Dylan Levi King on Liang Xiaosheng’s untranslated masterwork Floating City
It’s one of the best novels published in Chinese in the last three decades—and since it hasn’t been translated into English, you’ve probably never heard of it. With so many worthy contemporary Chinese novels untranslated, I know that’s not saying much, but believe me when I say: this is my number one on the list of books that need to be translated into English, stat. Liang Xiaosheng’s Floating City (Flower City Publishing House, 1992) is the missing link between Republican Era science-fiction and dystopian visionaries like Chan Koonchung. It also manages to be funny as hell, equal parts subversive and sentimental.
Liang Xiaosheng (梁晓声) made a splash with the novel; the book was a commercial (when a deluxe edition of the novel was published in 2012, it marked the thirtieth print run) and critical success. Known primarily for his portraits of the Red Guards and sent-down students, Liang was born into a working-class family in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province. After escaping from the Great Northern Wilderness, he ended up at Fudan before jumping to Beijing Film Studio and a long-term position at Beijing University. When Liang Xiaosheng published Floating City in 1992, he had mostly been known for a pair of memoirs, the first about his college and early career, From Fudan to Beijing Film Studio (Shanghai Art and Literature Press, 1987; translated by Li-ching C. Mair and Ruth-Ann Rogaski for Foreign Languages Press as Life in Shanghai and Beijing: A Memoir of a Chinese Writer, 1990) and a memoir of his time working in the countryside, Monologue of a Red Guard (serialized in the magazine Haixia in 1987 and published as a book in 1988 by Sichuan Art and Literature Press).
Floating City marks a departure from his earlier work—a very cinematic novel, it has to have been influenced by his time as a screenwriter—and a critique of China on the verge of major change hit at exactly the right time, when stalled reforms were getting a second look. The title is meant literally: a coastal city in China’s Northeast floats away from the mainland. As the city bobs on the open ocean, rumors spread through the two million citizens left alive and riots and looting sweeps the city; criminals rush to settle old scores and murder their foes; and the airport is attacked by a mob, who fear that senior officials in the city might fly to safety. The city keeps drifting, as criminal gangs vie with local bureaucrats for control. When the city finally approaches land—the west coast of Japan—there is finally some hope, but the city cannot unify and breaks into factions, some advising landing on Japan, another faction advising against it, and a third faction counselling a return to communes and revolutionary politics. After the Japanese navy settles the issue for them, sending the city-island drifting toward the American west coast, rescue boats finally appear. Unwilling to abandon life in the floating city or hoping that the current will take them to a new life in the suburbs of Los Angeles, many in the city refuse to board the rescue boats. The novel ends with the hapless refugees floating off into the sunset.
Before you say it, I do understand being hesitant about social satire from China. (When the Yu Hua novel Brothers came out, every review mentioned the character who was sitting on a gold-plated toilet.) It’s not tough to figure out who Liang Xiaosheng’s targets are (they include the new capitalist class that emerged after Reform and Opening, the corrupt or ineffectual local bureaucrats that look the other way, worshippers of capitalist progress and those whose only answer is to drag the country back in time to 1968). But the comic scenes are strong—a banquet battle between Ma Guoxiang and a delegation of Japanese officials is piss your pants funny. The trouble here is that, as E.B. White once wrote, “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.” So, I’m going to stop right here and just give you my promise that it’s funny and sharp.
As I’ve said, it hasn’t been translated into English yet, but in the original Chinese, Floating City is a refreshing read, unselfconsciously minimalist and adept with tight, brief sentences. Part of the strength of the satire and the fabulous story comes from the gritty realism of the book. The hard urban realism of Floating City feels novel, even twenty five years after the book dropped. It begins with one of the most striking scenes in Chinese literature. A man is struggling to unfasten the belt around a woman’s waist. The young woman is playing him for cash that he doesn’t have and this is the final straw but she’s thinking about the end of the world:
She liked holding a man like this, bending him to her will. She dreamed that one day every man in the world would be bent to her, would be ground under her heel. That’s all she cared about. She didn’t care if the whole world burned. All the street stalls were selling 1999 Global Apocalypse. Some foreigner wrote it. She bought it. She read it. She — believed it. It’s not that she took every word of the book as the truth, but you’d be stupid if you didn’t think that the world was just about ready to flame out. She didn’t really care, one way or the other.
The novel calls to mind some a question I’ve always had, while living in China: What would it take for things to break down? It’s happened before—any city you visit in China, it’s likely that society has broken down there, within recent memory—and Liang Xiaosheng’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution contribute to his fears about life in a Chinese city approaching the turn of the last century. There’s a conservative element to his criticisms of Reform and Opening China but also a knowledge that even as China was embracing neoliberal lifestyles that society is teetering on the brink. Even though the breakdown of society comes after a cataclysmic event, the actual push comes from things that still plague Chinese society: rumors, social polarity, superstition and tribalism, an anemic civil society, and a state that combines authoritarianism with corruption and hysterical nationalism. The references may be dated (foreign exchange certificates, the Gulf War, Japan’s economic miracle), but the book’s message is still vital.
The book has remained untranslated, with no rumors of a potential future appearance in English. A handful of Liang’s shorter works have made it into English, most notably Panic and Deaf: Two Modern Satires, translated by Hanming Chen, edited by James O. Belcher and published by University of Hawai’i Press in 2001 (“mordant and absurdist,” according to the back cover), and also a few short stories, most from the 1980s and early-1990s. After Floating City, Liang Xiaosheng mostly turned to social criticism, in collections of essays like I Believe in China’s Future (China Youth Press, 2014) and Our Times and Society (Worker’s Press, 2015), earning himself the nickname “China’s conscience.” My own reading of his non-fiction work is that it’s pretty chill and faintly leftist—but will likely never be translated, because few people outside of China will care what a marginal moderate like Liang Xiaosheng has to say. But if I was a publisher reviewing the list of Chinese fiction that has remained untranslated for too long, Floating City would be a no-brainer. ∎