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Yunwen Gao reviews a controversial new Chinese alternative history novel and explores the political situation in Hong Kong and China today.

CHAN Koonchung, The Second Year of Jianfeng: An Alternative History of New China (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 2015) 232pp. in Chinese ONLY

Following The Fat Year: A Novel (New York: Random House, translated in 2011) and The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver (London: Doubleday, translated in 2014), Hong Kong writer Chan Koonchung has recently published his third fiction about Mainland China titled The Second Year of Jianfeng: An Alternative History of New China, completing what some critics have called Chan’s “China Trilogy.” In this book, Chan boldly imagines a non-Communist China under the KMT (Chinese Nationalist Party) rule in 1979, in which Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and the Communist Party all went on vastly different historical trajectories due to the “fictional” victory of the KMT in 1949. Ultimately, Chan seeks to ask in this book, what would have happened if China was not under the Communist rule since 1949? Would China today be a different (and better) place?

By looking at the title of the book, readers who are familiar with studies of Chinese history will immediately make the connection with Ray Huang’s book 1587: A Year of No Significance (Chinese title: The Fifteenth Year of Wanli), which also explores history by zeroing in on what happened to several key historical figures in one single year. Chan begins his narrative by describing a fictional pro-democracy gathering at Yenching University on 10 December, 1979 in a restaurant named “Formosa Canteen,” clearly referring to the Formosa Incident that led to the democratization of Taiwan in “real” history.

The Second Year of Jianfeng

Despite the fictionality of The Second Year of Jianfeng, Chan deliberately weaves historical events into his alternative history. In particular, by using the history of Taiwan as benchmark of what could have happened in Mainland China under the KMT rule. The narrator refrains from directly commenting on the alternative history, but rather, lets historical figures speak from their individual perspectives. These figures include philosophers, generals, president, entrepreneurs, literary critics, as well as fictional characters. For instance, the dissident philosopher Chang Tung-sun (1886-1973) (who in history passed away during his imprisonment in Beijing in the Cultural Revolution period) chose to self-exile in British colonial Hong Kong in Chan’s alternative history. The “supposed” relative freedom in Hong Kong he obtained in exile allows him to write a book titled “All Flowers Shall Wither When I Blossom: What If the Communist Party Rules China,” which parallels the fictional world in the alternative history with the world we live in. In creating the alternative history, Chan seems to highlight the absence of the Cultural Revolution in Mainland China as well as martial law in Taiwan, which subsequently led to faster economic development in China. By 1979, the second year of Jianfeng, which is supposed to be Chiang Ching-kuo’s reign, China has already achieved the status of a global power as we can see now in the real world fifty years later. In a matter of 200 pages, Chan meticulously maps out the fictional world of the Nationalist China that successfully balances global powers such as the U.S., USSR in East Asia. Through personal histories of a handful of characters, Chan is able to bring the histories of Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan together.

In the book, one of the acclaimed achievements of the 1979 China is in the literary arena. Lao She completed his Under the Red Banner (which was in real history left incomplete because of the political prosecution during the Cultural Revolution) and won the first Nobel Prize as a Chinese citizen in the 1960s. Lin Yutang, with his bilingual literary practices, won the prize again in 1979. Moreover, many renowned literary figures who left the Communist China and migrated to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and the U.S. such as Eileen Chang, Hu Shih, remain productive and creative under the Nationalist rule. What is now arguably known as Sinophone literature outside of or on the margin of China and Chineseness are brought together in Chan’s 1979 China, allowing Chinese literature to be recognized among world literature. Censorship still exists in this world, however, in a much more loose form. This imagined world becomes all the more powerful for any literati when compared with its counterpart in real life. Like the previous two novels, The Second Year of Jianfeng is banned in Mainland China. The book was written at a time when popular culture (movies, TV drama, etc.) in Mainland China starts to acknowledge KMT’s efforts in resisting Japanese colonial power during WWII and public portrayals of KMT become growingly positive due to the closer collaboration between the Communist Party and the Nationalist Party in Taiwan. However, the premise that the Communist rule is a historical necessity remains a sensitive subject not allowed to be challenged. In imagining this alternative world, Chan is also envisioning a future when books such as this one could be circulated and discussed in the open.

While previous chapters deal with pivotal figures who are at the center of history-making, the last chapter casts light on Mak Adau, a mentally-challenged boy at the margin of the society. Contrasting the somber tone of writing history, this chapter makes allusion to the famous cartoon character McDull in Hong Kong and traces the private and personal history of an average family from the working class. Chan relies heavily on Cantonese scripts in a playful tone in order to set this story apart from official history written in Mandarin Chinese. The Mak family was from Guangdong Province, close to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is still a British colony in 1979 in Chan’s world. However, without the exodus of capital and talents from Mainland China since 1945, Hong Kong thrives mostly by product trafficking to Guangdong, China instead of finance and cultural export. Cultural capitals that define Hong Kong today, such as the Shaw Brothers films, TVB dramas, popular music, and martial arts fiction, are mostly produced in Mainland China in the alternative world. Chan’s imagined Hong Kong nonetheless calls our attention to the destiny of Hong Kong after the 1997 handover in real life. Readers are urged to reconsider the position of Hong Kong in relation to China.

Chan’s uchronia forcefully challenges the view that history exists in a singular form. Its value not only lies in its critical assessment of the Communist rule by comparing and contrasting it with that of the Nationalist Party. Ultimately, Chan probes further than this, assessing the relationship between economic prosperity and democratization in any nation. As the title of the book indicates, a global power such as the 1979 China under the KMT rule is still considered a dynastic nation under one man’s control and without democracy. The book ends with a report of the Formosa Canteen Incident in a gloomy tone. Whether it will eventually lead to democratization or yet another martial law period is entirely up to the readers and the future of China’s politically engaged class.


Yunwen Gao is a PhD candidate of East Asian Languages and Cultures at University of Southern California. She is interested in Sinophone literature and culture, postcolonial studies, and language politics.

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