Gloomy China: China’s Image in Han Song’s Science Fiction
Translated by Joel Martinsen
Han Song is a Xinhua journalist born in 1965 who studied English and journalism at Wuhan University. He is also one of China’s most important contemporary science-fiction writers. His science fiction of the last few decades, with its unique style and its absurdly dark and violently bloody content that is often intentionally obscure and stomach-turning, has baffled fans but has been praised by some critics as raising Chinese science fiction to new heights. Wu Yan, an early authority in Chinese sf studies, exemplifies the latter position: “His fiction upends practically all of the established rules governing its content and is an important step forward for the nativization of science fiction” (“1990 niandai de zhongguo kehuan” 246).
Although Wu has praised Han Song’s Hongse haiyang [Red Ocean, 2004] as “the most outstanding work of science fiction in China in the past twenty years” (“Han Song” 285), Han Song himself is more modest: “It’s a shame I’m still so far from being an outstanding science fiction writer. I’m striving to learn from them, but disappointingly, it’s fine to be good enough, to have a few readers is fine, and to still be happy when I write” (Chen 13). His dark and mysterious stories feel like ghost stories. In fact, Han Song has a particular interest in ghosts and once investigated hauntings in Luliang, Yunnan Province, with another journalist, the result of which was the non-fiction book Gui de xianchang diaocha [Ghost Scene Investigations, 2002]. In his fiction, he constructs frightening ghost towns suffused with the supernatural, an effect which, for the purposes of this discussion, I will call “Gloomy China”—haunted as it is by the modern ghosts of the age of technology rather than by the classical ghosts of traditional supernatural stories such as those of Pu Songling (1640-1715). The paradox is that the malevolent spirits of the past have not disappeared under the democracy and science of today’s society, but have, in new forms, become wedded to modern technology and to modern techniques of domination.
It is worth noting that Han Song does not offer a single, complete picture of “Gloomy China,” but has provided fragmentary glimpses of it in scattered writings over the course of several decades. Just as Kafka would not be Kafka absent his diaries, letters, and sketches, to truly understand Han Song’s work and the “nativization of science fiction” that Wu Yan mentions requires a command not only of Han Song’s works of fiction, but also of his journalistic writings, essays, blog posts, poetry, and microblogs.
An Eager Torch-bearer. In the view of Huang Ziping et al., the major theme of twentieth-century Chinese literature is “transforming the soul of the nation” and this in turn is treated in two very different ways. The first is a negative “civilization criticism” or “social criticism” that attacks the poor national character, ignorance, backwardness, numbness, selfishness, and conservatism that are the results of sustained feudal rule. The other is affirmative, unearthing the “backbone of the Chinese people” and either calling for the emergence of a new generation or creating an idealized hero as a model to be followed by all society (3).
In contrast to the realism that characterized “orthodox” twentieth-century Chinese literature, science fiction has never been part of the mainstream in China. Nevertheless, when science fiction was first introduced by cultural pioneers such as Liang Qichao and Lu Xun who were concerned to strengthen the nation, like other modern Chinese literature of the following century it took up the task of enlightening the people and reshaping national culture.1 Major themes of cultural criticism and dreams of a renaissance found unique expression in Chinese science fiction. On the one hand, it gave readers a new perspective on the world, holding up a fun-house mirror to the absurdity of things ignored because they were believed to be self-evident and euphemistically depicting the many abuses suffered during traditional China’s transformation into modern China. On the other hand, through its detailed and visually compelling depictions of a charismatic, fascinating future China, science fiction gave hope to a people trapped in a difficult reality, strengthening their faith in the future and calling them to take concrete action to build a more advanced and prosperous new China.
While a writer such as Liu Cixin creates grand visions of the future to inspire his readers’ passion for truth and human progress, Han Song is an inheritor of the May Fourth tradition of cultural criticism and enlightenment as represented by Lu Xun (1881-1936). That ideological and cultural movement, exemplified by the patriotic student demonstrations of 4 May 1919, sought ways to strengthen the country and was fiercely critical of traditional Confucian-centered culture, whose advocacy of harmony and avoidance of conflict and its emphasis on obedience—the respect of ministers for their sovereign, children for their parents, and women for their husbands—suppressed both individuality and creativity and shackled the advance to modern personhood.
In Kuangren riji [Diary of a Madman], first published in 1918 and considered to be China’s first modern vernacular story, Lu Xun adopts the voice of a emotionally unstable madman to indict the “cannibalism” behind the superficial “humanity, justice, virtue and morality” of Chinese history (Lu 444). In order to survive the clash of nations, there must be cultural renewal to foster an entirely new and complete individual. It was with this in mind that Lu Xun abandoned his pursuit of a career in medicine during his studies in Japan and turned to writing as a way to treat the heart of his convalescent countrymen. A culture that has stabilized over the course of thousands of years, however, possesses a powerful inertia and occupies an immense space; like a vat of dye, it can transform, assimilate, or deflect any effort at change and, as a result, changes made in the name of progress may ultimately be sacrificed to the cycle of history.
For a period after the founding of the People’s Republic, people were immersed in glowing dreams of a rapid evolution toward communism, and the literature of socialist realism, serving the needs of socialist construction and political struggles, consisted primarily of social criticism and praise for positive characters. Yet the movement, which peaked with the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), also stirred up the darkness of human nature. Cruel theoretical criticism, bodily harm, and even pitched battles between different revolutionary cliques—all in the name of class struggle—became the tools for some to seize power or take private revenge, and those who could not endure the personal disgrace found a voice for condemnation and release through suicide. These dark shadows became a heavy burden that the inheritors of this history have not been able to shrug off. The reform era, which began in 1978, saw waves of commodification churn over an imperfect social system, the return of privileged classes who profited through power, a rapid expansion of individual appetites that had been suppressed for so long under the pressures of material want, and the spiritual confusion of an atheist-educated public as communism lost its appeal. These developments suggested that the ghosts of history had returned in force.
Since the mid-1980s, Chinese fiction has experienced a shift in aesthetics expressed as an absurdity of style. David Der-wei Wang holds that beginning in the 1980s the profound influence of modernism caused the “familiarization of the uncanny” to become a way for contemporary authors such as Mo Yan, Yu Hua, and Su Tong to innovate, because “for the past forty years, reality was already eerier and more unthinkable than that which any literature could conjure.” The grotesque phenomena of the time had become normalized as part of reality, making ordinary life so abnormal that an author’s task was no longer the defamiliarization of the ordinary but its opposite, the truthful expression of everyday life and a re-normalization and familiarization of the uncanny and the absurd—in other words, the “attempt to write the experience of history that could not or should not be said, or could be said only unclearly” (Wang 376).2 Traditional China’s metamorphosis into modern China, of which so many Chinese experiences remain unspeakable or can only be spoken of indirectly, is, I believe, at the root of the nativization of art, which shapes the aesthetic features of Han Song’s work.
The experience of the uncanny depends on the norms of the observer. Han Song himself is clearly an inheritor of the Enlightenment tradition. In Xiangxiangli xuanyan [Imagination Manifesto, 2000], he argues that science fiction shares an essential trait with rock music: “they both maximize the space for free expression” (394). The mission of national rejuvenation, however, has been a burden on Chinese science fiction, so he welcomes the playfulness that he sees in the new generation of sf writers. Han Song also notes, however, that political transformation remains a key factor influencing the Chinese people during a period of such social upheaval and that “the task of emancipating minds remains fundamentally incomplete”: “At this time, what is needed most is to increase the social depth of science fiction and to return at least a portion of it from alien worlds back to Earth, primarily because of all the unsolved problems in Chinese society” (385).
Han Song has long been familiar with international affairs because of his career at the Xinhua News Agency and he has a deeper understanding than most of the uncanniness of a society undergoing radical transformation: “In this line of work, you’ll get to hear of lots of new and furtive rumors, and you’ll find lots of science-fiction elements in real life. Of course there are obstacles. When some things are written down, readers will say that they are too obscure, or they don’t understand—I’m sorry, but I can’t provide readers with the background to my stories” (Chen 13). Although his fiction may be obscure, however, his non-fiction is clear enough:
Absurdity penned by Chinese science-fiction writers is different from the absurdity of Kafka. It is a habit acquired through five thousand years of civilization and has strong national characteristics.... I myself can often sense this absurdity growing and spreading through everyday life and this is one important reason why I write. Wrapped in the most sacred of clothing, it works its way into the very bones of life and society ... and then from ordinary citizens to the interests of the state, it can be betrayed and sacrificed amid a righteous, knowing silence.
[E]conomic prosperity, a greater range of movement, and free discussion on the Internet easily create the illusion of some sort of wonder. Yet the intrinsic logic of five thousand years has, fundamentally, not changed much. (“Taidu shi chaoyue huangmiu de yizhong wuqi”)
In his “Imagination Manifesto,” Han Song contends that, compared to realist literature, science fiction is uniquely suited to expose and critique social reality in a way that goes further than simply a critique of national character; it can aim to explore, “in the context of technological civilization, the evolution of cunning, meanness, and darkness in the Chinese people, a new ignorance characterized by information technology, rule of law, and wealth” (emphasis added). This is less a transcendence than a completion of unresolved historical missions. The May 4th Movement (1915-1921) valued democracy and science as keys to save the nation from disaster. According to Lu Xun, however, “Every new system, new discipline, and new term that enters China falls into a vat of black dye and immediately turns pitch black, becoming a tool for selfish light. Science is merely one of these” (“Huabian” 506). Yet for most of the twentieth century there was little convincing discussion in Chinese literature about how science and technology had come to be mere tools of powerful and selfish interests.
In the first wave of Chinese sf produced in the final decade of the Qing Dynasty (1902-1911), authors either attempted to disseminate smatterings of scientific knowledge as they themselves understood it or, alternatively, they sought to use the transformative power of science fiction to satirize Chinese society and to suggest a future direction for a country mired in sadness and anger. They imagined the nation as a collective that would be reborn with the assistance of powerful technologies, implying that the trials and ills of the present day would be resolved at some future date, with time serving as the catalyst. But the insufficiently advanced technology and cruel realities of the time meant that these rhapsodies could came to nothing, and they ultimately vanished from the public eye. By the Republican era (1911-1949), major authors were turning their attention to ideas of individual liberation and national independence. As a young man Lu Xun wrote works of science such as Zhongguo dizhi lüelun [Chinese Geology in Brief, 1903] and Kexueshi jiaopian [Lessons From the History of Science, 1907]; he also translated the works of Jules Verne and even advocated for science fiction as a genre. His own literary creations, however, particularly his fiction, focused more on historical exploration and contemporary critique; the future as a dimension well suited to the exploration of technological questions went unmentioned.3 Ba Jin (1904-2005), another literary giant who advocated for individual liberation, was asked in his later years whether he had read Verne during his days as a student in France; he recalled that when he first began his literary pursuits, he “primarily sought survival and liberation in life, fighting against a cannibalistic society, and therefore had no energy to explore scientific fiction (kexue xiaoshuo)” (Jin 99). In general, the science fiction of this period either continued the task of popularizing scientific knowledge, exemplified by Gu Junzheng’s Heping de meng [A Dream of Peace, 1940], or undertook to satirize Chinese society, as in Lao She’s Mao cheng ji [Cat Country, 1932]. In contrast, post-revolutionary science fiction, influenced both by the fiction of Jules Verne and the politics of the Soviet Union, was a socialist-oriented literature. It extolled the successes attained in socialist construction and the bright future prospects for communism, and it overflowed with scientific optimism. As a rule, socialist-oriented sf was set in the near future (rarely more than a century from the present) and located in near space (rarely exceeding the orbit of Mars). Its focus was technological, with little interest in social or philosophical concerns, focused narrowly on the nation, and aimed at a juvenile readership. Only in the science fiction of the 1980s did reflections on technology and modernity find widespread, substantive, and mature discussion in a fiction arena. Han Song was one of those pioneers, demonstrating a sustained concern for and understanding of contemporary trends in science and technology, and keenly interested in their impact on human life, particularly the lives of the Chinese people. His fiction takes up many of the cultural ideals of the May Fourth period and expands and refashions them for a new age.
In his preface to Nahan [Call To Arms, 1922], Lu Xun compares China to an “iron house” in which sleepers may slumber on to a painless death. If a minority of enlightened individuals cry out and wake the others, however, they will find that the iron house cannot be destroyed; their sufferings will only increase in a dilemma of hope (“Zixu” 441). In Wo de zuguo bu zuomeng [My Homeland Does Not Dream, 2003), Han Song satirically transforms Lu Xun’s metaphor of “dying in one’s sleep” for a new era; it becomes “prospering in one’s sleep.” In this story, the Chinese people, who are scattered and disunited during the day, work with particular efficiency while sleepwalking at night under the control of a mysterious “Committee of Darkness.” The protagonist Xiao Ji discovers the truth through an encounter with a foreign reporter investigating the situation, and he discovers that his beautiful wife serves as the plaything of a powerful individual while she sleeps. Furious, Xiao Ji seeks revenge, only to have his weak will defeated by the argument that “China must become strong through sleepwalking,” and he has to accept that “in this mutable, crisis-ridden world, the Chinese people do not need to dream.” Amid his pain and ruin, all that is left for him is to take his sleepwalking wife with him to a place where “a person can make a choice, to sleep and never wake again.” In this story the country’s rise is an irrefutable justification for the sacrifice of individual rights and technology-assisted “sleep” is a necessary choice. The choice to cry out is obsolete; all that is left is self-destruction in the face of such schizophrenic torment. In Han Song’s “Meinü shoulie zhinan” [A Guide to Hunting Beauties, 2002], a mysterious company grows artificial women through a quick, industrialized, biotech method and these “purebred ovarian and uterine animals” are taken to an island to be hunted by wealthy thrill-seeking lechers. Armed with real weapons, the men are free to do as they please with the women they catch, although they also run the risk of being killed by them. The professor in charge of the program even claims that the activity contributes to the local economy. Here scientific progress feeds the darkest of desires; it is only in this bizarre environment of extreme cruelty and the risk of death that men who have suffered psychosexual trauma and have been hollowed out by the inflexible social realities of adulthood can rediscover their passion for life and obtain a perverted release for their distorted desires.
If the “dye vat” leaves a heavy, static, and unchanging impression, then Han Song’s “Gloomy China” is more like a dynamically growing monster that twists and writhes its way forward, a product of the encounter between modern technology and the “intrinsic logic of five thousand years” of the so-called “oriental spirit.” To some extent, Han Song’s writing is an ongoing struggle with this monster.
Despairing Insomniac. In 2011, Han Song confessed that “I don’t think humans have rid themselves of their innate evil. It’s just suppressed by technology. If there is a spark of chaos, the worst will happen. That goes for all people, whether Chinese or Western” (Zhao 43). In Huoxing zhaoyao Meiguo [Red Star Over America, 2000, rev. 2012], Han Song explores the tumultuous rise and fall of a civilization in a way that suggests the innate “evil” of human nature. In a United States that has closed itself off to the outside world, a second Civil War breaks out, and the former president is subjected to a Cultural Revolution-style struggle. This is less an inversion of China’s modern history than a conjecture about directions the world might take in the future: in the face of unprecedented disaster, will the west, which has long accused China of authoritarianism, turn to Chinese-style central planning? Will Eastern collectivism replace Western individualism as humanity’s new “universal values”? These grave issues are overshadowed by the specter of a strange red Mars, and by the alien spacecraft that mysteriously appears and then departs. When the Martians arrive at the end of the novel, Earth becomes a “Land of Promise” (fudi), but the author does not explain what this “new era” is like and readers are left with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the novel’s many unanswered questions.
Here we sense another side of Han Song’s fiction. Beneath the enlightenment and the critique, his work exhibits a deep Buddhist influence, an attitude that “all is emptiness.” On the one hand, Han Song is confounded by the mysteries of the universe:
Standing beside the window of the building looking out at the sky, I see that the universe is indescribably vast, but through a few simple laws, humanity, this life form that unexpectedly appeared, can know of its existence and operation, and hence connect with something even more essential and mysterious, and what else would we do? On June 21, I profoundly felt that I “lived” in the universe. Why? This was not a particularly good feeling. (“Beibanqiu zui kepa de yitian”)
At the same time, the constant distresses and absurdities of the real world act as continuous setbacks to the ideals of enlightenment and progress so intimately connected to evolutionary theory. Han Song is acutely aware of the impermanence of life: everything passes through birth to death, nothing is fixed, nothing is eternal or changeless. This attitude dilutes the enlightenment conviction of his work, rendering it at once critical and sentimental; it also lends his fiction a kind of transcendence that shifts between attachment and detachment.
At the conclusion of “A Guide to Hunting Beauties,” the protagonist accidentally castrates himself and thereby comes to realize that “Compared to existence, nonexistence probably works better in returning people to the basics”; thus the story can be read as an expression of the experience that “form is emptiness.” In Yuzhou mubei [Tombstone of the Universe, 1991], Han Song’s breakout work, the meaning of human existence is embodied in black tombstones found throughout the cosmos. Massive and desolate, uncanny and mysteriously significant, these tombstones have been erected as memorials to those who died during humanity’s stubborn exploration of space, while attempting to prove the value of such exploration. The mysterious disappearance of these tombstones only confirms the unfathomability of space, demonstrating in the process how vulnerable is humanity’s courage in the face of the unknown. In “Kan de kongju” [Fear of Sight, 2002], an infant with ten eyes can see the true face of the world as a thick fog; the world as it is apprehended by ordinary people is only an illusion. “Lü an shanzhuang” [Green Shore Villa, 2009] takes this idea even further: a civilian UFO enthusiast hypothesizes that higher intelligences compete by transforming stars, modifying the cosmological constant, and even changing the structure of space-time; he concludes that the universe is therefore necessarily self-contradictory. His viewpoint inspires physicists to propose a new model of the universe, hypothesizing that, at least in theory, the universe as we know it is a deception; on the basis of this new model, a cosmic technology is developed through which every individual becomes capable of fabricating a personal cosmos. In the story, a younger brother returns after a months-long cosmic voyage at sub-light speeds but says nothing about his journey to his older brother, now white-haired after the passage of forty years on Earth. The former has discovered that the universe, thought to be real for the fifteen billion years up to the point of his departure, is totally illusory. The author suggests, with deliberate ambiguity, that the younger brother may have been killed in the past when his father revealed the falsity of the universe, and that his return is nothing but a projection of a universe fabricated by his older brother. Using the twins paradox, Han Song turns the philosophy of special relativity into a symbol of China’s modernization: in separate frames of reference, one generation’s sacrifice for the sake of the motherland loses its purpose once the universe itself turns unreliable; human existence becomes mysterious and tinged with horror. There is an atmosphere of indescribable apprehension and sadness in this story, which is at once a veiled expression of the rootlessness resulting from the transformations of modern China and a lament that all is emptiness.
For Han Song, therefore, science fiction is both a powerful tool for critique and a practice of self-realization for the individual.4 His “Gloomy China,” with its veiled elements of political protest, is what Fredric Jameson has termed a “national allegory,” in this instance of the modernization of China; at the same time its strong philosophical and even religious flavor transcends concerns with the nation-state to become a universal exploration of the meaning of human existence.5
This dual attitude determines the elements of Han Song’s unique style: a preference for the first person, a sense of displacement, historical inversion, inexplicable yet appealingly mysterious plots, visceral displays of violence, and obscure language. As a rule the typical protagonist in Han Song’s stories is weak, self-abasing, and repressed, with distorted desires and a strong sense of shame; while he seems to be less aware of the truth than certain other people, in the end he realizes that everyone’s fate is being manipulated by mysterious and unknowable forces. The reader accumulates fragments of the truth only to find them self-contradictory and subject to divergent interpretations; it is impossible to assemble them into a complete, consistent, uniform picture of the world. Han Song’s most acclaimed novel, Hongse haiyang [Red Ocean], is 400,000 characters in length and has not yet been fully explored by critics. It tells of a present in which the survivors of nuclear war consume each other, while in the future, China’s great navigator Zheng He reaches Europe but is unable to alter the fate of Asian peoples, who are doomed to defeat at the hands of white Westerners. Past, present, and future are deliberately inverted and the history of China—indeed, of all humanity—is twisted around itself and open to many divergent interpretations.
In his recent novel Ditie [Subway, 2011], Han Song seems deliberately to obscure the science-fictional set-up, revealing just the tip of the iceberg in a plot that is cryptic to the extreme and lacking in any systematic coherence. The five interlinked yet largely independent short stories that make up the novel create the fragmented picture of a civilization’s collapse: sleeping passengers on the last subway of the night turn into ghost-like “hollow men,” mysterious aliens carry them off in glass bottles, and the occasional passengers who witness this after being startled awake are stymied in their attempts to uncover the truth before they too disappear. The mysterious subway continues on its unbelievable journey, and the people who experience this bizarre turn of events participate in frightening scenes of evolution and devolution in that claustrophobic space, a continuation of the tragic age-old story of survival through cannibalism. Behind it all is the specter of mad experiments being conducted by China and the United States in their efforts to save civilization. In the competition between white Westerners in the air (in flying saucers) and Asians underground (in subways), no one can say for certain if the arrival of doomsday is caused by a mishap in experiments conducted by a nation in the grip of modernization or if it is merely a post-apocalyptic illusion manufactured by mysterious alien forces. The struggle of a devolved humanity proves to be futile, for their dominant position in history is destined to be lost to evolved rodents. Generation after generation pursues the truth, but only when a boy and girl return to the ruins left behind by their ancestors is it all proven to have been in vain.
Ditie is also a particularly salient example of Han Song’s narrative deficiencies. The novel is marked by a flood of adjectives, inflexibility in plot and pacing, stagnant characterization, and a monotonous atmosphere of hopelessness, all characteristics that contribute to the sense of hastiness in his writing.6 How should these deficiencies be understood? Han Song favors descriptions such as “the water evened out and shone like skin under the whip” (Hongse haiyang 63) and “urine-like instrumental reasoning” (Ditie 287). Vividly eccentric analogies animate the tension between objects and names. His peculiarly slippery phrasing possesses a strong individuality that makes it difficult to predict how one sentence will follow another: his adjectives are like muddied water sweeping over the ruins of nouns and driving continuously forward, so that one feels an apprehension at the merciless force of his writing. Characters engage in impenetrable and illogical dialogue, nothing at all like the speech of ordinary individuals. To put it another way, even direct statements do not seem to belong to the characters who speak them, as if even their words have been distorted by “Gloomy China.”
These qualities of Han Song’s fiction—awkward dialogue and plotting, peculiar analogies, and difficult language—make the reader keenly aware of a writer both sensitive and depressed, an anxious insomniac tapping the keyboard in the still of the night. If Proust contributed to literary history the image of the great solitary watcher in the night, Han Song’s fiction gives us the figure of an author who writes news articles by day and science fiction by night. If his stories are bleak, at least one character finds redemption through them—the stumbling narrator who has faith in these stories of life and death.
The recent impressive sales of sf writer Liu Cixin’s San Ti [Three Body] Trilogy have resulted in increasing enthusiasm in China for science fiction and Han Song’s work has frequently been compared to that of “China’s top sf writer.” Perhaps as a result, there are significant changes in his most recent work. “Zaisheng zhuan” [Rebirth Bricks, 2011], for example, tells of an architect who makes building materials from the rubble and corpses of the shocking Wenchuan Earthquake (12 May 2008). He then promotes these “bricks,” which contain the souls of the dead, across China. They are awarded an international prize and their sales accelerate the reconstruction of the disaster zone, the restoration of the livelihood of the victims, and the revitalization of the economy. People become so obsessed with the bricks that they look forward to new disasters and even infest alien worlds with artificial microorganisms in order to create exterminations. Ultimately humanity discovers that the universe, built atop a ruin, is itself made of “rebirth bricks.”
Han Song’s story was inspired by the “rebirth bricks” designed by architect Liu Jiakun after the Wenchuan Earthquake. That disaster united the Chinese people into one community, as did the very many touching events witnessed during the rescue efforts. The problems revealed by the earthquake also garnered substantial criticism: collapsed schools appear to have been constructed out of substandard materials. Han Song continues the metaphysical musings about death introduced in “Tombstone of the Universe”; turning to contemporary history, his story incorporates numerous media accounts of Liu Jiakun’s rebirth bricks. In this blending of fiction and non-fiction “Rebirth Bricks” explores both the trauma of the earthquake and the question of “new life.” The feudal ethics and cultural cannibalism that Lu Xun addressed in his “Diary of a Madman” are transformed into their antithesis here: the dead are gone, so what profit is there in dwelling on the past? What can the survivors do but extract the materials for rebirth from the corpses of the victims? New life is more important than the truth, and its starting point is forgetting.
Han Song narrates this story in the first person; the narrator is the descendent of two survivors who formed a new family unit after the earthquake. In this future, the “truth” of the bricks is hidden; debris and straw are recognized as ingredients, but human bodies are deliberately overlooked and the painful history of flesh and death is erased : “[The bricks] looked as if they had been taken from some random plot of ground and did not prompt any association with the quake zone” (62). As a consequence of the immense psychological trauma suffered by the survivors of the earthquake, the narrator is never able to obtain a clear answer regarding their memories of the disaster. Many questions “remain unanswerable to the grave” (67), as the narrator’s mother tells hims when she pays her respects to the souls of the dead: “Don’t think too much about things on our side. They’ll never become clear” (69). Eventually the earthquake zone becomes a tourist attraction—“the living ought to thank the dead” (70).
In “Rebirth Bricks,” Han Song’s usual opaque narration achieves a new clarity; the violent rhetoric that he usually favors is hidden between the lines like the unseen corpses in the rebirth bricks. Only at the end, when the narrator’s by-now senile mother discusses past events with a passing sightseer does the vocabulary of blood and violence intrude to return readers to the miseries of the earthquake. In her homespun version of the disaster, the fictitious future unfolds a forbidden history in sharp focus. In the process, the writer accomplishes his own rescue and rebirth through this reorganization of reality. The paradox of the rebirth bricks—memory and forgetting, death and new life, the visible and invisible—unfolds among the layers of narrative objects, narrative textual form, the narrator, and extra-narrative history.
“Rebirth Bricks” is one of Han Song’s most successful stories, but it is not at all typical science fiction. In my view, Han Song’s rough aesthetic is as much a response to the obstacles faced by writers in today’s “Gloomy China” as it is the result of any lack in writerly skills. Ultimately it is far more interesting to examine what makes his fiction unique than to list its shortcomings. His work combines elements of science fiction from Europe, the US, Japan, and the former Soviet Union, altered so as to express his own particular vision of the Chinese people, that ancient agricultural nation, and all the trials they have encountered in the process of modernization. While most of the avant-garde writers of the 1980s have since joined the mainstream, producing work that aspires to emulate the literary classics, there are still some writers such as Han Song who have continued to focus on literary experimentation. Unaffiliated with any literary movement, school, idea, or technique, they are driven by a spirit of exploration. They have the acumen to capture the pulse of the present, to glimpse the occasional rays of light in the darkness of historical processes, to work through continual failure in search of a vital literary form most suited to contemporary reality. Though these explorations may fail, they are brewing the stuff of the future.7
1. Literary innovations were carried out on a large scale by Chinese writers in the first decades of the twentieth century, when realism had not yet become orthodoxy. For an overview of Chinese literature of this period, see Wang’s Fin-de-Siècle Splendor.
2. I refer to the calamities that occurred during the series of political campaigns following the 1949 revolution, from murderous struggles to grain yields that defied common sense.
3. For an examination of Lu Xun’s translations of science fiction, see Li.
4. When he was asked what science fiction meant to him during an interview with Chen Qiufan, Han Song said simply, “Practice” (xiuxing, Buddhist cultivation). When Chen Qiufan asked him to say a few words for his readers, Han Song said only, “The return on science fiction for all of you may be realized in lives to come.”
5. Jameson writes that the culture of any third-world country cannot “be conceived as anthropologically independent or autonomous; rather, they are all in various distinct ways locked in a life-and-death struggle with first-world cultural imperialism—a cultural struggle that is itself a reflexion of the economic situation of such areas in their penetration by various stages of capital, or as it is sometimes euphemistically termed, of modernization” (68). He argues that “All third-world texts are necessarily ... allegorical, and in a very specific way: they are to be read as what I will call national allegories” (69), concluding that “Third-world texts, even those which are seemingly private and invested with a properly libidinal dynamic, necessarily project a political dimension in the form of national allegory: the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society” (69).
6. Han Song’s daily work load is heavy and he usually pursues his writing before and after work or very early in the morning. His output is considerable; by his own estimate, he has more than a million characters of unpublished writing. He is also plagued by insomnia; the timestamps of his microblog posts are proof of his sleepless nights (see <http://weibo.com/hansong>).
7. By comparison, Liu Cixin is more attentive to the reader’s experience and has successfully blended the aesthetic mechanisms of classic sf with the cultural demands of a rising China. The accessibility of his work has resulted in a wide readership. Han Song, who writes journalism, essays, blogs, poetry, and fiction, does not care about winning the hearts and minds of his readership. His work remains chaotic, pregnant with both hope and failure. Whether he will eventually produce a definitive masterpiece such as Liu Cixin’s San-ti [Three Body] Trilogy remains to be seen.
Chen Qiufan. “Guiyibianyuan de xiuxingzhe: zhumingkehuanzuojia Han Song zhuanfang” [Cultivating the Edge of the Weird: An Interview with Noted SF Author Han Song]. Shijie kehuan bolan [World Science Fiction] (Sept. 2007): 13-14.
Han Song. “Beibanqiu zui kepa de yitian” [The Northern Hemisphere’s Most Fearsome Day]. Guiyi de bianyuan [The Edge of the Weird]. 21 Jun. 2009. Online. 30 Oct. 2012.
─────. Ditie [Subway]. Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 2011.
─────. Hongse haiyang [Red Ocean]. Shanghai: Shanghai kexue puji chubanshe, 2004.
─────. Huoxing zhaoyao meiguo [Red Star over America]. Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 2012.
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