Holy Shit, this book was pretty insane.
Note – For a very short summary of my thoughts on the book, check out the Summary of the Review Breakdown at the very bottom of the page.
Introduction to this insane book
This book is a look at modern China, however not the China as China wants you to see. Not the 5,000 year culture with beautiful architecture, amazing history & literature and fantastical scenery, no I mean the 60 + years of ‘modern’ Chinese culture since the Communist Party got into power and basically started over, the dirty side of China, looking at how society is really working in China these days, what motivates the majority of people and how the gov. seem to see themselves.
This book is a brutal look at…socio-political issues in China, and as such will never be translated into Chinese or sold in China, and I’m pretty sure the government would like it banned world-wide as there is no way the Ch. gov wants anyone to know just how close to reality many of the observations in this book really are.
The author previously lived in China and it is obvious with all of his poignant observations about the workings of modern china, the adjectives and descriptions used, even down to the character names. Most people would describe such a person as jaded, but unfortunately this understanding of Chinese modern happenings is what almost every expat living or have lived in China has experienced in some way or another.
Not all of it is 100% though, it is a work of fiction after all, however the author has definitely tied in major aspects for how he and many foreigners see how China works and how the communist party operate, at least down at a provincial level.
I’ve read several interviews with him telling he is originally from the UK, and spent around 17 years living and working in China, getting to be proficient in Chinese enough to work without any problems and live comfortably. This is not a guy that only has a ‘passing understanding’ of China.
Also, from what I understand, this guy lived in not just 1st tier cities like Beijing or Shanghai that most foreigners live in but 3rd and 4th tier cities that most people don’t go to but however make up the majority of China.
It is this kind of city or rather the lowly ‘tier 88’ (8 being a lucky number in China) city that this story is based in.
You can read more about the author, his influences, the thoughts that went into the book, real-life events that influenced stories and the general why of him deciding to write a book about this issue.
extra note. The cover art is by the dissident Chinese artist Badiucao, who is based in Australia and features his unique subversive style.
What is the plot of the book?
The amazon.com description does a very good job at a basic introduction without giving anything away, as it is very easy to give stuff away in this book.
Deep within the heart of China, far from the glamour of Shanghai and Beijing, lies the Chinese every-city of Huaishi. This worker’s paradise of smog and concrete is home to Party Member Yang Wei, a mediocre man in a mediocre job. His content life of bureaucratic monotony is shattered by an encounter with the advanced consumer goods he has long been deprived of. Aided by the cynical and malicious advice of an unlikely mentor, Yang Wei embarks on a journey of greed, corruption, and murder that takes him to the diseased underbelly of Chinese society.
Will Yang Wei achieve his ambition of promotion to the mysterious eighth floor? Will he win the love of his beautiful but materialistic colleague, Rainy? And will his penis stop telling him to eat at fast-food restaurants? Just how far will Yang Wei go to achieve his pursuit of wealth, glory, and a better car?
Party Members is a bleak and black comedic fantasy about a world where to get rich is glorious, no matter who gets hurt in the process. Designer handbags, sex, karaoke, and shady property deals combine to paint a picture of modern China unlike anything seen before.
What kind of book is it?
Essentially this book is a cultural expose with brutally honest reflections of real-life china & a parody of China’s kleptocracy where the government & corrupt leaders use their power to take advantage of people with corruption and their territory
Plus, mixed with minor parts of erotic fan fiction, told in an absolute brutal manner, and some metaphors that get a little carried away and end up sounding batshit crazy.
That being said, these over extenuated metaphors do come back around by the end of the book to make full sense.
The 1st review on the amazon website is by a guy called Tony Parfitt and it’s 100% correct. To view the whole review, click the link above, but here are some choice parts-
‘this is not your typical anti-hero novel. It’s not one of those novelized morality tests where the protagonist is pure sleaze, but pure sleaze with a grand plan and the writer wants you to examine your soul and ask, ‘Do I cheer him on or hope he fails?’ No, no, it’s a cultural expose. A dark and twisted cultural expose – extremely dark and seriously twisted – but it reveals more truth about China than you’ll find in a dozen volumes of non-fiction.’
‘Plotlines thicken and overlap and by the final paragraph even the meaning of the title has expanded. In sum, this is a novel I wish I’d written. It deserves a large readership. Five stars.’
Characters and concepts
For most of the concepts it helps if you have been in China and can speak or understand a bit of the language, as many of the concepts, names of places, names of people will make sense and add that extra element of funniness and understanding within the story.
The book takes many references from the reddit group r/china. Or r/ccj meaning China circle jerk.
It’s the kind of thing that knowing that the author spent so many years in China, he might not have been influenced by these groups, but may have been one of the major influencers of these groups to begin with.
The main character is called ‘Yang wei’ – loosely meaning ‘impotent’ but can also be translated to mean ‘to flaunt ones strength’ depending on the characters used.
In the interview, the author describes “When the book begins he is an impotent figure with no power over his own destiny: his rage stems from that fact.”
In the interview the author also describes that all characters are based on real people he met during his time in China.
‘Yang Wei is basically a composite of every single nasty small-minded little person I ever met in China rolled into one. You can find him in every city in every province in China. Next time you read a news story about some corrupt official: that’s Yang Wei.’
Rainy – taken straight from the CCJ (china circle jerk) pages, A description of a “Rainy” girl from the CCJ:
let’s be clear, it’s not just poor English that constitutes a rainy, it’s the meandering thoughts that go nowhere and a preoccupation with the lives of laowai and how they might be ensnared into marriage that’s a hallmark of rainy behaviour.
Rainy has just enough self-awareness to know how odd her behaviour is (“maybe there are some persons thought me is a crazy girl”) but she rationalizes it away. Fuelled by all the bullshit expats have told her about life back home, she’ll do anything to get that ticket to waiguo, husband in tow and mix baby on the way.
The character was originally to be called ‘little jade’ which is also a fairly common name in China, however CCJ influenced the author to take up this name.
Pangpang – a fellow colleague who works in the same office as the main character.
The name literally translates to ‘fat fat’ and of course, the character is fat.
In Chinese culture they often repeat a character of the name, or even a feature of the person as a sign of endearment.
Wu ming – a character of a poor peasant family that represents the many nameless poor people of China taken advantage of by the government and other money hungry people across china, literally translates to ‘no name’.
The city where the story takes place is called ‘Huai shi’ which can literally translate to ‘bad things’
The expensive area in the city is a suburb called ‘tai gui’ which literally means ‘too expensive.
KFC (yes, the chicken place) whilst not meaning anything so obvious is a sign of the beginnings of wealth in Chinese cities.
I know this only because my uncle used to be fairly high up in the UK ‘YUM! Foods’ which owns KFC, and told me that the government actually owns 50% of all KFC franchises in China.
When a person wants to set up a KFC normally they get the money together, find some decent land get the correct zoning permissions and the setup shop. A small % of money is paid in franchise fees for advertising each year but the ownership belongs to the individual.
Not so in China, the government took this as an opportunity to make money from its own people and required that all KFCs were owned 50% by the government, which is why when you’re in China you’ll find the KFCs generally have priority in terms of good land areas.
Also why cities like the fictional Huai shi in the story will have a KFC as its 1st signs of wealth, the government is making money before anyone else and taking advantage of the situation.
All characters in the story in their climb up the ladder or as a sign of prosperity eat KFC and show off the fact at some point.
Being a dick. This is a particularly common phenomenon in China, however it seems like in order to get ahead, the idea is to be the biggest dick possible and not care about anyone else, this is a massive concept throughout the book, yet it reflects what is easily observable in the modern Chinese socio-political environment.
Who is this book for? Who would enjoy this book? Recommendation
People that have lived in China.
Not just visited China for a quick holiday, but actually lived and worked in China. It helps slightly, but not absolutely necessary if you can understand a bit of Chinese.
I doubt many people that have not lived in China would enjoy this book, partly because of the sometimes crude descriptions, seemingly jaded outlook on society but also not being able to understand the nuanced concepts and names, which really adds a lot of depth and often humour to this book.
Also, because it has erotic fan fiction mixed into the story, its understandable that its not for everyone.
The cultural expose part of it …is absolutely savage, and it does not hold back, so those people that see the world as they want it to be, rather than how it is… will probably not finish the book, or believe it to be a product of maybe racism or extreme negativity, whereas in reality they’re showing their naivety towards the issues and the reality of the situation.
Some other people state it could be read by open-minded Chinese people, but I would disagree. You’d have to be pretty damn open minded for this book. And considering that most of Chinese culture is based on a collective approach, any bad representation of China as a whole, of a society, is deemed to be a bad reflection of all the people as individuals as well.
There are elements that open minded Chinese people would enjoy, especially those that see the Chinese communist party as the government of China, but not the government of the people, which is actually many educated Chinese people in China. That being said, they are also a product of how the communist party has shaped modern values, drive, education etc and so to detach themselves from the representation told throughout the story is very difficult.
As a reviewer stated ‘it’s the kind of book that I wish I’d written’.
Yes I’d agree, to a point. I think if I’d written something like this, it wouldn’t be as savage as this seems to be, and I think I’d leave out the metaphors than end up going into batshit crazy territory. That being said, it all makes sense in the end, and the last paragraph of the book is really well said and ties everything together nicely.
If you are going to read this book, you’d probably want to take notes.
I know this is a real (non-audio) book, but you can also get it on kindle, and… there’s many other good books on audible too. Check them out