Social commentary in Chinese SF: 2013, Han Song, and others

Age of Prosperity
John Chan Koon-Chung (陈冠中)
261 pages

In a prosperous China where nearly everyone is happy, a few individuals attempt to track down why an entire month seems to have been wiped from history.

That’s the premise of Age of Prosperity (盛世, 2009), a political fantasy novel by John Chan Koon-Chung (陈冠中). Chan is known for his stories and essays about cities, and his fascination with urban landscape, people, and power structures. Previous fiction includes the Hong Kong Trilogy (香港三部曲), and his extensive writing about Beijing culture includes the essay “Bohemian Beijing,” which approaches life in the city through residents who are situated on the margins.* His new novel, which imagines a China in which the government has succeeded in building a “harmonious society,” displays a similar eye for detail presented in a reportorial style.

Age of Prosperity is a fascinating book that succeeds on a number of levels but fails in one fatal way. The novel presents a convincing depiction of Beijing’s intellectual circles through his protagonist, Chen (a mirror-universe version of the author), and the meandering plot gives the author the opportunity to explore aspects of contemporary Chinese society. References to contemporary scandals such as milk additives, mass demonstrations, brick kiln slaves, product quality concerns, and underground religious movements give the story the feel of a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller at times. Chen, who doesn’t realize at first that a month has gone missing, is drawn into the search by an old colleague who’s noticed the gap and a former flame who feels vaguely uneasy. This uneasiness is all the more remarkable because of the happiness of the public as a whole: two years before, the world slipped into an economic crisis, yet China managed to reach new heights of prosperity and stability.

Eventually the protagonists are able to seek answers through a point-blank interrogation of a high-level official who was in on the plan. What he tells them is both a darkly comic echo of “red menace” fears from 1950s America and a bleak revelation that brings new meaning to the author’s frequent references to the tragedies of the last sixty years – the anti-rightist movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and more recently, the “strike hard” campaign in 1983 and the crackdown on the student movement in 1989 – and underscores the prophetic element of the narrative.

Unfortunately, the story grinds to a halt midway through that interrogation. Once the secret of the missing month has been revealed and the official begins to explicate China’s place in the world and its pursuit of international influence, the work feels less like a novel and more like a political speech (at one point, the official is described as responding to a question “as if he were giving a lecture”). Whether or not this is a deliberate subversion of genre conventions, it certainly is tough going for a reader who is looking for a plot movement as opposed to a 40-page political treatise.

And it’s that treatise, and the political commentary in the rest of the novel, that’s at the heart of the attention that Age of Prosperity has received. An interesting exploration of novel’s critique of the “Chinese model of development” by Zhansui Yu can be found at The China Beat; other recent reviews include those by Linda Jaivin at China Heritage Quarterly and by Xujun Eberlein at Foreign Policy. (These reviews all include extensive spoilers, so exercise caution.)

The Foreign Policy review tags the book as “the return of politically charged science fiction in China,” and in it Eberlein suggests that socially-conscious science fiction disappeared in the wake of the anti-spiritual pollution campaign of 1983. It was replaced by “time travel, space voyage, robot battles, you name it — but social or political criticism, as you might read in books like George Orwell’s 1984, is almost completely lacking.” Although the campaign did bring to a close the first stage of reform-era Chinese SF and end the careers of a number of prominent writers, in the decades that followed, science fiction stories that addressed issues in contemporary society and politics were never totally absent.

Chan is not even the first writer of socially-oriented science fiction in China to propose the idea of authorities seeking to maintain stability, boost national prestige, and ensure GDP growth by keeping the public contented and ignorant (chemically or otherwise). For example, “The Olympic Dream” (奥运梦, translated at CDT), a short story that was widely reposted across the Chinese-language Internet in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, imagined the Beijing authorities giving local residents hibernation pills so they’d stay out of the way of the foreign guests attending the Games.

City of Silence
Ma Boyong (马伯庸)

Several years ago, I remember being amazed when I opened up an issue of Science Fiction World and started reading Ma Boyong’s “City of Silence” (寂静之城). The short story, ostensibly set in New York (albeit a New York subjected to suspiciously Beijing-like seasonal dust storms), describes the life of an IT worker under an authoritarian regime that monitors each word that everyone utters. In an offline version of China’s current web censorship apparatus, speech is required to be free from “sensitive words,” and to enable the monitors to do their job, people must enunciate clearly and use only words that appear on a whitelist. Silence reigns as a result, except in clandestine “free-speech clubs” (which, in an unedited version of the story, are also free-love clubs). The author has said that the story is merely a riff on 1984, but it really struck a chord with readers and tends to be brought up whenever the authorities attempt some new approach to online censorship.

One author whose fiction frequently deals with contemporary Chinese society and politics is Han Song (韩松), who has a day-job as a Xinhua journalist. On his blog, Han Song turns a darkly cynical eye on the way the events are reported in the media, and the same black humor comes out in his fiction as well, from the Cultural Revolution-themed “Return to the Past” (回到过去), to “The Great Wall” (长城) and its commentary on “national character,” to the novella Taiwan Drifts (台湾漂移), which satirizes disaster relief, ethnic relations, and territorial integrity by setting the island of Taiwan on a collision course with the mainland.

One major example is the novel 2066: Red Star Over America (2066年之西行漫记, 2000) which, like Ma Boyong’s story, uses an American setting to comment on Chinese society. In the year 2066, the United States is a closed-off, declining, inward-looking society wracked by civil strife. China is now a global superpower and leads world development with its financial prowess and far-reaching thinking. The story begins with a visit to the United States by a team of Chinese Go players who have been dispatched to spread of civilization to the more backward parts of the world through this traditional Chinese game. Tang Long, a 16-year-old go prodigy, is the star member of the team. During a historic match at the World Trade Center, terrorists blow up the sea walls around New York City and other American metropolises, plunging the country into chaos.

2066: Red Star Over America
Han Song (韩松)
327 pages

Tang is separated from his teammates and must make his way across the country in a peculiar coming-of-age story overflowing with ideas: he joins up with a crew of Asian teens devoted to fighting Whitey as they quest for an elusive “magic wand” that can forecast the future, befriends another go player whose skills derive from a bionic kangaroo tail grafted on by his father, and eventually falls in with a warlord fighting mecha battles across the American west. Interspersed throughout Tang’s account of his adventures are transcripts of meetings between high-level Chinese officials, whose attempts at aid are repeatedly rebuffed by the Americans. Han’s America is a fascinating amalgam of present-day American culture mixed with elements of mid-20th Century China, shot through with futuristic technology. Critics noted that the setting, exactly one century after the start of the Cultural Revolution, suggests that the novel should be read as a commentary on contemporary Chinese society.

Another story that more closely parallels the themes of Age of Prosperity is the novella My Homeland Does Not Dream (我的祖国不做梦). Han’s short story imagines a China in which a drugged population is unaware that they are working a second shift in their sleep to help the country meet its GDP targets. Only a few top leaders know of this project, and the young protagonist, for some reason unaffected by the drug, eventually tracks down one of the masterminds who had been using his wife’s second nighttime shift to carry on an affair. The overall narrative arc is quite similar to Chan’s novel, but where Age of Prosperity lingers more on contemporary social issues, Han’s story is a taut pulp adventure and dispenses with the authorities’ motivations in a few paragraphs rather than Chan’s John Galt-style speech. Both stories end with their respective protagonists saying, in effect, “Screw it. Let’s escape to the south and see if they have the guts to chase us.”

Homeland, like many of Han’s edgiest stories, did not appear in print. Like Chan’s novel, which is available in Hong Kong and Taiwan but not on the mainland, the sensitivity of the subject matter restricts them to online publication, or forces China to be swapped out for some other location.

That’s not to say that “social SF” about China itself does not appear at all on the mainland. One of the best stories of 2009, “Year of the Rat” (鼠年) by Stanley Chan Qiufan (陈楸帆), was published in Science Fiction World. Chan addresses the predicament of China’s college graduates facing dim career prospects by putting them to work catching genetically-altered rats (see this recent post).

Wu Yan’s “Flowers of Decline” (衰败之花), included in a year’s best compilation for 2002, is a political fable in which a certain flower begins to flourish in the area surrounding bankrupt business and other failures. As the horticultural invasion spreads, panic grips the population even as the leadership of the country (“China” in the original; “the Empire” in the sanitized reprint) attempts to solve the problem through the usual means of lengthy discussion and energetic campaigns, but ultimately all it can do is urge people to ignore the flower and work harder. The world reacts by fitting the flower into an existing China Threat narrative. Finally, cooks in Guangdong discover that it cooks up well, and in the space of just a few months, the rest of China digs up every last flower to feed the province’s enormous appetite. Wu’s story ends with an orgiastic paean to China’s indomitable spirit and concludes: “The Chinese people are invincible! In the past, invincible! In the present, invincible! And in the future, forever invincible!”

Lost in 2080
Cao Zhenglan (曹正兰)
203 pages

From Wang Jinkang (王晋康), a prolific author whose work often involves biological themes, there’s Ant Life (蚁生, 2007), the story of a young man for whom rustication during the Cultural Revolution presents the opportunity to engage in scientific research. Completing the work of his father (a scientist put to death as a class enemy), he creates an “altruism serum” extracted from ant pheromones which, when applied to humans, turns them into perfect collective workers. Not for long, though: scientific hubris and paternalistic leadership soon plunge his artificial communist utopia into chaos.

Liu Cixin (刘慈欣), the most popular SF writer at the moment due to his Three Body alien invasion trilogy, dealt with statecraft and international relations in Supernova Era (超新星纪元, 2003), the tale of a world in which everyone over the age of 13 is killed off by a cosmic event. The preparations for the transfer of power from an adult regime to one composed of pre-teens gives Liu plenty of room to comment on the workings of present-day Chinese government and society, and the global scale of the story in the second half of the book pits the Chinese against the Americans.

Lost in 2080 (迷失2080, 2008) by Cao Zhenglan (曹正兰) goes for high-concept allegory by shunting its characters to an alternate dimension where blood serves as the very foundation of the economy: all services and goods are paid for through blood donations, and people survive by literally sucking blood from their fellow citizens.

Age of Prosperity may be the first political fantasy to take such direct aim at the modern social order and to discuss politics in such depth, but these and other science fiction stories also engage with contemporary Chinese society in thought-provoking ways. And while this strain of science fiction may only represent a minority of what is published in China, the tradition of social criticism that has been part of Chinese SF since its inception in the early twentieth century continues to be carried out.


  1. Included in Bohemian China (波希米亚中国, 2004). An English translation is available online (please forgive the clunkiness — I was just starting out as a translator).
  2. Parts of this post began as a comment to this Metafilter thread.
  3. Danwei posted an interview with the author in June (mainland accessible link).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.