Han Dong

Han Dong photo

Born 17 May, 1961 in Nanjing. Han Dong’s parents were banished to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, taking him with them. When the Cultural Revolution ended, he studied philosophy at Shandong University, graduating in 1982. After teaching in Xi’an and Nanjing, he finally went freelance as a writer in 1993.

Han Dong began writing in 1980, and has been a major player on the modern Chinese literary scene since the 1990s. He is well known as one of China’s most important avant-garde poets, and is becoming increasingly influential as an essayist, short story writer, blogger and novelist.

Featured Reading Group Title

Gu Jieming – A Life and two more short novellas

In Gu Jieming – A Life a man learns that his childhood best friend has been executed for a petty offence. While waiting for a ferry at the end of a lazy afternoon, another man is confronted by a stranger who claims to be a plainclothes detective. A woman is so devoted to her pet cat that it is soon eating better food and more lovingly cared for than the rest of her family. In these three short novellas by Han Dong, we get a dark but not disheartening glimpse of schools, families and justice systems in which something has definitely gone wrong.

More Information

  • At the Pier and two more short novellas were featured in our summer 2012 Chinese reading group.
  • The biography above has been adapted from the one found at Paper Republic, a great site on Chinese writers.
  • Nicky Harman, Han Dong’s translator, has written an article in English on Han Dong here.
  • You can listen to a story written by Han Dong being read in English here.
  • Extract translated into English by Nicky Harman [download id=”53″ format=”1″] If you’ve read the book or the translated extracts, let us know what you think by commenting below.


  1. Michelle says:

    I just finished reading 古杰明传, and my favorite aspect of the story was that I could never guess what was coming next. Gu Jieming is a hero in the narrator’s eyes, and that’s very fun to read about, because he is not a perfect person, and he might have been appreciated by society if he hadn’t lived during the 严打 (fight against criminal activities) period.

    Speaking of periods, sometimes I got confused about what time the book was written in. Asian culture puts less emphasis on chronology, but man did I get confused about simple parts like how old the narrator was in any section that I was reading. Then some historical references seemed a little out of place at first, but after a little research I discovered that the hukou system has been around for thousands of years. The more you read the more you learn, I guess!

    One aspect of the story is that the narrator may or may not be reliable. He describes a lot of things as he heard them from others, and things that he saw himself are usually described in hyberbole. Maybe there was a purpose to this style of narration, but for me it added to the confusion.

    I think I might have needed more background knowledge to fully understand this story. Is it 高亮 Gaoliang a real place? Is this story firmly set in historical context, or is it trying to be absurd in parts? Are biographies typically written like this, or is Han Dong trying to do a write a story similar to one that Lu Xun did?

    I’m curious to hear what others think of the story.

  2. Xuyan says:

    I’d love to mention one touching moment in 花花传奇. It’s the end of part four. The narrator and his brother are sitting on the roof, where they raise the cat Huahua. Feeding Huahua, the brother starts to tell briefly a sad story about the marriage of a female common friend. Then narrator comments that “but what does the misfortune have to do with Huahua here?” Then, the beautiful moments of Huahua’s eating, the brother’s telling a story and my listening to the story are all immersed in the special hue of a certain autumn dusk. I think here Han Dong reaches his poetical best. To him, to be poetical does not necessarily mean to be symbolic or metaphorical; it could simply be the juxtaposition of prosaic small details. The touching moment at the end of part four reminds me of a scene in Leos Janacek’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen, which Milan Kundera mentions in his book Testaments Betrayed: In a little pub in forest, a gamekeeper, a schoolmaster and the bartender are chatting casually about their common friends. The orchestra, which in my eye, functions the same as the sunset in Han Dong’s short story, plays a nostalgic tone. The least dramatic scene in opera is thus transformed into a most touching song about the search of lost time.

  3. Nicky Harman says:

    Xuyan, I love your comment above. It made my spine tingle! I think you’ve put your finger on one key aspect of his writing. Michelle, I’ve been thinking about what you say about “Gu Jieming – A Life” (that’s the provisional title I’ve given 古杰明传 – I’ve done an excerpt in English which will be up here later this week)… and several thoughts occur to me.
    You say: “Gu Jieming is a hero in the narrator’s eyes, …. he is not a perfect person, and he might have been appreciated by society if he hadn’t lived during the 严打 (fight against criminal activities) period.” I agree with the first bit, of course, but I think Han Dong’s point is that people like GJM will never be appreciated in (Chinese) society. He is a hero and truly brave but true only to himself. He’ll never fit in (he actually says, at one point, that GJM is not a “revolutionary hero”.) What moved me about the story (and I did find it intensely moving) was the pathos of a truly brave and moral man who falls foul of a harsh society and pays the penalty. As described (this is key) by an anti-hero narrator – privileged, because from the urban intelligentsia, and not really admirable at all – but at least able to recognise truly admirable qualities in his friend. This is a response to your second point – HD’s narrators are often a less-than-admirable foil to bigger people or events around them.
    Thirdly, I have very mixed feelings about historical/contextual notes for the reader. A story should stand on its own two feet – but there are a couple of points it would help the reader to know: the harshness of the political system (death penalty etc), the difference in class and privilege between the two friends, even the fact that some people were left behind in the great Open-Up, Get Rich Quick ethos of the 1980s-1990s.
    Phew… think I’ve said enough for the moment!

  4. Chris says:

    Hello everyone. Since I won’t be able to make it to the meeting in Shanghai, I’ll have to make the whole of my comments on these wonderful Han Dong stories here on the website. First 古杰明传.

    I found he contrast the narrator draws between his own wallflower-like frailty and Gu Jieming’s vigorous athleticism rather striking. In the eyes of the narrator Gu’s defiant, heroic nature and moral uprightness seem to be the inner reflection of his physical strength. The descriptions of Gu swimming in the lake called to my mind the famous photos of Mao swimming in the Yangtze ,especially since it was Mao’s vigor and display of natural athletic skills that so impressed the nation at the time. Indeed, physical education was the core of Mao’s early revolutionary program: to be strong and healthy was already in some way to rebel against the system. In the same way Gu Jieming’s impatience with authority seems to be framed by his impressive physical stature and robust good health. His challenge to authority is posed in physical terms. He walks out of the physics class he has slept most of the way through and goes straight to the generator room to measure, not with an instrument but with his own body, the power that runs through the wires. He survives this his first horrifying encounter with the “powers that be”(if you’ll excuse the pun) but not his second (with the executioner’s gun). I think Han Dong is drawing a contrast here between the exercise of these two powers, natural and political. Gu’s martial exchange with the generator is framed in traditional heroic terms: he jumps up and, like the 大侠 of old says, “佩服!佩服!” or “Respect! Respect!” In other words, he retains his honor and dignity. In his later encounter with the powers of the State he is completely deprived of his dignity, stripped of his honor in a public act of humiliation and animal-like brutality. It’s almost as though the exercise of State power is being thought of as a regression to a form of violence that is de-natured and merciless, even more merciless than the violence of nature itself.

    Actually I’d to like to suggest that the comparison between Gu and, if not the young Mao, then perhaps at least the kind of Communist hero-figures whose quasi-mythological biographies (传) were circulated throughout the 50s and 60s, goes even deeper. Gu is described as an autodidact, as helpful, and as a naturally intelligent and deeply likable person. This sounds very much like descriptions of Mao and the various model revolutionary comrades as young men. I think the usefulness of this comparison lies in the fact that qualities like self-determination, passion, creativity, rebelliousness that were once highly valued (and were in some sense precisely those qualities the Great Helmsman himself was endlessly praised for possessing in their highest forms) were just as quickly deemed counter-revolutionary and dangerous in the 80s and 90s. In his book Oracle Bones, Peter Hessler quotes the actor and film director Jiang Wen as saying that Mao was “a good seed planted in bad soil.” I think the same could be said of Gu Jieming. This also seems to be the narrator’s take on Gu’s life and the arbitrariness and injustice of his death. I agree with Nicky Harman’s point above that Han Dong is saying that people like Gu Jieming will never be appreciated by society, adding only that people like Gu Jieming were greatly admired for a very short time in the early years of the PRC. It’s true that he is no “revolutionary martyr,” as the narrator comments, but I think Han Dong’s point is that the reason for this has nothing to do with Gu Jieming himself. Gu lives in a society that no longer requires revolutionary martyrs. The very same people who, in an earlier time, would have been honored for their strength and bravery now live aimless lives in the absence of larger systems of meaning, turn to petty crime, and are eventually thrown to the dogs.

  5. Chris says:

    One more thing, in summary. I think 古杰明传 is a story about the transition to the 和谐社会 or “harmonious society” period or model or initiative (what to call it?) and the human costs of that transition. The “打严” was, after all, an early avatar of what was to become the “harmonious society”pact (?), albeit in a much more violent and direct form. Like the “harmonious society” initiative, the 打严 was a fiercely numbers-driven program of authoritarian governance which made it easy for decent, innocent people who had already been pushed to the margins of society like Gu Jieming to be swept under the rug. Han Dong’s wonderful image of the fancy public restroom that now sits on the execution ground and the narrator’s thought that it might perhaps serve as Gu Jieming’s tombstone really brought the “harmony” motif home to me. “Five star restrooms” and other expensive public structures are at the forefront of the whole 和谐社会 thing. Demolitions are usually the prerequisite of these building projects and often as if, to rub salt in the wound, the original place name is arbitrarily tacked onto the new structure even though it had to be demolished in the process of building it. This is also the case with Gaoliang’s fancy restroom. The description of what has happened to everything down by the river front (“古杰明家的房子早扒了,河道取直了,他家的位置在如今河床的中央.”) even echoes the construction and flooding of the Three Gorges Dam, perhaps the most salient example of the “costs” of harmony.

    To take the image of execution ground “harmonized” by the public restroom even further, Gu Jieming is himself so much “shit” that had to be cleared away to make room for all the shiny new things that poured in when China opened up. Although I agree with Xuyan that Han Dong rarely indulges in direct one to one symbolism, I think the public restroom is an example of the kind of more subtle and indirect form of symbolism I am finding all over the place in these stories.

    (Correction: Just realized I said “lake” in my earlier post. I meant “river”. Blergh.)

  6. Charlotte says:

    I really enjoyed 《花花传奇》.

    “Hua” – flower/blossom – a popular Chinese name for kittens kept as pets. Right at the outset we are told that, notwithstanding its feminine name, Huahua is male. We are also told that, despite its common name, Huahua is an out-of-the-world cat. Something happened when Huahua was with a neighbour one afternoon when it was still a kitten. We never find out what happened in those 2 hours it was gone, just as we never find out what (if anything) really goes on in Huahua’s mind.

    Huahua grew to become an extraordinary cat; we are told this repeatedly. There isn’t, however, that much direct description of Huahua. Instead, Han Dong goes into great detail on how different members of the family looked after Huahua – from the protagonist’s sister-in-law to his brother, his mother, his girlfriend and himself. Han Dong also goes into great detail on the various locations Huahua was kept – the house, the rooftop, the “cat-house”, the terrace.

    It seems to me that Huahua’s magic manifests in its interactions with people around it, funnily so, as we are told that it usually shys away from people. Characters in the story are described almost entirely on their interactions with Huahua, eg. there isn’t much on the brother and the sister-in-law as a couple in themselves, but lengthy paragraphs on how she diligently and meticulously looked after Huahua and how he made great efforts in doing so after her death. This treatment appears to be consistent throughout the novella: the relationship between the sister-in-law and the mother (lice), the relationship between the protagonist and his brother (rooftop); the relationship between the protagonist and his girlfriend (eg drawings, Huahua’s death); the relationship between the neighbours and the family (rooftop dispute, terrace glass). I find it quite amazing that after reading the entire novella centred around Huahua, it still seems to be a mystery, yet I seem to have now known the family well and for a long time. To me, this seems to echo the rooftop conversation about the woman’s failed marriage not being related to Huahua, yet all of those things blended in the golden hue of dusk most harmoniously and naturally. (Love Xuyan’s comment above on this part – I agree that bit is Han Dong at his poetical best!)

    “Smell” is a repeated theme. Does anyone have any thoughts on it?

  7. Dylan Suher says:

    My apologies for the delayed post; I’ve been busier than I expected this month, and unfortunately, I’ve only had time to run through 在码头 and Ms. Harman’s wonderful translation of the first few pages of 古杰明传, for which I am deeply grateful. General comments on 韩东:

    -I generally read for narrative, so I very much appreciated 韩东’s skill at putting together a plot. 在码头 in particular is very cleverly arranged, deftly weaving together several simultaneously occurring pieces of action and deriving great effect (comic and dramatic) through irony and seamless reveals (e.g. the way that you find out that 老卜has not in fact managed to escape, the repeating pattern of 老卜’s partners trying their best to carry out their duties as 老卜 stumbles, Mr. Magoo like, into yet another pitfall). Considering the (in my opinion, quite effective) way he uses jumps in time in 古杰明传, this seems to be a specialty of his.

    -He’s also quite funny, or, more precisely, he’s quite witty; it’s a humor based in a knowing, linguistically deft description of the absurd. 在码头 is simply a farce, but there’s also a lot of humor there in the way he uses parentheticals, the mocking use of high diction in describing the various fights, and particularly in the way he describes the thought processes of each side. It’s quite delicate stuff, not entirely slapstick. Several parts of 在码头 are laugh out loud funny; the reports on 老卜’s progress with the salesgirl stands out to me.

    -But I do think there’s a lot behind the humor. One of the interesting themes in 在码头 is the instability of identity in modern China. The main plot is launched, by 壮汉’s dispute with 老卜 over whether he is a policeman or a criminal and resolved by 王智’s gambit of posing as 知识分子 (consider also, the empahsis on 小李’s uniform). This tension is reinforced by the selective way in which 韩东 releases information about the characters: 壮汉 transforms from ruffian to deputy to criminal, 小李 goes from a figure of authority to a runty novice, the author is originally quite vague about what exactly it is that 老卜and co. are up to, even the shopgirl, in the space of a parenthetical, becomes 壮汉’s girlfriend.

    -And this tension is in turn rooted in an anxiety over the stranger made possible by the fairly recent rise of liberalized, cheap, frequent travel. Identity is an issue because nobody knows who 老卜 and the 王智们 are; they’re new in town. The travel story is certainly not new to Chinese literature, but it was quite interesting to see a contemporary take on it. Interesting, too, that 老卜 is carrying scriptures, so to speak…but that might be reading too much into it.

    – Between the jumbled narrative and the sympathetic, matter-of-fact sense of humor, 韩东 reminded me not a little bit of 余华. But maybe I just see 余华 everywhere. Anyone have thoughts on that?

    -The one thing that disturbed me here was the way violence plays into 韩东’s work: it’s almost exclusively a slapstick affair, played up for laughs, which is quite troubling when one considers that a lot of the violence is state violence or mob violence. 壮汉 trussed up like a cow, braying ceaselessly in the police courtyard is a pretty hilarious image, but then, he just got beaten within an inch of his life by the police…

    -As far a general publishing perspective, well, it’s fine quality, translatable stuff. It’s plot driven, clear, and funny, which always helps. My only question is the issue Michelle brings up, whether the material is too rooted in the cultural context to make sense to a Western audience. What makes it difficult is that it’s mostly a lot of implicit aspects of the stories, the political context of 古杰明传, the importance of 身份证 in 在码头.

    More specific points re: 在码头:

    -韩东’s great with setting in this story. I always respect when a writer has an excellent sense of space, and here, he uses every square inch of the ferry terminal and the tiny police outpost. Consider the use of light through out the story: that bare hanging bulb in the police outpost, the sickly florescence of the waiting room.

    -On a related point, as someone who has spent a lot of time on trains, planes and automobiles in China (as I’m sure many of you have), I very much enjoyed 韩东’s description of the vagaries and locales of travel in China. Like 老卜 (well, minus the flirting), I’ve spent a good deal of time in dingy waiting rooms, staring at glass cases full of scattered snacks I didn’t want anyhow.

    -Following Xuyan’s lead on picking out good moments, how about the part when 老卜 discovers the town: “越靠近码头就越热闹沿途居然有不少霓虹灯,歌舞厅和洗桑拿的地方也一概俱全。。。。因此拿普通的小镇之夜看上去却处处神奇”

    Well, I guess I have a bunch to say…is there anyone else here in NYC who might be interested in a meet up?

    • Nicky Harman says:

      Wow, I am really blown away by the breadth and range of comments from all over the world on Han Dong’s stories. I feel like I’ve made a whole lot of new friends…. And Other Stories is such a good forum. We had a great discussion in London last night. Waiting to hear how the Shanghai and Beijing discussions go.

      One point to people who’ve commented here: Stefan (Mr AOS himself) and other readers can’t read Chinese. If commenting, could people translate the titles they’re referring to, rather than putting them in Chinese?Just a thought…

  8. Xuyan says:

    I’m really curious how Nicky Harman translates “英特迈往“ (I think it’s THE word in the novella to describe Gu Jieming) into English…

  9. Nicky Harman says:

    ha ha! very good question…I haven’t… yet (because I haven’t completed the translation of the whole story). So I’m not sure how I’m going to deal with this knotty translation problem.

  10. Sophie says:

    On “At the Pier”

    I was drawn to it first by the voice of the narrator – it is whimsical & eccentric, as if the story were being told by an indulgent friend of the protagonists, who act on their own logic of minute, absurd axioms, which themselves are constantly changing. For a moment, the ferry’s destination is their goal, in the next, it is the mood inspired by its motion, and then the attentions of the girl behind the counter… the charm of this story is, I think, is the artless assumption of all the characters that their designs and desires are eminently reasonable and consistent. And 老卜 & co. are charmed too – they are protected by their guilelessness, by their ability to completely inhabit a brief moment of its own logical consistency, and so despite being objectively culpable, they are never actually caught outside of their own game. The audience to their schtick – 壮汉, the young policeman, the crowd, and, of course, the reader – are captivated and convinced, just as the audience to a mime is aware that the world being constructed is not objectively real, yet in that moment, that is somehow beside the point.

    Also lending to their aura of being apart, these men remind me of Chinese ‘知识分子‘ (intellectuals) of another era — of the scholars who write endlessly and with great passion about how much they love wine, the companionship of their male friends, they seem to be quaintly classical in their thinking and priorities.

  11. Chenxin says:

    All: thank you for your comments so far. The London meeting was, by all accounts, very lively. A big thank you to Emily for hosting, and Nicky for taking notes, as follows —

    28 June London discussion:
    (abbr: Gu Jieming = GJM; Hua Hua the cat = Cat; On the wharf/pier/jetty = Pier)

    GJM: style- lots of four character phrases – modern language but the bones of the old [Chinese] sticking through
    nostalgia at the end – the new public toilet – feeling that in the countryside all changed, for the worse. GJM is a complex, anti-hero – not totally good or bad. his fate is moving. deliberate antidote to Lei Feng. the violence is noteworthy. even after the outbursts of violence in 1980s writing, this, written in 1990s, still has the power to shock. the narrator is obsessed… there is a what if element (what if he had kept up contact, he might have saved him, guilt). GJM – what it a real person? is it autobiographical? slight fuzziness over whether the narrator is experiencing the story or is playing the role of novelist.

    Pier: carefully constructed narrative that really carries you along, growing tension/intensity. It’s about identity, and loss of identity, Kafka-esque (HD cites Kafka as an influence), how do you prove who you are if no one believes you? The semi/illiterate man screaming but no one listening. Strong element of the absurd and humour. we are constantly expecting something mega to happen, but does it?

    Cat: about obsession and family loyalties. some readers were really grabbed by it, it is so wierd, obsessive, it has ‘no point to it’ and that is so refreshing!

    In general, these three novellas each have very different styles – GJM, anecdotal; Cat, miniature portraits; Pier, narrative with a strong story line. He has a clever use of brackets which have a comical effect.

    • Michael says:

      I found the discussion very lively and fruitful too, impressed how much everyone had read (and taken in!), while I struggled with Gu Jieming.

      I would just add some points on GJM:

      I founnd the jumpy (to-and fro) time-line, quite confusing, and sometimes had to ponder or check which incident the narrator was writing about, the first fight in the bar/cafe or the duel, with GJM’s later arrest and being beaten himself by the police before being executed.

      On the question of style (which, of course, would not necessarily affect the style of the translation), I mentioned those special, classical-looking phrases (if not sayings), and then thought that Han Dong was possibly adopting a poetic style in some descriptions. Of course, Nicky mentioned that HD was first and still is a poet. Some Chinese readers might find his language rather pretentious or even showing off, but Nicky did mention his intellectual background, in that his father was also a writer (manque) and he himself received a good education, particulalry literary. It is ironic that HD’s stories are so down-to-earth and yet his style is so ‘high-flying’ in many ways.

      In the GJM story, I would put HD or at leat GJM in the category of the Ma Jian school of contemporary writers, sharing the bitterness against society (at least contemporary Chinese political society), which is is often expressed through black humour and violent reactions to what they obviously see as a repressive system. The camraderie amongst the protagonists is reminiscent of that proclaimed through socialist propanda, stories and even real-life experience during those collectivist times, but it is ironically now the mood/culture of the underdogs, misfits and losers (and loners) which is vented against the system and its agencies in these stories. We did mention Lu Xun and his stories, like Ah Q, and how ironical that history comes round in full circle. HD might be taking a leaf out of that old master’s book.


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