Chan Koonchung on Orwell, Huxley and China

At Five Books, The Fat Years author Chan Koonchung offers some recommended reading on utopias and dystopias, and discusses how they relate to modern-day China. Among his selections are George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

One character in The Fat Years makes a reference to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Was that book also important for you and your description of China?

Brave New World was written in the 1930s, and the book portrays a happy dystopia. People are happy all the time because they have this happy drug, soma, and the pleasure principal is honoured. There is an abundance of sex. People have a good time. In this sense it’s closer to what we can see superficially in China than 1984.

Is Brave New World a popular read in China?

It’s popular, but far less popular than 1984. Those who read dystopian novels tend to be very political, and because 1984 is about an authoritarian state it can feel more pertinent. But Brave New World shows there’s another side to a new totalitarian state – a consumerist totalitarian state. That’s exactly what’s happening in China.

Also, you don’t know what’s happening to others – to the marginal people like the barbarians of Brave New World – because you are not in contact with them. There are certain very marginal groups in China whom you never notice. For instance the petitioners [to central government authority against local injustices] in Beijing. There are thousands of them, they are everywhere if you look out for them.

[… I]n a way Brave New World and 1984 complement each other when we try to measure what is happening in China now. [Source]

See more on the blend of Huxley and Orwell in China and beyond from Jeffrey Wasserstrom, and on The Fat Years from Chan himself in a recent interview with Alec Ash at The Los Angeles Review of Books.