Ivan Stacy reflects on the antagonism between individualist and collectivist systems in Hao Jingfang’s Vagabonds.

Hao Jingfang’s Vagabonds is set in 2201, and is centered on the antagonistic relationship between Earth and its former colony, the now independent Mars. The novel’s references to the Cold War and the “iron curtain of space” (57) speak to the present tensions in Sino-western relations (although the novel was first published in Chinese in 2016, several years after it was penned). However, while the novel at first sight seems to invite such a direct, allegorical reading, mapping the novel onto the contemporary political landscape becomes a much messier job on further analysis. As the novel’s translator Ken Liu has argued, “if you try to apply that model a little bit deeper, you’ll realize that nothing works under that model, nothing matches” (https://youtu.be/gMH0R1H30bQ, 01:02:35). It remains the case, though, that Vagabonds offers an insightful and more general commentary on the relative merits of individualist and collectivist political systems.

For these reasons, the novel is something of an outlier to the tendency for Chinese science fiction to reflect on the state of the nation, whether in the context of its late-Qing decline or early twenty-first century rise [1], with the first part of the novel conducting an outward-looking consideration of the possibilities of synthesis. The novel begins with the return of a group of Martian youths (known as the Mercury Group) from a five-year sojourn on Earth. Their unique perspective enables the novel to explore the potential of finding some form of accord between collectivist and individualist ideologies. While the novel stresses the difficulties of such a synthesis, it does suggest that human tendencies towards both individualism and collectivism are universal and that these commonalities, at least, might serve as the basis for concord and cooperation. This said, the focus of the second half of the novel changes from the conflict between the two planets to tensions within Mars itself, and as such returns from what looks like a clash between two distinct systems and cultures to an examination of the way that the tendencies underpinning both systems in fact exist within a single political entity.

The early sections of Vagabonds contain a number of cross-cultural exchanges between a delegation of Terrans and the native Martians, with the Mercury group occupying a role similar to “third culture” individuals, that is, those who spend a significant section of their upbringing in a culture other than that of their parents or compatriots. Several incidents in this section can be interpreted as criticising the tendency of those in individualist societies to automatically stereotype collective societies as dystopian. This critique is most explicitly conducted through the character Eko Lu, a young Terran documentary filmmaker. He is a self-aware observer, and is determined to avoid taking the “shortcut” of attempting to understand Martian culture through its surface aesthetics or of making the mistake of “reduc[ing] reality to an image in order to avoid confronting the new” (27). Yet Eko cannot help but fall into the trap that he hopes to avoid. On finding the walls of his room to be transparent, he interprets this in political terms and as representative of a lack of individual privacy. However, he later discovers that he is mistaken, that the walls of his room can be made opaque through a mechanism of which he had been unaware, and that construction using glass is common simply due to the materials available on Mars rather than having any ideological basis.

While Eko revises his perspective on Martian society as a result, implying that direct experience of other cultures may erode existing stereotypes, his reflectiveness is an exception to Terran preconceptions of Mars, and to the general view that the planet is “an isolated community controlled by evil generals and mad scientists, the textbook model of a society under a repressive authoritarian regime abetted by thought-control machinery, the very opposite of a free market economy and democratic governance” (57). Yet the novel also shows that such stereotyping works in both directions, and that the Martians are similarly blinkered in their conception of Earth as a chaotic and dangerous dystopia.

The oversimplifications on which such stereotyping is premised are critiqued through an argument between two young boys, with a Martian child levelling the accusation that “you make up desires” and a Terran responding with the charge “you suppress desires” (106). As a corrective to this oversimplification, the character Dr. Reini, who acts as a kind of conscience for the novel, suggests that the problem is one of perspective. He notes that “a person from one civilization looks at their surroundings as distinct objects and events and considers them separately. But when a person from another civilization looks in as an outsider, they prefer to view everything through the lens of political power and try to explain everything based on that perspective” (253).

Against the background of mutual suspicion and misunderstanding, the novel explores the possibility for a productive synthesis of the two systems though the relationship between Eko the novel’s main protagonist, Luoying Sloan. Luoying is a member of the Mercury group, and is also the granddaughter of Hans Sloan, the consul of Mars. While their relationship is initially uneasy, both recognise positive elements of the other culture. Luoying tends to look for and find commonalities, understanding that while the market economy of Earth focuses on generating demand, the Martian emphasis on creation simply fulfils the same psychological needs on the supply side: “whether designing clothes or buying clothes, the fundamental impulse is the same. They can’t choose the world they live in, or how that world operates, but they want to live their own lives, to find out who they are” (175). Eko, on the other hand, is inspired by his encounter with the central archive of Mars, which acts as the foundation of Mars’s collective economy. The virtual archive is inscribed with the word “Babel,” and Eko sees it as a potential corrective to Earth’s obsession with private property. For this reason, he describes it as “a second attempt at climbing to heaven” and one that “integrated generalized language, that accommodated science, art, politics and technology within the same spirit” (192).

However, this coming together of Eko and Luoying, which we might expect to be a climactic encounter between two cultures, and to act as the catalyst for a synthesis between the two, actually takes place relatively early in the novel. From this point onwards, the difficulty of achieving a productive fusion between the two is emphasised, with Eko struggling and finally failing to generate any interest for using the central archive, and hence for a more collective economic model, on Earth. Eko’s travails, however, become the background to the main plot involving events on Mars, and in the second half of the novel the ideological conflict between individualism and collectivism shifts from taking place between two distinct political entities to within Martian society itself.

The nature of this internal conflict is tied to three models of history described by Reini: one is linear, in which “history was a surging river advancing relentlessly;” one is cyclical, in which “the same story is simply repeated without end,” and one nihilistic, in which events are “largely accidental, contingent, fortuitous” (259-60) and historical narratives are simply a retrospective and self-interested shaping of events to suit the present. All three of these can be seen in the events that the novel narrates, with the ability of the Martians to carve out a civilization on an unforgiving planet being concrete evidence of the possibility of linear progress, while some of the events in Mars’s brief history could certainly be described as “contingent” and “fortuitous.” However, the later sections of the novel suggest that cyclical processes, themselves the product of competing collective and individualistic impulses, are responsible for events in which Luoying finds herself embroiled. Through a series of revelations involving her family’s history, she belatedly realises that each generation has rebelled against the previous one. As Reini notes, “freedom, merit, and equality – any of these alluring words will always be pursued by a generation” (533), but the novel makes the point that what each generation understands by such abstract terms varies wildly, and when the social contract imposed by either a collectivist or an individualist society begins to feel oppressive, they will lurch towards the other extreme.

The novel is therefore generally pessimistic in that this cycle of perpetual dissatisfaction and rebellion, rather than productive synthesis, seems to drive social and political change. Indeed, Reini implies that synthesis between the two systems is impossible through his use of a material analogy:

There are only two systems in the world: the solid and the liquid. A solid system features a stable structure, in which every unit is fixed in its position. Between the atomic units the bonds are strong. A liquid system, on the other hand, features freedom of movement, and the units are relatively independent. Between them there is no fixed bond, and little strength. (472)

Of course, this analogy excludes a third state, that of gas. Luoying suggests that clouds might provide both “freedom and connection” (473), but as Reini notes, gaseous forms are ephemeral, noting that they “require an external source of light and cannot last” (473).

If this analogy seems to confirm the pessimism suggested by events on Mars and Earth, the ambiguity of the novel’s ending also suggests that the prospects for synthesis are not entirely hopeless. Luoying finishes the novel back on board the ship that brought her home at the beginning of the novel. The vessel’s name, Maearth, suggests the possibility of hybridity, and it in fact served as the sole means of communication between the two worlds as they sought to re-normalise relations following the Martian war of independence. Moreover, like a gaseous particle, Luoying floats between the two worlds, outside both, and thus in a position with the potential to act as an external source of enlightenment for those embedded in, and blinded by, their own systems.


[1] As Wu Yan’s overview of Chinese science fiction over the period shows, while the genre has long been concerned with external influences, the focus tends to remain on the effects of these on China itself. Mengtian Sun argues that there are parallels between US science fiction’s commentary on the American Dream, and contemporary Chinese science fiction’s reflections on the Chinese Dream. However, Sun also notes that the American dream emphasises individual aspiration, while the nation, and in particular the idea of national rejuvenation, is central to the Chinese Dream. Wu Yan, “‘Great Wall Planet’: Introducing Chinese Science Fiction,” trans. Wang Pengfei, with Ryan Nichols, Science Fiction Studies 40:1 (March 2013), 2-4; Sun Mengtian, “‘Electrical Dragon’ and ‘Hollow Men’: Counter-narratives of Modernity in Han Song’s Subway,” Comparative Literature & World Literature 6:1 (2021), 97-98.

Ivan Stacy is Associate Professor in the School of Foreign Languages and Literature at Beijing Normal University. He is the author of The Complicit Text: Failures of Witnessing in Postwar Fiction (Lexington, 2021). His research interests are complicity and the carnivalesque, and he has published articles on these themes in the work of Kazuo Ishiguro, W. G. Sebald, and Thomas Pynchon. In addition to China, Ivan has taught in Thailand, Libya, South Korea, Bhutan, and the UK.

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