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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Running Through Beijing

Xu Zechen

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To purchase Running Through Beijing

Title: Running Through Beijing
Author: Xu Zechen
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 161 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Running Through Beijing - US
Running Through Beijing - UK
Running Through Beijing - Canada
Running Through Beijing - India
Im Laufschritt durch Peking - Deutschland
Correndo attraverso Pechino - Italia
  • Chinese title: 跑步穿过中关村
  • Translated by Eric Abrahamsen

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Our Assessment:

B : solid slice-of-Beijing-(sub-culture-)life novel -- though perhaps not sufficiently more than just a slice

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Asian Rev. of Books . 23/3/2014 Peter Gordon
SCMP . 29/6/2014 C. Sebag-Montefiore

  From the Reviews:
  • "Running Through Beijing is characterized by simple characters, simple situations, straightforward characterization and clear description with streaks of wry humor. (...) Running Through Beijing (...) tells a simple story and tells it well. There are undoubtedly many shades of deeper meaning -- there is, as one might expect in any novel about a demi-monde, considerable social commentary -- but none of it matters greatly. (...) (T)his is a fine novel." - Peter Gordon, Asian Review of Books

  • "Xu Zechen's frenetic and beguiling novel about life in the capital's underbelly. (...) Such verve saturates the book. (...) Ultimately, Running Through Beijing works beautifully because it is tender without being romantic. Dunhuang is no dud: he quickly acquires business acumen, steadily building up his DVD sales, and starts to read film criticism books for fun. He loves the best of the movies he sells and in another book, this might have led him to a bright future. But this is not a Cinderella rags-to-riches tale. There are no easy solutions or neat endings." - Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, South China Morning Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Running Through Beijing follows the story of Dunhuang, twenty-five when the novel opens, just as he gets out of jail after a three-month-stint inside for selling fake IDs and similar counterfeit documents. He feels bad that his partner-in-crime, Bao Ding is still inside and probably looking at a much stiffer sentence, and he wants to get some cash together so he can help grease the wheels that might spring him quicker -- but first he needs to get back on his own feet again. Bustling (though often also dust-overwhelmed) Beijing isn't a complete paradise of opportunity, but Dunhuang doesn't worry too much about how he'll get by: there's always a way to find a place to stay and to make some money.
       A chance encounter with a young woman selling pirated DVDs, Xiaorong, sets him up in a new line of (illegal) business. She's sort of itching to settle down, back home, but her boyfriend, Kuang Shan, -- who runs the pirated-DVD-selling business that supplies her -- isn't as keen, and when Dunhuang meets her they're not getting along. Eventually, Kuang Shan and Xiaorong get back together -- though Dunhuang still figures in the picture, both intimately (with Xiaorong) and professionally (Kuang Shan supplying him with DVDs to sell). Dunhuang also finally tracks down Bao Ding's girlfriend, Qibao, and begins a relationship with her, too. All the while he also tries not to forget about Bao Ding and the obligation he feels he has towards him.
       Dunhuang does spend much of his time ... well, running through Beijing. Very briefly he has a bicycle, but he doesn't bother replacing it when it gets stolen and he takes to running around town to make his deliveries (though he also sets up shop on street corners and the like, and takes the bus, so it's not like he's constantly on the run). It's all about the cash, and evading the police. He drifts into a variety of living arrangements, including, for a while, with some students, as he also very vaguely dreams of taking up his studies again at university. He's on call for his regular customers and quick to seize opportunities where they present themselves. He's also not just in it for himself, willing to help out when someone gets in trouble even when he doesn't really have to and even when it comes at some cost to him. While he's involved in illegal activity, he's still clearly part of a larger community, and supportive of it -- an anti-social element only in the eys of the authorities.
       Making his pitch to new customers Dunhuang asks:

     "Would you like something heavy on story, or heavy on naturalism ?"
     "What's that mean ?" they'd ask, as though it were all the same to them.
     "Well, the ones with story don't really hold up over time," he'd say. "Who wants to watch the same story over and over ? The ones that emphasize naturalism ... those are different. They're closer to real life, as if they know you better than you know yourself, and every time you re-watch them you'll be rewarded with something new.
       Running Through Beijing also puts naturalism ahead of story -- there's an arc, of sorts, and the end rounds off this stage or episode in Dunhuang's life nicely enough, but a plot-summary wouldn't make this book sound very exciting, and even some of the major events -- Xiaorong gets pregnant -- are treated fairly incidentally. Running Through Beijing is a slice-of-life novel, a look at a certain kind of life(style) in a certain period in near-contemporary urban China. Dunhuang arguably operates on the fringes of society, and yet much of Beijing-life (and, especially, its economy) here operates at that level. The trade in all sorts of fake documents is still thriving, and while Kuang Shan's storefront has authorized copies of DVD prominently on display:
that was just for show. The pirated stuff was through a side door, and that's where most of the business went on.
       Connections and bribery work wonders as far as dealing with the authorities goes, and there's a surprising camaraderie among those involved in the various illegal activities, as they help each other out even when they don't immediately get something out of it. Even where they can't expect favors to be returned, they'll make sacrifices they don't necessarily have to -- a code Dunhuang also lives by.
       In its depiction of these lives -- of twenty-somethings who live on the fringes of society (though in this Beijing that's a very broad fringe) -- Running Through Beijing is an engaging and quite interesting read. Yet character and story are both underdeveloped: there's little sense of who these characters are, from their background to their motivations, and the novel is one more of glimpses than continuity, preventing much sense of growth or change. Despite showing these scenes from their lives, readers leave the book with little sense of what might become of them.
       Running Through Beijing is a solid little addition to the (still limited) library of fiction about life in contemporary urban China, but ultimately also only a small and thin slice.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 June 2014

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Running Through Beijing: Reviews: Xu Zechen: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Xu Zechen (徐则臣) was born in 1978.

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© 2014-2021 the complete review

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