SCIENCE FICTION IN CHINA
Suddenly it seemed science fiction was all the rage in China in the 2010s. Liu Cixin won a coveted Hugo Award in 2015 for his mammoth work “The Three-Body Problem.” The next year Hao Jingfang won a Hugo Award in her story “Folding Beijing”. Chen Qiufan, Chan Koonchung and other Chinese science fiction (SF) also received global attention. Lena Henningsen wrote: “Chinese SF used to be a marginalized genre, both in terms of scholarly research and in terms of its status within the literary field. Recent years, however, have seen an increase in attention to the genre both among academics and the general readership, not least thanks to the commitment of translator Ken Liu. He has been crucial for bringing Chinese SF to the attention of English readers and for introducing Chinese authors into the global SF award circuit. Today, the global circulation of Chinese SF even impacts perceptions of China. [Source: Lena Henningsen, Ohio State University, MCLC Resource Center Publication, September 2020]
In 1903, Lu Xun, perhaps the most towering and revered figures in modern Chinese literature, wrote, in his preface to his 1903 translation of Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon,” “Science fiction is as rare as unicorn horns, which shows in a way the intellectual poverty of our times”. On the role of science fiction today, Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: “The scale and the speed of China’s economic transformation were conducive to a fictive mode that concerns itself with the fate of whole societies, planets, and galaxies, and in which individuals are presented as cogs in larger systems. The fact that state-owned enterprises were increasingly at the mercy of their balance sheets fundamentally changed social expectations in a country where the danwei — or work unit — had rivalled the family as a facet of one’s identity. [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, June 17, 2019]
Jarrod Watt and Rachel Cheung wrote in the South China Morning Post: “Cinema audiences in the 1980s watched a futuristic vision of the year 2019 that included killer robots, flying cars — and an almost entirely American cast. Fast forward to today, and one of the biggest global blockbusters is “The Wandering Earth”, which has an almost entirely Chinese cast and is based on a novella by China's most famous science fiction writer, Liu Cixin. Liu has helped to usher in a new generation of Chinese authors, many of whom are boldly envisioning the future and speculating about the role of technology and its impact on society. The emergence of these writers and their ideas has many experts asking: Is this a golden age of Chinese science fiction? [Source: Jarrod Watt and Rachel Cheung, South China Morning Post, March 31, 2019]
Gautham Shenoy wrote in Factor Daily: “Science fiction in — and from — the People’s Republic of China 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. [Source: Gautham Shenoy, Factor Daily, January 12, 2019]
Recommended books available in English: 1) “Invisible Planets”, Edited and Translated by Ken Liu; 2) The Reincarnated Giant, edited by Mingwei Song and Theodore Huters (both anthologies of contemporary Chinese SF); 3) The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung (banned in China and described as the Chinese 1984); 4) “The Three-Body Problem” by Liu Cixin; and 5) “Cat Country” by Lao She. Further reading (via tor.com, with articles translated by Ken Liu: A) “What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?” by Xia Jia; B) “The Worst of All Possible Universes and the Best of All Possible Earths: Three Body and Chinese Science Fiction” by Cixin Liu; C) “The Torn Generation: Chinese Science Fiction in a Culture in Transition” by Chen Qiufan.
Sudden Popularity and Profitability of Science Fiction in China
Yi-Ling Liu wrote in Wired: “What was once a niche subculture with a small circle of hardcore fans has blossomed into a full-fledged 66 billion yuan ($10 billion) industry of films, books, video games, and theme parks. The Wandering Earth, a 2019 film adaptation of a story by Liu Cixin, earned more than $300 million in its first week after release and would become China’s fourth-highest-grossing film ever. Once dismissed as frivolous children’s literature, science fiction now commands the attention of all kinds of enterprises hoping to profit from its popularity: film studios hungry for screenplay fodder, universities setting up sci-fi research institutions, talent agencies eager to jump on the bandwagon, tech companies keen to borrow the genre’s aura of profundity, and even government officials looking to ennoble the national project of innovation. “One of the most important qualities in a writer is sensitivity — the ability to capture the strangeness in everyday life.” [Source: Yi-Ling Liu, Wired, March 9, 2021]
“In hindsight, the ascendancy of sci-fi in Chinese literature seems almost inevitable. After all, walking the streets of Beijing today can feel like inhabiting a cyberpunk fiction: Bright yellow shared bikes line the streets, facial recognition cameras hang on street lamps, robot servers deliver hot-pot dinners to your table. Liu Cixin has compared present-day China to the US after World War II, “when science and technology filled the future with wonder.” It’s also a time when science and technology have filled the present with a sense of estrangement, ennui, and anxiety, and a writer like Chen is a natural chronicler of that tension.
“But for the people working in the genre, the sudden crush of attention and esteem has been vertiginous. “None of us had the goal of taking over the world,” says Emily Jin, a translator and protégé of Ken Liu who has worked closely with Chen. “We’re just a bunch of nerds having fun together.” In China, where rapid technological change keeps transfiguring the world beyond recognition, “one of the most important qualities in a writer is sensitivity — the ability to capture the strangeness in everyday life,” Chen says. And it can be hard to maintain that sensitivity when you’re squinting under the spotlights.”
Early History of Science Fiction in China
Gautham Shenoy wrote in Factor Daily:“The beginnings of modern Chinese science fiction first took root during the period of the Late Qing Dynasty (1895-1911), 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.” [Source: Gautham Shenoy, Factor Daily, January 12, 2019]
Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: “The great flourishing of science fiction in the West at the end of the nineteenth century occurred alongside unprecedented technological progress and the proliferation of the popular press — transformations that were fundamental to the development of the genre. As the British Empire expanded and the United States began to assert its power around the world, British and American writers invented tales of space travel as seen through a lens of imperial appropriation, in which technological superiority brought about territorial conquest. Extraterrestrials were often a proxy for human beings of different creeds or races. M. P. Shiel’s novel “Yellow Danger” (1898) imagined a fiendish Chinese plan to take over the world, and warned that “the bony visage of the yellow man, in moments of unbridled lust and mad excitement, is a brutal spectacle.” The most famous novel of the era, H. G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds” (1898), in which Martians attack an unsuspecting Earth, was inspired by the violent struggle in early-nineteenth-century Tasmania between Aboriginal people and white settlers, in which the indigenous population was almost completely obliterated. [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, June 17, 2019]
“Wells’s science fiction greatly impressed Lu Xun, a writer who is considered the father of modern Chinese literature, and whose translations of Wells and Verne introduced the genre to China. Lu hoped that incorporating scientific thought into popular fiction could help remedy “intellectual poverty” and provide a means of “leading the Chinese masses on the way to progress.” Lu, born in 1881, had witnessed the drama of China’s ancient civilization brought low by younger, more technologically advanced European ones; the Chinese might be more populous than the Tasmanians, but could they suffer the same fate?
“Early Chinese sci-fi imagined a China that caught up with the West and then outstripped it. Liang Qichao’s “The Future of New China” (1902) is set in 1962; in the story, Shanghai hosts the World’s Fair, a geopolitically dominant China has developed a multiparty system, and Westerners study the Chinese in the hope of bettering themselves. In “China in Ten Years,” a popular story published anonymously in 1923, China develops laser weapons to repel Western imperialists.
Lena Henningsen wrote: “As with all other literary genres, SF in mainland China has been closely tied to the political, social, and cultural conditions of its production, circulation, and reception. SF first appeared in the late Qing, both in the form of translations by figures like Lu Xun and in original works by the likes of Liang Qichao, when it was interwoven with modern discourses of science and changing attitudes toward fiction. Nathaniel Isaacson (2017) sees the emergent Chinese SF as a product of colonial modernity based on indigenous literary traditions and translations of foreign works. [Source: Lena Henningsen, Ohio State University, MCLC Resource Center Publication, September 2020]
Lao She’s “Cat Country” is considered by some to be the first Chinese science-fiction novel. Lao She (1899-1966), the pen name of the Manchu writer Shu Qingchun, is widely regarded as one of the greatest authors of modern Chinese literature. and was considered one of China’s best hopes for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He committed suicide after being beaten and humiliated by 15- and 16-year-old female Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.
Ian Johnson wrote in New York Review of Books: “It’s in Cat Country that Lao She stretches himself the furthest, producing one of the most remarkable, perplexing, and prophetic novels of modern China. On one level it is a work of science fiction — a visit to a country of cat-like people on Mars — that lampoons 1930s China. On a deeper level, the work predicts the terror and violence of the early Communist era and the chaos and brutality that led to Lao She’s death, Cat Country is often called a dystopian novel, but when Lao She took his own life, it was an uncannily accurate portrait of the reality around him. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, August 26, 2013]
“The novel tells the story of a Chinese man who crash-lands on Mars. His two companions are killed and he is soon captured by a group of Cat People who run one of the planet’s many countries. After realizing that they lack rudimentary military technology, he frees himself from their clutches by using his pistol to scare them off. He is then befriended by one of Cat Country’s richest and most powerful men, Scorpion, who has a plantation of “reverie” trees, which produce addictive leaves that the Cat People eat. Scorpion takes the narrator under his wing, protecting him from further attacks but also using him as a mercenary to guard his valuable crop.
“Eventually, the two go to Cat City, where the narrator learns about Cat Country’s plight. As he puts it upon entering the city, “As soon as I set eyes on Cat City, for some reason or other, a sentence took form in my mind: this civilization will soon perish!” What follows is a detailed exploration of Cat Country, which can be seen as a direct commentary on 1930s China. “Mr Earth,” as our narrator is called, views the Cat People with a mixture of pity and disgust. The locals are dirty and chaotic, the local food poisonous and unsafe, while modern education and foreign travel have only led to superficial knowledge and alienation from traditions. The narrator’s informant is Scorpion’s son, Young Scorpion, who shows the disorderly state of museums and libraries, which have been pillaged by corrupt officials. Worse are the schools, where nothing is taught and everyone immediately handed a university diploma. In one particularly chilling scene, students dissect their teachers alive.
Science Fiction in the Mao Era
Gautham Shenoy wrote in Factor Daily: After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, science fiction was 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. [Source: Gautham Shenoy, Factor Daily, January 12, 2019]
Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: “When the Communists came to power, science fiction presented itself as a handy way of furthering Mao’s “Campaign of Marching Toward Science and Technology.” Sci-fi would stimulate the interest of children and adolescents, and encourage them to contribute to the country’s modernization. But during the Cultural Revolution the genre was banned, along with other nonrevolutionary literature, and even science itself was subjected to ideological-purity tests. In astronomy, discussion of sunspots was forbidden, because the literal meaning of the Chinese term is “solar black spots,” and black was the color associated with counter-revolutionaries. [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, June 17, 2019]
Lena Henningsen wrote: “After 1949, three waves of SF production can be mapped out, each with its distinct characteristics tied to its respective historical and political conditions and to its respective foreign literary influences. The first wave appeared in the 1950s. These texts were inspired by translations of SF from Soviet Russia. During this first wave, SF targeted young readers; it aimed at popularizing scientific knowledge and at inspiring its audience to pursue scientific endeavors themselves. At the same time, the genre “filled a gap left by the banning of both Chinese and Western pulp fiction after 1949”. It projected visions of a prosperous future under socialism: the stories focus on space travel or on the efficient breeding of pigs the size of elephants, and are thus a product of and feed into the hyperbolic policies of the Great Leap Forward. Because of the tense political climate of the 1960s and 1970s, SF publications came to a standstill. Even in the unofficial handwritten literature that circulated clandestinely at that time, no SF stories, to my knowledge, were written. These handwritten texts contain only a few references to advanced technology, such as a mysterious time bomb or a rare micro recorder produced in West Germany that is used for hunting down spies. [Source: Lena Henningsen, Ohio State University, MCLC Resource Center Publication, September 2020]
Science Fiction in the Deng Era
Science fiction made a resurgence for a brief period in the early years of Deng Xiaoping era in the late 1970s and 1980s. Gautham Shenoy wrote in Factor Daily: “ 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. [Source: Gautham Shenoy, Factor Daily, January 12, 2019]
According to a press release for “Chinese Science Fiction during the Post-Mao Cultural Thaw” by Hua Li : “The late 1970s to the mid-1980s, a period commonly referred to as the post-Mao cultural thaw, was a key transitional phase in the evolution of Chinese science fiction. This period served as a bridge between science-popularization science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s and New Wave Chinese science fiction from the 1990s into the twenty-first century. Chinese Science Fiction during the Post-Mao Cultural Thaw surveys the field of Chinese science fiction and its multimedia practice, analysing and assessing science fiction works by well-known writers such as Ye Yonglie, Zheng Wenguang, Tong Enzheng, and Xiao Jianheng, as well as the often-overlooked tech—science fiction writers of the post-Mao thaw. Exploring the socio-political and cultural dynamics of science-related Chinese literature during this period, Hua Li combines close readings of original Chinese literary texts with literary analysis informed by scholarship on science fiction as a genre, Chinese literary history, and media studies. Li argues that this science fiction of the post-Mao thaw began its rise as a type of government-backed literature, yet it often stirred up controversy and received pushback as a contentious and boundary-breaking genre. [Book:“Chinese Science Fiction during the Post-Mao Cultural Thaw” by Hua Li (University of Toronto Press, 2021)]
Lena Henningsen wrote: “A second wave of SF publications appeared after the end of the Mao years. These texts mostly have adult readers as their intended audience. They have been seen as “lobby literature,” calling for recognition for scientists after the persecution they experienced during the Cultural Revolution (Wagner 1985). Some texts explicitly treat the harm done to scientists and intellectuals in a fashion similar to the genre of “scar literature” , which confronted the traumas suffered during the Cultural Revolution, but remained within the limits set by the official discourse. The stories shift the blame for the suffering of the people to the Gang of Four and end on a positive note with the protagonists moving into a happy future with the support of the Four Modernizations, a pattern employed in SF stories such as Zheng Wenguang’s “Star Camp” (1981). Other texts focus on creating positive images of scientists as patriotic heroes willing to sacrifice their lives for the well-being of the nation. Examples for this type of “lobby literature” are Tong Enzheng’s “Death Ray on a Coral Island” (1978) or Xiao Jianheng’s “The Secret of the ‘Venus People’” (1979). The texts are mostly optimistic in their vision of the future and portray how scientific enquiry and technological change will bring about a better, more prosperous future for the people and the nation. Most of these stories have China as their primary point of reference, but intertextual references to classic authors of Western SF—such as Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke—situate the stories within a world literary genre, though they are at the same time planted in the literary universe of socialist cosmopolitanism. The texts of this second wave brought Western notions of SF into Chinese understandings and practices of the genre. [Source: Lena Henningsen, Ohio State University, MCLC Resource Center Publication, September 2020]
Ye Yonglie (1940-2020) is often described as China’s answer to the acclaimed American science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. According to Sixth Tone: Ye is known for his science fiction prowess, including introducing the genre to young readers. After graduating from the prestigious Peking University with a degree in chemistry, Ye published his famous children’s book “100,000 Whys” at the age of 20, establishing himself as an exciting new arrival to the country’s literary scene. Born in August 1940 in the eastern city of Wenzhou, Ye started writing at the age of 11. At the time of his death, he had published over 180 works. [Source:Sixth Tone, May 15, 2020]
According to MCLC Resource Center: Ye Yonglie was a prolific writer across a wide spectrum of fictional and non-fictional genres: SF, detective fiction, semi-fictional biographies of prominent CCP members, travel books, texts about SF—and, in his later years, a blog. At young age, he became a key contributor to the periodical A Hundred Thousand Whys , which aimed at popularizing science among young readers (The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction 2020). He had already written a first version of the Little Smarty story in the early 1960s but could not get it published at the time—Joe Ye, the author’s son, indicates that the time was not ripe yet in China for such a future vision of advanced technology. The campaign against spiritual pollution in 1983 once again put a halt to the production of SF. [Source: Lena Henningsen, Ohio State University, MCLC Resource Center Publication, September 2020]
“Together with Tong Enzheng (1935-1997) and Zheng Wenguang (1929-2003), Ye Yonglie is one the three prominent SF authors born before the founding of the PRC, but making their first successful steps on the Chinese literary and SF scene during the early PRC and continuing their efforts at popularizing science and writing SF in the early post-Mao era. During the second wave of PRC SF, Ye Yonglie produced an impressive output of works, thus exemplifying the close link at the time between SF and science popularization that is also clearly visible in Little Smarty Travels to the Future. Some of his other SF works target adult readers and can be seen as critical explorations of technological progress. One of the few Chinese SF stories of the era to take place outside of China, “Reap as You Have Sown” (1981), for example, explores the moral dimensions of the technology of human cloning. “Corrosion” (1981) covers the heroic efforts of a group of Chinese scientists to contain, understand, and put to productive use a type of highly corrosive extra-terrestrial bacteria. The story follows a bildungsroman pattern, tracing how the protagonist sublimates his striving for fame and for the Nobel Prize and turns into a hero willing to sacrifice his life. At the same time, it can be read as a piece of “lobby literature” calling for a positive re-evaluation of Chinese academics and intellectuals, celebrating their patriotism and self-sacrifice. In addition to authoring SF stories, Ye Yonglie also edited volumes of Chinese SF both in Chinese and for foreign audiences (Ye/Dunsing 1984).
Little Smarty Travels to the Future
“Little Smarty Travels to the Future “ is an early post-Mao science fiction, adapted into a comic book (lianhuanhua) with 150 panels with captions. Lena Henningsen wrote: Originally composed in the early 1960s, Ye Yonglie (1940 — 2020) was not able to publish the short novel until 1978. The comic book adaptation that is the basis for our translation followed two years later and enjoyed tremendous success with at least 3 million copies printed. Paola Iovene rightly describes the story as “as much a jump forward in imagination as it was a resumption of aspirations of the past”. At the same time, the story is firmly grounded in the early post-Mao years and in Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernizations, which legitimated political and economic change and ushered in China’s dramatic economic growth. [Source: Lena Henningsen, Ohio State University, MCLC Resource Center Publication, September 2020; Book: “Little Smarty Travels to the Future” by Ye Yonglie, with all 150 panels from the original comic book, Pan Caiying (adaptation), translated by Adrian Ewald, Lena Henningsen, Lars Konheiser, Elena Mannich, Federica Monchiero, Franziska Roth, Joschua Seiler, and Sen Wei (Freiburg University), MCLC Resource Center Publication, September 2020 u.osu.edu/mclc ]
“Little Smarty Travels to the Future is part of the second wave of SF in the PRC. It is, as mentioned at the outset of this essay, rooted in the history of the early post-Mao years. It is also a projection of the future and a return to “aspirations of the past.” The comic book presents a vision of a bright Future City: modern infrastructure, abundant food, high-tech clothing, space travel, and all of it man-made, or, rather, invented by humans—physical labor, as Paola Iovene has observed, is conspicuously absent. Agricultural production is efficient and to a large degree automated; plants have increased massively in size, and food is artificially produced. Rain and sunshine are not predicted, but calculated and controlled in order to meet the needs of human society and of agricultural production. Tableware is covered with a stain-resistant coating and made from unbreakable material. People wear bright-colored clothes with a special water-repellent coating; they drive self-floating vehicles and live happily in a city built predominantly from shiny plastic. From a twenty-first century perspective, we may be tempted to focus on the dystopian consequences—the waste and pollution—of such manipulations of the environment, but these are not to be found in the comic’s essentially post-Mao utopian vision of a future that can be realized within a generation or two.
“Little Smarty, a young reporter setting off from contemporary China (i.e. from the China of the immediate post-Mao years), accidently ends up in the future where he meets and befriends two children—Little Tiger and his sister Little Swallow—as well as most members of their five-generation household. In Future City, he pursues his profession and gathers as much information as possible to inform his young readers back home about the future. He takes part in the technology-rich everyday life of his new friends and visits a cinema, an artificial grain factory, and an agricultural plant. At the end of his three-day-visit, a rocket brings him back home, and he instantly writes down his adventures and new insights into life in the future.
The Chinese comic book genre is typically published in palm-sized booklets. Each page contains one panel, with the narrative text and speech below or at the side of the illustration; speech bubbles or words and sounds integrated into the illustration are rare. Similar to Western comics, lianhuanhua target a young audience, and they enjoyed popularity throughout the twentieth century. After 1949, the lianhuanhua genre was also used as a tool to promote knowledge or inculcate ideology among young readers.
Some Panels from Little Smarty Travels to the Future
Panel 78: Lena Henningsen wrote: In the novel’s chapter about school in Future City, Little Tiger and Little Smarty have a long conversation about science and literature. Little Tiger is interested in many subjects, in particular chemistry and biology. He and his sister even tend a small experimental plot of land, pointing to the didactic function of the text to inspire children to engage in scientific experimentation themselves. He has an entirely positive vision of science: There is no waste in chemistry, because chemistry is only about modifying and changing existing matter. Also, thanks to scientific progress and an artificial sun installed at the South Pole, the ice there has melted entirely, providing ample opportunity for breeding animals on the grasslands there. (This latter point is not elaborated on in the text of the comic book, but one of the images that Little Tiger shows to his friend has sheep grazing in front of what looks like igloos). Little Tiger not only is a prospective scientist, but also learns languages and is good at drawing. Little Smarty therefore wonders about potential prospective collaboration: “If in the future I write reports, novels, travel books, or essays, you can draw the illustrations and design the cover—wouldn’t that be great?” This adds a small layer of “lobby literature” to the story: It emphasizes the broad interests of Little Tiger, the scientist, and of Little Smarty, the author, their prospective collaboration, and their impeccable work ethic.
Panel 42: “Little Tiger’s and Little Swallow’s great-grandmother and great-great-grandparents are absent from the plot because they are on holiday on the moon (see panel 42 above). The moon is described as Moon Palace with the latter term referring to a legendary palace located on the moon. The Moon Palace, according to Chinese mythology, is the celestial palace inhabited by the goddess of the moon, Chang’e . Her myth is still popular in contemporary China. The most common versions narrate that Chang’e was the wife of Hou Yi , a skilled archer who shot down nine of the ten suns around which the Earth orbited, saving mankind. To reward him for his heroic deeds, Queen Goddess of the West presents him with an elixir of immortality. However, she gave him enough elixir for just one person, and since he did not want to live forever without his wife by his side, Hou Yi decided to remain mortal. Instead, Chang’e drank the elixir in his place and began to float to the sky, crying and pleading for help. Her husband saw her from below, so he grabbed his bow and tried to shoot Chang’e down, but each attempt went awry. Eventually, Chang’e arrived on the moon where she built a palace, becoming the spirit of the moon.
Panel 102: “During his tour through Future City, Little Smarty is taken to the city’s huge farm. Arriving at the gate, he remarks that the sign “Future City Agricultural Plant” has a mistake: “Isn’t the word ‘plant’ wrong? It should be the word ‘plantation’!” Our translation does not fully capture the pun in the Chinese original that plays on the words.Both are pronounced identically as nongchang. At the end of the visit to the farm, Little Smarty then confirms to his hosts that they correctly called the site an “agricultural plant,” thus expressing his admiration for the industrialization of farming technologies achieved in Future City.
Golden Age of Chinese Science Fiction
Gautham Shenoy wrote in Factor Daily: ““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. [Source: Gautham Shenoy, Factor Daily, January 12, 2019]
“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.
Lena Henningsen wrote: “ Very little was published before the onset of the third wave—the current new wave of SF that began around 2000 and that has been studied by numerous scholars. Whether or not they take place in China, many of these stories can be read as critical enquiries into current problems both of Chinese society and of the global community, including social and gender inequalities, urbanization and overpopulation, or the destruction of the environment. The popularity of the genre seems to be increasing, but it still seems marginal enough to be allowed the leeway to include veiled criticism of current domestic and international affairs. The circulation of Chinese SF has reached a global scale, with many contemporary novels and short stories now available in translation. Some of these translations are produced by academics interested in the topic, but Ken Liu, who is himself a SF writer, is largely responsible for bringing Chinese SF to the broad reading public by catering to the tastes of global SF readers. Global interest in the genre has to do with China’s “rise” and “threat” and with the expectation that (science) fiction may provide Western readers with a better understanding of the distant country. In addition, there is also an interest in Chinese SF not for its Chineseness, but for its literary value, exemplified, for example, by Barack Obama’s well-publicized praise for Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem (Chau 2018). [Source: Lena Henningsen, Ohio State University, MCLC Resource Center Publication, September 2020]
In “The View from the Cheap Seats”, a collection of non-fiction essays, Neil Gaiman 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?
Fake Zombies and Chinese Government Response to the Popularity of Science Fiction
Austin Ramzy wrote in the New York Times’s Sinosphere: “The growing popularity of science fiction in China has caught the attention of the country’s leadership. This week, Vice President Li Yuanchao met with authors — including Liu Cixin, who wrote the Hugo Award-winning novel “The Three-Body Problem” — and called on them to inspire interest in science and encourage young people’s “faith in realizing the Chinese Dream,” the state news agency Xinhua reported. [Source: Austin Ramzy Sinosphere, New York Times, September 17, 2015]
“But even as the Chinese leadership offered praise for the writers, the police have been reminding people not to use social media to flex their imaginations. An effort to stamp out online rumors has had several people punished for relaying tales that could have come straight from the classics of fantasy and science fiction. The tales of hysteria over Orson Welles dramatic 1938 radio performance of “War of the Worlds” are largely fiction themselves, but the authorities have been assertive in preventing any such panic.
“Here are some of the online rumors that have met with official reprimands in China: There’s a female zombie in Guangzhou. On Sept. 5, the police in the southern city published a notice online that a Weibo post with images of a woman covered in blood and a note suggesting she was a zombie was fake. It added a reminder to avoid hallucinogens. A 21-year-old local man surnamed Zhang was given 10 days detention for posting the item, the Guangzhou Daily reported. The images were actually from a film shot in Jiangsu Province, the newspaper said.
“There’s also a zombie in that sarcophagus in Henan Province. In 2014, photos of a mummified corpse circulated online with suggestions that they were evidence of a zombie found in the eastern city of Nanjing or in Jianli County in Hubei Province. The police said the images were of an archaeological dig the year before in Henan Province that turned up the well-preserved body of a Qing dynasty official, but no signs of the undead.
“A mythical beast is roaming Beijing. Also in 2014, photos emerged showing a Gollum-like creature kneeling in a rocky ravine with a message declaring that it was a “mythical beast” discovered in the Huairou District of Beijing. The local police said these were merely images of an actor in a film who was photographed going to the bathroom while in costume, the website of the People’s Daily reported.
“That’s an alien in the fridge. In 2013, a farmer in Shandong Province claimed to have encountered five extraterrestrial creatures, one of whom was killed on an electric fence. His claims, and photos of the purported alien corpse he kept in a freezer, drew widespread attention online. The local authorities investigated and held a news conference to announce that his claims were false, and that the dead alien was actually made from rubber, Southern Metropolis Daily reported. The farmer, who is surnamed Li, was sentenced to five days detention for disturbing public order, Xinhua reported.
In 2011, China banned time travel on television. CNN reported: The latest guidance on television programming from the State Administration of Radio Film and Television in China borders on the surreal---or, rather, an attack against the surreal. New guidelines issued on March 31 discourage plot lines that contain elements of "fantasy, time-travel, random compilations of mythical stories, bizarre plots, absurd techniques, even propagating feudal superstitions, fatalism and reincarnation, ambiguous moral lessons, and a lack of positive thinking." “The government says---TV dramas shouldn’t have characters that travel back in time and rewrite history. They say this goes against Chinese heritage,” reports CNN’s Eunice Yoon. “They also say that myth, superstitions and reincarnation are all questionable.” The Chinese censors seem to be especially sensitive these days. But for the television and film industry, such strictures would seem to eliminate any Chinese version of “Star Trek,” “The X-Files,” “Quantum Leap” or “Dr. Who.” And does that mean rebroadcast of huge Hollywood moneymakers like “Back to the Future” and the “Terminator” series are now forbidden?" [Source: CNN, April 14, 2011]
Image Sources: Wiki Commons, Asia Obscura, Amazon
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated November 2021