Course:ASIA351/2021/The Golden Age

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The Golden Age
Book cover of The Golden Age (2017)
Author Wang Xiaobo
Title The Golden Age
Country China
Language Chinese and English
Genre Fiction
Published 1992
中文原名 黄金时代

Wang Xiaobo (王小波) was born in Beijing in May 13, 1952, and passed away on April 11, 1997. As a young man, he worked as a worker and teacher in Yunnan as a well educated youth. From 1978 to 1982, he studied at Renmin University of China. In 1984 , he went to the United States. Received a master's degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1988. He later taught at Peking University and Renmin University of China. Then, he became a freelance writer in 1992.

Historical background

The Golden Age was written by Wang Xiaobo in 1982. The Taiwan United Daily News first published the work in 1992 then the story was published again in the China mainland in 1994.

The background of this work is during the period of the Cultural Revolution.[1] The Cultural Revolution took place in the 1960s and 1970s, a time of disaster for our country and nation, and The Golden Age restored the absurd social phenomena of the Cultural Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution, China was emotionally suppressed, as well as sexually suppressed. At the time, sex was a dirty and inappropriate thing. Therefore, they express in the story the liberation and freedom of humanity from its body.

Synopsis/Plot Summary

In The Golden Age[2] Wang Er is a 21-year-old educated youth sent to Yunnan, where he meets Chen Qingyang, a 26-year-old doctor whose husband has been in prison for a year. In the village, gossips accuse Chen of being “damaged goods”—of having cheated on her husband. When Chen asks Wang to defend her dignity, he rejects it. Eventually, Wang and Chen have an affair under the name of "great friendship" and retreat to the mountains. Later on in the story, both Wang and Chen are forced to make confessions about their 'sins', hence they write down every detail of their past sexual life. At the end of the story, when Chen reunites with Wang in Beijing in 20 years, the couple makes love again in their hotel room. Before Chen leaves for Shanghai, she tells Wang that she falls in love with him at the moment on Mount Qingping. After that, Wang never sees her again.

Main characters

Wang Er:

Wang Er was a “sent-down youth” in Yunnan during the Cultural Revolution at the age of 21. He has a strong vitality, an independent mind and desire, and more importantly, a unique way of dealing with extreme authority. Although he passively endured persecution and oppression, he had a free, liberated spiritual world. Therefore, Wang Er was hailed by many scholars as the “ “totem of freedom[3] ”.They interpreted Wang Er's behavior as a reflection of his free spiritual world: eclectic, optimistic and talented. From his choice to escape the farm and hide in the mountains to live a utopian life, the audience can see his extreme yearning for freedom[4] . His spiritual freedom can also be seen when he is forced to confess guilt. Despite the restrictions on his physical freedom, he has the right to choose what to write in the confession[4].

Wang Er is also a real person. He did what he wanted to do and said what he wanted to say. In the novel, he is the only one who dares to express his feelings for Chen Qingyang and talk directly about his sexuality[4].Finally, from his passive posture in the face of oppression and his sarcastic narrative of storytelling, the reader can also find his contempt for the cruel and broken reality[3].

However, some scholars have different interpretations of Wang Er’s passive posture. Since Wang Er's identity is an educated youth, some scholars believe that he should be understood as a role model for intellectuals under various forms of coercion[5].They also pointed out and criticized Wang ERL's “well, whatever” attitude, because he “refused to take a role of responsibility in the relation to the state, instead meekly going along with orders” and “immersed in the bourgeois way of life.”[5].

Wang Er is a unique figure in Chinese literature. According to Wendy Larson, "central to this character is an unemotional emphasis on sexual pleasure, which is achieved through sensitive appreciation, a slight sense of melancholy, and a sense of fatefulness. He emerges neither as an example of a collective socialist identity, nor as a contemporary capitalist subject formed through a psychologized, angst-laden personal[5]."

Chen Qingyang:

Chen Qingyang is the heroine of The Golden Age. She was a well-educated doctor who was sent to Yunnan at the age of 26. Her husband was in prison, and she was suffering from scandals and slander, known as a “damaged good.”

She is a helpless, spiritually lonely woman in real life, but she dares to fight fate and dare to get rid of traditional notions of asceticism and chastity in an environment of extreme oppression and truly live for herself[4]. When she is unable to prove that she is not a “damaged good”, she intends to become a “damaged good “and uses it as a weapon for revenge and resistance to those who unjustly evaluate her. In her affair with Wang Er, she understood clearly that they did not actually love each other, their pursuit of sexual freedom was indeed resisting and attacking the sexually-repressive society during the Cultural Revolution[4].

The theme(s) of the work

Criticizing the decision of Journeys of Sent-down Youth

Under the leadership of Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, there was a political movement from the 1950s to 1978, which eventually ended with the Cultural Revolution. When the government sent tens of millions of young urban intellectuals to the countryside to receive re-education by farmers. Wang Er faced discrimination as an intellectual. Both Wang er and Chen Qing yang were treated unfairly in the countryside.

Satirizing the Cultural Revolution and describing the unfair treatment of intellectuals under the absurd social system

The Cultural Revolution and the journeys of sent-down youth[6] took place at the same era. During the political movement, many people were persecuted, committed suicide, or tortured. During the Cultural Revolution, everyone lived in a highly oppressive political environment. People against each other. Wang Er was interrogated and tortured by the Red Guards. Everyone is trapped in a cage. After Wang Er went to the countryside, he was unjustly treated and oppressed by military representatives. He could not resist. When he met Chen Qingyang, a lonely doctor who insulted by people. They launched a silent revolt against the absurd social environment. They vent their oppressed humanity through sexual love. The author reveals the absurd behaviour through the depiction of human nature in a specific era and from the perspective of a bystander.

Rural life and farmers in the context of the Cultural Revolution

Chen Qingyang was vilified as a “damaged goods” by farmers. No matter how she explains it, people would't believe her. The peasants described in the article had no-education, and their ideas were feudal and stubborn. People went out and hurt an innocent woman with a follower mentality. They were not omnipotent. Even they don't care about the truth. They were insensitive and ignorant. All they care about is whether they get gossip for entertainment. They satisfy their pent-up desires by spying on the privacy of others. It also reveals the relative backward level of education and social development, the absurd state of mind and the distortion of humanity.

Liberalism and human rights (Unleash human nature, liberate nature. To liberate and sexual repression

Sex was a topic that could not be openly discussed. People have a problem with sexual stigma. However, the reproduction is a noble cause. “Sex” is definitely not the right political position on the premise that everyone should participate in and support the “revolution”. The “sex” in this novel is a defiant that used to silence protests against such a political system with no human rights. Chen Qingyang and Wang Er were found guilty by having sexual actives. Wang Xiaobo in this article the two protagonists are with the same loneliness. Wang Er had to endure the physical torture of hunger, leeches and heavy labor, as well as the oppression of evil men such as military representatives. Chen Qingyang needs to put up with all the vilification. After having sex with Wang Er for the first time, Chen Qingyang felt that she had sinned deeply and would be punished sooner or later. Chen Qingyang thought that people live in this world were endured trample until death. The villagers only follow the crowd and they lack of self-consciousness. By forcing Wang Er and Chen to describe in detail how they had sex, the Red Guards freed up their own pent-up instincts. Everyone in the article has no freedom and no human rights. People who are oppressed are in it and they don't know it. They have accepted such a distorted political environment with numbness, and no one has resisted. Chen Qingyang and Wang Er were two sober people around the world. Unwilling to accept such a life, they chose to protest in their own way. The author used bold and straightforward sex description to describe the character's resistance psychology.

Scar literature[7]

This is the first literary phenomenon that appeared after the end of the Cultural Revolution in China. This is the mainstream literary trend in China in the 1980s.It mainly describes the great spiritual and material damage caused by the Cultural Revolution, a literary phenomenon with a historic turning point. Wang Xiaobo rebelled against the dark political environment of the time through bold sexual depictions.

Sex as a form of resistance against the oppressive social-political structures

In the historical context of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese intellectuals have suffered a heavy blow to the oppressive socio-political structure. As an “educated youth”(zhiqing)[8] to the countryside, Wang Er's life in Yunnan is full of repression and exploitation. (The team leader) deprived him of his voice, (the community) ignored his existence and denied his existence, and devalued his value. A similar situation with the heroine Chen Qingyang. Since she was wrongly accused of being a “damaged good”, she lost her dignity as a woman and was under a lot of pressure and struggle from the beginning. As a result, all these unequal treatments experienced by the protagonists leads to a sense of rebellion in their hearts. Throughout the novel, Wang Er's sexuality represents a rebellious energy against any form of control during a violent revolution. For him, sex was a pleasant and comforting choice in the stressful, politicized revolutionary era.

The voice of liberalism

Many intellectuals praised Wang Xiaobo’s “liberal spirit”,[9] and his call for emancipation was reflected in the straightforward depiction of sex in The Golden Age. In addition, Wang's liberal spirit can be reflected in the character he created. In the novel, Wang Er is a representative of freedom and "individuality", his anti-authoritarian personality and rebellious “hoodlum” spirit through the release of sexual passion,[5] free from the shackles of socialization. In the words of Wang, he profoundly criticized the burdens of the past and sensually called for liberation and freedom in the body, mind and soul.

Sexual desire is natural and innate

The Golden Age presents a new insight into sexuality in Chinese literature. Instead of being accused of guilt and disgusting nature, it is better to treat it healthy and sincerely. Wang believes that sex is a natural and fundamental force in human nature. In the novel Golden Age, Wang refers directly to sexual acts such as legs, penises, breasts, and simply to sexual acts, resulting in an honest and frank feeling of sexual pleasure. In addition, Wang Er had sex with Chen Qingyang in the name of “great friendship”, rather than romantic love or marriage, which further reflects the author's concept of sex that is natural, pure and innate. Confucius believed that "food and sex are the basic desires of mankind."[10] echoes Wang's definition of sex: it is the primordial desire of mankind, a natural and inalienable human right. However, during the Cultural Revolution, China was an era of de-sexualization, and people's libido was generally constrained by social integration. Under the dual repression of traditional morality and authoritarian systems, people are deprived of the freedom of sex.


In this literary work, wavelet has no effect by writing some concepts about how women feel unimportant to themselves, and details their sexual encounters, arousing the interest of the audience, thus affecting the literary and cultural circle. The story describes Wang Er losing his virginity to Chen Qingyang, Wang Er losing his innocence on both sides, and Chen Qingyang eventually agreed to cheat on his husband, thus giving up his innocence. Wang Xiaobo's works have been adapted into films, such as "East Palace,West Palace" (1996).

From the publication of the first and most famous novella, The Golden Age, in the summer of 1992, until his premature death from a heart attack in 1997, Wang Xiaobo became famous. At a time when most students were disappointed by the self-righteous social criticism of the 1980s and the cultural-soul “Root-seeking” novels, his novels and essays spread across Chinese campuses.[11]

It has been widely welcomed since Zhang Hongling and Jason Sommer first translated Wang's work in English in 2007. Not only because Mr. Wang is a very pleasant writer (his translation work usually serves him well, emphasizing his spoken style and sometimes occasionally exaggerating), but also because his work embraces the unique spirit of the 90s, a combination of tired street wisdom, desperate boisterous and down-to-Earth sincerity that makes the young people who grew up after Tiananmen stand out.[11]

The Golden Age won awards in Taiwan and almost made Wang famous overnight: this is not without reason, given the explicit scenes of sex and the sensitive theme of “educated youth“ sent back to Taiwan during the Cultural Revolution.[11]

Artistic narrative features

Wang Xiaobo began the novel in his twenties and finished it until he was nearly forty. The diversity of character creation techniques. In character creation, the author used a variety of techniques to depict the characters. He created Wang Er who was a typical character with distinctive personality characteristics. Moreover, the author attaches great importance to depicting the characters by excavating Wang Er's absurd behaviors and ideas, and reveals the soul of the characters through the language and behavior of the characters. At the same time the article is full of irony and humor. In the article, it says “When I was 21 years old, I was jumping the queue in Yunnan Province. Chen Qingyang was 26 years old at the time. She was a doctor at the place where I jumped the queue. I was in Team 14 at the foot of the mountain and she was in Team 15 at the foot of the mountain.”[2] The narrator used a recollection technique to describe the events that have happened. It also used the way of interweaving narration to confirm the irreparable trauma caused to the characters during the Cultural Revolution.

Comments by others

"As soon as Wang Xiaobo's novels came out they totally wiped out the other novels that were written about sex."[5] —  Bai Hua[12]

"The sex that Wang Xiaobo writes is ordinary sex, it is mastered without having been taught and skilled without having been learned, it is never lacking and flows and stops naturally.... This kind of sex is nothing more than a kind of common sense.”[5] —Huang Jiwei[13]

“The author uses the brightness of humor to bring into the light the pervasive constraints of the period, causing people's spiritual world to leap out from under the historical shadow of tragedy and darkness and making them feel the thrill of liberation.”[5] —Ding Dong

“Seeing Wang Xiaobo's style, you can quickly see that he has mastered a unique way of narration.... Unique experience includes unique understanding, and the genius of a writer is to bring it out in unique expression.”[5] —Zhu Zhenglin

“It is difficult to imagine that someone like Wang Xiaobo could appear from inside Chinese culture.”[5] —Yang Jian

Further reading

Chinese Sources:

  • 陳福智(Chen Fu-Chih) 反思生活與生命:論王小波《黃金時代》對小說本質的探索與建構 Reflection on Existence and Life: Discussing the Exploration and Construction Associated with the Nature of Novels in The Golden Age by Wang Xiaobo[14]
  • A Brief Analysis of the Narrative of Wang Xiaobo's The Golden Age 王小波《黄金时代》叙事分析浅谈[15]
  • The ideological connotation of Wang Xiaobo's "The Golden Age": freedom is learning to reconcile with oneself 王小波《黄金时代》的思想内涵:自由,就是学会与自己和解[16]
  • An analysis of Language Features in Wang Xiaobo's The Golden Age 浅析王小波《黄金时代》的语言特色 [17]
  • Historical facts about the "Cultural Revolution" “文化大革命”时期的点点滴滴[18]

English Sources:

  • VEG, SEBASTIAN. "Utopian Fiction and Critical Examination: The Cultural Revolution in Wang Xiaobo's "The Golden Age".[19]"
  • Jin, Wenhao. Sexuality as Rebellious Gesture in Wang Xiaobo's “The Golden Age Trilogy”[9]
  • Wendy Larson’s book review: “Wang in Love and Bondage: Three Novellas by Wang Xiaobo”[20]
  • Ian Johnson’s “Sexual Life in Modern China[21].”


Landscape view in Yunnan
  1. Wang Xiaobo is the second son in his family, which is correlated with the name that he gave to his male protagonist (Wang Er) in The Golden Age. Note: “Er” in Chinese means number two.
  2. Wang frequently sets his stories during the Cultural Revolution (from 1966 to 1976), which is the desexualized period when writing about physical intimacy was forbidden.


  1. "Cultural Revolution".
  2. 2.0 2.1 Wang, Xiaobo; Zhang, Hong Ling; Sommer, Jason (2007). Wang in Love and Bondage: Three Novellas. State University of New York Press. pp. 61–117.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Hou, Ke (2020). "Zi you tu teng: Wang Er de jin shen jia yuan-Wang xiao bo "Shi dai san bu qu"zhong de "Wang Er"xin xiang fen xi 自由图腾:王二的精神家园 ——王小波《时代三部曲》中"王二"形象分析". Ming zuo xin shang 名作欣赏. no.35: 150–155 – via 超星期刊.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Dong, Li and Cao, Xiaoli 董丽 曹晓丽. (2016). "Te li du xing de zi you zhu yi zhe-jian xi wang xiaobo "Huang jin shi dai" zhong de ren wu xin xiang" 特立独行的自由主义者——简析王小波《黄金时代》中的人物形象". Xian dai yu wen (xue shu zong he ban) 现代语文(学术综合版). no.1: 46–48 – via chao xing qi kan 超星期刊.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 5.8 Larson, Wendy (2003). "Okay, Whatever: Intellectuals, Sex, and Time in Wang Xiaobo's 'The Golden Years.'". China Review. vol.3, no.1: 29–56 – via JSTOR.
  6. "Down to the Countryside Movement".
  7. "Scar Literature".
  8. "zhiqing".
  9. 9.0 9.1 Jin, Wenhao. Sexuality as Rebellious Gesture in Wang Xiaobo's “The Golden Age Trilogy”, University of Victoria (Canada), Ann Arbor, 2012. ProQuest
  10. "Book of Rites".
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Veg, Sebastian (1 January 2008). ""The Subversive "Pleasure of Thinking"". China perspectives: 109–113 – via JSTOR.
  12. "Bai Hua (白桦)".
  13. "Huang Jiwei".
  14. Chen, Fu-Chih (2018). "反思生活與生命:論王小波《黃金時代》對小說本質的探索與建構 Reflection on Existence and Life: Discussing the Exploration and Construction Associated with the Nature of Novels in The Golden Age by Wang Xiaobo". 輔仁國文學報. 46: 207–254 – via Airity Library. line feed character in |title= at position 30 (help)
  15. Nan, Taixing (2013). "A Brief Analysis of the Narrative of Wang Xiaobo's The Golden Age 王小波《黄金时代》叙事分析浅谈". Honghe College.
  16. "The ideological connotation of Wang Xiaobo's "The Golden Age": freedom is learning to reconcile with oneself 王小波《黄金时代》的思想内涵:自由,就是学会与自己和解". Baidu. Feb 11, 2020. Retrieved March 21, 2021.
  17. "An analysis of Language Features in Wang Xiaobo's The Golden Age 浅析王小波《黄金时代》的语言特色 语言特色". Baidu Wenku. Retrieved March 21, 2021. line feed character in |title= at position 82 (help)
  18. "Historical facts about the "Cultural Revolution" "文化大革命"时期的点点滴滴". Interviews on Modern Contemporary Chinese Literature: 164–169. 2016.
  19. Veg, Sebastian (2007). "Utopian Fiction and Critical Examination: The Cultural Revolution in Wang Xiaobo's 'The Golden Age". China Perspectives. no.4(72): 75–87 – via JSTOR.
  20. Larson, Wendy (2007). "Wang in Love and Bondage: Three Novellas by Wang Xiaobo". MCLC Source Center. Retrieved March 21, 2021.
  21. Johnson, Ian (2017). "Sexual Life in Modern China". China File. Retrieved March 21, 2021.