Folding Beijing is a novella written by a Chinese sci-fi writer Hao Jingfang. The English translation by Ken Liu was published in 2015 in Uncanny Magazine and won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novelette. It is described as “a Beijing with different spaces and classes, a city that folds up like Transformers but with a colder sense of reality”. The novella depicts a picture of the “future Beijing”: the city is collapsible and divided into three spaces according to social classes, which are not only geographically separated from each other, but also in time, where the first class, with a small population and good facilities, enjoys a full 24 hours of the day, and then the middle class, which enjoys 16 hours of the next day. While the third class, with the largest number of underclass workers, can only use the eight hours at night to make a living in a poor environment, and the protagonist, Lao Dao, is one of the poor men among them.

Obviously, this is not just an imagination of the “future Beijing”, but a metaphor for the present, not just a social critique of China, but a universal one, a reflection on modern cities. There is no doubt that Hao has questioned the social reality of the increasingly difficult circulation between classes, as well as the normative pattern of marriage and love. As Lefebvre criticizes in The Production of Space, in the city that Hao constructs, we can see how a social structure is realized by architectural forms and the practice of daily life, and how a set of social norms fixes this social structure due to the isolation of classes. The workers are unable to jump from one class to another; the upper class cannot love freely with the lower class. They know very little about each other, except for the legends left by their ancestors. The distinction between the three spaces is not only material wealth and political status, as the spatial contradictions express the conflicts between socio-political interests, but it is also spiritual, pointing ultimately to the alienation of humanity caused by modernity, i.e., at least in this story, sci-fi is a narrative method to exaggerate the function of modern technology. It asks why technology, which is supposed to make our lives better, has plunged us into the inescapable dilemma of humanity and human rights.

Folding Beijing is exactly such an unanswered question. Unlike other sci-fi works that offer profound changes to social reality, Folding Beijing does not achieve any drastic transformation. Not even the protagonist’s wish is fulfilled; Lao Dao returns to the Third Space again and starts his daily work at the end of the story. However, the story has an endless meaning beyond itself. (Whether or not this work is ” sci-fi ” is in fact questionable, as its image of a post-human world is limited to the machine-assisted living.) As Ted Chiang says, sci-fi is about changing and its inevitability, about how the future might be different from the past because we were used to a similar pattern of life to our ancestors for most of human history. Still, after the Industrial Revolution, changes came, and we began to know that the future would be different from the past. The differences would happen in many ways, perhaps in technological or social change. To think about the meaning of these changes is to test the ideas in sci-fi works. This sci-fi idea is also the basis of Folding Beijing. The author hopes to show the isolation of different people, who, despite their spatial proximity, have no actual contact at all: “The main motivation for my writing comes from some of my bystander observations …… I lived in an urban-rural area of Beijing, with noisy alleys, small restaurants and big markets. Sometimes I would eat and chat with the shopkeepers who always talk about their families in distant provinces and their sorrowful plight of not being able to afford medical care in Beijing.” (Hao Jingfang)

Folding Beijing is not a description of if changes will occur and how one change will lead to another; it is just a snapshot of the change process, which is embedded in every conflict and characterization in the story. Hao, while imagining Beijing as such a hierarchical society like Babel Tower, implicitly gives everyone in the story the power to break down this social barrier. Qin Tian buys into Yi Yan’s note, Yi Yan hopes to break free from her marriage, Lao Dao hopes Tangtang(her name means Sugar in Chinese) can become a decent lady in the future, and Wu Wen proposes a plan to transform the industries. As mentioned before, Folding Beijing does not provide a definite answer. Still, it can at least show that each individual’s choice is closely related to this answer, meaning humanitarianism. This expectation of change is born from and eventually falls back into the real world. So we can say that this Metropolis-like social structure is a utopian imagination because the more straightforward the social system and interpersonal relationships are assumed to be, the easier it is to clarify where the social problems lie. It even eliminates the Foucauldian internalization and places ” humanity ” in an unquestionable position, thus eliminating the subversiveness of sci-fi.

https://uncannymagazine.com/article/folding-beijing-2/