Dispatches

The Hungry Ghosts of June Fourth

Concrete and memory is all that is left on Tiananmen Square Alec Ash

A hungry ghost, or e’gui 饿鬼, is the lingering spirit of a person who has met a violent or miserable end. In Buddhist tradition, it is the evil deeds of the individual which lead them to be reborn as a hungry ghost, below even the lowest of animals. But in more popular belief, the cruel end of a life cut short is enough to leave a ghost unanchored, unable to rest in peace, forever hungry, never sated.

On the night of June 3, 1989, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping sent some 200,000 troops into Beijing and created anywhere from several hundred to several thousand hungry ghosts. That we don’t know the precise number – likely something less than 3000, despite recent claims of 10,000 or more – is only a testament to the efficacy of the cover-up. If the human tragedy of it all feels too far removed geographically or generationally (I was three in 1989), videos and pictures remind us of what we were not there to witness.

Q&A

The Golden Age

In conversation with speculative novelist Chan Koonchung

You came up with the idea for your novel in 2008. Why set it five years later?

In 2008, I realized something significant had happened to China’s perspective of itself and the world’s perception of China. I thought I had a story. I call it “the new normal.” The title of The Fat Years in Chinese is Sheng Shi (盛世), which means the golden years of ascendency and prosperity. This phrase was not used to describe China for at least a century and a half. Now, suddenly everyone is using sheng shi to describe China.

But as I started writing the book in 2009, my intellectual friends in Beijing didn’t agree – they didn’t feel that China was entering an age of ascendency. They emphasised the dark side of China. I wanted to write about what was happening before my eyes, but I didn’t feel my writer friends would agree. So I set it in the not-too-distant future, 2013, so I could come up with fictional events to describe my view of what was happening. In fact, it’s all about the present.

Translation

The Storytelling Robot

Fantastical sci-fi by Fei Dao – translated by Alec Ash

Once upon a time, there was a King, who loved neither the beauty of his domain nor its women, but only took pleasure in listening to stories. He kept a storyteller in his palace, but the number of tales that any one person can know is limited, and whenever a minstrel had told them all the King would exile him far, far away. After a while, no one dared tell any story.

And so the King convened the most ingenious scientists in the land, and ordered them to build a storytelling robot. At first, the stories that the robot told were lifeless, but it had the ability to learn independently, and under the supervision of the scientists it slowly perfected the quality. Its brain was installed with every story that was known of, and each night the King, tired from the affairs of state and wanting to relax, ordered the robot to spin him a yarn. If the King could not hear two or three short stories before retiring, he was not able not sleep.

Essays

Stranger than Science Fiction

Chinese sci-fi as a Trojan horse for social commentary – Alec Ash

This essay kicks off Sci-Fi Week at the China Channel. We’ll be featuring Q&As from two Chinese authors, as well as a couple of stories in translation. It’s the perfect excuse to go see The Wandering Earth in the cinema, or to pick up one of the recent collections of Chinese sci-fi stories to get acquainted with this fascinating and varied genre, the historical and political echoes of which are introduced below. – The Editors

In 1902, Lu Xun, the celebrated author of modern China, translated Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon into Chinese from the Japanese edition. Science fiction, he wrote in the preface, was “as rare as unicorn horns, which shows in a way the intellectual poverty of our time.” In the same year, Liang Qichao, another reformist intellectual, in his unfinished novel Chronicle of the Future of a New China (新中國未來記), depicted a future in 1962 where the world came to admire China’s power at a global exposition in Shanghai (sounds familiar, albeit 50 years late). For both writers, exposing Chinese readers to sci fi was a way to promote new, scientific ways of thinking, and to drag the nation into modernity and out from under the yoke of the Qing Dynasty.

Excerpts

Generation Gaps

From old-timers to fifty shades of youth – Alec Ash

For China’s ‘post-80s’ generation, there are various tribes to identify with. The ‘working grunt tribe’ (shangbanzu) or ‘urged tribe’ (beicuizu) are the nine-to-fivers pressured into conformity. The ‘strawberry tribe’ (caomeizu) are nice to look at but soft inside, flitting from job to job and avoiding responsibility. The ‘moonlight tribe’ (yueguangzu) spend their monthly wages shopping – a punning double meaning of ‘moonlight’ and ‘spend it all’ – while the ‘bite the old tribe’ (kenlaozu) still live off mum and dad. Almost everyone’s in the ‘rush-rush tribe’ (benbenzu) but those who can’t hack it might join the ‘crush-crush tribe’ (nieniezu), named for a brief craze where stressed young workers took out their frustrations by crushing packets of instant noodles in supermarket aisles.