There is a scene close to the end of Party Members in which Yang Wei is confronted by his lackey, Pangpang. Pangpang has evidence which could doom Yang Wei’s ambitions: an audio recording of the night Yang Wei and his mistress ran over the daughter of migrant workers. Seeing that the little girl was still alive, Yang Wei backed over her to make sure she was dead.
I thought that perhaps Pangpang has some noble motive. Does he want justice for the girl Shanshan, whose grieving parents were railroaded for non-existent crimes and whose money was embezzled by Yang Wei — harmonizing at its finest — or perhaps he wants to send a message to the other officials, that they aren’t above the law?
“Do you think this is about something else?” asked Pangpang, confidence beginning to emerge on his face. “I don’t know why you started talking about justice and changing things. I don’t care for any of that. I don’t care about that stupid girl who died — if her parents were so stupid as to allow her to play on the road then they deserve to have their daughter smashed up. I just want my fair share of all that money you’ve made for yourself over the last few months.”
Yang Wei promptly clubs Pangpang to death with his giant, talking penis.
Party Members follows Yang Wei has he moves from low-level desk jockey to powerful city official in the nameless and drab Ministry, fucking anyone who stands in his way. He appropriates funds intended for earthquake victims, netting him the favor of Director Liang, the monstrously overweight head official.
The trigger for Yang Wei’s journey is his co-worker, Little Qi. After a dinner where Little Qi shows off his wealth, Yang Wei’s penis decides enough is enough: it comes to life, guiding him to the top.
Along the way, Yang Wei acquires all the status symbols of a powerful official: an iPhone-addicted mistress, a black Audi, a Louis Vuitton bag (for storing his growing, sentient penis) and most importantly, a taste for KFC.
Keenly aware of what it takes to succeed in Chinese officialdom, the penis encourages Yang Wei to eat more KFC. We’re introduced to the bucket of KFC chicken by seeing a child defecate in one, where the penis teaches Yang Wei his first lesson. KFC continues to turn up throughout the book and its significance cannot be understated. To get rich is glorious; to consume fried chicken is erotic:
Grabbing the chicken, Yang Wei tore the flesh open with his fingernails, soiling the inside of his nails with breadcrumbs and fat. He brought the chicken up to his mouth, his tongue flicked in and out of the meat as he used his tongue and teeth to widen the hole he had made. Once done, he rammed the remaining shreds back down into the man-bag, the hot meat pocket fully encasing the head of his salivating cock.
Shortly before Yang Wei’s metamorphosis into a penis, he visits a prostitute. Among the choking smog, he sees the words EAT PEOPLE on a sign for a hair salon. The words change to FUCK PEOPLE.
Lu Xun used EAT PEOPLE as reference to the cannibalistic nature of Chinese society. Updated to the twenty-first century and the continued glory of getting rich (and eating KFC), Meursault puts a modern twist on Lu Xun’s critique. Simply put, the elite no longer eat people. They fuck people, and to paraphrase George Carlin: when you’re fucking people you have to keep fucking them until they’re all dead.
The strong devour the weak, and Yang Wei’s penis ends up devouring him, walking upright and transforming Yang Wei into a flaccid, helpless penis. The book ends with a test designed to weed out the final stragglers: the sodomy of Little Qi, told from Yang Wei’s perspective. And when I say Yang Wei’s perspective, remember that at this point Yang Wei is the penis and the penis is walking upright. We are spared no detail, of course, and as I was reading a near first person description of someone else’s bleeding anus, I thought, an editor gave this his blessing. Or, he told Meursault to crank it up to eleven. Either way, the scene made me uncomfortable and that’s the whole point.
We finish Party Members understanding that the penis will continue its rise through the ranks without its due comeuppance, and this takes us back to the penis’s first lesson, given after Yang Wei sees the child defecate in a bucket of KFC:
That no matter what you do, no matter how badly you behave, even if you are literally turning everything you touch into shit — nobody will stop you. Be careful of those with more power than you; but in regards to everything else, you should treat the world like a leftover bucket of KFC. Just shit all over it.
I once worked with a man who proclaimed that God had sent him to China. Prone to long soliloquies on how China would soon overtake the West, he dismissed the Great Firewall as a Western myth while simultaneously defending the blocking of Facebook. He bragged about his powerful Chinese connections and frequently promised the people he liked that he could keep them “safe” come contract renewal time. Once he was too old and the school no longer felt like lying about his age to secure his residence permit, he had no choice but to return to America, where he published a glowing book about China through a vanity press. Party Members is a sharp critique of a nation that takes itself too seriously, and I wish I could force him to read it.
Preferably with a bucket of KFC.
Read my other book reviews here.
Quotes from Party Members:
Originality, creativity, self-reflection, and all the other useless qualities unnecessary to China’s relentless growth had been expunged to create a reliable army of the unreliable. Any morsels of these vices that may have sat nascent within the young Yang Wei had been successfully harmonised out of his system.
As long as there was always somebody unimportant around to clear up the mess, everybody would just concentrate on their own affairs out of fear of attracting attention to themselves and losing the little empires they had struggled so hard to accumulate.
They had never existed, and any memory of them was soon replaced with the intricate details of who a certain Shanghai actress was dating and the fact that a new season of China’s Got Talent had been approved. Shanshan’s life was as short, fleeting, and unimportant as that of the butterfly that had led to her death.
These days all of the old gods were dead, buried beneath decades of Mao’s destruction and forgotten by the unstoppable march of modernity. Only the God of Wealth remained, grown fat by the offerings and prayers for sports cars, designer clothes, and the latest mobile phones.