Monday, January 2, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Folding Beijing - Hao Jingfang

The Chinese market for science fiction is reportedly huge, and with a general increase in the interest in works from outside the anglophone sphere, a trickle of the local output has reached a more international audience. One of the people involved in this development is Chinese-American author and translator Ken Liu. He is, among other interesting stories, responsible for the translation of Folding Beijing, which originally appeared in Chinese in 2014. Liu's translation appeared in Uncanny Magazine in 2015. It is one of only a handful available from Hao in English but it had quite an impact. I would have put the Hugo win down to Sad Puppy antics if not for the fact that she was nominated for a Sturgeon Award as well.

Some time into the future the vast metropolis of Beijing is divided into three spaces. Its inhabitants are strictly separated from each other by The Change, a daily event that hand over the city to the next group of inhabitants. Lao Dao is a waste processor in the Third Space. He is middle aged and resigned to the fact that he will never amount to anything more. One day he finds a call for help from a man in Second Space among the rubbish he is sorting through. It is an opportunity to at least give a young girl he knows a chance at a good education. Lao Dao sets out to explore parts of the city he is not allowed to enter.

Folding Beijing is something of a dystopia. The city is stratified along lines of economic success, with the vast majority of the people squashed into Third Space, living of the scraps off those higher up in the hierarchy. The city has been designed this way in response to an economic development that was very much part of the US presidential elections last year. The fall in the number of manufacturing jobs. In the story one of the characters sweeps away Trump's promise to bring them back to the US in a few lines. Robots are cheaper and more reliable, it is no longer possible nor economically viable to employ the entire workforce that way. Unless society changes drastically, that is.

The science fictional concept in the story is how the infrastructure of the city is adapted to society's needs. A visual representation of the structure of society, and the huge economic unfairness (especially considering the socialist ideal of equality and public ownership of the means of production) this system enables. Hao illustrates this in another way as well. We meet characters with vastly different ambitions (or lack thereof) in life. Lao Dao himself is perhaps not satisfied, but resigned to his station, while those at the top try to maintain the status quo. The character in Second Space is looking up and thinks he can make it all the way to the top. The trampled masses, the hopeful middle-class and the wealthy few, each kept in their place by a system that separates them rigorously. In the end we could say that the only one who gains a really new perspective on the situation is Lao Dao. He appears a bit defeated but in the end his deep-seated humanity will endear him to the reader.

I ended up quite liking Folding Beijing. It is a story that grows on you as it progresses, and one that addresses a social and economic problem that needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later, and is certainly not confined to China. Definitely a story worth reading.

Story Details
Title: Folding Beijing
Author: Hao Jingfang
Language: English
Translation: Ken Liu
Originally published: Uncanny Magazine, Issue Two, January-February 2015
Read in: Invisible Planets, edited by Ken Liu
Story length: novelette, approximately 16,000 words
Awards: Hugo Award winner, Sturgeon Award nominated
Available online: Uncanny Magazine


  1. I liked this story, but not as much as Alastair Reynolds' SCALES. There is a similarity of structure, as Lao Dao ascends the scales to higher spaces and descends again. Only this time they are economic and social spaces rather than physico-mathematical. The difference is that Lao Dao ascends and descends untransformed, and finds things pretty much the same on all levels of existence. His desire is that his daughter learn to dance and sing and that his neighbour act like a coy and elegant girl of the highest level (First Space). His ideal of femininity is untransformed, despite what he learns, and remains quite conformist. On the other hand he has remained humane and selfless, and was not humiliated or embittered by his experience either. He keeps his lucidity without becoming cynical.

    1. It's the way he does not turn angry or bitter when he sees the complete shape of the city that I liked about him. He has every reason to be angry, just like a lot of people have reason to be angry about their economic or social position but does all that anger actually take us anywhere? I wonder how much of this can be put down to cultural differences. Many western authors would be tempted to have their main character topple this particular power structure.

    2. Yes. My first reaction was to think that there are no dialectics in this story, no class struggle, just a set of givens. The Western trope would be a revolution, as we are still pre-Revolution. Saloj Zizek claims that the big danger for modern society is "Capitalism with Asian Values", an alternative that does not really put an end to inequality, only places a kindly but authoritarian face over the intact system to set some limits. This would seem to describe Beijing's politico-economic system in the story.

      But Hao Jingfang is writing post-Revolution, and for her these values are real, and constitute a real alternative to neo-liberalism, the European solution mentioned in the story. Difficult choices have to be made, but the Leader is there to keep the people's best interests at heart. Lao Dao does not want war, not even class war, but insight, empathy, and solidarity. His own personal revolution came when he took Tangtang into his life. He has faith that even a poor foundling can become an "elegant young lady" and is ready to do what it takes to make that happen.

  2. While I still agree with what I wrote here, thinking things through made me see the story in a more positive light: