Translated from the Chinese by Philip Hand

This evening Philip Hand was announced as the winner of The Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize for his translation from the Chinese of Han Dong’s story ‘The Wig’. The prize received over seventy entries (all of which were translations of this story) and was judged by author Tash Aw, translator Nicky Harman and editor Briony Everroad. The prize focuses on a new language each year and aims to recognise the achievements of young translators at the start of their careers. You can also read an exchange between Han Dong and Philip Hand, here.

 

Hu Yanjun had got his hands on a wig, and was trying it on in front of the mirror when his friend Wang Xinghai came to see him. Hu Yanjun had very high cheekbones and sunken temples (you know how qigoing masters in fantasy novels are supposed to look? He was the exact opposite). A full head of long hair might have disguised this cranial imbalance, but he was not overly blessed up top. His hair was not completely gone, so he put quite a lot of effort into hanging on to what he had, and his locks were now long enough to cover his ears – but of course, they bore no comparison with the glossy volume of a wig. Its (the wig’s) hair was thick and lustrous, and held its shape, not like his own strands, cleaving limply to his skull. ‘You look ten years younger with that wig on,’ said Wang Xinghai.

‘I’m not fussed about looking younger. I want to change my image. There’s this psychologist in America who did an experiment: he gave newly released ex-cons plastic surgery, and found that the ones who had the operation reoffended far less than the ones who hadn’t,’ said Hu Yanjun. ‘I’m a teacher, I can’t be going to some salon to get my hair done, and on my salary I couldn’t afford it, anyway. But a professional-looking hairstyle is extremely important. We are supposed to be shaping the younger generation, after all! Actually, it would be better if every lecturer were given a wig to wear in the classroom, like how judges in Europe wear wigs to court. Those are very dignified proceedings as well.’

Hu Yanjun waxed lyrical, but the conversation was never allowed to stray far from the topic of wigs. Wang Xinghai had come to Hu Yanjun’s room for a game of go or to watch football (there was a TV in Hu Yanjun’s building), and was ill-prepared for wiggish discourse. The best he could offer was some vague agreement when prompted, and without a foil, Hu Yanjun struggled to sustain his oratory. However, he was in no mood to sit and play go or watch TV, so he suggested that they go to the White Flower Cinema just outside the campus gates. With the wig still on his head, he herded Wang Xinghai down the stairs. In the darkness, it (the wig) melted into the night, its edges indistinct. All that remained were the weight and heat that it generated on the scalp. Hu Yanjun’s privileged perception of the wig restored his sense of importance. He felt safe and confident.

As the film started, he kept thinking about what the people in the row behind thought of him, of the two of them. They wouldn’t be angry because his lush hair was blocking their view of the screen. No, they were enjoying it and remarking upon it. No one would curse such a magnificent edifice, or demand that it tilt to one side. They wouldn’t dare. In the face of conspicuous excellence, it is only human nature to display a little servility. Placed side by side with his, a head like Wang Xinghai’s would barely rate a mention. Too slapdash, too second rate. A counterpoint, at best, to his crowning glory.

What film did they watch in the cinema that day? Hu Yanjun had not the slightest idea what it was called. He was absorbed in careful observation of the actors’ hair. It seemed it must have been a costume drama – why else would they all be wearing hairpieces? And those without hairpieces were in hats. The audience seemed not to mind. They busied themselves with the plot rather than worry about such niceties. This meant, of course, that they would equally unconcerned by his wig, but in any event, his wig looked much more real than those in the film. It was seventy per cent human hair, so they’d told him.

You have to realize that this was typical September weather, September in the modern calendar, right after the end of the summer holidays. Stuck in his seat in that sweaty, dirty cinema, Hu Yanjun became acutely aware of the thick wig on his head. That perfect heft had now turned into a leaden pressure, and beads of sweat were running down from his temples. He started to feel as though all those hairs were growing into his scalp, a million tiny pinpricks worming their way inward. He pressed his hand down on the wig, and wiggled it. He imagined them entering, anchoring themselves, never to be pulled out again. Hu Yanjun pushed the wig back a little, and peeled up the front edge. He fanned in cool air, and as he’d hoped, the feeling subsided.

Unfortunately, they made the mistake of lingering at the end of the film, and when the lights came up, they were spotted by a group of students from Hu Yanjun’s course. The young people came over to say Good evening, Mr Hu, but didn’t notice his hair or his expression. They didn’t notice a number of details. Whatever was different, it was just a function of not having seen him for the length of the holidays, not any cause for suspicion. They didn’t look at him properly at all, just gave the most cursory of glances. It was in stark contrast to the attention they had paid to the heroine of the film. They didn’t give him that kind of respect.

Hu Yanjun wore the wig to the first class the next day, to maintain a continuity of image with the Mr Hu that certain students had seen the day before. For the second class, and the third and fourth classes the following day, he went the same way (bewigged), to maintain continuity with the first class. And in order to ensure continuity with these first lectures, it seemed that he would now never be able to take the wig off. Hu Yanjun became extremely cautious, and rather fragile. Previously, he had always worried about whether he had zipped up his fly. Whenever the malicious giggles started in the lecture hall, and he couldn’t immediately see the reason, he would always assume the worst. And you can’t look to check it, can you? It’s a quick and easy enough little motion, but a lecture hall is not a cloakroom.

Now his worries naturally found their way to the wig on his head. He worried that it was crooked, or that he would knock it off when wiping the blackboard. He didn’t dare lower his head too far. Eventually he got used to it, to the point where he wasn’t even aware of its existence any more. His defensive mechanisms were handed over to his subconscious. Plus, the weather was cooling rapidly, and his head didn’t feel as hot and heavy as it had done. There was just one detail that nagged at him. He had made sure that he looked the same each day, so neither the students nor his colleagues had remarked on any sudden change; but looking exactly the same each day would itself ultimately become unnatural. One day they would suddenly realize: why doesn’t Mr Hu’s hair seem to be growing any longer? Surely it can’t be a wig? And why would he be wearing a wig? He must be a slaphead. No doubt about it, he’s a slaphead.

Getting a wig to grow would be a challenge, to be sure. But changes in hairstyle were possible. He started a regular regime of combing and washing his hairpiece. He bought a full set of hairdressing equipment specifically for his wig, and often found use for the hairdryer. He blew it into proud, bushy styles, in honour of its great superiority over his own follicles. Back before the wig, when he only had his real hair, he had never taken much interest in hairstyles. His hair frequently looked little better than a windblown haystack. Now, with the advent of the wig, he attained the skills of a master stylist within two or three months. If he ever lost his job at the university, a career as a hairdresser beckoned. And the wig was not spared the scissors. There’s nothing to stop a wig being cut shorter. Making it grow may not be possible, but cutting it a little shorter, creating the illusion of having come fresh from a cut and style at the barber’s shop – that was feasible. So that’s what he did. Time and again, he presented his students with the image of a newly barbered Mr Hu.

Inevitably he became more furtive. He was always thinking about finding a private place to take off the wig and restore his real, original appearance, at least to let his scalp breathe a while! He thought about it in his room; he thought about it in the toilet stalls. But despite all this thinking, he didn’t often remove the wig. Even a toilet or his own room was not one hundred per cent safe. The conditions required for safe removal of the wig were similar to those required for masturbation. In fact, as he came to realize: a time and place in which masturbation was possible was also perfect for wig removal. Ultimately, a Pavlovian response developed: to masturbate, he needed to remove his wig; if he removed his wig, then he must certainly masturbate.

It was little wonder that his single life became somewhat unsatisfactory. He lacked a partner to whom he could fully reveal himself. But it was precisely during this romance with his wig that someone hooked him up with a girlfriend. It didn’t take him long to get her into bed, and directly he gave her a frank account of the secret of the wig and of his personal habits.

She was not taken aback in the least, neither by his private activities nor by the wig.

It was only later, when he told her that her chest was too flat, that she called him a ‘bald bastard’.

This incensed him. He wasn’t bald.

‘If you’re not bald, how come you wear a wig?’ she shot back.

He had no reply.

It was true: for no other reason than the fact that he wore a wig, he was a bald bastard. When they made love he took it off and put it to one side, but that didn’t help. Even when it wasn’t on his head, he still owned it, therefore he was still a slaphead. He thought, we won’t be able to resolve this argument until she’s had a breast enlargement. But he’d have got shot of her long before that day came.

On the day before the winter holidays started, he barbered his wig for the last time. He finished off his course, delivered his last lecture to this particular group of students. He had taught them for a full academic year, and he took his leave of them with some fond sadness. Only a thin layer of wig remained. The net was almost showing through beneath the hair, as if you could see through his scalp to the neurons below. He would find a hidden corner and dispose of it.

 

Photograph by sirbryanclark

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