Please Don't Call Me Human by Wang Shuo

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Please Don't Call Me Human by Wang Shuo

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Please Don't Call Me Human has the rapid delivery of a Ben Elton and the slapstick humour of the Young Ones. It's possibly not for those who like subtlety in their writing, but it is very funny for the rest of us. Sadly, a poor translation and a lack of text notes may prevent some readers getting the best from it.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 320 Date: August 2005
Publisher: No Exit Press
ISBN: 1842431625

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At a meeting of the Chinese and Foreign Freestyle Elimination Wrestling Competition Organizing Committee faces are long. The most recent Chinese contestants have all suffered humiliating defeat at the hands of Fatso, an enormous western wrestler. This means that all Chinese, that the entire country in fact, has lost face, a national preoccupation. Something must be done. In an effort to modernise and yet appeal to tradition and still remain acceptable to the government, the committee renames itself the National Mobilizing Committee, or MobCom for short, and decides to look for a Big Dream Boxer: a descendant of one of the cultish martial art masters of the Boxer Rebellion almost a century ago. He will win the return match. A true Big Dream Boxer is the only person who will be able to restore national pride.

"The newly approved Directorate quickly settled upon the following appointments: a permanent chairman and thirty to fifty nonpermanent chairmen, selected by the permanent chairman on the basis of need."

Oh, that made me laugh. Don't you just hate fudged decisions by toothless committees? And junketing freeloading by naughty chairmen? Within moments complaints are being made about Some People's consumption of fried eggs with the committee expenses-financed noodle soup. Of course, MobCom aren't entirely altruistic in their motives. They are made up of representatives from all sections of modern China: the traditional party conservatives, the burgeoning capitalist entrepreneurs, and the student idealists and "free thinkers". Some want glory and honour, some want advertisers, sponsorship and lots of yuan in a Don King/Frank Warren kind of way, but none really want to restore China's face.

As luck would have it MobCom stumble across the real thing wthiin a matter of a few pages. He is Tang Yuanbao, a pedicab driver, whose centenarian father is a veteran of the Boxer Rebellion. MobCom is on its way and it undertakes the training of Yuanbao for the great event with alacrity, a flurry of media appearances, and vast amounts of misguided enthusiasm. Of course, their enthusiasm, as it would be in satire, is not for China, for the wrestling match, or even for Yuanbao himself, it is for their own advantage. As they manipulate the media they turn Yuanbao into a kind of performing animal - he's subjected to a succession of dehumanising training sessions which poke fun at everything Chinese you can imagine - traditional medicine, magical martial arts, the training of Olympic athletes, the behaviour of totalitarian secret agents and police forces, the greed of the new class of modern businessmen. Even Qi Jong finds itself laughed at. Within days Yuanbao's father, an old man and a hero, is removed from his home for questioning and his entire tenement block is reduced to a pile of rubble so that "artefacts" from it can be used in a Commemorative Museum of National Pride.

Oh, I'm not making it sound funny at all, am I? But it is. Don't Call Me Human moves at a run, savaging all as it goes. And as it goes it becomes faster and faster and more and more surreal as the foibles and self-serving, hypocritical ways of the members of MobCom are uncovered, opened up and taken to their very unpleasant, but hysterically logical conclusions. The meaninglessness of the committee's unending rhetoric is exposed by comic and cartoonish lampooning into a pell mell rush of hilarity and no one is spared the lashing, except maybe Yuangbao himself, the only one who really believes in the words and the vision. Only Yuangbao is prepared to suffer and bear humilation in order to regain China's face, and bear humiliation he certainly does. But at least he's honest. Wang Shuo writes an acrid parody of the abuse of generations of the long-suffering Chinese working class and peasantry here, but it really isn't angry and it really is hilariously funny. I'd love to explain the meeting with Buddha to you, or the filming of the TV commercials, or the ballet lessons in the museum, or the tea parties, or any of the other skits, but I'd only go wrong, and in any case, you should read it for yourself. The final scenes are like something from a Tarantino film, as gruesome yet as funny as they come. Finally China regains its face, even if it is at the expense of Tang Yuanbao, just as almost every government across the world has regained its face at one time or another, at the expense of its people.

Wang Shuo's books were among the best-selling in China until they were banned and removed from the bookshops, described as "vulgar" and "spiritually polluting". The Propanganda Minister said that they ridicule politics. The author himself merely says, "I do not deny this." Haha to that, and good for him. Since when was good taste funny?

You'll have to bear with Don't Call Me Human. The translator, Howard Goldblatt, has a rather unsure touch with dialogue and sometimes lapses into a mishmash of modern slang drawn from what I imagine he imagines (if you see what I mean!) the language of the streets of London, New York and Beijing to be. It's often poorly chosen even to me, oddly anachronistic, and rather grating at times. Goldblatt chose also to omit text notes on the cultural and historical background to Don't Call Me Human and this left me in the sure knowledge that although I spat a good deal of tea while I was reading, I'd probably missed at least as many jokes as I'd got. I've a sketchy knowledge of the Boxer Rebellion, the Sino-Japanese war, the arrival of communism to China, the Cultural Revolution and Tianenmen Square. I can imagine the current stresses on Chinese society as the pursuit of profit and infiltration of Western culture begin to sit more and more uneasily beside traditional party rhetoric, but some extra pointers and an explanation or two would have been nice. I didn't desperately need to know more, but I'd have liked a choice in the matter.

Please Don't Call Me Human is fast-moving, raucous, blunt, outrageous, surreal and you should pollute your spirit in a very good way by reading it. They've called Wang Shuo China's Kerouac in all the reviews, and yes, I suppose he is a bit, in that he mocks every facet of Chinese society imaginable in what is an almost beaty kind of way. I'd rather think of him as someone like Mel Brooks though: tea-spittingly funny. Yes, the satire is heavy-handed and yes, the translation sucks, but you'll laugh, and that's the main thing.

Those who like their satire sans subtlety and with an amount of outrageous, but naughty slapstick might like The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks.

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Buy Please Don't Call Me Human by Wang Shuo at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Please Don't Call Me Human by Wang Shuo at


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