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Han Han: Young iconoclast (©Simon & Schuster)


It is a truth of any society that yesterday’s lot of young critics can become disillusioned with those who come after them. In China, that has played out over successive generations and changes of power. The May Fourthers who protested for a new, more democratic China in 1919 felt that the cause had been lost by the 1930s. Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution, whose passion was co-opted into Mao’s vision for China, bemoaned the lack of political convinction of the youth to follow them. And the generation of students who protested on Tiananmen square in 1989 have spoken out against what they saw as vapidity among those too young to remember it.

It was Han Han, a teenage literary phenomenon, racing-car driver and blogger born in 1982, who first pushed back against that criticism of his “post ’80s” generation. “Society,” he wrote in a 2008 essay called “This Generation”, published in English in a 2012 collection of that name, “gives this generation plenty of negative labels. They’re ‘self-oriented,’ we’re told, or they ‘don’t care about politics’. This is unfair.” That was the charge laid against them by their elders. But Han Han, now 34, is no longer the young gadfly biting at the heels of his society and its leaders. He is a husband and a father of two, and it is his turn to give way to the next generation.

A new collection, The Problem with Me, adds another three dozen essays, blog posts and interviews to the index of his writing available in English. While a few of them are more recent than those in the last collection, Han Han by and large stopped writing by the end of 2012, focusing instead on his racing-car career and putting his creative energies into side projects, including a roadtrip movie. Instead, we are offered a wider tasting board, with essays spanning his school and university years, until the height of his blogging fame — before those platforms were overshadowed by the microblog Weibo and messaging service WeChat, where he has a less public presence.

Han Han is a joy to read: funny, sharp and with a knowing false modesty and wry amusement at his own fame that is hard not to like. Translators Alice Xin Liu and Joel Martinsen capture his acerbic wit, no small feat given the challenges of translating Chinese puns. Han Han takes on a range of social topics, including petty local cadres, grassroots democracy and the “deplorable education system”, while savvy enough to avoid those that sail too close to the changeable political winds. As we see him grow — from an 18-year-old writing about soccer and his dormmates to a 30-year-old railing at society and its scandals — we see China grow with him.

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