That We May Live is a collection of seven stories of contemporary Chinese speculative fiction, each beautifully formatted, with an individual title page bearing a quotation from the story in English and Chinese. The works in the collection are not science fiction or straightforward fantasy but might be better classified as urban fantasies. Each involves characters surviving or moving through shadowy, shifting, and insubstantial urban landscapes. Even that categorization seems superficial, though, as I had difficulty plugging these surreal, stylized stories into any literary pigeonhole that made sense in my mind. Some of the stories in the collection seem to lack narrative cohesion, but that only makes the collection’s themes of rootlessness, change, and anonymity resonate all the more strongly throughout.
An example of this theme of anonymity is the collection’s penultimate story, “A Counterfeit Life” (written by Chen Si’an and translated by Canaan Morse), which follows the experiences of a man who is mistaken for the Master of Ceremonies at a wedding and realizes he can bluff his way through any social situation:
Later, he began challenging himself to assume any role whenever someone mistook him for someone else. He found that it happened far more often than he would have believed. Most people had absolutely no idea what sort of person they were waiting for. (p. 113)
The man starts a guild of people who live by passing themselves off as guests at meetings, parties, or conferences by blending in, hanging at the margins, and offering vague comments with no content when it becomes necessary to speak. The story explores urban facelessness, the idea of a whole class of people pursuing the absolute anonymity of city life not inadvertently but as an embraced way of life. The man, who is never given a name, could be anyone (and is, in the story), and the city, also never named, could be any modern metropolis.
Likewise, in the two short stories by Enoch Tam (both translated by Jeremy Tiang), the theme of anonymity and loss of a physical rootedness extends to the built environment itself. In “Auntie Han’s Modern Life,” Han has worked her way up to be owner of a shop in District E and begun a relationship with Kin, the driver of a delivery truck, when District E itself begins to disappear and the houses in the surrounding hills start to move restlessly. It’s never explained why, and one of the characteristics of these stories is that neither magic nor technology is ever introduced to explain the surreal changes or manifestations that take place. Han simply goes about her daily life in a city that vanishes each evening. Eventually, mysterious “garden-keepers” from a company, or perhaps the government, come and plant “a couple of skyscrapers in front of the village, blocking the path of the restless houses” (p. 45). The only resolution to the story is that Kin, kept away for a time because of the cartographic disruptions, returns, and he and Han resume their life together. The urban landscape can be rendered completely unrecognizable, Tam seems to be saying, but people continue their lives even in the midst of changes they can’t understand or explain.
Garden-keepers show up again in “The Mushroom Houses Proliferated in District M,” the second piece by Tam and Tiang. Urban sprawl, and the commercial turnover as businesses spring up and disappear, is likened to the mushroom houses that grow in District M, where they are planted close together and without caution or plan (unlike District N, where they are closely regulated). Their density means there are not enough nutrients in the ground to feed them, and they rot. “With the mushrooms no longer habitable, many property owners moved elsewhere, and the garden-keepers allowed them to mortgage their mushrooms so they could afford temporary boxes to live in” (p. 99). The theme seems to be loss of permanence and an effacement of the landscape that speaks to the urbanization and ecological degradation China has faced on a large scale. The landscape of a city may transform beyond all recognition, as it did for Auntie Han, but life goes on. Tam’s stories express the dislocation and disorientation felt by inhabitants of a place who see it radically transformed by development, technology, and environmental decay over the course of their lives, until it becomes a place strange and unrecognizable but a place that they still must inhabit. In a similar way, Tam gives us weird urban landscapes that make no physical sense and offers us the same explanation dwellers in those cities receive: none.
Other stories in the collection involve challenging traditional roles of women in society. The first story of the collection, “Sour Meat” by Dorothy Tse, translated by Natascha Bruce, follows the dreamlike journey of a woman traveling to visit her grandmother, and the hallucinations and sexual release brought about by a kind of traditional kombucha. By the end of her surreal voyage she has found physical fulfillment, or possibly donated her flesh to be used to ferment more of the kombucha, or both. (There’s also obviously significance to the fact that the narrator has escaped her day job at an advertising firm promoting a product called the Power Rod.) Likewise, Zhu Hui’s “Lip Service,” translated by Michael Day, follows an aging newswoman worried about losing her beauty and being replaced. She holds onto her professional position through sex with her station manager, who can only reach climax if she recites imaginary news stories while they’re having sex. In “The Elephant,” by Chan Chi Wa, translated by Audrey Heijns, a woman becomes obsessed with the disappearance of an elephant from the local zoo and realizes to her surprise that her husband believes her a prime suspect. In each of these stories, women struggle against the suspicion of authority or the subservient roles expected of them.
The most poignant expression of this last theme comes in the final piece in the collection, “Flourishing Beasts” by Yan Ge, also translated by Jeremy Tiang. A woman, trying to avoid the attentions of an older admirer rich and influential enough to attempt to force her into marriage, travels back to a monastery where she lived with her mother as a child. The monastery is inhabited by vegetable women known as flourishing beasts, all of whom for some reason have her mother’s face:
All flourishing beasts are female. They live in herds and are placid by nature. Having green thumbs, they have made a living as gardeners since ancient times and are particularly skilled at raising rare species.
The flourishing beasts have delicate features etched with a perpetual worried look. They seldom speak. Their pale skin is marked with pale-blue crescent moons, and they have six fingers on each hand, but otherwise they are no different from any human woman. (p. 133)
As her time in the monastery passes, she learns that the flourishing beasts she interacts with are actually only the diseased majority of the species, infested by worms that create the crescent marks on their skin and eventually kill them, eating them from the inside out. The few beasts that avoid this infestation have limbs of flawless wood and are carved into furniture; as such they can live an extended life of ease. The other beasts envy these objects of ornamentation as the only ones who attain their “true form.” There’s certainly a commentary on traditional marriage here: the lucky beasts are carved to become ornamentation in someone’s home, while the flawed beasts live their short lives as garden caretakers isolated from society and eaten from the inside out.
They’ll rot away, they’ll die. It’s a law of nature. That’s all we get in this life, and all we can hope for is that we leave behind some good seeds. (p. 145)
The narrator witnesses the horrifically painful death of one of the caretaker beasts and leaves the monastery to return to her life in the city. Even here, though, the beasts continue to haunt her, as when her former admirer dies he sends her a gift that turns out to be a chair carved from one of the beasts. She’s unable to escape the reality of the two possible fates of the flourishing beasts, which makes that label “flourishing” painfully ironic: lives of labor ending in agony or an eternal youth of flawless and paralyzed display.
I felt somewhat lost reading many of the stories in this collection, as though these shifting urban cartographies held clues or referents that I was missing, although the stories were as gorgeous and mysterious as the flourishing beasts themselves. For a reader unfamiliar with the broader literary context of contemporary Chinese speculative fiction, an introduction might have helped with understanding where these stories fit into the current literary landscape. Of course, it’s also valid to say the work of learning such context is incumbent on the interested reader, and this collection will no doubt entice many readers to do just that.