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

THL091207shengshi
Age of Prosperity
《盛世》
John Chan Koon-Chung (陈冠中)
261 pages
2009

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. (more…)