#80 = Volume 27, Part 1 = March 2000
Hesitant Journey to the West: SF’s
Changing Fortunes in Mainland China
This brief survey considers the development of sf in mainland China since
1900. I conclude with its future prospects as defined by recent debate among
mainland China’s most popular sf writers. My sources have consisted mainly of
Chinese sf and popular science magazines and texts from the internet: sf in
China is still a fairly marginal phenomenon, so it is difficult to find critical
material. Practically all the criticism I refer to in this essay is out of print
or nearly impossible to find. Regrettably, I have not been able to locate Xing
He or other writers for interviews, as I had originally planned.
I wish to thank the editors of SFW (Science Fiction World, the most
popular sf magazine in China), who provided me with a complete annual volume of
their magazine for 1996 as well as an essay collection reprinting the
proceedings of a World Science Fiction conference in Beijing that the magazine
co-sponsored in 1997; they also provided me with addresses of several fanzines.
The editors of Nebula, Milky Way, and Supernova (Yao Haijun, Fan
Lin, and Huo Dong, respectively) have kindly provided me with several issues of
each magazine. Finally, participants in the internet discussion group Global
Para-literary Network have been most helpful.
Sf was probably introduced to China by the famous author Lu Xun, who
translated Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (translated in China as
Journey to the Moon) and Journey to the Center of the Earth, either
in 1902 (according to Wu Yan) or 1903 (according to Rao Zhonghua). At the same
time, Lu wrote “Yuejie Lüxing Bianyan” (On Journey to the Moon), which
attempts to define the principles of sf literature (Rao 1). In 1917-1918,
another famous writer, Mao Dun, translated French, British, and American stories
in collaboration with his brother Shen Deji, with Verne and Wells again among
the first to be translated. Lu Xun’s “On Journey to the Moon” had praised
the possibilities of what he called “kexue xiaoshuo” (science novels)—the term
“science fiction” had not yet come into use. He hoped to transmit scientific
knowledge to the public by “dressing ... up” science novels “in literary
clothing,” writing that “if we wish to lead the Chinese masses forward, we must
start with science novels” (Hu n.pag.). The transmission of scientific knowledge
to the masses was to be the raison d’être for sf in China for another 80
years (Wu Yan 13).
It is not easy to establish which work should be considered as the first
original sf novel written in Chinese, as it depends on how the genre is defined.
Wu Ye and others claim that sf has always existed in China, noting that the
myths collected in the Taoist classic Liezi [Lieh Tzu] (collected in its
present form c. 300 A.D.) include a tale of a man who makes a robot (11). Mao
Dun considered the folk tale “Chang’e Ben Yue” (Chang’e Goes to the Moon”) as a
prototype: “Regarding the Moon as a habitable star is totally unique in the
mythologies of all the peoples of the world” (qtd. in Wu Ye 11). If traditional
mythological tales are discounted, however, and only post-Verne or post-Wells
writers are considered, just three works compete for the honor of being the
first Chinese sf story.
The first is “Shi Nian Hou de Zhongguo” (China in Ten Years), printed in
Xiaoshuo Shijie (Novel World) magazine in January 1923 (Wu Ye 11): in it, a
future China develops lightweight but effective laser weapons to drive back
imperialist aggressors. Lao She, a great Chinese novelist, evidently wrote an sf
story in 1932 whose English title is “City of Cats” (Guo 101); unfortunately, I
could find no further information about it. Finally, in 1940, Shanghai’s
Cultural Life Press published Gu Junzheng’s Heping de Meng (A Dream of
Peace), considered by Rao Zhonghua to be the first real work of Chinese sf. Yet
Rao reports that in 1961 he “wrote a letter to Mr. Gu Junzheng, asking about the
earliest sf stories and writers in our country.... He wrote back saying that
there were even older works than his, and even offered some clues. Regrettably,
I have ... [lost] this letter” (1). Rao continues, tantalizingly: “Lately, I
have found out that the creation of sf in our country began in [the] late Qing
[1850-1911], maybe even earlier (1).
Most other commentators have assumed that little sf was written in China
before 1950 because industrialism was not sufficiently advanced (Guo 110). When
industrialization did come to the People’s Republic during the 1950s, there was
a surge in sf, much of it imported from the Soviet Union (Laris 25). Zhongguo
Qingnian Chubanshe (China Youth Publishing) began publishing sf translated from
English and Russian (including Wells’s The Invisible Man and Tolstoy’s
Aelita). As with Lu Xun, the intention was to stimulate interest in science
and technology, this time mainly among children and adolescents (Rao 2). In his
essay “History and the Development of Chinese SF,” Wu Yan writes that “between
1902 and 1979, the creation of sf in China was always governed by some sort of
utilitarianism.... [T]his kind of value orientation has brought great harm to
the development of Chinese sf and directly controlled the creative process of
the writers, as well as limited the possibility for the reading public to
understand what science fiction is all about” (13).
Even today, most Chinese sf is published by popular science presses. Sf
writers are members of the Popular Science Writers’ Association, an affiliate of
the Science and Technology Association of China, rather than belonging to the
Writers’ Association of China (Rao 2). A consequence of the assumption that sf
should teach science to young people has been that it has come to be perceived
largely as children’s literature. Rao notes three especially influential
children’s stories of the 1950s and 1960s: Zheng Wenguang’s “Di er ge Yueliang”
(The Second Moon), Tong Enzheng’s “Guxia Miwu” (The Mysterious Fog of Old
Gorge), and Ye Zhisan’s “Shizong de Gege” (The Lost Big Brother) (2). Some adult
sf began to appear during the 1960s, however, published in such magazines as
Kexue Huabao (Illustrated Science). With the Cultural Revolution in 1966,
however, sf disappeared completely, not re-emerging until 1978.
The years 1978-1983 are often called “the Golden Age of Chinese sf” (Laris
25). Deng Xiaoping came to power, setting a new agenda and citing “science and
technology” as “the number one productive force” (Han 111). As Laris notes, over
800 sf short stories were published during this five-year period, and a new
generation brought fresh ideas into the genre. Tong Enzheng’s celebrated story
“Shanhudao Shang de Siguang” (Death Ray on a Coral Island, 1978), a harbinger of
the “Golden Age,” was even made into a popular film during those years (25). Up
to 20 sf magazines flourished, including Kehuan Haiyang (Sf Ocean) from
Beijing, Zhihui Shu (Tree of Wisdom) from Tianjin, Kexue Shidai
(Age of Science) from Heilongjiang, and Kexue Wenyi (Science Art and
Literature) from Sichuan (Wu Ye 11). Only the last survived beyond the 1970s.
According to Wu Ye, these magazines had hundreds of thousands of readers, with
Ye Yonglie, Tong Enzheng, and Zheng Wenguang emerging as popular writers (11).
Wu Yan considers an essay by Tong Enzheng—“Wo Dui Kehuan Wenyi de Kanfa” (My
Views on the Art of Science Fiction), published in Renmin Wenxue
(People’s Literature) in 1979—as the beginning of a second, “post-utilitarian”
era of Chinese sf (13). This era, wrote Tong, would not only spread scientific
knowledge but “a scientific view of life” (qtd. in Wu Yan 13). Tong’s article
was hugely influential, and sf writers began exploring issues such as human
nature and society.
And so writers of science fiction began testing the Party’s tolerance for
social criticism. In 1979, Zheng Wenguang wrote “Mirror Image of Earth” (I have
not been able to trace the Chinese title), a story about aliens who have
produced holographic images documenting the horrors of the Cultural Revolution (Laris
25). In 1983, conservatives cracked down on sf as a part of the “Campaign
Against Spiritual Pollution,” ridiculing writers of sf for “propagating quack
science” (Ye 2). Ye Yonglie—probably the only sf writer of that period whose
name is still well-known today (a statement based on my own discussions of sf
with a large number of Chinese people in Beijing)—was severely criticized by a
paleontologist during this period. In a story he had written, a group of
scientists find a dinosaur egg in a volcano and manipulate it with chemical
techniques so it can be hatched: the story was singled out as a prime example of
“false science.” (Ironically, in 1995 a group of biochemists from Peking
University began extracting DNA from a dinosaur egg collected from the same
province in which Ye Yonglie had placed his story. This could eventually enable
cloning, so the story’s premise no longer seems so absurd [Ye 3]). In 1985, Ye
wrote another controversial story about Chinese scientists finding a cure for
AIDS in the Xinjiang deserts, thereby saving the world. The story was suppressed
by the Health Department, however, on the grounds that Ye was suggesting that
AIDS occurred in China: “[T]here have been no cases of AIDS in our country,
which proves that Socialism is superior, but in this story AIDS has reached
China. If it is printed, then it will cause misunderstandings and ‘news chaos’!”
Although it had been accepted for publication, the story never was printed (Ye
During a “struggle session,” Zheng Wenguang’s “Taipingyang Ren” (Pacific
Ocean Man, 1983) was similarly condemned; even Tong Enzheng came under strong
attack (Laris 25). Given this climate of harassment, during the 1980s most
writers preferred to remain silent, and the production of sf came to another
standstill. The only notable work predating the resurgence of Chinese sf during
the 1990s was the pseudonymous Yellow Peril (I have not been able to
confirm the Chinese title), which was signed only “Baomi” (Secret). The novel
circulated underground in mainland China but was published in Taiwan and Canada.
Inspired by the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989, it has been called “China’s
most caustic sci-fi work” (Laris 26). It offers an apocalyptic vision of China’s
future collapse: China’s leader dies unexpectedly, disturbing the cosmos so much
that the Yellow River floods. The result is famine and a power struggle that
escalates into a north-south civil war. Taiwan and China trade nuclear attacks,
producing a “post-doomsday landscape which makes the world of Blade Runner
seem tame” (Laris 26).
Chinese sf began its comeback in 1991, when Kexue Wenyi (Science Art
and Literature) changed its name to Kehuan Shijie (Science Fiction World
or SFW) and embarked on a solitary quest to establish the genre permanently in
China (Wu Ye 11). This time the goverment has given the effort some support:
Science and Technology Minister Song Jian has repeatedly called for a revival of
sf, though on the familiar utilitarian grounds that “Science fiction novels can
awaken the scientific spirit of a people” (Guo 103). The 1997 Beijing
International Conference on Science Fiction was partly funded by the government.
Magazines are traditionally important carriers of the sf subculture. Today,
as mentioned, the only glossy magazine that specializes in sf is SFW
(Science Fiction World), published in Chengdu since 1979 (Yang 122). With its
monthly circulation of more than 250,000, it is probably the most widely read sf
magazine in the world. SFW carries stories by up-and-coming writers such
as Xing He, Wang Jinkang, and Han Song; it provides a forum for all the sf
readers in China. By all accounts, the editors of SFW, headed by Yang
Xiao (a woman sf editor, comparatively rare in China as elsewhere), have done
much to publicize and promote Chinese sf. They have arranged conventions (most
notably, the Beijing International Conference on Science Fiction in 1997), and
they publish books as well as the magazine. At an early international meeting in
Chengdu in 1991, SFW was selected as best sf periodical in the world by
the World SF Association (Wu Ye 12). The editors of SFW award four
literary prizes, thereby attracting more than 4,000 manuscripts each year. In
1991, after the name change, it was decided that SFW would be aimed at a
young readership and managed strictly on a non-profit basis (Wu Ye 11). Each
issue contains one or more stories by the most popular Chinese sf writers, at
least one translated sf story from outside China, and several stories by
talented schoolchildren—winners in one of SFW’s numerous competitions. In
addition, SFW offers illustrations by Chinese and foreign sf artists, reviews of
the latest Hollywood sf films, essays about well-known sf writers, and
A few other magazines occasionally print sf, including Feidie Tansuo
(The Journal of UFO Investigation), Aomi (Omni), Kejichao
(High-Tech Wave), Women Ai Kexue (We Love Science), Kexue Huabao
(Science Illustrated), and Zhishi Jiushi Liliang (Knowledge Is Power)
(Yang, personal communication). But for all-sf material, one has to turn to the
fanzines. The most influential of these is Xingyun (Nebula), begun as a
photocopied flyer in 1988 by Yao Haijun, once a lumberyard worker in
Heilongjiang but now the literary editor of Kehuan Dawang (King of
Science Fiction), an sf-themed comic book. Nebula is more critically oriented
than SFW, often featuring articles by well-known critics that map the
future for Chinese sf.
Laris has claimed that today there are more than twenty sf clubs with their
own fanzines in mainland China; this number is probably inaccurate, as the
situation changes so quickly (26). Among the more prominent recent fanzines have
been Yinhe (Milky Way) from Zhengzhou and Chaoxinxing (Supernova)
from Tianjin; but at least the former has been discontinued because of financial
problems (Fan Lin, personal communication). These two fanzines seemingly were
modelled on SFW, offering short stories, film reviews, and readers’ own
fantasy/sf paintings—although the fanzines, lacking SFW’s bigger budget,
printed these in black and white, not in color. Supernova, a fan club
magazine, features competitions and many in-jokes. The recently defunct Milky
Way was more sober, offering criticism, sf news from around the world,
interviews with such luminaries as Wu Yan, and many stories. Both fanzines
offered readers advice on finding sf in smaller cities, not an easy task in
In contrast to the several markets for short sf, sf novels in China today are
still published mostly by science presses (Guo 106); the majority of full length
sf is still written for children (Cheng 10), a worrisome matter to be addressed
below. Bookshops sometimes carry a limited and erratic selection of sf novels,
but typically readers in search of a specific novel turn to libraries, to
specialized presses (like SFW’s own), or to a private collector. (Fan
Lin, erstwhile editor of Milky Way, owns more than 1,300 volumes by some
700 Chinese and foreign sf writers.)
The young writers of today do not, in any case, primarily write sf novels:
they publish short fiction in SFW and other magazines. A case in point is
Xing He, whose celebrated sf for adults can only be found in fanzines and on the
internet (to which access is, however, still quite limited in China). His only
formally published books are for children (qtd. from Xing He’s website, now
defunct). Xing He is based in Beijing and may be the only Chinese sf writer who
is supporting himself on his writing alone (Liu, qtd. in Nebula 21, 15).
After an apprenticeship writing sf for fanzines, he turned to full time writing
in 1991: today, under contract with the Beijing Writers’ Association, Xing He
writes sf and popular science nonfiction. He has collected numerous prizes for
such stories as “Juedou Zai Wangluo” (Duel on the Net). Xing He displays a
remarkable knowledge of recent global and technological developments. His paper
at the International Conference of Science Fiction called for developing a
“network consciousness.” Citing Claude Shannon’s The Mathematical Theory of
Communication, he spoke about downloading neural information into computers,
concluding that “We ... don’t need to feel sorry, because humanity will obtain,
even while negating ... bodies, nothing less than new life” (113-14). He is
certainly the most radical and internationally-minded of the young mainland
Wang Jinkang is also popular, a civil engineer who writes what has been
called hard sf. He is particularly interested in the risks and possibilities of
cloning: in 1997, he devoted his entire conference presentation to this subject
(94-96). He too is a frequent contributor to SFW, which in November 1996
organized a seminar devoted to his sf. Participants praised him not only for
reviving hard sf in China, but for writing with a “Chinese style” (minzu
fengge) about the Chinese people and China itself. A critic pointed out that
many of his stories and plot devices are based on strategies from the 2000-year-
old Chinese classic The Art of War by Sunzi [Sun Tzu] (SFW [Jan.
Another of today’s popular writers is Han Song, who works as a journalist for
Xinghua News Agency, which he sees as an endless source of inspiration: “If
you’ve seen a lot, you begin to think a lot, too, and when you’re writing you
can’t help being influenced” (Yao 9). Some of his best known works are “Taochu
Youshan” (Escape From the Mountain of Sadness) and “Yuzhou Mubei” (Cosmic
Young writers such as these are adopting new ideas extremely fast: in
1996-1997, SFW published stories about virtual reality, nanotechnology,
cloning, gene therapy, and qigong (Chi Kung; martial arts) masters who
communicate telepathically with aliens. Wang Jinkang’s “Qi Chong Waike” (Seven
Layers of Armor) is about a Chinese adventurer who goes to the U.S., where he is
put into a virtual reality suit that lets him live seven lives, one after
another. When he emerges, he becomes uncertain whether the China he travels to
is just another virtual world (Laris 26). In Xing He’s “Juedou zai Wangluo”
(Duel on the Net), the hacker protagonist becomes a computer virus that zooms
around the CPU, battling other viruses and his antagonist, who also has become a
kind of electronic life-form: this story was once available on the author’s now-
defunct website. In “Mao Zhuo Laoshu de Youxi” (Games of Cats and Mice), a story
by Chen Lan, computer life-forms out-evolve humans because they manipulate their
genetic code much faster, taking control of the “net” and finally turning their
eyes on the outside world (SFW [September 1997] 4-9).
Speaking at the Beijing conference about the treatment of science in Chinese
sf, Yang Xiao noted the “differences [that] find full expression in the science
fiction in developed nations and ... China. The former has [sic] already
completed the voyage of ‘hard science fiction’ ... and now it turns to address
the dire consequences of science and technology running wildly [sic]. Thus,
‘apocalyptic science fiction’ and ‘social problem’ science fiction ...
constitute [most] ... of the science fiction in developed nations.... By
contrast, Chinese science fiction, in the main, [is] still in its early growth
with a burning enthusiasm for science and technology” (121).
It is clear that a fairly small group of writers, magazine publishers, and
critics comprise the contemporary sf community in mainland China. They publish
in Nebula and regularly meet at conventions and conferences. Before the
big Beijing conference of 1997, for instance, there was a smaller “preparatory
meeting” at Yesanpo villa in Hebei, where about 30 of the most influential sf
figures converged to discuss the future of Chinese sf (Cheng 10). Xing He, Wu
Yan, Guo Jianzhong, Wang Jingkang, and Han Song are among those who regularly
participate in these activities, hoping to increase the prestige of sf in China.
One of the more urgent tasks, many of these authors feel, is to create a
change in public attitudes, which too often still dismiss sf as seductive and
dangerous nonsense (“xiangru feifei”). Thus, in April 1997, Hangzhou’s newspaper
Qianjiang Wanbao (Qianjiang Evening Paper) ran an article about a 13-year
old from Zhaoxing who had “as a result of reading too much science fiction” run
away from home to go to Africa and “explore”: eventually he was captured by the
police. The child’s father was quoted as saying that the boy “liked sf books and
films too much.... He would indulge in fantasy and used to talk nonsense” (Guo
101). This prompted a response from Guo Jianzhong at the Beijing conference:
“This ... reaction from an experienced and knowledgeable journalist shows the
standing of sf in the minds of the public. In their eyes, sf is even worse than
swordsman fiction, detective books, or romances. Thus, sf writers become
something like criminal instigators. It is not difficult to imagine the adverse
influence of this article on the development of sf literature!” (Guo 101).
SFW editor Yang Xiao, however, has given an example of a positive sf image:
The Curtain Falls ... by the American writer David W. Hill [Ed. note:
evidently the title has been lost in translation, as there is no U.S. book of
that title], presents a vivid, touching vision of how people suffer after the
ozonosphere is damaged. The story was first published in our Science Fiction
World in 1993, then reprinted in Readers, China’s most popular
magazine, in 1994, arousing an immediate sensation among millions of Chinese
readers. Shocked by the story ... many readers wrote to our magazine, expressing
their strong determination to prevent ... the fictitious tragedy of the hero and
his family from becoming a reality. In addition, [the] China State Environmental
Protection Office reprinted the story and spread it among the broad masses of
people in Beijing on the 1995 International Day of Ozonosphere Protection.
The term used in Chinese for “science fiction” is “kehuan xiaoshuo.” “Kehuan”
is a contraction of the characters “kexue huanxiang”: the approximate meaning is
“science fantasy.” This term, however, dates only from the founding of the
People’s Republic, when Russian sf was introduced to China. Lu Xun, Mao Dun, and
other early twentieth-century Chinese had used another term—“kexue xiaoshuo,”
closer in meaning to “science fiction.” During the 1950s, the name was changed
to approximate the meaning of the Russian term (Guo 105). In response to the
negative connotations the newer term has acquired, Guo Jianzhong proposes
changing the term again: “[today’s] Chinese name for sf is ‘Science Fantasy’....
However, ‘fantasy’ in Chinese is always associated with ‘wild fancy’ and
‘nonsense.’” Referring to the Confucian doctrine of rectification of names, Gao
suggests a revival of the older term “kexue xiaoshuo,” which would sound more
respectable and less fanciful. Besides, he writes, it was good enough for Lu Xun,
Mao Dun, and Lao She (105).
As explained above, sf has largely been perceived as a kind of popular science
literature ever since Lu Xun introduced it to China. In his talk for the Beijing
conference, Han Song said that
writing Sci-Fi in China is not a mere personal affair, but is connected with
the efforts to save an economically-backward nation. Chinese Sci-Fi is different
from the Western ones [sic] because it pays more attention to the inspiration of
young people’s creativity by spreading scientific knowledge among them, instead
of discussing various possibilities in the future. (112; Han’s translation)
Others are not so delighted by this state of affairs. In his conference
presentation, Guo Jianzhong spoke of misconceptions: “In China, sf is generally
mistaken for a form of popular science ... [aiming] to disseminate knowledge of
science. This misunderstanding about [its] nature and function ... is found not
only among sf writers, editors, publishers, but also among sf readers.... The
popular science presses and the science and technology presses have shown
unusual zeal for the publication of sf. However, the literature and art presses
have shown no or almost no interest.... [Yet] it is the art and literature
circle that is the ‘mother’ of sf, who abandons her own ‘child’ out of
The sf scholar Wu Yan is also highly critical of this cult of popular science
among the sf community:
It can be said that the period of time between 1902 to 1979 was some kind of
“utilitarian age” for Chinese sf.... The “science reader factor” of the novels
was disproportionately big and became the main value of all creative efforts.
This ... tendency has created a great crisis for Chinese sf, [has] restricted
its scope and directly influenced the writer’s creative work, and [has] even
limited the layman’s understanding of this literary form. (13)
Probably allied to Chinese preconceptions about sf as a device for teaching
popular science is the widespread misconception that sf is a genre for children.
As already noted, the first wave of Chinese sf during the 1950s was specifically
written for children, and a majority is still aimed at the juvenile market.
Cheng Jiazi writes that “our science fiction publishers still favour juvenile
science fiction.... But we cannot stop at this level: [though] ... there is some
adult sf being published ... there is all too little” (10). In his presentation
for the Beijing conference, Guo Jianzhong also complained of sf’s image
Sf is regarded as ... popular literature, or at best, children’s
literature.... The art and literature presses neglect or even ignore sf. It is
true that juveniles and children like reading sf, but it does not mean that
adults take no interest.... In fact ... juvenile sf ... may be seen as a
subgenre. Many sf masters wrote sf specifically for children[:] ... Robert
Heinlein, Jack Williamson and Frederik Pohl. However, [in the U.S.] most sf ...
[is written] for adult readers. In America, sf fans can be found among children
of eight ... as well as among old people of eighty” (107).
In his article “Suibi ba ze” (Eight Thoughts), Zheng Jun laments the
publishers’ neglect of adult readers:
According to statistics, the average age of the American sf reader is
forty-one. The situation is different in China; the scientific background of
[older] ... readers ... is relatively weak.... But there is always the group of
twenty to thirty year-olds. At the very least, the ... readers raised on sf
during the previous boom in the eighties are at least around thirty now. It is
not the case that they don’t want to read sf anymore; there is simply no [adult]
sf that they can read! The popularity of adult sf films like Waterworld on the
Chinese market is in itself enough to raise the issue. (14)
Zheng believes that juvenile sf itself could be more challenging:
We must not think that it is necessary to lower the quality of sf works in
order to make them more suitable for children. The editors are underestimating
the reading capabilities of young readers. Many youngsters come into my bookshop
asking for famous foreign titles.... They don’t want simplified texts or
“readers”; if you are going to read at all, of course you want to read the whole
book! Some of the more knowledgeable ones buy Chinese-English bilingual books,
or even books in the original English! Why would they want to read diluted
versions? ... Besides, if you give the students books that they understand
completely, they won’t be hooked by them. Of course, if they are too difficult,
they won’t either. The really fascinating works are located in the middle of
these extremes; they “understand half of it” (ban dong bu dong); because they
understand some, they can go on reading, and what they don’t understand, they
have to find out for themselves. (14)
Indeed, many writers and critics express concern not so much about the
quantity as the quality of sf in China today; they fear that the current upsurge
in Chinese sf may be temporary. You Yi, a writer, argues that
I am very concerned that this might be a false blossoming—a temporary
blossoming brought about by outside factors, for instance, the excitement about
the International Conference. Because the ranks of competent Chinese sf writers
have not really been formed yet, China’s conceptual problems with sf have not
been thoroughly solved, and the market for sf is actually not as big as
imagined. (qtd. in Hu)
Wu Yan has expressed an additional fear: the culture of China itself is
somehow inimical to sf and extrapolation: “China ... has no tradition of
scientific thought ... [and] people are used to a “moral” way of thinking.... [H]ow
can you possibly take sf ... which has science and exploration at its core, into
the mainstream?” (qtd. in Hu). The writer Ling Chen sees current “creative work
in Chinese sf” as “severely limited ... like a child who stands at the gates of
imagining the future, but hasn’t yet jumped in” (qtd. in Hu). And Zheng Jun,
mentioned above, wishes that Chinese sf would turn less often to Hollywood for
inspiration, and more often to Chinese and world literature:
I ... not only want our sf writers to learn from Hollywood, I also want them
to learn from Jin Tang’s and Gu Long’s “swordsman fiction” and ... detective
stories about Sherlock Holmes. All in all, learn how to make the reader unable
to put the book down once he has picked it up, learn ... how to write a good
At the Beijing conference, the Taiwanese author Lü Yingzhong proposed several
tasks for today’s Chinese sf writers. In his view, sf themes have always been
present in Chinese literature: he recounted a scene with a slightly science
fictional flavor from one of the chuanqi xiaoshuo (“tales of the
marvelous”) from the Tang and Song dynasties, and he mentioned Liezi’s “Yanshi
Zao Ren” (Mr. Yan Creates a Man), where a man makes a mechanical human being,
and Xiyou Ji (the famous Journey to the West [1592; also called
Monkey]), which he defends as a typical example of Chinese sf in the
broadest sense (87).
Lü called for an anthology that would reprint Chinese proto-sf through the
ages for all the world’s sf writers to read. This volume would include modern
commentaries and guidelines. Another task he recommended was to “put together a
theory for Chinese-style sf ... [to] create a unique Chinese form of sf, using
the style of classical novels and transforming them into modern sf works.
Naturally, we should also consider the tastes of the Western readers in order to
reach the whole world of sf” (88). He acknowledged difficulties: “it is not easy
at all to define ‘Chinese science fiction’; we still have to await the joint
efforts of all the sf writers in our country.” But he proposed some “starting
1. Just by modernizing the style of some “tales of the marvellous” (chuanqi
xiaoshuo), we can easi1y get science fiction novels; let us call them “chuanqi
sf” (chuanqi kehuan).
2. Swordsman fiction (wuxia xiaoshuo) is a literary form unique to our country.
It is not the same as the Japanese ronin novels or the European chivalry novels.
Besides, swordsman fiction is very popular on both sides of the [Taiwan]
channel. If one could unite the plots of swordsman fiction with the theory of
science fiction and create “swordsman science fiction,” it would also be a new
direction to try. (89)
Lü also proposed new hybrid categories of “historical science fiction” (lishi
kehuan) and “mythological science fiction” (shenhua kehuan).
To summarize: science fiction in mainland China, though introduced by Lu Xun
early in the twentieth century, did not immediately catch on, probably because
of the lack of a solid industrial base. Not until the 1950s did sf launch itself
in earnest, and even then it was rapidly converted into a kind of teaching
material for children. The shackles of “utilitarianism”—Wu Yan’s term—held
Chinese sf until the 1970s, when Tong Enzheng and others began to explore social
interactions and human nature itself. The ensuing “Golden Age” did not last
long, for sf writers were targeted in the “Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution”
and forced to stop writing.
Despite earlier difficulties, the latest revival of Chinese sf, dating from
approximately 1991, seems promising indeed. The Science and Technology
Commission now supports sf, hoping that it will inspire youngsters to study
science. Sf is also linked to the Chinese dream of putting a man on the moon in
2000. Science fiction now has fans all over the country (although it is still
most popular in Sichuan and Beijing). The Chinese press regularly reports on
scientific advances, and in the hutongs of Beijing one overhears discussions
about cloned sheep and life on Mars. Most Hollywood sf films are readily
available in video rental shops or on laserdisks on the black market. Children
dream about leaving Earth and constructing space stations (Laris 27).
Not many prominent writers have yet emerged. Chinese sf has entered a more
experimental stage than ever before, and stories tend to become overloaded with
trendy technological terms and inventions, while plot and characterization
suffer. Despite this fluctuation in quality, there should be a wide range of
good Chinese sf in a few years’ time if the current boom continues.
An interesting question is whether any movie production company will be
willing to finance another sf movie. To my knowledge, the only sf films made to
date in mainland China have been Death Ray on a Coral Island, mentioned
above, and Pili Beibei (Thunderbolt Baby), directed by Zhang Zhilu in
1987 on a budget of only 470,000 RMB (approximately US$57,000). In a Nebula
interview, Zhang and his colleague Liu Niu expressed an interest in making new
sf movies if they could find financing and capable personnel. They envision
Chinese sf films as characterized by “both the humanitarian atmosphere of
Oriental films, and the trendy high-tech production of Western ones” (Xiang 9).
Although some problems persist, including the genre’s being misperceived as
only a variant of popular science and/or as children’s literature, recent
developments suggest that Chinese sf may be ready to step into adulthood. Sf
might become a lasting phenomenon with a large and fairly stable group of
readers. These readers now define themselves as a kind of subculture. It may be
that the third wave of sf in China is being accomplished through the same kind
of dynamic as earlier in the U.S. and Europe: enthusiastic grassroots support,
informal fan networks, xeroxed magazines, and impromptu film festivals. Finally,
as the internet becomes more available in China, it will become easier to
contact like-minded foreign friends.
As Chinese sf develops, it will be noticed and analyzed by more than the odd
enthusiast like me. Already, Jaroslav Olsa and Viktor Michalik in Czechoslovakia
are said to be writing a book on the subject (in Czech). I regret that I did not
have time and space in this brief account to provide either close readings of
such contemporary Chinese sf as Xing He’s stories or to consider the two
mainland Chinese sf films. It would also be interesting to consider sf from
Taiwan and Hong Kong, especially the books of “Wesley”—a Hong Kong author who is
probably the most popular sf writer publishing in Chinese. These tasks await
subsequent critics, as does a closer look at Chinese sf’s mythological origins.
Academic study of sf is a recent arrival in China, though a few courses are
taught: the noted critic Wu Yan teaches a popular sf class at Beijing Shifan
Daxue (Beijing Teacher’s College), and Shanghai’s International Studies
University also lists a science fiction course as part of its curriculum (Laris
27). Hangzhou University boasts an entire Science Fiction Studies Centre headed
by Guo Jianzhong (qtd. in Hu). For younger students, the editors of SFW, based
in Sichuan, have arranged “Schoolyard SF Competitions” in which students write
sf stories. Perhaps a subsquent report on the state of sf in China will emerge
from one of these mainland venues.
[Note: All translations are by Mikael Huss, except for the conference essays by
Han Song, Wang Jinkang, and Yang Xiao, which were translated by Han Song, Wan
Jinkang, and Wang Rongsheng, respectively.]
Chen Lan.“Mao Zhuo Laoshu de Youxi” (Games of Cat and Mice). Kehuan Shijie
(Science Fiction World) (September 1997): 4-9.
Cheng Jiazi. “Kehuan Chuangzuo de You Yi Ge Chuntian” (A New Spring for SF
Creation). Nebula 21 (October 1997): 10.
Gu Junzheng. Heping de Meng (A Dream of Peace). Shanghai: Cultural Life:
Guo Jianzhong. “Prospects For SF in China.” Zhongguo Kehuan Xiaoshuo Fazhan
Qianjing (Essay Collection From 1997 Beijing International Conference of
Science Fiction). Chengdu: SFW, 1997. 104-108. Volume abbreviated below as
Han Song. “Zhongguo Kehuan Xiaoshuo de Dangdai Chujing” (The Social Environment
of Chinese Science Fiction). International Conference: 110-12.
Hu Yanhua. “Kehuan Xiaoshuo:‘Huangjin Shidai’ Zhi Ri Ke Dai?” (Chinese SF: Is
the “Golden Age” Just Around the Corner?). Zhonghua Dushubao (China
Reading Weekly) (17 September 1997): n.pag.
Kehuan Shijie (Science Fiction World) editorial board. Mingtian Lundao Ni
(Tomorrow It’s Your Turn). Chengdu: SFW, 1996.
Laris, Michael. “The Sci-Fi Syndrome” Newsweek 11 (August 1997): 24-27.
Liu Xianping. “Miren de Gao Pinwei Kehuan Jingpin” (Enchanting, Elegant Science
Fiction Masterpiece) Zhonghua Dushubao (China Reading Weekly) (23 April
1997): n.pag. Qtd. in Nebula (October 1997): 15.
Lü Yingzhong. “Chuangzao Zhongguo Fengge Kehuan Xiaoshuo (Creating Science
Fiction, Chinese Style). International Conference: 87-88.
Rao Zhonghua. “Kehuan Xiaoshuo Zai Zhongguo” (Science Fiction Literature in
China). In Shijie Zhuming Kexue Huanxiang Xiaoshuo (World Famous Science Fiction
Stories). Beijing: Renmin Chubanshe, 1982. 1-12.
Shannon, Claude and Warren Weaver. The Mathematical Theory of Communication.
Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1963.
Sunzi [Sun Tzu]. Bingfa (Art of War). c. 50 BC. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984.
Tong Enzheng. “Wo Dui Kehuan Wenyi de Kanfa” (My Views on the Art of Science
Fiction). Renmin Wenxue (The People’s Literature) (1979): n.pag.
Wang Jinkang. “Lishi Laoren de Shou Yi Fang Zai Ni de Jianshang” (The Old
Master’s Hand is Resting On Your Shoulder). Kehuan Shijie (SFW) (January
Wu Yan. “Lilun Yu Zhongguo Kehuan de Fazhan” (History and Development of Chinese
SF). Nebula 21 (October 30, 1997): 13-14.
Wu Ye. “Kexue Huanxiang: Ling Yi Ge Shijie” (Science Fiction: Another World).
Nebula 20 (1997): 11-12.
Xiang Yu. “Zhongguo Yingren” (Chinese Movie Makers). Nebula 21 (October
30, 1997): 9.
Xing He. “Wangluo Yishi de Keneng He Fazhan” (The Possibilities and Development
of a New Consciousness). International Conference: 113-114.
Yang Xiao.”Kehuan Yu Kua Wenhua Jiaoliu” (Science Fiction And Intercultural
Exchanges). International Conference: 118-122.
Yao Haijun. “Sisuozhe—Han Song” (Han Song the Thinker). Nebula 21
(October 30, 1997): 9.
Ye Yonglie. “Zouchu ‘Wei Kexue’ de Yinying” (Stepping Out of the Shadow of False
Science). Kehuan Shijie (SFW) February 1996: 2-4.
Zheng Jun. ”Suibi Ba Ze” (Eight Thoughts) Nebula 20 (1997): 14.