A short story I recently read

‘Gubeikou Spirit’ by Te-Ping Chen

Read it here in about 45 minutes.

Thinking about use of surrealism…

The opening of this story depicts experiences that visitors to China may be familiar with: the stereotypical crowds, dashing about, pushing and shoving (‘she was beaten back against the wall’); the ‘state-of-the-art’ underground train system; the ubiquitous security guards (you’ll find them stationed outside every apartment building, shopping centre, and train/subway/bus station); the straight-forward language, which some might call impolite, especially when addressing people of a lower station (‘“I’m in a hurry,” she said plaintively’); the recitation of traditional Chinese expressions (‘Haste didn’t pay, she reminded herself’); the national pride (‘No other city in the world had built its subway stations so quickly’); the faux sense of community (‘”We’ll get there together”’, so says the guard who is not trapped on the station along with our protagonist).

The story then descends into surrealism, which is the perfect genre to capture what it sometimes feels like to live in China, as an outsider. The people on the station become trapped. There’s a lack of information – the passengers are repeatedly told the train is delayed, but not why, or when it’ll be up and running again. No one takes responsibility for the problem; no one seems to try and solve it. The security guards won’t let the passengers leave. The passengers spend the night on the platform; then another night; then several months. It’s like a terrible nightmare.

The surrealism is also used to comment on Chinese government and society. There’s a sense of apathy; why bother resisting? The people are happy, comfortable, and safe on the platform, with clothing, food, and shelter provided by their benevolent leaders. The situation is presented as a natural disaster (hence the handing out of ‘humanitarian supplies’), and used for propaganda purposes (the newspaper runs ‘an editorial that praised them for their bravery, for “inspiring a nation with their fortitude and optimism”’). There’s a lack of independent thought; the guards unquestioningly do their jobs (‘“It’s in the rule book”’), when they could simply open the gate and let the passengers leave.

In the end, Pan alone has the will to escape, although not necessarily to the outside world – who knows where her train will eventually stop, if it ever does. So, there is hope, of a sort, at least for something different, if not something better.

I haven’t yet read Te-Ping Chen’s debut collection, Land of Big Numbers, which is where this story comes from, but it’s now on my wish list.

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