The 1980s were a time of significant political and social upheaval in China. Mao Zedong dying in the late 70s, early years in the decade saw ideas that had been biding their time appear in the mindset of what was still a very totalitarian government but a government seeking to escape the stagnation of the regime spearheaded by Mao. Putting too much air into the balloon initially, the 80s’ financial scene in the Middle Kingdom quickly burst, culminating in a collapse, and indirectly the Tiananmen Massacre of ’89. Learning some lessons, those in power throttled back their economic ambition and began putting in place more stable policies. Now, more than twenty years later, the economic and social development of China is undeniable. Regardless of its environmental or political impact (though this is not to be taken lightly), the quality of life is slowly improving for the average person (see the burgeoning middle class). China now possessing the second largest GDP in the world, it is only the US looking over its shoulder, and given the pace with which the Chinese are gaining, there are many who believe it is only a matter of time before China overtakes and comes to dominate the economic world in a fashion similar to the US the past 50 years. Written in the aftermath of Tiananmen, Maureen McHugh’s 1992 China Mountain Zhang—on top of being able to overlook the economic collapse of China in the 80s—postulates a futuristic scenario wherein China comes to dominate the US culturally and economically. The focus human and the writing subtle, it is more than just social commentary, however, making for an excellent first novel.
China Mountain Zhang is the story of Zhang Zhongshan—the Chinese equivalent of naming your son Abraham Lincoln Smith. An American Born Chinese (ABC), his Latino mother and Chinese father, on top of giving him the patriotic name, paid to have his genes altered so that he would appear full-blood Chinese, thus giving him a leg up on other Americans in the Chinese-dominated US. A construction tech living in New York City, Zhang spends his days on site performing manual labor for a Chinese boss and his evenings partying with friends and going to the kite races. But when a clash of cultural proportions occurs, Zhang is forced from his job and must reevaluate the direction of his life. Traveling through highly unexpected locations, he ultimately finds a place, just not where he imagined.
But Zhang’s story is not the only told in the novel. Interleaved with windows into Zhang’s life are windows into the lives of four other people seeking place: Martine, an ex-army officer now a farmer living in a Martian commune; Alexi, a widower trying to survive on Mars with his young daughter; Angel, a young kite racer trying to make a name for herself; and San-Xiang, the ugly daughter of Zhang’s construction boss. While at first seeming disparate, McHugh patiently ties these stories, like tributaries to a river, into the life of Zhang. Affective, their lives act as point/counter-point to Zhang’s struggles as he also tries to find a place in society.
A factor not helping Zhang’s chances is the fact he is gay. The Chinese culture portrayed in the novel decrying homosexuality to the point of capitol punishment, Zhang lives part of his life in fear of being caught by the authorities. McHugh never presenting society as a perpetual pogrom in search of deviant sexuality, Zhang nevertheless is unable to admit to his colleagues and bosses his preferences for fear of being socially ostracized. McHugh handling this portion of the narrative without unnecessary focus, (i.e. “This is a gay book, here me roar!”), she does a wonderful job of integrating Zhang’s sexuality into his overall plight for satisfying employment, relationships, and living place—things we all seek. Thus, despite having what is a minority sexual preference, Zhang is presented as fully human and not a piece of propaganda.
It would be amiss to write this review without mentioning the amount of Chinese culture infused with the novel. Having lived in China for four years, I can vouch for 95% of the content included. McHugh includes language (a scattering of Chinese pinyin), but what she captures better than any other non-Chinese writer I’ve read yet is the social and cultural concerns. The opening chapter of the novel which features Zhang’s interaction with a traditional Chinese family is something from real life. Ideas like: when answering ‘yes’ is more than ‘yes’; when agreeing to a situation is more than just the situation; when you want to say ‘no’ but must handle the rejection in more delicate fashion; and when obligation follows upon social hierarchy and opportunity—all are facets to social interaction that must be considered in daily life. Kudos to McHugh for presenting Chinese culture realistically.
Though it is her first published novel, McHugh utilizes polished style. Minimalist, as much is written between the lines as is in them, making China Mountain Zhang a highly satisfying novel from an emotional and personal perspective. A story is told, but the interaction and dialogue continuously keep the story focused on the human elements, particularly the unexpected circumstances life throws our way. McHugh would go on to cut her style even closer to the bone in later writings, yet the novel remains an accomplished first effort.
In the end, China Mountain Zhang is ostentatiously a novel of a man’s maturation, but becomes more given the cultural and societal elements effectively integrated with his development. Informative regarding Chinese culture and potentially prescient in the manner in which China has become an economic power, the remaining speculation is highly interesting for not only its imagination, but proximity to our reality. Communes on Mars obviously a lot further in the future, the lives portrayed there are never included simply for worldbuilding’s sake, but rather to depict real human concerns in specific political and social environments. Possessing a strong degree of autobiography, McHugh brings her Chinese education and living experience to full bear on the novel, and given the denouement, her own professional development. A wonderful first novel that evinces everything the author’s fiction would become, it is highly recommended.