Translated by Michael Berry
Reviewed by Mingwei Song
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September, 2023)
Han Song 韩松 (b. 1965) is one of the most prolific Chinese science fiction (SF) writers. Only a portion of his writings has seen publication, but this already includes about one hundred short stories and eight major novels: Mars over America 火星照耀美国 (2000), Red Ocean 红色海洋 (2004), Subway 地铁 (2010), High-Speed Rail 高铁 (2012), Tracks 轨道 (2013), Hospital 医院 (2016), Exorcism 驱魔 (2017), and Dead Souls 亡灵 (2018). Han Song is also a poet, a journalist, a chronicler of everyday events, and a writer of all sorts of social commentaries, ranging from editorials to blogs and micro-blogs. It is almost impossible to read all that Han Song has published, and he has many manuscripts that remain unpublished.
A disciple of Lu Xun 魯迅 (1881-1936), whose short story “A Madman’s Diary” 狂人日記 (1918) opened readers’ eyes to the invisible evils of society and led them to seek deeper truths that lurk beneath the surface, Han Song, a senior journalist for China’s Xinhua News Agency, knows too well that what is invisible matters even more than the visible in the broad daylight of present-day China. Like Lu Xun, he is drawn to the power of darkness, and Lu Xun-esque phantoms and paradoxical metaphors permeate Han Song’s chthonic literary visions. Han Song has suggested that “China’s reality has now become more science fictional than science fiction.” If China’s formidable and forbidden, amorphous and alienated, uncertain and unpredictable reality is difficult or impossible to describe with traditional literary discourse based on the principle of mimesis, it comes into light in speculative fictional storytelling. Because of writers like Han Song, SF—this marginalized, insignificant genre—has achieved a meaningful status as a unique literary form to represent those unsettling, abstruse, clandestine images coming from the terra incognita bordering China’s proper “reality” and outside its ordinary literary landscape.
Han Song belongs to the same generation of Chinese SF authors as Liu Cixin 劉慈欣 (b. 1963), whose Three-Body Problem novels successfully created a global triumph for Chinese SF. While Liu Cixin’s writings have mostly been translated into English and enjoy popularity among readers around the world, the majority of Han Song’s works, including all his major novels, remained untranslated, and thus unavailable to English readers, until very recently. Michael Berry’s translation of Hospital is a timely contribution that places Han Song’s dark SF world on the map of contemporary Chinese science fiction, creating a chthonic counterpoint to Liu Cixin’s sublime aesthetics.
During the early days of the pandemic, Michael Berry translated Wuhan Diary by Fang Fang 方方 (b. 1955), who became the target of a nationwide crusade of nationalist frenzy because of her honest depictions of the gloomy days when Wuhan was under lockdown. Berry’s translation received vicious attacks too, and this encounter with internet assassins gave Berry a firsthand experience of what Fang Fang and Han Song lived through in China. Berry’s recent Translation, Disinformation, and Wuhan Diary: Anatomy of a Transpacific Cyber Campaign (Palgrave MacMillan, 2022) records and reflects on the spiritual pandemic that afflicted Chinese netizens during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was in the second year of the pandemic that Berry began to translate Han Song’s Hospital. Now published by Amazon Crossing, the novel has finally met its English readers. Unlike Liu’s The Three-Body Problem (2007; English translation by Ken Liu, 2014), which is famous for its splendid (and straightforward) depictions of outlandish cosmic wonders, Hospital challenges the translator. It has a labyrinthine narrative, thickly loaded metaphors, grotesque details, uncertain grammar and syntax, paradoxical meanings, estranging world settings, and phantom-like characters. Berry’s translation testifies to a herculean effort to render one of the most difficult recent Chinese novels into a highly readable and yet faithful English translation. Ultimately, Berry’s translation combines different versions of Han Song’s drafts and presents to English readers an even more definitive version of Hospital than its Chinese original. Berry maintains Han Song’s style, but with a much smoother colloquial English. He has unpacked an extremely abstruse Chinese novel in a reader-friendly rendition. Berry has already completed translation of the trilogy’s second volume, Exorcism, which will be published by Amazon Crossing in November of 2023, and begun to work on the final volume, Dead Souls, which will be published in 2024. So, stay tuned for more.
In 2018, exactly a century after Lu Xun published “A Madman’s Diary,” Han Song completed the Hospital trilogy. The central motif of the trilogy, “medical science,” and the novel’s application of its symbolic meaning to a wide range of cultural metaphors and literary images, easily evokes Lu Xun. Not only did Lu Xun pursue a medical career in his youth, he also gave symbolic meaning to medical science as China’s quest for modern civilization and enlightenment, a goal that defined Lu Xun’s lifelong literary pursuit: just as medical science treats a person’s diseases, literature reforms the mind of a nation. Lu Xun wrote medical images into some of his most notable essays and stories. The Madman, for instance, is the victim of a “persecution complex” but who embodies modern enlightenment. In other texts, “medicine” represents the enlightenment ideas of progressive intellectuals or, in the eyes of the unenlightened, the body and blood of revolutionaries. These meanings, now part of the canon of Chinese literary modernity, have been appropriated by Han Song to both continue and rewrite modern China’s obsession with “medicine.”
Han Song’s trilogy renders the hospital into a world of darkness, mythologizing and rendering monstrous various enlightenment projects of modern China ranging from Westernization to the Maoist Cultural Revolution. In the trilogy, Han Song creates, more decisively than in his earlier novels, a totalistic simulacrum of modern China that is mythic and absurd, filled with signs and symbols whose cultural meanings are literalized as demonic forces. In these novels, the hospital has evolved into a hideous Leviathan that executes total control over people’s bodies and minds, programming their life, death, and reincarnation. Through thickly displayed anatomical and physiological metaphors, which lead to more puzzles than answers, Han Song’s perplexing narrative ushers us into the Age of Medicine, when the hospital has taken over the role of the state to administer the entire nation in which every citizen is treated, and hospitalized, as a patient. The novels show this almighty “hospital” civilization’s further metamorphosis into a virtual world managed by algorithms, while both doctors and patients are trapped in a gigantic “hospital ship” cruising on the red ocean as an apocalyptic Medicinal War looms. An even darker scenario is revealed on Mars: the hospital turns out to be the definitive image of the universe, which is a sick patient too, and humans (or their posthuman phantoms—the dead souls) are forever stuck in an eternal return of the doomed cycle of life, disease, death, and resurrection that culminates in the fiendish image of an Medicinal Empire filled with diabolic dictators and mass murderers.
This hospital world is also an overdetermined scientific world that loses its own purpose: algorithms commit suicide, doctors are performance artists, medical science turns into art, and medical treatment is transformed into an act of storytelling. This crazed world, if it grows out of Lu Xun’s and other modern intellectuals’ dreams for enlightenment, has become the nightmare of reason and rationality. The “Hospital” trilogy restores medical science to the center of programs for national rejuvenation, but the narrative releases destructive, dark forces from science and modern ideas. In this inverted world, science has become myth, medicine has become politics, rationality has fallen into insanity; and the diseased enjoy longevity, the dead are resurrected, and life is a disease.
The trilogy consists of Hospital, Exorcism, and Dead Souls, with each novel a representation of one of three levels of the hospital’s metamorphosis. The central plotline appears deceptively simple, but the narrative quickly turns into a complex labyrinth where the storyline varies and is repeated and recycled endlessly as material for construction of different forms of world building in the later part of the trilogy, as if characters and events in the earlier part of the story have entered the later plotlines like memories transformed into dreams.
Nevertheless, there is a clear structure in the trilogy that akin to level design in games. The first novel is closer to reality. It opens with an ordinary scene that quickly becomes surreal. The protagonist, a songwriter named Yang Wei 杨伟 (a homophone for yangwei 阳痿, “impotence”), comes to a city on business. After arriving at his hotel room, he drinks a bottle of mineral water and then immediately falls ill. Two women suddenly emerge in his room and rush him to a hospital, where he finds himself trapped in a dreamscape reminiscent of Kafka’s “A Country Doctor” or The Castle. He tries every means of escape but can never leave the hospital. He feels pulled into a meaningless conspiracy, like a weak prey falling into a trap. The women who help (or kidnap) him lecture him on the importance of trusting doctors, having “faith” in the hospital; one of them even pays the price of her own life in order to keep him committed to getting medical help. The tedious mundane details of life in the hospital cannot hide the absurdities and irrationalities of the overall disquieting experience that puzzle Yang Wei about the meanings of the hospital, doctors, and everything. The hospital has turned into a modern incarnation of Lu Xun’s “iron house” and keeps Yang Wei from the truth of the world.
But Yang Wei adapts to his new life in the chaotic world of the hospital. He meets a woman patient, Bai Dai 白黛, who is perhaps a bioengineered cyborg. His friendship with Bai Dai brings him to confront a truth-revealing moment: “Part of me didn’t want to believe any of it, and another part of me felt that I should resign to this new reality” (128-29). Just as Lu Xun’s Madman finds himself in the dark before seeing the eerie moonlight, the apocalyptic sight Yang Wei witnesses in the city’s metamorphosis into the hospital makes him wonder about what is real:
This was clearly not the world I had once known. Gazing out over the city like a greedy child, I could see countless skyscrapers that seemed to surge up and down like the tide. Like the hospital tower where I stood, all of the buildings were adorned with massive red crosses, which resembled an army of giant spiders. They went on and on, row after row, like scales, one red cross after another. The scene reminded me of an ever-expansive primordial forest, where the earth and the sky merge and there is no end in sight. Not only was there no sun, but even a lone star would have burned out of the sky by the intense, all-consuming flames of those red crosses and the incessant attacks of the falling rain. They would shatter the stars, sending their remains fluttering to the ground like confetti falling on an alien landscape. (126)
Such an estranging scene rips open the fabric of everyday reality and pushes the protagonist into a treacherous journey through layers of paradoxical and elusive images of the hospital, together with the ever-shifting hermeneutics regarding medical science, the meaning of life, the purpose of disease, and the true nature of the universe. Yang Wei’s inquiry about the purpose of the hospital first takes him back to Lu Xun’s treatise on “reforming the national character,” but the hospital has upgraded Lu Xun’s vision by turning “saving the country through medical science” into a wholesale plan that includes a systematic change of one’s biological and biopolitical existence: families are eliminated, genes reedited, lives reprogrammed. To Yang Wei, Bai Dai, and their fellow patients and their doctors, the hospital eventually becomes the only reality that dictates their bodily sensations, their mindsets, and their behavior. Their lives, diseases, and entire existences are devoted to making a Pax Hospitium. Yang Wei eventually realizes that the “hospital” has taken over the entire city, the entire country, and even the entire world.
Hospital presents a most hideous image of China, the worst possible “Sinotopia” 中托邦. The novel’s depiction of the hospital experience appears abnormal, absurd, and insane but integral to a nightmarish mirror image of China’s contemporary reality. Despite the chaos and darkness, everyone is still committed to praising the hospital and treating it as a great achievement, the pride of the nation. From their submission to the program of reforming the nation to the practice of “telling a good hospital story” (in Exorcism), the parallel to China’s social reality is obvious. This clearly shows that the China dream is a self-serving program, and this Sinotopia is not a dream of the people, but a dream fed on people. Han Song’s storytelling goes beyond the surface and brings us to the chthonic deep to confront the dark secret of Sinotopia. In spite of the complicated narrative and inexplicable metaphors, this secret truth is not that elusive. It is a program that has no interest other than sustaining itself. It is a self-loving evil that wants to be an artist but completely lacks imagination. It operates as a program that imprisons everyone. We are now back to a darker and much larger iron house, which is not just a metaphor, but a discursive space as vast as the universe that converges in a nationwide prison and locks all in. As an SF heir to Lu Xun, Han Song uses his storytelling to betray both the illusion of hope and the futility of despair. The fearful, terrifying, and discomforting textuality of Hospital shows why Han Song is more subversive than any Chinese SF writer working today.
 Han Song 韩松, “Real Anxieties in Contemporary Chinese SF” 当下中国科幻的现实焦虑. Nanfang wentan 南方文坛 6 (2010): 28-30.