Yawning Heights: Chan Koon-chung’s Harmonious China
The novel In an Age of Prosperity: China 2013 (陳冠中著 《盛世：中國、2013年》) is a sardonic and disturbing fictional consideration of the ‘harmonious society’ engineered by China’s party-state since the tumultuous events of 1989.
Various translations of the title of Chan Koon-chung’s novel have been suggested. It is said that an English version of the book will appear under the name The Fat Years. Although somewhat inapposite, it is perhaps a (misguided) reference to George Kates’ charming account of the former imperial capital, The Years That Were Fat: Peking, 1933-40 (New York: Harper, 1952). Another title, one employed by the publishing entrepreneur Hong Huang 洪晃, strikes a similarly false note: The Gilded Age.[Fig.1] This is a title used recently by the US social critic Thomas Frank for the ‘opening salvo’ of his powerful critique of the Clinton years, Commodify Your Dissent (1997). One could breezily argue that the previous Gilded Age of the United States—that of the late-nineteenth century—resembled today’s China, and that it was similarly noteworthy for rapacious capital accumulation and political influence peddling. However, the US shengshi was also a boom era for social change, academic freedom and a feisty press. For more on the reactions to Chan’s novel in China, see Gady Epstein, ‘China Looks Askance at a New Satiric Novel’, 24 May 2010, or click here for an interview with the author.
In Chinese the expression ‘prosperous age’, or ‘golden age’ (shengshi 盛世) has a venerable lineage in its own right. It is often used in common parlance in tandem with the term taiping 太平, such as in taiping shengshi 太平盛世, or ‘age of peace and prosperity’. Such supposedly halcyon moments of social order and material wealth have been celebrated in traditional literature and historical works as much for their rarity as for their utopian qualities. The most commonly acknowledged ‘golden ages’ are said to have occurred during the Shang, Eastern Zhou, Western Han, Eastern Han, Tang, Song, Ming and Qing eras, in particular: 武丁中興 (商朝), 成康之治 (西周), 文景之治、昭宣中興 (西漢), 光武中興、明章之治 (東漢), 貞觀之治、永徽之治、開元盛世 (唐朝), 洪武之治、永樂盛世、仁宣之治 (明朝)，康乾盛世 (清朝). However, ages of prosperity have often been achieved at a high human cost.
The work of Chan Koon-chung (John Chan, known also by the standard Chinese pronunciation of his name, Chen Guanzhong) also reflects a powerful nostalgia for the ‘lost 1980s’, a decade remarkable for its political complexity, relative social stability, productive intellectual and cultural anxiety and an overall sense that there was an ‘openness to possibility’. It is an era that is to an extent recorded in books such as Seeds of Fire (1986, 1988, 1989) and New Ghosts, Old Dreams (1992). In reading Chan’s novel, we are also reminded of the dystopic 1921 novel We (Мы) by Yevgeny Zamyatin, among others, as well as of Aleksandr Zinoviev’s 1976 satire Yawning Heights (Зияющие Высоты) which describes an infinitely boring society. One of Zinoviev’s memorable lines is: ‘If you want to learn to understand our life, you've first got to learn how to walk about upside down.’ In this fictional world, resistance isn’t futile, it is absurd.—The Editor.
About halfway into this intriguing and much discussed political novel by Chan Koon-chung, the protagonist Lao Chen refers to Lu Xun’s poem ‘A Good Hell Lost’ (Shidiaode haodiyu 失掉的好地獄). He poses a question:
Given the choice between a good hell and a counterfeit paradise, what will people choose? Whatever you say, many people will believe that a counterfeit paradise has got to be better than a good hell. Though at first they recognise that the paradise is bogus, they either don’t dare or wish to expose it as such. As time passes, they forget that it’s not real and actually begin to defend it, insisting that it’s the only paradise in existence.
The story of In an Age of Prosperity: China 2013 unfolds against the background of a strong and risen China, a China in its ‘Golden Age’—or as one wag puts it, the ‘Age of Complacency’ (houzheteng shidai 後折騰時代). As the title suggests, it takes place in the very near future: 2013. Two years previous, the world had suffered a catastrophic economic meltdown; the crisis threatened to drag China down into economic, social and political mayhem. Miraculously, China emerged, apparently instantaneously, into its new Golden Age, strong, prosperous and stable. As the world’s preeminent power, it has rewritten the global economic ‘rules of the game’ (youxi guize 遊戲規則) to its own advantage, yet thanks to a strategic soft-power approach, the result has been harmonious and beneficial international relations.
Fig. 1 Cover of iLook (Dushi Shijie 世界都市) with ‘River Crabs’ (Hexie 河蟹／和谐). Our thanks to Jeremy Goldkorn of Danwei Media for suggesting this image.
As for the people living in this paradise, they are happy, almost eerily so, in a manner that has resonances of the Stepford Wives or a Truman Show, albeit with Chinese characteristics. They have wealth, they have entertainments and divertissements galore, they know how to have fun, and they know their French wines. They spend a lot of time on the Internet and in self-congratulation, frequently combining both activities. They are able to do and get almost anything they want in life, so long as they don’t cross certain boundaries of acceptable behaviour, including those related to political expression. Because these boundaries have a way of shifting, people involved in borderline activities such as worship in non-sanctioned Christian churches tend to remain more alert and anxious than most. But who cares? Lao Chen describes this situation as ‘ninety-percent freedom’ (jiucheng ziyou 九成自由).
Lao Chen, whose parents were Shanghainese but who grew up in Hong Kong and Taiwan, lives in the capital of this paradise, Beijing, and is pretty happy with it. As the novel opens, however, he encounters several people from his past whose different take on reality threatens his own complacency. The first is Fang Caodi 方草地, an intellectual whose personal history reflects the vicissitudes of that of modern China. Fang’s words ‘A month is missing. I’m saying an entire month has gone missing,’ open the novel. Fang is obsessed with discovering what happened in what he insists was a ‘missing month’ between the global economic crisis and China’s rise. Lao Chen, unable to recall that there was any gap between the two phenomena at all, doesn’t understand the problem and thinks Fang slightly mad.
Others who have somehow failed to buy into the general air of cheerful insouciance include the former child labourer turned runaway and guitarist Zhang Dou 張逗 and Dong Niang 董娘, a prostitute and heroin addict who likens the ambient vibe of contentment to a kind of ‘lukewarm little high’ (yizhong hen wentun hen wentunde xiaoxiaoxiao hai 一種很溫吞很溫吞的小小小嗨) or in her Australian boyfriend’s formulation, ‘hi-lite-lite’.
Lao Chen is reluctant to think about all this, much less get involved. But when he re-encounters another malcontent, Xiao Xi 小希, he finds himself drawn in despite himself.
Xiao Xi had been a young low-level magistrate whose first job was to help carry out the fierce anti-crime (yanda 嚴打) campaign of 1983, in which people were sometimes arrested, tried and executed in the space of a day. She was so traumatised by the callous abuse of people’s rights, the disproportionate fierceness of the sentences (death, in many cases) and the number of innocent people who suffered as a result, that she quit the legal system then and there.
Lao Chen first met Xiao Xi in the ’80s, when she and her mother ran the Five Flavours restaurant near Peking University. The restaurant was popular with students and foreigners, and served as something of an intellectual and artistic salon. Lao Chen was a habitué of Five Flavours and had always been attracted to Xiao Xi, whose good looks were complemented by her fiery intelligence and strong sense of right and wrong. At first, she too appears somewhat mad, anxiety etched into the lines of her aged but still attractive face, continually switching E-mail addresses and convinced (rightly, as it turns out) that she’s being watched by the security forces. Lao Chen knows that to pursue her is to court trouble and indeed, to lose paradise, but love has its own logic.
Fang, meanwhile, has begun to piece together evidence that the events of the missing month included an anti-crime campaign that made 1983 look like a pair of fake-fur handcuffs but which, like the concomitant food hoarding and unrest, has been meticulously purged from the historical record. How and why is only part of the mystery that drives the novel; the real question is how and why the people who lived through it are, only two years on, so able and willing to forget.
The post-1949 history of China is littered with such mysteries: the intense and frequently coercive campaign to bring China’s intelligentsia round to communism in the early ’50s that is described in the1988 novel Washing (Xizao 洗澡) by Yang Jiang 楊絳, for example, has been almost entirely forgotten today. It’s a fair guess that most people in China today would be hard-pressed to come up with many details of major post-’49 historical traumas like the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957 or even the more recent events of 1989. Chan has said that while writing In an Age of Prosperity he was thinking about these things but also more specifically about 2009, when China emerged from the global economic crisis of 2008 healthy and sound—and then sentenced of the intellectual Liu Xiaobo 劉曉波 to eleven years in gaol for an act of dissident political expression. Although In an Age of Prosperity appears to be speculative fiction, in that same interview, Chan describes it as a work of ‘realism’.[Fig.2]
Fig. 2 The cover of Chan’s novel.
Chan Koon-chung paints a vivid and detailed portrait of China as simultaneous utopia and dystopia. In order to accurately describe China today, he has written elsewhere, one needs to be like the famous Tang Dynasty songstress Jiang Shu 絳樹, who was capable of singing two songs at the same time, one in the back of her throat and the other from her nose.
Chan Koon-chung has a similar background to that of the narrator ‘Lao Chen’ and, one imagines he shares a similar sense of both familiarity and alienation from the world in which he lives: as Lao Chen puts it, he is a ‘dispassionate observer’ (yige butourude pangguanzhe 一個不投入的旁觀者). Chan came to prominence in Hong Kong in the ’80s as the founder of the stylish City Magazine (Haowai 號外). Those in the know will see the wink in the many references to Reading magazine (Dushu 讀書)—Chan was for a time its overseas publisher/distributor. In an Age of Prosperity is his first novel set in China. Although not published there, enough copies have got in to make it a hot topic in intellectual circles; at a fashionable party I attended in Beijing in late 2009, the host presented all of her guests with a copy as a gift.
The author’s fictional style could be described as reportorial, with few metaphors or other stylistic flourishes. The narrative logic of switching between points of view (first and third person, multiple perspectives) is not apparent and more than once he undercuts his own narrative suspense with foreshadowing. One of the more fascinating characters sadly more or less disappears from sight by the end: Xiao Xi’s son Wei Guo 韋國, a hyper-nationalist, neo-fascist and intellectual thug whose most ardent dream is to work for the Department of Propaganda (Zhongxuanbu 中宣部): ‘I think that the Central Department of Propaganda is so romantic… [it] leads the spiritual life of the entire country and the people’ (Wo renwei Zhongxuanbu hen langman… Zhongxuanbu jiushi lingdao quanguo renmin jingshen shenghuode 我認為中宣部很浪漫… 中宣部就是領導全國人民精神生活的。).
Yet for the most part the story is compelling, the humour satisfyingly dry, the characters vividly drawn and their stories cleverly interwoven. On the other hand, just as In an Age of Prosperity prepares to deliver the narrative punch the entire book had been leading up to, Chan pulls it in order to pronounce, via a character who is a Politburo member, a barely interrupted treatise on China’s domestic and foreign policies for In an Age of Prosperity that runs on for forty-odd pages. Lao Chen is a fan of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett; Chan Koon-chung would know that either of them would have tightened it up.
Yet the exposition contained in these forty pages is in many ways at the heart of In an Age of Prosperity. Not only does it explain the lost month, it presents the logic of it: the confident assumption of the Communist Party leadership that in China, ‘the people fear chaos more than dictatorship’ (renmin pa luan duoyu pa zhuanzheng 人民怕亂多於怕專政). It presents a relatively coherent, persuasive and detailed master plan for China’s economic and political future that may be far-fetched but is not implausible and is in sometimes oblique ways reflective of current affairs.
There are people who are probably thinking now that China has risen and entered into In an Age of Prosperity, we can bring an end to one Party dictatorship! Twenty years ago, He Dongsheng himself had also thought that. He would probably have joined a faction in the Party that advocated democratic reform and even gone so far as to have supported a Chinese Gorbachev. But by now He Dongsheng had lost any faith he might have had in Western-style democratic systems. More importantly, he knew that after 4 June 1989, there were no idealists left in the Communist Party. As the group with a monopoly on political power in China, the Communist Party exercised power in order to protect itself—people became officials in order to profit from their position and there was absolutely no chance of a Gorbachev-like figure emerging.
Earlier in the book, Xiao Xi reflects that ‘Beijing in the ’80s was such a charming place, an era full of possibility’ (Bashi niandaizhong, Beijing, duo ling ren shenwangde difang 八十年代中、北京、多令人神往的地方、一個充滿各種可能的年代). In In an Age of Prosperity, the possibilities have narrowed.
Which would you choose: the good hell or the false paradise? Chan Koon-chung lets the reader decide.
《盛世：中國、2013年》, Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 2009, p.107. For an early profile of the author, see the 2004 article in Danwei, at: http://www.danwei.org/people/people_chan_koonchung.php.
 Editor’s Note: No single English word or expression can adequately convey the cluster of meanings inherent in zheteng 折騰. For ‘to zheteng’ is to be unsettled, to struggle, to get by, to try and achieve something but possibly to fail to do so. It means to be exasperated but to battle on regardless. It is to engage with the world uneasily, to sit uncomfortably and to annoy others/oneself/the system/the status quo by one’s tireless squirming and restlessness. It is to buck the system, but to believe nonetheless that all resistance is futile; it is to rage against the dying of the light, but to have no confidence that there was any light or that the impending gloom is really all that bad. It is to be ill-at-ease and, by one’s efforts, to make others feel the same way. Here I have suggested to the author that ‘Age of Complacency’, a time when people have found that the struggles and ventures of the 1980s, be they meaningful or merely vacuous performances, are spent and that an era of quietude, a time after zheteng now reigns supreme. With energy spent and wills weakened, all that people have to console themselves with is impotent complacency. They find themselves in a houzheteng shidai 后折腾时代. Middle-age world-weariness awaits senescence.
 Yige yue bu jianle. Wo shi shuo, yi zheng yue bu jianle. 一個月不見了。我是說，一整月不見了。Chan, In an Age of Prosperity, p.3.
 Which she in turn renders back into Chinese as ‘嗨賴賴’. The Australian also notes that the Chinese people have all turned into facsimiles of the fiercely happy workers peasants and soldiers in the old Cultural Revolution posters. See Chan, In an Age of Prosperity, pp.113-114.
 Joint Publishers, Hong Kong, 1988. For a translated extract, see Geremie R. Barmé, An Artistic Exile, a life of Feng Zikai (1898-1975), Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
 絳樹兩歌. See Chen Guanzhong: ‘Shengshi’ he xu wei yan (陳冠中：‘盛世’何須危言), at: http://hk.dfzz.org/culture/content!cgz--cs-hxwy!d7a4a7c2.html
 See Chan, In an Age of Prosperity, p.6. Later there is a passage in which one of the narrator’s acquaintances tells him that outsiders (wairen 外人) like him simply ‘don’t appreciate China’s particular national situation’ (bu liaojie Zhongguo guoqing 不瞭解中國國情). This may surprise non-Chinese readers who assumed that only foreigners experienced what Lao Chen describes as the ‘silent irritation’ of being confronted with this unanswerable declaration.
 There is a section where Fang Caodi describes to Lao Chen a village that even in this weirdly happy world is a little too happy. He tells Lao Chen that it may have something to do with whatever goes on at a top secret chemical factory nearby—then they enter the village, which has turned into a ghost town, and driving out of town, come upon the mysterious and heavily guarded factory.
 Chan, In an Age of Prosperity, p.21.
 Chan, In an Age of Prosperity, p.216.
 Chan, In an Age of Prosperity, p.47.