Language and Literature
In the opening chapter of Sheng Keyi’s novel Death Fugue (2013) a huge pile of excrement appears in Round Square, a central venue in Beiping, the capital of the fictitious country called Dayang. This “Tower Incident” triggers a wave of protests when angry citizens take to the streets and voice their disapproval of what they see as a governmental cover-up of a critical event. The violent suppression of the protest movement results in numerous fatalities and leaves the society deeply disillusioned with political authorities.
Sheng’s novel does not really try to hide its parallels with events from China’s recent past. Not surprisingly, it could not be published in the People’s Republic. The following chapters describe the adventures of the main protagonist, Yuan Mengliu, who by chance enters an alternative and seemingly perfect society. On the surface, the Swan Valley resembles the lost pastoral paradise, represented by the Peach Blossom Spring in the Chinese literary tradition. In reality however it is a dystopian technocratic theocracy. Local residents speak highly of poetry and beauty but behind these lofty ideas hides a society that disposes of elderly, sick or disabled because they fall short of the aesthetic perfection valued highly in the Valley.
Sheng’s novel traverses a number of utopian texts belonging to Chinese and Western literary traditions. In doing so, it inquiries into different ideas about social contracts and good governance and asks about possible alternatives to large-scale utopian projects.