I'm writing this blog post just days after having the honor and pleasure of giving a lecture to the entire first-year class here at Luther on the Hugo Award-winning novelette "Folding Beijing" by Hao Jingfang.
I am pro-Paideia. While most colleges and universities have an introduction to writing course, Paideia gets students to engage writing in conjunction with close reading, critical thinking, discussion and debate, and exploration of texts from different places and times around the planet. This semester the full first-year class is reading, discussing and writing about this science fiction story that is set in a nearish-future Beijing where the city has been transformed through infrastructural engineering so that different populations get access to the city for set amounts of time while the other populations hibernate in the underground space to which their homes have folded.
In my lecture that kicked off the unit, I drew upon a personal conversation I was lucky enough to have with the author while I was traveling in Beijing last summer. Students seemed especially attentive when I explained to them that Hao Jingfang was intrigued by our curriculum at Luther since it ensures that students graduate with abilities in and appreciation of scientific fields as well as the humanities and arts.
This interest is not surprising considering that she writes her award-winning science fiction during off hours from her primary employment at the China Development Research Foundation—a think-tank where Hao works on one project that explores challenges and solutions to migrant laborers' children's access to schools and on one other project that projects decades into the future to imagine what work will look like when AIs have taken over lots of physical, intellectual and effective work currently done by human beings so that she and her team can then build policy suggestions for educational curriculums to prepare today's youth for these imagined futures.
Put simply, Hao works at the intersections of scientific inquiry, data collection and processing, and representing life experiences and future scenarios through stories. She's a stellar model for our students to observe the powerful energy that a trans-disciplinary approach to real-world problem diagnosing and solving creates.
One of the reasons we chose "Folding Beijing" for the Paideia curriculum this semester is that as a contemporary work of science fiction, it balances the appeal to students of a familiar genre with an introduction to a country and culture that is as geographically distant as it is complex. I was especially excited to provide students with some concrete illustrations of the complex and often contradictory elements of Chinese identity today.
For example, I described to them the neighborhood in Beijing's Chaoyang District where I met the author. On one side of a street was a cluster of high-end shopping centers: Apple, Prada, Gucci and a bustling Tesla dealership. The street-level windows displayed high-concept print or digital ads and/or swankily-dressed mannequins. Across the same street was a sort of middle-class residential neighborhood, including its garbage collection with workers coming and going to convey waste and recyclables to larger consolidations points where the city processes what its roughly 22 million residents discard. On a street-level wall around the neighborhood government-sponsored posters promoted "Core Socialist Values"—reminding everyone to be patriotic, kind, friendly, honest and devoted to their work. To walk down this street is to have two very different sets of propaganda trying to call us into very different values and actions. The sort of cognitive dissonance that block created exemplifies, to my mind, what life is like in China today. And, interestingly, the sort of cognitive estrangement that science fiction generates in readers through its world-changing techno-scientific developments strikes me as a very apt literary form for taking readers into China.
If you'd like to join the first-year Paideia students on this literary exploration, Hao Jingfang's "Folding Beijing" is available in English translation by the formidable Ken Liu online at Uncanny Magazine.