Surveillance, Deception, and Agency in Chen Qiufan’s “The Flower of Shazui”
This discussion has been copied from the Discord server, names have been reduced to first name, discussion threads have been grouped and edited for better readability.
Frederike: Hi Eero, thank you for your discussion on “The Flower of Shazui”. This is actually one of my favorite Chinese sf stories. I am a PhD candidate at the Free University of Berlin (Germany) and am focusing on the writings of the post-80s-generation of Chinese sf authors. My thesis also includes a close reading of the story. I really liked your approach of the hacker hero and I find the similarities between the two covers of William Gibsons’s Neuromancer and Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide fascinating! Looking forward to the live Q&A on Friday! All best wishes.
Eero: Hi Frederike, thank you very much for your kind words! I did my master’s thesis on Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, but I am more focused on the post-80s-generation these days myself. And I’m glad that the similarities of the covers came across visually, since they were bit of a last minute addition. It seems quite appropriate since Waste Tide has a lot of specifically Gibsonesque elements in its DNA, including ones that I think haven’t really become generically “cyberpunk” like some of the more obvious tropes have.
Frederike: Hi Eero, seems like we have something in comon! Are you also doing a PhD? Are you working on some authors in particular? Yes, I wonder if the illustrator of the cover of Waste Tide did see the Brazilian Neuromancer cover before or if it was a coincidence. I agree with you that the comparison seems appropriate. Indeed, Chen Qiufan is also called “China’s William Gibson,“ although I think that he’s a writer of his own with his own unique style and therefore no such nickname should be needed.
Eero: I’m not doing a PhD at the moment, but my current passion project is translating Chinese SF into Finnish. At the moment this includes Xia Jia’s “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight,” which I worked on with Cui Ke and Leng Yuhan, and Chen’s “The Mao Ghost,” which came out last summer.
I’ve wondered the same thing about the cover – although if there is conscious imitation/homage there, it would be an interesting meta twist on the shanzhai products featured in the “The Flower of Shazui”… Definitely agree with you about the “China’s Gibson” thing being overdone, especially since much of his other work doesn’t really fit that description.
Frederike: This is great that thanks to you there are Finnish translations of these stories!
Carmen: I just finished Liu Cixin’s trilogy. Loved it, loved it, loved it!
Eero: Hi all, I’m going to do like a K-pop stan and get a bit of ahead of the schedule. First, a huge thanks to Lars for the organizing and everyone for the great presentations and discussions so far!
For some background on Chen Qiufan and Chinese SF, I do recommend his essay “The Torn Generation: Chinese Science Fiction in a Culture in Transition,” which you can find over at Tor.com.
My email is eero.suoranta [a] gmail.com if you have questions after the conference, and I tweet as @InfamousSnake in a mix of English and Finnish, about China, SF, and other topics, if that’s something you would be interested in following.
And if you need some background music for the Q&A, might I suggest some Shanghai Restoration Project or a bit of Duck Fight Goose?
Now: Here and ready for your questions!
Carmen: Eero, I’ve been grading papers all morning…. listening to the music you recommended
Eero: Awesome! I’m very much the kind of person who loves making playlists for tabletop RPGs and such, and I think the two songs I linked to get pretty close to the mood of Chen’s story.
Lars: On a tangent, I was wondering … with Trisolaris being a rather old-school and quite conservative version of sf and Cixin being everything but radical in his concepts of sf, is Chinese cyberpunk politically more radical and challenging to the status quo?
Esko: Ooh a juicy one from Lars!
Eero: That’s a very interesting question! I would say that at least potentially so, with the caveat perhaps that cyberpunk is a relatively small subset of Chinese SF. Chen’s the major author most often associated with it, and he wrote an essay about “why there’s no cyberpunk in China” some years ago. (I didn’t have time to dig into it deeper, but it’s quoted in Cara Healey’s paper that I referenced.) But there are definitely non-cyberpunk works that are more radical than Liu’s, although many don’t get past censorship.
It might be noted that Liu’s first novel has been described as cyberpunk, but it’s never been officially published. It features Mao Zedong’s consciousness supposedly being revived in cyberspace, so you can see the reason.
Frederike: Yes, I would like to add that there are a lot of Chinese sf authors born in the 1980s who are definitely more radical in reflecting the sociopolitical issues
Cara: Thank you! It’s really rewarding to see you building on it in new ways and making new connections!
Frederike: Yes, I have also very much enjoyed your paper(s) which has also influenced my work in many ways! So thank you!
Larisa: Hi. Thanks for your presentation. What do you consider science fictional in the novel – its chronotopos only or there are any other elements? From the description it may be a realistic novel about techno-espionage
Eero: Yes, the setting is quite close to the present and the basic plot is not that out there, so I can understand why you got that impression! But the “remote-control harness” that plays a part in the climax is a speculative element, and there are some scene-setting ones, like the “body film” tattoos that some characters have.
Cara: Hi Eero! I enjoyed your presentation. I especially appreciated your point about how the story shows technology repeating and at times exacerbating traditional patriarchal norms. One thing I always find fascinating (and at times challenging) about Chen’s fiction is the way it thinks about gender. On the one hand, he’s really thoughtful about exploring the ways technology augments and complicates our current understanding of gender in realy interesting ways, but at times I find some of the descriptions of violence against women overly voyeristic. I was wondering about your take on this in “Flower.”
And I’m guessing Frederike might also have some interesting thoughts on this too …
Frederike: Hi Cara! Yes, I absolutely agree with you. I have observed the motif of violence against women in many of Chen’s narratives. Especially in “G stands for Goddess”, the descriptions of violence are indeed overly voyeristic, while at the same, in the first part of the story, the narrative pleads for women’s sexual emancipation. Or the narrative is very inclusive in terms of representation of gender and sexual orientation (“G stands for Goddess” or “In This Moment We Are Happy”). I find this also very intriguing.
Eero: A very good question, and one I grappled with without coming a straight-forward answer. I think you can definitely argue for the voyeuristic aspect in “Flower” and “Waste Tide” as well. But at least in “Flower,” I think that the protagonist’s and Big Sister Shen’s reactions show that the violence is at least not glorified.
Sorry for taking a bit long without coming to a more focused answer!
Cara: That makes sense! And no worries, it’s a tough question, and I don’t really have a straightforward answer either. @Frederike: Right! I also really enjoyed “In This Moment We Are Happy” And to be fair to Chen, cyberpunk as a genre has a bunch of baggage around gender representation as well (which I know has come up in other discussions here …)
Eero: And Chinese literature as well, as you pointed out with regards to critical realism in your article (which is excellent, by the way!). (Do not get me started on Gao Xingjian…)
Frederike: Yes, and Chen is definitely better in some stories than others – I liked his female viewpoint characters in “The Mao Ghost” and “Space Leek.” (I haven’t read “G stands for Goddess,” so that one I can’t comment on that one.)
mlex: the voyeuristic viewpoint you are talking about reminds me of Diamond Age
Frederike: In my thesis, I have also analyzed this story and I am, among other elements, focusing on the role of the female charater Snow Lotus and the meaning of her attempted suicide. It would be interesting for me to know how you or Eero read this
Eero: Oh, that’s a really difficult one. I was going to talk a bit more about the suicide attempt the presentation, but decided to cut it because of time reasons. In a sense, it does compound the tragedy of her situation and how her agency is robbed from her as her choice to end her life is pre-empted by the protagonist – she can’t even choose to die on her own terms. (And at the same time, you of course can’t really say the protagonist is wrong in stopping her!) In general, I think it’s noteworthy that we know her circumstances and are invited to sympathize with her (there’s not really victim-blaming going on there, I think, at least on the part of the narrator), but she’s not a totally open book, as the narrator notes during the assault scene (“I struggle to imagine what Snow Lotus is feeling…”). She’s definitely seen from a male point of view, but there’s perhaps an indication that we don’t see everything about her that way?
Frederike: Of course, 10 minutes or so is definitely not enough to talk about all the aspects in the story. I also think it is a matter of agency and an attempt to regain her agency, but as you have said, she cannot even decide to end her life on her own terms.
Cara: That’s an interesting angle. And goodness knows there is a ton to say about the legacy of female suicide in 20th century Chinese literature. Listening to Eero’s presentation, I was also reminded of the 1934 silent film “The Goddess.” The doomed prostitute with the heart of gold and how her morality is shown through her relationship to motherhood
(Ruan Lingyu is amazing in the film, btw)
Eero: Yes, “The Goddess” is a really good point of reference here! They share the kind of “oh, look how she’s mistreated, isn’t this tragic?” approach to commenting on women’s position. In “Flower,” I did note that Snow Lotus’s motivations are explicitly identified to be the same as Chen Gan’s – there’s an emphasis on parents’ desire to care for their children, which is one of those really basic things that social criticism tends to point to when you need to show the inhumanity of the system.
Frederike: Great movie!!
mlex: I’ve never seen this film, thanks much!
Xandrye: You’re right, there’s an interesting connection to the movie when I think about it now
Cara: Lily Wong’s book on the figure of the sex worker would be a great resource
Frederike: This sounds very interesting, thank you!
Cara: I have to run now, but thank you everyone for such an interesting discussion! Especially to Eero for your presentation and Lars for organizing. Keep in touch
Frederike: Thank you for your input and it was nice meeting you here, Cara! Keep in touch and stay safe
Eero: Thank you for being here and for all your insightful comments! I definitely will!
Frederike: I also have to go now. Thank you Eero for your presentation and discussion!! I will write you an email so we could keep in touch
Eero: Thank you! It was great having people with such in-depth knowledge about the topic for the discussion.
mlex: btw, I lived in China for a while, and my impression was that there is an element of life is cheap fatalism in the contemporary culture, which gives Chinese SF, particularly cyberpunk an existential edge. notably Liu Cixin seems almost Victorian old fashioned in his choice of themes… Though I would love to read that one about Mao’s consciousness!
Eero: Hmm, that’s an interesting point. I would have to think about that more fully. What is clear in Chinese SF (Liu especially) is a kind of “sacrifices have to be made” mentality, often justified with reference to historical experience – the kind of trolley problem, let X number of people die to save X+n problematic.
mlex: oh here is the prolog to that Liu story about Mao, interesting,
Cara: I don’t think “China 2185” has been fully translated (seems unlikely given the sensitive nature of the content), but I believe Hua Li and Mingwei Song both write about it in their articles if you are interested.
Eero: As a side note, I highly recommend Mingwei Song’s work if you’re interested in Chinese SF – in addition to Liu, he’s examined fellow greybeard authors Wang Jinkang and Han Song, and he also talks about Chen’s Waste Tide in one of his articles.
Frederike: This story by Regina Kanyu Wang might also be an interesting reading for you.
Eero: Oh yes, this was a good one! With the ending it really seems to invite the reader to open up to possibilities, much like the Cuscuta are asking of humanity. (Also, there’s a bit of Finnish in there, and that’s always a bonus.)
Frederike: Yes, Regina is very much involved in the Finnish SF community
Eero: With the talk of algorithms during the roundtable, I was also reminded of Chen’s “The Reunion,” which is all about their limitations when used on a mass scale.
Eero: To folks in general, I’m still hanging around for the next sessions, so feel free to ask if something comes to mind!