Writers & Company

Chan Koonchung's dystopian novel The Fat Years imagines state-engineered amnesia in China

Chan Koonchung's controversial 2012 novel follows a group of friends investigating a mysterious amnesia that takes over China.
Chinese writer and media personality Chan Koonchung, pictured at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2011. (Colin McPherson/Getty Images)

China's rise over the past two decades has captivated the imagination of Chan Koonchung. 

In 2009, compelled to explore ascendency and the shifting attitudes he observed, the Beijing resident wrote a controversial novel. The Fat Years is an astute take on the effects of Chinese politics in everyday life, set in Beijing. A month has disappeared from official records and is forgotten by almost everyone. But a small group of friends investigate what's behind the sinister cheerfulness and collective amnesia that have taken over the country. 

The widely acclaimed novel is the first of a trilogy. It was followed by Naked Life in 2012 and The Second Year of Jianfeng: An Alternative History of New China in 2015.

Koonchung was born in Shanghai in 1952 and raised in Hong Kong. In the mid-1970s, he started the influential City Magazine, becoming its editor and then publisher for 23 years.   

Eleanor Wachtel spoke to Chan Koonchung in Beijing in 2012.

Writing a novel about China

"I relocated everything I have to Beijing in 2000, with the idea of writing something about China. I wanted to write a novel, but I had many false starts until 2008. I wanted to write about China. I feel there's a perception gap between many of my friends and people outside of China. We are trying to find a way to adequately describe China. It was so difficult that I decided to write a novel. I think a novel can probably accommodate all these ambiguities and contradictions better. I have an earlier essay that said, 'Unless we can behave like the legendary songstress from Tang Dynasty, who can sing two songs with one mouth at the same time, we cannot adequately talk about China.'

"Obviously, we don't have that skill. But with a novel, maybe we can let the readers feel and see things from all kinds of perspectives. But at that time, I was not sure people would see China as I do. I put the background in 2013, so I could come up with some fictional events to explain how I felt then. Since it's about the present, I wanted people to see it as a recognizable prism. So I only set it a few years from now, in the not-too-distant future."

China's new reality

"The new reality in China probably began sometime around 2004 or 2005, but it became obvious after 2008. China is getting richer and stronger, but the regime has not changed. It would not stop persecuting dissenters. It became more confident and it believed that the international community probably cannot do too much against it. That is why it decided, after 2008, to treat the dissidents more harshly than before. So nobody will follow their trail, give them a lesson. In a way, this process is still going on. It's getting harsher and harsher. 

The Fat Years is a cautionary tale.- Chan Koonchung

"The Fat Years is a cautionary tale. I had this in mind when I started writing it. I know it won't be publishable in mainland China. If I wanted it to be published, I probably would have to do some self-censorship and I decided not to do it. Sometimes we tend to forget — since the nature of the political system hasn't changed — that things that happened in the past can happen again. Terrible things can happen again if we don't put in place some proper institutional mechanisms against it.

"I am something like the main protagonist, being an expatriate living in Beijing. Most of the expatriates, including people from Hong Kong and Taiwan, are quite happy with what's happening in China. As long as you can have one eye closed to certain things, you can probably have a happy life here in China. But if you have both eyes open, it could be quite painful at times." 

The Fat Years censored in China

"Since I'm a Hong Kong passport holder and I have written a novel about a future that was not published in China, I didn't feel threatened. The authorities have never come to me. I have no idea of what the real situation is, but I try to live as I did before I wrote the book. I don't want to change my life because of this. In China, to be a dissident or not, it's really not up to you. It is up to the state. Before the state persecutes you, you are an ordinary person trying to do things that were allowed by the present Chinese constitution. But if the state decided that you should be persecuted, then the outside world probably would call you a dissident. That didn't happen to me. I'm a very low-key writer living in Beijing.

Because in China, to be a dissident or not, it's really not up to you. It is up to the state.- Chan Koonchung

"The book officially is available outside of mainland China only. For a while, some local private bookstores managed to get hold of copies and sell it to lone customers. Then the local newspapers and news weeklies reported on the book. They do it all the time. They call it rushing through the yellow light. Before the censor put on the red light, they would do as much as they can. Then the censor says no and they all stop or they will be punished. In my book's case, they reported on it and reviewed it extensively. These are mainstream papers that probably aroused a lot of interest. But the book was not available. Then somebody either scanned or typed it into mainland Chinese and put it on the internet within the Chinese firewall. That is how people got access to my book — as downloadable free content from the internet."

The politics of memory

"In earlier years, you were not allowed to sit still and enjoy the moment. You were always supposed to do something. There was always a campaign, a movement or some government instructions that you have to follow. Suddenly you are allowed to do things on your own, you have some consumer choices and you have some money in the pocket. That alone brings a lot of satisfaction to many people in the novel. The protagonist says, 'Now we have 90 per cent freedom. What more do we want?'

The state wants people to remember certain things and forget other things. We are forced to remember certain distorted history.- Chan Koonchung

"It's true that most people would find that 90 per cent quite enough compared to, say, 20 years ago. China now has much more personal freedom, not to mention much more consumer choice. So it's an easier life for many people. Some choose not to remember the atrocities and policy failures of the party or the hardship. They try to be grateful. That's very Chinese, to be accepting of what's happening, and now they think it's a much better time. But the 90 per cent freedom is all allowed by the state. It's always the state that allows that. It's not your rights. So it could be taken from you.

"It's a fact of life in China and everywhere, people forget about things. Not sometimes, but all the time, I would think. The only difference is, in freer places, those who choose not to forget or those who want to dig up things can make a fuss and maybe some people will listen. It's more difficult in China. We do forget. Something can fade from memory and be forgotten and you can still live your life easily. The state wants people to remember certain things and forget other things. We are forced to remember certain distorted history."

Chan Koonchung's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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