Maureen F. McHugh, China Mountain Zhang

I remember a huge buzz when Maureen McHugh‘s China Mountain Zhang was first published. But that was 16 years ago, and somehow I never got around to reading the book until now.

The story is mainly about Zhong Shan (“China Mountain”) Zhang, also known as Rafael Luis Zhang, a mixed-race American in the not-so-distant future. America has become a communist country in the orbit of world-dominating power China. McHugh’s experience teaching in China in the ’80s allows her to develop a truly compelling China-centric world. The plot of the story is subtle, focussing on Zhang’s coming to terms with his place in the world, with a few other character threads intertwined. Some other reviewers (see below) found this lack of dynamic action uncompelling (“almost boring”) but I found it a refreshing change from run of the mill SF, and also that it gave the author an opportunity for more complete world-building, down to very fine points of Chinese culture that might assert themselves in this future.

The main point of tension in the book is Zhang’s position as an outsider, as a Chinese-american in America, as an American in China, and as a gay man. If I have one small criticism of the book, its that Zhang is also introduced as half Puerto Rican, layering on one more way for him to be an outsider, but his latino side is not developed much, so that when it is mentioned it becomes something of a distraction, and doesn’t add as much as it could to our understanding of Zhang’s character.

Of course, the book is not just a speculation about the future, but also a way for McHugh to inform western readers about the Chinese culture she saw first hand; so we should look at whether the last 16 years of rapid changes in China have dated the book beyond relevance. For one, the cultural-political rhetoric described in the book, such as the “Cleansing Winds Campaign”, seem to have gone from today’s China, but its not hard to imagine their return in the event of serious economic upheavals. Otherwise, the Chinese cultural references in the book, like the importance of guanxi to success in Chinese culture, are mostly Chinese universals, aspects of Chinese culture that don’t depend on a particular government or economic structure, and we see them today in the PRC, Taiwan, and in other Chinese communities like Singapore and Los Angeles, so it remains perfectly reasonable to imagine their continuing for another 200 years into a world where China is the dominant world power.

One passage that might have seemed like a clumsy infodump to those who read the book years ago has suddenly become an indicator of startling prescience from McHugh. For most of the book the history that led to a sinofied USA is kept hazy. But late in the story, Zhang has completed his engineering degree and is teaching at a New York City college. At a loss for material to fill his first lecture, he explains the origins of the American proletarian revolution:

In the early twenty-first century, the national debt and the trade deficit of the old United States precipitated the second depression. In effect the country went bankrupt, and as a result, so did the economy of every first-world nation at the time except for Japan, which managed to keep from total bankruptcy but lost most of its markets, and for Canada and Australia, … The Soviet Union also went into bankruptcy because it was deeply invested in the U.S. bond market, whatever that was.

McHugh might have mis-predicted the part where China becomes so dependent on the US export market (and so deeply invested in the U.S. bond market) that it can’t afford let it go bankrupt, but otherwise this is a fairly accurate description of what a lot of people seem to think has been going on for the last year or so.

So China Mountain Zhang is an excellent world-building and character development novel. It explores a speculative future on a deeper cultural level (rather than just technological) than most SF. And even after 16 years, its speculations are still believable, even if they might not be quite as probable as they were when written. An overall excellent book.

Other reviews at Slashdot, Special Circumstances, The Cultural Gutter, Omphalos’

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