Book Review: Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang


Beijing skyline at night © Jens Wagner / Public Domain / Pixabay

Biographical Note about the Author

Born in Tianjin (天津) on 27 July 1984, Hao Jingfang (郝景芳) is an economist, writer and entrepreneur (World Economic Forum, 2021). In 2013 she obtained a Ph.D. in Economics from Tsinghua University, and has been working as an Economist with the China Development Research Foundation (CDRF) ever since. She also holds the office of Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum, with the ambitious aim “to promote educational equality in China and the World”. Her published works as an author include the short stories “The Last Brave Man” (Zuihou yi ge yonggan de ren 最后一个勇敢的人), “Invisible Planets” (Kan bu jian de xingqiu 看不见的星球), “The New Year Train” (Guo nian hui jia 过年回家), the novella Folding Beijing (Beijing zhedie 北京折叠), and the novel Vagabonds (Liulang cangqiong 流浪苍穹).


In an interview Hao Jingfang recorded for the Confucius Institute of Milan on the occasion of the Bookcity Milano 2020 festival, Hao (2020) explains that the reason why she loves science fiction writing is because it provides a lot of possibilities, thus overcoming the limits of reality. Thanks to her job as an economist, she had the chance to travel to many Chinese provinces and meet many people working and living in different realities. According to Hao, this has provided her with a baggage of memories of experiences and feelings that enriched her writing, with particular regards to Folding Beijing.


Folding Beijing

Folding Beijing is a collection of eleven short stories written by Hao Jingfang between 2010 and 2016, the year in which “Folding Beijing”, the short story that gives the anthology its title, won the Hugo Award prize for best science fiction novelette. Although the title refers to only one of the eleven short stories featured in the collection, which could suggest an editorial strategy, Folding Beijing is much more than that one story.


Through her sensitivity, at times poetic, Hao Jingfang depicts a dystopian China of the future, where technological progress has reached a high level of sophistication, and yet society is still profoundly divided by economic inequalities and class segregation. The protagonists of the stories featured in Folding Beijing are bound together by a sense of loneliness and desolation, which seems to be one of the major themes of the collection.

The author’s visionary and realistic representation of “a future that is already largely present” (Rega, 2020), has been linked to the concept of “science fiction realism” (Ren and Chenmei, 2018). In this regard, Ren points out how science fiction serves as a means to explore the real world and social life through a virtual reality. Despite their simplicity and conciseness, the individual stories are a starting point for a reflection on important contemporary issues, such as corruption, economic and social disparity, the role of the individual in society, and a technological progress that represses humanity instead of liberating it (Ren, 2018).


The fact that the narrating voice is female can be perceived from the narrator’s tone and perspective. Moreover, an attentive reader could also notice an affinity between the story “Folding Beijing” and Calvino’s Invisible Cities:


The city of Sophronia is made up of two half-cities. In one there is the great roller coaster with its steep humps, the carousel with its chain spokes, the Ferris wheel of spinning cages, the death-ride with crouching motorcyclists, the big top with the clump of trapezes hanging in the middle. The other half-city is of stone and marble and cement, with the bank, the factories, the palaces, the slaughterhouse, the school, and all the rest. One of the half-cities is permanent, the other is temporary, and when the period of its sojourn is over, they uproot it, dismantle it, and take it off, transplanting it to the vacant lots of another half-city. (Italo Calvino, 2013, p. 55)


This description of the city of Sophronia resembles, in fact, Hao Jingfang’s “folding Beijing”, which is divided, instead, into three spaces, and the 24 hours of each day have been carefully allotted to safeguard the time and space of the elite. The first space occupies half of the city, and it is composed of 5 million people living in wealth and privileges, who enjoy a full day of 24 hours; the second and third spaces have to share the remaining space and time, which are also unfairly allotted according to a predetermined social status (the second space, composed of 20 million people, being a sort of “middle class”, and the third space, composed of 50 million people, corresponding to the lowest strata of the population).


Calvino is, in fact, one of the most widely read Italian writers in China, and Hao Jingfang herself mentioned him among her sources of inspiration, during the above-mentioned interview with the Confucius Institute of the University of Milan.


Overall, Folding Beijing offers an interesting insight into contemporary China. It is an enlightening reading that is suitable to any kind of reader, not only sinologists and science fiction lovers, but anyone interested in expanding their knowledge and reflecting on current issues concerning not just China, but the entire humanity. The stories in the collection offer food for thought as they take to the extreme some of the current global issues, thus making the reader think about the world we live in and what the future might look like.



Ambra Minoli was born in Vimercate (Italy) on January 19, 1994. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures from the University of Bergamo in 2017, and her master’s degree in MSc Chinese Studies from the University of Edinburgh. Passionate about world literature, her research is centred on comparative literatures on Republican Shanghai, particularly Chinese, Japanese and French literature. She is open to freelance collaboration in writing and producing online content for editorial agencies, e-journals, and organisations focused on China. Find her on Instagram as @ambraminoli, and on LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.


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References

Calvino, I. 2013, Invisible Cities, Mariner Books, Boston.


Hao Jingfang. (2020) Interview with Hao Jingfang for the Confucius Institute of the University of Milan. Viewed 10 April 2021. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ldiTnPSkywg.


Rega, G. 2020, Il futuro? A oriente dei bastioni di Orione. Viewed 10 April 2021. Available at: https://laricerca.loescher.it/il-futuro-a-oriente-dei-bastioni-di-orione/.


Ren, D. and Chenmei, X. 2018, ‘Interpreting Folding Beijing through the Prism of Science Fiction Realism’, Chinese Literature Today, vol. 7, no 1, pp. 54-57.


World Economic Forum 2021, Hao Jingfang. Viewed 10 April 2021. Available at: https://www.weforum.org/people/hao-jingfang.

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