Han Han the novelist versus Fang Zhouzi the fraud-buster

Han Han vs Fang Zhouzi

It’s been an exciting two weeks on China’s microblog scene. Megablogger, rally racer, and novelist Han Han has been defending himself against science writer Fang Zhouzi’s charges that he didn’t write some of his most famous work.

Han Han (韩寒) closed out 2011 with a trio of overtly political blog posts in which he laid out his views on revolution, democracy, and freedom. Critics and supporters alike were surprised by the conservative stance exhibited in the three essays, which seemed to be at odds with Han Han’s track record of championing the rights of the general public against the selfish interests of the wealthy and corrupt. Nationalist-leaning commentator Liu Yang (刘仰) even suggested that the essays were written at the behest of democracy advocates and foreign interest groups in an attempt to step back from their open advocacy of a color revolution in China while laying the groundwork for further meddling in the future.[1]

While Liu Yang’s argument received little mainstream attention, another ghostwriting charge sparked the giant flame war that consumed Chinese social media during the Spring Festival holiday week and culminated in a lawsuit.

According to Mai Tian (麦田), a blogger and tech entrepreneur, it was an earlier transition away from personal issues and petty flame-wars and toward social commentary that led him to suspect that Han Han the high school dropout race car driver wasn’t the blog’s real author.[2] Mai Tian bolstered his argument with schedule data that purported to show that many of Han Han’s posts had been made during or shortly before races. Critics countered that Han Han did not necessarily need to be in a state of zen detachment the night before a race, and Mai Tian’s data collapsed when other critics pointed out he had failed to account for schedule alterations.[3]

Han Han’s early replies were entertaining in their earnestness and snarky vulgarity. He provided a straightforward account of his blog-writing habits to explain how he could post in between race events, and then flipped Mai Tian’s reasoning around to cast aspersions on his sexual prowess. He offered a 20 million yuan purse and the copyrights to his entire oeuvre as a reward anyone giving conclusive proof of having ghostwritten for him. And, perhaps unwisely, he took a few potshots at Fang Zhouzi (方舟子), who up until that point had needled Han Han for a few minor writing mistakes but had otherwise shown no great interest in the argument.


Going up against Fang Zhouzi is a risky thing. A science writer better known for his work exposing academic fraud and intellectual dishonesty, Fang Zhouzi is a tenacious opponent who has an arsenal of online debating tactics at his fingertips. He brings up questions one by one, beginning with minor points that might seem trivial to explain or brush aside, and then when his target takes the bait, he charges in with more evidence showing a pattern of deceit. This technique, which he employed successfully in 2010 to reveal Tang Jun’s worthless diploma[4] as well as in a more recent campaign to completely discredit Luo Yonghao (罗永浩), a popular internet personality who had insulted his wife, is how he went to work on Han Han.

Concentrating on Han Han’s early work, he raised questions about two essays written for the New Concept writing contest, a first step to national popularity for a number of young writers, including Guo Jingming (郭敬明) and Zhang Yueran (张悦然). Han Han’s participation in the contest was marked by a procedural irregularity: he apparently failed to receive a mailed notification of the second round of the contest and was called in the following day to sit for a special essay topic. Had strings been pulled? Was his first-round essay a fake? The notion that Han Han’s entire literary career might have been built on a lie served as a good starting point. Fang Zhouzi set about picking apart the essay, “Seeing a Doctor” (求医). Here’s one point, which appears to contradict the notion that Han Han wasn’t much of a reader, especially of foreign books:

“Seeing a Doctor” quotes lines from Turgenev’s Father and Sons and Smoke, as well as referencing Freud’s The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (in English) to support the notion that misreading a name is intended as an insult. “Seeing a Doctor” cites details from two of Turgenev’s novels; having them at one’s fingertips requires one not only to have read the novels but to be fully familiar with them. Clearly, there’s no way it was written by Han Han.[5]

An unwarranted conclusion, according to the findings of Vivo, a textual sleuth (and Han Han foe) who tracked down both Turgenev references to a footnote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life; the 1988 edition of the Chinese translation includes the title in English on the cover.[6]

Han Han himself wrote up several posts that explained the circumstances behind the composition of the controversial pieces and sent sarcastic barbs back at Fang Zhouzi. His father, Han Renjun (韩仁均), contributed a few blog posts as well. Fang Zhouzi seized on details in these accounts and played the role of cross-examiner to attack the credibility of Han Han and his father by pointing out inconsistencies in their “testimony” (口供), and then went further: the setting is more consistent with the late 70s than mid 90s, and the symptoms described point to hepatitis rather than the scabies ultimately diagnosed. Therefore, Han Renjun (who as it happens published a few short essays under the name “Han Han” before turning it over to his newborn son) is the true author.

Eventually Han Han announced he was preparing to sue Fang Zhouzi for impugning his reputation, and had gathered a thousand manuscript pages to demonstrate that he alone had written his books and essays, Han Han pledged to bring out a facsimile volume of the original manuscript of his debut novel, Triple Door (三重门), for the low-low price of 10 RMB. Other writers voiced concerns about the difficulty of proving authorship. Even the presence of a manuscript isn’t totally convincing: it could easily have been copied off of someone else’s original work.

Arguing against Fang Zhouzi’s allegations were Han Han’s supporters, who included Lu Jinbo (路金波), his friend and publisher, along with other publishers, authors, journalists, and fans. Lending their support were Fang Zhouzi’s many enemies, whose numbers tend to cut across normal political lines. Fang Zhouzi’s support for GM food, skepticism about traditional Chinese medicine, and fraud-busting attacks on scientists like Xiao Chuanguo (肖传国) have won him a place on the nationalist left’s “Traitor’s List”, but he’s also frequently at odds with the Southern Media Group and other outlets that are seen by the left as pawns of western cultural values. On Fang Zhouzi’s side were other journalists, prominent commentators like Muzi Mei (木子美), and Han Han detractors, many of whom felt that the young author’s reputation and influence had been inflated far beyond what is normal or healthy for Chinese society.[7]

In the eyes of the Pro-Fang side, the Pro-Han side is a “consortium” (财团) that includes Lu Jinbo’s publishing empire, the Sina social media platform, the Southern Media Group, and Shanghai’s censors, who Fang Zhouzi says slapped a media ban on the controversy. Other critics argued that the conspiracy goes deeper than that, because Lu Jinbo is not Han Han’s sole publisher. One poster on a lengthy Tianya thread devoted to the controversy declared that China’s major authors have either remained silent or come out in support of Han Han because they are scared of being blacklisted by a coterie of publishers whose influence extends throughout the industry.[8] Conspiracy theorists see publishing as a huge packaging scam in which piles of rejected manuscripts are paired with authors whose brand image is more marketable.[9]

Indeed, Han Han has a marketable brand image, and his work is carefully packaged and promoted for the media and the general public. It’s a framing that has set him up as an iconoclast, a spokesperson for the 1980s generation, and someone who speaks the truths that everyone else is afraid to mention. Even those who appreciate his populist appeal may find him a lightweight rather than a “public intellectual,” and attempts to paint him as a latterday Lu Xun (鲁迅) are more than a little ridiculous. But rethinking the relative importance of Han Han as a voice in contemporary social debate does not mean he has to be utterly demolished, or in the words of critic Peng Xiaoyun (彭晓芸), that he is a “malignant cancer on society”.[10] On the other hand, even taken in aggregate it’s hard to see how Fang Zhouzi’s analyses contain anything libelous.

Fang Zhouzi has not set out the conditions under which he would be convinced that Han Han had in fact authored all of the work he claims to have written. However, in one microblog post he mentioned his willingness to engage in a “face-to-face confrontation, open debate, or live writing competition.”[11] How that would resolve the issue is unclear, but the proposal recalls another online debate, in 2006, when the philosopher Li Ming (黎鸣) challenged Fang to a duel to the death over the Four Color Theorem and refused to back down.[12]

Fang Zhouzi’s arguments seem to rely on the unspoken assumptions that everyone’s memory is perfect, so any discrepancies are clearly lies, and every utterance, whether earnest or joking, braggadocio or self-deprecation, is meant to be taken at face value. Fang Zhouzi gets a lot of mileage out of a claim by Zhou Xiaoyun (周筱赟) that Han Han hasn’t read much since he was eighteen, implying that Han Han’s book aversion was a lifetime trait.[13] Even a letter produced by Han Renjun in which the young Han Han requests a list of books is brushed aside: “What do they want to show by making these letters public? That Han Han was well-read as a high school freshman? Buying those books doesn’t mean reading them, and reading them doesn’t mean understanding them.”[14] The assembled evidence is a little reminiscent of the approach taken by truthers and creationists, the kind of distorted logic that Fang Zhouzi has dismantled time and time again. At times, it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s really just taking the piss:

First look at the form of address. The first letter uses “father” (父亲, fùqīn). This is naturally not a problem in a letter, but in the second letter the form of address turns into “Dad” (爸爸, bàba). When an ordinary person writes to their parents, the form of address is fixed, but in Han Han’s two letters, written just 20 days apart (the first is undated but according to the postmark it was sent on May 11, 1999; the second is dated May 30), the form of address for his father changes. He’s a genius, so you can’t expect him to have an ordinary person’s habits.

Then look at the signature. The signature on the first letter is “Your son, Han Han”; the signature on the second letter is “Your son, Han.” When an ordinary person writes a letter home, the signature is fixed as well, but Han Han’s changes in letters written 20 days apart. And when an ordinary person writes a letter, he won’t sign his own surname, but in the first letter, there’s a complete surname and given name. The same old refrain: he’s a genius, so you can’t expect him to have an ordinary person’s habits.[15]

As in the best flame wars, Han Han PK Fang Zhouzi has been a comedy goldmine. Quick wit, outrageous accusations, dodgy amateur textual analysis, passionate debaters falling prey to the simplest of conversational gambits – if I was a conspiracy theorist I’d wonder whether Sina had engineered the whole thing to keep people refreshing their microblog feeds over the long holiday.

A few examples:

  • Publishing veteran Zhang Fang (张放) became a laughingstock due to an analysis of Triple Door in which he mis-identified an English-language pop song as a translation of classical poetry, and expressed amazement at the author’s quotation of another arcane classical reference to “spring green” without realizing it was a homophone for “I’m a big stupid ass.”[16]
  • The illustrations in this post come from a series of amusing dramatizations of the debate drawn by Rebel Pepper (变态辣椒), a satirical online cartoonist. The strip at right illustrates the Zhang Fang debacle [17]. One further up the page mocks Fang’s stubborn insistence on incontrovertible proof.[18]
    One of the most impressive is “Ghostwriter Terminator,” which sends Fang Zhouzi on a trip into the past to gather first-hand evidence of Han Han’s chicanery. Discovering to his surprise that Han Han doesn’t show any literary or athletic inclinations whatsoever, Fang Zhouzi decides to train him, and in the process develops a fondness for the boy. With his commitment to the mission in jeopardy, Peng Xiaoyun shows up…[19]

@biantailajiao http://btlajiao.com

  • It was probably inevitable that someone would write up an analysis of the fraud perpetrated by Lu Xun:

    In “Remembering Mr. Zhou Shuren,” Fujino Genkurou (that is, the Mr. Fujino that Lu Xun once mentioned) writes, “Mr. Zhou was not tall. He had a round face and looked like a clever man.” I have seen many paintings and photos of Lu Xun, and there’s no way his face would be called “round.” The average height of a Japanese man around the second world war was 1.6 meters. Baidu Baike records Lu Xun’s height as 1.61 meters, taller than the average Japanese man. How would he be considered “not tall?” Could there be such a difference in Lu Xun’s appearance between the time he was a student in Japan (age 24-25) and later on? Or was the Lu Xun who studied medicine at Sendai not the later literary giant Lu Xun? The question of Lu Xun’s degree fraud deserves looking into.[20]

In my opinion, the funniest moment was probably unintentional. An anonymous microblogger claimed to have been hired by Fang Zhouzi as a ghostwriter and shadow moderator, and posted a signed contract as proof. It was clearly a photoshop job, but when Fang asked Sina moderators to delete the post, he was told he needed to provide proof that the contract was fake. Outraged, he posted, “So I don’t know myself whether the signature and contract are genuine?”

The following posts (in Chinese) are recommended for further reading:

  • Immusoul (土摩托, aka science writer Yuan Yue 袁越) posted a measured assessment of  Han Han’s behavior in “A Few Words on Han Han” (说说韩寒);
  • Ma Boyong (马伯庸), a humor novelist, examined Mai Tian’s initial allegations as classic conspiracy theorizing in “How ‘Man-Made Han Han’ Builds a Conspiracy Theory” (《从<人造韩寒>看如何构筑阴谋论》);
  • tombkeeper wrote up a thought-provoking look at how Fang Zhouzi’s attack on Han Han differs from his previous fraud-busting efforts in a blog post that takes its title from a line by Tang dynasty poet Liu Zongyuan (柳宗元) that happens to include the characters Zhou and Han (孤舟蓑笠翁,独钓寒江雪);
  • The China Daily published a lengthy piece on the issues involved in the lawsuit: War of words set for showdown.


2012.02.02: The article originally said that Han Han was offering a reward of 10 million yuan, not 20 million. It also originally implied that Han Han himself had claimed not to have been much of a reader in high school. It provided the wrong transcription for the name of Zhou Xiaoyun.


Image at top from 21st Century Business Herald (21世纪经济报道), The Han-Fang Fight: Who has gotten lost? (“韩方之争”:谁在迷失?). 

  1. [1] Liu Yang (刘仰): Color Revolutions and Democratic Freedom (辞旧迎新《韩三文》:花儿革命与民主自由). 
  2. [2] Later, Mai Tian expanded his doubts to encompass Han Han’s entire body of work: The mystifying thing about Han Han is that he wrote the astonishing Triple Door when he was sixteen, but the totally ordinary 1988 the age of nearly thirty. Isn’t it peculiar for an author’s writing skill to decline rather than advance over the space of more than a decade? Other than Han Han, where in the world can you find an author like this? 
  3. [3] See ESWN’s translation
  4. [4] Danwei.org: Faked credentials, a ghost-written autobiography, and a diploma mill
  5. [5] Fang Zhouzi (方舟子): Analysis of “Genius” Han Han’s “Seeing a Doctor” (“天才”韩寒作品《求医》分析). 
  6. [6] Vivo, 2012.01.27, 18:322012.01.27, 19:11
  7. [7] The English-language Global Times calls Han Han a “god-like opinion-leader” in the Feb 1 editorial “Challenge to Han Han is improving public debate,” which portrays the controversy as one of clashing opinions and curiously does not refer to authorship issue at all. 
  8. [8] Qi Dafu (祁大夫): “Let me explain the behavior of the big-name microbloggers” (我给你们解释一下大V们的表现吧). 
  9. [9] For example, in “A plagiarism gang behind Triple Door!” (《三重门》背后有团伙涉嫌抄袭!) Zhao Youbin (赵幼兵) claims that a sheaf of manuscripts submitted to a publisher in 1993 turned up later as part of Han Han’s Triple Door and Hong Ying’s Daughter of the River
  10. [10] Peng Xiaoyun (彭晓芸): “Han Han hijacked for the literary road” (被“绑架”上文人之路的韩寒). 
  11. [11] Fang Zhouzi (方舟子), 2012.01.27. 
  12. [12] Danwei.org: A theorem, a crank, and a duel to the death
  13. [13] Zhou Xiaoyun wrote, “In 2009 I said Han Han was a modern Lu Xun. I need to read to be enlightened, but reading Han Han never reads, yet he can speak like a Lu Xun or a Hu Shi. Han Han is a genius,” and “Actually, starting from the age of 18, Han Han did not read any books. His thoughts are entirely innate.” Zhou retracted this claim once Han Han posted about his reading habits as a student. See Fang Zhouzi (方舟子), The literary ability of “genius” Han Han (“天才”韩寒的文史水平). 
  14. [14] Fang Zhouzi (方舟子): 2012.01.29
  15. [15] Fang Zhouzi (方舟子): Han Han’s two strange letters (两封奇怪的韩寒家书). 
  16. [16] Zhang Fang subsequently deleted his analysis and offered a non-apology. The pertinent parts of the original piece can still be found on Han Han’s blog:  In answer to spring green (答春绿). 
  17. [17] Zhang Fang comic by @biantailajiao: 2012.01.28, 12:56
  18. [18] Cartoon by @biantailajiao: 2012.01.27 
  19. [19] Ghostwriter Terminator comic by @biantailajiao: 2012.01.29, 21:43
  20. [20] Fang Chigui (方尺规) via Han Han’s blog: Casting Doubt on Lu Xun (质疑鲁迅). 
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