Beijing Sprawl Charlie Markbreiter

Run Muyu Run: in Xu Zechen’s connected stories, young migrant workers drift, jog, and sprint through the capital.

Beijing Sprawl, by Xu Zechen, translated by Jeremy Tiang and Eric Abrahamsen, Two Lines Press, 227 pages, $17.95

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“There was only one guy who jogged in full suit and tie early in the morning on 23rd Street, and that was my old friend Feng Nian.” Feng Nian has been having the same bad dream: every night, as soon as he falls asleep, he becomes “a six-eared macaque dressed in a suit and tie, his handler leading him out to perform.” Monkey Feng Nian does somersaults and rides a bicycle, all with a chain around his neck. Once the show was through, “his handler would fling him over one shoulder and walk off with him on his back.” The chain chokes Feng Nian; he wakes up suffocating and, throughout the day, finds that he can’t catch his breath.

To help his friend sleep, Muyu, the narrator of Xu Zechen’s Beijing Sprawl—first published in Chinese in 2020, now being released in English translation by Eric Abrahamsen and Jeremy Tiang—starts running with Feng Nian. The narrator first began running after suffering a nervous breakdown and dropping out of high school. It helps. But, like all addictions, the fix is temporary. And it doesn’t work for everyone. Feng Nian keeps dreaming that he’s the six-eared macaque despite jogging frequently, always in a suit, so that, immediately after, he can go to his job at an electronics shop.

Running is a frequent motif throughout Beijing Sprawl, which is both a short-story collection and first-person narrative. Each chapter could function as a stand-alone fiction, and they are ordered in a way that feels less linear than associative. The sections float between Muyu and his friends. Early on, we learn that the narrator has moved to Beijing from a small village in the provinces to work for his uncle, a professional forger; Muyu and his colleagues graffiti ads for his illicit services “on walls, bus stops, overhead bridges, stairs, even on the street itself,” working by night to evade the cops. During the day, the narrator runs, gagging on Beijing’s air pollution. When roommate and coworker Baolai wants to catch sight of his crush, he starts going on runs with Muyu; it gives them an excuse to pass the bar where she often sits. Several months later, Lin Huicong, who tends a dwindling pigeon flock, moves in; together, he and the narrator run after the birds. Like many of Beijing’s migrant workers, they live in illegal housing developments that the state can demolish at will.

Considering that running is often described as “boring,” thematizing it is bold; the fact that Xu pulls it off is virtuosic. Unlike soccer or football, which have huge global fan bases, marathons and track meets are barely even spectated by other runners. But, despite this lack of audience, running is tremendously popular at the amateur level. That is: people don’t watch running, but lots of people run. Running is also of consistent aesthetic interest to Xu. His last novel translated into English was literally called Running Through Beijing (2014, originally published 2008), and features a protagonist who, when the city’s traffic comes to a standstill, gets out of the car and starts sprinting; marketing copy describes the novel as a “literary Run Lola Run.” 

The “jogging movement,” which began in the sixties and seventies, promoted running as an accessible leisure pastime. But as neoliberalism gained ascendency, running shifted from a popular sport to a bourgeois activity. Which tracks (haha), considering that distance racing is such a time-consuming hobby. Eighties America saw the rise of the corporate charity marathon era, even though, when it comes to professionals, the race continues to be dominated by athletes from Kenya and Ethiopia. As shoe manufacturers like Nike transformed into lifestyle brands, running began to permeate pop culture, too. What better embodies the neoliberal grind than a marathoner? The long-distance runner—self-optimized, solo, fit—who not only moves quickly, but covers vast distances, is also a fitting analogy for Chinese workers enduring the country’s pervasive but unofficial “996 working hour system,” which pressures employees to clock in from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week.

Xu’s characters cleave from the neoliberal Übermensch archetype, which, in China, is embodied by superstar entrepreneurs like Alibaba’s Jack Ma. But contra the Chinese government’s emphasis on innovation and overwork—which the anti-work “lying flat” movement has recently pushed back against—the protagonists of Beijing Sprawl aren’t running to get ahead; they’re running so they don’t go insane. And, significantly, no matter where the narrator jogs, he always ends up back where he began: at a tiny, overcrowded home without proper insulation or heat. When the Beijing police crack down on unlicensed street vendors in anticipation of a major political conference, the narrator is suddenly “on the run,” both from the cops and the gang fights that break out among the cooped-up workers. Instead of allegorizing success, Xu uses running as a metaphor for long-term precarity. While China’s “economic miracle” has pushed millions into the middle class, this wealth transfer has not trickled down to the migrant laborers who make up more than 20 percent of the country’s population. Propelled out of the formal economy, they are usually forced to “run” between low-wage, high-risk jobs such as construction, or, like the narrator, they are pushed into making a living in hyper-policed gray markets.

In writing about these topics, Xu is pulling from his own life. Born in 1978, Xu grew up in Donghai County, Jiangsu. As a child, he loved climbing out on his roof, looking out at the rest of the town, and at what lay beyond it—much like Muyu, gazing down on Beijing from his own roof. To quote a recent interview with Xu: “If a person walks in a small alley, he is easily overwhelmed. When he stands up high and stands on the roof, he feels unique.” You may not be above it all; you can pretend, though, and sometimes, that’s enough. When the global dot-com bubble helped fuel a manufacturing boom in China, Xu migrated to Beijing, one of the many jingpiao, or “drifters,” to leave their rural hometowns for the capital. These fellow jingpiao became Xu’s friends; the scenes of Muyu and his roommates eating donkey burgers and getting wasted likely stem from Xu’s past. But once the Chinese manufacturing sector stopped achieving exponential growth, those jobs dried up, scattering Xu’s social world once again. While Xu’s award-winning fiction arguably makes him one of China’s most popular literary narrators of the jingpiao experience, unfortunately, just a few of his works have been translated for Anglophone audiences.

Beijing Sprawl is coming out in the US at a time when America’s polarized two-party system can seemingly only unite around anti-Chinese sentiment. The strength of China’s political economy is seen as a threat to US empire, despite the fact that China’s repeatedly stated goal is not to replace the US but simply advocate for a more multipolar world (a claim which, to be fair, cuts against their recent takeover of Hong Kong). Since America’s economy is built around arms trading, it responds to this threat militarily (hence, e.g., war games in Taiwan). Caught in the crosshairs of this Sinophobia, one can hope that Xu’s book—which is subtle, swift, and humorous—reaches the broad audience it deserves.

Charlie Markbreiter is the New Inquiry’s managing editor and a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. His first book, Gossip Girl Fanfic Novella, was published by Kenning Editions in November, 2022.

Run Muyu Run: in Xu Zechen’s connected stories, young migrant workers drift, jog, and sprint through the capital.
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