Li Anan on the Hugo award winner and contemporary dystopian sci-fi in China.
Hao Jingfang, ‘Folding Beijing’ in Invisible Planets, ed. by Ken Liu (Tor Books, 2016), pp. 219-293.
Three years ago when Liu Cixin became the first Chinese writer to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel, his science-fiction epic The Three Body Problem set off a wave of appreciation for Chinese sci-fi internationally. A year later, Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang became the winner of the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novelette. The first Asian female writer to receive the highest honor bestowed in the science-fiction and fantasy world, Hao Jingfang’s recognition marked the steady growth of Chinese sci-fi. Increasingly, readers all over the world developed an interest in the genre. To give Anglophone readers a glimpse of contemporary Chinese science-fiction, Ken Liu, a writer himself and translator of the aforementioned works, brought to life the very first English-language anthology of Chinese sci-fi, Invisible Planets. Rather than giving a definition of Chinese science-fiction himself, Liu carefully selected thirteen short stories, covering diverse themes and styles to “at least add a layer to the reader’s understanding and awareness of a literary tradition different from the one they might be used to.” Given the prevalence of considering Chinese literature through a western lens of reducing everything to a critique of Chinese politics, Liu also calls on his readers to resist this temptation, suggesting instead to interpret the works within a tradition of humanism and universality.
Science-fiction typically deals with futuristic science and technology. It sits between the unrestrained imagination of fantasy and a certain realism. If reality is the solid ground and fantasy the skyline, science-fiction is the space in-between. Under the heaven and beyond the earth is where we all live – maybe this is why sci-fi can best describe the complexity of human societies. It explores the potential consequences of emerging technologies by telling us stories that seem both familiar and estranged. Ursula Le Guin once concluded that sci-fi usually descends from the contemporary to a near-future that is “half prediction, half satire.” While prediction is a well-established component of the genre, satire is something that we see gaining in popularity as dystopia becomes one of sci-fi’s most popular sub-genres. Chinese sci-fi started out as the opposite – when Liang Qichao first introduced this then-western genre to China, it was viewed as a utopian tool that could provide both reflection on reality and produce a hope for change. Scholar Adrian Thieret writes:
Liang Qichao believed that science fiction was not merely a literature of science and modernization; rather, it was a philosophical literature that had a role to play in “renovating the people’s minds” and creating the new ethical world citizen.
Liang Qichao’s strongly believed in modernizing China after the western model. Nowadays, things have changed. Writers such as Liu Cixin, Hao Jingfang, and Han Song portray dystopian worlds. Unlike the utopian sci-fi that openly expressed its optimistic belief in science and technology, they give us a glimpse of a horrible future, not only in a local context but for the whole human race. They point out that neither humans nor their technologies are omnipotent, and can further the already existing malpractices rather than bring about change. This is exactly the concern of Hao Jingfang’s Folding Beijing.
The story pictures future Beijing as a megacity divided into three separate spaces that share the same earth surface in each forty-eight-hour cycle. On the first side is First Space, inhabited by only five million people. Twenty-five million live in Second Space and fifty million in Third Space. Not only the distribution of land across the three spaces in unequal but also its time allocation: twenty-four hours for First Space, sixteen hours for Second Space and only eight hours for Third Space. When the allotted time runs out, space itself will fold and citizens within it will be forced into sleep. The design of this spectacular city symbolizes class divisions: the rich and powerful upper classes inhabit First Space, Second Space hosts the middle classes, including college students and white-collar workers, Third Space is crowded with lower classes, mainly waste collectors who constitute five-eighths of its population. The whole story unfolds from the perspective of Lao Dao from Third Space. The residents of Third Space are treated as disposable. They sort out the everyday trash and are the backbone of the city’s prosperity. In its ecosystem, they are the decomposers: the biggest quantity with the least visibility. With the lowest per capita resources of space and time, this largest part of the society lives in the worst conditions, works most and sleeps least.
In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon describes how the poor become the primary casualties of environmental violence. This imperceptible type of violence occurs gradually and out of sight. Shapeless and with no instant impact, slow violence makes up in long-term effects for what it lacks in spectacle. In Folding Beijing, those who inhabit Third Space live most of their lives surrounded by toxic waste. The quality of the air that they breathe likewise cannot be guaranteed. Even worse, with only eight hours that they are allowed to stay awake in each forty-eight hours cycle, they ‘own’ only one-sixth of their lifetime. This, precisely, is slow violence: living in poverty slowly affects their health and tangibly shortens their lives. These exploited characters in Folding Beijing are very aware of their own oppression, yet they do not say anything and “continue to toil diligently and docilely, to meekly seek out any opportunity to remain in the city.” They have already accepted the situation as normal. When an officer wants to introduce a new method of processing waste that would make tens of millions of people lose their degrading jobs, his proposal is quickly rejected and the possibility itself viewed as brutal. Folding Beijing skillfully captures the difference between what is perceived as violence and what is not.
The story illustrates equally well the harm of bodily oppression. Michel Foucault already taught us about the mechanisms of biopolitics, where the right to take life, to manipulate health and well-being, is the primary focus of state power. Folding Beijing focuses rather on picturing those who are denied the access to a dignified life. The residents cannot choose where they want to live, the spaces are a priori strictly divided and hence it is impossible for residents to go adrift. Lacking the power to improve their condition, they likewise lose control of their own bodies. They are instead governed as a ‘mass,’ not individuals but a multiple body that is easy to control once it is divided into chunks. Take this description of the protagonist, Lao Dao:
He knew he was nothing more than a figure. He was but an ordinary person, one out 51,280,000 others just like him. And if they didn’t need that much precision and spoke of only 50 million, he was but a rounding error, the same as if he had never existed.
Reduced to a number, Dao’s humanity is not guaranteed. He does not exist in the eyes of his government until he does something wrong. Sneaking into First or Second Space is highly forbidden, and yet only when one commits such a crime, individuality is brought to the fore.
The distinctive difference in the distribution of space among people is neither a new concept in science-fiction nor in reality, in fact, it has already become naturalized in today’s capitalist society. Hao Jingfang describes this as “the fundamental inequity of the [characters’] world.” One of the story’s artistic values is to force us to face the increasingly prominent problem of class division in China. By unfolding the story from the perspective of a working-class character, it gives the readers a chance to witness the brutality of social divisions. Though the plot is fabled, the feelings of anger and despair are real. Technology, rather than solving the problem of social inequality, amplifies it, making it more noticeable. Reading such devastating stories is far from pleasurable, especially for those who are concerned with the lives of others. Hao Jingfang’s writing provokes anger, sympathy and fear. It is a warning: exposing the irrationality of human suffering under a cruel system, it signals to us that we need to revive utopian thinking.
“I wanted to show this in the story in a more direct way — the idea that people live together but can’t see one another. I want people to realize that there are so many invisible people in their lives,” Hao Jingfang said in an interview in the New York Times.
In today’s Beijing, where more than 35% of the population are migrant workers from poorer provinces in China, her story is removed by only one degree of fiction from reality. In November 2017, Beijing introduced a ‘clean-up’ policy, which affected its migrant populations. Millions of people were evicted within less than two days, many did not even have the time to gather their belongings.
The best science-fiction tells us something about the present. Lifting the ‘unseen’ populations of Beijing into the light of literary concern, Folding Beijing shows how much a science-fiction story could and should be related to contemporary problems. Hao Jingfang reminds us that the future is not a magical promise of progress but a yet unsolved challenge. Who of us can with certainty predict that in the near future we would not share the fate of Lao Dao?
Li Anan is a student in Humanities & Creative Writing at Hong Kong Baptist University.