Chinese Science Fiction: A Response to Modernization
When Ken Liu became the second Chinese-American after Ted Chiang to win major sf awards in the United States, his fans in China were excited.1
Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie” (2011) won the Nebula Award in 2011 and the Hugo Award in 2012 for best short story. Liu lived in China until he was twelve years old, after which he emigrated with his family to the United States. He graduated from Harvard University and now works as a lawyer, but his real entertainment is writing science fiction in his spare time. The idea for “The Paper Menagerie” came from his childhood memory of the art of zhezhi (origami) that he learned from his grandmother.
Both Liu and Chiang write in English, but their achievements showcase the rise of science-fiction writers with Chinese backgrounds in the twenty-first century.
In spring 2012, China’s most prominent sf writer, Liu Cixin, was invited to the London Book Fair along with dozens of mainstream writers. This was the first time a Chinese sf writer appeared at a major international cultural event. The latest news is that Liu has been invited by the The World Economic Forum to deliver a speech about humanity’s future in Davos in 2013. “Liu is a literary hero of mine and influenced me more than a little,” Ken Liu has said in his blog.
Although there are only about twenty authors seriously pursuing this genre in China and only two magazines—the Chengdu-based Science Fiction World (SFW) and Taiyuan-based New Science Fiction—dedicated to publishing what is still seen by a huge number of readers as stories for children, the improving fortunes of Chinese science fiction have been striking.
Chinese science fiction made its debut over one hundred years ago when Liang Qichao (1873-1929) published his Xin Zhongguo Weilai Ji [The Future of New China] in 1902. In this novel Liang, who himself was one of the most important politicians and ideologists of contemporary China, predicted that China would become a world power in 1962. He also translated Jules Verne’s Deux ans de vacances [Two Years’ Vacation, 1888] into Chinese. Lu Xun (1881-1936), the greatest literary master of contemporary China, was another pioneer in sf translation, introducing several of Verne’s stories to China, including the famous De la terre à la lune [From the Earth to the Moon, 1865]. Both Liang and Lu believed that science fiction would help the spread of modern knowledge in China, emancipate people’s minds and bring positive developments to a declining civilization that was being surpassed by the industrialized Western nations.
For a short period in the early twentieth century, sf writing by native writers became popular as the genre instilled pride in readers who saw China defeat Western countries with imaginary high-tech weapons in the future. The writing of science fiction, however, was disrupted by repeated wars and revolutions in the first half of that century.
After the founding of the People’s Republic by Mao Zedong in 1949, science fiction staged a comeback amid a nationwide movement to industrialize the country, perceived as an underdeveloped 5,000-year-old agriculture-based civilization. At the forefront of sf writing for this New China was Zheng Wenguang. Zheng, a native of the southern province of Guangdong, was born in Vietnam in 1929. He returned to China in 1947 to study astronomy at the prestigious Zhongshan University. In 1954, he published socialist China’s first sf short story, Cong Diqiu Dao Huoxing [From Earth to Mars], which established his fame. The story was about the first Communist-led expedition to the mysterious red planet.
During the chaotic and violent Cultural Revolution (1966-76)—a movement to consolidate the proletarian leadership—Zheng and other sf writers were silenced because the genre was regarded as something from corrupt Western culture that could lead people astray. After the reforms and increasing openness introduced in the late 1970s, resulting in a renewal of respect for both intellectuals and scientists, sf writers resumed their work, but this good time did not last long. In 1983, science fiction was criticized by Party newspapers for “spreading pseudoscience and promoting decadent capitalist elements.” This difficult period continued until the early 1990s, when China began to establish a market economy and encouraged freer writing. Since then, many young writers have taken center stage, and the renaissance of Chinese science fiction has resulted in a global readership.
“China is experiencing a science-fiction boom as the country is rising up like a real giant,” said Hsi-kuo Chang, a renowned Taiwan sf writer who now lives in the United States. Science fiction is now the label for China’s economic miracle, as well as for its achievements in modern technologies such as Chinese-made spaceships, high-speed computers, and gene-modified crops.
By now, hundreds of books by Western sf masters, including Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Philip K. Dick, have been translated into Chinese. In addition, China has imported a large number of sf blockbusters from the United States since the 1990s, including E.T., Jurassic Park, Star Wars, The Terminator, The Matrix, Transformers, Avatar, and the recent Battleship. As a result, Chinese audiences are becoming familiar with many Western sf directors and actors. In 2008, when Steven Spielberg quit the Beijing Olympics because he was unhappy with the Chinese government’s attitude toward the Darfur crisis in Sudan, the Chinese people expressed their disappointment on the Internet, but they also said that they still admired his artistic achievements in sf film.
The circulation of the magazine SFW peaked at more than 400,000 in the late 1990s, the largest circulation of its kind in the world. The magazine hosted the Annual Conference of the World Science Fiction Association in 1991 and two international sf conferences in 1996 and 2007. Fan clubs were established in almost every major university across China. Every summer, thousands of young people rush to Chengdu, where SFW is based, to attend the annual Milky Way Award and Xingyun Award ceremonies—Chinese parallels to the Hugos and the Nebulas—where they can see the authors they idolize. Whenever a famous writer appears on the scene, ecstatic screams burst out in the crowds.
Professor Wu Yan (1963- ), a veteran teacher of psychology, management, and literature at Beijing Normal University, introduced China’s first science-fiction program to grant graduate degrees. The university has become a center for the spread of science fiction across the country and a bridge to the international sf community. It has translated dozens of Western theoretical studies and introduced training courses for young people who want to make sf writing their career. Wu himself published his milestone book, Kehuan Wenxue Lungang [Essentials of Science Fiction], in 2011; this was the first study of its kind in China. Wu, who is chair of the World Chinese SF Writers Association, is also an outstanding sf author who has published several novels and short-story collections. His story Shu Biao Dian [The Mouse Pad, 2001] has been translated into both Italian and English.2 “Sf writing is now supported by the Chinese government, as it is considered to be a genre that can inspire the whole nation’s ability to think imaginatively and popularizes science nationwide,” said Yao Haijun, chief editor of SFW magazine.
Present-day sf authors have touched on a wide variety of subjects and added noticeable Chinese colors to the genre. They can put the country in hypothetically extreme situations to see how people might respond to radical changes. Sometimes they can put China to the test in a way that no mainstream writer can.
Fei Dao (1983- ), a Doctor in Comparative Literature at the prestigious Tshinghua University, wrote a novella in which Confucius returns to Mount Tai to try to unravel the mysteries of Chinese civilization. The fifth-century BCE philosopher, whose ideas of society, government, filial duty, and justice have long influenced Chinese culture, is depicted as still looking for answers at the end of the story, as he finds that the world has been transformed into a giant machine; his traditionally-held beliefs are shaken to the core. Fei Dao published his first collection of short stories, Chunzhen Jiqi Suo Bianzhao De [Purity and Those Fabricated by Purity] in 2011; he is especially loved by young readers for the way in which he combines an interest in technology with cultural analysis.
Ma Boyong (1979- ) is a businessman in his 30s, one of whose hobbies is writing dystopian fiction. His most famous story is Kehuan Shijie [The City of Silence, 2005], which depicts in detail a society where the Internet is used to control people’s minds. Fans have noted that this story is very similar to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948). Ma is also well known for his parallel-history narratives, drawing stunning pictures that subvert people’s concepts about Chinese civilization.
The most prominent and popular sf writer of the recent renaissance is Liu Cixin (1963- ). He grew up reading Jules Verne and Arthur C. Clarke and is a ten-time winner of the Milky Way Award. Liu has achieved all this as a part-time author. By day, he works as a computer and electronics engineer in a power plant in north China’s coal-rich province of Shanxi. He usually starts writing after 11:00pm, once his young daughter has gone to bed.
Since his first publication in 1999, Liu has produced more than 30 short stories and eight full-length novels, writing everything from a story about the Earth mutating into a spaceship to the tale of a supernova explosion that leaves behind a world of children.
Liu’s famous San Ti trilogy consists of three books—The Three Body Problem, Three Body: Dark Forest, and Three Body: Dead End—published in January and May 2008 and November 2010, respectively. In them, Liu builds his Dark Forest theory, which suggests that humans should not attempt to contact extraterrestrials; this is an issue that the famous English theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking has also raised. A number of Liu’s stories have recently been translated into English. An English-language excerpt from his very popular novel Qiuzhuang Shandian [From Ball Lightning, 2005] has been published online by Words without Borders.
Another important writer is Wang Jinkang (1948- ), author of 20 sf novels, including Yi Sheng [The Life of Ants, 2007] and Shizi [Cross, 2008], a novel about an extremist biological warfare attack on the United States. Wang’s latest novel is Yu Wu Tong Zai [Being with Me, 2011], in which the whole world is united under the leadership of the Communist Party of China to hit back at an alien invasion. A retired engineer from a big state-owned oil machinery plant in central China’s Henan province, Wang himself is not a Communist Party member.
Both Liu and Wang believe that China should shoulder more responsibility for solving the problems faced by human beings in a changing world. Liu even suggested adding research into alien affairs policy to the country’s Twelfth Five-Year Plan for Economic and Social Development, adopted during the annual parliamentary session in 2011. “The suggestion might seem farfetched, but an alien spaceship might hover right over us any time soon,” Liu argued. “At that time, everything we are worried about, including housing prices, food prices, medical treatment, and education, will take a back seat. As a strong country with a long history, China is playing an increasingly important role in international affairs; for this reason, China should take up its corresponding responsibilities in interstellar affairs between beings on earth and other planets.”
The fact is, while most mainstream literature today focuses on China’s past, science fiction looks to the future. And in China the future is now. A writer in present-day China does not even have to make an effort to imagine the future, as any day-to-day record of urban China’s dramatic transformations is futuristic in itself. The realities of the country’s rapid modernization are the stuff of fiction and some sf writers are chronicling their most dynamic dimensions.
Compared to their predecessors, modern sf writers are faced with fewer pressures and restrictions. Both Liu and Wang describe the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, the most desperate era in Chinese history; but it was not easy to publish a book about something like the Cultural Revolution in the 1980s, when science fiction was a particularly sensitive issue. To some contemporary sf writers, only China has a future in the world as Western society continues to lose momentum in the current financial crisis. They believe that the future looks more colorful and positive than ever and more open to the spirit of discovery.
A number of writers are not so optimistic, however, about the world’s tomorrow; and their imaginative futures are far from utopian. In Chen Qiufan’s Shu Nian [Year of the Rat, 2009], China begins to export gene-modified rats to the world market to maintain its economic growth. But the new rats eventually evolve into an intelligent species and develop their own culture and religion. Chinese society is thus under great threat. The government decides to organize college students to attack the rat empire and the country turns itself into a terrible war zone where young people’s lives are sacrificed meaninglessly. Chen draws a nightmare picture of China’s modernization. Chen (1981- ), a graduate of the Chinese Department of Beijing University and now an employee of Google’s Beijing branch, has written many dark stories, including Fen [The Tomb, 2004], which was collected in The Apex Book of World SF 2 in 2012.
He Xi (1971- ), a computer engineer living in Sichuan province, is another outstanding hard-sf writer just behind Liu Cixin and Wang Jinkang. In his Liudao Zhongsheng [Six Lines from Samasara, 2002], scientists divide China’s territory into six parts by changing the microstructure of material. In this way, China is able to relocate its surplus population into these new worlds and provide them with enough water, oil, coal, and other resources; but in the end conflicts break out between the different worlds that are trapped in a moral. This novella truly reflects China’s current dilemmas.
In He’s other famous story, Yiyu [Foreign Land, 1999], a group of Chinese scientists discovers a method to speed up time. They build a time farm where crops can grow very quickly, but unfortunately insects on the farm also grow quickly and become monsters, and so the legendary farm finally collapses. He Xi here may want to warn readers that there is no guarantee that technological innovations will make people happy. If China moves too fast, the consequences could be disastrous and the country itself might become a monster.
In Pan Haitian’s Beijing Yiwai Quanbu Feiqi [All Fly Up without Beijing, 2009], the author describes how, after a mysterious anti-gravity force causes all the continents, countries, and cities to fly up to the sky, only Beijing remains on the ground due to a statistical error. “Are we forgotten by the world?” a Beijinger asks in the story. “No, we are independent of the world!” his friend answers. “So, Beijing is now the greatest city in the world!” Pan’s satire is read as targeting anti-globalization and anti-intellectualism. Readers might feel that China will one day close itself up again and become the most isolated country on the planet.
Pan (1975-) became an eminent architect after he graduated from Tshinghua University in the late 1990s. Besides producing marvelous sf and fashionable buildings, he is also the publisher of one of the country’s best-known fantasy magazines, Jiuzhou Huanxiang [Odyssey of China Fantasy]. Pan has won the Milky Way Award four times.
Dingdingchong is the pen name for Ding Zicheng (1976- ), who works at a Japanese company in Shanghai. His award-winning short story Siwang Kaoshi [Death Exam, 2009], which is set in 2046, imagines a future in which it is difficult for Chinese people to die because dead bodies cannot make money for state-owned hospitals. Biotechnology is widely used to make people live as long as they can. If a person feels tired of his or her life and wants to die, he or she must attend a unified national exam to get a certificate. But only those with strong connections to powerful people or who have enough money to bribe the examiners can pass the exam. In the story, Dingdingchong portrays an old man who makes every effort to enable himself to be cremated. After he eventually obtains his death passport, he arranges a joyful banquet to celebrate his coming funeral with friends and family members. Dingdingchong is also an outstanding commentator on sf and a translator of Japanese science fiction.
Even some older writers are not so optimistic about the country’s future. Pan Jiazheng (1927-2012), the chief architect of the controversial Three Gorges Dam and a national science prize winner, has written many sf stories critical of Chinese society. One of his best-known stories is Guanyu PMP Chengxu De Gushi [Apple Polishing Machine, 2003] in which he describes a future in which Chinese scientists use advanced technology to invent machines that can read the minds of political leaders and are always ready to flatter them. The advancement of science and technology makes Chinese society increasingly corrupt.
Female writers are a strong presence in China’s sf arena. Ling Chen (pen-name of Yu Lei [1971- ]), was once an editor of the country’s largest computer magazine. Her most famous novel is Yueqiu Beimian [On the Back of the Moon, 2002], in which China has set up a moon base to compete with the United States; corruption soon spreads to outer space and the construction of the base proves to be. Zhao Haihong (1977- ), an English teacher and the mother of a young daughter, has written a series of stories about a unique world dominated by a mysterious force called Magicwave, which transports energy, information, and material simultaneously. I am most impressed, however, by her short story “Yijiuersan Nian De Kehuan Gushi” [A Science Fiction Story in 1923, 2007], which elaborates on the illusory nature of revolution in an industrialized world. Her story “Dui” [Exuviation, 2001] was translated into English and published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet in 2010. China’s most acclaimed woman writer of sf may well be Qian Lifang (1978-), a university history teacher. Her novels, Tianyi [The Will of Heaven, 2004] and Tianming [The Destiny of Heaven, 2011], have both become bestsellers. In her stories, Chinese history is not what we are familiar with from official textbooks.
In fact, Chinese sf writers are in a rather contradictory situation. Science, technology, and modernization are not characteristic of Chinese culture. They are like alien entities. If we buy into them, we turn ourselves into monsters, and that is the only way we can get along with Western notions of progress.
My recent novel Ditie [Subway, 2010] can be read as addressing this rather embarrassing situation. A group of Chinese explorers, whose ancestors were exiled from the solar system when Americans took control of the Earth and sealed off the skies, returns on a mission to their homeland to look for remnants of the Chinese people and culture. They land in the Beijing subway tunnel, which has been relegated to a graveyard, and find themselves on a train rushing at breakneck speed to some point of no return. The story reflects how humanity finds itself in an increasingly dark and despairing environment, with no way out of the endless and pervasive darkness.
There are still many problems faced by Chinese sf writers. While the “science fiction writer” tag might sound cool, sf writing in China is still a marginal activity. Science fiction is perceived as inconsequential because it is unable to solve real-life problems. And the government can step in if it seems that the genre has gone too far conceptually. For example, the General Administration of Radio, Film, and Television issued an order early this year to ban time-travel narratives in TV dramas, claiming that they showed lack of respect for Chinese history and would mislead young people. Of course, there are some over-exaggerated time-travel dramas poorly made by irresponsible producers, but we should let market forces test them rather than using administrative power to ban them. Under current circumstances, many sf writers have become more careful when dealing with sensitive subjects in order to have their books published.
And even as sf magazines from Italy dedicate special editions to Chinese short stories and French publishers show interest in acquiring translation rights, most Chinese people have no idea about science fiction at the present time. Readers in China are more interested in things that have a direct influence on their daily lives (the most important thing for the Chinese is to build strong Guanxi, or connections between people) than on exploring the relationship of human beings to a vast nature—the Galaxy, a remote solar system, or an alien world.
1. Editors’ note: for more information about Han Song, one of China’s leading sf writers, see the entry by Jonathan Clements in the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, ed. John Clute and David Langford.
2. Editors’ note: an English-language translation of Wu Yan’s “The Mouse Pad” is available online at InterNova: International Science Fiction.