China Crisis
July 29, 2010 4:39 PM   Subscribe

The Gilded Age: China 2013 - The dystopian novel that's turning China upside down
posted by Artw (26 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Really intereresting stuff. Here's hoping we get an English translation.
posted by brundlefly at 4:46 PM on July 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


this is fascinating.
posted by The Whelk at 4:46 PM on July 29, 2010


agree this is nteresting. ut there seems to be omething wrong with this ost. ould the mods lease fix?
posted by JHarris at 5:10 PM on July 29, 2010


hanks!
posted by JHarris at 5:13 PM on July 29, 2010


Two good quotes from the comments:
I love the fact that China still continues its tradition of underground texts. I always find it so interesting that it can gather this groundswell without using traditional outlets.
..and:
A Counterfeit Paradise. I think that's the best term I've heard to refer to China's success over the last few decades. It's hard to describe China's social and political structure without some doublespeak.
posted by stbalbach at 5:48 PM on July 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


Awesome. Samizdat lives. Until about halfway through it was reminding me of The Tunnel Under The World by Frederick Pohl.
posted by XMLicious at 5:58 PM on July 29, 2010


This sounds fascinating. I hope someone is working an English translation.
posted by homunculus at 6:26 PM on July 29, 2010


Thanks. Just downloaded it and it looks surprisingly readable. 玩儿的就是心跳 is giving me a headache these days, so I might just use this one to justify a break.
posted by klue at 6:39 PM on July 29, 2010


This looks great. I may have to bug friends on the mainland to get me a copy or something.

Also: "Old Chen" makes sense in Chinese (I'm guessing it would be "Lao Chen" in the original) but seeing it written out like that seems totally awkward.
posted by Phire at 8:29 PM on July 29, 2010


I wish, I wish I could read chinese characters. But, in the meanwhile, I'll just tap my fingers on this table until someone translates it into English.

I'll be waiting right here.
posted by LMGM at 9:51 PM on July 29, 2010


This is the kind of dystopia you write when everyone's got a lot of money and things are going awesome. If you think about it books like Neuromancer fill this kind of niche in the U.S, written during the 80's. And, I guess, books like Accelerando (Which I haven't read) which seems like a sort of 'dot-com bubble' type novel, despite being written in 2005.
posted by delmoi at 11:59 PM on July 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


I don't suppose an online version is available that we could mayhaps run through a machine translator?
posted by Pastabagel at 6:30 AM on July 30, 2010


Thanks, this is fascinating.

> This is the kind of dystopia you write when everyone's got a lot of money and things are going awesome.

Yeah, you might want to learn something about China before saying stuff like that.
posted by languagehat at 7:26 AM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Pastabagel, I thought the same thing - and klue seems to have obtained it - but my searches so far have turned up a whole lotta nuthin.
posted by Michael Roberts at 8:06 AM on July 30, 2010


Yeah, here's some awesome. (The film, if you've got about 25 minutes. It survived by being smuggled to Switzerland.)
posted by Twang at 8:12 AM on July 30, 2010


This is a link to a machine translation of the book. Special thanks to Phire!

Because it's a machine translation, reading it is a bit...surreal. You somehow manage to get an idea of what is happening without actually being able to understand any particular sentence.

Of course, none of the beauty of the original language is preserved.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:41 AM on July 30, 2010


I'm sorry was this written in a communist country where they have to make it publicly available?

Or have I totally misunderstood copyright laws (or the lack) in socialism/communism?
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 9:49 AM on July 30, 2010


Not only is this great, that site also reports that the Del Toro At the Mountains of Madness project is back on with Jim Cameron producing. Here's the original story from Deadline. Note the date! Squee! Iä!
posted by Mister_A at 10:43 AM on July 30, 2010


Reminds me of the apocalyptic book Yellow Peril, written in 1991 by a Chinese dissident. It was banned by the CCP too but was read pretty widely among certain circles in China along with lots of Chinese overseas including my parents. Always seemed like an interesting book but I wasn't quite the right age to appreciate it, and my Chinese reading had already deteriorated pretty badly. Maybe I'll see if I can pick up the English version.
posted by kmz at 2:12 PM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Or have I totally misunderstood copyright laws (or the lack) in socialism/communism?

Everything was public domain in the Soviet Union, at least for most of its history IIRC, but China has been adopting international copyright conventions since since 1979. And as you probably know 21st century China is only communist in the most technical sense.
posted by XMLicious at 2:43 PM on July 30, 2010


Okay, I was totally wrong about the Soviet Union. It was actually only foreign works which were public domain; Soviet works had some copyright protections, including the right to receive royalties for it! Until 1973 when the Soviet Union adopted the Universal Copyright Convention.

It confuses me then why I've seen so many 20th century Russian works passed around freely but maybe it's that before 1973 other countries didn't recognize Soviet copyright since the Soviets didn't recognize theirs? Or it could all just be illegal, I suppose.
posted by XMLicious at 3:00 PM on July 30, 2010


In an Age of Prosperity is a fascinating book that succeeds on a number of levels but fails in one fatal way.

One major element of the novel's appeal is the author's convincing depiction of Beijing's intellectual circles through his protagonist, Chen (a mirror-universe version of author Chan Koon-Chung). 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, 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 (there's a translation online; forgive the clunkiness -- I was just starting out as a translator), and the novel displays a similar eye for detail presented in a reportorial style.

The plot meanders, which is not a bad thing, as it 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.

One curious aspect of this novel is the shift in point-of-view. Part I is largely told by Chen in the first person, aside from one chapter in which the characters who remember the missing month narrate their personal histories. Part II switches to limited third-person narration. Because Chen identifies himself as a genre writer in the first half, one likely explanation for the changes in point-of-view is that he's composing a mystery based on the old friends he's encountered, and both the character histories and the third-person narrative are the creation of first-person Chen from Part I. (This hypothesis suggests that an English translation ought to style the dialogue with a little bit of hard-boiled coloring.) There are indications that this may be the case in Chen's musings in Part I that he really ought to take up writing again, and especially at the start of the interrogation of the government official in Part II, when Chen remarks that he feels like a character in a novel.

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 an Asian Monroe Doctrine, the work feels less like a novel and more like a Socratic dialogue (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 (or perhaps a conscious echo of didactic political fiction), it certainly is tough going for a reader who is looking for a plot movement as opposed to a 40-page political treatise.

Chan is not 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), a short story that was widely reposted across the Chinese-language Internet in the runup to the 2008 Olmypics, imagined that the Beijing authorities gave local residents hibernation pills so they'd stay out of the way of all of the foreign guests attending the Games (translated at CDT).

I remember being amazed when I opened up an issue of Science Fiction World several years ago and started reading Ma Boyong's "City of Silence" (寂静之城). The short story, ostensibly set in New York (albeit a New York subjected to suspiciously Beijing-like seasonal dust storms), describes the life of an IT worker under an authoritarian regime that monitors each word that everyone utters. In an offline version of China's current web censorship apparatus, speech is required to be free from "sensitive words," and to enable the monitors to do their job, people must enunciate clearly and use only words that appear on a whitelist. Silence reigns as a result, except in clandestine "free-speech clubs" (which, in an unedited version of the story, are also free-love clubs). The author has said that the story is merely a riff on 1984, but it really struck a chord with readers and tends to be brought up whenever the authorities attempt some new approach to online censorship. Ken Liu is working on an English translation of the piece.

Another story that more closely parallels the themes of Age of Prosperity is the novella My Homeland Does Not Dream (我的祖国不做梦) by Han Song, a senior journalist with the official Xinhua News Agency and one of the foremost Chinese SF writers of the past two decades. Han's short story imagines a China in which a drugged population is unaware that they are working a second shift in their sleep to help the country meet its GDP targets. Only a few top leaders know of this project, and the young protagonist, for some reason unaffected by the drug, eventually tracks down one of the masterminds who had been using his wife's second nighttime shift to carry on an affair. The overall narrative arc is quite similar to Chan's novel, but where Age of Prosperity lingers more on contemporary social issues, Han's story is a taut pulp adventure and dispenses with the authorities' motivations in a few paragraphs rather than Chan's John Galt-style speech. Both stories end with their respective protagonists saying, in effect, "Screw it. Let's escape to the south and see if they have the guts to chase us."

In regard to the copyright issue, the author has permitted an electronic version in simplified characters to be circulated on the mainland, where the Taiwan and Hong Kong print versions are not allowed. Foreign language rights have been sold and an English translation is supposedly in the works (don't know if they've decided on a translator yet).
posted by zhwj at 9:04 PM on July 30, 2010 [3 favorites]


A controversial novel marks the return of politically charged science fiction in China -- and evokes a decidedly mixed vision of the country's future. (via)
posted by Artw at 5:42 PM on August 4, 2010


And more from io9...

Chan Koon-chung's novel in which everybody in China forgets a month, The Fat Years: China 2013, will come out in the US and UK next year, Chan's agent tells io9. The truth will be revealed!

Man, they are really running with this story. Or rather Charlie Jane Anders is. She appears to be responsible for rather a lot of their content that isn't "10 Human Centipede Cosplay Outfits You'll Live to Regret Looking At!".
posted by Artw at 9:36 AM on August 5, 2010


The "return of politically charged science fiction in China" is not an entirely accurate description -- the author of that piece implies that there's been little engagement with social and political issues in Chinese SF since 1983 (or even since the 1940s), and while social commentary does not make up the majority, it's never been absent. I've expanded my above comment into a blog post that mentions a number of other titles from the past decade.

It's a "return" in the sense that there's been buzz about it outside of the relatively marginalized SF community. The buzz was propelled to some degree by microblogging; I wonder what would have happened to the set of "fifteen online novels with serious political problems" that were banned a few years back (see 关于查处15部有严重政治问题的网络长篇小说的紧急通知) if Twitter and Sina Weibo had been around then. Titles included Rebuilding the Empire, Fury of the Republic, Battle of Beijing, Republic 2049 and other military/political fantasies.

I'd caution against purchasing the English translation of Yellow Peril (as "China Tidal Wave"), which reads like an early draft. ([random dialogue midway through] 'Ok,' he nodded. 'Am I right in saying that the factor that most affects the spread of shugua as a foodstuff is its taste?' 'That's true.' 'At present foreign countries are energetically trying hard to remove the unpleasant taste.') It's a shame, because it's really an excellent novel otherwise.

As, for the most part, is The Fat Years: China 2013. I hope the agent and publisher are able to find an appropriate translator.
posted by zhwj at 10:20 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Chinese contemporary artist Zhang Hongtu, famed for his iconic Mao Quaker Oats images and for subverting traditional icons, takes on China’s greatest burden today -- environmental pollution and the downside of development.
posted by homunculus at 4:22 PM on August 9, 2010


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