[Review] Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang

Folding Beijing, a novelette published in Uncanny Magazine, depicts a fantastical future Beijing where the skyscrapers fold and unfold  like origami in a forty-eight-hour cycle. Each time the city folds, a new space is revealed, and its inhabitants begin their day. Five million enjoy the use of twenty-four hours and seventy-five million split the remaining twenty-four.

It’s a wonderful and evocative metaphor for a divided and unequal city. The story itself follows Lao Dao, who lives in the poorest sector – Third Space – as he illegally smuggles messages to earn the money to pay his adopted daughter’s kindergarden fees.

This is a wonderful story on every level. Lao Dao’s quest is mainly a magical mystery tour through the setting, but it’s sufficiently compelling that there’s no chance of getting bored. The ideas and social commentary comes thick and fast. Among the best being the banquet in First Space where Lao Dao overhears bigwigs discussing making tens of millions from Third Space redundant – as though they were simply numbers in a spreadsheet.

And there’s an amazing sense of place:

Customers packed the plastic tables at the food hawker stalls, which were immersed in the aroma of frying oil. They ate heartily with their faces buried in bowls of hot and sour rice noodles, their heads hidden by clouds of white steam. Other stands featured mountains of jujubes and walnuts, and hunks of cured meat swung overhead. This was the busiest hour of the day—work was over, and everyone was hungry and loud.

I can’t recommend Folding Beijing enough. It’s an intoxicating mix of economics, physics and politics delivered through the everyday life of an ordinary man. The author is a former student in physics, economics and management from probably the best university in China… and it shows.



  • Another thing I found quite well done was the contrast between the lush descriptions of city life and the negative space of the big unknowns – what was situation outside of Beijing, and why was such a city built? Near the beginning, we are simply introduced in passing to a few truck drivers taking a morning break on the highway outside the ring road, and that’s it. So by the end, we are ready for it when a character launches into a necessary little lecture to deliver the reveal. Just excellent all around.

  • The depth of world building and intellectual coherence of the ideas was truly superb. Everything in the story supported the core idea of the folding city. It was beautifully constructed from a technical point-of-view too.

    Added: Didn’t mention the reveal as I didn’t want to spoiler the wonderful idea.

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