By Mark Featherstone, Senior Lecturer in Sociology
Over the course of the last couple of years I have extended my work of utopian and dystopian thought into the study of Chinese utopias and dystopias. Apart from work on the utopian, and dystopian, dimensions of the contemporary Chinese city, I have also explored the idealistic aspects of Chinese philosophy. At today’s Sociology seminar, I presented my latest paper on the recent Chinese dystopia, The Fat Years, entitled 'Chinese Bulimia: Utopian and Dystopian Bodies in Chinese Thought'. In this paper I seek to explore Chan Koonchung’s novel, The Fat Years, in the context of Chinese history. In the first part of the article I seek to situate the book in the history of western dystopias, such as We, 1984, and Brave New World, which imagine the individual being annihilated in the totalitarian city, before exploring it in its original Chinese context. Here, I show how the Chinese context of The Fat Years translates the western dystopian contrast of the alienated individual and totalitarian city into the problem of the obese, stuffed, body and the excessive post-modern city. In this case, near future Beijing. Closer to the capitalist dystopia of Brave New World than the totalitarian fantasies of We and 1984 because of the ways in which it connects domination to the drugged body, the horror of The Fat Years resides in the story of the creation of a city of self-satisfied consumers under the influence of MDMA. Here, the population of Beijing is controlled through consumption, ecstasy, and the state-management of metabolism. However, while this capitalist horror story is familiar enough to western readers of Huxley and Burroughs who similarly explored the junky body, my argument is that this focus on metabolism is also particularly Chinese.
In order to explore the Chineseness of The Fat Years, I read the ideas of metabolism, consumption, and obesity through a discussion of Gang Yue’s book, The Mouth that Begs, which draws on Foucault’s theory of bio-politics and Bordo’s work on the corporeal economy. For Gang Yue it is possible to understand Chinese history through the problem of hunger, starvation, and the need to find food. In his view, the history of China is the history of metabolism and the economy of the body, and we are encouraged to think about dystopia in terms of the bio-political horror of the starved body. But while this thesis may be appropriate to understanding ancient China, or the China of Mao and the Great Leap Forward which starved over 40 million peasants, it is not sufficient for understanding contemporary neoliberal China and particular neoliberal urban China. Here, I refer to The Fat Years, and argue that what it says about contemporary China is that the problem of Chinese bio-politics is no longer simply the starved body, but also, and more especially the obese, self-satisfied, body that means that body politics become impossible. In this context, the obese body, wallowing in luxury and the ecstasy of consumption, is no longer able to sympathise with the condition of the starved, wasted, body that is simply its miserable other. The reason for this is that the stuffed, full, body has no lack. It cannot possibly identify with the starved, empty, body that is nothing but lack.
Exploring this situation, I argue that the true problem of the obese body of The Fat Years is that its self-satisfaction precludes any kind of bio-political challenge and leads it to abandon the starved body to the horror of famine. My suggestion is that it is possible to find this condition in contemporary China today, which is divided between a post-modern neoliberal elite and a rurban lumpenproletariat which exists on the very edge of survival. Given the bare life of the Chinese worker, the lumpenproletariat who labours onto starvation and death for the sake of the Chinese economic miracle, and the self-satisfaction of the stuffed body of the new Chinese middle class, which is incapable of recognising otherness, I argue that China has been able to imagine that it has arrived in a Confucian utopian future conditioned by balance and harmony. Against this view, I suggest that The Fat Years tells the dystopian truth of contemporary Chinese neoliberalism by exposing the horror of a bulimic system absolutely divided between two classes characterised by on the one hand, unproductive consumption, and on the other hand, nonconsuming production. Finally, situating The Fat Years in the context of two events, the CCPs ban on literature concerned with science fiction, utopia, and time travel, and the mass suicides at the Foxconn factories which make Apple gadgets for the western market, I argue that contemporary Chinese society may be seen as a kind of fantastical utopia of being rich in the process of becoming a horrible dystopia of conflict, poverty, and starvation in a global capitalist system on the very edge of collapse.