A Critical Reading of Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013

By Zhansui Yu

Fat Years Chinese cover

Chinese, following Chairman Mao’s famous phrase, tend to use the expression “like a fire burning in the wilderness” [燎原之火 liaoyuan zhi huo] to describe the unexpected rise and popularity of something marginalized or rebellious. Since the literary explosion in the years immediately after Mao’s death, mainland Chinese literary circles have rarely witnessed such a “wild fire.” Recently, however, a fierce literary “fire” suddenly broke out and shocked the entire Chinese intellectual world. The spark that ignited this fire is Chan Koon-chung’s 陈冠中 political novel Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 [盛世:中国 2013]. [1]

The novel is set against the surreal background of the year 2013, when China reaches the peak of its prosperity, and the whole nation’s people—except for a few—suddenly contract “collective amnesia.” That is, a month-long period has been erased from the memory of the entire population, and all are intoxicated with the feeling of happiness. The book is divided into two parts. Part one introduces the main characters, focusing on their personal experiences and fates in the ever-changing political surges. Part two tells the story of how Fang Caodi 方草地, one of several people who inexplicably have memories of the terrifying lost month, and the Taiwanese writer Old Chen 老陈 together cross half of China’s territory to look for Little Xi 小希, who is both a potential witness to the lost month and Old Chen’s true love. During their long journey in search of Little Xi, the true face of a China with astonishing darkness behind its dazzling material prosperity unfolds before the two men. The story culminates with the truth-seekers kidnapping a high-ranking Chinese official named He Dongsheng 何东生, who is forced to tell the truth of the lost month. After learning that the Chinese “golden age” is achieved by cunning, deception, and terror, the characters decide to permanently leave this “prosperous, powerful, and happy” China.

It has become quite clear that the success of Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 lies mainly in its political nature. What makes the novel unique is that it represents the first Chinese political novel which deals with the fundamental principles of the so-called “Chinese model of development” in a critical way. The intellectual strength of the novel can be summarized as follows: It exposes three problems, reveals three reasons, and raises three questions regarding the “Chinese model of development.”

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In the novel, Zhuang Zizhong 庄子仲, a founder of the leading Chinese intellectual journal Dushu, lists ten major features of the “Chinese model.” They are: “democratic one-Party dictatorship, rule of law with social stability as its top priority, an authoritarian government for the people, a state-controlled market economy, fair competition dominated by the central government-owned enterprises, scientific development with Chinese characteristics, self-centered harmonious diplomacy, a multi-racial republic with sovereignty of one people, post-Occidental and ‘post-universal’ thought of the subject, and national rejuvenation of the incomparable Chinese civilization.” As readers might easily discern, almost each of the ten qualities is a combination of two incompatible elements such as “democratic” and “one-Party dictatorship,” “authoritarian” and “for the people,” “multi-racial republic” and “the sovereignty of one people,” etc. The novel exposes three major problems inherent in the Chinese model:

(1) The predatory nature of the model. As demonstrated by the life of Zhang Dou 张逗, a child slave, and the fate of a little village in Hebei province which has been pushed to the brink of extinction by lethal pollution from a nearby chemical factory, as well as many other similar cases, the astonishingly rapid accumulation of wealth on the part of the Party-state and a tiny minority of the privileged is actually achieved by preying on the most vulnerable members of society and by passing on problems to future generations.

(2) The collusion of varied elite groups in a monopoly of state power and in manipulating the people for their own purposes. The best example of this phenomenon is the “SS reading class” [SS 读书班 SS dushu ban]. The class is an organization composed of elites in every important aspect of society. It not only works as a conduit for information exchange among its members, but more importantly, it also serves as a hub to connect the whole nation’s elites. The primary task of the class is to inculcate in the younger generations its doctrine, which is essentially fascism in the guise of nationalism and patriotism. At the core of the doctrine is a philosophy proposing that hatred is the sole driving force for human activity, and that only after a nation is charged with hatred will it be energized and finally achieve wealth and power.

(3) Massive abuse of power on the part of the corrupt bureaucracy. The miserable experiences of Little Xi, a victim of and witness to the abuse, illustrate the regime’s surveillance over and persecution of its own people and the astonishing arbitrariness of the judicial system.

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Exposure of the Party-state’s manipulation of popular memory and of historical truth and the disastrous consequences this brings to China is another pronounced theme of Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013. Taking Little Xi’s only son, Wei Guo 韦国, as an example, the author provides a convincing assessment of how deceptive propaganda, historical misrepresentation, and forced amnesia work together to severely distort the personality and mentality of China’s new generations. In tracing the causes for the distortion, the author points to three factors:

(1) The Party-state’s dictatorship. In the novel, the Party-state’s manipulation and control of the nation’s mentality are symbolically represented by the government treating China’s drinking water with a chemical which can change people’s moods. This is the secret behind the entire nation’s intoxication with the feeling of happiness.

(2) Chinese intellectuals’ abandonment of their role as “social conscience” and their complicity with the Party-state. In response to Old Chen’s question of “whether Chinese intellectuals are really willing to reconcile with the Party,” Zhuang Zizhong repudiates this as a pseudo-question. As he argues, “the real question is not whether the intellectuals are willing to reconcile with the Party but whether the Party is willing to forgive the intellectuals [for their trouble-making and disloyalty]” He asserts that “recognition by the Party” is the greatest success and honor possible for Dushu and for himself. It turns out that Chinese intellectuals are bought into the system through the material gains and social status granted to them by the Party.

(3) Acquiescence and indifference on the part of ordinary Chinese people. As the national leader He Dongsheng points out, though the Central Propaganda Department does indeed do a lot of work to cover up the truth of the lost month, it is the Chinese people themselves who choose to forget in the first place. As he argues, “If it were not that the Chinese people want to forget, it would be not possible for us to force them to do so.” He concludes that “it is the ordinary Chinese people themselves who voluntarily take the drug which causes the amnesia.”

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Apart from exposing the pathology of the Chinese model and tracing the reasons for the historical and mental distortion in China, the novel also raises three philosophical questions regarding the Chinese model in particular and, more broadly, the modern nation-state:

(1) The first question targets the moral and political legitimacy of the regime’s rule in China. As confessed by He Dongsheng, the Party-state, in order to carry out its grand economic rescue plan, adopts Machiavellian-style strategies to rule the country, and treats its people as an uncivilized and irrational mob in the Hobbesian sense. It turns out that the Chinese “golden age” is actually achieved by cunning, deception, bloodshed, and terror. This is the very reason why the Party-state works so painstakingly to erase the people’s memory of the violence, cruelty, and horror of the missing month. The question is: Is it morally and politically legitimate for a nation-state which defines itself as founded on “people’s sovereignty” or “people’s democracy,” and whose constitution presents workers and peasants as its leading classes, to treat its people merely as slaves or mobs in the Hobbesian sense? Is a political system is a good one if it values only economic success and national interests while ignoring human rights and individual freedoms?

(2) A second question raised in the novel concerns international relations. He Dongsheng explains, and Fang Caodi sees firsthand, that the Chinese government adopts sheer utilitarianism, vulgar materialism, and the notion of the absolute superiority of China’s national interests as its guiding principles in its international relations. When the Chinese government deals with African countries, for example, it is only interested in those countries’ natural resources; it never cares whether or not those countries’ governments commit genocide or other human rights violations. As Fang Caodi states, “Chinese are not different from those old European colonists; they both collude with the corrupt local elite ruling groups to extort natural resources from the locality.” The question is: If a party-state which builds its moral superiority and political legitimacy on the discourse of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism behaves exactly like the old imperialists and colonialists, how can it maintain both the credibility of its ideology as well as the source for its moral superiority and political legitimacy?

(3) Toward the end of the novel, in response to the truth-seekers’ accusation that the Chinese regime behaves like Fascists, He Dongsheng tells them that even if the current Chinese system can be considered fascism, it is merely at its primary stage. It could be upgraded to a much more advanced and therefore much more horrible form. At this point, we actually reach the most profound question posed in the novel: What are the consequences if a superpower is completely out of its people’s control? In some sense, we might say that all the descriptions in the novel actually aim at this single question.

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A novel which has changed the way that Chinese define political fiction, Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 is a groundbreaking work. It presents a truly critical and in-depth reflection on the Chinese model of development, especially concerning the real and potential negative consequences that it could bring about.

The novel can be read, from a social-political perspective, as a realistic presentation of the shocking darkness behind the dazzling economic miracle created by the Chinese model. It also proposes that China’s younger generations suffer from the consequences of collective amnesia and historical half-truths imposed by the Party-state. The book can also be read, from a philosophical perspective, as an allegory of the modern nation-state. Taking China as a case study, by questioning the morality and political legitimacy of the Chinese model of development, the novel is intended to lead us to the potential catastrophes that a modern nation-state may bring about if it is out of its people’s control. In this sense, this novel also represents a philosophical reflection on the fundamental principles of the modern nation-state and a warning against the blind belief in its absolute superiority.

[1] The title of the novel now has several translations. The author himself translated it as The Fat Years: China 2013. Paul Mooney, in an essay for the South China Morning Post, rendered it as The Golden Age: China 2013. Linda Jaivin, in a recent article for China Heritage Quarterly, translated it as In an Age of Prosperity: China 2013.

Zhansui Yu is currently a post-doctoral research fellow in the Institute for Asian Research at the University of British Columbia. He will teach Chinese as visiting assistant professor at Lehigh University starting September 2010. He conducts research on modern Chinese literature and thought.