A translation of the prologue from „China 2185“ by Liu Cixin

Liu Cixin’s debut novel never made it into print, but it is arguably one of Liu’s most notorious works, because of its central premise: the digital resurrection of Mao Zedong.[1] Despite starting work on the novel in 1985, exactly two hundred years before the events in the story, it was according to Liu only completed in 1989, two months before the violent suppression of the Tiananmen protests in Beijing. “China 2185” therefore treats the specter of a wired democracy still with some ambivalence. Whilst the digital space initially appears to bring new possibilities of political freedom and eternal life to China’s drastically overaged population, the digitally resurrected old men eventually create the electronic “Republic of Huaxia”[2] that takes over all wired networks and ends up bringing the country to the brink of an atomic war with the Soviet Union.

 

China 2185

by Liu Cixin

 

Prologue

Late at night, a young man walked across Tiananmen Square to the memorial hall. In the historical records of the twenty-second century he appears by his computer-generated code name M102. Tiananmen Square had by this time already been converted into a lawn and the young man’s footsteps were inaudible, despite carrying a large travel bag. Under the moonlight the Memorial Hall faintly revealed its massive and unyielding profile. 250 years ago, the architects of that era praised this building as having “fatherly majesty.“ The guard soldiers disappeared 50 years ago. Nowadays there is only one old man who watches the entrance. In the chronicles his code name is M103.

He had just fallen asleep in the small front house that was as old as the memorial hall itself, when he was suddenly awakened by M102 knocking on his door. M102 asked him to enter the memorial hall, but he refused. Then M102 took out a white porcelain bottle. Its moonlit glow proved an irresistible sight to M103’s eyes.

„Maotai[3] from the 1980s, Grandpa, it took me a month’s salary.“

„You should have brought that out right away, silly kid!“ The old man M103 unscrewed the bottle, took a small sip and nodded with satisfaction. „You can go in.“

M102 began walking towards the Memorial Hall, but then suddenly turned around:

“You don’t want to know what I am about to do?”

“Don’t be ridiculous! In this world there are many things worth sacrificing your life for, but nothing is worth sacrificing sleep.” With that the old man went back inside the guard house.

M102 walked quickly up the wide stairs. He had to use all his strength to open the heavy door, but [luckily] it was not locked. As he walked along the dark corridor, he suddenly realized how quiet and empty it was inside the palace and he regretted not asking the watchman to accompany him. As he was walking, he could only faintly make out the silhouette of a large white statue to his side. But suddenly the room turned bright: Inside a crystal coffin, on top of a crimson carpet and framed by a halo of red light lay the remains of that great leader from two centuries ago. M102 managed to calm down his nerves and took two apparatuses out of his travel bag that looked like cameras. On the ground, he unrolled a very thin screen that gave off a blueish glow. Immediately he began calibrating his instruments and, without realizing it, two hours had passed.

It took M102 by surprise when M103 suddenly stood behind him.

“Oh my God! You almost scared me to death! Why didn’t you say anything? Apparently, my business does merit sacrificing your sleep.”

“I always come for a visit at this time of the day. He needs company.”

At that moment the two apparatuses were pointing at the corpses head, while a blue outline of his forehead appeared on the screen on the ground. A grid of red lines slowly moved across his head.

“Relax, I am not going to damage the remains.”

“I am relaxed. If the crystal coffin registers any disturbance, an alarm goes off.”

“That means you are not really needed?”

“Everybody has to figure out for themselves how they want to spend their old age. In my opinion, being a grave keeper is the most desirable profession for old people.

“Shut up! You just called this place a….”

“Don’t be afraid, kid! A grave is the least scary place in the world. In fact, it fosters an optimistic attitude towards death.”

“Since you are so optimistic, let me ask you, how long do you think you still have to live?”

“I estimate about thirty-two years and four months.”

“Why is that?”

“At retirement, I bought a stockpile of 600 bottles of Fenjiu[4]. Because that stuff’s alcohol content is above the legal limit, it was already back then the last batch. Yesterday, I still had 584 bottles left. Usually I drink one glass every other day. Because every bottle equals ten glasses, I still have 11760 days left. If you add to that the ten days, I get out of the Maotai bottle you gave me, you get the number I just told you.”

“By the looks of it, you might live longer than that!”

“Thanks! If it comes to it, I will carry on, but I nevertheless like to calculate my remaining days. It gives me a sense of stability and makes me feel like I belong in the future. You kids today lack those two precious things. Floating in a void, the present and the future are to you as vague and incomprehensible as the movement of clouds. All you can see everywhere is either cause for hope or despair. But then you are also so confident, you think you run the world. You worry about the draft of the national budget. You worry about economic development along the Yarlung Tsangpo. You panic when the sediment of the Yangtze River grows in the thousandth-of-a-millimeter range. But you also cried with joy when the Moon Territory Agreement was signed. And then there is the yield of the world’s atomic bombs, the situation in Africa after the split of South Africa, etc. Worrying this much makes life exhausting. By contrast, in his days,” M103 pointed at the red-light bathed body that appeared to sleep, “in his days, people lived totally detached and without a worry about anything beyond their personal lives, because they knew that the world was in the hands of a great and powerful man. In the minds of the ordinary people back then, such an extraordinary person appeared to have God-like power and they believed that the country and the world were his. Their only duty was to mind their own little lives. People determine history, but in those days the people were only passively in charge of history. Now if the people make history and history makes great men, then the people are to their leader what grandchildren are to their grandparents. Your generation values nothing…”

“Ok, old guy, that’s enough philosophy and history for now. Let me tell you what I am doing.”

“Not interested.”

“This instrument emits two laser beams that converge at a specific point in the brain of the deceased, and the other instrument receives the interference fringes of these two beams.

“Somethings similar to holography.”

“It seems you are not that uneducated after all. You’re right. This is a form of holography, but it has a molecular level of precision. Both devices use X-ray diffraction analysis to record the molecular structure of the object. It is called a 3D scanner and can record all the information of an object, including the molecular structure of each measuring point. I borrowed this device from a friend, but what really interests me is the following: My research institute recently created a holographic emulator that can imitate molecules based on the information provided by the scanners. For example, we scanned a bottle of milk using our 3D scanners. When we gave this information to the computer, it fully mimicked the molecular structure of the milk. After three days you could see that the milk, which existed only in the form of electric impulses on a computer, had gone sour.”

“Boring.”

“Well, you might think milk is boring, but what about a human brain? What happens when we give a computer the 3D scans of a human brain? If you still think this is boring, then you are a lost cause.”

“Well, what happens?”

“I don’t know, but that’s what I want to figure out.”

“And why are you not using your own brain?”

“Of course, that would be more practical, but organic matter fluctuates constantly and in a living brain molecular change occurs at a particularly high frequency. Not long ago, we still had to immerse objects in liquid helium to suppress thermal vibration, before we could scan them. Now, we can handle normal temperature objects, but we cannot scan objects that are undergoing some rapid chemical reaction as well as animate things.”

“You could have gone to a hospital morgue.”

“I’ve already been there three times and I went to a graveyard twice. All in all, I have already recorded five dead brains, and this is my sixth.”

“How long will it still take?”

“Look, the red area on the screen is the part that is already scanned. At this speed it will take another three hours, but it is crucial that both the instruments and the crystal coffin are during this period not subjected to any vibrations with a frequency greater than 20 Hz and an amplitude greater than 2.5 microns. That would destroy the established molecular structure and the scan would have to be restarted. Yesterday, a colleague tried to scan a trilobite fossil from the Cretaceous period, but two hours into the scanning a vibration created by an underground nuclear test in a gold mine in the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan destroyed all his work. I hope they don’t try again in the next three hours. Long live world peace! “

 

It was half past midnight and the new moon was spreading its soft silver light on Tiananmen Square. An insomniac firefly flickered across the vast lawn, while an advertising airship that had already turned off its lights hovered motionless in the air – like a black olive in the night sky; the surrounding buildings from the past were all quietly asleep. Further out were the skyscrapers that had been built at the beginning of this century. Out of a desire to preserve Beijing’s ancient culture, they were constructed in the style of the Luminist school of the twentieth century. Covered in mirrors these skyscrapers blended seamlessly into their surroundings and stood now like tall crystal columns in the moonlit sky. They added a layer of dreamy wistfulness to this ancient city.

 

It was June 10, 2185 A.D.

 

Earth was still a planet in the universe.

Beijing was still a city on Earth.

 

[1] An earlier (physical) resurrection of Mao takes place in Ye Yonglie’s novel “Mao Zedong Returns to the World” (Mao Zedong chongfan renjian毛泽东重返人间, 1976). The image accompanying this post is from the cover of Ye’s novel.

[2] Huaxia 华夏is an ancient name for China.

[3] Maotai 茅台is the brand name of a famous Chinese liquor.

[4] Fenjiu 汾酒is another famous sorghum-based liquor.