Han Song’s Hospital, the first volume in a trilogy translated by Michael Berry, opens on a spaceship named the SS Mahamayuri as it makes its way from Earth to Mars. On the ship are “rodent-like humanoid cyborgs,” along with their Commander, an “organic human.” They are on their way to Mars in search of the Buddha. The old world order has collapsed, and a new one has risen under nations like India and Nepal, with Buddhism becoming the “dominating belief system for a new era of humankind.” Humans themselves have been aided by advanced technology in their quest to find enlightenment, with auxiliary devices helping them achieve transcendental meditation. But, ever since appearing on earth over 2,500 years ago, the Buddha has yet to be seen again. And humankind, having endured a brutal world war, is in search of him.
The hunt for the Buddha, and the relation of the Buddha to the title of this book, can be surmised from the prologue: “However, to attain Buddhahood, maintaining one’s health is an essential foundation.” The human body is an essential part of attaining this transcendence: without it, one can only die or be reincarnated into a different life-form. “According to the theory of causation in religious evolution,” we read in the prologue, “the birth of the Buddha conforms to the laws of natural selection and survival of the fittest, so even after thousands of years of assiduous self-cultivation, if the proper conditions are not met, that potential Buddha will be eliminated.” The prologue ends with the spaceship breaking apart and collapsing after entering Mars’s atmosphere—and finding the remnants of “castle-like structures, with walls like ancient ruins, sharp and broken like the jagged teeth of an animal,” alongside some curious birdlike figures with a mark of the red cross on their bodies. These are the ruins of a hospital on Mars, and we learn that similar hospital-like structures have been found on other planets, and even on asteroids.
From this brief and intriguing chapter, the narrative shifts to the point-of-view of one Yang Wei, a government functionary who finds himself ailing from a stomach pain brought on by drinking the bottled water provided at his hotel during a business trip to C City. Two hotel workers immediately get to work in transporting him to the Central Hospital, telling him that, “No matter what, you must never get sick.” Thus begins Yang Wei’s bizarre, nightmarish experience in the hospital. It mimics the bureaucracy of the contemporary capitalist healthcare system down to the core. The totalitarian nature of the hospital and the obsessive need to rid the body of disease is the overarching theme as Yang Wei finds himself poked, prodded, and neglected as part of his cure. The central mystery is that Yang Wei never learns of his diagnosis, or indeed what is wrong with him. Mysteriously, his medical records are already available at the hospital, but what the hospital administration knows of his health is a closed book to the patient himself.
In “Illness as Metaphor,” Susan Sontag writes that “illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship … Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” That other place is literalized in Hospital, where the medical facility stands in for the nation once an individual is recognized as diseased. To be a good patient is akin to being a good citizen, even in countries that purport to be a democracy, since the underlying rule of capitalism is to be a subject ready for the market. Similarly, Yang Wei is told by a doctor that “having a good attitude is the basic prerequisite for treatment.” The idea is to accept that medical power, here enacted by the expertise of doctors, knows what’s best for you, the same way that your government knows what’s best for you. We might fool ourselves into thinking that we voted for a government that won’t, for example, endorse another country’s genocide, but when it comes to suppressing your protests or banning your speech, the power, as it turns out, lies with the state. The hospital, in Han Song’s work, stands in for the state at large.
It’s tempting to believe that every Chinese writer writing dystopian speculative fiction is writing solely about the Chinese state, and indeed the book at times does work as a parody of the Chinese state in terms of how it depicts the workings of the hospital, but it is also a strident critique of Western “civilization” and the capitalist form of extraction of labour and resources from the “global South.” In this passage on the Rockefeller Foundation’s move into China, Han writes:
They eschewed traditional medicinal practices, and for the next several decades, our nation became a site of great strategic importance for international pharmaceutical manufacturers and medical-equipment supply companies. We also became the primary market for the sale and testing of new drugs from all over the world. Every piece of clinical and lab equipment, large and small, from CT scanners and nuclear magnetic resonance imaging equipment to particle accelerators, was imported at a cost many times greater than that of local manufacturers. Customs taxes swelled, as did supplier fees, bribes, and the cost of medical personnel’s international “observation” trips.
In true absurdist spirit, Han then goes on to say: “However, the spirit of the Rockefeller era was long gone, and the Age of Medicine was taking form. A crucial question was posed for the first time: Does the United States really exist? Or had it been created just to scare us? This mirage-like country remained a real place in the eyes of many, but the details surrounding this fantasy nation seemed to grow richer and more elaborate by the day. This, too, must have been some form of illness.”
The novel, then, feels universal in its depiction of medical bureaucracy. In a world that has just recently endured a plague that came out of nowhere and caused suffering in forms that are still being grappled with, “the Age of Medicine” that Han talks about seems like an accurate diagnosis of our current condition. Are we all in the Hospital, but we just don’t know it yet? Or, as the narrator asks, “How does the universe know it is sick?” This is similar to the question raised by one of the chapter titles: “How do you know that your brain isn’t there simply to produce shit?” If fascism is all about rooting out the illness, or the cancer, in the body politic, does the way to a more equitable existence lie in universalizing illness? Is the first step to justice acknowledging that we are all sick? “All men are equal in the eyes of disease,” Han writes, but the other problem remains: are all men equal in the eyes of treatment?
Although the narrator, Yang Wei, is frequently in pain, or confused, his situation is also farcical, with chapter headings hinting at the existentialism at the heart of the novel. At times, I thought to myself that Hospital reads like slapstick Dostoyevsky. The prose in its English translation can sometimes read as serviceable and plain, but Michael Berry has done a good job of taking us through the labyrinthine imagination of Han Song, a dense four-hundred-or-so pages that prove feverish and manic at times, cold-eyed and sober at others. Throughout, the narrator is unable to maintain a grip on the new reality that has befallen him, though he tries his best with the women with whom he sometimes finds himself, whether it’s a fellow patient Bai Dai or the sisterly figures of the nurses who try to make him feel better by letting him rest his head in between their thighs. That always helps, although the misogynist and occasionally downright creepy contours of the narrator’s addled thoughts seem only to highlight how the Hospital seems less like a place of curative purpose than a laboratory that heightens the worst of human excesses.
How the Hospital ties into the events in the prologue remain unexplained, although one hopes that the remaining two books in the trilogy, Exorcism and Dead Souls, will give us a better picture of the ailing universe. We get a sense that hope is far from what is being offered, though, in a chapter titled “The Hospital is the source of all maladies,” in which “Dr. Artist” tells Yang Wei that “the hospital is here to eradicate genes and bring an end to the traditional meaning of life.” So far, so depressingly and familiarly fascist. The implications of the end of life remain open to discussion, considering that human life is itself one of the universe’s greatest threats, but it’s hard to see an outcome that’s attuned to the flourishing of all life if the tools for ending its traditional meaning remain solely in the hands of humans. Is there a Buddha waiting in the cold, dark recesses of space to take on the burden?
Though Hospital is far from an easy read, despite its relatively short chapters and eminently pithy and quotable lines, it’s a compelling and dizzying look into the world of totalitarian healthcare. The ideal subject for both capitalism and religion turns out to be the one with the fittest human body. The heavy-handed and inscrutable, puzzling and confusing, manner with which governments around the world handled Covid does seem to suggest that the quickest path for the forces that control our life is to bring “an end to the traditional meaning of life” in order to cure us. What does this mean for us in the long run? I’m sure Han Song has plenty of ideas, and they will be a somewhat morbid treat to look forward to in the rest of this trilogy.