What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?

Article translated by Ken Liu.

In the summer of 2012, I was on a panel on Chinese science fiction at Chicon 7. One of the attendees asked me and the other Chinese authors: “What makes Chinese science fiction Chinese?”

This is not at all an easy question to answer, and everyone will have a different response. It is true, however, that for the last century or so, “Chinese science fiction” has occupied a rather unique place in the culture and literature of modern China.

Science fiction’s creative inspirations—massive machinery, new modes of transportation, global travel, space exploration—are the fruits of industrialization, urbanization, and globalization, processes with roots in modern capitalism. But when the genre was first introduced via translation to China at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was mostly treated as fantasies and dreams of modernity, material that could be woven into the construction of a “Chinese Dream.”

“Chinese Dream” here refers to the revival of the Chinese nation in the modern era, a prerequisite for realizing which was reconstructing the Chinese people’s dream. In other words, the Chinese had to wake up from their old, 5000-year dream of being an ancient civilization and start to dream of becoming a democratic, independent, prosperous modern nation state. As a result, the first works of science fiction in Chinese were seen, in the words of the famous writer Lu Xun, as literary tools for “improving thinking and assisting culture.” On the one hand, these early works, as myths of science, enlightenment, and development based on imitating “the West”/“the world”/“modernity,” attempted to bridge the gap between reality and dream. But on the other hand, the limitations of their historical context endowed them with deeply Chinese characteristics that only emphasized the depth of the chasm between dream and reality.

One such early work was Lu Shi’e’s “New China” (published in 1910). The protagonist wakes up in the Shanghai of 1950 after a long slumber. He sees around him a progressive, prosperous China, and is told that all this is due to the efforts of a certain Dr. Su Hanmin, who had studied abroad and invented two technologies: “the spiritual medicine” and “the awakening technique.” With these technologies, a population mired in spiritual confusion and the daze of opium awakened in an instant and began an explosive bout of political reform and economic development. The Chinese nation has not only been revived, but is even able to overcome abuses that the West could not overcome on its own. In the author’s view, “European entrepreneurs were purely selfish and cared not one whit for the suffering of others. That was why they had stimulated the growth of the Communist parties.” However, with the invention of Dr. Su’s spiritual medicine, every Chinese has become altruistic and “everyone views everyone else’s welfare as their responsibility; it is practically socialism already, and so of course we’re not plagued by Communists.”

After the founding of the People’s Republic, Chinese science fiction, as a branch of socialist literature, was handed the responsibility for popularizing scientific knowledge as well as describing a beautiful plan for the future and motivating society to achieve it. For instance, the writer Zheng Wenguang once said, “The realism of science fiction is different from the realism of other genres; it is a realism infused with revolutionary idealism because its intended reader is the youth.” This “revolutionary idealism,” at its root, is a continuation of the Chinese faith and enthusiasm for the grand narrative of modernization. It represents optimism for continuing development and progress, and unreserved passion for building a nation state.

A classic example of revolutionary idealism is Zheng Wenguang’s “Capriccio for Communism” (published in 1958). The story describes the celebration at Tiananmen Square at the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic in 1979. The “builders of Communism” parade across the square, presenting their scientific achievements to the motherland: the spaceship Mars I, the gigantic levee that connects Hainan Island with the mainland, factories that synthesize all sorts of industrial products from ocean water, even artificial suns that melt the glaciers of the Tianshan Mountains to transform deserts into rich farmland … faced with such wonders, the protagonist exclaims, “Oh, such fantastic scenes made possible by science and technology!”

After the lull imposed by the Cultural Revolution, the passion for building a modern nation state reignited in 1978. Ye Yonglie’s Little Smart Roaming the Future (published August 1978), a thin volume filled with enticing visions of a future city seen through the eyes of a child, heralded a new wave of science fiction in China with its initial print run of 1.5 million copies. Paradoxically, as China actually modernized with the reforms of the Deng Xiaoping era, these enthusiastic dreams of the future gradually disappeared from Chinese science fiction. Readers and writers seemed to fall out of romantic, idealistic utopias and back into reality.

In 1987, Ye Yonglie published a short story called “Cold Dream at Dawn.” On a cold winter night in Shanghai, the protagonist has trouble falling asleep in his unheated home. A series of grand science fictional dreams fills his mind: geothermal heating, artificial suns, “reversing the South and North Poles,” even “covering Shanghai with a hot house glass dome.” However, reality intrudes in the form of concerns about whether the proposed projects would be approved, how to acquire the necessary materials and energy, potential international conflicts, and so forth—every vision ends up being rejected as unfeasible. “A thousand miles separate the lovers named Reality and Fantasy!” The distance and the gap, one surmises, demonstrate the anxiety and discomfort of the Chinese waking up from the fantasy of Communism.

Starting at the end of the 1970s, large numbers of European and American science fiction works were translated and published in China, and Chinese science fiction, long under the influence of Soviet scientific literature for children, suddenly realized its own lag and marginal status. Motivated by binary oppositions such as China/the West, underdeveloped/developed, and tradition/modernity, as well as the desire to reintegrate into the international order, Chinese science fiction writers attempted to break away from the science popularization mode that had long held sway. They hoped to rapidly grow (or perhaps evolve) Chinese science fiction from an underdeveloped, suppressed, juvenile state to a mature, modern mode of literary expression. Simultaneously, controversy erupted as writers and critics debated how to approach international standards in content and literary form while exploring unique “national characteristics” of Chinese science fiction so that “China” could be re-located in global capitalism. Chinese writers had to imitate and reference the subjects and forms of Western science fiction while constructing a position for Chinese culture in a globalizing world, and from this position participate in the imagination of humanity’s shared future.

The end of the Cold War and the accelerating integration of China into global capitalism in the 1990s led to a process of social change whose ultimate demand was the application of market principles to all aspects of social life, especially manifested in the shock and destruction visited upon traditions by economic rationality. Here, “traditions” include both the old ways of life in rural China as well as the country’s past equality-oriented socialist ideology. Thus, as China experienced its great transformation, science fiction moved away from future dreams about modernization to approach a far more complex social reality.

The science fiction of Europe and America derives its creative energy and source material from the West’s historical experience of political and economic modernization and, through highly allegorical forms, refines the fears and hopes of humanity for its own fate into dreams and nightmares. After taking in a variety of settings, images, cultural codes, and narrative tropes through Western science fiction, Chinese science fiction writers have gradually constructed a cultural field and symbolic space possessing a certain degree of closure and self-discipline vis-à-vis mainstream literature and other popular literary genres. In this space, gradually maturing forms have absorbed various social experiences that cannot yet be fully captured by the symbolic order, and after a series of transformations, integrations, and re-organizations, resulted in new vocabularies and grammars. It is in this sense that the Chinese science fiction of the era dating from the 1990s to the present can be read as a national allegory in the age of globalization.

Overall, Chinese science fiction writers are faced with a particular historic condition. On the one hand, the failure of Communism as an alternative for overcoming the crises of capitalism means that the crises of capitalist culture, accompanied by the process of globalization, are manifesting in the daily lives of the Chinese people. On the other hand, China, after a series of traumas from the economic reforms and paying a heavy price for development, has managed to take off economically and resurge globally. The simultaneous presence of crisis and prosperity guarantees a range of attitudes toward humanity’s future among the writers: some are pessimistic, believing that we’re powerless against irresistible trends; some are hopeful that human ingenuity will ultimately triumph; still others resort to ironic observation of the absurdities of life. The Chinese people once believed that science, technology, and the courage to dream would propel them to catch up with the developed nations of the West. However, now that Western science fiction and cultural products are filled with imaginative visions of humanity’s gloomy destiny, Chinese science fiction writers and readers can no longer treat “where are we going?” as an answered question.

Contemporary Chinese science fiction writers form a community full of internal differences. These differences manifest themselves in age, region of origin, professional background, social class, ideology, cultural identity, aesthetics, and other areas. However, by carefully reading and parsing their work, I can still find aspects of commonality among them (myself included). Our stories are written primarily for a Chinese audience. The problems we care about and ponder are the problems facing all of us sharing this plot of land. These problems, in turn, are connected in a thousand complicated ways with the collective fate of all of humanity.

In reading Western science fiction, Chinese readers discover the fears and hopes of Man, the modern Prometheus, for his destiny, which is also his own creation. Perhaps Western readers can also read Chinese science fiction and experience an alternative, Chinese modernity and be inspired to imagine an alternative future.

Chinese science fiction consists of stories that are not just about China. For instance, Ma Boyong’s “The City of Silence” is an homage to Orwell’s 1984 as well as a portrayal of the invisible walls left after the Cold War; Liu Cixin’s “Taking Care of God” explores the common tropes of civilization expansion and resource depletion in the form of a moral drama set in a rural Chinese village; Chen Qiufan’s “The Flower of Shazui” spreads the dark atmosphere of cyberpunk to the coastal fishing villages near Shenzhen, where the fictional village named “Shazui” is a microcosm of the globalized world as well as a symptom. My own “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” includes fleeting images of other works by masters: Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story, and Hayao Miyazaki’s films. In my view, these disparate stories seem to speak of something in common, and the tension between Chinese ghost tales and science fiction provide yet another way to express the same idea.

Science fiction—to borrow the words of Gilles Deleuze—is a literature always in the state of becoming, a literature that is born on the frontier—the frontier between the known and unknown, magic and science, dream and reality, self and other, present and future, East and West—and renews itself as the frontier shifts and migrates. The development of civilization is driven by the curiosity that compels us to cross this frontier, to subvert prejudices and stereotypes, and in the process, complete our self-knowledge and growth.

At this critical historic moment, I am even firmer in my faith that to reform reality requires not only science and technology, but also the belief by all of us that life should be better, and can be made better, if we possess imagination, courage, initiative, unity, love, and hope, as well as a bit of understanding and empathy for strangers. Each of us is born with these precious qualities, and it is perhaps also the best gift that science fiction can bring us.


As an undergraduate, Xia Jia majored in Atmospheric Sciences at Peking University. She then entered the Film Studies Program at the Communication University of China, where she completed her Master’s thesis: “A Study on Female Figures in Science Fiction Films.” Recently, she obtained a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and World Literature at Peking University, with “Chinese Science Fiction and Its Cultural Politics Since 1990” as the topic of her dissertation. She now teaches at Xi’an Jiaotong University.

She has been publishing fiction since college in a variety of venues, including Science Fiction World and Jiuzhou Fantasy. Several of her stories have won the Galaxy Award, China’s most prestigious science fiction award. In English translation, she has been published in Clarkesworld and Upgraded.

 

Ken Liu is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Tor.com, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He is a winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts. Ken’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings, the first in a fantasy series, will be published by Saga Press in 2015. Saga will also publish a collection of his short stories.

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