We invite experts to answer reader questions about ‘Finished’ by Han Song
Editor’s note: In the second installment of our (day-drinking optional) digital book club, we discuss Han Song’s surreal short story ‘Finished’ – best read the story before continuing! – by responding to your questions. Inviting experts in the field of Chinese literature and science fiction, we read the tea leaves of authorial intent, discuss Han Song’s recent Chinese Nebula Award win for his novel Exorcism, and the weigh the pros and cons of idiomatic translation. The next monthly story club lands on Friday. But for now, we’re finished. – Nick Stember
Steve Bewcyk asks: Did Han Song specifically make the statement that this story refers to migrant workers? Or is the story an allegory of the petition system of China?
Nick Stember: As far as I know, Han Song hasn’t gone on the record anywhere saying that this story is about migrant workers or the petition system. I don’t think it would take a huge stretch of the imagination to conclude that he is gesturing in this direction, though. In a 2011 interview, for example, Han Song talked about using the subway as a metaphor for contemporary Chinese society:
“I write about people who live their lives in a narrow space … and are struggling for a better life. The subway is a very strong and well-managed system. All the passengers want to run but fail. The novel [Subway] mainly describes the relationship between China and the West. One way of looking at it is that the subway is a Western invention, so the Chinese felt that they needed to invent their own subways and aeroplanes to boost national pride. But that is ironic.”
As people writing about Han Song invariably point out, as a journalist for the state-owned press agency Xinhua, many of Han Song’s stories are inspired by the darker side of everyday life in the PRC. But it’s hard to say for sure, and I think we need to be careful about drawing simple (or really, any) conclusions when it comes to authorial intent. Personally, I read this story to be as much about the way bureaucrats and managers hide behind paperwork to screw the working man over, as much as I did as being specifically about migrant workers or petitioners in China. That said, it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
Nathaniel Isaacson: I also can neither say it is or is not an allegory for migrant laborers in China. The unpaid worker Wang Gu, the bureaucratic cog Mr. G, and their task of constructing a nameless and faceless monument of brutal urban alienation seem to speak to China’s project of modernization more broadly, and to the sense of ceaseless frenetic labor in the name of development that has taken hold in China in recent years. These same characters and scenes call to mind the legal systems and bureaucratic logic of Kafka at his most alienating. Han Song’s stories have a way of capturing contemporary China, but also embodying something very recognizable outside of the PRC as well. If I were forced to label it, I’d call ‘Finished’ Orwellian or Gilliam-esque. We all have our Mr. G – a functionary from Central Services buried in a cavern of meaningless paperwork whose detached, cyclical logic somehow makes us believers in the chiasmatic logic of a form 27B-6. “I mean, where would we be if we didn’t stick to the correct procedures?”
Rachel Cordasco: Wang Gu makes me think of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa in ‘The Metamorphosis’, who is trapped in an unrecognizable body with no idea how he got there or how to become human again. Although Wang wonders for a few moments why he is suddenly old, his major transformation and the obvious temporal rift in his life doesn’t seem to bother him as much as the pay that (supposedly) awaits him. In Wang, we see the effects of repetitive work and a limited perspective, such that the mind creates walls within which only certain ideas and beliefs can circulate.
Cara Healey: I was struck by the line, “I’m just a single screw in the grand design.” It immediately brought to mind Lei Feng, the model citizen of Mao-era China, known for his willingness to be but “a tiny screw” in the greater revolutionary cause. This line, juxtaposed with the question “Who have I been working for?”, the nebulous “sacred task,” and the piles of bodies who died before ever collecting their due challenges readers to consider who exactly has been served not just by China’s post-reform frenzy for economic development, but also by earlier political and economic campaigns. I agree with the others that we should be hesitant to read this story as an allegory for any one thing in particular, and I don’t think my reading contradicts reading the story as a commentary on the plight of migrant workers in contemporary China, the Chinese petition system, Kafka, or more broadly, bureaucracy in general. Rather, I view it as one more layer that we can unpack. The fact that we can easily relate this story to so many historical and social contexts, Chinese or otherwise, is a testament to how nuanced Han Song’s writing is.
Charles Payseur: I love the bleakness of this story, the sort of crushing inanity of it, as well as the way it represents a huge betrayal. At its core I read a story about promises and sacrifices, Wang Gu being convinced in the romantic idea of working for this great undertaking with the understanding that he’d be rewarded, that he’d be able to retire. But he is told, in the end, that it’s about more than just having done the work. It must be proven and approved and let through. That, as he’s been working, the rules have been changed, and because of his focus on the work (because of how he’s forced to focus on the work), he’s unaware of how things work like a shell game, all misdirection and con. How corrupt the system has become. In the end he has to answer questions there are no real answers for, must give documentation that doesn’t exist.
To me, it’s a story about a man going into a corrupt system while trying to operate in good faith. He believes what he’s told and expects that people will do what they say, but the system here is really just a machine that chews people up, that drains them and then leaves them to die. It has no intention of ever paying on its promises, and in that it’s a wrenching reach about how labor is exploited, about how people are exploited to become defined only by their use, never allowed to be more than their job. But because what is promised seems like such a reasonable thing, a small thing, people still rush for it, hoping that if they do a good job they’ll be rewarded, never knowing that any reward they’ll ever receive would have to come from an afterlife that, if they could, these corrupt officials would probably try to twist to their aims as well.
Nick Holdstock: The contradictions in the first sentence (“a dark and gloomy but bright and shining place”) immediately establish the uncertain, and thus precarious condition of its protagonist Wang Gu. The story’s lack of a specific locale allows it to represent any of the large cities whose prodigious transformation in recent decades has relied heavily on the labor of people socially, financially and legally excluded from these apparently modern, prosperous (mega) cities. When the shadowy overseer Mr. G informs Wang Gu that “nobody else has been working, only you and you alone”, his denial mirrors the general refusal to properly acknowledge the contribution made by migrant labor to every aspect of urban life.
Han’s story captures the eerie quality of many Chinese urban spaces, which often seem both futuristic and inescapably contemporary in their impersonality and inhuman scale, especially in his description of a “broad avenue, as wide as a river delta, lined with countless gloomy-looking buildings lit with blue fluorescent light bulbs.”
Alec Ash: Adam Roberts told me in an interview once that science fiction is metaphorical not mimetic, and I think that is a useful framework to approach the Kafkaesque setup that Han Song has created, which although not immediately identifiable as sci fi is certainly unreal. Rather than guessing what single thing x refers to, which can only be reductive for an oblique story like this, it’s much more fun to slot in different metaphors for x – migrant work in China, urban malaise, old age, whatever – and see how each makes us think about the world in different ways, creating a different answer to the equation each time. Although to be honest, sometimes I wonder if Han Song was really just complaining about low pay and long hours as a journalist.
Steve Bewcyk (also) asks: Who/what do you think Wang Gu represents?
While Andy Dudak wonders: Why do you think Mr. G hasn’t aged?
Anne Henochowicz: Mr. G reminds me of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s infamous narcissist. Dorian seemed to be forever young, while his portrait, painted by a friend enamored of Dorian’s beauty, turns haggard with years of debauchery. In Mr. G’s case, his greed and treachery is worn on the face of every aging worker and rattles through every pile of bones on his terrible mountain of files. Mr. G is not the only villain of this story – every worker is his own enemy, and the enemy of every other worker. Wang Gu is done in by his ignorance and sense of duty; even his “friend” who cheats him out of 70% of his salary will not have long to enjoy his spoils. The masses are willingly exploited, or else unaware of the horror that’s right before their eyes.
Alec Ash: I love the idea of Wang Gu as Dorian Gray’s portrait, drained of life while Mr. G remains sprightly, feeding off his labour. At the end of Wilde’s novel, of course, the wounds inflicted on Gray’s soul by his own degeneracy catch up with him, and the appearances of him and the picture are reversed. In Han Song’s more relentlessly bleak vision of the world, though, it is hard to imagine any just desserts or come-uppance for Mr. G, so while no character ever represents one discrete thing, Wang Gu’s struggle certainly speaks to the idea that it just never ends, and at the finish of ‘Finished’ he goes willingly back to work to start all over again.
Nick Stember: Death and taxes? When I was translating this story I kept thinking about all of the pig-headed adults in Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. There’s something very poignant about the fact that Mr. G is just as trapped as the workers he abuses. But of course he can’t see it, anymore than the adults in The Little Prince can see how pointless their lives are in the scheme of things. In a way, Wang Gu is the only sane person in the story, when he tries to reason with Mr. G. Eventually, of course, he comes around to Mr. G’s way of thinking.
Cara Healey: I think you did a great job, Nick, of conveying the type of despair we see in The Little Prince, since I immediately thought of that book when reading your translation. I also like how you describe Wang Gu as “the only sane one” and how even he eventually “comes around.” This is something that we see often in modern Chinese literature, all the way back to Lu Xun’s short story ‘A Madman’s Diary’ where the infamous madman might in fact be the only sane one. He too, we learn, is eventually “cured” of his madness and re-assimilated back into mainstream society. Han Song draws from this Lu Xun trope in his other work (I’m thinking in particular of ‘The Passengers and the Creator’, compellingly translated by Nathaniel). It is also something we see again and again in science fiction, at least as far back as H.G. Wells’ short story ‘The Country of the Blind.’
Going back to Lu Xun (don’t we always!), I was also struck by the image of “mountains of documents … covered with old men, crawling on all fours like insects.” These desperate men combing through old documents to find a vital piece of information that will shed light on the fundamental nature of their reality recall Lu Xun’s madman intently reading the classics all through the night only to discover that, between the lines, the texts are covered with the phrase “eat people.” The world that Han Song creates in ‘Finished’ could easily be described as cannibalistic, with this huge bureaucratic system turning in on itself and consuming all the individuals who are caught up in it.
Andy Dudak: Like other readers I was reminded of Kafka, specifically The Trial with its oppressive and incomprehensible bureaucracy. I’ve only read two other Han Song stories (‘The Right to Be Invisible’ and ‘Security Check’, both translated by Ken Liu) and they both had the absurdist or surrealist tone of ‘Finished.’ I’ve read a science fiction reviewer treat Han Song unfairly, focusing on the implausibility of ‘Security Check,’ in which the US ends up annihilating and replacing itself daily to edit out security threats. In ‘The Right to Be Invisible,’ invisibility tech frees people from various societal constraints, eventually resulting in the disappearance of society. To me the most vivid image in ‘Finished’ is the corpses of petitioners littering a mountain of employment records, a scene that would be at home in a Terry Gilliam film. In these tales, Han Song takes simple conceits to absurd extremes that illuminate society’s alienation of the individual. To me these are fantasies or allegories.
Nathaniel Isaacson: Han Song is the kind of author that I probably shouldn’t read, but feel the perverse compulsion to read all the same. His fiction works its way under your skin, leaving you feeling dazed and depressed for days afterwards. His narratives occupy a macabre space between realism and the surreal that seems to exemplify so many recent terms like “hyper-real” and “social science fiction” that have been used to describe literary production in contemporary China. As individuals, his characters seemed guided by their basest instincts, as if their raw, fleshy humanity is the only way of asserting their individuality in the face of the alienating bureaucracies they function within.
III. THE CANON
Dylan Levi King asks: I’m curious what kind of work influenced the new generation of Chinese science-fiction. Who would Han Song, Wang Jinkang and Liu Cixin have been reading? I think I see the influence of writers like Frederik Pohl and Larry Niven, and maybe Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin, but I might be reaching here. Is there some influence from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan or Korean? And is it fair to say that Han Song, Wang Jinkang and Liu Cixin represent the more literary end of the spectrum?
Nick Stember: In English-language interviews, Han Song has mentioned being influenced by Arthur C. Clarke and George Orwell, as well as the Chinese sci-fi author Zheng Wenguang, who wrote in the 1950s and 60s. He has also talked about being influenced by Japanese novels, specifically, Mishima Yukio’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion and Abe Kobo’s The Woman in the Dunes. Liu Cixin has also talked about being influenced by Arthur C. Clarke, in addition to Ken Liu, Ted Chiang, Robert Sawyer, Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman and Paolo Bacigalupi. He hasn’t had the best things to say about the New Wave of science fiction in the 50s and 60s, quoting a rather pointed comment by Isaac Asimov on the topic:
“I hold fast to Asimov’s sentiment: ‘I hope that when the New Wave has deposited its froth and receded, the vast and solid shore of science fiction will appear once more.’ But based on current trends in the evolution of the field, I very much doubt that his words will come true; they serve only as comfort.”
As to Han, Wang and Liu, from the perspective of fans and critics, certainly, they are treated differently from other writers. Han Song’s novel Exorcism just won the 2017 World of Chinese Science Fiction Nebula Award (so called to distinguish it from the other Nebula Award), and he has won silver twice before, for Subway and Bullet Train. Likewise, Liu Cixin won the top award in 2011 for Death’s End, and Wang Jinkang won the next year for With Me.
I think what really distinguishes these three authors is the fact they were some of the first to take science fiction seriously, and also describe their own work as science fiction. By example, they inspired a lot of writers to get into the field. Which isn’t to say they don’t deserve the praise, only that they get more attention than some of other talented but younger writers out there who are less well-known (in English at least), like A Que,Wu Shuang, Jiang Bo, Tang Fei or Pan Haitian (to give my own completely biased list of ignored writers that I know and have translated).
Rachel Cordasco: Might Stanislaw Lem be an influence? I hear Lem’s wry, dark humor running like a thread through ‘Finished.’
Nick Stember: Lem is another great author to compare to Han Song, both for their bleak sense of humor, and similar skewering of (post) socialist bureaucracies. Lem’s stories to me, though, seem to be more about psychological discomfort, and deception, whereas in Han Song’s stories, discomfort often has a very real, physical presence.
Alec Ash: As Nick says, Lem comes from another Soviet-influenced environment (my mother, who is Polish, knew him in the Krakow literary scene in the 70s I was delighted to hear) and the comparison speaks to of the particularly socialist vision of bureaucratic clerks directing the worker’s sweat and toil to no seeming effect that Han Song satirises. In that respect it also reminds me of the great classic of Russian sci fi, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, although Han Song’s dystopia is a much more surreal and impressionistic one. Lem is far funnier, though.
Steve Miller writes: I enjoyed the story. The labyrinth of bureaucracy, and frustration versus patience in the worker are very Chinese. My comment is about the translation. It’s very readable, but there are many typically Western phrases which make the story less Chinese. I don’t know whether this is part of the translator’s difficult search for the tone and meaning of two-character or four-character expressions, which might well be untranslatable.
Nick Stember: Translators tend to fall to one side or the other on this issue. Personally, I’d rather have something that reads well in English than end up with a word-for-word translation of the original text. Sometimes there are ways to handle idioms to sound “more Chinese,” but I tend to reserve those for stories that are set in ancient China (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). I also don’t think anything is untranslatable – the question is about whether you want to translate the meaning or the sense of the text. For most contemporary writing, I don’t think the sense of the text would be preserved with literal translations of idioms.
Andy Dudak: I think ‘Finished’ is a good translation. My favorite part is “from what I can tell, we’re all working for somebody else. You’re working for me, I’m working for you. Everybody works, but nobody is working for themselves.” I think literal translation of idiomatic language, where you try to convey at least some of the cultural flavor of the original, has its place. Like Nick said, for a story with an ancient setting, it could heighten the reading experience. The trick is including that cultural flavor while keeping the figurative meaning clear, even if that is just careful use of context. I did some of this for ‘Western Heaven’ by Chen Hongyu, because it’s a re-telling of Journey to the West, quintessentially Chinese. So I preserved some of the four-character phrases in translation. But in the case of ‘Finished’ I think Nick made the right choice. It’s a modern tale set in a dehumanizing world: a cold, urban construction zone stripped of its past and culture. Our protagonist is emerging from a kind of semi-conscious lifetime of labor. So I’m not sure what idiomatic flavor would add to the story.
Anne Henochowicz: I’m in Nick and Andy’s camp. A translation that is too accurate, too literal, can distract the reader from what the author is actually saying. Anyway, I favor writers who stay away from fancy four-character idioms. Often they’re just flowery filler, showing off the writer’s education but not their original voice. ∎