Traditional literary tropes have struggled to describe China’s day-to-day corruption, warp-speed modernization, supersonic development, and political oppression. Mystery, satire, horror—none feel quite expansive enough to begin encompassing the stories of the world’s most simultaneously populous yet secretive country.
To help bridge this gap, Beijing-based novelist Ning Ken has created a new literary genre to properly convey the absurdity of modern life in China: chaohuan. Meaning “ultra-unreal,” this contemporary mode of literary expression is intended to reflect the modern Chinese zeitgeist in all its dark oddity.
In June of this year, Lit Hib published a translated essay of Ken’s in which he explained the political and artistic rationale behind his creation. Ultra-unreal shares similarities to magic realism, which is a genre characterized by the portrayal of fantastical occurrences in otherwise mundane, rational worlds. A universally adopted literary style that was invented by Germans and made popular by Latin Americans, magic realism has been used to comment on the surreal state of contemporary society over the past century. Some of its most famous authors include Gabriel García Márquez (whose One Hundred Years of Solitude is set in a world where mythology is considered historically credible) Franz Kafka (whose The Metamorphosis describes a human protagonist’s transformation into a bug), Salman Rushdie (whose Midnight’s Children features a group of telepathic characters), and Haruki Murakami (whose Wind Up Bird Chronicle sees people mysteriously transcending the dimensions of reality).
Like magic realism, the ultra-unreal reflects the experience of daily life in communities often dominated by centralized powers, wherein bizarre events become normalized. However, rather than introducing actual magic into its narratives, the ultra-unreal focuses on real-life events, not supernatural occurrences.
“Life in contemporary China is often just about beyond belief,” says Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Beijing-based media and internet research firm Danwei, and co-host of the Sinica podcast on Chinese current affairs. “As the writer and linguist David Moser has observed, it’s difficult to write fiction if you live in China, because you can’t make up anything to rival what you see before your eyes.”
One example of this real-life magic realism is the existence of rural villages that have been abandoned, save for young children and their grandparents. (UNICEF estimates 29 million children in China have been left behind by factory-working parents.) Another is the explosive development of urban centers, which evoke a sense of fragile, transitional space as seen in Canadian photographer Greg Girard’s photo collections Phantom Shanghai (picture shown above) and Kowloon Walled City. In this way, Ken says that China’s recent history “has seemed like a hallucination.”
These kinds of strange, otherworldly phenomena provide the perfect backdrop to reflect on (and subtly critique) the issues currently affecting Chinese citizens. For example, inspiration for Ken’s 2015 novel, Sange sanchongzou (Three Trios), came from the scandals unearthed by the launch of a nationwide anti-corruption campaign in 2012. As of 2016, more than 100,000 people—including more than 120 high-ranking officials such as military officers, senior executives of state-owned companies, and five national leaders—have been indicted for corruption. However, the campaign has failed to have a meaningful impact on China’s poor score on the global Corruption Perceptions Index due to its use of unreliable methods, which include forced confessions, as well as a lack of an independent judiciary.
The campaign has resulted in numerous surreal situations, such as the case of Guo Boxiong, a retired general in the People’s Liberation Army who was arrested with literal tons of money. “When Guo was investigated for corruption,” Ken writes, “they found so much cash in his home that they couldn’t even try to count it with a currency-counting machine. They had to weigh it by the ton. They needed a truck to haul it all away.”
By using events ripped from the headlines, Ken’s ultra-unreal work attempts to engage the present in a philosophically speculative way and give it emotional depth. One such plotline in Three Trios involves the former CEO of a large, state-owned company who discovers he is about to be investigated for corruption. He flees to a seaside town with his illicit wealth and (unsuccessfully) attempts to return to “ordinary life” and rediscover “what it feels like to be human.”
Ken’s ultra-unreal style represents a new mode of frankness that surreptitiously allows for closer examination of China’s silenced oppression; a genre of human-focused narratives hiding its candid critique of modern Chinese life in plain view. “Science fiction, magic realism, surrealism, multi-layered word play, and Ning Ken’s ultra-unreal certainly offer possibilities of criticizing the government in oblique ways,” Goldkorn says.
It is yet to be seen if Ken’s literary style will be considered provocative by the Chinese government. And that’s a real concern—Chinese creatives who openly expressed political objections have been arrested in the past, such as author Liu Xiaobo, contemporary artist Ai Wei Wei, and poet Liao Yiwu.
A light fictionalization of Chinese reality, the ultra-unreal treads a fine line. When the aforementioned Xiaobo, a Chinese author and political dissident whose writing openly denounces political authoritarianism, won the Nobel Peace prize (from prison) in 2010, the award greatly angered Chinese officials. On the other hand, author Mo Yan, who imparts his socio-political critiques through tales of small-town bullies and mystical demons, was embraced by the Chinese government after winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 2012.
No matter the potential consequences, Ken’s literary innovation may become a significant cultural and creative channel for the next generation of authors. The solidification of a distinctly Chinese genre could encourage a chorus of contemporary local writers to record their perspectives on modernity in China, in all its surrealistic oddity.