A brave new world

Award-winning sci-fi book critiques social inequality

hao jinfeng

When science fiction writer Hao Jingfang won a Hugo award for her novelette Folding Beijing it should have been a source of national jubilation. After all Hao was the first Chinese woman to get the prestigious prize and she even beat the veteran author Stephen King to win it.

But some of the feedback was conflicted. A Chinese author winning an American prize for a dystopian depiction of Beijing didn’t sit well with some of the country’s culture tsars, who sensed ulterior motives in some of Hao’s writing.

The story is about a city divided along class lines and many readers saw it less as a work of science fiction than a reflection of simple realities. “This isn’t sci-fi, its real life,” was a common comment on social media, a sentiment which won’t sit well with a government that prides itself on “inclusive development”.

Set in the not too-distant future, Folding Beijing tells the story of Lao Dao, a waste worker who lives in Beijing’s so called “Third Space” – the least salubrious of three urban zones which alternate their time on the earth’s surface so that their inhabitants can’t interact.

Lao is desperate to get his adopted daughter into a good kindergarten but he doesn’t have the funds or the connections to secure her a place. To earn money he undertakes an illegal mission: to deliver a message from a man in “second space” to a woman in “first space”.

To do so, he must jump from one zone to the next as it recedes from Earth and the next one emerges. Hao describes this zonal transition thus: “The Change began… The sound of steel and masonry folding, grating, colliding filled the air, like an assembly line grinding to a halt. The towering buildings of the city gathered and merged into solid blocks; neon signs, shop awnings, balconies, and other protruding fixtures retracted into the buildings or flattened themselves into a thin layer against the walls, like skin.”

The three zones get different amounts of time on the Earth’s surface. Specifically: the elite First Space is active for 24 hours; Second Space, home to white collar workers, for 18 hours, and third space, where 50 million members of the underclass live, gets just six hours.

The zones are also markedly different in appearance. First Space is green and low-rise like the campus of a well-funded university; Second Space is clean but hyper-urban; Third Space is overcrowded and dirty.

Lao’s mission allows him to visit all three zones and his back story – he’s the grandson of one of the migrant workers who built the folding city— speaks to the lives of many of the non-residents constructing real-life Beijing today.

“Like termites swarming over a wooden house, they chewed up the wreckage of the past, overturned the earth, and constructed a brand new world. They swung their hammers and wielded their adzes, keeping their heads down; brick by brick, they had walled themselves off until they could no longer see the sky. Dust obscured their view, and they did not know the grandeur of their work. Finally, when the finished building stood before them like a living person, they scattered in terror, as if they had given birth to a monster. But when they calmed down, they realised what an honour it would be to live in such a city, and so they toiled diligently and docilely to seek out any opportunity to remain. It was said that when the folding city was completed, more than eighty million construction workers wanted to stay. Ultimately, no more than twenty million were allowed to settle.”

There are also allusions to Beijing’s much-disliked chengguan or urban management officials in the form of “cleaning crews” which clear the streets of stragglers ahead of a zone change.

For some readers the parallels with real life were off-putting. Others compared the story to Liu Cixi’s Three Body Problem – the first Chinese sci-fi novel to win a Hugo award – and found it lacking. Some said Hao lacked imagination, others that the book wasn’t entertaining.

But many were simply shocked by how real the fictional world seemed. “As a taxi driver I waited a year to get my child into kindergarten,” related one reader on weibo. “This is a political metaphor, not science fiction,” confirmed another.

According to Hao, the novel was inspired by a taxi driver who told her about problems getting his child into kindergarten because he wasn’t an official Beijing resident. And certainly, the state media has seemed unsure about quite how to report on the author’s success. On the one hand, publications like Xinhua and the Global Times chalked it up as another win for homegrown literature and further evidence of China’s cultural rise – following on from Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize in 2012 and Cao Wenxuan’s Hans Christian Andersen award earlier this year. There was less discussion of some of the novel’s darker themes, although Xinhua admitted that the plot drew on the difficulties for some parents of getting their children a high quality education in modern China.

Other sections of the state press reminded their readers that the 32 year-old Hao isn’t all that famous in China and that critical voices overseas might be trying to exploit her writing to encourage negative perceptions of the mainland.

“Some say that they sensed political criticism in the book, and that’s why the West gave it the award. As the political game between China and the West is getting increasingly fierce, it is understandable for them to think that way,” the Global Times surmised.

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