Sic transit gloria mundi — Ten Years of A Prosperous Age

Translatio Imperii Sinici

It is a decade since the appearance of the novel In a Prosperous Age 盛世, which was published in English in 2011 under the title The Fat Years).

On 7 February 2019, the WeiBo publication NGONC featured an interview with Chan Koon-chung (陳冠中, also know as John Chan) the author of In a Prosperous Age 《盛世:中國2013年》. The translation of that interview below is included in our China Heritage Annual 2019, the topic of which is Translatio Imperii Sinici — intimations of empire in modern China. As we noted in our introduction to the Annual:

The topic of ‘Empire’ has enjoyed renewed debate among historians and political scientists for over a decade, and it has featured in our own work since the launch of China Heritage Quarterly in 2005 and through our advocacy of New Sinology 後漢學. It was a particular focus of my 2008 book The Forbidden City, as well as being prominent in the joint academic discussion of China’s Prosperous Age 盛世 from 2010, and in a collective undertaking to ‘Re-read Joseph Levenson’ over the years 2012 to 2014 (see The Practice of History and China Today, The China Story, 25 August 2015).

Chan Koonchung has been a prominent cultural figure since the 1970s when, as a member of an active collective in Hong Kong, he participated in the founding of Extra 號外.  …. He is a rare figure in the Chinese cultural world. Although other authors straddle the divide between Hong Kong and Taiwan and the People’s Republic in a variety of ways — as writers (of poetry, fiction, essays, plays), journalists, translators, teachers, film-makers and musicians — Chan long ago moved to Beijing and has mapped the ever-changing landscape of the Chinese world through his fiction and essays. Although his work is generally unavailable in the politically hostile environment ‘curated’ by the Communist Party, his is a prominent voice in the global Chinese world, a voice of nuance, complexity and imagination. We are grateful to Koonchung’s for his kind permission to translate and present his recent interview. The interviewee checked over the translation (and found a few factual inaccuracies!), and all remaining errors are the responsibility of the translator.

***

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi — ‘worldly glory does thus pass’. This Latin expression is famous for being used for centuries during the elaborate ceremonies surrounding the crowning of a new pope in Rome. The estimable Catholic empire is ever mindful of the vanity of worldly pursuits, and the wiser heads who presume imperium in China constantly reminded themselves ‘ponder danger even when in repose’ 居安思危 .

The English translation is followed by the original Chinese text reproduced as it was published, with illustrations and Simplified Chinese Characters. We are also listing this translated interview in our series The Best China.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
14 February 2019


Translator’s Introduction

 

The June 2011 issue of China Heritage Quarterly focussed on China’s New Prosperous Age and we invited the novelist and translator Linda Jaivin to write an essay of Chan’s novel, published under the title ‘Yawning Heights: Chan Koon-chung’s Harmonious China’. In it Jaivin wrote:

Chan Koon-chung paints a vivid and detailed portrait of China as simultaneous utopia and dystopia. In order to accurately describe China today, he has written elsewhere, one needs to be like the famous Tang Dynasty songstress Jiang Shu 絳樹, who was capable of singing two songs at the same time, one in the back of her throat and the other from her nose.

Chan Koon-chung has a similar background to that of the narrator ‘Lao Chen’ and, one imagines he shares a similar sense of both familiarity and alienation from the world in which he lives: as Lao Chen puts it, he is a ‘dispassionate observer’ 一個不投入的旁觀者. Chan came to prominence in Hong Kong in the ’80s as the founder of the stylish City Magazine 號外. Those in the know will see the wink in the many references to Reading magazine 讀書 — Chan was for a time its overseas publisher/distributor. In an Age of Prosperity is his first novel set in China. Although not published there, enough copies have got in to make it a hot topic in intellectual circles; at a fashionable party I attended in Beijing in late 2009, the host presented all of her guests with a copy as a gift.

In her essay, Jaivin also translated a section from the prophetic discussion regarding the future of China’s domestic and foreign policies that feature the views of an uncharacteristically frank member of the Politburo:

There are people who are probably thinking now that China has risen and entered into An Age of Prosperity, we can bring an end to one Party dictatorship! Twenty years ago, He Dongsheng himself had also thought that. He would probably have joined a faction in the Party that advocated democratic reform and even gone so far as to have supported a Chinese Gorbachev. But by now He Dongsheng had lost any faith he might have had in Western-style democratic systems. More importantly, he knew that after 4 June 1989, there were no idealists left in the Communist Party. As the group with a monopoly on political power in China, the Communist Party exercised power in order to protect itself — people became officials in order to profit from their position and there was absolutely no chance of a Gorbachev-like figure emerging.

He Dongsheng not only had lost his passion for political reform, he cynically now believed that not only shouldn’t reform be carried out but that it cannot be carried out, that reform could only lead to chaos. He said: ‘Let’s just keep the situation as is; after another twenty years of stable development we can reopen the discussion about reform. For the moment, at most, we could try to reform a few things here and there, as part of a gradual move towards benevolent government.’ He could not imagine what a post-communist democratic China might be like. He said, and not without sarcasm: ‘Political reform? Is it that simple? In the end, you’ll emerge from the transition, not with the commonwealth you desire, not the European style of social democracy or the American style of a free, democratic constitutional government, but rather a Chinese style fascist dictatorship that’s a compendium of nationalism, cultural traditionalism, patriotism and national racial purity.’

Xiao Xi retorted: ‘You’re fascists already, don’t tell me you need a transition?’

There was no anger in He Dongsheng’s reply: ‘So, we’re fascist. This is still only the first stage. You have yet to taste what true fascist tyranny is like. Listening to the way all of you speak I know that you lack imagination when it comes to evil.’ Just then, the faces of several fascist opportunists within the Party came into He Dongsheng’s head. If these people took over, he thought, not just China but the whole world would really have something coming. He felt a sense of mission — it was his responsibility to prevent them from coming to power.

Ten years on, the reality of He Dongsheng’s fictional concerns, and his aspirations, can be found in Chinese reality.

Since the rise of Xi Jinping in late 2012, it has been a commonplace for The Disappointed — that is commentators and analysis both within and outside China  — to bewail how the  leader has reasserted Party power and inculcated in the People’s Republic a more muscular regional and global stance.

The Disappointed have been confronted, and affronted, by what is now dubbed China’s ‘authoritarian turn’. To turn a well-known expression on its head: The Chinese People (that is, the un-elected representative of the People, the Chinese party-state) have hurt their feelings!

The Disappointed can generally be identified as cleaving to a body of beliefs and hopes predicated on a range of economic, political and cultural assumptions that in their condescension smacked of colonial hauteur. That is to say, in their obsessive focus on neo-liberal economic goals and the presumptions of globalisation they — politicians, analysts, business people, academics, journalists and a host of others, including Chinese factional players — repeatedly ignored or underestimated what the Party and its theoreticians (along with the New Marxists) was saying, thinking and actually doing. Too often this encouraged a purblind belief in the immutable historical and economic forces and that these predetermined China’s path forward. Such near-burlesque confidence — which, in many respects, mirrors the historical determinism of the Communists — has been challenged by significant changes in official policy and rhetoric over recent years.

Readers familiar with our publications, and of views that date back to the early 1980s, will be aware that a number of ‘inflection points’ in post-1978 history long predicted the possibility of the kinds of changes witnessed under Xi Jinping. In this 2019 anniversary year, we will note three of such moments:

  • March 1979: the dissident Democracy Wall activist Wei Jingsheng posted his essay ‘Do We Want Democracy or a new Autocrat?’ leading to his arrest and jailing. The announcement of the Four Basic Principles that have remained at the heart of China’s one-party state and its draconian rule ever since;
  • January 1987: the fall of Hu Yaobang, Communist Party General Secretary, and the purge of dissent Party members as champions of ‘bourgeois liberalisation’, that is ideas that advocated political reform and pluralism. These events created the political groundwork for
  • June 1989: the fall of Zhao Ziyang, the Beijing Massacre and Deng Xiaoping’s re-affirmation of the dangers of Western-led attempts to encourage ‘peaceful evolution’, that is a policy first championed by the United States in the late 1950s that was aimed at encouraging socialist countries like China to abandon one-party dictatorship in favour of citizens’ rights and constitutional democracy.

Even for the latecomers, from the 2007-2008 Olympic Year, it was blatantly obvious that the People’s Republic was leaning further into its brand of authoritarianism. Chan Koon-chung’s novel In a Prosperous Age address that moment and, as the author points out in the interview below, since that era has merely continued, he sees as yet no reason to consider writing a sequel.

The Disappointed are only now catching up with four decades of reality as well as the last decade of ‘the prosperous age’ and what it really means.


On the Title of the Chan Koon-chung Interview

The Chinese title of the following exchange is 陳冠中談《盛世》:鮮花著錦、烈火烹油的年代感, the key expressions in the title being

鮮花著錦烈火烹油

a reversal of words spoken by the ghost of Qin-shi in Chapter 13 of The Story of the Stone (石頭記, also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢), translated by David Hawkes as:

a posy of fresh flowers pinned to an embroidered dress or the flare-up of spilt cooking-oil on a blazing fire

In her monologue, Qin-shi offers both a warning to the residents of the splendid Ninguofu mansion, while hinting at the theme of the novel itself:

Quite soon a happy event is going to take place in this family, bringing it an even greater glory than it has enjoyed up to now. But it will be a glory as excessive and transitory as a posy of fresh flowers pinned to an embroidered dress or the flare-up of spilt cooking-oil on a blazing fireIn the midst of that brief moment of happiness never forget that ‘even the best party must have an end’. For if you do, and if you fail to take precautions in good time, you will live to regret it bitterly when it is already too late.

若目今以為榮華不絕,不思後日,終非長策。眼見不日又有一件非常的喜事,真是烈火烹油、鮮花著錦之盛。要知道也不過是瞬息的繁華,一時的歡樂,萬不可忘了那‘盛筵必散’的俗語。若不早為後慮,只恐後悔無益了。

from ‘Qin-shi posthumously acquires the status of a Noble Dame
‘And Xi-feng takes on the management of a neighbouring establishment’

Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone
Volume 1 · The Golden Days, Chapter 13
trans. David Hawkes, Penguin, 1973, p.257

秦可卿死封龍禁尉 王熙鳳協理寧國府
《紅樓夢》 第十三回


English Translation:

 

Chan Koon-chung in Conversation

Translated by Geremie R. Barmé

「盛世:鮮花著錦、烈火烹油的年代感」

The Prosperous Age

N: What is it about fiction that particularly appeals to you?

Chan: It allows the greatest freedom and offers the broadest range of expressive possibilities. One thing that only fiction can do is to give the author ways to offer readers a vastly different range of experiences, responses that can be both realistic and contradictory. You may end up absolutely confused by what you have read, or you may find that you’ve had very a complex emotional reaction.  

I feel that this is an age in which fiction writing is at its freest, no one can impose rules on anyone, and you are not limited by fashion or formalism. Whether it be realism, or modernism, post-modernism, or post-post-modernism — any and all of these things are available for you to employ in your writing. 

It was only after my novel In a Prosperous Age [aka The Fat Years] was published in 2009 that I really felt that my metier was writing fiction. Up until then, I always planned to pursue other interests, or write in different genres. In a Prosperous Age let me feel that my interests and ideas could best, and most satisfyingly, be expressed through fiction writing.  

N: What exactly did you mean by that title In a Prosperous Age?

Chan: In the lead-up to the publication of the English edition I pondered how the word 盛 shèng could best be translated. There was a suggestion that it be rendered as ‘prosperous’, although that seemed to be overly restricted to the idea of wealth. Then there was the option of going with ‘golden’, but that too is limited to a gilded age, a period of luxury. For me 盛 shèng related to the ‘plentiful’ or to ‘blossoming’, as in ‘abundance’, ‘overflowing’ 盛放 or ‘sumptuousness’ and ‘plenitude’ 豐盛. It summed up in one word a sense that this was an era [to quote a line on evanescent excess from the famous mid-Qing-dynasty novel The Dream of the Red Chamber] like ‘a posy of fresh flowers pinned to an embroidered dress or the flare-up of spilt cooking-oil on a blazing fire’.

Of course, the title was partly ironical, it suggested that perhaps this age of abundance was not necessarily all that it seemed to be. After all, a harvest moon [literally, the mid-autumn moon in the middle of the eighth lunar month] looks beautiful for it has reached the peak of bright fullness, but behind it there is an ever-present dark side. 

N: Will there be a sequel?

Chan: It’s still too soon for a sequel. For China, the year 2008 was something of a turning point; although there have been many new developments since then, overall the general sense one had starting in 2008 of a particular kind of ‘prosperous age’ is still with us today. 

N: Although all of your novels are about China, mainland readers don’t have access to them. Given this, what meaning do you think your work has for mainland society?

Chan: It’s extremely frustrating that the people I think of as being my ideal readers can’t actually read my work. If my novels were published on the Mainland, I’m pretty sure they would enjoy a considerable readership. But that’s simply not on the cards. Who’s to say: my books might finally appear on the Mainland years from now, but by then people won’t be interested. As a writer I’m simply powerless; there’s nothing I can do about the situation. I just keep on writing, and at least my work can be published in Hong Kong and Taiwan. 

An Absentee Intelligentsia 

「這幾年知識分子一定會缺位的」

N: Over the past few years, Chinese technology as well the public realm have undergone dramatic changes. What are your observations about the changes in the Chinese intellectual sphere?

Chan: In the early years of the new millennium, it was fairly evident that ‘Liberal Intellectuals’ dominated the scene, even though they were being challenged by the ‘New Left’. But today, many of the old ‘New Leftists’ are establishment figures who support Statism, and Liberals are deeply divided. Who would have ever thought that some Liberal Intellectuals are actually opposed to the MeToo movement, that they would denigrate Islam and regard people of different ethnic backgrounds [that is, not East Asia and non-Caucasian] as inferior? They are moving to the Right. What I mean by that is that they seek solace in a kind of racial collectivism; they find meaning in opposing all forms of equality and ‘political correctness’; they are moving towards an extreme, in the direction of male chauvinism and racism.

N: What do you think are the reasons? 

Chan: Maybe it’s just a byproduct of profound despondence. They fell there is no chance for political reform in China and that unfolding new social movements don’t take any notice of them. These new social trends are about seeking justice and redress, including gender equality, respect for racial difference and concern for the working class. These are all areas in which you would expect to find the Liberal Intelligentsia actively engaged, but the ‘rightist turn’ among China’s Liberal Intellectuals has been happening because they feel that since there is no chance for systemic change [under the present Party dispensation] all of those other things are futile.

N: Why do you think we are hearing less and less from the intelligentsia in regard to contemporary social issues?

Chan: Well, there’s far few platforms for them to express themselves, and even the remaining arenas can’t really publish very much. And then there is the general tendency towards stigmatisation [whereby people are readily condemned online for whatever views they express]. 

It’s only natural for members of the Intelligentsia to want to be heard, and Public Intellectuals are an integral part of modern society. Of course, not everything they have to say is correct, but by making themselves heard they help a society reflect on issues of major public concern and to correct mistakes. But, at the moment, the Intelligentsia is deprived of real platforms through which they can express themselves and what platforms do exist are mostly ephemeral ‘self-media’ [that is, limited-range ‘me-media’). ‘Self-media’ enjoys what they call ‘stratospheric conditions’, that is it offers a cosy and self-referential environment. Apart from public intellectual life on Weibo, there is no public stature that the intelligentsia can enjoy.

It seems inevitable then that in the present era China has an Absentee Intelligentsia. Of course, those intellectuals who speak on behalf of the power-holders are of a different order. I don’t really have any answers. I think people just have to work out what they believe and what they feel that can and should do. 

N: But if the intelligentsia doesn’t make itself heard, what good are they?

Chan: Sometimes, the only choice for thinking people is retreat. In some eras, the best thing they can do is to focus on writing books and pursuing research. Some things can still be published and books can have an influence. 

N: In recent years, students and  young people seem to be the socially most active. Don’t intellectuals also have some responsibility to act?

Chan: You’re right, the young are taking the lead, in particular university students and recent college graduates. It’s only right and proper that they are the main activists. Overall, [established] intellectuals are not particularly adept at social activism; they are bookish creatures best suited to writing. At present, all the major social activism and creative social movements are the work of younger people. Sometimes they are involved in a kind of naïve activism that is simply aimed at helping others, or they purées things aimed at improving the society, or advocate on behalf of justice. This is valuable and meaningful.

Without Cracks The Light Can’t Get In 

N: But there is no denying that the space for any kind of activism is increasingly narrow. In an environment in which one is under constant surveillance can a ‘Heterotopia’ [of the kind described by Michel Foucault, and featured in Chan’s own essays] really exist? If so, where? 

Chan: You’re right; it’s increasingly difficult. Social activists have to use new technologies, just as they did in the past. It a bit like the classic ‘cat-and-mouse’ game. As soon as a new technology appears people start using it, just as others try and control it and eventually bend it to their own ends of increased dominance.

I’m rather disappointed in the Internet. It was a liberating technology, just as now people claim that Blockchain promises to be liberating. However, in the long run, the Internet allowed for the creation of even greater monopolies and it has failed to realise the hope that it could undermine forms of dominant control. I guess there are still spaces or interstices, and without them you don’t get a utopia, you end up trapped in a dystopia.  

N: Will we really end up in some kind of dystopia?

Chan: If sci-fi can really sell then resistance will be successful. There are always vulnerabilities; new technologies invariably disturb the status quo. Just consider the lessons of Star Wars: no matter how indomitable the evil Empire, there was always a Resistance. Hollywood films don’t just depict dystopias, they also show utopias; but I’d caution you against getting caught up in this simple binary; if you do, you’ll find it difficult to do anything substantial. Reality is never that cut-and-dried; it’s never just about dystopia versus utopia.

I don’t believe that the majority of people can really be enlightened or wake up to the realities of the world. Nor do I believe that it’s actually necessary; that’s where Heterotopias come in to the equation. These are not easily categorised environments; you might suddenly have some particular feeling, a desire to do something or other for someone. That’s enough. You don’t have to think about the long-term significance of what your doing for society. 

When people talk about Enlightenment, there’s always those who are hoping that it will lead to a whole-of-society awakening. But what I’m trying to say that it might only ever be partial, there will be a flash of awareness in one area, some meaningful activity, an inspiration, some kind of raw urge for justice, a kind of emotive morality, but that’s all. There won’t be any holistic, thoroughgoing intellectual enlightenment.

Maybe we are all moving slowly towards darkness. But you shouldn’t get too hung up on it; you should try not to be too cynical. Things might often be better than people think they are and if a few inflection points appear then there is always a possibility that the society as a whole might change.   

Beijing Has Always Been An Occupied City

N: Beijing has been your home for nearly twenty years. I appreciate that you have a particular fondness of this city, after all [in 2004] you published a novel called Bohemian Beijing. In it you depicted a vibrant city of endless possibilities. After two decades what do you feel is most different about Beijing?  

Chan: I’m afraid I’m going to say a few things that your readers might find discomforting. In the first place, Beijing has never really been a city of ‘Beijing People’. Rather it is a place that has been constantly invaded and occupied by outsiders. When we talk about ‘Beijing People’ today, they really aren’t people who have been around all that long. Finally, the national government removed itself to Nanking from 1928, and Beijing became Beiping, a special city independent of direct control by the central government. That’s really when the old Manchu Bannermen of the defunct Qing dynasty created this unique place which we think of as ‘Old Peking’ along with the Han and Hui-Muslim inhabitants of the city. In point of fact, ’Old Peking’ is relatively new.

The biggest changes in the city I know started in the 1990s. Of course, the old city walls were demolished after 1949 and all the central government ministries moved into the city itself as part of a process to turn what was really a medieval city into a modern capital. It was a huge transformation, but an even more massive process unfolded from the 1990s when global capital and the practices of modern real estate invaded the place.

I lived in Beijing in 1992 when there will still lots of hutong-alleyways. In fact, the last place I lived was on Ju’er Hutong [at Zhonggu Lou, now in a major ‘heritate’ tourist district]. When I moved back to Beijing in the year 2000 of course there had been major changes. From 2004, the word 拆 chāi — Tear It Down — dominated the landscape in preparation for the 2008 Olympics.

The most remarkable thing about Beijing is the constant demolition and rebuilding that goes on [in the old city]. The most absurd, and unforgivable, of all of that was the demolition undertaken to create ‘Finance Street’ [at Fuchengmennei in the Western District] and its expansion. At the time, everyone knew it shouldn’t happen because the whole district was full of heritage courtyard houses. The authorities even had a preservation plan that detailed areas for protection. Then, with neither rhyme nor reason, they built Financial Street. It’s a complete failure: access is difficult and the only way to deal with the traffic is to keep on tearing things down and expanding the roads.

There used to be street stalls where you could get breakfast, but in recent years as part of the process to eliminate what they call ‘low-value’ businesses and residents [DD stands for 低端 dī duān, literally ‘low end’, meaning low-income non-resident workers and their families], even more stalls have been disappearing. Historically, there were other times when ‘low value’ residents were forced out of the city, such as during the Jiajing reign period of the Ming dynasty [in the early sixteenth century] when the emperor wanted the poor banished from the Inner City [the area now encircled by the Second Ring Road]. But that’s how Beijing is: with every wave of outsiders, more poor people are dislocated leaving only the well-to-do behind. After they built Dadu, the Yuan-dynasty city [located just north of what is known as ‘Old Peking’ today] poor people were ejected because the rulers wanted to attract wealthy Han people to the place. That’s what they did in the Yuan, and again during the Ming, and also during the Qing dynasty. In the present New Era of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics [under Xi Jinping] they’re doing it all over again.

N: Did you follow the controversy surrounding the relocation of ‘low-value’ people a few years back? You just said that real Beijing people only make up a small percentage of the residents of Beijing, and that the city mostly consists of outsiders. So what do you think of the forced relocation of ‘low-value’ outsiders? 

Chan: Even from the perspective of current urban theory, this exercise was problematic. What is a city: a city is a complex matrix of functions, so complex in fact that you need all types of people living it in to make it work as a whole. It can’t be just one vast shanty town, nor it is possible for a city to made up solely of suburbs for the wealthy.

If a city only consists of the well-heeled, without even workers to run fast-food outlets, or students employed part-time, let alone a range of people in the service industry, then the wealthy inhabits of the place are going to have a hard time of it.

If they thought they could make the city work better by getting rid of the ‘low-value population’ then they were very much mistaken. Many other cities have pursued similar homogenised designs, but once you achieve it the remaining inhabitants who are interested in enjoy themselves in a complex living environment move out. Wealthy people don’t want to live in cities like that; they are inconvenient and boring because they lack variety.   

It’s No Age for Idealists

N: In discussing events like this that have some public significance people often use the term ‘amnesia’ to describe how, after a momentary flare-up of interest they are soon forgotten. In your novel In a Prosperous Age people have forgotten a whole month. Why did you start the novel this way? [The novel opens with the words ‘A month is missing. I’m saying an entire month has gone missing 一個月不見了。我是說,一整月不見了’, the time between a global economic crisis and China’s rise to pre-eminence. — trans.] 

Chan: It is a critique of human nature, and of myself. The ‘forgotten month’ depicted in the novel is not the result of political manipulation, in fact, the government isn’t capable of such a sleight of hand. People have simply willingly forgotten what happened during that month of their own accord. Such things are constantly taking place; people forget things that they really should remember. The scariest thing is that in many circumstances people aren’t deliberately choosing to suppress a particular memory. But that’s how things simply disappear. 

For instance, many major social incidents of the last decade now seem as though they are impossibly distant. Some people might still remember them but over time it is simply easier to forget, in particular now that everything is online. If something’s deleted it’s like it never existed. In the past, you could always check things in books or newspapers.  

The majority of people have always been fairly blind to most things. Among my generation of Hong Kong people it was normal not to discuss politics. For example, when I was in my first year at Hong Kong University there was a major popular movement in support of Taiwan’s territorial claims over the Diaoyu Tai Islands. There were 150 people in my student dorm but only two of us joined in the demonstration. Think about it: a major youth protest, but only two university students showed up. That’s what it used to be like in Hong Kong; no one discussed politics. Zizek put it something like this: before we didn’t know, so we did nothing and we didn’t resist; now although we do know, we still don’t protest.

Lots of people know there are many social ills, but they don’t won’t do anything about it. In my writing I say that people have been scared off by dystopian reality, so they take a different stance; because they don’t believe they can achieve anything they chose to do nothing.        

N: In your novel In a Prosperous Age you talk about a form of ‘Chinese idealism’. Most readers of NGONC belong in that camp. Given the absurdity of our reality, what do you think young people should do or believe in?

Chan: What is truly astounding about China is that there are still so many idealists here. Despite all of the struggles and suffering of those who pursue their ideals, people still persevere. It is highly unlikely that such idealists who are living in a ‘prosperous age’ will fully enjoy the bounties of the times; for them, things don’t feel as though they are better than ever.

In an age like the present, it is inevitable that idealists will feel betrayed. The times are against them, and that’s exactly why I am so surprised that there are still so many idealists, even though generation after generation finds itself disappointed and let down, in every respect. At present, regardless of whether you are pursuing paid employment in private enterprise or within the party-state system, overall, if you are an idealist it’s pretty much a given that you are not going to see your ideals realised.

Maybe it’s because the culture of socialist countries inculcates idealism. I know lots of members of the Cultural Revolution generation [of men and women who graduated from high school from 1966 to 1968 and who are now in their late sixties and early seventies]. In their youth they were admonished to ‘think globally’ and now that they’re retired they are really travelling around the globe, and it’s because they are sincerely interested in the rest of the world.

It’s also true of the present generation; their education is suffused with idealism and they might really be touched by this stuff. But when they attempt to pursue their ideals they encounter overwhelming obstacles; when you’re constantly frustrated like that then you find yourself in an impossible bind, a heterotopia. 

N: Are you such an idealist? Do you feel that you have been betrayed by the age?

Chan: Of course, I’m an idealist. I’m someone who tortures themselves. In my time, there was no belief in or hope for writers in Hong Kong, no respect and so what writers did appear were pretty weird and achieved what they did by dint of own efforts. For that reason, I can’t really say I feel let down or betrayed by society, that’s because society never expected anything of me, and I didn’t expect to get any recognition from my society either. 

Over the past two or more decades I’ve learned a huge amount from friends who come from elsewhere. I have a pretty good idea about how things happen in Beijing, and I moved here with my eyes wide open. Beijing has taught me far more than Hong Kong ever did, so I could never say that Beijing has let me down. 

N: Although we’ve reached an end today it doesn’t feel like we are any more relaxed than when we started.

Chan: I don’t think it’s my responsibility to make anyone feel more relaxed. I’m not that laid back, so I can’t really lighten the mood for anyone else. If you want it, there’s no lack of character-building inspirational material out there in the market place.


Chinese Text:

陈冠中谈《盛世》:

鲜花着锦、烈火烹油的年代感

春节反乌托邦指南2

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N记墙洞

02.07 20:14

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NGOCN出品

作者 | 一灿

这是春节反乌托邦系列书单第二篇。

今天要介绍的是香港作家陈冠中2009年出版的小说《盛世》。下面还会有NGOCN与陈冠中的访谈,听他对创作和时代的看法。

《盛世》讲述的故事设定在2013年,当全世界的其他国家经济都在迅速衰退(书中称“世界经济进入冰火期”),中国一枝独秀进入盛世,全国人民都过上幸福生活。然而在冰火期与盛世之间,有一个月的时间突然消失了,没有人记得发生了什么,没有人想要知道发生了什么,没有任何的文字和网络记录。故事的主人公老陈是一名定居北京的香港作家,他也不记得有这样一个月的存在,直到他遇到几个怪人,才被动地和这些被他称作“中国式理想主义者”的人开始寻找那消失的一个月。

书的篇幅不长,节奏十分紧凑,信息量很大,许多细节耐人寻味。从书的名字就可见一斑。《盛世》里的“盛”字意味深长,见仁见智。陈冠中认为“盛世”的“盛”应该是盛放和丰盛的“盛”,是那种鲜花着锦、烈火烹油的年代感。以“盛世”作为题目也不无反讽,就如八月十五的月亮,亮堂堂的背后是一片漆黑。

《盛世》设定的细节固然与现实并不全部吻合,然而小说对国情的把握非常准确,对于中国人的剖析也一针见血。阅读时难免产生一种未来与现实交错的感觉。