Sunday, December 18, 2011

China Tidal Wave: A Review

Wang Lixiong's China Tidal Wave, translated by Anton Platero, is an apocalypse-in-progress political novel set in China detailing the slow disintegration of the country during a period of internal political and economic stress that leads to civil war and a slowly escalating nuclear war.

Wang Lixiong was born in 1953 in Changchun in Manchuria. Sent away for re-education during the Cultural Revolution, he began to write poetry. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, after studying automobile mechanics, he worked in car factories in Manchuria and in Wuhan. His interest in multi-level democracy, a prominent feature of the book, developed in his studies of the mid-1970s.  In 1978, Wang participated in the Wall of Democracy movement and published his first short story in the magazine Jintian (Today). In 1980, he left the Wuhan car factory and devoted himself to writing. He wrote film scripts and published his first novel in 1983.  Rather adventurous in spirit, in 1984 he floated down 1,200 kilometers of the Yellow River on a raft made from the inner tubes of truck tires, passing through areas inhabited by Tibetans, which got him interested in the Tibetan question. In 1991, he published China Tidal Wave (Yellow Peril).  The book was banned by the Communists, but bootlegged copies were popular.  Given the enormous population, being read by even a small percentage of the Chinese population would make it the most popular title we have reviewed.

The book's original 1991, Chinese name was  Yellow Peril a term that was likely dropped in the translation due to the racial stereotypes that that term brings with it.  The author used the pseudonym, Bao Mi (Secret) to avoid arrest.  Oddly enough the yellow peril is discussed within the book and at first refers to the Yellow River and flooding problems, but later directly refers to the outspreading masses of Chinese refugees entering other countries: not far from what the meaning of the original stereo type.

The book starts off with the Yellow River seeing a one-thousand year flood and causing an enormous grain shortage in the country. At the same time, there is continued rioting between pro-democracy forces, and workers groups.  You also have a considerable amount of tension between the newly prosperous Southern parts of the country (across the straights from Taiwan), and the more traditional and economically left behind Northern sections.  There is a vibrant Green Movement that is also striving to make its voice heard.

The book is not simplistically plotted.  It puts The Big "R" and his NATO Invasions. to shame.

 There are two strands are woven throughout the book.  One is that only a multi-level direct democracy will make the stable long term decisions to run a diverse large country like China.  Secondly, a movement away from individualist commercial expansion is necessary if China is not to use up all its resources.  Even if one does not agree with all of the authors points, the arguments are well thought out and cannot be dismissed lightly.

Another characteristic of the book is that the various characters within the book are very deeply explored.  Many of them die along the way, but it is very rare that we do not get a good understanding of them before they perish.  Even the very worst of the bad guys have their positive points.  In the few sections where the author describes the U.S. response to an oncoming rush (in the 100s of millions) of Chinese refugees he pretty much nails the likely response.

There are a few science fictional elements.  There is some fighting described, but the author is not trying to come across as a weapons/combat expert.  The "tidal wave" weapon that the United State uses, is not detailed buy likely is a hydrogen bomb, or series of bombs, set off deep below the oceans surface.  At times the action is brutal.  Nuclear weapons are used, and the justification for their use is fairly clear.  In fact, in many instances their use is fairly restrained.

Another interesting point of comparison is that the Chinese have a much deeper and recent history of famine.

Before it is all done people are digging up their gardens to find worms to eat.  People eat the maggots from the dead, and play dead to lure in the crows that peck at the bodies.

Later, an environmentalist who seems to be partly modeled on some of the authors experiences, but is also an ambigous good-guy, bad-guy figure tells someone:

It almost makes you optomist for the hopes of the United States in similar circmumstances: we have lots of bark to eat.

The Yellow Peril, which was the original title of the book, is what happens when 1.6 billion people have nowhere to go.  They hit the road and head toward wealthier less populated areas mostly.  The reverse colonial land grab mentality is rather entertaining at times.  Think of it this way, what happens when you send over 300 unarmed refugees to the United States and potentially double its population.   Most modern countries don't want to kill enough innocent unarmed people to make the Nazi holocaust look like a multi-car pile up on the interstate.  Given that within the context of the novel, most of the recipiants already have a little blood on their hand from interfering with China's internal problems, it makes for a very dicey situation. It is a little embarasing that an author, who at least at the time I don't think had ever been out of his country, has a more nuanced approach within half a chapter, than many American born apocalypse-in-pr0gress authors do within a whole book.
I did enjoy the novel.  It was a very long 526 pages, but changed scenes and point of view frequently enough to keep it from getting too stale.  The dialog translates a little woodenly at times, but the cultural situation is so odd at times, that you barely notice.  Being first published in 1991, the scenario is a little dated.  But with a few adjustments it is not a great stretch to see that a confluence of catastrophes could easily snowball out of control in China. 

Now for our descriptive (versus qualitative) ratings:

How realistic, how gritty was it?  It is writtin at about the same political level as Directive 51, which removes the characters from the day to day issues of survival.  They are not ignored but are also not always present.  There is a religious cult leader who appears to be a political manipulator at times, but also appears to have real skill as well.  There are some invented items, and a Red October -like submarine.  On a scale of 1 to 7 (7 being highest) I am going to put it at the mid-point and say it is a 4.  It is not high realism, but it is a pretty grim plausible story as well.  Although the plausibility of the collapse scenario is not a factor in "realism", it would score high well there also.

For ease of readiblity, it moves along fairly well.  There is a little bit of repetitive politicizing about multi-level democracy.  The translation is well done and reads smoothly.  There is a short list of characters at the front, but with only a couple of exceptions, I found them pretty easy to remember.  As I noted it is a long book.  I am going to go out on a limb and say that even for a tranlated book of this length, it is still an easier read than most and say it is a 5.

The fundamental difference now is the dimple fact that our population is now 1.3 billion.  No collapse of a state has ever involved even a third of that number of people.  Collapse means that all systems of production, distribution and transport are wiped out. Each person will have to fend for himself and find enough to eat.  Everything will come done to the basic question of food.

China's present size and environmental conditions enable us to feed our population; but only on condition that we have highly organized and efficient system, working at utmost pressure and extracting natural resources to the absolute limit.  This has to be supplemented by organized international trade.  Natural disaster, social disorder, civil war, separatism, the cutting off of international trade- any one of these things can lead to famine.  If these disasters all threaten us at once, famine is bound to seep away all social organization, and that will drastically reduce the amount we can extract from natural resources. Howe will we feed the population?  nature can provide wild fruits, birds and animals, roots and bark, which in the past have enabled perhaps several hundred million to survive by wandering all over the country in search of food.  In the past the collapse of the state has not led to the obliteration of the Chinese people. Now the situation is very different. The gifts of nature have now been very severely depleted, while the population has increased enormously, This terrifying discrepancy is several times more serious than at any time in the past, and will bring about a disaster several times worse.

She Ge noticed a display of old books about famines in Chinese history.  It was explained to him that a certain recurring phrase 'exchange children for eating' meant that people dying of hunger but who count not bring themselves to eat their own children, would exchange them for other people's children. Some old books also mentioned that the market price for meat of 'two-legged sheep' , far cheaper than mutton, was in fact a typically Chinese euphemism for human flesh.  page 151.

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