“Science fiction is as rare as unicorn horns, which shows in a way the intellectual poverty of our times”, wrote Lu Xun, one of China’s most towering and revered literary figures, writing about science fiction literature in China in his preface to his 1903 translation of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon.
116 years later, science fiction in – and from – the People’s Republic of China has come a long way since then, to become what is arguably the most popular genre of literature in China and with translations of Chinese science fiction picking up pace and finding a ready and eager audience – to the extent that some have even referred to it China’s greatest cultural export since kung fu – one can safely say that Chinese SF’s journey to the west (and elsewhere) has only just begun, with its star showing no signs of diminishing. But it wasn’t always so.
The beginnings of modern Chinese science fiction first took root during the period of the Late Qing Dynasty, not just through translations of western science fiction but also with Chinese authors such as the scholar and reformist, Liang Qichao’s 1902 futuristic tale, The Future of New China, which was set in 1962 and depicted a world in which Shanghai hosts the World’s Fair, and a geopolitically dominant China has developed a multi-party system and westerners study Chinese in hopes of improving their life. The other significant science fiction story that is considered by many to be ‘Chinas first true science fiction story’ was Colony of the Moon by an anonymous author, known only by his pseudonym, Huangjiang Diaosou. The purpose of all these stories of those times was simple, to popularise science and spark imagination and critical thinking. As Lu Xun wrote in the aforementioned preface, “More often than not ordinary people feel bored at the tedious statements of science. Readers will doze over such works before they can finish reading…Only by resorting to a fictional presentation and dressing them up in literary clothing can works of science avoid their tediousness while retaining rational analysis and profound theories.”
War, cultural upheaval, political upheaval would all contribute soon enough to pause such noble endeavours, with the only notable work SF of that time being Cat Country – the 1932 work of science fiction by another significant figure of twentieth-century Chinese literature, Lao She – in which the author satirises China of the time, through the story of a taikonaut who crash lands on Mars and stumbles upon a race of cat people, a feline society whose foundations and values have eroded with time and opium (‘reverie leaves’) are all they truly care about now.
It wasn’t until the 1950s – after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 – that science fiction would see a resurgence, albeit for a brief period. And then too written primarily for children, or to popularise science, as a vehicle for propaganda, and with a lot of translations of Russian books and influenced heavily by science fiction from the Soviet Union before the relationship soured. Notable works of Chinese science fiction by Chinese authors from this period are A Tour of the Solar System by Zhang Ren and the adventure tale of three Chinese children stealing a spaceship to go off on an adventure, From Earth to Mars as also the space-colonisation story, Builders of Mars by Zheng Wenguang, an author who would fall out of favour with the establishment during the Cultural Revolution and exiled, much like the genre itself, with anything remotely suspected of bearing a similarity to ‘western culture’, not least capitalism, being regarded as harmful.
Once again, it wasn’t till years later – in the late 1970s – that science fiction would flower again in China during the early years of Deng Xiaoping. And once again, for a brief period.
But brief through this period may have been – lasting just a few short years until hitting its first roadblock in the form of the Communist Party’s Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, for being a foreign-influenced indulgence – a large body of SF emerged during this period, most notably Ye Yonglie’s Little Know-It-all Travels the Future, archaeologist and anthropologist Tong Enzheng’s Death Ray on a Coral Island and Zheng Wenguang’s Flying to Sagittarius (also translated as Forward Sagittarius).
More importantly, this period also saw the foundation laid for the success of contemporary Chinese science fiction in the form of the establishment and growth of many science fiction fan clubs and SF magazines, chief amongst them being Science Literature which first came out in 1979, continued to publish during the campaign against spiritual pollution and continues to this day under the name of Science Fiction World.
It was only to be in the early 1990s when Chinese science fiction would enter an uninterrupted golden age, and leading the charge would be writers who’ve lived through the Cultural Revolution, being born just before or during it, the ‘three generals of Chinese science fiction’: Wang Jiankang, Han Song and the name most familiar to non-Chinese science fiction fans, Liu Cixin, the author of The Three-Body Problem, the novel that was instrumental in opening the floodgates of Chinese SF to the English-speaking (and reading) world and the writer of The Wandering Earth, on which the film billed as China’s breakout sci-fi blockbuster is based on. A name most often added to this list is that of He Xi, the pseudonym of an as-yet-anonymous author, to make it the ‘Big 4’ of Chinese science fiction.
History was made at the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention in 2015, when Ken Liu – SF/F author and award-winning writer of The Paper Menagerie – stepped on stage to accept the Hugo Award for Best Novel, on behalf of Liu Cixin, for The Three-Body Problem, the first translated book ever to win this prestigious award. By this time, science fiction in China had seen its longest uninterrupted run as a popular genre with professional SF magazines, fanzines and fan clubs thriving. And one of the chief reasons behind this Chinese science fiction renaissance is the same that in the previous century prevented the genre from reaching its fullest potential – the Chinese government. So, what changed?
A big clue comes from the author Neil Gaiman’s collection of non-fiction essays, The View from the Cheap Seats, where he relates an anecdote from the time he attended the 2007 China SF/Fantasy Conference in Chengdu:
“A few years ago, in 2007, I went to China for the first-ever, I believe, state-sponsored science fiction convention, and at some point I remember talking to a party official who was there and I said, ‘Up until now I have read in Locus that your lot disapprove of science fiction and you disapprove of science fiction conventions and these things have not been deliberately encouraged. What’s changed? Why did you permit this thing? Why are we here?’
‘And he said, ‘Oh you know for years, we’ve been making wonderful things. We make your iPods. We make phones. We make them better than anybody else, but we don’t come up with any of these ideas. So we went on a tour of America talking to people at Microsoft, at Google, at Apple, and we asked them a lot of questions about themselves, just the people working there. And we discovered they all read science fiction… so we think maybe it’s a good thing.”
The more things change, the more they remain the same. Lu Xun in 1903 had written that ‘science fiction could play a crucial role in the advancement of the Chinese nation’ and 104 years later, the purpose of the 2007 Chengdu SF/F Conference seems to have been no different for it was described as ‘an ambitious Chinese effort designed to inspire public creativity toward future scientific and technological development as well as promote national insight for scientific exploration’. A laudable step towards sparking the imagination and fostering innovation, but the state support of science fiction is also about advancing China’s soft power. As the writer Chen Quifan said in a speech (co-written by the organisers) at the eighth Chinese Nebula Awards in November 2017, saying that the purpose of Chinese science fiction was to, “grasp what General Secretary Xi has put forward, and advance the establishment of the power of the international spread of the culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics, in order to tell the China story.”
That said, the stories that Chen Quifan, described as ‘China’s William Gibson’, himself tells is not one of a socialist paradise or a utopian world highlighting as he does the inequality that racks China today, at a time when the country is at its most prosperous since the time of the Ming dynasty. While he may write about uncomfortable truths, with science fiction stories that are perhaps not the ideal story that the state would like him to tell, Chen Quifan is not alone because he displays the same characteristics of the new generation of Chinese science fiction writers who don’t shy away from tackling the difficulties of being born into a ‘torn generation’ (as Han Song terms it) that is global in its outlook yet grappling with its place in its society and tradition given the rapid technological progress and societal transitions that this generation has had to go through, one that includes SF writers such as Xia Jia, Ma Boyong, Bao Shu, Zhang Ran, Tang Fei, and Ho Jingfang, who was the second Chinese writer and the first Chinese woman to win a Hugo Award (for Best Novelette) for her story, Folding Beijing.
What then, are the differentiating characteristics of Chinese science fiction? What are the common traits of science fiction written by Chinese authors? The only reason I bring up these questions is to highlight that that they are the wrong questions to ask. The short stories and novels that get categorised as Chinese science fiction – by virtue of being from the PRC, a country of more than billion people with a culture that goes back thousands of years – defy easy labels. Depending on the author and – even then – when the story was written, they span the entire spectrum of convenient labels. But where then, does one begin to dip one’s toes into science fiction from China and explore stories born of a different culture and tradition that we are familiar with, and descended from a different literary ancestor?
Here then are a few recommended books available in English: Invisible Planets – Edited and Translated by Ken Liu and The Reincarnated Giant – Edited by Mingwei Song and Theodore Huters (both anthologies of contemporary Chinese SF), The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung (banned in China and described as the Chinese 1984), The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin and Cat Country by Lao She. Happy reading, and Live Long and Prosper!
Further reading (via tor.com / all articles translated by Ken Liu)
Xia Jia – What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?
Cixin Liu – The Worst of All Possible Universes and the Best of All Possible Earths: Three Body and Chinese Science Fiction
Chen Qiufan – The Torn Generation: Chinese Science Fiction in a Culture in Transition
Lead Image: Screengrab from the trailer of Wandering Earth (via Youtube)
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Updated at 11:08 pm on January 13, 2019 to add the names of Zhang Ran and Tang Fei to the list of Chinese sci fi writers.
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