The Children of Men’s England and Modern Japan

I highlighted some similarities between P.D. James’s England in The Children of Men and modern China (here), the strongest real-world parallel is modern Japanese culture.  The most striking parallels are the dearth of children, the hostility to immigrants, and the despair of an aging population.

But the cultures of the two places resonate much more deeply.   Of course, many of the fads in James’s England are so Japanese (the dolls as surrogate children, animal christenings, birthing parties for domestic animals, a caretaker class, etc.).  But the future England government encouraged a inward focus that echoed long-standing Japanese sensibilities. 

A scene where the male protagonist looks around his ex-wife’s new house struck me: the rooms are decorated just-so, outside a row of perfect roses waits to be planted, and the boyfriend’s atelier is, well, the boyfriend’s atelier.  Future England was a society settling in to live and die.

The parallel modern Japanese sensibility can be traced to the idealized Heian periodHeian marked the start of a separate Japanese literary culture (The Tale of Genji) but the governing elite had become so abstract and detached from the day-to-day the they barely noticed that money had disappeared.  The Heian peace was gained at the cost of terrible poverty for all but a few. 

For centuries, Japan isolated itself from the world and all progress had stopped, essentially by decree.  The inward focus of Heian would suffuse Japanese culture .  Many traditional Japanese arts — NohBonsai, Chado (the tea ceremony) — are interior-focused and ritualized (e.g., Noh actors do not rehearse together).  It was as if they too were waiting for the world to end in quiet, refined comfort and beauty.

China Observations — One Child, Migrants, Rebellion, and The Children of Men

If you saw my earlier post (here), you might not be surprised that The Children of Men colored some of my perceptions of China.  My take is that modern China’s progress has brought it some social and political ills that resemble those of James’s year 2021 England. 

  • The one-child generation and princelings and the Omegas — Here’s a Shanghai Daily one-child article here, China Post and Washington Post on the old and young “Princelings” here and here.
  • Rural migrants and the Sojourners — A Shanghai Daily column on rural disintegration here.
  • Xinjiang/Tibet and the Isle of Man prison — While this isn’t exact, there’s a dread of imminent violent rebellion and turmoil in both places, though (see these Washington Post articles on Xinjiang and Tibet).

I felt at ease in Shanghai — China seems nowhere near as menacing as Park Chung Hee’s South Korea or East Germany did — but order and comfort clearly comes first.  Freedom is clearly, if gently, attenuated in the rich eastern part of the country.  The yoke in the book is also subtle, which is a contrast with the movie, apparently.

All that said, modern China and dystopian England may parallel each other, but that’s because they’re going in opposite directions on separate tracks.  I felt little foreboding or despair; in fact, my Chinese colleagues seemed very confident (if incredibly busy).  No end times in Shanghai…

Air travel reading — The Children of Men

I had hoped to put on a Children of Men double-feature on the way to China — the P.D. James novel and the Cuarón film — but I could only find the novel in our local Barnes and Noble (and yes, I know how to order on-line, it was just procrastination).  The Children of Men may not have been the cheeriest of reading on a 14-hour flight, but it was certainly a smarter choice than the somewhat derogatory Mao biography I had been thumbing in the checkout line.

Anyway, the reviews of the book are pretty spot-on: the future world James evokes is vivid and more than plausible, while the flight of the “Holy Family” at the end is awkward and ungainly.  The weaknesses of the novel’s kinetic scenes were why I was especially keen to see the movie shortly after reading the book.  Atmosphere and action are the film’s supposed strengths (thinness of plot being the weakness), so I thought the contrast would be fascinating. 

Sadly, I can’t claim to see much of myself in the protagonist.  I was moved by the transformation of Theo once he saw, however dimly at first, his chance to redeem his earlier carelessness with life.  Theo wasn’t the novel’s character that mirrored me most closely.  My mirror is pretty obvious, especially if you’ve seen a recent picture of me…

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