I was 22 when I read - in one breath - Shanghai Baby. I had already visited the Chinese megacity, but Zhou Weihui had just brought me back with different eyes. Through the pages of her book.
My name is Federica Caiazzo, I am a fashion journalist and author of MODA in China, the 1st Italian newsletter dedicated to fashion in China.
Not surprisingly, the Italian press called it "the revelation novel of today's China".
But when I wondered what China thought about it, I was not surprised to learn that the Chinese Communist Party had burned 40,000 copies in 1999 alone, the year of publication.
The book that I liked so much in the hot summer of 2013 - shortly after graduating in Chinese at the University of Naples "L'Orientale" - had been banned in China many years earlier. Why?
Sex, drugs, a Shanghai that really existed but that no one had ever told like this before. The book Shanghai Baby by Zhou Weihui (which also inspired a film of the same name) is the story of a young woman named Ni Ke whom everyone calls Coco, because her idol is Coco Chanel .
Coco has a love affair with Tian Tian, a young Chinese, helpless and heroin addict, to whom she is deeply attached spiritually. But one day she meets a German man named Mark, married and unfaithful: she will start a story of sex, and of addiction to sex itself.
A bond that allows Coco to explore the relationship with her body and to live it without taboos. To experience orgasm outside of a relationship - the one with Tian Tian - in which pleasure is unfortunately denied her.
Coco also has a dream, she wants to become a great writer (and here it is Zhou Weihui who speaks in a semi-autobiographical key): her passion will lead her, between one page and another, to attend parties and exclusive people, to live and tell a Glamorous Shanghai but also completely unbridled.
Far from Beijing, and not only geographically: an authentic "paradise built on hell", to describe Shanghai as the famous Chinese writer Mu Shiying would do.
And so Coco lives, lives and describes her libertine loves, her Shanghai. However, it does so according to the canons of what - in contemporary Chinese women's literature - are known as the famous měi nǚ zuòjiā 美女 作家: literally, “the beautiful writers”.
Like Zhou Weihui, in the triad of censored in China there are also Mian Mian (Nine Objects of Desire is another very interesting book, it is a collection of short stories) and Chun Sue (author of Beijing Doll). All three make writing the vehicle to talk about their physical and intellectual emancipation.
Not surprisingly, Mian Mian states in one of her stories: “I would like to find a form of writing as close as possible to the body”. A body without veils, worthy of the joy of female pleasure, a body that finally frees itself and undresses of any social prejudice.
It could have been a big responsibility, that of the "beautiful writers", in the eyes of today's feminism. Especially in consideration of the fact that there are issues, such as sexuality, that are (still, in part) taboo in China. It is therefore not surprising that what for me is a novel that (also) talks about sex ... was - and maybe still is - "pornography" in the eyes of many Chinese.
But call it pornography, call it whatever you want, the fact is that Shanghai Baby has become a best-seller. A success also and above all thanks to censorship, which has fueled the curiosity of the West as much as that of the East.
A literary case that the Chinese Communist Party dared to burn at the stake, but which nevertheless left something to reflect on as a legacy to the feminists of the millennial generation.
"Drugs, sex, money, terror, psychoanalyst, fame and career mirages, disorientation: these are the ingredients of the birthday cocktail that our city prepares this year, 1999, to welcome the dawn of the new century .
And I'm just an immature girl, and I keep living because I still have one last symbol, poetic and lyrical, to hold on to. With eyes full of tears, I look at the green leaves outside the window, I sing hoarsely "My sweet darling", and I grab God's tail - if it has it - with my tapered fingers, to climb up, more and more above, along the furrows of my ideas that flow fluently, trying to linger in the scraps of time that flies away ".
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Image: Federica Caiazzo