Folding Beijing

One of the primary sources I assigned for my History of East Asia class this semester was “Folding Beijing” a Chinese science fiction story by Hao Jingfang (translated by Ken Liu.)

The story is set in a Beijing of the future, where the city folds up to allow it to be occupied by different groups of people. The protagonist is Lao Dao, a waste worker from Third Space who is hired by Qin Tian, a graduate student in Second Space (yes, the bridge between the poor and the rich is a grad student) who is in love with a girl from First Space. Of course, her family does not approve of a match with a person from a lower space, and Lao Dao has to take a message to her. How different are the spaces?

Lao Dao was stunned. He had never seen bills with such large denominations or needed to use them. Almost subconsciously, he stood up, angry. The way Yi Yan had taken out the money seemed to suggest that she had been anticipating an attempt from him to blackmail her, and he could not accept that. This is what they think of Third Spacers. He felt that if he took her money, he would be selling Qin Tian out. It was true that he really wasn’t Qin Tian’s friend, but he still thought of it as a kind of betrayal. Lao Dao wanted to grab the bills, throw them on the ground, and walk away. But he couldn’t. He looked at the money again: The five thin notes were spread on the table like a broken fan. He could sense the power they had on him. They were baby blue in color, distinct from the brown 1,000–yuan note and the red 100–yuan note. These bills looked deeper, most distant somehow, like a kind of seduction. Several times, he wanted to stop looking at them and leave, but he couldn’t.

It is a nice story that touches on lots of things in modern Chinese society.  One thing about it that I liked as a historian is that while it does a nice jobs of showing (and resenting) class distinction there is a certain nostalgia to Third Space, where people are together and it is more and you can get stinky dofu (not available in First Space.) Hao is not the first to note how class distinctions are also time distinctions, with the poor stuck in the past, but it is a good example.

I may report later on how many of them liked it and how well teaching it worked.

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