This Chinese writer’s science-fiction dystopia features sky-high kindergarten fees and an obsession with time

Hao Jingfang, China’s first female Hugo award-winning science-fiction writer.
Hao Jingfang, China’s first female Hugo award-winning science-fiction writer.
Image: Courtesy of Melon Hong Kong
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Time had been carefully divided and parceled out to separate the populations. — Folding Beijing

In the society imagined in the novella Folding Beijing, the city’s residents are divided into three social classes who each live on a different physical surface of the city. They’re also separated by time, and in each 48-hour cycle in this world, the 50 million underclass laborers are only allowed to be awake for eight hours at night. This dystopian vision won author Hao Jingfang a coveted science-fiction writing distinction, the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novelette, given to works between 7,500 and 17,500 words. In the novelette, a waste worker called Lao Dao smuggles messages between different classes and layers, while also wrestling with very real problems of his own, like sky-high kindergarten tuition.

Like the social classes in her work, 32-year-old Hao carefully divides her own time according to three distinct roles. In the day, she works as an economic advisor to the Chinese government at a state-backed think tank in Beijing. She is also the mother of a three-year-old, with whom she spends her evenings and nights. Flanked by these two identities, she has just two hours a day to be a writer, from 5am to 7am.

In an interview on the sidelines of Melon Hong Kong, a sci-fi conference for the industry and fans, Hao talked to Quartz about the rise of female science-fiction writers, the progress of the film adaptation of Folding Beijing by Korean-American director Josh Kim, and how being a government advisor and working mother have helped her sci-fi writing. A lightly edited transcript follows.

Quartz: What would be different if you wrote a Folding Hong Kong or a Folding New York?

HJ: I’ll just write one folding city, of course. You can’t write a novel based entirely on an idea. You need to see things with your own eyes. Every city will run into many of the same social problems, but they can only be truly felt by their own residents.

I’ll turn Folding Beijing into the beginning of a longer novel in the future. The story will still be set in Beijing.

What social problem in Beijing strikes you the most?

The policy barriers to migrants. Migrants in Beijing don’t enjoy the same social benefits as locals. Their kids don’t go to the same schools with local kids. At times I’ll visit migrant kids at schools that are especially designed for them. Their lives are miserable and hard to imagine.

You are familiar with Beijing’s policymakers due to your job, right?

I work for China Research Development Foundation, where I do research on China’s macroeconomy and make policy recommendations for the government. I have many opportunities to encounter relatively high-ranking officials from the central government. Sometimes I can hear them discuss policy, though not about very core issues.

In Folding Beijing, senior officials of First Space talk about city development in their big meetings. That scenario comes from my daily work.

Your novelette also talks about robots taking away people’s jobs. Is that something foreign readers worry about more?

Social inequality is due to policy and technology reasons. In many foreign countries, there aren’t many policy barriers at least to internal migrants. But many lower-class people still struggle their lives and even risk losing their jobs, due to the rise of new technology.

What’s the film adaptation of Folding Beijing like?

The story will be turned into a English-language movie called Folding City. The film won’t be set in Beijing but a fictional city. Previously I’ve talked with the director about the adaptation. Maybe I can read the script next month. In general the director will stick to my original story, keeping all the basic settings. But my story is just a novelette, so he has created some new characters. I’ll offer some advice after I read the script.

So the protagonist Lao Dao will be played by a white actor? 

I don’t know. Maybe he’s white. There will probably be some other Chinese characters, but the protagonist is not Chinese.

What’s the newest trend in sci-fi writing these years?

Everyone used to write about interstellar wars, robots vs. humans, or humans falling in love with robots. There is more diversity in recent years. Some write about family lives, and some write about ancient history. There’s even a sci-fi story about rock music.

When it comes to story topics, Chinese sci-fi novels are similar to foreign ones. But Chinese writers will add some Chinese history, mythology and regional elements into their stories. For example Chen Qiufan often writes about the development of his hometown, the Chaoshan area in Guangdong.

Is sci-fi writing still dominated by men?

All eight writing prizes of last year’s Nebula Award and Hugo Award went to female authors. I don’t think this field is dominated by men anymore. There might even be more female sci-fi writers worldwide, as more woman are willing to do what they really like to do. That’s my guess.

Another reason is that male writers are now more keen on writing screenplays or super-long novels that can be easily turned into films or television dramas to make money. Writing novels, novellas and novelettes is not good in terms of money, and is now full of female writers who are less utilitarian.

When do you usually write in a day?

Five to seven o’clock in the morning. I barely write after work. In the evening I play with my daughter, give her a bath, read to her and get her to sleep. Usually I sleep from 11pm to 4am or 5am.

My daughter is under three, and is now sent to kindergarten. My mother lives at my apartment to take care of her most of the time. But she still needs her mother’s company more. I don’t want to separate her from me. Whatever I’m doing at home, she is always allowed to interrupt me.

Is being a mother helpful to your writing?

Yes. I wrote a story about an artificial intelligence and a child recently. I imagined every house becomes an operating system in which every home appliance can talk with humans. Under this circumstance, I wrote up a dialogue between a child and the super AI network. This idea comes from my observation of my kid’s behavior.

Let’s talk about the new book you are working on.

It’s a sci-fi novel about China’s ancient civilization. The story is set in the future. It’s about people traveling back to archaeological sites to unveil history.

Archaeology is not able to fill gaps between separate dynasties. There are many gaps I can fill with my imagination. For example, what gives birth to Chinese ritual bronzes? Archaeological materials only show the bronzes became mature during the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1600-256 BC). There is no accumulation and development before that. I can make up lots of reason for that.