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Science Fiction in China

Wu Yan with Janice Bogstad & Wang Pengfei


What will happen in China next? We believe the answer will come from science fiction. 

As early as 2000, the Harry Potter series created a high tide of interest in fantasy, but in the past five years, SF has overtaken fantasy as a popular literary form. As Wu Yan can attest, SF has been popular in China much longer than that, and fantastic fiction is part of the history of Chinese literature, which we even see reflected in the fiction of such Western authors as Kim Stanley Robinson (Years of Rice and Salt). While the entire history of SF and fantastic fiction in China is too vast a subject for an article, we feel strongly that we'd like to present a current “snapshot” of what's happening in China since this sort of information is so rarely available to non-Chinese speakers.

Historical Context and the First Decade

Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “Let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.” He was referring to China. Now, after thirty years of open door policy and reform, the GDP of China is higher than most developed countries, and it has become the second-largest economic body in the world. China has also successfully executed a space walk through the manned spacecraft Shenzhou above and organized the international Olympic Games on Earth, as well as the UN Conference on Women in 1995.

At the same time, China still has the world's largest population and suffers from the pain of resource shortages as well as serious pollution problems. And the Communist way of doing things continues to shock the world.

What will happen next?

We believe the answer will come from science fiction.

Overcoming the market surges of fantasy and other genre fiction, the Chinese science-fiction market is beginning to resuscitate. Famous authors began to launch their new books in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Among these works, Chinese writers have given rise to imagined communities. But the imagined fictional communities are polarized. At one pole, China has become the world leader and works with the whole world to fight against alien invasion. At the other pole, the world has been destroyed by heavy pollution and people can only survive by eating one another. The representatives of these poles are the authors Liu Cixin and Han Song.

For Chinese science-fiction readers, Liu Cixin is very well known in the field because of his novels Chao Xin Xing Ji Yuan (1991; The era of supernova), Mo Gui Ji Mu (2002; Magic bricks), Qiu Zhuang Shan Dian (2004; Ball lightning), San Ti (2007; Three bodies), and He An Sen Li-San Ti 2 (2008; Dark forest - Three bodies II). Most of Cixin's novels focus on the future of the world, especially a world that contains China and Chinese. For example, Three Body is a trilogy. To date, only two volumes have been published. The novel begins during the period of the Cultural Revolution (officially, 1966 - 76) with China secretly planning to seek extraterrestrials and trying to contact alien beings before the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Fortunately, China is the first country to get a response from the sky! But it is a warning: “Please do not contact us again, because our race is very bloody; I am the exception.” The recipient of this warning is a young scientist, and her father has just been beaten to death by the Red Guard. She is very angry with Chinese politicians, so she replies to this message by saying, in essence, “We don't care.” The message evokes their bloodlust and aliens start to conquer Earth. Due to the long distance between Earth and their planet, the foreign space fleet will take four hundred years to reach Earth. Soon the Cultural Revolution is over and the world is turning into a global village. But the alien threat is still on its way to Earth. This concludes the first book. In consequence of the young scientist's actions, however, the world is talking about making a four-hundred-year preparation to fight against the imminent alien threat. Earth's technological development has been locked into alien technology. And aliens can use special methods to probe human behavior. They still have not developed a useful technology to understand exactly what people think through scanning the human mind. To achieve freedom from the control the aliens do have, human beings start a secret plan. It is called the Face with Wall Project (Mian Bi Ji Hua). Only super-talented people are selected by world government. They are invited to struggle individually to break out of the aliens' mind-block. Because the agents who are controlled by aliens are everywhere, the project people need to protect themselves, especially their creative strategy. Unfortunately, all the project people have been broken by alien agents. The only exceptions are Chinese. This literary strategy is supposed to demonstrate our position in the universe, which is aimed at letting all creatures know we are here. Another alien species suddenly finds the shining star, our sun, and also arrives at our solar system. Thus the two super-species will fight against each other near Earth. Can this strategy save humans? The second book ends as the alien spaceship destroys the frontline defense of the border and Earth is in danger. The most important part of the work is its depiction of the future of China. For example, the Communist Party as an organization has persisted. Cixin's work is very interesting for people who wish to know how the Chinese in general perceive the world today.

In spite of Cixin's fame, Chinese sci-fi fans are also familiar with Han Song. Song's novels include 2066 Zhi Xi Xing Man Ji Ho Hong Xing Zhao Yao Mei Guo (2000; 2066: Red star over the United States of America), Hong Se Hai Yang (2004; Red ocean), and many others. Most of Song's works are very ambiguous in concept. In 2066 Zhi Xi Xing Man Ji Ho Hong Xing Zhao Yao Mei Guo, the main protagonist is a Chinese youngster who goes to the States to participate as a world champion of weiqi, a game played with black-and-white pieces on a board of 361 crosses. As soon as he gets there, a revolution starts. America gets thrown into chaos. He tries to survive by himself and find a way back to China. In this work, China looks like the United States and the United States looks like contemporary China. The title is also a parody of Edgar Snow's Red Star over China, which reported the Chinese Communists' secret strength in 1937. Unlike Cixin, who wanted to present a new world with a superior China, Song creates a future that is very much more ambiguous. In particular, the characteristics of the United States and China in 2066 will appear very strange to current readers.

Unlike 2066 Zhi Xi Xing Man Ji Ho Hong Xing Zhao Yao Mei Guo, which encouraged people to think of international relationships, Hong Se Hai Yang is a novel full of metaphor but still very much within Chinese culture and Chinese ways of thinking. In the far, far future, people live in the oceans because the land is polluted. This is not a new idea in SF, of course - the film Water World also has the same theme. But how to survive in the harsh situation is the author's focus. In Song's novel, people have to eat one another. Those not familiar with Chinese ancient power struggles will not be aware of what the author intended. These references are designed to encourage people to recall many cruel stories from ancient Chinese politics, dynastic murders, and usurpation. Song's work is very complex in style, and most of the meaning is implicit. The timeline is also altered; the future is the past, and the past looks like it could turn into the future. Song is an author who is very sensitive about culture. His novelette Chun Dao Liang Shan (2000; Spring comes to Liang Shan) is a rewrite of the famous ancient novel Shui Hu Zhuan (1331; Heroes of the marshes), by Shi Naian and Luo Guanzhong of the Ming Dynasty. The original novel is about 108 heroes who conquered Liang Shang (Mount Liang) to fight against the government. But in Song's new story, Ming Dynasty troops have a new weapon to block the bandits from getting out of the marshes. The universe has been closed and turned over. So the heroes need to find a way to live in these isolated mountains and water margins. Finally, they discover that the weapon was not made by the government but imported from the United States of America. The story is very funny, but it invokes contemporary Chinese situations and international relationships.

Encouraged by Cixin's and Song's success, other well-known authors are also busy at work on their new stories and novels. Their work will be published in the coming years. Unfortunately, then, 2009 was not very rich for SF novels.

Novels in Summary

In 2009 the creation of SF novels developed steadily with Shi Zi (2009; Cross) as the most influential work by Wang Jinkang. It focuses on exploring the relationship between man and nature based on the concept of how to “revive the smallpox virus.” Through the Organization of Cross, the author expresses his view that human beings, who are insignificant in relation to nature, have no right to sentence other species to death. For example, the extinction of the smallpox virus in 1979 seemed a success, but in fact this event created a vacuum of human immunity, possibly causing greater disaster. What is needed is to retain the smallpox virus at a low level of activity to stimulate the immune system of human beings and restore the natural balance, which is the continuity of his “low-intensity fire” theory. This novel also provides profound philosophical thinking. In addition, its release achieved realistic significance in 2009 when the H1N1 virus was raging.

24 Ge Mei Miao Tian Tang (2009; Paradise of 24 frames per second) by Pan Haitian and Shi Yi Guang Nian (2009; One billion light-years) by Jin Hezai are works of two fantasy writers of the new generation who “ignore the borders.” In the former, where the author blends cyberpunk, a traditional school in sci-fi, with ever-changing technology, the hero wanders in a virtual reality of the film. These novels bring readers into a whole new reading experience. The first one is constantly interspersed with film history and film theory, which doesn't reduce the readability but makes it more attractive by mixing reality with fantasy. Involving both the film world and the real world, it fully exploits the features of sci-fi: “novelty” and “cognition.” The latter is a “space opera” where, with settings of a star war, the author integrates elements from the Three Kingdoms period (220 - 226) to the late Qing Dynasty (1840 - 1911), from history to reality, from the emotional experiences of youth to the social life that buds in those experiences. It permeates the desperate idealism associated with this author's style, as he tries to break through all restraints.

Short Stories in Summary

As in previous years, works in the journal Ke Huan Shi Jie (Science Fiction World) account for half of the annual short-fiction selections in China. This magazine, which just celebrated its thirtieth anniversary, still represents the highest level of original sci-fi in China. Based on successful narrative strategies, a number of authors have accomplished innovations in style, language, and profound thinking.

Take the story “Fu Sang Zhi Shang” (Injury of Fuso), for example. The author, Chang Jia, tries to combine ancient Chinese history with popular science and popular culture. “Gu Man Ren Mian Cheng Yi Zhi Diao Cha Shou Ji” (Investigation notes of Guman people in Mian city) by Chi Hui is interesting and thought-provoking because it merges fantasy with popular science. “Gu Shi Xin Bian” (New stories) by Fei Dao is very compelling, among which “Yi Lan Zhong Shan Xiao” (All mountains in a single glance) and “Rong Guang Nian Dai” (Glory years) explore how ancient philosophers and martyrs fought within their times and conceptualized the meaning of life and the future of the universe through their admittedly limited observations. “Shu Nian” (Rat year) by Chen Qiufan is a work of critical realism in which he describes a group of desperate wage earners who are university graduates. It will certainly arouse the sympathy of readers who have just entered society. “Huo Xing Hu Kou” (Registered residence on Mars) by An Long describes men in the future who take a college entrance examination to obtain planet passes so they can leave Earth. It reflects starkly the shortcomings of China's current system of college entrance examinations. “Ca Jian Er Guo” (Pass by) by Qi Yue observes the macro-environment with a more personal perspective involving topics from environmental issues to human life on Earth. By contrast, works of older authors such as Han Song, Xing He, and Wang Jinkang are more mature, making use of broader horizons and sophisticated mastery of literary techniques. In “Lu An Shan Zhuang” (Green bank villa) by Han Song, the sacrifice of a whole generation for their motherland becomes meaningless in the background of large-scale variation in the universe. His “Xing Chao Jian She Zhe” (Builders of star tide) seems to be an integration of “Yu Zhou Mu Bei” (1991; The universe tombstones) and Hong Se Hai Yang (2004; Red ocean) that reflects China's social and economic reality. “Ku Re De Xiang Shu” (The torrid oak) by Xing He shows his understanding of international politics from an artful angle.

Ke Huan Da Wang (King of sf) is second only to Science Fiction World. As a professional science-fiction magazine, it also published a large number of outstanding works in 2009. For example, “Quan Jin Shu Qing Gan” (Full metal emotion) by Wanli Qiufeng explores the emotions of silicon life as well as physical development and evolution in the form of a comedy; “Li Man De Mao” (Riemann's cat) by Bei Xing, starting from the mathematical problem of Riemann's hypothesis, describes scientists seeking truth and their responsibility to the rest of us. Chen Qian's “Yi Ge Ren De Yuan Wang” (Desire of one person) and “Ai Qing Ce Shi” (Love test) also represent good stories and characters of complex emotional depth.

If we analyze the two magazines, we find that Science Fiction World tends to focus on the world itself while King of SF represents sentient beings who are charismatic masters of this world. In reality, the former earns readers' loyalty by maintaining a specific style while the latter tends to showcase a variety of new styles and new content.

Jiu Zhou Huan Xiang (Odyssey of China fantasy), another journal, features Japanese elements, martial arts, adventure, and history and is dazzling from its cover to its content. It is a stronghold of imagination and fashion with a white-collar audience in mind. “You Xi He Nan Hai” (Game and boy) by Luo Lingzuo is a story about video gaming, turning games like “Teris” and “Minesweeping” into lived realities. The core of “Qing Cheng Yi Xiao” (Allure smile) by Xia Jia is linguistics. She also wrote a story about the fall of imperial Xi'an in the contemporary world, but this Xi'an was not the one in reality. In the story, Xi'an only exists through the author's description, along with everyone in it. Her stories, by describing relationships between language and reality, skillfully go beyond the novel into the realm of ontology and epistemology.

Movies and TV Dramas in Summary

Chinese sci-fi film took off in 2009. Encouraged by the success of the alien sci-fi film Chang Jiang Qi Hao (CJ7) in Hong Kong, China released its first robot movie, Ji Qi Xia (Kungfu cyborg), a Hong Kong - style comedy telling the absurd story of robot police in a southern Chinese town. Without a meaningful theme, it is largely a parody, consisting of jokes scoffed at by sci-fi fans. Later movies with sci-fi features such as Huo Xing Mei Shi (Mars is okay) and Jue Jiang De Luo Bo (Stubborn turnip) as well as two time-travel films, Wo De Tang Chao Xiong Di (My brother from the Tang Dynasty) and Sui Chao Lai Ke (Visitor from Sui Dynasty), were released. With some SF tropes, they are actually not SF movies. However, it can be expected that Avatar will stimulate the production of more sci-fi movies by Hong Kong and mainland Chinese directors in the near future.

Criticism in Summary

There were not many impressive sci-fi research papers published in 2009, with most focusing on three categories: study of sci-fi films by authors mostly in art schools, study of Western sci-fi writers such as Doris Lessing, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., and Ursula Le Guin, et al., and study of Chinese sci-fi publishing.

SF studies have continued at Beijing Normal University, which has become the largest research and editing center of science-fiction theory and criticism. Western authors and scholars such as Elizabeth Anne Hull, Charles Brown, Terry Bisson, David Brin, and Kerry Mallan have visited there. In the future, this center is expected to be more of an international SF research center.

In addition, in 2009 a series of seminars were jointly held by the China Popular Science Writers Association, the Children's Literature Research Center of Beijing Normal University, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and other units to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the People's Republic of China. In a seminar about Jin Tao's literary and artistic creations, participants paid tribute to the writer, who advocated a movement toward the emancipation of minds with science-fiction novels. During the seminar, Guo Yuefang pointed out that, first of all, the works of Tao were forward-looking and innovative; second, implied both basic and profound philosophy; third, combined art and science; and fourth, contained a worldview based on the accumulation of knowledge and learning. But in reality, Jin Tao is only one among the first wave of Chinese sci-fi authors who began to criticize social problems by using science fiction in the early 1980s.

Another seminar about SF for children centered on Zhang Zhilu who, in the past few decades, created many works of children's science fiction, including both movies and novels. He is much loved by young readers. Among these, Pi Li Bei Bei (Thunder boy Beibei) has indisputably become part of the collective memory of people born in the 1970s. Han Song pointed out that works of Zhilu embodied elements of gods and spirits with magical emotions, simple and vivid language, and emphasis on the relationship among science, technology, and related disciplines. His novels address issues of the human spirit, the deep darkness in human minds, and split personalities, and have overcome boundaries between children's and adult literature.

Fan Activities in Summary

In Chengdu, Shanghai, and Beijing, SF fan groups flourished in different ways during the past year. There is more direct interaction between local SF fans and the magazine in Chengdu, the headquarters of Science Fiction World. Shanghai, the location of Odyssey of Chinese Fantasy, has mounted flourishing activities around “great fantasy” (Da Huan Xiang), among which the 2009 Fantasy Festival of Shanghai Universities and Colleges was impressive. While SF fan groups in Beijing are closely connected to SF writers and critics living in Beijing, as the center of SF study, Beijing Normal University also plays an important role. In the past, SF fans communicated through SF associations in universities and online SF forums, but recently, with the help of SF fans who have graduated from university programs, they have stepped out of the limited circle to foster mutual cooperation, translate or create SF novels, and hold large-scale events with the hope of benefiting more fans. Sponsored by Beihang University and held jointly by universities in Beijing, Original Stars, a SF novels contest, has been held four times with participants from colleges all over the country. Science Squirrels, a grassroots youth organization to create popular-science works, also absorbs many SF fans. This year, it organized the Science Carnival with a SF masquerade party where the SF Saturn's Rings Award was awarded. The most dynamic SF group in Beijing is 42 Workshop, which is named after “42,” the ultimate answer to “life, the universe and everything” from the novels of Douglas Adams. They are the first to propose “making SF universal,” and they organize lecture tours given by fiction writers, science writers, SF researchers, and editors in universities all over Beijing. Entitled SF Forum, the tour lectures feature “the unknown parts of SF.” Han Song corrected the “common view” that there is no sci-fi spirit in China by saying that China's reality is more SF than SF novels, with the topic of “SF Country vs. Popular SF.” In “The Left Hand of Darkness in Manipulating Chinese SF,” Yan Wu talked about sci-fi realities caused by the driving forces in Chinese sci-fi history such as mainstream writers Liang Qichao and Lu Xun. Xia Jia and Yan Peng presented topics related to sci-fi film. Fei Dao elaborated on his interpretation of “Red Star over the United States of America” and Red Ocean by Han Song. In addition, Ling Chen gave a lecture on “Science and Life,” Shuo Shu Ren on “Commercial Writing in SF Literature,” Yao Haijun on “Development Experience and Historical Review of Science Fiction World,” and Huang Yongming on “Global Warming.” In the closing ceremony, members of “42” performed a drama adapted from Asimov's robot novel. The national television network, China Central Television (cctv), also reported on the activities. In the past, grassroots activities were not supported by the government in mainland China, but last year these sorts of activities were much more numerous. It remains to be seen what the impact will be on science-fiction and fantasy writing as well as works of criticism and fan activity in China.

Though China has successfully avoided many of the devastating effects of a global recession, the future of our development is still not very clear, nor are the signs of future political reform. But as a direct result of just this sort of sensitive situation, science fiction will be more and more important for all of us, Chinese and non-Chinese alike.


Author note: All of the Chinese names in this article have been listed in the customary Chinese order, which is family name first, given name(s) second.

Translation from the Chinese by Wang Pengfei & Janice M. Bogstad


Wu Yan is an associate professor of education and literature at Beijing Normal University, with a PhD in management. He's a four-time Chinese Science Fiction Galaxy Award winner. His principal works include the novels Adventure in Soul (1994) and In the Sixth Day: Life or Death (1996), the anthologies Green-times in a Drawer (1999) and Exodus (2003), and the textbooks Psychology of Leadership (1996) and Foundation of Educational Management (2003). His science-fiction criticism includes Jia Baoyu on Submarine: Studies of Chinese Early Science Fiction (2006) and Theories and Frameworks of Science Fiction Studies (2008). In 1991 he created the first undergraduate course in science fiction in China and a master's program in 2003.

Janice M. Bogstad is Professor, Head of Collection Development for the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire's McIntyre Library. She also teaches in Women's Studies and English. Her PhD in comparative literature (University of Wisconsin - Madison) focused on Anglo-American, French, and Chinese literature. She reviews books for such publications as the SFRA Review, FemSpec, Collection Building, and JFA. Her reference articles have appeared in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy, and elsewhere. She has edited amateur and professional journals and done technical writing and editing. While her passion for China and medieval Europe both started at an early age, her first love was and is fantastic fiction.

Wang Pengfei (b. 1985, Zhengzhou, Henan Province) is a first-year master's student in translation theory and practice of English language and literature at Beijing Normal University. She studied English translation in the School of Foreign Language at Minzu University of China, receiving a national scholarship in 2008 and three first-prize scholarships in 2006, 2007, and 2008.

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