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Past, present and future in Chinese fiction

The Hong Kong actor Maggie Cheung remarked in an interview  “The Chinese don’t accord much importance to things of the past, whether it’s films, heritage, or even clothes or furniture. In Asia nothing is preserved, turning towards the past is regarded as stupid, aberrant.”  A sweeping statement but one that has a bearing on contemporary Chinese fiction.


Sean Sheehan  


Mai Jai is a hugely successful author in China and “The message”, like his previous books, is set in the period leading up to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

It stays within the spy novel genre that he has mastered and which makes his work palatable to Western readers.

The plot line is straightforward. Five codebreakers in a Japanese-controlled part of China in 1941 have been quarantined in a large villa.

One of them is a traitor, betraying secret information to the Chinese resistance, and they will not leave until the spy has been uncovered.

The narrative is able to grip the reader’s interest even though Mai Jai’s powers of description are limited: this picture of one of the codebreakers is characteristic: “young and very pretty. With her tall stature  and striking good looks, she attracted attention”.

There is an interesting switch of gear in the second half of the novel, with the narrative voice changing from third to first person, and the mystery of the spy’s identity deepens.

But the quality of the prose does not improve and the period setting hardly gets beyond a broad outline of the political forces at play.

Mai Jai is officially approved of in China and one suspects this is because his use of the past does not raise any questions about the present.

The much acclaimed Cixin Liu, winner of prestigious awards beyond China’s borders, writes about the future but is equally uncritical about the present world.

“The Supernova Era” is his latest book to appear in an English translation, though it’s an earlier work than his outstanding trilogy, Remembrance of Earth’s Past.

Once again the reader is swept away by his dazzling descriptions of galactic-scale phenomena, this time the collapse of a dead star ‘into a dense ball… neutron crushing into neutron’ where a single teaspoon of its matter has a mass of a billion tons.

It will kill every adult on Earth, leaving it to children to cope with existence. “Lord of the flies” has to come to mind but it’s a very different tale and the author explains his rationale in an afterword.

Ken Liu, who translated “Remembrance of Earth’s past”, does not live in China and his collection of sci-fi short stories, “The hidden gGirl” is all the better for it. They’re speculative, driven by ideas which readers can relate to and relevant to our times, like ‘Staying Behind’, about technology’s growing power to digitally connect with the brain, and ‘The Reborn’ where the erasing of memory through neural surgery presents a difficulty.

“The Message” by Mai Jai, “The Supernova Era” by Cixin Liu and “The hidden girl” by Ken Liu  are published by Head of Zeus

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