China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (1992)
Review by Nic Clarke
“It’s a lie,” I say, “and you always told me that a lie always creates complications.” But my face is a lie as well, and she condoned that. I am sure she hears the accusation, but we never talk about my mother’s contradictions.
She does not touch me, although for a moment I think she is going to cover my hand with hers and I am afraid.
“It is not the revolution that is at fault,” she says, “it is the people who are implementing it.”
I don’t believe in socialism but I don’t believe in capitalism either. We are small, governments are large, we survive in the cracks. Cold comfort.
In a different sort of a novel, a son shying away from the prospect of his mother’s touch might signal some deep dark secret on which the plot will pivot. In Maureen F McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, however, this is a simply one of many little moments helping to build up a sense of a character and a (science fictional) world. It is a story – or a collection of interconnected stories – about the distances between people, whether those distances are geographical, cultural, or emotional. Whether they are on the teeming streets of Manhattan or in the dorms of Nanjing University, a remote research facility in the Arctic wastes or a tiny farm cowering under a dome in the Martian desert, McHugh’s characters have an intimate familiarity with what it is like to feel alone, adrift, and sick for the comfort of a largely imaginary home.
McHugh’s future is Chinese: the People’s Republic has become the world’s centre of economic and cultural gravity, and socialism its baseline set of political assumptions. (Even the US has experienced, belatedly, a workers’ revolution, although not quickly enough to prevent its slide into the international second tier.) For the most part, though, this is a novel about the people and places on the margins of the new hegemon; the shiny heartland provides the setting for one section, but otherwise China remains a distant but inescapable influence on most of the characters, rather than something they interact with directly. In the way of all bastions of cultural imperialism, China inspires a mingled emulation and resentment among those who live in its shadow.
The weight of this backdrop is felt most clearly in the novel’s central character, a young man rejoicing in the name China Mountain Zhang. (In an excess of enthusiasm, his mother named him Zhong Shan, one possible translation of which is ‘China Mountain’, after a famous revolutionary; “To be named Zhang Zhong Shan”, he notes ruefully at one point, “is like being named George Washington Jones”.) As ABC – American-born Chinese – Zhang finds certain doors open for him that are inaccessible or simply invisible to others, even when he is working construction at home in the US:
The foreman is all right, for someone born inside. He speaks English as if he learned it in school in Shanghai, which he did, but at least he speaks it unaugmented. He likes me; I work hard and I speak Mandarin better than most ABC. I am almost like a real Chinese person. My manners are good. An example of how breeding will out, even in a second rate country like this. He can talk to me, and there are probably very few people Foreman Qian sees each day who he can talk to. “You here what for?” he asks me. “You smart. You go Shanghai?” Everyone inside thinks that all the rest of us are dying to go to China.
His face, literally, fits; he is in fact of mixed (Chinese-Hispanic) heritage, but his parents pooled their meagre resources to get his genetic make-up tweaked in such a way as to make him appear fully Chinese, in order to give him the best possible start in life. But Zhang, in truth, doesn’t know quite what he wants to do with his life, and he mostly feels alarmed at the prospect of having to do something so purposeful as make a decision; he is a procrastinator by nature, a dreamer and a vacillator who prefers to amble into situations rather than making active choices. The same goes for his social life; although he comments at one point that he wishes he were “brave enough to do something truly rude”, his instinct is always to take the path of least resistance rather than tell the truth:
Having politely declined three times I can now say yes, I would be pleased to have some tea. It is always easier to let people give you something than to convince them that you are not being polite, that you really just don’t want it.
This aspect of him is most clearly on display in his interactions with Qian San-xiang, the foreman’s spinster daughter, whom the foreman very clearly hopes will prove an eligible match for an ambitious young ABC like he imagines Zhang to be. San-xiang is, in Zhang’s eyes, “astonishingly ugly. More than ugly, there is something wrong with the bones of her face”. Zhang, moreover, is gay. But through a toxic combination of inertia, politeness, and pity (“The world is unnaturally cruel to ugly girls”, he muses at one point), he plays along with his boss’ unspoken scheme. Even knowing that he is not in the least attracted to her and never will be, he asks San-xiang out on a date:
San-xiang finishes getting ready. She finally appears in tights and a long red jacket. She has nice taste in clothes but the night already has the same out-of-synch quality as all those times in Middle School when I took a girl out. At least now I am not hoping that something will arouse some sort of latent heterosexuality.
What ensues is both hideously awkward and compassionately sketched. The pair’s stilted conversation – and especially her shy, slightly tipsy blushes – is offset, or perhaps highlighted, by the soaring, pulse-racing atmosphere of the future!sport they spend their date as spectators of. Kite-racing is basically a sort of high-speed hand-gliding, in which humans strapped into flimsy, turbo-powered wing-frames dash through the skies above the city, vying to out-pace – and, if necessary, out-crash – each other to the finish line.
Just as spectators can plug themselves into a live feed of the kites’-eye-view of the race, the narrative switches briefly to the perspective of one of the racers, veteran flyer Angel, through whom we share the anticipation, the adrenalised transcendence (“I don’t even have a body anymore. My body is the kite. I feel the air on my silk, I balance on the air”), the thrill of speed and danger, and the brutal come-down at the end of the race (“I feel heavy, dirt solid”). “I always forget”, says Angel, “that half of the people who watch us fly are waiting to see us die.” It makes for an arresting change of pace, the first signal that McHugh’s tale will be a multi-layered and polyphonic one.
Despite the fact that, at this stage, she is seen entirely from Zhang’s perspective, San-xiang never becomes an object of ridicule nor entirely a powerless victim to be pitied. After the date night, San-xiang increasingly makes moves – albeit not always successfully – to take control of her life, becoming more politically engaged and leaving home while Zhang continues simply to drift. Still, San-xiang’s story, while not an unalloyed tragedy, is arguably the saddest of the novel. When she at last gives into the demands of fashion and social convention, and has the plastic surgery her parents long wished they could afford for her, at first she sees only new possibilities (“I can feel my new life opening, like one of those paper pills you put in water that open out into flowers”). But her newfound beauty proves every bit as debilitating as her earlier ugliness, attracting unwanted, repulsively entitled male attention – to which she has no experience to help her respond, no vocabulary to communicate her true feelings:
No one has ever touched me that way. It’s a little scary, but Bobby does it so it must be very normal. How would I know, I haven’t had many dates, and Zhang never touched me except to kiss me good night.
We sit down and he says, “I feel like I know you.”
I don’t know what to say so I don’t say anything.
“You know what I mean, don’t you, don’t you feel as if we know each other?”
“Yes,” I say, because it’s what he wants me to say.
“I’ll bet you drink Chrysanthemums,” he says.
“I do,” I say, even though I don’t and I feel a little uncomfortable.
He orders drinks. He is so handsome, and I feel so pretty, people must look at us and envy us.
For the reader, it is easy to see where this is leading, and all the more heartbreaking as a result. There is perhaps an argument to made that it falls into certain storytelling cliches of female vulnerability and passivity (especially given the racial dynamic at work); yet on reading it I came away feeling that there’s no doubt here that this is a part of San-xiang’s story, not simply a cheap use of sexual assault to set a mood or motivate a hero. What is upsetting is not that she is left with some stain on her purity, but the violence done – and it is the violence and frustrated panic that is emphasised, not titillation – to San-xiang’s hard-won agency and still tentative sense of selfhood. We never meet Bobby again, but San-xiang stays with us.
Zhang’s drifting takes him to a six month posting on a research station in Siberia, another change of pace and perspective if ever there was one. “Six months for you to brood yourself into catatonia”, remarks his ex-boyfriend, and at first it proves; but Zhang survives the long night of the Arctic winter – discovers, indeed, what he can survive, and who he is with little else to distract him from himself but the sound of the wind – and finds a certain peace:
I am watching the horizon. Dawn seems so close, so possible. The sky is the pearlescent white of dawn, shading to pink, lavender, indigo, and then somewhere above, to black. The ice is the color of the sky.
And then, four days early, I see the edge of the sun, blinding, above the horizon. […] It’s morning. I smile and smile. […] We sit in silence and watch the sun rise and then dip. In minutes it is over.
I expect to feel the weight of the night again, but no, the sunrise is enough. I can wait. I can study, I can pass the exam. And the second night is not so bad, never as bad as the first.
I have survived. And I think, finally, I am adapting.
When, at length, he makes the leap and goes to study engineering at Nanjing, it is as an altogether more centred and confident individual. This is not to say he breezes through life, of course. In China he experiences a different sort of isolation, that of the colonised thrust abruptly into the metropole. “I’m so tired of being a colony of one”, he says; he finds himself floundering to retain a sense of identity in the middle of a world so alien to his prior experience, and in which he is so manifestly marginalised, and irrelevant:
Everything is different. In New York I ride a subway system built sometime in the 1900’s, here buses segment and flow off in different directions. There’s a city above the city, a lace work super-structure that supports thousands of four tower living units and work complexes like the University complex we live in; what they call the xin gongshe, new communes. And there’s the constant assault of Chinese, I get hungry for someone to speak English with. The food. I ate Chinese and Thai food at home, but not all the time. And there’s food here I’ve never seen or heard of, from Australia and South America and Africa, at outrageous prices. Everyone here seems rich.
I laugh. “At home, I knew what was going on, and if I had something to talk about, I called somebody and talked to them. Here,” it is my turn to shrug, “I am not quite sure what will happen, what things mean, and I don’t have anyone to talk to about it.”
Being a gay man, here, is both threat and comfort; homosexuality is outlawed and thus a precarious endeavour, but it also offers a private rebellion, a secret set of signals, a way of relating to others and of “pretending I’m not alone”:
It seems to me that Haitao and I are dancing, watching each other’s faces a little longer, responding by looking away or swift nervous smiles. But this is China, maybe I’m crossing cultural signals. I’m lonely and I want this young man, this polished tidal wave, to be like me. To like me.
The novel’s other major character is Martine, a blunt, practical middle-aged farmer and beekeeper, who lives on the outskirts of Jerusalem Ridge, a socialist colony on Mars. Whereas Zhang’s story is about trying to connect with other people to overcome loneliness – and the various ways in which his personality, his situation and/or the wider culture around him undermines his efforts (inertia, gendered and racialised power hierarchies, institutionalised homophobia, etc.) – Martine’s is, or appears to be, quite the opposite. Martine is content in her solitude; indeed, she is active in preserving it, deliberately setting up home some distance away from everyone else and holding herself carefully clear of communal politics.
One evening, she offers hospitality to a pair of strangers passing through, a man named Alexi and his young daughter Theresa. She does this not quite reluctantly, but certainly with the sense that she is looking forward to having her home “given back to me” again once they’re gone, and the simple fact of a few hours’ conversation disturbs her equilibrium:
We go back out to the front room and have two more beers. I tell him a little about Jerusalem Ridge, find myself unexpectedly talking about what it was like when I first came here and so many people had been relocated that we had a severe labor shortage. He asks intelligent questions. He has been promised his own plot in three years, but I warn him that the way things get done around here it could be five.
He’s thirty-four. I’m forty-two. Theresa is six-and-a-half.
We go to bed early. I lie awake, over-stimulated I suppose. I can’t hear anything, but I feel as if I can hear them breathing. The house seems full. After awhile the breathing turns into the ocean, and at four-thirty the bed wakes me and I have been dreaming of the Pacific. In my dream, the sky was full of crows.
Martine’s point-of-view narration is simple and direct, in contrast to Zhang’s more thoughtful, figurative, pie-in-the-sky style and San-xiang’s tentative, heavily conflicted voice, which combines her intense focus on physical sensation and the here-and-now with the filters of hesitation and uncertainty imposed upon her by years of interacting with the world from behind a barrier of socially-unacceptable unattractiveness. Martine is given to statement more than she is to speculation or empathy or analogy; she describes the visible signs of others’ motives and emotions without giving much sense that she is engaged by or shares them. For example, she and Alexi discuss the fact that the Commune is likely to re-assign him to a work detail in an even more remote and dangerous region than Jerusalem Ridge – a water reclamation project at the pole – because, as he puts it, he has “no guanxi, no connection”. Martine is taken aback, but still cannot quite feel Theresa’s evident distress:
“They won’t send you, they couldn’t send a man with a six year old daughter,” I say, thinking that the commune couldn’t possibly. […]
I hear the sniff and look around. Theresa is standing there holding on to Cleopatra. Cleopatra looks at us with golden eyes expressionless as agates. Theresa rubs her nose with her arm and rubs her eye with her fist, crying and trying to be quiet and trapped between backing away and coming towards us. Did she hear? Or did she just fall or something?
“Baby?” Alexi says, “what’s wrong?”
“Are we going to move again?”
“Oh, baby,” Alexi says helplessly.
And yet the pair work their way under her skin, even so. It isn’t a conventional love story, or in many ways even a love story at all, but what unfolds between Martine and Alexi over the course of the novel is a wonderfully drawn, very human tale of compromise and companionship. Martine has carved out a space for herself with her own two hands; she has built herself a life she is happy with, filled with tangible achievements she can be proud of and a routine she enjoys.
But out of a combination of entirely unromantic pragmatism and a half-recognised desire for just a little something more (“I think about Alexi too much, I have middle-aged fancies. He’s young and attractive and friendly and yes, I’m lonely and goats aren’t enough”), she finds herself reaching out to Alexi. She can offer him a way out of the work detail: she will marry him, making him a landholder who will therefore not have to move. “It wouldn’t be a real marriage, of course”, she adds, outlining the details of how there are enough rooms for them to sleep separately, and we suspect – and so does she – that she protests just a little too much. At first Alexi is reluctant to intrude on her “so, so self-sufficient” space; he admires her, he says, and he wants her respect rather than her charity. She points out that it wouldn’t be charity – she’ll be expecting him to get up at 4am most days, just like she does – and I am quite charmed by the whole idea, and the no-nonsense-but-a-hint-of-longing in the way it is presented.
In the final analysis, things are easier with more than one pair of hands. Like Zhang, a gay man in a homophobic society governed by a high-surveillance state, Martine’s existence is inescapably a precarious one in a hostile environment (albeit, in her case, a largely indifferent one rather than one than is actively persecuting her and/or people like her). McHugh does an excellent job of conveying, on the rare but striking occasions when Martine has to step outside her dome to perform maintenance – and when the systems keeping her farm alive begin to break down more seriously – just how tiny and vulnerable humans are on the surface of Mars:
The little airlock has a pump that labors mightily to pull out some of the air mixture. It doesn’t create much vacuum, but it’s always a shame to waste mixture. Then the outer atmosphere vents in and I crank the outer door open, straighten up and brace against the wind. My face mask polarizes. I can’t remember what season we’re in. I squint at the sky, almost black through my darkened facemask […] There’s the crest of the ridge behind me, sunlight glinting off the curve of our skylights. The rest of the settlement is in the less side. In front of me the land is full of dark chunks of rock in rusted soil.
I always thought of Mars as a desert and somehow expected it to look like home. Other than being dry, it doesn’t. The soil color is wrong, for one thing, for another, the only erosion on Mars is wind erosion. For another, there are more rocks. I guess most of our soil comes from water and the action of plants and insects on rock. Pictures of some of the areas down at the pole show stuff that looks more like the baked ground of home, but a great deal of it is huge, cracked areas, like baked mud. Except the plates of cracked soil are meters across, and the cracks are bigger. Step into bigger. Martian landscapes are exaggerated, simplified.
So. Are they all crushed by the bigger, impersonal systems around them? Are Zhang, San-xiang, Martine, Alexi, Angel and the rest just victims of circumstance, or do they make their own way, within the parameters available to them, as actors in their own stories? The novel is often bleak and unforgiving, there’s no doubt; none of the characters have anything that could be described as happy-ever-afters. Yet I’m inclined to think the latter: neither their joys and nor their pains are conclusions, or definitive statements on who they are and what they can be. Rather, they are episodes in these people’s lives, to be overcome or reshaped by, and ultimately moved past. One way or another, they rise to their challenges.
I also smiled with some recognition at Zhang’s presentation on how history works, late on in the novel, to a class full of students:
“[History] is not random, but it is non-linear. Marx’s predictions were based on the assumption that history is a linear system, and using those assumptions he predicted the future. But if weather is a complex system, it seems reasonable to assume that history is also a complex system. History is sensitive dependent on initial conditions. You cannot predict the future.”
This review originally appeared on Eve’s Alexandria.