Problems of Ethics in “The City of Silence” by Ma Boyong


Ma Boyong’s short story “The City of Silence” is one of the brilliant examples of modern dystopias, which raises a variety of questions that are perplexing and unsettling. Whereas the reading presents much interest in terms of characters’ problems, as well as issues of setting and narration, the most intriguing aspect for analysis is the ethical side of the story. The question to be scrutinized in the essay is related to the contradicting claims about what makes a good society. The thorough study of the story allows arguing that the sacrifices which the people have to make are not acceptable, no matter how good the intentions of the appropriate authorities seem to be.

Main body

The question of the government’s control over the population has always attracted the attention of sociologists, politicians, and citizens. In “The City of Silence,” there is no mentioning of a particular country, but the author calls the location “the Capital of the State” (Boyong 155). Hence, the reader can deduce that the events are happening in the largest city of some fictional country. The government of this country is called “appropriate authorities” (Boyong 156). This title is somewhat ironic because the ‘appropriateness’ of these authorities seems suitable only to the authorities but not to the people living in the Capital.

The main problem of existence in the State is that these entities’ assumption of what makes a good society is radically different from what individuals consider good, happy, and satisfactory. Every action, movement, and even word of each person is strictly controlled. Instead of names, citizens have Web Access Serials – combinations of symbols and numbers that bear no emotional coloring whatsoever (Boyong 155). For the appropriate authorities, such substitution is convenient, but for people, it is rather depressing and even heartbreaking. The main character, Arvardan, continually expresses his dissatisfaction with “empty electronic voices” and dreams of communicating with real people on topics that actually interest him. Not the ones dictated by the appropriate authorities (Boyong 156). Therefore, at the beginning of the story, the reader notices an unacceptable sacrifice that people are obliged to make. They cannot express their opinions or desires freely, they have to oppress their feelings, and none of their actions on the Web is anonymous. The situation is aggravated by the fact that each citizen is required to contribute to the enhancement of the Web that will consequently be exploited to further muting out of people.

It is not possible to call the arrangement of people’s lives in the Capital ethical. What the appropriate authorities consider as efforts to build a good society are, in fact, endeavors to deprive human beings of their humanity. The so-called “List of Healthy Words” is one of the outrageous examples of silencing not only people’s voices but also their thoughts. The list contains the words and phrases allowed for use online (Boyong 159). If a person attempts to use an ‘unhealthy’ word, the system immediately shields it with something more suitable. One could understand the endeavor of the authorities to filter online communication. For instance, such restrictions prevent users from cyberbullying and other inappropriate behaviors. However, the further development of the plot makes it clear that the appropriate authorities do not limit themselves only to Web use. When leaving one’s home, everyone is obliged to wear “the Listener” – a language-filtering machine designed for controlling individuals’ utterances (Boyong 162). Hence, there is no ethics either in the use of the Internet or in person-to-person communication. Such a society cannot be called a good one due to constant strict control.

However, probably the most tragic and morally unacceptable aspect of the appropriate authorities’ propaganda is the ban on physical contact between people. In the beginning, Arvardan mentions that he has not heard a real human voice for a long time. The character imagines hearing a “smooth and mellow” female voice, but he realizes it is only “an unrealistic fantasy” (Boyong 156). Further, the reader finds out that online entertainment options are limited to two games that are “healthy” due to containing “no sex” (Boyong 158). Citizens are not allowed to have “physical contact” with one another (Boyong 161). Finally, sexual activities were allowed only between married couples, but even for them, there were limitations as per frequency and length of their “couplings” (Boyong 183). Such restrictions of physical desires are not humane in any way, and it is evident that the appropriate authorities’ intrusion into people’s private lives is egregious.

Each of the mentioned ethical problems leads up to the gradual stifling of individuals’ desire to communicate. With the exposure of the Talking Club, a member of which Arvardan has been lucky to be for some time, there is no more hope for the main character or his few friends. “List of Healthy Words” becomes shorter and shorter, and very soon, people cannot express any ideas at all (Boyong 195). The only thing not “shielded” with technology is the mind, but Arvardan is not sure that this state of affairs will last for long (Boyong 196). The level of the authorities’ involvement in citizens’ lives has reached the utmost point, which has become the point of no return for those who used to dream of persona; and professional development or of some relationships.

There is no attempt to reconcile the contradictions between the sacrifices needed to make a good society satisfying the appropriate authorities and the possible ethical course of action in the text. However, the use of irony in the text allows making some assumptions of what the author considers ethically appropriate. For instance, the emergence of the authorities “at the appropriate time to guide, supervise, or warn” is understood as an unnecessary intrusion in people’s lives (Boyong 157). The repetition of how “healthy” the world is expected to become due to innovations makes the reader think that, in fact, there is nothing normal in these regulations. Even the water consumed by Arvardan is distilled, which signifies that there is too much emptiness in everything about the City. Hence, even though the narrative does not offer direct ways for the reconciliation between the abnormal and normal ethical conditions, one can guess them from the context.


“The City of Silence” raises several highly crucial points of concern, but the most striking one is the ethical side. The story describes numerous ways in how people’s actions, words, and relationships are limited and directed against their will. What makes a good society in the eyes of the appropriate authorities is far from what ordinary people consider it to be. The authorities’ focus is on controlling everything, whereas citizens’ needs are related to emotional and physical communication. Ma Boyong’s short story is a vivid example of dystopian fiction, where the author addresses the perplexing issue of ethical boundaries between individuals and institutions controlling them.

Work Cited

Boyong, Ma. “The City of Silence.” Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, edited and translated by Ken Liu, A Tom Doherty Associates Book, 2016, pp. 155-196.