The Aim Of Irony: Celebrating Meaninglessness Or Building A New Order – A Critique On Troubleshooter

At the beginning of the film Troubleshooter was a well-known folk song The Loess Plateau, accompanied by the broadcast saying “Pay homage to the remains of Chairman Mao. Please carry your work card, ID card, or recommendation”. Then, a set of montage presenting a vibrant, energetic and prosperous urban scene of Beijing in the late 1980s opened the prelude of the film, pointing to the end of the previous order and the arrival of the new era. However, the background music lyrics “I dreamed of a modern city life, but now I don’t know how to say”, implied a kind of confusion and distrust; just as the Director Mi’s interpretation of this set of shots – “the chaos of modern city life and the confrontation between people and the city”.

In the 1980s, mainland China just experienced the end of Cultural Revolution and ushered in the the Reform and Opening up. The works of Wang, which born at this historic moment, are generally considered to convey the spiritual situation of the young generation at that time. In the history of Chinese movie, 1988 is called Wang Shuo Year, in which four films adapted from Wang’s novels was released. It proved the popularity of his works. The theme revealed by Wang is how to face the problem of “meaning” at the time of great change. This is also the topic that this article attempts to discuss: Since Wang has deconstructed the meaning through irony, does “meaning” have meaning in Wang’s work Troubleshooter? In other words, what is the essence under the surface of Wang’s deconstruction of meaning, nihilism, or the construction of new order?

The dialogues in the novel could be the starting point of this paper since Wang is generally regarded proficient at writing dialogues of Beijing style. In Troubleshooter, 3T Company took “Help people solve problems; Help people relieve boredom; Help people be punished” as the business project; the troubleshooters actually provided the service in the form of dialogue/language, which offered the customers imaginative satisfaction and comfort. The novel and film begin with a conversation between Ma Qing and a young married woman, which vividly illustrates the specific function of this “language service”.

To some extent, 3T Company echoed the service industry that emerged as the tertiary industry at that time. Language, or more accurately, acting out various social roles, was what this service company did for a living. Interestingly, the troubleshooters did not seem to take the company’s profit, input-output ratio or business expansion as the highest purpose. Only when 3T Company was in debt at the end of the film did they show the attitude of making money and paying off debts. This ran counter to the purpose of modern service industry and individual economy. In addition, the services they provided in “performing” various roles were more like parodies of different social identities. Instead of pursuing authenticity in their performances, they took the initiative to expose the falsity of their performances and unconsciously pursued freedom in parody. Ma Qing forgot his words when serving the young married woman; Yang Zhong seemed unprepared when issuing the “3T Literature Prize”; Yu Guan impolitely called the anal surgeon “an expert in taking good care of asshole”. These were their teasing and entertaining of all classes. Through parody of various social roles, they expressed their indifference to wealth and status; and further put forward a question with silent resistance of the rationality of society itself. Such “harmless” resistance seemed to be the soul of 3T Company. At this point, the grand narrative of society and history was deconstructed; the traditional symbol system was also collapsed; everything in the material world seemed to be truly meaningless.

By Zhuang Zi’s concept of “totally free from all constraints”, what Wang created was not an image beyond the common customs. On the contrary, Bao Kang was a double-dealer who maintained a good friendship with the troubleshooters on the surface but actually elevated his image by belittling the troubleshooters when flirting with girls. Therefore, his words seemed to be particularly unreliable, the so-called “totally free from all constraints” had lost its noble meaning and became a language game that could not stand up to scrutiny. Such banter and semantic deconstruction can be easily found in both the fiction and the film.

This conversation happened between Yu Guan and Liu Meiping, a “modernist” who loved to explore life. It can be seen that Wang made fun of the craze of Freud culture as a fashion in the 1980s.

There are two quotes in this paragraph. “Rise at dawn” was originally from the family motto of Zhu Xi, which was later quoted by Mao Zedong in his speech The Situation means “totally free from all constraints”, namely Zhuang Zi’s concept of Our Policy After The Victory of The war of Resistance Against Japan to describe the fight against reactionaries. “Liu Yingjun” was a widely publicized hero in the 1960s. Both of these quotes were originally in a grand narrative and were of great importance at that time. But the purpose of them in Wang’s text was to teach the client to overcome excessive masturbation. The solemn and grand symbol and the intimate personal sexual experience formed a sharp contrast, which achieved an ironic effect.

One of the highlights of the text is the fashion show in the movie, which is the best embodiment of this point; the director used a series of montage to illustrate this performance. In the last group of scenes, all the performers on the stage danced with the disco music. The landlord and the peasant, the red guards and the Peking Opera performers, the KMT officers and the PLA soldiers, the squire and the female bodybuilders, people from all kinds of opposing classes were dancing happily together.

A new era of peace finally dawned after the turbulent historical transformation of more than a century. The way Wang healed these wounds was to smooth out their inner meanings. The historic break, conflicts, antagonism and tension have been deconstructed in the performance of defamiliarization and spectacle; and the narrator did not provide more space to interpret these symbols. The writing of Wang, who poked fun at all the prescripts and “ism”, seemed to be immersed in a kind of nihility. The “small talk” life constituted by the ordinary everyday language weakened the meaning, disintegrated the truth and collapsed the center. The piling up of historical materials led to a symbolic game, leading to the isolation and alienation of history. It seemed that “meaning” could not be justified for Wang.

Meanwhile, it is because of the large number of language descriptions in Wang’s novels that we can hardly figure out the value judgment by the narrator on the troubleshooters. In the words of Chen, Wang had a decadent attitude toward the decadent life scene he wrote, which was quite interesting. Wang’s indifferent attitude also presented his irony to a certain extent. Here, Wang’s irony was not just a figure of speech, but a distrust of the “meaning” and even the distrust of the narrator himself. Just as Kierkegaard suggests, “Here, then, we have irony as the infinite absolute negativity. It is negativity, because it only negates; it is infinite, because it does not negate this or that phenomenon; it is absolute, because that by virtue of which it negates is a higher something that still is not. The irony establishes nothing, because that which is to be established lies behind it.”

What Kierkegaard tries to make clear is that irony itself has no transcendental concept to decide what to deny or doubt, which means that everything is to be negated including the narrator himself. Because of this double distrust (distrust of the “meaning” and distrust of the narrator himself), Wang could not make the narrator hold a certain attitude, otherwise the practice of irony would be incomplete and unfinished.

Chen even held a more negative view on Troubleshooter: “It is not reflected in the active rebellion; it is a kind of negative hedonism. ... The only thing that matters is carpe diem. It does not have to think of the future... It does not have any noble content or tragic spirit; but only devour, expend, and even corrupt social functions in vulgar ways, making the traditional norms of society disintegrate and dissipate in the joking farce.” Irony indeed dissolves the grand meaning through self-mockery; It has no antagonism and militancy; Deep disappointment makes the narrator unable to have the power to spurt outwards, but can only digest his negative emotions inwardly; So it appears to be a harmless internal injury; Anger is dispelled into banter, and sanctity into farce; Thus it is easy to fall into a kind of artistic dadaism and value cynicism.

However, Dai pointed out that Wang’s way of expression was to let the stylized words pour down like sadistic from the mouth of his characters – the troubleshooters, and made these words with specific signified and context appear as meaningless cliché – in the ironic conflict with Wang’s narrative and discourse subject. In other words, Wang’s irony of meaning had a specific social context. It was the understanding of the heaviness of meaning (the trauma caused by modernity) that caused the nihilism conveyed in the text, which had a strong social meaning under the surface of “anti-social”/ “anti-meaning”.

With a look at Wang’s background, it may be easy to understand why his narrators and fictional characters were so desperate and lost. Due to the essay’s space constraint, I will not elaborate on this. However, one thing to point out is that Wang did not indiscriminately satirize everything in the text, nor did he completely fall into the nothingness of meaning. In a sense, the troubleshooters were the harmony among the intricate modern urban images, implying the emergence of a new order. This is reflected more clearly in the film, in which 3T Company, seemingly a dummy corporation, has completed the transformation of the value system and the legalization of the new order. There is a scene in the movie: Yu Guan asked Yang Zhong why the tax was so high. Yang Zhong told that the Tax Bureau said it was a special business tax. Yu Guan was busy with the client and said “OK then, just do whatever they say.” This dialogue can be seen as Yu Guan’s helpless self-mockery of the tax system; and his indifferent attitude seems to be corresponding to the nihilism. However, Yu Guan’s desire for 3T Company to be involved in the social value system as well as to obtain value affirmation is also reflected in this dialogue. There is another proving example. Yu Guan, Yang Zhong and Ma Qing were in the hospital, laboriously serving the seriously ill old lady. But it came out that they were blackmailed by the old lady and her family of a huge amount of money. Yu Guan resolutely decided to hit the real glass when working as a body double to pay off the debts so that 3T Company could survive.

To preserve this company was not just a joke made by some young people. In fact, 3T Company sincerely implemented the humanistic spirit. Yang Zhong’s saying that “My professional ethics do not allow me to lure you there.” 3T Company’s opening day of voluntary service to the public; Yu Guan rejected a client with no hesitation by telling “No, The Bank of China will never guarantee such an unreliable project”. What the audience perceive is not a complete disregard for “meaning”, but a sharp moral yardstick. The behavior mode of the troubleshooters is regularized and legitimized in the film text: Under the surface of being idle, there is personal struggle, professional ethics and life attitudes. At the end of the film, there was a grand rectification ceremony for 3T Company – citizens who did not know that the company had closed were still lining up at the gate to seek help, which was undoubtedly a recognition of the value of 3T Company and the troubleshooters. To some extent, it also reappeared the confusing situation that people did not know where to look for in the transition between the old and the new.

Although both the fiction text and film text make fun of people from various classes, it is undeniable that Wang Shuo was trying to construct a new order while deconstructing the meaning. Obviously, this order was related to truth, honesty and goodness, which was also the requirement of Wang Shuo for the confused young generation in the new era. This request was wrapped in the cloak of banter and expressed in the form of irony, resulting in the superficially nothingness of the meaning. As Yu Guan said when he saw the crowd dancing at the 3T Literature Prize, “Oh my god! The Chinese people are the best people in the world. …… They don’t really ask for much.” Wang Shuo actually criticized the “not ask for much” by irony. What he aimed at, in my opinion, was building a new order rather than celebrating meaningless.


  1. Kierkegaard, et al. The Concept of Irony, with Continual Reference to Socrates: Together with Notes of Schelling's Berlin Lectures. Princeton University Press, 1989.
09 March 2021
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