China’s science fiction enters ‘golden era’

By SUN MEIJUAN / 01-20-2022 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Liu Cixin’s sci-fi works sold in a bookstore in Zhengzhou, Henan Province Photo: CFP

At the 2015 Hugo Awards Ceremony, The Three-Body Problem lit up the night sky in Spokane, Washington, USA. It was the first time a Chinese science fiction book had won a world-class award and also the first time the award had been given to a translated work. The book’s author, Chinese writer Liu Cixin thereby has become a world-class sci-fi master.


In 2016, Chinese sci-fi writer Hao Jingfang, who was born in the 1980s, also received the Hugo Award. 
As Chinese sci-fi writers have won Hugo Awards twice in a row, Chinese sci-fi works are ranked among the bestsellers at home and abroad, bringing Chinese science fiction to the Western world and new development opportunities to China’s sci-fi industry. 
Early creations 
Science fiction is a highly intensive creative form, which expresses fantasy stories based on modern science and technology. As a literary genre, it is culturally deeply-rooted in China. Tales of Lunar Colony, which was serialized in 1904 in Illustrated Fiction, is widely regarded as the birth of science fiction in China. Unfortunately, the novel does not have an ending, and even the author’s real name is still a mystery, merely the pen name of “Huangjiang Diaosou” [literally the Old Fisherman by a Desolate River]. It can be seen that science fiction existed in China already in the late Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). 
Before Tales of Lunar Colony, “science fiction” advocated by Liang Qichao in the journal Xin Xiaoshuo (New Fiction), the translated works of Jules Verne at the turn of the 20th century, and even earlier Bainian Yijiao [a translation of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward], can all be put into the category of science fiction in China. 
Liang Qichao and Lu Xun were among the earliest advocates of science fiction in China, said Wu Yan, a professor from the Humanities Center at the Southern University of Science and Technology. Liang Qichao wrote China’s first political fantasy fiction Xin Zhongguo Weilai Ji (The Future of New China) in New Fiction in 1902. He also co-translated Verne’s Two Years’ Vacation with his student Luo Pu. In 1903, Lu Xun translated Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon into Yuejie Lyuxing (literally A Travel to the Moon) and wrote a preface to the translated work. Science fiction emerged in the late Qing era under the strong advocacy of both men. 
Yet, Liang Qichao and Lu Xun held differing opinions on what the focus of science fiction should be, Wu added. The former argued that science fiction should not only center on science, but also involve Chinese culture, in order to play a role in changing the mindset of Chinese people. He advocated using science fiction to inspire the future. In contrast, Lu Xun insisted that science fiction concentrate on the introduction of science and technology. 
According to Li Guangyi, an associate professor from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences at Chongqing University, in the late Qing period, people’s expectation of science fiction was just as what Lu Xun had said in the preface to A Travel to the Moon:” “fusing scientific and human knowledge” to “lead the Chinese people to move forward.” In other words, teaching through entertaining, with science fiction spreading necessary scientific knowledge among the people. However, since sci-fi writers in the late Qing Dynasty generally did not receive systematic scientific education, the most compelling part of their works was not the hardcore scientific idea inside, but the grotesque technological wonders and unrestrained utopian passions. 
The survival pressure faced by modern China, and the appeals for cultural innovation brought by it, were the fundamental motives for the emergence of Chinese science fiction, said Jia Liyuan, an associate professor from the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Tsinghua University. The translation and creation of sci-fi literature was a manifestation, in the field of fiction, of the Chinese people’s efforts to save its nation from subjugation and ensure its survival. A large host of modern intellectuals such as Liang Qichao, Cai Yuanpei, Lu Xun, and Wu Jianren, involved themselves in the translation, introduction, or writing of science fiction. However, due to historical limitations, Chinese sci-fi works and theoretical thinking were rough in the initial stage, far from a peak; a new trend at most. 
Theoretical explorations 
As of today, it is hard to say that Chinese science fiction has an established theoretical system, but it indeed has gone through a unique journey. What is unique about Chinese science fiction? In Wu’s opinion, Chinese science fiction not only has its own creative forms, but also has its own critical theory. From the perspective of creation forms, although China referred to foreign forms when initially introducing science fiction, it has always based itself on Chinese elements in the creation process. Especially after entering the Republican era, science fantasy can be found in fiction and various popular science readings, while in science fiction we can also see poems, quyi [an umbrella term for traditional Chinese oral performing arts], xiangsheng [a cross-talking form of quyi], and other art forms. After the founding of the PRC in 1949, a branch of science fiction also gradually evolved into a type of children’s literature. 
In terms of critical methods, there are at least three schools of sci-fi criticism in China, namely, intellectual criticism, sci-fi realistic criticism, and “post-revolutionary” criticism, Wu added. 
Jia noted that before 1949, Chinese intellectuals’ thinking on science fiction was scattered, mainly due to the deep national crisis, which determined that science fiction lacked space and soil for sustainable and stable growth. Since 1949, a new generation of writers, steeped in enthusiasm for national construction, has constantly advanced relevant theoretical explorations. Since 1978, as sci-fi theories have been promoted due to sensational works such as Little Know-it-All Roams the Future, Flying to Sagittarius, and Death Ray on a Coral Island, they have also been accompanied by debates. 
Like any other literary theory, Western sci-fi theory has been mainly developed for European and American works. Western sci-fi theorists have very limited understanding of science fiction outside Europe and America. This context requires Chinese scholars to combine the history of Chinese science fiction and propose their own theories while referring to Western theories, Jia concluded.