Han Dong - Brand New World (short story)
By Helen Wang, published
Han Dong's short story Brand New World, translated by Helen Wang and Nicky Harman. 韩东《崭新世》
Brand New World
Wearing a brand–new factory uniform and carrying a large cardboard box, Liu Tao crossed the broad empty space of the factory complex and headed for the grey dormitory building. There were six beds in the dorm, four occupied by men wearing the same uniform, holding cardboard boxes and all with wooden expressions on their faces. Just as Liu Tao sat down on the fifth bed, a loudspeaker started up: ‘Welcome to Brand New World. From now on, consider yourself one of our family! Your dormitory is your home. The bed you are sitting on is your own personal world. It is yours for twelve hours every day. The other twelve hours it will belong to your other half. Full details are on your phone.’ Beep – text messages had arrived. Not just on one phone, but on several. Liu Tao traced the beep to the pillow and lifted it up. The phone lay there, its screen flashing. There were two messages from ‘the management’. The first read ‘This handset is our welcome gift to you, for you and your other half to share. Calls charges will be deducted from your wages. The phone number can be found on the back of the phone.’ The second read ‘Your other half is a pretty girl. Why not send her a text and say hello?’ As they fiddled with their phones, a man came in and sat down on the sixth bed. He looked familiar. ‘Are you…?’ Liu Tao began. The man put his finger to his lips and beckoned Liu Tao outside into the corridor. ‘You’re that journalist,’ said Liu Tao, remembering. ‘Oh? Is that so?’ ‘You interviewed me at the factory gate, asked me if I’d applied for a job. I said yes, and you asked if I knew about the suicides at Brand New World? About the “jumpers”?’ ‘That’s right. But please keep it confidential, I’m here undercover.’ ‘Undercover?’ ‘I’m on an assignment. Our next report will be the inside story.’ ‘Do you think there will be any more suicides?’ ‘Sure, I guarantee it. By the way, you can call me Mole.’ At six fifty the loudspeaker issued a reminder: straighten the beds, tidy the room, and get ready to leave for work. ‘Your other half has finished her shift and is on her way back…’ The dorm manager came round knocking on doors, ‘Off you go, get a move on…’
The canteen was huge and full of people eating. They were all men, and all, like Liu Tao, about twenty years old. Mole came over with his bowl of food, and sat down. ‘Have you noticed…?’ ‘There are no women in the canteen.’ ‘Nowhere else either. Have you seen a woman since you stepped inside the gates of Brand New World?’ ‘No.’ When they’d finished eating, Liu Tao followed everyone on to the factory bus and they were taken to the assembly hall. On the brightly-lit stage, senior company figures sat at a table. A bald man straightened his tie and stood up. ‘You are honoured today. In view of a few unfortunate incidents lately, Mr Bai Qixian, the director, has come on a rare visit to the plant. Please show your appreciation to Director Bai! There was prolonged applause. Then Director Bai gave his speech. ‘Young people today are very fragile. They don’t know how difficult things were when we started this enterprise.’ He held up his left hand. Liu Tao saw that part of the Director’s index finger was missing. ‘Once, work was so busy,’ Bai went on, ‘that I didn’t sleep for three days and two nights. I was so tired I got careless and the machine took part of my finger. But just as soon as I got some sort of a bandage on it, I was back in the workshop. I used my good hand to open up the machine, removed the crushed bit of broken finger, then hosed the machine down. The goods were ready the next day as promised. Things were truly hard in those days.’ The entire hall was silent. After a moment, the bald man started to clap and applause erupted around the room. They were still applauding when the bald man shouted into the microphone ‘This is the spirit of Brand New World!’ Then Baldie spoke: ‘Director, when I was at university, there were 30,000 people on campus, and almost every year there would be a suicide. In our enterprise, there are 800,000 people. Seven or eight suicides in six months must be within the range of normality. Suicides are to be expected.’ A woman wearing gold-rimmed glasses spoke: ‘Our people all jumped. People saw it happen, saw the dead bodies. It was tragic.’ ‘Then don’t let them jump. Lock all access to the roof, put safety nets at the windows.’ ‘That will cost a lot,’ said Gold-rimmed Glasses. ‘According to my calculations, there are 1,500,000 square metres of windows.’ ‘It must be done. All 1,500,000 square metres.’ The people on the stage did not look down at the audience. They were talking to each other, as if in a conference room. At midnight, Liu Tao was taken to the assembly line in the workshop. He put on overalls, overshoes, cap and mask. The supervisor showed them the machinery and told them what they would be doing: ‘Take the motherboard from the assembly line – scan the trademark – insert it into a static bag – affix the labels – put it back on the assembly line. That’s five steps. You need to do one every eight seconds, seven a minute.’ Liu Tao interrupted: ‘It doesn’t look difficult.’ ‘No talking!’ the supervisor said. ‘No phone calls. No eating. Just do as I say.’ ‘OK,’ said Liu Tao. ‘No talking! Not even “OK.”’ After that, only the supervisor spoke. ‘ It isn’t difficult, anyone can do it, otherwise we wouldn’t be giving jobs to you scum. But if you don’t fulfil your quotas, then you do overtime without pay.’ ’12 hours per shift, 1 hour to eat, I cover you during toilet breaks, which are seven minutes maximum,’ he finished. With a rubber cap on his finger, Liu Tao set to work…. By dawn, sleep was creeping up on Liu Tao and he was getting slower. The supervisor came over and yelled abuse at him, then moved on to the next person. He had a go at almost everyone who was working that night. In the early morning, the factory bus came to take them back to the dorm building.
Liu Tao ate a good meal, and returned to his dorm room. The others were all back and fighting over the shower. Those who didn’t get to shower took their mobiles from under the pillows. There was a message on Liu Tao’s phone, not from the management, but sent from his own mobile number. It said, ‘I am your other half, Zhang Lihong. It’s terrible working here but we can help each other.’ Liu Tao lay down and pulled the cover over him. There was a faint smell of perfume in the bed. On the pillow lay a very long hair, and to the side was a plastic comb and a small round mirror. He wondered what the girl with the mirror looked like. Then he fell asleep. An hour later, Liu Tao was woken by a clattering sound coming from outside the building. He got up and went to the window. On the ground outside were two workers wearing face masks, cutting through the reinforcement bars. The dorm door opened and in came two people, holding a tape measure and an electric drill. They rushed to the window, measured it, wrote the measurements on their arms, and began to drill holes in the windowsill. Liu Tao went back to bed and pulled the cover over his head. At six fifty precisely, the broadcast began again and they got up. There was something different about the dorm, and not just a change in the light. A safety net had been fixed over the window, making the room feel like a cage or a prison cell. Liu Tao sent a text message to his phone: ‘Zhang Lihong, your bedcover smells so nice, I didn’t get up for lunch, I just slept right through!’ After dinner, Liu Tao began his first shift on the assembly line. The work really wasn’t difficult, and soon he was packaging five motherboards a minute. The supervisor came over, shouted at him for being ham-fisted and corrected his movements, and after that he could pack six. Then he was doing seven per minute, but not more, which told him that there was some reason behind the quota of seven. The light in the workshop was so bright it hurt his eyes. There was an LCD screen on the far wall, with two rows of red numbers which changed all the time. The first row was the target (quantity) that the team had to reach. The other was the production schedule (time). Liu Tao urgently needed a pee. He put up his hand. The supervisor came over. ‘I need to go to the toilet.’ The supervisor rolled his eyes, took a card from his pocket and handed it to him. ‘Didn’t I say no talking? In future, just talk with your hands.’ Liu Tao wanted to ask where the toilets were, but didn’t know how to say this with his hands. ‘Hurry up, don’t stand there dawdling!’ yelled the supervisor. Liu Tao ran out of the workshop but it took him a while before he could find the toilets. The cubicle door wouldn’t open. Eventually, he remembered the swipe card he’d been given. It worked. Liu Tao straddled the toilet bowl and relieved himself. It felt so good that he trembled all over. It was a long piss, and he was only halfway through when an electronic voice said: ‘You have only one minute remaining, please ensure you return to your workstation on time.’ Flustered, Liu Tao wet his trouser legs. Just then, someone knocked at the door: ‘Hey, hurry up and get out!’ As he left the toilet, the toilet inspector was on his heels: ‘You’ve got more piss than a lazy ass! Can’t you drink a bit less?’ He went back to the workshop, where the supervisor had another go at him. At midnight the workshop went quiet, and apart from the occasional clanging of tools, there was nothing but a low whirring noise. Even the supervisor said little after that.
Within a few days, Liu Tao had become an experienced worker. Factory life consisted of working, eating, sleeping, all according to strict regulations. It was desperately monotonous. The one thing that made him happy was his progress with Zhang Lihong. He sent her up to eight messages a day, pouring them into his mobile. Every time he got back to the dorm, he would turn it on and there were would be three or four messages from her waiting for him.
Liu Tao told her that he was twenty this year. An orphan, he had been taken in by his uncle, but did not get on with the family. Zhang Lihong told him that she was nineteen this year, her dad had lost his job, her mum had run off with another man and she had a younger brother who had just got into university. Then they got texting about the ‘jumpers’, and how the compensation paid to bereaved families ran to several hundreds of thousands of yuan.
Zhang Lihong said she was thinking of jumping. That way her brother’s fees would be paid and her father would have money to live off. But who would look after her father when he needed it later?’
Liu Tao texted: ‘I’ll help you look after him.’
Zhang Lihong texted back: ‘And who do you think you are? You sound like my husband.’
Liu Tao: ‘Could you take a photo and store it on the phone? And I’ll leave one of me.’
The next day there was a picture of Zhang Lihong on the mobile phone. She was lying on that very same bed, head on his pillow, her broad smile showing her white teeth. There was a text from her in the draft box, saying how handsome he was in his photo, he looked like the Taiwanese singer-songwriter Jay Chou.
Liu Tao showed Zhang Lihong’s photo to everyone in the dorm. ‘What do you think? Isn’t she a beauty?!
Mole didn’t say anything. Someone else said: ‘You’re not moving very fast! Take a look at my other half!’
When Liu Tao looked, the woman in the photo was posing completely naked.
Then the next person showed him his phone. His woman had no face, she was just flesh and red-painted fingernails.
Liu Tao told Zhang Lihong. She was outraged, but he persisted:
‘If you send photos of your body, and don’t show your face, then no one will know who it is.’
That day, there was just one text from Zhang Lihong: ‘You first.’
Liu Tao took the phone to the bathroom, locked the door, and quickly took a couple of shots.
In due course, Zhang Lihong did the same, and this gave Liu Tao a lot of pleasure under the covers. After that he went to the bathroom again and took more photos.
The next day, there were two new ones of her on the phone. They were taken from a different angle, and he could see more of her. Liu Tao’s fantasies ran wild.
In addition to the texts and the photos, from time to time Zhang Lihong would leave socks or knickers under the cover, at Liu Tao’s request, of course.
Once Liu Tao left his sperm on the bedsheets. He apologised in a text but Zhang Lihong seemed unconcerned.
Fortunately, someone came every week to change the bedsheets, and the factory did all the laundry. Liu Tao lay back on the clean sheets and sent a text: ‘Lihong, it feels strange without your scent here, I can’t get to sleep.’
She texted back: ‘You filthy pig!’
Mole emerged from the shower–room, drying himself with his towel as he walked over to his bed. He put on his trousers and long-sleeved vest, then his socks. He turned the pillow over, then lay down. On the bed opposite, Liu Tao was texting. ‘Lihong, you’re the only reason for me to stay on here. I’d go to the end of the world with you! We could set up our own business, we’ve no capital, but we’re young, and love is our capital!...We have to earn lots of money, to send your brother to university, to keep your dad!’ Mole was tossing and turning. He looked at Liu Tao: ‘Fancy a stroll outside? I can’t sleep.’ The factory complex consisted of nothing but buildings, not even a tree in sight. Director Bai’s business mantras were pinned up on all the noticeboards on all the walls: ‘High tech in the lab, self-discipline outside the lab.’ ‘China leads the world in manufacturing technology, and Brand New World leads China. The greatest enemy is human weakness.’ ‘There are only four answers that low-level staff need to give their superiors: Yes, ok, understood, can do.’ Liu Tao asked: ‘Why do you wear so many clothes in bed?’ Mole: ‘I have a girlfriend, I can’t share a quilt with another woman.’ Liu Tao: ‘But you sleep in her bed.’ ‘That’s unavoidable. But we don’t touch or have any other contact.’ ‘I didn’t have a girlfriend. Zhang Lihong says she’ll be my girlfriend.’ ‘It’s a conspiracy, a capitalist conspiracy!’ Mole was agitated ‘Think about it. Brand New World is a huge company, with so many dorm buildings. But the men and women work alternate shifts. They’re using hormonal control to increase production.’ ‘…’ ‘Have you actually seen Zhang Lihong?’ ‘No.’ ‘Could you meet her?’ ‘No, only if we left the company and didn’t work here any more.’ ‘Could you leave?’ ‘As long as she’s here, I won’t leave.’ ‘You see, they’ve got you hooked. Got you both working hard for them, but you will never be able to meet!’ ‘It’s so boring, so monotonous!’ Mole went on. ‘The work’s so hard, so robotic, and the pay is so low, no human rights or dignity. Doesn’t that bother you? If I wasn’t here on an assignment, I’d consider death a better option.’ ‘Well, there have been some suicides.’ ‘Not for ages. The last one was a long time ago.’ But the next day Zhang Lihong texted that she was going to jump. Her father had been diagnosed with advanced cancer of the oesophagus, and treatment would cost hundreds of thousands. Zhang Lihong said: ‘I just want him to get the compensation.’ Liu Tao wrote: ‘If you jump, I’ll jump with you.’ Zhang Lihong: ‘What’s the point of that? I wouldn’t get the money. The compensation would go to your uncle.’ Liu Tao: ‘Let’s get married. Then I’ll jump and you’ll get the money.’ Zhang Lihong: ‘I really want to marry you – but not for money. So the answer’s no.’ Liu Tao was moved. She was a really good girl, not after money, and he wanted to marry her even more. But the more he insisted, the more she refused. The texts went back and forth over several days. Eventually Liu Tao turned to Mole for help. Mole’s eyes lit up. ‘Zhang Lihong wants to jump?’ ‘She needs money urgently for her Dad’s surgery.’ ‘But you’d be willing to jump instead of her?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Love is a wonderful thing!’ exclaimed Mole. ‘But we’d need to get married, otherwise she won’t get the money.’ ‘Then get married.’ ‘She won’t.’ ‘Hang on,’ said Mole, ‘let me think about this…. How about you tell her that your dad has left you an inheritance, but the will says you can only have it when you are married. I bet she’ll agree, to get her Dad his treatment.’ ‘But I don’t have any money.’ ‘If she marries you and then you jump, then she will. You mustn’t let her down, Liu Tao.’
In the conference room, there was a high–level company meeting in progress. Hanging on the wall behind Director Bai was a big screen, with a curve showing workers’ suicides over the past three months. Down both sides of the long table sat the managers and executives, each with a notebook computer open in front of each of them, showing the same curve that was on the wall. Director Bai: ‘Recently, there have been no suicides. President Lu is pleased.' President Lu: ‘Director Bai has taken appropriate measures. The netting has been effective. It is now impossible to jump.’ Director Bai: ‘We must continue to take this seriously and see that there are no other gaps to be filled.’ He paused for a moment. ‘I have heard talk that the workers’ suicides were to get compensation. My original intention was to give compensation to alleviate misfortune. It never crossed my mind that these good intentions might be counter-productive. From now on, when new workers join the factory, they’ll have to sign a suicide agreement which states that there is no compensation for suicide. This is the only way we can get to the root of this problem.’ The executive in the gold-rimmed glasses said: ‘The Director is right. And those who are already here must also sign up to this. Make sure they are covered.’ Director: ‘I would prefer to spend that money on raising wages. We can take this opportunity to bring about a transformation in production. We have pretty much reached the limit with low costs and cheap labour, and we need to develop our product innovation and optimization technology. This is the future of Brand New World. President Lu: ‘The Director is very wise. Brand New World needs to be leading the way.’ ‘That’s the plan then. Any other business?’ Gold-rimmed Glasses said: ‘There is a worker who has made an application to marry his other half.’ ‘Really?’ said the Director. ‘Can this be true? Are there really sparks of love?’ Gold-rimmed Glasses: ‘I believe we should not let them marry. It would go against the other-half work model we have established. They would meet each other, have a child, and that would affect productivity.’ Director: ‘You mean they can’t marry, they can’t see each other, and can’t have a child?’ ‘They would have to arrange the marriage themselves.’ ‘The company has no say in this?’ ‘No.’ The Director cleared his throat: ‘I think we should let them marry, but not let them meet. Letting them marry is a good thing, and we should send someone to wish them well. But we cannot let them meet because the rules cannot be broken. I don’t think there’s any need to go to the local authorities about this. We will approve their application.’ ‘We will approve it?’ ‘If we can manage 800,000 people, then why shouldn’t we able to approve one couple’s marriage?’ the Director chuckled.
At six fifty that evening the loudspeaker reminded the male workers it was time to leave, and they swept out of the dorm like a shoal of fish. Only Liu Tao and Mole were left. Mole rushed over to jam the door shut. Liu Tao felt under his pillow and pulled out a hacksaw blade, and set about sawing at the steel bar at the window. There was a knock at the door. ‘Open the door! Open up! What’s going on…?’ shouted the manager. Mole gestured for Liu Tao to put the hacksaw back under the pillow and opened the door. The two of them rushed out, pushing past the manager. He shone a torch all around the room then left. On the way to the canteen Liu Tao said to Mole, ‘I only got to saw a little bit, it will take days.’ Mole, ‘It doesn’t matter. Do it slowly and carefully. I’ll keep the door shut for you again tomorrow.’ Liu Tao, ‘But I can’t saw every day.’ Mole, ‘See it as proof of your love.’ Liu Tao, ‘I do love her. Lihong is my wife.’ ‘Then show her how much you love her.’ ‘And there’s no other way?’ ‘No,’ said Mole. ‘You have to jump, otherwise you’re cheating Lihong, and she’ll never forgive you.’
Liu Tao left nine text messages for Zhang Lihong, which together made up his will. It read as follows: ‘My dear wife, I am so sorry, I have gone first, please forgive me. I was lying, my dad did not leave me any money. Now we are married and I don’t have any money, but there will be money when I jump. Use it for your father’s treatment so I can be a good son–in–law to him. I grew up without a mother or a father so your Dad is like a father to me. Thank you, dear wife, for giving me your love. Although we have never met, although we have not had physical contact, we have had something greater than this – pure, deep love. When I am gone, you must cherish what you have. When you get the compensation, you won’t have to work at Brand New World any more, you can go home and open up a clothes shop. You’ll have a long life ahead of you, so don’t feel too sad about me. It gives me the greatest pleasure to give my life for you. Perhaps in my next life, I’ll steal into your body and come back as your son, feel your warmth as you hold me in your arms, drink your milk every day. Until then my soul will be with you wherever you go, following you, looking after you. My soul will break out of my body. The highest walls and all the rules and regulations in the world will not be able to stop it. I need to see you with my own eyes, even if you do not want to see me. This is my dream, my wish every day and night. Farewell, Lihong – my dear wife!’
Liu Tao’s soul floated around the complex. With no form and no substance, he was free to come and go as he pleased, to slip through walls and doors at whim. His soul saw Zhang Lihong curled up under the cover, weeping silently, and kissing his photo on the mobile so frantically it looked as if she was going to swallow it. His soul saw Zhang Lihong knocking on an office door, and applying for compensation. She was told: ‘We have a new rule, we no longer give compensation to people who jump off the roof, as that merely encourages suicide.’ Zhang Lihong persisted. She was told: ‘And even if we did not have this rule, you would not be eligible to claim compensation as your marriage is not recognized in law. The company approved it, but it was not registered with the local authorities.’ His soul saw Mole strip off his factory uniform, change into his own clothes, and stride out of the complex gates. He saw Mole surrounded by a forest of microphones. He told the crowd he had been sent here by the agency to work undercover and had first–hand material as the deceased just happened to be his dorm-mate. He had the inside story on Brand New World! His soul saw Director Bai’s private helicopter coming through the clouds and landing on the roof of the admin building. At the press conference, Bai made a deep bow before the assembled multitudes, and expressed his apologies. He said that the company was concerned not only with production, but also with society. From now on workers would be allowed to marry and have children. They would be building a nursery and a crematorium. Then President Lu reported that the three Daoist monks they had invited from the holy mountain of Wutai Shan had arrived. Director Bai promptly announced that they were arranging the best possible funeral for the deceased...’ His soul saw the bed where his own body had once slept, and saw a new arrival at the factory climb on to it, and sniff about under the cover. He saw Zhang Lihong come back after her shift, pull off the bedding, and sleep on the bare wooden board. His soul saw the sawn–through steel bars and the gaping hole where his body had pushed through the window. Zhang Lihong was staring at the hole. The other women in the dorm were fast asleep, and he could hear them breathing or snoring. Zhang Lihong got out of bed and climbed up to the window. He had plumbed the depths of her soul and knew what she was thinking, but even in the yin-world there are regulations, and you are not allowed to meddle in affairs of the yang-world. He wanted to stop her, but he could not. The best he could do was to transform himself into a patch of hard concrete below the window, and wait for her to come.
Story by HAN Dong, Nanjing, China, 2010. Translation by Helen Wang and Nicky Harman, 2012.