Han is admired for his use of wit and subtle allusion in a game of cat-and-mouse with China’s censors. He is pop-idol handsome and more than financially solvent. This 29-year-old is self-assured, with well-thought-out ideas relayed in breezy, almost playful, language.
Han’s writing career began almost 13 years ago in the suburban village outside Shanghai where he was brought up. He decided to write about his hatred of school and young love. Subsequently, in December, 1999 a publisher in Shanghai received a handwritten manuscript by a first-time author. Han had spent over a year writing a novel in the back of his classroom (on his way to flunking seven courses) and prompting him to drop out of school in the 10th grade.
The novel that resulted, Triple Door, a scathingly realistic satire of education and authority, was published in the year 2000, and went on to sell two million copies — making Han instantly famous. In the next two years, he published four more novels and several essay collections.
In 2006, he started blogging about censorship, corrupt party officials, poisonous factories and the gap between rich and poor. Han proved to be even more successful online than in print and his diary quickly became the best-read blog in an Internet-frenzied country.
For the past 10 years, Han Han has maintained a parallel career as a race-car driver. “As soon as I started making money from writing, I started buying sports cars and racing,” Han says. He now has a respectable record in circuit competition for Shanghai’s Volkswagen team and in off-road rally races for Subaru. He’s the only government critic with corporate sponsorships: an advertising contract with Johnnie Walker and a luxury Swiss watch by Hublot.
He Writes, They Delete
Responding to a question about the limits of free speech in today’s China, Han says, “We don’t have 100% freedom in writing, but we do have a better writing environment than many westerners imagine.” Then the punchline: However, the government also has the freedom to delete what we have written.”
In 2010, when the imprisoned Chinese writer, Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Prize, Han posted a blog consisting of a pair of quotation marks enclosing an empty space (the typographic equivalent of the empty chair placed at Oslo’s Nobel ceremony). The post drew 1.5 million hits and 28,000 comments.
In a speech in 2010, Han listed 13 “I can’t write about…” topics — beginning with “I can’t write about the police” and ending with “I can’t write about art.” In April of the same year, Time magazine picked Han for its annual list of the world’s most influential people. Photographs were used to allow non-English-speaking readers to navigate Time’s website. Soon the combination of “Han Han” and “Time” was blocked by Chinese search engines. In the final online tally, Han came in number two worldwide.
Sources: The New Yorker, July 4, 2011, Associated Press, February 11, 2012, Financial Times, April 21, 2012, China Daily, July 18, 2012
UPDATE: The China Daily newspaper reports that Han Han will write a column for The New York Times. He will write in Chinese and the newspaper will translate into English.