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Literature / Chung Kuo

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The first entry in the series

A science-fiction series by Hugo Award-winning author David Wingrove, where Earth in the 22nd century is in the iron grip of a Chinese empire run by the Seven T'ang. This world is called the Chung Kuo, the Middle Kingdom. Mankind's 36 billion people live in one vast City, which is actually seven cities: City Europe, City West Asia, City East Asia, City Africa, and so on. The lowest city levels, called the Net, are cut off and run by Triad mafia. Famine and poverty loom in the near future, while a group of wealthy Hung Mao (whites) in Europe plan to bring Change back to the world. The result is a back-and-forth war of assassinations that increasingly weakens the City financially and politically. And that is only the beginning.

The series is known for being a rich and complex vision of a Byzantine future where no sides are completely good or bad; for having a long list of characters on both sides of the conflict; and for its graphic descriptions of both sex and violence. It was reissued from 2010 to 2014 including two new prequels and a plan for a total of twenty volumes. After The White Mountain was published as volume 8, however, the publishers stated that poor sales were the reason for releasing no more. In 2017 the series was relaunched with a new publisher, Fragile Books (owned by Wingrove and Susan Oudot), and book 9, Monsters of the Deep, was released on 19 October 2017. Wingrove has issued short stories on the website Of Gifts and Stones.


Chung Kuo provides examples of:

  • After the End: The world-spanning Chung Kuo was built after a global war that ended the old way of life.
    • It's revealed in one of the redone novels that it was due to the collapse of a heavily-digitized world economy 20 Minutes in the Future followed by full-scale war, shattering societies around the globe. And it's also heavily implied that the Chinese instigated the whole thing to facilitate their eventual takeover. The reader will be further confused by the idea that it was all DeVore's fault, as stated in Marriage of the Living Dark.
      • A bit of a Retcon. The original books heavily imply that there was also ethnic strife within Western nations, to the point where many Russians and North Europeans viewed the Chinese conquerors as the better alternative.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: A Colony Drop occurs and exterminates hundreds of millions in City North America, but we're shown almost none of it. The question of how anyone on the planet survived a catastrophe of this magnitude is ignored. Later, ninety percent of the people of City Europe die, and the city falls, and it's brushed off in one or two lines, and we're back to Li Yuan's court intrigue. Still later, seven billion Han die in North America (that is, more than the world population in 2015) and it's brushed off in a line.
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  • And I Must Scream: The workers trapped in 'ice' on more than one occasion.
  • Anyone Can Die: Don't get too attached to a character
  • Arranged Marriage: Jelka Tolonen is arranged to marry the son of her father's lifelong friend, not a happy thought.
    • Also the norm for all members of the High and Low Families.
  • A Taste of the Lash: Being a maid to a sadistic prince has its disadvantages, as Little Bee discovers.
  • Artificial Human: Servants created by the Gen Syn Corporation.
  • Artistic License – Biology: Gen Syn's "ox-men" have huge penises and love sex. In fact, oxen are castrated bulls.
  • Attempted Rape: Really not the right trope to try on Jelka.
  • Big Bad: Howard DeVore is the Rebel Leader who manipulates the T'ang and Chung Kuo civilizations into war with each other so he can Kill All Humans and replace them with his perfect race, "The Inheritors".
  • Bilingual Bonus: Though you have to be able to read Mandarin in Wade-Giles romanization to benefit. This borders on the obnoxious: tea is always referred to as cha, and when a character is called lao jen, when means simply "old man", why not use English?
  • Black Is Biggerin Bed: Catherine and Dogu, though Wingrove tastefully avoids giving us length and circumference.
  • Book Burning: All books, artifacts, etc, not allowed into Tsao Chun's City were destroyed, except in the Shepherd family's Domain. And on Kalevala. And Mars. And so on.
  • Break the Cutie: Sweet Flute, a young and inexperienced prostitute in a high-end brothel, is sold as a concubine to a man who does not have her best interests at heart.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Ben Shepherd and his sister.
  • Bury Your Gays: Edmund Wyatt is bisexual and taken to a brothel where he sires Kim; he has male lovers and is later killed. Likewise, An Sheng is gay and is a traitor who is later killed. The joke that Haaviko or Hans Ebert are gay is taken as insulting. More than once, threats of buggery are used as torture, and I Ye, an evil creep, rapes men and boys routinely as sadistic torture. Chu Po, another of Pei Kung's creeps, is an evil bisexual; both I Ye and Chu Po are beheaded. In fact, ancient Chinese society was quite relaxed on the point of bisexuality.
  • Call to Agriculture: A police major, Kao Chen, fits this trope, as he moves from the City to the farming fields in Eastern Europe with his wife.
  • Characters Dropping Like Flies: The series includes the deceased characters in the list of characters as a separate section. It's by far the longest one.
  • The Chessmaster: Howard deVore - although he is actually a Go master, explicitly comparing being a leader to placing pieces on the board.
  • China Takes Over the World: The basis for the series
  • The City Narrows: The levels below the walls called the Net
  • Civil War: Eventually the T'ang of City Africa launches a scheme too obvious to be blamed on terrorists, and Africa is invaded.
  • The Conspiracy: The secret and unnamed Ministry is tasked with hiding the truth about the past by all means necessary
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Kim in his teens turns out to be the world's most successful conspiracy theorist
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Several, and no one bats an eye
  • Cultural Posturing: From early in the first novel:
    Three thousand years of unbroken civilisation - that was the heritage of the Han. Against that these large-nosed foreigners could claim what? Six centuries of chaos and ill-discipline.
  • Cyberspace An entertainment system called the Shell; the webdancers in the prequels also fit this trope. The sims and the Shell are more Virtual Reality than they are Cyberspace as such.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Wang Sau-leyan
  • Death Is Dramatic: While Wang Sau-Ieyan, T'ang of City Africa is a bastard, he knows how to die. Since he so naturally acts like a T'ang until the very end, the enemy soldiers find it almost impossible to fire at him.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: So, so much. Holding up a frozen human head to your business associates to reminisce? They will only be bothered that you are stalling the meeting.
  • Depraved Bisexual: An Sheng, Chu Po, I Ye and others.
  • Divided We Fall: So much. The Ping Tiao rebels, the splinter-faction Yu rebels, the group of businessmen in Europe and later the Young Sons in North America, the Black Hand, and of course Howard deVore's operations, and later Stefan Lehmann's going at it himself as he rises in power in Europe's criminal underworld. Then again, it's a big world, so various different groups of rebels is not surprising.
  • The Dragon: Howard deVore, although he later gets a promotion
  • Dude Looks Like a Lady: Kuei Jen grows breasts and a uterus to bear his child by Egsn.
  • Dystopia: With its dictatorship, overpopulated slum levels and ban on Change this world qualifies as a dystopia, although not as bad as many other examples out there
  • Elaborate Underground Base: Hidden in the Alps, the only uninhabited part of Europe
  • The Empire: Chung Kuo
  • End of an Age: The last years of the world-spanning empire. Li Yuan, the T'ang of Europe, has made it his life's work to forestall the end.
  • The Evil Prince: Wang Sau-leyan has to wait for his father and three older brothers to die before it is his turn on the throne for City Africa. But why wait?
  • Eye Scream: In the first novel, a kidnapped child is returned with his eyeballs gouged out, his eyelids sewn shut and the eye sockets filled with maggots.
  • French Maid: Several maids working for the T'ang or their sons
  • Freudian Excuse: Wang Sau-leyan, ugly, fat and clumsy, was treated as a poor sequel to his brothers while he grew up. This is not presented as an excuse for his behavior, but it helps explain it.
  • Global Currency: Not surprisingly, the Chinese yuan is now the only currency
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Pei Kung when she gets domineering, horny and nasty.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Gangster boss Whiskers Lu has had half his face scarred by acid
  • The Government: The seven T'ang Lords even seriously discuss wiring the brains of the world's population (all 36 billion of them) in order to achieve total control: track anyone who is present at a riot or rebel attack for example, and send out pain signals as crowd control. Now that's state power.
  • Government Conspiracy: The world is led to believe that the Han conquered the Roman Empire and have been in control ever since. Not as impossible as it may seem. The false history was enforced by the death penalty and massive propaganda for two generations, and the City destroyed all physical traces of the old world.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Both the Council of Seven and the European rebels have their good and bad sides.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Hans Ebert in book five, after having lost everything
  • Honor Before Reason: Early on, members of the House (the parliament) have the son of the T'ang of Europe killed. Knowing where this could lead, the T'ang decides to let matters be. The leader of his army, Marshal Tolonen, does not obey orders. Instead he marches into the House in session and slits the throat of one of the plotters. This sets the stage for everything that comes after.
  • Horsemen of the Apocalypse: DeVore's doing, as he invades.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: China in the redone novels weren't immune from the global turmoil that followed the collapse of the global economy. Subverted in that not only were they responsible for it, but that they had the resources to rebuild themselves, although it took them some time to do so.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Mu Chua, former prostitute and now Madam of her own high-end brothel, is protective and caring toward her girls, to the point where she will eventually make a great sacrifice for their safety
  • Huge Holographic Head: Surveillance system scanning random people in the lower City levels
  • Illegal Religion: Jews and Muslims are simply extinct, as explained in the prequels. Christianity and other religions are illegal, though people call on Kuan Yin all the time, and she is a Buddhist deity. Odd Job Gods show up sometimes in household shrines; Wang Ti seems to be comforted by her religion.
  • Inherent in the System: The world is simply a big, corrupt, spirit-crushing prison for both the Europeans and the Han (most of them). The world-encompassing City was created to fulfill the promise of having as many children as you want, a fundamental wish for the clan-oriented Han society. The drawback: you don't get to see the sky and the sun, all birds are in cages, the very nature of the City makes it impossible to improve without physically tearing it down. Which in a world of 36 billion people would mean mass death.
  • Interservice Rivalry: A more politicized police detail sometimes shows up to suppress the truth about a terrorist attack (e.g. the message left at the scene of an assassination by the rebels, or the fact that a massacre of higher-ups took place at a depraved orgy establishment), causing no small bitterness among the more honest police.
  • The Lancer: Karr, for the T'ang of Europe, or (early) Howard deVore, depending on how you look at it
    • Marshal Knut Tolonen for the T'ang, most of the series
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: From the second novel and onward, there is a helpful character list added
  • Love at First Sight: Happens to Kim Ward and Jelka Tolonen
  • Love Hurts: Yuan, T'ang of City Europe, falls for the wrong woman early on
  • Made of Phlebotinum: "Ice," the material by which the City is built
  • Mad Artist: Ben Shepherd makes excellent drawings but often with disturbing symbolism; this is due to being highly intelligent and also schizophrenic.
  • Manchurian Agent: A servant is brainwashed into attacking a high-ranking officer
  • The Mentor: Li Yuan's son is saved from softness when an old officer is assigned to training him
  • Millionaire Playboy: Tsu Ma, T'ang of City West Asia, fits this trope
  • Morality Kitchen Sink: One of the T'angs has a whole team of physicians executed when his wife dies in childbirth; many of the rebels, having grown up in this world, are not so much better
  • Noble Savage: The Osu, in isolated settlements on Mars
  • Old Retainer: Nan Ho, Master of the Inner Chambers to the T'ang of City Europe, remains in the same position for his son Li Yuan. He enjoys considerable trust. He is even tasked with choosing three wives for Li Yuan, who accepts his choices without question.
  • La Résistance: A group of European businessmen and officers, but also the Ping Tiao, rebels from the lower city levels
  • Schizo Tech: High-tech spaceships, but no medicine for women in childbirth, then execution for all of Li Shai Tung's doctors, when his wife dies. Huh? Enormous plastic cities, fed by...unmechanized agriculture on plantations? How is that even possible? Where are tractors, trains, trucks to carry the veggies?
  • Science Fiction: On the hard side of the trope.
  • Science Marches On: Tapes? It's 2207 and everything is on "tape", even in the last of the rewritten novels (The White Mountain, 2014).
  • Split Personality: Happens to some of those who were rescued from living as savages in the Clay when under pressure.
  • Split-Personality Takeover: The fate of some of the unfortunate Clayborn. Followed by swift execution.
  • The Triads and the Tongs: Triads rule the Net
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: A common view among both defenders and rebels in the City, although not all-pervasive
  • What the Hell, Hero?: The T'ang Li Yuan is one of the main protagonists, seeking to stave off the inevitable end of the empire. His pet idea for doing this is to insert electronics in every citizen's brain, so that they can be easily tracked and punished, even killed, by the push of a button in the case of crime or rioting. Bear in mind that there are 36 billion citizens.
  • World War III: China conquered the world when it was engulfed in conflict
  • Übermensch: It is revealed that Howard deVore's motivation for seeking the empire's destruction is to a large degree about allowing a stronger and better kind of human to be developed.
  • Would Be Rude to Say "Genocide": The whole future of Chung Kuo follows the wholesale murder of the black and brown races of the world: Africans were excluded from the City and simply driven before its construction to die; Latinos and Natives of various kinds were exterminated wholesale. Despite the existence of the Osu on Mars and the handful of surviving Japanese in space, the Chinese and European whites are the only surviving human cultures in the books. This is incredibly disturbing, to say the least.
  • Urban Segregation: Planned and explicit, with different city levels offering different living conditions
  • Why Mao Changed His Name: Chung Kuo is the obsolescent Wade-Giles romanization of 中国. Modern pinyin would be Zhōngguó. Wingrove does at least usually get his Wade-Giles right, including the all-important (and not at all decorative) apostrophe.
    • David Wingrove explicitly states in the appendix that he knows of the more commonly used pinyin today, the use of which he is well familiar with, but that he prefers the Wade-Giles romanization for this series. Mostly because the Wade-Giles was designed with English speakers in mind and so sounds closer to the actual pronunciation of the words even when the reader tries to pronounce the words with the English pronunciation of the letters. Some of the Pinyin letters are mapped to sounds that would confuse a westerner (i.e. q sounds like ts).
    • As for apostrophes, there are 101 names of characters listed in the second novel, of which an overwhelming three (3) have apostrophes. Actually reading the novels helps in finding this out.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: Some of the characters who start out as children in the first novel
  • Woman Scorned: The beautiful but volatile Fei Yen is furious after finding out that her husband Li Yuan, the future T'ang of City Europe, has brought back the two servant girls that he slept with as a teenager. It gets worse from there.
  • Yellow Peril: One might think this would be the case, but the Chinese are not a peril; the founder of Chung Kuo saved the world from a time of great chaos, which is not questioned by those who know the real history - although his methods were certainly not praised. The peril is in what Chung Kuo has become. Chinese and European dissenters cooperate, and in some cases they belong to the same rebel groups.
    • This was made more explicit however in the 2010 reworking, where the Chinese are revealed to be responsible for causing the complete breakdown of the global economy and subsequent wars. All as part of a plan to Take Over the World.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: Especially true for the Ping Tiao and Yu rebels, for whom the morality of their actions becomes a big issue both within and without the group.