Translatio Imperii Sinici
It is a decade since the appearance in Chinese of the novel In an Age of Prosperity: China 2013 《盛世：中國、2013年》 (translated into English by Michael S. Duke and published under the title The Fat Years in 2011).
On 7 February 2019, the WeiBo publication NGOCN featured an interview with Chan Koonchung (陳冠中, b.1952, also known by his English name, John Chan) the author of In an Age of Prosperity. The translation of that interview below is part of our China Heritage Annual 2019, the topic of which is Translatio Imperii Sinici — intimations of empire in modern China. As we noted in the 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 has been a prominent cultural figure since the 1970s and he is a rarity in the broader Chinese cultural world. Although many other creative men and women also straddle the divide between Hong Kong, Taiwan and the People’s Republic — as writers (of poetry, fiction, essays, plays), journalists, translators, teachers, film-makers and musicians — Chan long ago moved to Beijing and from that vantage point he has mapped the ever-changing landscape through fiction and non-fiction prose. Although Chan’s work is, by and large, unavailable in the politically hostile environment ‘curated’ by the Communist Party, his is nonetheless a prominent voice in the global Chinese world; it is a voice of nuance, complexity and imagination. His activities, both as a writer and as a socially engaged individual, hint at what ‘China’ can be and might, one day, become.
We are grateful to Koonchung for his kind permission to translate and present his reflections on ‘prosperous China’ today. Although he reviewed the translation (and corrected a few factual inaccuracies!), all remaining errors are the responsibility of the translator.
Sic transit gloria mundi — ‘worldly glory does thus pass’. This Latin expression became famous because of the role it played for centuries in the elaborate ceremonies surrounding the crowning of a new pope, known officially as the Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State and Servant of the Servants of God. The estimable Catholic empire is ever mindful of the vanity of worldly pursuits, and the wiser heads who would presume imperium in China also constantly encourage themselves to ‘ponder danger even when in repose’ 居安思危 .
The English translation is followed by the original Chinese text as published, that is in 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
When preparing the June 2011 issue of China Heritage Quarterly, which took as its focus China’s New Prosperous Age 盛世, we invited the novelist and translator Linda Jaivin to write an essay about Chan Koonchong’s novel. Under the title ‘Yawning Heights: Chan Koon-chung’s Harmonious China’ Jaivin wrote:
Chan Koonchung 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 Koonchung 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.
Linda Jaivin also translated a section from the novel’s prophetic discussion regarding the future of China’s domestic and foreign policies. The lengthy declamation offers 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, He Dongsheng’s fictional concerns have found a place in reality, just as his well-intentioned aspirations have been frustrated by events.
Since the rise of Xi Jinping in late 2012, it has been a commonplace for The Disappointed — that is, a disparate group of the powerful, the influential and the opinionated scattered both within and outside China — to bewail how the leader has reasserted Party power and encouraged 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 reverse a well-known expression, one has the impression that The Chinese People (albeit the un-elected representative of the People, the Communist party-state) have hurt their feelings!
The Disappointed can be thought of as those ‘China Hands’ nostalgic for beliefs and hopes that were predicated on a range of economic, political and cultural assumptions, along with a kind of condescension that smacked of colonial hauteur. That is to say, in their obsessive focus on neo-liberal economic goals along with unquestioned presumptions about globalisation they — be they politicians, analysts, business people, academics, journalists or a host of others, including Chinese factional players — repeatedly ignored or underestimated what the Party and its theoreticians (along with fellow-travelling academic New Marxists) were saying, thinking and actually doing. Too often this encouraged a purblind belief in immutable historical and economic forces that predetermined China’s path forward. Such near-burlesque confidence — which, in many respects, mirrored the dogmatic 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 foretold the possibility of the kinds of changes that have been witnessed under Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan. In this 2019 anniversary year, we would do well to recall three such moments:
- March 1979: the dissident Democracy Wall activist Wei Jingsheng posted his essay ‘Do We Want Democracy or New Autocracy?‘ 要民主還是要新的獨裁 leading to his arrest and long-term imprisonment. Wei’s poster was followed a few days later by the announcement of the Four Basic Principles 四項基本原則, ‘core Party values’ that have remained at the heart of the one-party state, its Constitution and its draconian rule ever since;
- January 1987: following student demonstrations in favour of media freedom in late 1986, the ouster of Hu Yaobang, Communist Party General Secretary, and the purge of dissenting Party members who championed ‘bourgeois liberalisation’, that is who advocated political reform, a free media along with intellectual and cultural pluralism. These events reflected an on-going political and ideological contest that resulted in
- 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 aimed at encouraging socialist countries like China to abandon one-party dictatorships in favour of citizens’ rights and constitutional democracy.
Even for the latecomers, in particular from the 2007-2008 Olympic Year, it was evident that the People’s Republic was leaning further in to its noxious brand of authoritarianism. This too was a significant ‘inflection point’, and Chan Koonchung addressed it perceptively. As the author of In an Age of Prosperity observes in the interview below, since the People’s Republic remains in a ‘party-state prosperous age’, he sees no reason to write a sequel.
Only now are The Disappointed fitfully catching up with four decades of reality, not to mention the last decade of China’s ‘prosperous age’, and all that it entails.
On the Title of the Chan Koonchung 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 being
This comes from 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 the novel, the spectre of Qin-shi offers both a warning to the residents of the splendid Ninguofu mansion and a meditation on fate, fortune and life 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 fire. In 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.
— 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
Even the Best Party Must Have an End
Chan Koonchung in Conversation
Translated by Geremie R. Barmé
Still in a Prosperous Age
NGONC: What is it about fiction that particularly appeals to you?
Chan Koonchung: It allows the greatest freedom and offers the broadest range of expressive possibilities. One thing that only fiction can do is offer readers a vast range of experiences, inculcating in them responses that can be realistic and contradictory at the same time. You may end up absolutely confused by what you have read, or you may find that you’ve had a very complex emotional reaction.
I feel that this is an age in which fiction writing is at its most open, no one can impose rules on anyone else; you are limited neither by fashion nor formalism. Whether it be realism, or modernism, post-modernism, or post-post-modernism — any and all of these genres and styles are available for you to employ in your writing.
It was only after my novel In an Age of Prosperity [aka The Fat Years] was published in 2009 that I really felt my metier was writing fiction. Up until then, I was always thinking of pursuing other interests, or writing in different genres. In a Prosperous Age allowed me to realise that my interests and ideas could best, and most satisfyingly, be expressed through fiction writing.
N: What exactly did you mean by the title In an Age of Prosperity?
Chan: In the lead-up to the publication of the English edition [in 2011] I pondered how the word 盛 shèng could best be translated. There was a suggestion that it should be rendered as ‘prosperous’, although that seemed to overly emphasise the idea of wealth. Then there was the option of going with ‘golden’, but that too is limited to the idea of a gilded age, a period of luxury. For me 盛 shèng relates to the ideas of ‘plentiful’ or to ‘blossoming’, as in ‘abundance’, ‘overflowing’ 盛放 or ‘sumptuousness’ and ‘plenitude’ 豐盛. 盛 shèng 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 also ironical: it hinted 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 luminescence, but behind it all 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 there being a particular kind of ‘prosperous age’ is one that 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 audience 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: years from now, my books might finally appear on the Mainland, but by then people probably 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. At least my work can be published in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
An Absentee Intelligentsia
N: Over the past few years, Chinese technology as well as 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’ have become establishment figures who support Statism, and Liberals are deeply divided. Who would ever have thought that some Liberal Intellectuals actually oppose 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 feel there is no hope for political reform in China and that unfolding new social movements also ignore 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 is occurring 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 fewer platforms for them, and even the remaining arenas can’t really publish very much. Then there is the general tendency towards stigmatisation [whereby people are readily condemned online in the form of en masse trolling regardless of the views they express].
It’s only natural that members of the Intelligentsia want to be heard; 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 help it to correct mistakes. However, at the moment, the Intelligentsia is deprived of real platforms by means of 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 other kind of public stature that the intelligentsia can presently enjoy.
It seems inevitable then that in the present era China has what I’d call an ‘Absentee Intelligentsia’. Of course, those intellectuals who speak on behalf of the power-holders are something else. 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 most socially 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 examples of 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 pursue 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 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’s 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 for the sake of increased dominance.
I’m rather disappointed in the Internet. It started out as a liberating technology, just as people nowadays 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 potential that had to undermine dominant forms of control. I guess there are still spaces or interstices, and without them you don’t get a utopia, you just 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 appeared to be, there was always a Resistance. Hollywood films don’t just depict dystopias, they also reveal utopias; but I’d caution you against getting caught up in this kind of 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 that they wake up to the realities of the world. Nor do I believe that it’s actually necessary for that to happen and 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 you’re doing for society as a whole.
When people talk about Enlightenment, there are always those who hope that it will lead to a whole-of-society awakening. But what I’m trying to say is 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 as such.
Maybe we are all slowly moving 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 you think they are and, if a few positive inflection points appear, then there is always a possibility that 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 for this city, after all [in 2004] you published a novel called Bohemian Beijing. In it you depicted a vibrant place of endless possibilities. After two decades what do you feel is most different about Beijing today?
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 constantly been invaded and occupied by outsiders. When we talk about ‘Beijing People’ today, they really aren’t people who have been around all that long. The national government finally removed itself to Nanking from 1928 [after the Republic of China had been founded in 1912], and Beijing became Beiping, a special city independent of direct control by the central government. It’s only really from then that the old Manchu Bannermen of the defunct Qing dynasty created this unique place which we think of as ‘Old Peking’; they created it along with the Han and Hui-Muslim inhabitants of the city. So, in point of fact, ’Old Peking’ is relatively new.
The biggest changes in the city that I have known started to unfold in the 1990s. Of course, after 1949 the old city walls were demolished and all the central government ministries moved in 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 were still lots of hutong-alleyways. In fact, the last place I lived was on Ju’er Hutong [at Zhonggu Lou, now in a major ‘heritage’ tourist district]. By the time I moved back to Beijing in the year 2000 of course there had been various major changes, but from 2004, in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, the word 拆 chāi — ‘Demolish!’ — dominated the landscape.
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 destruction unleashed to create ‘Finance Street’ [the Financial District at Fuchengmennei in Xicheng] and its expansion. At the time, everyone knew the whole area was full of heritage courtyard houses and that they shouldn’t be threatened. The authorities even had a preservation plan that showed in detail all the areas marked for protection. Then, with neither rhyme nor reason, they went ahead and built Financial Street. And it’s a complete failure: access is difficult and the only way to deal with the traffic problems is to keep on tearing things down to expand 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 itinerant workers and their families], more and 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], a time when the emperor wanted the poor banished from the Inner City [roughly the area now encircled by the Second Ring Road]. But that’s how Beijing is: with every new 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 residents 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 residents, 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 for it to work you need all types of people. It can’t be just one vast shanty town, nor is it possible for a city to solely be made up of suburbs for the wealthy.
If a city only consists of the well-heeled, lacking even workers at fast-food outlets or students employed part-time, let alone a range of people in the service industry, then the wealthy inhabitants of the place are going to have a very hard time of it.
If the authorities think they could make the city work better by getting rid of the ‘low-value population’, they are very much mistaken. Many other cities have pursued similar homogenised projects, but once you achieve your on-paper goals the remaining inhabitants who are interested in enjoying themselves by living in a complex environment will move out. Wealthy people don’t want to live in cities like that; they are inconvenient and boring because they lack variety.
No Age for Idealists
N: In discussing developments that have some public significance like this people often use the term ‘amnesia’ to describe how, after a momentary flare-up of interest they are soon forgotten. In your novel In an Age of Prosperity 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’, that is, 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 actually is not the result of political manipulation. 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, and that’s how things simply disappear.
For instance, many of the major social incidents that have occurred over the last decade now seem as though they are in an impossibly distant past. 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 first place. In the past, at least you could always check things in books or newspapers.
Most people have generally been fairly blind to most things. Among my generation of Hong Kong people it was normal to avoid discussing politics. For example, when I was in my first year at Hong Kong University there was a major popular movement to support 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. Žižek 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 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 an Age of Prosperity 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 the suffering of those who try to pursue their ideals, people still persevere. It is highly unlikely that idealists who are living in a ‘prosperous age’ can fully enjoy the bounties of the times; for them, things don’t feel as though they are better than ever.
In the present age, 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 of them, 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 in reality they encounter overwhelming obstacles. When you’re constantly being frustrated like that you find yourself in an impossible bind, a heterotopia.
N: Are you such an idealist yourself? Do you feel that you have been betrayed by the times?
Chan: Of course, I’m an idealist. I’m one of those people who tortures themselves. In my time, there was no faith in or hope for writers in Hong Kong, no respect and so what writers did exist were pretty weird and they achieved what they did by the sheer dint of their own efforts. That’s why I really can’t 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 to find it, there’s no lack of character-building inspirational material out there in the market place.