Reviews / November 2011 (Issue 15)

The Care of the Leviathan: Chan Koonchung's The Fat Years

by Glen Jennings

Chan Koonchung, trans., Michael S. Duke, The Fat Years, Doubleday, 2011. 318 pgs.

George Orwell begins 1984 with a defamiliarising reference to time: the clocks strike thirteen. Chan Koonchung begins The Fat Years with another form of temporal alienation: a whole month has gone missing. More precisely, twent-eight days in 2011 have disappeared from popular memory. Virtually no one in China can recall what happened in this period. It turns out that these twenty-eight days frame a decisive historical shift, bridging the collapse of the Western economy and the commencement of China's 'Golden Age of Ascendancy.' Discovering what happened during this interregnum, and recovering lost or suppressed memory from this time, forms the plot of this bold and provocative political mystery.

An excellent preface by Julia Lovell and equally good notes by the translator Michael S. Duke contextualise this novel and provide the English reader with insights into the historical and literary allusions and political adroitness of Chan Koonchung's prose. He turns official rhetoric inside out, and lays bare the scars and bruises of contemporary China, producing a daring, direct and unflinching political critique. The Fat Years depicts an imagined future, but in so doing it explores the horrors—as well as the achievements—of the recent past, and provides an unsmiling satire of present day China.

The Fat Years is set between 2011 and 2013, the years of China's Golden Age of Prosperity: a period of wealth, internal harmony and nationalistic self-confidence. The happiness of the vast majority is built on stability and money. Ninety percent freedom is enough, because "in a moderately well-off society, the people fear chaos more than they fear dictatorship." The carping of dissidents is ignored, marginalised or explicitly written out of history. Collective amnesia reigns, buttressed by official censorship and surveillance of the few remaining activists like Little Xi, a former judge who quit her position because she could not stomach the injustices and peremptory death sentences of the notorious campaign to crackdown on crime in 1983, and who thirty years later lives a peripatetic existence as an internet activist.

Little Xi was shocked by the violent suppression of June 1989 and alienated from the pervasive materialism of 21st century China. Also estranged from her son, a violent nationalist and political opportunist with a will to power and a coterie of co-conspirators at an elite Beijing university, Little Xi struggles to connect with society in a manner consistent with her principles and her memory. She finds herself in contact with illegal house churches and working with peasants resisting appropriation of their farming land.

In her quest for the truth about life in 2013 China, Little Xi is joined by a number of misfits and outsiders. Zhang Dou is a former slave labourer from the Shanxi coal mines who lives with his girlfriend Miaomiao, a spaced-out ex journalist, and their collection of adopted stray cats. Fang Caodi is a well-travelled Chinese hippie who has lived in America and various ethnic minority regions of China, and has firsthand experience of Chinese commercial practices in Africa. Little Xi's most intimate bond develops with the novel's protagonist Old Chen, a Taiwanese writer who has lived in Beijing for a number of years.

By interviewing Chinese luminaries for numerous publications in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and by writing books like his Comprehensive Cultural Guide to Beijing before the Beijing Olympics of 2008, Old Chen built up a reputation as a cultural commentator and China expert and developed connections with Chinese writers, intellectuals, businessmen and politicians. These connections go right up to Politburo level. (Old Chen shares regular Mao-era movie nights accompanied by imported red wine appreciation with He Dongsheng, an insomniac Politburo member who plays a decisive role in this novel, holding forth ad nauseam on politics and becoming the focus of the dissatisfaction felt by Little Xi and her activist friends.)

Old Chen, like the Shanghai-born but Hong Kong-raised Chan Koonchung, worked in Hong Kong before moving to Beijing, and his experiences in Taiwan and Hong Kong both colour and influence his status and his life in China. (This novel was first published in Chinese in Hong Kong in 2009. While not formally released on the mainland—because The Fat Years is far too direct, uncompromising and critical for a mainland publisher to handle or for the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] to tolerate—the book has reportedly circulated quite widely in the Chinese underground.) In one of its many dimensions, the novel explores shifting perspectives of material wealth and cultural worth in relations between Taiwan, Hong Kong and China, with China growing ever more powerful, confident, and some would say arrogant or patronizing, as men from Taiwan or Hong Kong like Old Chen himself settle into life in an ascendant China.

In the Golden Age of Beijing that begins The Fat Years, Old Chen shares in the sense of China's importance. He drinks in the general sense of happiness and even lives in Happiness Village Number Two. But in some ways he is still an outsider. He has not written anything original for a number of years, and he is drawn to the despairing or disappointed, like Little Xi herself, a woman Old Chen first came to admire in the late 1980s when she ran an intellectual salon in her mother's small restaurant and when they shared a belief that China needed fundamental political reform, protection of individual rights and the rule of law.

In China's Golden Age of 2013 the big bookshops—like the fancy coffee shops selling Lychee Black Dragon Lattes—are well patronised and full of stock, but the works of writers such as the labour camp memoirists Yang Jiang and Yang Xianhui don't appear on the shelves or even in the computer catalogues. Like the serious books of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451—the works that make you question, that raise troubling thoughts or that point out the black spots on the sun—the books of Yang Jiang et al first fell to neglect, because no one wanted to read them in an age of complacent prosperity, and then were suppressed. Literature, like society, was harmonised. Things slipped away and their existence was forgotten. Intellectuals were co-opted, pampered, brought into the gilded tent.

How was China's national harmony and international hegemony achieved? Through the combined power of patience, size and the massive foreign currency reserves and domestic savings that could be harnessed decisively and swiftly by a monist state unencumbered by democratic squabbles or legal scrutiny. Stalled during the mini ice age immediately following the military suppression of democracy in June 1989, China's economy was kick-started again when Deng Xiaoping undertook his Southern Tour of 1992, promoting renewed economic development and international trade. China then rose precipitously and powerfully in the years immediately after the 2008 global financial crisis exposed the weakness of the USA and Europe.

China finally emerged as the world's preeminent nation after the fictional (but not too fictional) economic crisis of 2011 destroyed the economic power of Europe and America. China's patchwork of alliances and investments across Africa, Latin America and Asia (including the massive quarry that is Australia) secured primary resources crucial to China's well being, and state-mandated levels of domestic spending ensured that China generated a self-perpetuating market characterised by strong employment. With a conscious nod to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, chemical enhancement also aided the passive happiness of the Chinese people. (The "small-small high" was felt by most Chinese, but was exaggerated in some individuals like Miaomiao who seemed permanently stoned.) However, drugs alone did not explain either the success of the CCP in strengthening its control after the global crisis or the collective amnesia about the history of contemporary China and the missing twenty-eight days.

Much of Chan Koonchung's novel reads like a political lecture, and this intentional style is referenced in the text itself when the Politburo member He Dongsheng is described as speaking "bombastically" or "bombarding his listeners with information." But political ideas and exposés lie at the heart of this novel's complexity, clarity and dramatic power, presenting in a forthright manner the machinations and political maneuvers in China's fictional "Action Plan for Achieving Prosperity Amid Crisis" and the policy of "Ruling the Nation and Pacifying the World."

There is a mystery to be uncovered in The Fat Years: what happened in the 28 days between the economic collapse of the world economy and the proclamation of China's ascendancy? How did the Chinese Communist Party turn a crisis into an opportunity? It would be inappropriate to spoil this secret in a review of Chan Koonchung's compelling novel, but people familiar with Sun Tzu's Art of War might like to guess at the stratagem. And so might those who remember how the CCP has exercised its power over the years.

Readers already familiar with the vagaries of modern Chinese history and politics will likely appreciate the clear light Chan Koonchung sheds on a broad range of Chinese traumas and transformations, from famine to feast, from class struggle to great harmony, from communism to capitalism with CCP characteristics, red in tooth and claw. For other people interested in China (whether as insiders or as outsiders) but who do not know—or who do not remember—such things as the Great Leap Forward, the years of famine, the Cultural Revolution, the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, June 1989, the emergence of party princelings and the "second generation rich" or the ongoing arrest of activists and artists like Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei, these potential readers should consider obtaining The Fat Years and creating—or reclaiming for themselves—some very important memories.

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