Remembrance of horrors past
Like so many events in history, the Cultural Revolution in China and the Holocaust in Germany have occasionally been the subject of platitudes and trivialization. In both instances, dumbed down versions of the events have become memes instead of retaining their complexity and horrifying detail. For both, governments and organizations have either used these events to further their own causes, or tried to downplay them or deny them. In both instances, historical fact have proven they are low points in human history, shameful indicators of just how misguided those in power can get, how cowed and unthinking those that obey them can be, and how much courage it takes for people to go against the prevailing rules.
We humans do not want to dwell on these horrors. We prefer the comfort of forgetting or not knowing. Conversely, we sensationalize, and emote over, trivial events and people. Therefore, as history has proven countless times, we will be doomed to suffer repetitions of those terrible times. Wise and fortunate are the peoples who have learned from their mistakes and choose remembrance over ignorance. The 11th of November is Remembrance Day (Poppy Day or Armistice Day), and more people will be worrying about whether the Halloween decorations that are still on their houses will get wet, than remembering the dead of the world wars.
The Fat Years
The Fat Years is a deeply disturbing novel. It has been banned in mainland China and officially has not been published there. However, the author has said digital copies were disseminated “on the Internet within the Chinese firewall” before being deleted. Koonchung does not speculate who specifically deleted his novel, but the title of an article by him, “Chinese Author: My Book Was Banned in My Home Country”, strongly implicates the Chinese authorities.
It is a cross between Science Fiction, a mystery and satire. Not knowing enough about Chinese history to judge which aspects are being satirized, I could only assume it is set in a dystopian future China. However, the translator of the book disagrees, because of the definition of “dystopia” as an imagined place or state in which everything is bad – and China as it is described in the book is not imagined. “China today and for the foreseeable future is not a dystopia, nor is it an utopia; it is not even trying to be a utopia. It is a Leviathan-like Leninist party-state that is, by the Chinese Communist Party’s standards, a great success, a putatively ‘harmonious society’ that aims to give everyone a ‘moderately decent standard of living’”. (p.259) The mystery aspects of the novel are secondary to the futuristic, imaginative premise and the sub-texts of class struggle and freedom of access to information.
An intriguing premise
Unlike other Chinese novels I have read, this one did not give me difficulties with writing style or the translation. It read like a Western novel, though I found the characters’ names hard to remember. (There is a note at the introduction that the book uses the pinyin Romanization system.) The characters themselves are easy to remember, each one’s motivation, thoughts, pattern of speech, reasoning are convincingly described.
But it is the premise of this novel that is truly memorable, and really disturbing, because it sounds so plausible: A group of friends – some of them had lived through the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Massacre – notice that most of the 1.3 billion Chinese around them are implausibly happy (that explains the smiley face sticker of the cover design). Then they pick up on the fact that a period of Chinese history has been expunged from all records; on the internet, in documents and in books, and in people’s memories.
Forgetting chunks of history
According to the character “He Dongsheng”, a powerful party official, and the Machiavelli of the story, it is the second period in Chinese history that the Chinese Communist Party had tried to make people forget – the first was the year of the “Tiananmen Incident”:
“In the last twenty years, Chinese official discourse has hardly mentioned the events of 1989, as though not mentioning them would make them disappear from history. In order to avoid trouble, popular discourse also avoided discussing the entire year of 1989. Even when recalling the events of the 1980s, discussions always ended with the end of 1988. So everybody joked that in China 1988 was immediately followed by 1990. “ (pp. 225-226)
(Incidentally, the Chinese government condemned the Tiananmen protests as a “counter-revolutionary riot”, and has actually prohibited all forms of discussion or remembrance of the events since. Due to the lack of information from China, many aspects of the events remain unknown or unconfirmed. Estimates of the death toll range from a few hundred to a few thousand.”)
The next period that vanished from the memories of Chinese people – the period in question in this book – was the fictional 28 days between the time between 5 August 2011 global stock markets crash, and the time that China’s “Golden Age of Ascendency” began. Note: 9 August 2007, 15 September 2008, 2 April 2009, 9 May 2010 and 5 August 2011 are the dates of the five key stages of the most recent global economic crisis, and the most serious one since the Great Depression. As reviewer Johathan Fenby writes in The Guardian, “At first glance, it might seem that history has overtaken Chan Koonchung’s book, since the terrible events it describes have not come to pass. But in fact, the book’s central theme remains as valid as when Chan wrote it.”
As beguiling this idea is, readers must remember – and I had to remind myself of this all the time – that it is an invention, it is fiction. There was never any declaration by the Chinese government that August 2011 was the start of the “fat years” or China’s Golden Age of Ascendancy” or its “Action Plan for achieving Prosperity Amid Crises”. But it sounds pretty credible. For instance, during the 2011 crisis, Simon Johnson, Professor of Entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management, commented that the damage from the financial crisis and its aftermath have dealt U.S. prominence a permanent blow. “The age of American predominance is over,” he told a panel. “The (Chinese) Yuan will be the world’s reserve currency within two decades.”
Mass amnesia = 100% happiness
The main characters in the novel notice this mass amnesia that is counter-balanced by the people’s almost unnatural levels of happiness and placid acceptance of their “90% free” status and the censorship and “one-party democratic dictatorship” of the Chinese Communist Party. Suspecting that something weird is going on, and, each one for their own personal reasons, they kidnap a high-ranking party official and make him talk. The last 30 pages of the book is his explanation of what happened, and it makes for unsettling reading, to say the least. On the one hand, it sounds like a fantastical resolution to the mystery, on the other hand, Koonchun describes it – including the typical party-rhetoric – so well it appears conceivable. And this is also where the novel’s very brief and factual ending perhaps falls short. It is a bare 16 lines. But then one cannot imagine any other ending: they kidnapped the head honcho. They are in a no-win situation. Their lives are over.
How does the author motivate that the people of China were so accepting of the new rules enforced by their government to achieve this peace and prosperity? As Julia Lovell (professor of modern Chinese history and literature at Birkbeck, University of London) explains in the preface: “’For years, as one analyst has observed, the Beijing regime has stayed in power using a basic bargain with its citizens – tolerate our authoritarian rule and we’ll make you rich.’” (p. xi).
This bargain – expounded on in the novel – combined with the removal of information about the period, and the Chinese people’s idealism, allowed the government to crack down after the financial crash of 2011:
“Hundreds of Chinese lived through the age that witnessed a storm of idealism and were baptized in that flood of idealism. Even though later on their ideals turned to nightmares and disillusionment, and an entire generation of people and their ideals, still they didn’t abandon idealism.” (p. 199) Speaking though “He Dongsheng”, the kidnapped party official, Koonchung says: “But will the people really forget? For the majority of young mainland Chinese, the events of the Tiananmen Massacre have never entered their consciousness; They have never seen the photographs and news reports about it, and even fewer have had it explained to them by their family or teachers. They have not forgotten it; they have never known anything about it…an entire year can indeed disappear from history – because no one says anything about it.” (p. 226)
The author switches between 1st and 3rd person narration, and choosing a government agent to make this statement is a weighty indictment by Koonchung. With this he illustrates the high-handed, authoritarian thinking of a government that views the people as little more than helpless pawns; “Because they [the people] are afraid of anarchy and chaos, everyone is willing to bow down voluntarily before the power of a really quite unlovely Leviathan.” (p.238)
Do all the protagonists fly to the defense of the truth like Don Quixote jousting with a windmill? No – not that easily. They are, after all, of the people, despite having travelled extensively. There are grey areas here – the government is not the ultimate villain. The people are also to blame:
“Truth itself could be a field of contested knowledge. Nevertheless, when it came to lying with one’s eyes wide open, squinting to deliberately alter reality, distorting the true facts of history without the least scruple, and nakedly falsifying the records – Lao Chen had to feel at least a twinge of uneasiness. But it was only a twinge.” (p.145). Ultimately, it was the choice of the people, as “He Dongsheng” explains. “If the Chinese people themselves had not wanted to forget, we could not have forced them to do so. The Chinese people voluntarily gave themselves a large dose of amnesia medicine.” (p. 287)
Mindset for prosperity
One of the many questions raised by Chan Koonchung in this novel is whether a similar mindset is not the basis for China’s current, real-life prosperity. He raises very complex ideas and I would say I am the last one to understand the argumentation around economic policy and political strategy. But I do understand what happens when a government changes the history books, glosses over some episodes, leaves others unwritten, changes the names of roads and cities, and replaces monuments. People forget. I know because I come from a country where that happened and continues to happen, and each new generation in the “Rainbow Nation” is a step closer to repeating the past.
Yuan dynasty poet Ma Zhiyuan is quoted in this disturbing poem:
the ants crawling round and round marshalling their troops,
the bees roiling in confused chaos brewing their honey,
and hordes of buzzing flies fighting over the blood.”
This is how the people of China are depicted in this novel – crawling, roiling and fighting. Go ahead and read this, and then have a bit of a think about what degree of non-fiction has slipped into this novel. “He Dongsheng” explains, finally, and his words are perhaps the expression of Koonchung’s serious warning in this book:
“Real life isn’t like a detective novel, and everything doesn’t have a perfect explanation. ..It could be that human beings are simply forgetful animals and they long to forget some aspects of their history…It could be that the Chinese people deserve to be governed by the Communist party, and sixty-plus years is still not enough.” (287).
Point taken. As we say on Poppy Day in the Ode of Remembrance, we honor the dead “…lest we forget.”
About the author
Extract from an interview with the author in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
AA: Do you think that Chinese citizens are still willing to accept the deal to forget or not mention politics if the economy is doing well?
CK: I almost made that statement. Because it’s a novel, I could say it in a tricky way. People are making compromises, being reluctant conformists. Many people are genuinely in the dark. But even people in the know are compromising, and others choose not to know. For instance, I personally know some middle level bureaucrats. They don’t know a thing. Why? They choose not to know, because knowing could get them into trouble. Their computers at their office trace what websites they visit, so they never visit any sites apart from publicly sanctioned ones. They don’t care, but they have a good life. They stop you when you try to tell them things. They didn’t even know Chen Guangcheng [Chinese civil rights activist] went to the United States – that’s my true experience.
Chan Koonchung (born 1952) is a Chinese science-fiction writer who has previously lived in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the United States. He currently lives in Beijing. He is the founder of Green Power, Green Garden Organic Farm and the Hong Kong Film Directors Association, amongst other organizations, and is currently on the international board of directors of Greenpeace. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Hong Kong tabloid, The Star. In 1976 he co-founded City Magazine with Qiu Shiwen, Deng Xiaoyu and Hu Junyi. In the 1990s he worked as an overseas publisher for the mainland literary journal Dushu, published by the China Publishing Group, and Life, Reading, and Innovation Bookstore. In 1991 he played the role of Professor Liu Yuebai in Yan Hao and Xu Ke’s adaptation of A Cheng’s 1984 novel, The Chess Master. Koonchung was born in 1952 in Shanghai, China, earned his BA from the University of Hong Kong and completed graduate study at Boston University. He currently lives in Beijing.