Entry updated 16 May 2022. Tagged: International.
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Chinese literature has a long tradition of the fantastic that prepared the way for, and leads up to, modern Chinese sf. Like modernism itself, the sf genre reached China through the unexpected route of Japanese contacts, in particular the foreign studies of the author Lu Xun (1881-1936). Long before his domestic fame as a novelist in his own right, the young Lu read and later translated Jules Verne's De la Terre à la Lune (1865) from the Japanese edition in 1902, protesting in his preface that science fiction was "as rare as unicorn horns, which shows in a way the intellectual poverty of our time." Lu's ire was not merely directed at the topic, but at the language itself, bemoaning China's predilection for the ossified constrictions of classical language: good for poetry and oracle bones, but not engineering and science. "Yueqiu zhi Mindi Xiaoshuo" ["A Tale of Moon Colonists"] (1904-1905 Xiuxiang Xiaoshuo), written by the pseudonymous and never-identified Huangjiang Diaosuo, might be described as a picaresque Edisonade in which exiles from modern China tour the world in a hot-air Balloon, trying new Inventions, encountering strange races and customs, and eventually reaching the Moon. However, its title is cunningly ambiguous, eventually revealed as a fear that the superior lunar civilization is sure to conquer the Earth, and that, inevitably, some superior race elsewhere is sure to conquer them in turn (see Imperialism). Another important early work is Xu Nianci's "Xin Falu Xiansheng Tan" ["New Tales of Mr Absurdity"] (1905 Xiaoshuo Lin; partial trans Nathaniel Isaacson as "New Tales of Mr Braggadocio", 2012 Renditions 77/78) inspired by a Japanese imitation of the adventures of Baron Munchausen (see Rudolph Erich Raspe). Keeping to the classical mode, it is presented as a Fantastic Voyage in which the title character's body and soul experience separate adventures.
By 1919, Lu Xun's call for written fiction to use vernacular language was incorporated within the May 4th Movement, a series of reforms and protests which also contained the seeds of the Chinese Communist party. In the troubled decades that followed, Lao She's Maocheng Ji ["A Record of the City of Cats"] (1933; rev 1947; trans James Dew as City of Cats 1964; trans W A Lyell as Cat Country 1970) remains one of the most significant Chinese sf novels. This Dystopia about the catlike residents of Mars disguised a Satire of the Old China and reactionary rule. Lao She supposedly wrote without any knowledge of the genre, although it is likely he at least glimpsed it during his five-year posting to London as a lecturer in Chinese. At the same time, Gu Junzheng was consciously writing sf, and acknowledged the influence of Verne and H G Wells in Heping de Meng ["A Dream of Peace"] (coll 1940).
Soon after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, great numbers of Soviet sf works (see Russia) were translated into Chinese, shaping the local sense of what sf should be, particularly along the lines of the Russian calque kepu wenxue, or "literature for the popularization of science." Meanwhile, reforms and simplifications to the written language itself took the May 4th experiment to extremes, effectively ensuring that many children born after 1953 would find books written before that date difficult to read. Facing the first of a number of purges of the creative arts in Communist China, the non-genre author Hu Feng (1902-1985) delivered a report to the Party decrying the "five daggers" that he believed would crush originality and value in Chinese fiction. These included twin obsessions with Marxist ideology and thought crimes, insistence on only presenting the lives of workers, soldiers and peasants, a fear of new literary paradigms, and a relentless concentration on sunny subjects. He would spend the next 25 years in jail for suggesting this, although his report amounted to a fair prediction of the mid-twentieth-century Chinese Media Landscape. As codified in Zheng Wenguang's essay "Tantan Kehuan Xiaoshuo" ["Discussing the SF Novel"] (1958 Dushu Ribao), sf somehow negotiated a path through this Orwellian minefield by embracing its role as a didactic medium for children. As a result, almost all Chinese sf stories from 1949 until the 1980s were Technothrillers and Edisonades for juvenile readers (see Children's SF). Representative works include Zheng Wenguang's "Cong Diqiu dao Huoxing" ["From Earth to Mars"] (1954 Zhongguo Shaonian Bao) and Chi Shuchang's Gediao Bizi de Daxiang ["Elephants With Their Trunks Removed"] (1958).
Chinese sf of the period displays a number of common traits, identified by Wu Dingbo as:
• A cast primarily of Scientists.
• Conflict resolved through the patriotism and optimism of the scientists.
• A Near Future setting, and the implication that the reader will live to see such events come to pass.
• An educational function, usually in the natural sciences.
During the notorious Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), not a trace of sf could be found in China. However, 1978-1983 saw a remarkable, explosive resurgence of sf after the lifting of restrictions. Among nearly a thousand titles are Tong Enzheng's "Shanhu Dao Shang de Siguang" ["Death Ray on a Coral Island"] (1978), Zheng Wenguang's Feixiang Renmazuo ["Forward to Sagittarius"] (1979), Wang Xiaoda's "Shenmi de Bo" ["The Mysterious Wave"] (April 1979 Sichuan Wenxue), Wei Yahua's "Wenrou zhixiang de meng" ["Conjugal Happiness in the Arms of Morpheus"] (May-July 1982 Yanhe) and Jiang Yunsheng's "Wubian de Jianlian" ["Boundless Love"] (November 1987 Kexue Wenyi). The period also saw the publication of Rao Zhonghua's landmark three-volume anthology Zhongguo Kexue Xiaoshuo Daquan ["Compendium of Chinese Science Fiction"] (1982), which largely defined the Chinese genre canon to that date. One of the most influential foreign sf books may have been Robert Silverberg's Science Fiction Hall of Fame (anth 1970), the authors of which became the subjects of scrutiny in China's first academic course on the genre, taught by Wu Dingbo and Philip Smith (see SF in the Classroom).
Sf found some expression in other media, such as films, television, radio broadcasts and comic books, aided in part by an idiosyncratic handful of foreign works broadcast in China, including Astro Boy, The Man from Atlantis, Futureworld, Capricorn One and Nippon Chinbotsu. In films, Shanhu Dao Shang de Siguang ["Death Ray on a Coral Island"], based on Tong Enzheng's story, was released in 1980, and Ji Hongxu's Qianying ["The Hidden Shadow"] in 1982. On television, "Zuihou yige aizheng sizhe" ["The Last Man Who Dies of Cancer"] by Zhou Yongnian, Zhang Fengjiang and Jia Wanchao and "Yinxing ren" ["The Invisible Man"] by Wu Boze were both dramatized in 1980. Xiongmao jihua ["The Panda Project"] by Ye Yonglie was dramatized on television in 1983. The same author's An Dou ["Veiled Strife"] (1981) and Mimi zhongdui ["The Secret Column"] (1981) were broadcast daily on radio as serials in 1981. In comic books, Ye Yonglie's sf Jin Ming detective novels stories were reprinted in 12 booklets with 8 million copies printed under the umbrella title The Scientific Sherlock Holmes (see Sherlock Holmes).
A sudden 1983 political backlash against "spiritual pollution" ended this renaissance just as suddenly as it had begun. The magazine Kehuan Shijie ["SF World"] founded in 1979 but now cut off from its state funding, persisted as the medium's journal of record, running the Yinhe Awards as a structured guide to modern tastes. With a circulation considered "small" in a country of a billion, Kehuan Shijie enjoyed a strong readership among peasants in the countryside and enjoyed a peak of 400,000 readers when the state university entrance exam set the essay topic of "Memory Transfer" in 1989. Wu Yan began to teach a graduate level overview of the genre at Beijing Normal University.
Genre writing by Chinese, of course, is not restricted to citizens of the People's Republic of China. Some overseas Chinese, such as Singapore's Leslie Charteris, largely obscured their ethnic identity. Others worked in an argot limited to specific areas of the Chinese diaspora, such as the Cantonese dialect spoken in and around the Hong Kong area, and among its emigrants and their descendants. Hong Kong's vibrant comics scene, once a matter of knock-offs and kung fu (see Wuxia), occasionally drifted into sf, particularly after a series of putsches in the industry legalized translations of Japanese Manga and sent local creators in search of new subjects. Ma Wing-shing and Siu Kit's Fung Wan ["Wind and Cloud"] (graph 1989 trans as Storm Riders 2001) was billed as a Ming dynasty swords-and-sorcery Fantasy but aspired to aspects of a wholly invented Mythology, particularly after its later rebranding as Tin Ha ["Under Heaven"]. Chiu Shen Z ["Cyber Weapon Z"] (graph 1993) by Andy Seto and Chris Lau, moved martial arts hokum a thousand years into the future, with the legendary Shaolin Temple re-imagined as a Eugenics project in a decadent world threatened by demonic attackers. Both works were subsequently adapted into other media.
The 1997 "Handover" of Hong Kong (the "Reunification" or "Return" in Chinese sources), ended over a century of British rule and was an event of powerful hybridity for many creative industries in China. It exposed the Mainland to many new authors, few of whom flourished away from the Cantonese heartland, although some, like Albert Tam have found new audiences for their exotic, foreign-tinged fiction. The Hong Kong Basic Law (1990), granting certain freedoms and waivers for citizens until 2047, is itself a document of Near Future brinkmanship, a polder holding back the full imposition of Chinese institutions for fifty years, a period thought to reflect the fact that five decades before the Handover, the Communist state itself did not exist, and may not again (see Sap Nin). Such contradictions and contentions inform the Fabulations of Dung Kai-cheung, arguably Hong Kong's greatest genre witness, who lampooned the enclave's chequered past and vulnerable present in Dituji: Yi ge Xiangxiang de Chengshi de Kaoguxue (1997; rev 2011; trans Dung Kai-cheung, Anders Hansson and Bonnie S McDougall as Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City 2012). Others have found themselves subject to the censure of China's stern and ideologically intractable cultural policies, most notably Huang Yi, whose Xun Qin Ji ["Searching for the Qin"] (1997) would eventually cause the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television to issue that most absurd yet science-fictional of proclamations, a 2011 "ban on Time Travel".
In foreign appraisal of Chinese sf, there is often a romance of dissidence, as if a work is only worthy of enquiry if it has somehow angered the Secret Masters that loom in the shadows behind the published text of every book. While sf, with its discussion of things that have not happened but might, is often sure to annoy the Chinese authorities in some way, an orientalist bias towards the banned (and hence tacitly in support of "people like us") can skew the view of Chinese sf abroad – several core texts used to represent the foreign face of Chinese sf are unavailable in China and hence arguably unrepresentative. Conversely, works of Chinese sf in support of the Communist Party and its institutions, such as the Jin Ming stories of Ye Yonglie, printed in state newspapers in runs of millions, are largely unknown in English.
There is little talk today of Chinese sf authors facing imprisonment or exile. As observed by Chan Koonchung, whose novel The Fat Years (2009) was widely read and acclaimed in English but banned in the PRC, authors with controversial ideas are more likely to be simply ignored than accorded the back-handed compliment of public censure. Particularly in a "small" genre like sf, the simple act of withholding Mainland publication usually seems to fulfil the criteria for maintaining the Party's status quo, allowing, for example, odd situations such as that of Han Song, who remains a high-profile journalist in the employ of the state, while much of his fiction is "banned" in China. That is not to say, of course, that a Mainland ban precludes publication elsewhere in Chinese, and many works have reached the West through publishers in Taiwan and readers or translators elsewhere in the Chinese diaspora. In particular, Huanxiang ["Mirage"] magazine in Taiwan has offered an alternative venue to authors shut out from the Mainland sf mainstream, while others have found attention in Japanese translation. Nor should dissent be regarded solely as the prerogative of Mainland authors; both Chang Shi-kuo and Huang Fan have written works in Taiwan that could be construed as critical or satirical of the island's local regime.
Paramount among modern Chinese authors are the "three generals", Wang Jinkang, Han Song and Liu Cixin, with the latter often described as the figure who has most successfully carried the genre from its didactic, pro-science and pro-scientist roots, into modern adult fiction, without shying away from many of the political issues of the past. His Santi ["Three-Body Problem"] series was the first Chinese sf novel to achieve mainstream popularity outside the classroom. However, rarely or poorly paid, and often reliant on day-jobs or literary prizes rather than earning directly from their published works, some Chinese authors demonstrate an understandable timidity to embrace themes of Dystopia or the New Wave. Tellingly, China has the largest online user base in the world, but although millions of Chinese people play Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, almost all are Fantasy, as if futures themselves are less attractive or cosy than mythological pasts. While the written sf field embraces difference and imagination, sf Fandom in China is outnumbered by readerships and publishers with far more prosaic and conservative concerns, leading Han Song to suggest in Xiangxiang Li Xuanyan ["A Declaration of the Power of the Imagination"] (1999) that Chinese sf's self-proclaimed mission to educate the Scientists of the future remains hobbled by an abiding fear of state censure.
By the turn of the twenty-first century, it often seemed that Mainstream Writers of SF were the most likely Chinese "genre" authors to attract the attention of Anglophone publishers. Guo Xiaolu and Wang Lixiong, neither with much of an sf identification, both had novels with sf themes published in English, and Ma Jian's Beijing Coma (2008) drew on Equipoisal ideas, whereas more prominent authors languished untranslated within the genre ghetto. However, Chinese sf is finding new routes to foreign readers, particularly through the electronic book market, which has already offered considerable openings for the likes of Liu Cixin and Chen Qiufan. In this, Chinese authors have been aided greatly by the efforts of a new generation of scholars and enthusiasts, some of whom, like the Hugo and Nebula-award winning Ken Liu, are ably equipped not merely to proselytize, but actively translate works of note into English. They have also enjoyed a substantial impetus from behind the scenes, with new investors lured into the market by Liu Cixin's Hugo win and the adaptation of his novel into a film. What had formerly been a community of underpaid amateurs transformed in the late 2010s into a scrum of holding companies and management entities, cannily exploiting the genre as a means of converting local currency into overseas rights-sales. Such speculation in Chinese sf, quite literally as a "futures market", has had a demonstrable impact on its higher profile abroad.
Guanyu cujin kehuan dianying fazhan de ruogan yijian ["Several opinions on promoting the development of science fiction movies"] (2020), a paper published by the China Film Administration and the China Association for Science and Technology, offered ten points for consideration in the making of sf film, in an attempt to incorporate it into other long-term industrial strategies typified by socialist Five-Year Plans. Much of its rhetoric echoed earlier statements on the popularization of science, not only in terms of inspiration for the young and the instilment of a Sense of Wonder, but in terms of its integration with education and the promotion of Technology. Behind the scenes, it also called for increased scrutiny of digital content creation and distribution – a reduction in China's reliance on special effects technology and skills from overseas, and for the monetization of online distribution.
The paper calls for an sf that "highlights Chinese values, inherits Chinese aesthetics, is rooted in contemporary Chinese innovation and creation, grasps the forefront of science and technology, disseminates scientific ideas, promotes the spirit of scientists, promotes the integration of a scientific and humanistic spirit, and strives to create a Chinese science fiction that is profoundly insightful, exquisite in its art and well-made as film."
While couched in terms of support for sf film, and its encouragement as a useful component in stimulating digital industries, the paper offered little clue as to how its calls for, for example, original and "sustainable" production of scripts might be achieved. Instead, it advocated the co-option of sf into a council of oversight representing over a dozen organizations and government ministries, far more likely to hobble innovation in favor of an unwinnable hopscotch across the contending whims of cadres and accountants. Politically, this could be seen as the statement of a case for sf as a worthy contributor to modern Chinese society, pre-empting a backlash like that of 1983; practically, it risks adding little to the genre in China except an additional level of management. [JonC]
further reading: nonfiction
- Chen Qiufan. "Back to the Future: A Century of Hope, Satire and Gloom in Chinese Science Fiction" (May 2011 The World of Chinese) [mag/]
- Rudolf G Wagner. "Lobby Literature: The Archaeology and Present Functions of Science Fiction in the People's Republic of China" in After Mao: Chinese Literature and Society 1978-1981 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1985) edited by J Kinkley [nonfiction: hb/]
- Wu Qingyun. Female Rule in Chinese and English Literary Utopias (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1995) [nonfiction: pb/]
- Echo Zhao. "The 3 Generals: today's top Chinese sci-fi writers reveal how they 'talk to the future'" (May 2011 The World of Chinese) [includes translated extracts by Joel Martinsen: mag/]
- Mingwei Song, editor. Chinese Science Fiction: Late Qing and the Contemporary (2012 Renditions 77/78) [special issue on Chinese sf: mag/]
- Wu Yan and Veronica Hollinger. "Special Issue on Chinese Science Fiction" (March 2013 Science Fiction Studies #119) [mag/]
- Zhongguo Dianying Ju [China Film Administration] and Zhongguo Kexie Yinfa [China Association for Science and Technology]. Guanyu cujin kehuan dianying fazhan de ruogan yijian ["Several opinions on promoting the development of science fiction movies"] (Beijing: China Film Administration, 2020) [published online: see links below: na/]
- Hua Li. Chinese Science Fiction during the Post-Mao Cultural Thaw (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2021) [nonfiction: hb/Chen Wei]
further reading: fiction
- Wu Dingbo and Patrick Murphy, editors. Science Fiction From China (New York: Praeger, 1989) [anth: hb/]
- Ken Liu, translator and editor. Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation (New York: Tor, 2016) [anth: hb/]
- Anonymous, editor. Dawning in the East (China: FAA/Future Affairs Administration, 2017) [anth: trans by several hands of new Chinese fiction: pb/uncredited]
- Mingwei Song and Theodore Huters, editors. The Reincarnated Giant: An Anthology of Twenty-First Century Chinese Science Fiction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018) [anth: in the publisher's Weatherhead Books on Asia series: hb/]
- Sarah Coolidge, editor. That We May Live: Speculative Chinese Fiction (San Francisco, California: Two Lines Press, 2020) [anth: in the publisher's Calico series: pb/]
- Liu Jue, editor. Ticket to Tomorrow (Montreal, Canada: Royal Collins, 2022) [anth: stories by both new and established Chinese authors: all translated into English for the first time: pb/]
- Guanyu cujin kehuan dianying fazhan de ruogan yijian ["Several opinions on promoting the development of science fiction movies"]
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