Hugo-nominated Chinese author Hao Jingfang talks sci-fi, inner journeys and inequality
Hao has recently published her first non-genre novel, Born in 1984, which looks at the anxieties of her generation, facing an uncertain future in a rapidly changing world saturated with social media
Hao Jingfang is part of a rising generation of young Chinese science-fiction writers who have built a following abroad. The 32-year-old, who holds degrees in physics, economics and management from the prestigious Tsinghua University, likes to experiment in her writing with new, theoretically possible social systems. But her passion is to explore the inner journeys of her characters.
Hao’s sci-fi story about class inequality, Folding Beijing, has been nominated for a Hugo Award for best novelette. (The Hugos are the prestigious awards for science fiction and fantasy writing.) The work, which depicts China’s capital as divided between three spaces based on social class, has also been optioned for a film by Korean-American director Josh Kim.
Hao says her life hasn’t changed much since the nomination: she still keeps a routine of two focused hours of writing each morning before she starts work at a think tank. Her hope for the Hugo Awards ceremony, which will be held in August in Kansas City, US, is not to win an award but to meet author Stephen King, who is also nominated in the same category.
Hao has written two full-length sci-fi novels and various short stories. Last month, she launched her first non-sci-fi novel, Born in 1984, which depicts the inner conflicts of a woman in her late 20s. During the launch event at a Beijing bookstore, Hao discussed with a packed room one of her favourite topics: the anxiety experienced by her generation who were raised by parents who experienced the Cultural Revolution, into a world with ambiguous values and ubiquitous social media.
Can you tell us a bit about your creative process? How do you work? What happens from the moment there’s a spark to when you have a book or a story out?
For me the time between the spark and the final work is quite long. With short stories, I just have an idea, and I write it down. But longer works usually take several years of preparation. Actually I’ve gone through several phases of writing. I’ve done a lot of writing since high school. As a graduate student, I had a lot of free time, so I would just go to the library, come back to my dormitory and use my computer to write. But after I had my first full-time job, I had to set aside regular writing time every day. Before I had my baby, I used to spend about two or three hours in the evening writing. That’s how I created the first draft of my novel [Born in 1984]. But now I wake up before 5am every day and spend two or three hours writing.
How did you get the idea for Folding Beijing?
One day I was working in a park, and I saw a lot of people bargaining at a temporary market that sold a lot of cheap products. Around that time, a taxi driver told me that his family struggled to send their children to kindergarten. It’s what [the character] Lao Dao worries about. The taxi driver told me they had to wait for a whole night in a queue to get a spot because there aren’t enough kindergartens in Beijing for the families without a hukou. I thought that in this city people can just pass everyday life without seeing one another. People don’t have much interest in knowing other people. So that’s why I wanted to write a story in which truly, in space, you cannot see one another, you do not know the other’s life.
For me it was heartbreaking to read about how people in different “spaces” had different amounts of time when they had access to daylight. That sounds like the most basic thing. How did you think about illustrating those discrepancies?
We always think that time is the only thing we share equally. So if time is divided unequally by social status, then inequality is complete. For me it was artistically striking to create this setting.
The other reason is perhaps economic because unemployment is always a problem in the US, in Europe, as well as in China. The Chinese government is afraid of unemployment, so sometimes it will maintain a plant or a factory to avoid huge unemployment. But in the future as technology develops, how will people deal with unemployment? Perhaps the easiest and cruellest method is to limit the time (they are awake), and then they will not create problems. So this setting provides an extreme solution to a social problem. I hope that we can find better solutions in real life, but in stories you can just push things to the extreme.
What are some of the techniques you use to make what you write about become real in the reader’s mind?
I have some education in science and technology. Technology is not my main interest in writing, but whenever I need to create a setting, I check books and research background information in order to make sure that even though the setting may not exist now, it is possible theoretically.
You’re not a full-time writer?
I’m not. One reason is that writers don’t earn much, and I know that a lot of other writers take up editing jobs or teach in universities. Another, more important reason is that I think I need to experience more in life. I need my job as a door to society. I do economic research for a think tank called China Development Research Foundation.
China has had in recent years several young sci-fi writers who have become well known in the West. How do you see the community?
We are all familiar with one another. Chen Qiu Fan, Baoshu, Xia Jia, Jiang Bo, Fei Dao, these are all young famous writers, and we do have tight connections and good friendships. We have known each other for almost 10 years. In the past, before The Three-Body Problem of Liu Cixin, sci-fi writing was really a small-circle thing. We do not compete a lot. We encourage each other to keep on writing.
Tell us a bit about your new book. Is this your first non-science fiction book?
Yes, the first non-science fiction long novel; I’ve tried some short stories before. It’s called Born in 1984. It’s a personal growth story about a girl who graduates, finds a job, quits, tries to get into graduate school but fails, and she has a lot of internal conflicts, but at last she overcomes the difficulties and finds what will be the future path of her life. My interest is always the inner journey of people. Although sometimes I think it’s a drawback of mine that I cannot write very exciting adventures. I will improve my skills in that area, but my interest is always the inner journey.
Qu Chaonan contributed to this article