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Manoa 15.2 (2003) 111-122

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Starboy and I

Yan Li

I know people have the right to fictionalize in all sorts of ways about the future—for instance, by the year 2010 we can vacation on the moon or hold a wedding on Mars. These scenarios might only be extrapolations, but we can write them into books as if they were facts. However, the past is more popular for fabrication, at least in China, where there's an endless stream of novels and TV series featuring romances and intrigues set in imperial palaces. The closest thing to this in America would be western-cowboy fiction. Clearly, the length of a country's history makes a difference. China has a vast amount of history that can be fictionalized, while America has only a couple of hundred years, and most of that is documented in detail. Documentation gets to be pretty important when you remember how many versions of history China has had during those same couple of hundred years. These different versions have given Chinese writers more leeway to fictionalize. So a foreigner who observes Chinese history from the outside must feel bewildered. And not just foreigners: even Chinese people feel distanced from their history. For one simple reason: a lot of history is treated vaguely, with big words covering a great many details, and when you lose the details, the fascination of history is gone. I'm not attempting to write a serious, in-depth analysis. I'm just writing about a friend of mine, about his background and his talent for fabrication, which I greatly appreciate.

His name is Starboy. I'm told that three days after his father's wedding, in 1949, someone gave his father a boat ticket to Hong Kong. Because he couldn't find a second ticket, he gave up on Hong Kong and stayed on the mainland, where he and his wife raised three children, including Starboy. After the Cultural Revolution, the common fiction in China was expressed this way: "If my grandfather (or parents or whoever) had left the mainland in 1949, it would have been a different story."

From there, switch to Shanghai in 1981, when Starboy was thirty-one years old. By then I had known him for more than ten years, but never once had I heard him fictionalize his parents like that. He made up a different story: "I just pretend my father returned from Hong Kong to the motherland in 1950." That's the way he is—someone who thinks like a writer [End Page 111] but does not write. Maybe I shouldn't say he thinks like a writer, because so many writers approach writing as a way of making money. In 1981, Starboy got a chance to go to Hong Kong. His superiors at work wanted to broaden his training, so they put him down for one of three openings on a fact-finding trip. Starboy said that the trip was actually a bonus, to give him a glimpse of the outside world and make him more loyal to his superiors when he got back. But around that time, he was thinking of quitting his job. If he took the trip to Hong Kong, it would be harder to quit. Another possibility would have been to play the turncoat and stay in Hong Kong. He thought it over for two days and asked his superiors: "If I like it in Hong Kong, can I stay there?"

His leader said, "That would be terrible! If you don't come back, my own position will be in danger. Are you really considering such a thing?"

Starboy said, "I'm being frank because you treat me decently."

So the leader gave the trip to someone else. Later, the leader said to him in private, "You really did the right thing. If you had taken that trip and stayed in Hong Kong, I would have been forced to give up my own position."

Starboy jumped right in and exclaimed, "I've been wanting to quit. How about giving your approval, in view of...


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