In 2000, I attended the annual conference for science fiction writers in Chengdu, China, organised by the locally based magazine Science Fiction World. Many of the writers were young, the hotel was modest, the cups of tea endless and each day had to be opened by a long speech from an official representative of the Communist Party of China.
At the time, Chinese sci-fi, though it’s history was already a century long, was virtually unknown in the West. Yet 15 years later, one of the authors in attendance – a computer engineer named Liu Cixin, still two years away from publishing his first novel – won the Hugo Award for Best Novel for his The Three-Body Problem (translated by Ken Liu).
I was a long-haired backpacker when I arrived in Beijing on a night bus from the Mongolian border. As a science fiction writer, I’d wondered what the Chinese scene had to offer – assuming there even was one. All I could find on the nascent web was a single email address, for a Professor Wu Yan, who taught China’s only university class on science fiction. It was no surprise that his course seemed old fashioned to me: Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov featured heavily. But Wu was smarter than his teaching materials, and he knew everyone. In the years since, I’ve been able to observe first-hand the emergence of Chinese sci-fi into the anglophone mainstream. And I was able to do my bit, publishing a string of first translations.
Over its history, Chinese science fiction has been affected by the same political forces that shook the rest of the country. The first translations of foreign sci-fi (predominantly Jules Verne and H. G. Wells) came to China in the first decade of the 20th century (initially via Japanese). Little domestic science fiction was published during the revolutionary turbulence of the following decades. Among the Chinese sci-fi books of this period, perhaps the best known in the West is Lao She’s Cat Country (1932), a novel satirising the vanishing order of the old China, in which a human astronaut crash-lands on Mars and encounters the alien felines who live there.
Political reading for kids
The start of the communist era in 1949 ushered in a host of translations from Soviet sci-fi – the works of Alexander Belyaev, the “Russian Jules Verne”, were particularly popular – and a new dedication to a form of literature that promoted science and scientific achievement in pursuit of socialist industrialisation. Despite most of these works being written for children, they were still full of political content. But science fiction in China has always been intimately linked with the dictates of changing politics – and during the mass economic and ideological purges Chairman Mao launched during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, sci-fi was effectively banned.
The author Zheng Wenguang, considered by some as the father of Chinese science fiction, and who wrote much sci-fi for children alongside popular non-fiction, suffered personally during this period. He had been a research fellow at the Beijing Astronomical Observatory. “I had to give up my pen and go to the countryside,” he wrote. “I worked as a peasant. I grew rice and fed livestock.”
My old friend Wu Yan’s love for science fiction emerged during his childhood in the Cultural Revolution. He recalled a time when books were banned, and had to be exchanged furtively and read in secret. “We were told that all the books were bourgeois dirt. We stole the dirt and read them crazily,” he said.
Following Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping rose to power in 1978. He reversed his predecessor’s economic policies, ushering in an era of rapid development and improved relations with the West. In this environment, and prompted by Deng’s statement that “science and technology is the number one productive force”, sci-fi flourished again.
One domestic hit of this time was Ye Yonglie’s Little Know-all Travels Around the Future World (1978), which offered a fictional reporter’s snapshots of the future. The novel and its comic-book adaptations sold 3 million copies. Later, Rao Zhonghua’s three-volume Compendium of Chinese Science Fiction (1982) served to define Chinese sci-fi up to that point. And Robert Silverberg’s Science Fiction Hall of Fame, which collected the best stories from the “golden age” of US sci-fi, became an important cornerstone for Chinese perceptions of the Western form of this genre.
In the 1980s, science fiction once again fell foul of the ruling party, as a new “Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign” emerged as a backlash to Deng Xiaoping’s modernisation and liberalisation policies. Deng’s opponents in the party railed against Western “bourgeois imports” of all kinds, and with sci-fi seeming to fall firmly in that category, it was all but wiped out for a time.
The genre’s recovery was partly led by the emergence of Science Fiction World magazine in Chengdu, and its energetic editor, Yang Xiao, herself the daughter of a prominent party member. Having such influential backing allowed Science Fiction World to bring together many young writers for an “appropriate” reason.
By the end of the century, Chinese sci-fi entered its own golden age. Although the authorities still raised the issue of literary “appropriateness”, the old restrictions had gone. One prominent contemporary sci-fi author is Han Song, a journalist at the state news agency Xinhua. Many of his works are only published outside the mainland due to their political themes, but Han is still widely recognised at home. His fiction can be dark and melancholy, envisioning, for instance, a spacefarer building tombstones to fellow astronauts, or the Beijing subway system being turned into a graveyard in which future explorers, arriving back on Earth, find themselves trapped on a fast-moving train. Along with Liu Cixin and Wang Jinkang, he is considered one of the “Three Generals” of Chinese sci-fi.
Han is wary of Western ideology, once telling China Daily that “I often had a feeling that there would be a crisis in Western society, that it won’t be able to sustain itself on its present set of values”, and questioning its relevance to Chinese society. In his landmark 2066: Red Star Over America (2000), he envisions a world dominated by China, in which a fractured US is in decline. The book , which imagines a large-scale terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, earned notoriety for being published just months before the events of 11 September 2001.
Han believes sci-fi “is seen as unreal and inconsequential” in China, but not everyone would agree: Chinese science fiction is a diverse field, and today’s writers develop approaches and ideas very different from one another. Thanks to the tireless work of Chinese-American author Ken Liu, one can now pick up the anthology Invisible Planets (2016), which collects all his recent translations of writers such as Tang Fei, Ma Boyong, Xia Jia or Hao Jingfang (author of the Hugo-winning “Folding Beijing”), or read Liu Cixin’s surprise bestseller The Three-Body Problem. The US-based online magazine Clarkesworld, meanwhile, now publishes monthly translations of Chinese short stories in partnership with Chinese company Storycom.
As China reaches for the stars, with plans for a permanent space station, lunar exploration and a mission to Mars, its writers continue to explore the ramifications of a changing world – and the role China will play in it. With the country’s huge new reach into emerging markets in Africa and the Pacific, and its expressed willingness to play a new leadership role in global events, its future has never been more interesting – or more pertinent.
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