Novels: Start reading Chinese gangster novel 《一半是火焰,一半是海水》by Wang Shuo

In the Novels series, I get you started reading the first few paragraphs of classic Chinese fiction. If you like the beginning, you can buy the book and keep reading.

Super challenge time: this is the longest and most difficult read I’ve ever posted. Long, because I wanted to put up the entire first chapter. Difficult, because… well, I explain below. Wang Shuo has been called “China’s Kerouac”, I might lean more towards “China’s Bukowski”, and as such, this piece is not appropriate for children. There is some swearing and (very) mild sexual content – you have been warned.

Wang Shuo (王朔) is the bad boy of contemporary Chinese writers, a real controversial figure, and his work, which centers around the dark underbelly of Beijing in the 1970s and 80s, spawned its own genre of “hooligan” fiction. This isn’t the organized, moneyed mob fiction of Hong Kong, this is the small-scale thievery that reflects urban life on the mainland right after the Cultural Revolution, when the country just started opening up to international trade and society was a mess. Wang Shuo’s plots are so ugly, dark and brutal that he has been called a “spiritual pollutant” by the powers that be.

This is the complete first chapter of his book Hot and Cold, Measure for Measure, or 《一半是火焰,一半是海水》. The book contains several short novellas, but the namesake work is only around 90 pages long in total. I’m just about to finish reading it. The plot is horrendously depressing: the story of a thug who casually seduces a young high school girl with a bright future, breaks her down with his callousness until she becomes a prostitute and eventually kills herself, which sets off another chain of events. The extremely relatable realism with which Wang Shuo describes her destruction will have any woman who has ever been involved with a bad-news boyfriend cringing.

This chapter sets up the rest of the book in two main scenes: One, we meet the protagonist as he is in the middle of a scam he often runs. I’m going to explain the nature of the scam here because it’s confusing unless you spent time in China twenty years ago. Basically, the protagonist works with a gang that includes a friend of his (named 方方) and a few prostitutes (mainly one lady named 亚红). During this time in China, it was very common for prostitutes to work in and around hotels, they would push their cards under the door of hotel rooms, or cold-call the room to ask if services were required. Prostitution was illegal, but this still happened all the time. The protagonist and his friend wait until one of the prostitutes in the gang have landed a client. Then complicit hotel staff (named 卫宁) calls the gang, who burst into the room dressed like policemen and demand money as a “fine” from the hotel guest, and take the prostitute out as if they are arresting her. So this is where the book starts, with a phone call from a corrupt staff member at the hotel’s front desk to the gangsters, telling them which rooms the prostitutes are in with their clients.

In the second half of the chapter, the protagonist goes about the next day of his life doing some errands, and eventually meets and has a conversation with this girl whose life he will later ruin. She is spunky but naive, daring and precocious in the way that young people can be when they think they can handle themselves, but haven’t yet encountered real danger or darkness in their lives.

Some language stuff

Linguistically speaking, this is one of the hardest Chinese books I’ve ever read, because it’s full of underworld colloquialisms, and like a lot of great fiction, some of the things that happen aren’t clearly spelled out, they’re only suggested and you have to read between the lines. This chapter isn’t too bad, but subsequent chapters are pretty heavy on that stuff. I’m going to explain some of the slang used here that isn’t in the dictionary.

First, though, a couple of proper nouns: 白茹 is a brand of car, the old Chinese name for a Peugeot. Peugeot’s official Chinese name is 标致, but the cars were being imported into China probably before the company released an official Chinese name for them, so since 白茹 kind of sounds like “Peugeot”, this is probably just the Chinese-ified brand name given by locals. Happened with quite a few brands back then. 燕都 is the name of a hotel.

野鸽 yě gē – 鸽 means “dove”, but here it is slang for “prostitute”. 野, as you probably know from the word 野生, means “wild” or “untamed”. 野鸽 refers to a prostitute that is not working for the gang. In the first paragraph, 野 is used by itself, this is what it’s referring to.

小子 xiǎo zi – This is a derogatory way to refer to someone. It translates to something like, “little shit”.

他妈 tā mā – Usually 他妈的, the swear word “fuck” or “fucking”, but not referring to the sexual act itself, just used for emphasis, as in “What the fuck are you doing here?”

没劲 méi jìn – This usually means “no energy”, but in this case, it means “uninteresting” or “dull”.

倒霉蛋 dǎo méi dàn – “Unfortunate guy”, in this case probably better translated as “sucker”, as it’s referring to people who were scammed by this gang.

三联单 sān lián dān – An invoice that has three copies (one of those old white / pink / yellow carbon-copied invoices). In this chapter, the protagonist gets one from a medical clinic, and it is not made clear here what is being done with it, except that it’s clearly being used in some kind of dishonest dealing.

四胜三和五负 sì shèng sān hé wǔ fù – This phrase is being used in relation to a game of Go. Literally: “To win four (games), tie three, and lose five”. Here just means “to win a few and lose a few”.

小毛头 xiǎo máo tou – “Little boy”, used as an insult here.

丫头 yā tou – “Girl”, usually with overtones of naivety, in this case used insultingly / dismissively.

凑人 còu rén – A casual phrase meaning “to get some people together” for a party or activity.

来劲 lái jìn – To be annoying, to pester or hassle someone.














“谢谢。” 年轻妇女坐下后,又逗弄着小孩说:”谢谢叔叔。”












我们都笑了。”不看了。” 女孩把书撂到一旁。“你有事吗”她问我。

“没有。” 我说:”没人约我。”




“瞧我。” 女孩示范性地磕了一个瓜子,洁白的贝齿一闪,我下意识地闭紧自己被烟熏得黑黄的牙齿。女孩倒没注意,晃悠着腿四处张望。“你是哪个学校的”我注意到她里面毛衣上别着一枚校徽。女孩龇齿咬着瓜子看着我笑起来。

“这就叫’套瓷’吧。” 女孩说:”下边你该说自己是哪个学校的,我们两校挨得如何近,没准天天能碰见……”

“你看我象学生吗?” 我说:”我是劳改释放犯,现在还靠敲诈勒索为生。”

“我才不管你是什么呢。” 女孩笑着瞅着自己的脚尖,似乎那儿有什么好玩可笑的,”你是什么我都无所谓。”


“你多大了?” 女孩转过头看我,仔仔细细打量了我一遍:”你,过去没怎么跟女孩接触过吧。”

“没有。” 我面不改声色心不跳地骗她。




“你笑起来,” 我说:”跟个傻丫头似的。”






“我要是他,就敢跟你睡觉。” 我微笑地说:”他敢吗?”




“又完了不是?” 我取笑她,”敢在光天化日之下看书,不会抽烟,时髦半截。”

“你别来劲。” 女孩不服地说,”给我一支!”



“干吗有点信,就应该信。知道我外号叫什么吗?老枪!” 我听到完完全全收拾书的声音,恶意地笑着说:“我叫你害怕了。”

“才没有呢。” 女孩站起来:“我只是该走了。”



“好,我俗。你走吧。哎,” 我叫住她:”咱们要是再见了,就得算朋友了吧?”

“算朋友。” 女孩笑着走了。


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Show English translation »
“Hey, both pairs just went into their rooms, the room numbers are 927, 1208, and there’s one other [that isn’t part of our gang], went into 1713.”

“Got it.”

I put down the phone, immediately put on my suit jacket, picked up my book bag, and called to Fangfang who was watching TV, and we ran down the stairs two at a time. The “Peugeot” car I paid 4000 RMB for was parked on the corner of the street. We got in the car, and drove quickly onto the road, and drove directly towards the brilliant lights of the Yandu Hotel. On a shady street next to the hotel, I waved to stop behind a row of cars, our doors closed with a ping pang, and we quickly stepped in to intermingle with a group of Japanese tourists that had just gotten off a tour bus, walking [among them] into the Yandu Hotel’s resplendent lobby. Courteously standing behind the main service counter, Weining surreptitiously shot us a look: everything was normal. Fangfang and I walked into the washroom, opened the leather bag, took out two police uniforms and changed into them, walked out of the washroom, and took the emergency exit stairs up. We climbed to the 9th floor, both of us huffing and puffing, and waiting until our breath came easier, then we walked towards the [floor’s] service counter. The service personnel sitting there raised his head and looked at us astonished.

“We’re the police, please open room 927.”

The staff compliantly lifted out a chain of keys and lead us to a room at the end of the long hall.

“There’s a guest inside.” The staff saw the “do not disturb” sign hung on the door, and said looking back at us.

“We know, open the lock.” I ordered.

The service staff twisted open the lock, and stood to one side.

“Get back,” Fangfang roughly waved away the staffer.

The staff disappeared down another hallway, and Fangfang and I immediately opened the door and charged inside…. Fangfang and I walked out with Yahong, our leather bag stuffed full of a few thousand fresh bank notes, and with serious expressions entered the elevator next to the service desk, then Fangfang and Yahong could [no longer] suppress their laughter.

“What are you two laughing at, what the fuck is so funny [lit: it’s really fucking uninteresting].” But as I spoke I couldn’t help laughing myself, and I said to Yahong, “Wait in the bar downstairs for a bit, we’ve still got to go grab up those little shits on the 12th floor.” We took the elevator to the lower floor, let Yahong out, then went back up to 12. ?

Fifteen minutes later, we changed out of our police clothes and took the second girl to the bar to find Yahong, had some drinks together, and Yahong left on Fangfang’s arm. I gave Weining at the main service desk a call, told him it was done, and to let the hooker on the 17th floor sleep soundly for the night, then call the [real] cops [on her] in the morning. With the other girl on my arm I walked casually out of the hotel. Fangfang had already started up the Peugeot, and he drove off as soon as we got in.

In the morning, I was woken up by a phone call, and Yahong who had been sleeping by my side answered it. She told me: Weining said that the two sorry suckers that we’d scammed had already paid for the rooms and left, the other prostitute had been taken away by the cops that were waiting at the main entrance. Yahong rolled over and went back to sleep. I couldn’t fall asleep again, [so I just] smoked one cigarette after another. Sunlight was spilling at an angle through the thick curtains, and I walked quietly to the window, looking out through the crack in the curtains onto the flow of people and traffic outside, the sun shining brightly on the street, and pulled the curtains firmly shut. I don’t like the early morning, seeing people in their hundreds and thousands rush to work, to school, makes me feel like an isolated shadow. I don’t have anything to do during the day, and no one’s waiting for me, my friends are all asleep. I smoked another five cigarettes, looked at the calendar, then put on my clothes, washed my face and brushed my teeth, and walked out of the apartment where I was staying. I walked past the Peugot parked at the corner, and walked straight to the bust stop. Even though rush hour was already over, the bus was still pretty packed. One guy who was sitting down got off the bus, and I was just about to sit [in his place], when I saw a young woman carrying a small child, and called her to sit.

“Thank you.” After the young woman sat down, she cutely said to the kid: “Thank the uncle.”?

“Thank you uncle.”

I smiled at the kid, and he fished a piece of chocolate wrapped in colored paper out of his pocket, ripped open the packet and was about to stuff it into his mouth, saw me watching him, and held up the chocolate to me.

“No thanks, uncle doesn’t want it.”

“Have it, it’s nothing.”

“No, really, uncle’s got to get off.”

I pushed my way off the bus, walked along the road as far as the next stop, arrive an infirmary and asked for asked for a triplicate invoice, then called an acquaintance to go to the hospital and get some blood drawn in my place. At two [separate] savings banks in the business district I deposited the money I’d gotten last night under my dead parents’ names, then I went to the post office and sent a tuition payment to a correspondence university where you didn’t have to take a test to register, just pay. I registered to major in law. Once I’d finished these things, I went to eat lunch at a fine dining restaurant where there weren’t too many patrons. The food at this restaurant was exquisite. I drank no small measure of wine while looking at the lovely picture [menu], ate a few ice creams drizzled with chocolate sauce, left the restaurant in the afternoon, bought the morning and evening papers at the news stand, and sat on the long-distance call waiting bench in the telegraph office and browsed them thoroughly. I called the house around dusk, Fangfang picked up. We talked for a while, he’d just been playing Go with Weining. Weining had come over earlier, they’d been playing Go all day, he won a few, tied a few and lost a few?and tonight they were planning to get some people together for a Majiang game. I told him I’d be back that night, and hung up the phone.

It was late spring, the trees and grasses had turned green, the flowers bloomed in profusion. I went into a park where they’d organized an evening music event, and waited in line to return my ticket. An old man had given me one ticket, I ended up re-gifting it to a young couple who only had one, refused their offer to make up the difference. Between the huge, green-painted pillars, I saw a beautiful young woman sitting on the marble platform reading a book, her two long legs hanging in the air hooked at the ankles, swinging up [and down]. She was holding a book in one hand, and was picking sunflower seeds out of the bag at her side with the other, the shells she’d spit out had amassed into a pile, she was humming a song, turning a page now and then, leisurely and unrestrained, delicate and lovely. I quietly walked up behind her, and stood on tiptoe to look at the book that had fascinated her so. It was a profound works of literary theory, I skimmed it for bit, [found it] dull and insipid, and I was just about to turn around and leave, when I suddenly heard the girl say:

“You don’t understand it, huh?” she turned up her face, looking at me with a smile.

My face turned red, and I felt at a loss that I [was still capable of] getting embarrassed. After a moment, I settled down, and said: “You’re just a student, sitting here in the park reading is a bit of affectation.”

“I’ve been sitting here all afternoon, look here you, see how much I’ve read.”

She quickly flipped through all the pages she’d read, and I pinched that thick stack, and thinking back on the contents, asked doubtfully, “You read that quickly?”

“I don’t understand it either, but I read it quickly.”

We both smiled. “I’m done reading.” The girl put the book to one side. “You have somewhere to be?” she asked me.

“No,” I said. “No appointments.”

“[Shall we] chat [for a bit]?”

“Let’s chat.”

I sat down next to her, and she pushed the bag of sunflower seeds over to me. I didn’t really know how to crack the sunflower seeds [with my teeth], and [when I tried] spittle went everywhere.

“Watch me.” The girl demonstrated with a single sunflower seed, her pure white teeth flashing, and I subconsciously closed my mouth over my own tobacco smoke-yellowed teeth. But she didn’t notice, swinging her legs in all directions. “What school are you from?” I noticed there was a school emblem on her inside sweater. Biting down on a sunflower seed, the girl looked at me and smiled.

“That’s called ‘cottoning up’,” she said. “Next you’ll probably say whatever school you’re from, and that our schools are so close to each other, maybe we can run into each other every day…”

“You think I look like a student?” I said. “I’m a criminal freed from the work camps, I extort people for a living.”

“I don’t care what you are,” the girl said, smiling and looking at her toes, as if there was something amusing there. “Whatever you are is nothing to me.”

I didn’t speak for a while, and the girl didn’t speak either, just looked on, pleased, as the evening light disappeared on the horizon and the sky quickly dimmed, but didn’t lose its magnificent clouds: “That cloud looks like Marx, that one looks like a pirate, doesn’t it, don’t you think so?”

“How old are you?” the girl turned her head to look at me, carefully looking me over. “You, doesn’t look like you’ve been with that many women.”

“I haven’t,” I said, lying to her without a change in expression or a thump of the heart.

“I could tell right away, little boy! As I was reading my book just now, I saw you standing far away, wanting to talk to me but also timid, afraid I’d curse you, huh?”?

“[Actually,] I’ve slept with over 100 women.”

The girl let loose a laugh, unbridled and amused.

“You laugh,” I said, “like a dumb chick.”??

She suddenly stopped laughing, angrily throwing me a scornful glance, “I didn’t criticize you, don’t criticize me. Truthfully speaking, I’ve already been with someone for a year.” The girl smiled again, quite satisfied with herself.

“Is it one of your idiot classmates?” ?

“He’s not an idiot, he’s a cadre in the student union.”??

“Then he’s stupid beyond measure.”?

“Huh, a little baby like you who’s only been kissed by his parents doesn’t deserve to speak of him.”?

“If I was him, I’d already have had the courage to sleep with you,” I said, smiling lightly. “Has he dared?”??

Although the sky was already gloomy, I perceived the girl’s face reddening, “He respects me.”

I tittered, “Oh, respect, don’t even, no need for us to talk about that. And no need for you to play dumb.”

The girl sat there vexed for a while saying nothing. I started whistling, started sucking on a cigarette, passed her the cigarette pack, she shook her head.

“Busted again, aren’t you?” I teased her, “willing to read a book in broad daylight, but can’t smoke cigarettes, [guess you’re] only half-fashionable.”

“Don’t be obnoxious.” Still, unwilling to be conquered, she said, “Give me one!”

I passed her the cigarette that was in my mouth, she took a puff, and heng, blew it all out. I stretched an arm around her shoulder, she trembled a second, but didn’t refuse. I pulled her near to me, she looked at me from close up, pushed my arm off, and with a forced smile said:

“I might believe a little that you’ve slept with over 100 women.”

“What are you doing only ‘believing a little’, you ought to just believe. You want to know what they call me? The Old Pistol.”?I heard her grabbing up all of her books, and said with a nasty smile, “I think you’re scared.”

“Well, I’m not.” The girl stood up: “I should probably go.”

“Do you dare tell me your name, or where you live?”?

The girl jumped off the platform, her bright, crystal eyes flashed in the darkness, and she said smiling, “Ah ha! I thought maybe you weren’t like everyone else, [talking shit] half the day, but then sinking into mediocrity.”??

“Fine, I’m mediocre. Go. Hey,” I called her to stop, “If we meet again, let’s consider ourselves friends.”

“Sure, friends,” she said, and smiling, left.?

I sat for a while on the platform smiling genially, then I too jumped down and left. ?

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