In the 1980s, the word "Cheng"(meaning "city") would ring a powerful and romantic chord in every Chinese person's ear. Phrases like "Jin Cheng" (entering the city), or "Cheng Li" (inside the city wall) imply the modernity of Western life; a place shiny and free, like the gondola of a hot-air balloon floating over New York or Hong Kong. "City" meant beautiful women and money, and everything decadent.
As the vast movement of people from country to urban areas reached its height in the 1990s, there was a nationwide hit from a young female singer, Ai Jing, called "My 1997", which expressed this dream of the city. One line, "I want to go to Hong Kong, I want to see the decadent flowery world", summed it all up. In the early 1990s, 90 per cent of the population comprised peasants, even though, by 2007, 93 per cent of people over the age of 15 were literate. Most Chinese "citizens" started from illiteracy; few understood modern technology.
Now 20 years have passed, and the majority of Chinese are no longer drowning their feet in the muddy water of rice fields or whipping their buffalos to force them into farm work. Instead they "jin cheng" – they entered the cities – and became those crazed and anguished denizens whom we find in this short-story collection. The book contains ten rather dark and hard-headed stories, set in ten Chinese cities. They are written by well-known Chinese writers (mainly poets-turned-novelists).
The most impressive story, "This Moron Is Dead", reads like a Chinese version of Waiting for Godot. Written by one of the best contemporary Chinese poets, Han Dong, it's set in his city, Nanjing, an old capital with many maple-tree lined streets. It is about a nameless man considered to be a "moron" but who is already dead - we encounter him lying on the ground. Passers-by place a cardboard fruit box on the head of the corpse and write "this moron is dead" in order to warn people not to trip. Everyone begins to loathe the corpse who basks in the warm sunshine. In the end, a girl turns up who wants to take photos by the cherry tree next to the corpse. More and more citizens gather around to get their photos taken, leaving the corpse lonely and wasted. There are shouts of "Good-for-nothing", as they vent their scorn for the fly-eaten rotting body, accusing the dead "moron" of polluting the city.
A Western reader might ask how a society can become so indifferent towards others, so devoid of basic humanity. But just read the next story in Shi Cheng. You are in the icy northern city of Harbin, about which writer-filmmaker Zhu Wen provides a bleak story of struggling families, dog-like human existence, all under the pressure of money-making. A man's value is reckoned to be worth three pathetic decomposed pickled cabbages.
Set in Shenyang, Diao Dou's "Squatting" is even more absurd. Citizens are banned by the security services from walking around after 8pm. So if you are outside, you have to squat in the street all night to avoid breaking the absurd law. The same goes for the Beijing story "The Wheels are Round" by Xu Zecheng. As a reader, you might think you are in a story set in 1950s China during the great famine, or back in the 19th century when the Opium War impoverished town and country. No, you are in a series of prose scenes, in true social-realist style, but set in contemporary China.
As I was going through each story, I felt as if I was entering a sphere of human suffering wrought in burning fire and darkness. This phrase echoed in my mind: "how the steel was tempered". These stories tell us how the lives of these cities and citizens, or peasants-turned-citizens, are being tempered. The stories seem to say that one has to go through the fires of hell to reach some different stage of existence. The road to commercial urbanisation seems to be a harder one than the road to socialism.
As thousands of millionaires emerge from urban society, there are millions of lowly folk crushed under the wheel of money. Is that the general truth of how we have to build our cities? When I was a teenager, I didn't know who Elvis Presley was, but I knew every detail of the Russian novel How the Steel was Tempered by Nikolai Ostrovsky. In middle school we learned through this book how heroes were tempered: those communists wounded in war, striving through ideological struggle. These were stories for us, young pioneers, to develop our own hard-headed spirits.
But these heroes have disappeared among the rising skyscrapers. The supermen are no longer communist heroes. They are all from America: the Bill Gateses and Warren Buffets. Now the Chinese citizen asks: how to become one of them? If you can make 100 yuan by chopping someone's leg or arm off, then take the job quickly since there is a long queue behind you. Think about Russia or China today. How could nations that have gone through such an absolute revolution end up in the same place? Are we really at the end of history? Is humanity to be obliterated by the grotesque greed for money? As much as we must thank the writers of this collection for revealing the world of Shi Cheng, we cannot forget the translators – Nicky Harman, Eric Abrahamsen, Brendan O'Kane, Julia Lovell and many more, who have worked to build a bridge between China and the West. Without them, Chinese literature would still remain an empty chair in world literature.
Xiaolu Guo's novels include 'A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers' (Vintage); her latest film as director is 'UFO in Her Eyes'