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We are only free when we slip through the cracks.

China Mountain Zhang

By Maureen F. McHugh 

22 Sep, 2015

James Tiptree, Jr. Award


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The great thing about being one of the early winners of an award is that it’s easy to be the first something. Maureen McHugh’s 1992 China Mountain Zhang may not have won the very first Tiptree Award, but it is the first book to win a Tiptree without sharing that victory with another novel. It also won a Lambda, was nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula and came in first in Locus’ Best First Novel. 

It’s also has a more challenging structure than the previous winners (A Woman of the Iron People and White Queen), which were relatively straightforward narratives. CMZ is an elaborate interweaving of several narratives, which touch each other only tangentially. 

With the Great Cleansing Wind relegated to an embarrassing memory of well-intended but disastrous political excess, 22nd Century Americans like Zhang can forget about politics and focus on their careers and personal lives. Zhang has advantages that many other Americans lack, the most obvious of which is that although Zhang is mixed race, he can pass for Chinese. This is very useful in a world dominated by sometimes xenophobic Chinese. 

But life is not perfect for would-be engineer Zhang, for reasons not immediately obvious to those around him.

Firstly, being able to pass for Chinese means the risk of being exposed as having passed for Chinese, which would invite retaliation from those who were fooled, even if — especially if — Zhang is forced to correct a misapprehension by a judgmental Chinese person. Someone like Zhang’s boss, Qian, for example.

Qian’s warm regard for American-Born-Chinese Zhang poses another entirely different invisible challenge. Qian fancies Zhang as a son-in-law; Zhang is reluctant. Not just because he is passing for Chinese; not just because Qian’s daughter San-xiang is strikingly ugly; not just because Zhang is not the sort of person who would marry for personal advancement rather than affection and esteem … but because she is a woman and he is gay. The Chinese of tomorrow despise and persecute people like Zhang, and Americans look to the Chinese example in this matter. Exposure could mean a trip to a labour camp — or worse.

San-xiang isn’t interested in a pity marriage2; in any case, Zhang probably doesn’t meet her intellectual standards for a beau. They go in different directions almost immediately. Instead of a story about an ill-conceived marriage, eventual exposure, and life in a labour camp, we get stories about Zhang, San-xiang, and others who are finding their way through a hostile society towards lives that are, if not perfect, at least acceptable. 

Not everyone is going to succeed. Society as a whole is not interested in the needs and aspirations of the few. As Zhang puts it:

But I am only free in small places. Government is big, we are small. We are only free when we slip through the cracks. 


What a remarkable thing to see an SF novel of this vintage where no attempt has been made by the publisher to conceal the fact the protagonist isn’t white. Or, really, of any vintage.

That synopsis leaves a lot out. While Zhang is a major character in the novel, he is by no means the only major character. McHugh paints a picture of the 22nd Century by looking at the lives of people in America and China and (many many miles away) in the colonies of Mars. Jo Walton called this structure a mosaic (an excellent review which I remember, but carefully avoided re-reading) but as I want to seem different, I will call it a tapestry.

This is yet another Tiptree winner in which the Soviet Union survived well past 1991; in fact, all the winners I have reviewed (1991 and 1992) have that feature in common. I understand that publishing lead times in publishing can be long, years long, but still, given that the USSR had been gradually collapsing since 1985 and formally died in 1991, it seems that someone might have noticed something. 

With the advantage of hindsight, it seems that the obvious path McHugh could have taken to justify Chinese dominance is global economic convergence (where per capita income is about the same for everyone)” + it turns out there are rather a lot of Chinese1” = China has the biggest economy. That’s not the route she chose. 

In her 22nd Century, not everyone has the same per capita income. Americans inhabit a poor and backward country; China is rich and technologically advanced. The Americans aren’t too badly off, at least by contemporary American standards, but it is clear that China has advanced further and faster. This is because most of the capitalist nations, including the US, were nobbled by a vast global financial crisis in the early 21st century, one that managed to entangle the USSR as well (but interestingly, not Canada or Australia). The socialist Chinese avoided the catastrophe. Of course, such a financial crisis would be rather unlikely, given that there are laws, like Glass-Steagall, which would have protected America (at least) against any such thing. I find it hard to imagine legislators who would put their nation’s financial safety at risk for short term gain … but then, I’m an SF reader, so I can wrap my mind around such implausibility. 

My editor suggested that McHugh’s method may have been very straight forward: living in China at a time when China was poor and America rich, she imagined a world where the reverse was true. 

This novel is something of a novelty to someone steeped in the traditions of American science fiction. This is a socialist world that isn’t an oppressive hell-hole. Granted, the Great Cleansing Wind wasn’t fun, but that sort of cultural excess is something you have to expect from barbarians who, like the Americans, only recently became socialist. As Zhang explains, China is too old and stable to fall prey to that sort of convulsion of political zealotry. 

[Zhang isn’t terribly interested in political history. I just thought I would mention that here.]

Persons familiar with such classics as Armageddon 2419 A.D., Sixth Column, and Chung Kuo would expect Chinese dominance to be nightmarish. In this book, the Chinese aren’t saints and they have all the usual flaws of Great Powers (and people in general), but they don’t seem any worse than the average. They behave much better than the Belgians did in the Congo. 

Of course, it is regrettable that the Chinese are so down on gay people, but I am not convinced the fictional Chinese of the 22nd Century are that much more homophobic than the average Westerner would have been when this was written. I can say this with expert assurance, having searing memories of the Great Floating Homosexual Flamewar that used to drift from one Usenet newsgroup to another. 

Finally, this is a very unSFnal SF novel. These people live in a future that is wonderful, terrible, and strange to us, but to them it is just the world that they live in. Colonies on Mars are to them no more noteworthy than a car is to us. This book is not a fantasy of political agency (as many SF novels have been). Instead it is about people building lives in a world they largely accept as inevitable and normal, whether they enjoy it or not. 

China Mountain Zhang is available from Orb in both trade paperback and ebook formats.

1: I think India’s population is slated to exceed China’s in the 21st Century, but I don’t know if that was what population models suggested in the early 1990s. I don’t recall India even being mentioned in this book, in any case. 

2: This is a society that is not much interested in equal rights for women or even in treating them with much respect. When San-xiang’s medical condition is finally addressed, she finds that life as a notably pretty woman can be worse than life as a remarkably ugly one.