“Hospital” by Han Song

Hospital, Han Song, Michael Berry (trans) (Amazon Crossing, March 2023) Hospital, Han Song, Michael Berry (trans) (Amazon Crossing, March 2023)

Hospital by acclaimed Chinese science-fiction writer Han Song is a kafkaesque trip through a fictional hospital turned nation-state that explores the Buddhist philosophy on suffering, the nature of the doctor-patient relationship, and the mental state of patients who suffer from chronic conditions. 

The novel tells the story of Yang Wei, a government bureaucrat, and part-time songwriter sent to C City to compose a song for a corporation. Upon arriving in the city he drinks one of the complimentary bottles of mineral water in his hotel room and awakens the following day with intense stomach pains. The hotel staff takes him to what is said to be the finest hospital in C City, beginning a horrific, mind-jeering journey through a never-ending byzantine medical system where his previous life is destroyed in an elusive quest to cure a disease that he is never informed of, and his humanity is subsumed by bizarre, repeated medical treatments.


It’s not important who you are; the only thing that matters is what kind of illness you suffer from.


Initially, the hospital seems similar to any public hospital in contemporary China, with long lines, chaotic proceedings, and preferential treatment for VIPs and those who provide red envelopes, bribes, to the hospital staff. Yang Wei is subjected to numerous, often repeated exams in an attempt to be admitted to the inpatient ward while throngs of other patients compete for limited appointment slots and suicide bombers attack the hospital out of frustration over the quality of the care they previously received.


Yang Wei is eventually admitted to the internal medicine ward, the process of which reveals that the hospital is more than a mere medical facility, it is in fact the vanguard of a new “Age of Medicine” where hospitals have replaced cities, even countries and the latest therapies are used not to heal patients, but to help in the struggle against an ill-defined “West” and anti-China conspiracies led by a fictitious version of the real-world Rockefeller Foundation. The “Age of Medicine” has become an all-encompassing ideology that drives every aspect of life, from basing human relationships around the doctor-patient relationship to redefining basic terminology to focus it on the new hospital-centric reality.


In the Age of Medicine, the word ‘freedom’ is long forgotten, replaced by ‘treatment’ in all the dictionaries.


The story continues to become ever more bizarre as the never-ending treatments cause Yang Wei to lose all sense of his previous identity and create a new persona. Then, perplexed by what seems like a constant flux of reality, Yang Wei attempts to understand the ever-evolving hospital, and failing that, flees the facility. His efforts are ultimately in vain, as he finds that there is no truth behind any explanation, no concrete reality to explain any event, no way to escape, and the treatments are not meant to heal, only prolong illness to keep patients in the hospital forever.


The novel draws heavily from Buddhist thought and projects a dense ever-changing illusion that clouds Yang Wei’s understanding of his own suffering and the universal suffering he sees around him. The hospital staff and doctors’ rhetoric, which extols and demands the total confidence and fidelity of the patients, satirizes Chinese government propaganda, but – the author never strays too far from a firm rooting in Chinese nationalism which is a common thread throughout the novel.

The novel also discusses the philosophical implication of chronic pain, and connects it from a personal level to the cosmic level, with an extended dense section of the novel discussing a hospital and diseased-based cosmology that connects the Buddhist concept of perpetual and inescapable suffering, medical treatments that seem to prolong not cure ailments, to movements of the stars and galaxies in the universe.


Life is a matter of continually standing face to face with a diseased universe. The only thing we are clear about right now is that so-called voyages into the sea of stars to explore the universe, journeys to the final frontier, are nothing more than sticking our heads into a boundless sea of pathogenic bacteria and medicinal fluid.


The translator Michael Berry notes that the English translation is a unique work, distinct from the version that appeared in print in Chinese. The translator initially worked from an advance proof that was quite different from the final version published in Chinese. However, through the author’s active participation, a unique English-only version of the story was created that the author claims was closer to his original intention for the story, and the best version in print.

Patrick McShane is the Editor-in-Chief of the online literary journal Hwæl-Weġ.