The only upside about entering yet another lockdown in the new year is that I am, once again, able to cocoon myself in a distraction-free zone for reading.
I first came across this novelette about four years ago. In 2016, the news of Hao becoming the first Chinese female writer to win the prestigious Hugo Award while beating Stephen King made a huge splash. Overjoyed by this breakthrough, I rushed to devour the award-winning work and found it a pleasant reading.
This time around, with more time at hand, I pored over the story in English. To my amazement, I found the English version of Folding Beijing actually outshines the Chinese one by a large margin. Thanks to the excellent translation by Ken Liu (刘宇昆), who is an accomplished Sci-Fi author himself and well known for translating Liu Cixin’s (刘慈欣) epic Three Body trilogy (三体), what was a pleasant reading has been injected a new lease of life, with more polish and precision.
I would certainly recommend to add this to your lockdown reading list if you have not already done so (English version freely available to all on Uncanny Magazine).
Not quite a science fiction
Hao’s winning was not without controversy at the time. Many hard-core Sci-Fi fans were let down by a lack of solid Sci-Fi elements. Some argued that Hao’s story was designed to please a western audience with its scathing revelation of extreme social disparity in Beijing.
In a way, I tend to agree that Folding Beijing is more of a dystopian novel than a science fiction.
Nonetheless, I very much enjoy Hao’s innovative concept of a mechanically foldable Beijing, with elite, middle and working class inhabiting three physically separate spaces, which is indeed an eerie parallel to today. It is clever to design a shared 48-hour-day and a system of allocating time and sunlight based on which space you occupy. Unsurprisingly, traveling and mingling between spaces are forbidden. And against this metaphoric backdrop, a cool story unfolds following the adventure of a waste plant worker from the third space, Lao Dao (老刀), who undertakes a dangerous mission as a messenger between spaces.
It’s no secret that Hao’s vision of a futuristic Beijing looks to China’s present. But revisiting the story and seeing what I saw in the past year, I was once again struck by its overwhelming sense of realism.
Beijing has “folded” and so has China.
Back in May 2020, the Chinese premier Le Keqiang (李克强) caused a major stir when he commented publicly that there are 600 million Chinese (or approximately 40% of the population) currently surviving on a monthly income of no more than 1,000 RMB (equivalent to roughly 150 USD).
While it was later clarified that he meant to say the bottom 40% of China’s households on average has such a meagre monthly income per person (which is clearly different from saying that everyone of the 600 million makes only 1,000 RMB), it still sent shockwaves across the country (“Poverty line is not as stingy as commentators think. Nor is China as poor as Li Keqiang implies”, The Economist)
Who and where are these 600 million people? Like everyone else around me, I scrambled for an answer as they seem virtually invisible in my life.
Despite a lack of a physical barrier as depicted in Folding Beijing, it appears that we today are separated by unseen boundaries of who we know, what we see and what we read. The latter, helped by the ever smarter algorithm, further amplifies this polarisation.
“In today’s society, although people might live in the same city, their lives are very different, and they have little connection to one another. I wanted to show this in the story in a more direct way – the idea that people live together but cannot see each one another.”(Excerpt of interview of Hao Jingfang by The New York Time)
This bifurcation and resulting inability to empathise is fuelling many divisive debates. If I may digress a little here, Zhang Guimei (张桂梅), a 63-year-old headmistress in far-flung Huaping County (华坪), Yunan province (云南省), is the latest casualty of this unfortunate situation after her fiery anti-stay-at-home-mom remark splitting opinions on the internet.
“I told her to get out. When she asked me whether I look down on her because she stops working, I said yes.”(Zhang Guimei recalled in an interview with Phoenix TV when one of her ex-students came back to school with her husband to make a donation.)
Many accused her of promoting bad feminism and judging people’s personal choices. But what her mainly unbanite critics fail to see is an insurmountable gap in terms of education resources and gender equality between Huaping and where they are. What appears to be a personal choice to many are not necessarily a choice at all to others.
In Zhang’s case, she has dedicated her life setting up a free all-girls high school in one of the most impoverish parts of rural China. She struggles daily to convince local parents that their girls deserve as much an education as their boys do and to make sure the girls try their best to grab Gaokao (高考), China’s university entrance exam, as a life changing opportunity. Before Zhang and her school, the only possibility in life for these girls was to drop out of school early, get married young and stay at home to raise kids in a perpetual poverty cycle.
Looking through Zhang’s lens, becoming a stay-a-home-mom is indeed a form of gender inequality that she spends her life fighting against. (For further reading, I recommend Sixth Tone’s Ed-Op “Opposition to housewifery is about inequality, not bad feminism”).
What’s left unsaid about Folding Beijing’s ending?
Folding Beijing has a happy ending. Against all odds, Lao Dao safely made it back home in the third space. To me it is interesting that the premise of Lao Dao’s adventure centres on his desire to afford a good kindergarten for his adopted daughter. I must say it is a very stereotypical Chinese parents’ story which arguably still holds true today.
I was under the impression that the story ended slightly too abruptly. It left me wanting more, which could be explained by Hao’s initial plan of expanding to a longer story which never materialised because of her unexpected Hugo win.
So I cannot help but wonder what if the story continued, in today’s China – what would have happened to Lao Dao’s daughter?
For a long time, studying your way up was a pretty reliable ticket from China’s third to the second space. Critics lament about China’s rigid education system which they believe are overly focused on rote-learning and exam-taking.
Well, the truth is, while the system is far from ideal, it does serve a purpose and have its supporters in China, for the simple reason that given limited education resources unevenly distributed across the country (as seen in Huaping’s case above), it is still by far the most objective way of deciding who get to win the ticket.
But to maintain such a somewhat level playing field has become increasingly difficult in recent years. The evaluation methods have evolved and education choices diverged (which is worthy of its own piece on Flying Sesame one day), in keeping with the country’s education reform. This resulted in an unintended consequence of widening regional and class divide on educational opportunities, let alone the neglected offspring of millions of China’s migrant workers in the cities, which have their own unique challenges under the current system.
Many dwelling in China’s second space today came from the third space, owing their success largely to the arguably archaic exam system. Jokingly nickname themselves “exam first generation” (考一代) or “exam experts from villages” (小镇做题家), they invariably choose to put in whatever they can to prepare their children for the future – the fear of seeing the kids slipping to the third space constantly keep them awake at night.
So in 2021’s China, with a lot of sacrifice, perseverance and perhaps a bit of luck, Lao Dao’s daughter still stands a chance to make it to the second space. And a lot of grinding work will be needed to keep her there. But the door is closing fast for those who want to make the leap.
So how about the first space, you may ask the question. My answer is that I don’t think so (and frankly this response holds true not only in China and should surprise no one).
Let’s assume, for a second, that Lao Dao’s daughter manages to land a decent professional job in the second space. Then the biggest hurdle in front of her to the next step would be her struggle to get onto the property ladder, which sadly is another distinction between haves and have nots today. Without any parental support from Lao Dao, it would be a mission impossible especially if she happens to work in Tier 1 and 2 cities.
Even if she somehow gets there, the mounting mortgage, as well as the crippling education cost of her own children, which I’m sure she would fight like a lion like all second space parents do to keep them in the second space, would most likely turn her into another faceless “working man” (打工人), chained to her demanding but uninspiring job in order to stay afloat.
And alas, if she ends up working for one of China’s tech giants in a hope to get more pay, judging by the recent news of Pinduoduo (拼多多), she may not even live long enough to see her financial independence after all.
In Folding Beijing, Hao artfully created a physical separation between the three spaces. I suppose this is the only way to keep a future Beijing in harmony. However, despite the invisible wall all around us today, the three spaces are bound to run into each other and clash.
Personally I am always fascinated by the sudden disappearance of late Bronze Age civilisation such as Mycenae and support the theory that the downfall came from within rather than outside because of extreme inequality. So in this context, Folding Beijing does make a scary thought.
So Flying Sesame readers, my final question to you is: will those of us in the second space become a force of change? What role will we be playing in this polarised world? These are good food for thought for you and me, when we are not working. But for now, I think it is time to stop my rambling and to get back to my PowerPoint and spreadsheets.