was no green grass in sight. It must be buried by sand, Dunhuang thought, and kicked at the dry weeds beside the gate — he looked around but still couldn’t see a speck of green. He’d been in jail three whole months, for Christ’s sake, and not one green blade of grass had grown. It was cold with the wind on him, and he pulled a jacket out of his bag. Shouldering the bag, he shouted, “I’m out!”

The iron gate rasped and a head peered out. Dunhuang saluted it, then laughed and said, “What are you looking at? Back to your post.”

The head glared at him, retracted, and the iron gate clanged shut once more.

Dunhuang walked for twenty minutes, then waved a little truck over. The driver, sporting a first growth of fluffy beard, asked where he was going. Dunhuang said anywhere was fine as long as it was in Beijing. The driver dumped him on west Fourth Ring Road; he was taking his truck to sell at the Liulangzhuang automobile market. As he got out, Dunhuang thought he recognized the place, that he’d been there before. He walked south, turned right, and, sure enough, there was a little corner store where he’d once bought some Zhongnanhai cigarettes. Sandstorm aside, Beijing hadn’t changed much. Dunhuang felt a bit calmer; he had worried that the city might have transformed behind his back. He bought a pack of cigarettes and asked the young clerk if she recognized him. The girl smiled perfunctorily and said he looked familiar. He said, “I once bought four packs of cigarettes here.”

As he was leaving, he heard the girl spit the melon-seed shells from her mouth and mutter, “Asshole.”

Dunhuang didn’t look back — you’re too ugly to argue with. He followed the street, knowing he must look like a hoodlum; he started swinging his bag and swaggering down the wrong side of the street. He went slowly, savoring a Zhongnanhai. Being in jail was like being home in that it was hard to get a smoke. The first time he’d brought two cartons of Zhongnanhais home his father had been thrilled and passed them out to guests, solemnly telling them: Zhongnanhai, named after where the leaders of our nation live — they all smoke these.

Where the leaders of our nation live. Dunhuang had only passed the front gate of Zhongnanhai once before, on his way to see the flag-raising at Tiananmen. He’d dragged himself up at 4 am. Bao Ding had sworn at him and said, “You can see the flag raising any day, why do it on a foggy day?” It had been foggy, and that morning they had to make a delivery, but Dunhuang couldn’t help himself. He hadn’t been hustling with Bao Ding in Beijing long, and aside from enormous heaps of cash he dreamed of nothing but that flag, fluttering in the wind. He heard the clacking of the ceremonial guards’ footsteps as they passed in perfect unison through his dreams. As he flew toward Tiananmen that morning on a wrecked old bicycle, he passed a bright, blurry gate, where a few guards might have been standing, but he thought nothing of it. When he got back home, Bao Ding told him that was Zhongnanhai, and he regretted not having stopped. He always meant to go back and take a closer look, but never got around to it. It was like Bao Ding said, “You can go any day, so you end up going no day.” He never went.

Dunhuang didn’t know where he was headed. That seemed awful, when he thought about it. No place to go. The whole lot of them had gone to jail: Bao Ding, Big Mouth, Xin’an, Thirty Thou with the lame leg. Hardly anyone he knew was left; he’d have trouble just finding a place to crash. And he was short of money, he only had fifty on hand, minus the nine he’d just spent on cigarettes. For now, he’d follow his feet, and worry about the rest tomorrow — he could always just burrow in somewhere for the night. The sun was dropping steadily in the sandpaper sky, down toward the end of the street — looking more and more like a giant millstone weighing on Beijing’s shoulders. Dunhuang took the cigarette from his mouth and whistled a bit to buck his spirits — this wouldn’t kill him. When he was first in Beijing, that time he’d gotten separated from Bao Ding, hadn’t he slept a night against a concrete pillar under an overpass?

Obstetrics Hospital. Zhongguancun Human Resources Center. The Bai Family Courtyard Restaurant. The Earthquake Bureau. He looked up and saw Haidian bridge in front of him. He hadn’t meant to come this way. He stopped, watching a double-jointed bus run a red light under the bridge. He hadn’t come here on purpose, but there wasn’t anywhere he wanted to go. It was under Haidian Bridge that they’d been caught, he and Bao Ding. They had run all the way here from Pacific Digital City without stopping for breath, but still hadn’t been able to shake the police. They’d still had their stuff with them. If they had known they were going to get nabbed they would have ditched it. He’d called to Bao Ding, “It’s okay, these cops are too fat to buckle their pants.” But the policemen turned out to be pretty nimble. A car had cut them off, and by then it was too late to toss anything.

That was three months ago. It had still been cold, around the New Year, the wind had sung in his ears. As they had sprinted and dodged they’d nearly made two cars collide under the bridge. Now he was out, but Bao Ding was still in jail. Bao Ding’s left hand had been stomped on by the police. Dunhuang wondered if it was better.

Dunhuang turned onto another street, then turned again. The wind picked up more sand from the ground and he ducked in next to a building. The light was fading, it was almost dark. As he swatted the dust from his clothes, a girl carrying a bag like his walked up to him and said,“Want a DVD, mister?” She pulled a handful of movies from her bag. “I’ve got everything: Hollywood, Japanese, Korean, domestic hits. Also, classics and Oscar winners. Everything.” She spread out the colorful movies for him to see. In the failing light, the colors were somehow lurid, but he knew that the movies were clean. Just like the girl. Dunhuang couldn’t guess her age, maybe twenty-four or twenty-five? Maybe twenty-eight? No more than thirty. Thirty-year-old DVD-sellers didn’t look like that; they carried children, they asked in furtive tones, “Hey, want a DVD? I’ve got all sorts; if you want porn I’ve got hi-def.” Then they quickly drew the movies from their clothing.

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