China Mountain Zhang

Maureen F. McHugh
China Mountain Zhang Cover

China Mountain Zhang



You know those feelings you get when you finish a book and you know you loved it but you can't really describe why? That's how I feel about China Mountain Zhang. It's been a novel I have thoroughly enjoyed, and looked forward to picking up when I have made time to read but I honestly would struggle to tell you what it is about.

This novel is set a couple of centuries in the future, where China is the global superpower and a form of statist communism is in place in much of the world (it's never quite clear, but the assumption is that the United States is a communist vassal type state with a mixed state controlled and free market economy). It's a believable world with enough cyberpunk elements to keep one interested, (in particular people 'jack in' physically to a 'system' which is a form of networked internet / workspaces which seems quite quaint that it isn't wireless but isn't to far off how we live and work now - and in saying that, this book was published in 1993 so whilst the internet wasn't here then, it wasn't to far off). There are colonies on Mars, and also a sense that there has been a climate emergency, reducing much of America to a dry wasteland.

The novel has an interesting structure in that one could argue there really isn't to much of a plot, more each chapter tells a short story of a character at a point in their life, before moving on to a chapter about another character in a roughly chronological order. Each chapter could probably be read independently as a short story and work well. The main character of the story is Rafael Zhang Zhong Shan, a dual heritage gay man living in New York working in construction. The book broadly covers his life as a young man ending somewhat positively in his thirties although the scope of the book seems like more than a decade or so has passed. As he is the focus of the book, his chapters are interspersed with other characters and their stories, few of which are relevant to Zhang's story, but nevertheless provide a richness to the setting and in their own right are interesting.

Zhang is the child of a Chinese immigrant and a Hispanic mother, his mother was a committed communist so gave him the names Zhong Shan which roughly translates to China Mountain and is named after two 'communist' heroes in the book. He's described in the setting as ABC - 'American Born Chinese' which carries a certain preferential treatment in America, but looked down on in China. The book could easily be described as 'the education and career journey of Zhang and his ongoing love life' but I feel that would give it a disservice (even though it is accurate).

I love the way Zhang is written, he is used to explore issues of race - his father spent money to 'fix his face' so he looked Chinese. Passing as Chinese gives people great advantages. He continually has an identity crisis, thinking people will find out he is not Chinese and not feeling part or belonging to China when he goes there. His sexuality is important to the story - in this future homosexuality is still dangerous with a threat of 'Reform through Labour', and he is continually navigating his relationships and expectations of him to marry. There is a part of the book where I wished he would go to Mars and live a 'marriage of convenience' to a character so we could have a happy ending, but in writing that I realised that it wouldn't be a happy ending for Zhang. Indeed, much of his happiness comes from being around his friends back home in the poverty of America and using his given name of Rafael.

The book is never sentimental, but it is touching. The book isn't quite a dystopia, but like our world today it can be unforgiving and despondent. In a character driven book like this, it does touch my heart in the best way when I read about people caring for another, helping one another, and that desire for us to be human with each other in our most authentic way. I think McHugh does this masterfully. This isn't a novel about a rotten future, it's not a novel about the end of the world or the evils of communism or the such like, it's a story about people and what matters to them.

Even the setting of a future communist world is handled well. I knew I would bristle at anything right wing along the lines of 'communism is evil' like a lot of dystopian sci-fi emerging from America does. At the same time, personally, I think state controlled, centralised economies are just as likely to be oppressive as free market ones (and I swear I am struggling as an anarchist to avoid going on a screed about state capitalism and how it is not socialism). What I love about the book though is how McHugh presents this future and asks the reader to look and think. She doesn't praise, she doesn't condemn, rather she just shows and I think it is brilliant. It's like there are phrases in the book, or practices, or examples from a lecture that many people would describe as indoctrination if happened today, but they are merely a mirror of alleged 'Western' values that people do not blink an eye at.

China and Chinese culture is never portrayed as wholly dogmatic and authoritarian. Despite it's sometimes horrible attitudes (especially towards sexuality) it is also a nation and people of great beauty, of intelligence, of art and culture. People whose values differ are not depicted as people railing against a system, but part of one. It's a novel that embraces complexity.

A couple of final observations - I absolutely adored the section in a book about a self regulating building, whose design is attuned not only to the general inhabitants, but also each individual inhabitant. The concept, known as organic engineering is wonderful in it's depiction of a complex adaptive system in a building. It's beautiful, and I wonder if McHugh has an interest in systems thinking or if she beautifully hit all the right notes.

Shortly following this section is a chapter that is quite harrowing, and one where as a reader I wanted to reach into the pages and beg a character to do something different. What happens is telegraphed quite strongly but it isn't a nice read and they were definitely my favourite character aside from Zhang in the book.

Highly recommended if you enjoy character driven studies in a well crafted future, just be mindful that the book is a meander through life with limited overarching plot which doesn't really come together.