Essays

Stranger than Science Fiction7 min read

Chinese sci-fi as a Trojan horse for social commentary – Alec Ash

This essay kicks off Sci-Fi Week at the China Channel. We’ll be featuring Q&As from two Chinese authors, as well as a couple of stories in translation. It’s the perfect excuse to go see The Wandering Earth in the cinema, or to pick up one of the recent collections of Chinese sci-fi stories to get acquainted with this fascinating and varied genre, the historical and political echoes of which are introduced below. – The Editors

In 1902, Lu Xun, the celebrated author of modern China, translated Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon into Chinese from the Japanese edition. Science fiction, he wrote in the preface, was “as rare as unicorn horns, which shows in a way the intellectual poverty of our time.” In the same year, Liang Qichao, another reformist intellectual, in his unfinished novel Chronicle of the Future of a New China (新中國未來記), depicted a future in 1962 where the world came to admire China’s power at a global exposition in Shanghai (sounds familiar, albeit 50 years late). For both writers, exposing Chinese readers to sci fi was a way to promote new, scientific ways of thinking, and to drag the nation into modernity and out from under the yoke of the Qing Dynasty.

Thirty years later, in 1932, Chinese science fiction again indicted its times. Cat Country (貓城記), a serial novel by Lao She (recently released in translation by Penguin, with an introduction by Ian Johnson), was set in a Martian civilization of cat-like people addicted to opiate “reverie leaves,” oppressed by physically stronger foreigners, and architects of the belief system “Everybody Shareskyism.” That rang true of Japan’s invasion of Manchuria and Shanghai, and the general disorder of 1930s China, where communism was in early bud. Sci-fi was still a new genre for China, but already a powerful vehicle for social and political criticism.

After the cultural dry spell of the Mao years, and a crackdown during Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution’ in the early 80s – during both periods sci-fi was all but totally verboten – Chinese science fiction is now enjoying a renaissance. Liu Cixin’s best-selling novels, The Three-Body Trilogy (三体), an alien invasion story mixed with high physics concepts, has sold four million copies, a breakthrough for such a typically niche genre; while in 2016 Hao Jingfang won a Hugo Award for her dystopian vision of class segregation in her novelette Folding Beijing. Alice Xin Liu, former managing editor of the Chinese literature in translation magazine Pathlight, which in 2013 published an issue dedicated to sci-fi (find other special issues in Renditions and Peregrine), said Chinese sci fi is “politically, the most daring genre in Chinese contemporary literature.”

Liu Cixin, an engineer by trade, is one of what his readers have dubbed the ‘Three Generals’ of Chinese science fiction, along with Wang Jinkang and Han Song. “Sci fi,” Han Song told me, “can express a lot that can’t be expressed in other literature.” His newest collection of stories, High Speed Rail (高铁), begins with a train crash that echoes China’s own high-speed rail collision in July 2011. In another collection, Subway (地铁), themes of urban malaise are expressed in increasingly Kafkaesque stories of abduction and cloning on the underground. An earlier novella, Taiwan Drifts (台湾漂移), is more explicit still, imagining that Taiwan has broken free from its moorings and is on a literal collision course with the mainland.

Chan Koonchung’s 2009 novel The Fat Years (盛世) is another contemporary example of politically direct sci-fi. Set in 2013, the China of the novel is in an “age of ascendency” following a massive global financial crash – yet a month-long crackdown that launched this Orwellian golden era is missing from the population’s collective memory, and the water supply is suspected to be spiked with a drug to keep everyone mildly euphoric. One character, a high-ranking Communist Party official called He Dongsheng, justifies all this with the familiar mantra, “The people fear chaos more than they fear dictatorship.”

Both The Fat Years and much of Han Song’s work are, unsurprisingly, not published in mainland China. Yet that does not mean it is not read in mainland China. Much of the work is freely available online, and publication censors are constantly chasing after allusive writers and readers savvy to disguised meanings. Chan Koonchung told me, “For a long time, Chinese intellectuals used history as a fable to talk about the present. Now, the newer generation is using science fiction to write about the present. It’s difficult to keep down sci-fi for trying to be subversive.”

Young writers continue to dominate the Galaxy awards for science fiction (China’s equivalent of the Nebulas). In 2013 Chen Qiufan, then 32, won best novel and best new writer for The Waste Tide (荒潮), the English translation of which by Ken Liu comes out this April. (Liu is the premier translator of Chinese sci-fi – all the translated works I cite here are his unless otherwise noted.) The novel is a dystopian tale set in the 2020s on an electronic waste recycling island off the Chinese coast called ‘Silicon Isle,’ reminiscent of (and directly modeled on) real e-waste recycling villages, such as Guiyu in southern China. Other elements of the novel include a wealth gap and environmental problems that have spiralled out of control. The author has called it “a metaphor for reality,” commenting, “If you write these things in the mainstream, they couldn’t be published.”

The readership of Chinese science fiction, too, is mostly young, and the political charge of the genre should not be taken too breathlessly. With a now well-established mainland market for sci-fi, much of what is being published are more straightforward stories of robots, clones and aliens. The key publication has always been Science Fiction World magazine (科幻世界), founded in 1979 and with a claimed circulation of 200,000, mostly middle school and college students, who buy it from news kiosks at every school gate. That figure has halved since its peak in the mid 2000s, the magazine says, due to readers migrating online, but is still impressive.

One short story that readers were surprised to see make it into Science Fiction World in 2005, ‘The City of Silence’ by Ma Boyong, is set in an authoritarian state in 2046 where life is lived almost entirely online, with all communication restricted to a rapidly diminishing “List of Healthy Words.” The protagonist stumbles upon a “Talking Club” where unhappy citizens meet in secret to speak freely, and to have sex with each other. George Orwell’s 1984 is directly referenced. The story is often reposted online after a crackdown on web freedom in China, and is one of the best examples of how politically sensitive stories that would otherwise be scrubbed clean can slip unexpurgated into sci-fi publications, due to censors dismissing the genre as “for kids.”

In another satirical story from 2012, posted by a netizen on his blog (the link is now defunct), an upgrade of the Chinese Great Firewall called “GFW Turbo” becomes self-aware and starts to uncontrollably censor keywords. A national ministry is established to resist the renegade software, but fails. The story is written in the form of a diary, and the last entry, from 2025, ends with the announcement, “Comrades, in all online language there is only one word left: ‘sensitive word’!” In these days of tightening internet control, a reader can only think: indeed.

Ironically, though, it is on the Chinese internet that science fiction is most easily read and spread. In a publishing environment where more realist, conventional literature struggles to express a rapidly changing society from within the double straitjackets of censorship and self-censorship, Chinese sci-fi is an old Trojan horse in which new writers are sneaking past the city walls. ∎

An earlier version of this essay was published on the LRB Blog. Header: free-use image from Pixabay.

Alec Ash

Alec Ash is a writer and editor in Beijing. He is the author of Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China (Picador, 2016), literary nonfiction about China's young generation, and Managing Editor of the China Channel.