A Brief Introduction to Chinese Science Fiction
With the success of Cixin Liu’s Three-Body trilogy, and the launch of Ken Liu’s Invisible Planets this week, the interest in Chinese Science Fiction is bound to grow. This short history of the long march of Chinese SF by Regina Kanyu Wang provides an insider’s account of the many forces that have shaped, sustained, and led to its emergence as a new global phenomenon. – Editors
Chinese science fiction has remained largely mysterious to the outside world until recently. In 2015, Liu Cixin (刘慈欣) won the first Hugo Award for Asia with his novel The Three-Body Problem (《三体》) and in August 2016, Hao Jingfang (郝景芳) won the second with her novelette Folding Beijing (《北京折叠》) — both translated by Ken Liu, a Hugo-winning Chinese-American author. Ken Liu’s multiple award-winning short story, “The Paper Menagerie,” (2012) explores the conflict between the narrator’s Chinese and American cultural identities. Now, as more and more Chinese science fiction is translated into English and other languages, it is the perfect time to explore its history.
This article mainly focuses on science fiction, not fantasy. In China, the boundary between science fiction (Ke Huan, 科幻) and fantasy (Qi Huan, 奇幻) is not that blurred. However, due to our historical tradition in myths and Kong Fu stories, it is hard to define Chinese fantasy as a whole. You will find it hard to tell Qi Huan (奇幻, fantasy) from Xuan Huan (玄幻, mostly refers to online fiction with Chinese style super natural elements) and Mo Huan (魔幻, mostly refers to fiction with western style magic elements). Narrowly speaking, current Chinese fantasy literature excludes themes such as grave robbery (盗墓 Dao Mu, a group of people break into ancient graves, where they come across with ghosts and all kinds of evils, in search of treasures), time-travel (穿越 Chuan Yue, a girl traveled back to ancient dynasties for whatever reasons and falls in complicated relationships with kings, prices, and officers) and Taoism immortality-chasing (修真 Xiu Zhen, a boy experiences various challenges to pursue immortality by Taoism method), which stand as popular genres by themselves.
There have been fantasy magazines and fandoms through contemporary history but compared to science fiction, Chinese fantasy literature is not at its peak. Having said that, TV series and movies adapted from successful early works are starting to come out this year, for example: Novoland: The Castle In the Sky (2016), a TV series set in Novoland universe, meant to be China’s Dungeons & Dragons, the collaborative effort of many fans and writers; and Ice Fantasy (2016): a TV series adapted from the best-seller, City of Fantasy (2003), written by Guo Jingming, a famous Chinese YA author. However, for the purposes of this essay, I will only talk about science fiction in mainland China.
1. Pre-history and Early History of Chinese SF
Chinese legends and myths have fantasy elements in abundance like in all cultures. The first text with a science fiction genre in China can be found as early as BC 450-BC 375. In one of the classics of Taoism, Liezi (《列子》), we can find a story called “Yanshi (《偃师》)” in the chapter “The Questions of Tang (《汤问》).” Yanshi, a skilled mechanic, builds a delicate automaton resembling a real human being, which can move, sing and dance. He shows the dummy to the king to prove his skill. The dummy is so delicate and convincing that the king suspects Yanshi is cheating him by using a real human. At the end, Yanshi has to break the automaton to prove that it is only made of wood and leather. Yanshi’s automaton can be seen as a prototype for an early robot.
Science fiction as we know it today first came to China in the Late Qing dynasty. Chinese intellectuals like Lu Xun (鲁迅) and Liang Qichao (梁启超) emphasized the importance of science fiction as a tool to help the country prosper. In 1900, the Chinese translation of French author Jules Verne’s Round the World in Eighty Days was published – it was the first translated foreign science fiction in China, translated by Chen Shoupeng (陈寿彭) and Xue Shaohui (薛绍徽). Lu Xun, arguably the most famous writer in modern Chinese literature, also translated several science fiction novels into Chinese, such as Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, published in Chinese in 1903 and 1906 respectively. Lu Xun translated the novels from the Japanese translation by Inoue Tsutomu since he didn’t know French. The earliest original Chinese science fiction novel is known to be Colony of the Moon (《月球殖民地》), written by Huangjiang Diaosou (荒江钓叟, penname of an anonymous author, which means the “Old Fisherman by a Deserted River”), serialized in a journal called Illustrated Fiction (《绣像小说》) in 1094 and 1905.
Literature is expected to fulfill social responsibilities in China. During the onset of the 20th century, science fiction in China played the role of teaching advanced science as well as democracy from the west. Most of the western SF that was translated into Chinese was rewritten to serve this goal. For example, Verne’s original text for From the Earth to the Moon contains 28 chapters, but Lu Xun’s translation only has 14; A Journey to the Centre of the Earth has 45 chapters in its original French text but Lu Xun rewrote it into 12 chapters.
Wars and political turmoil lasted from the late Qing Dynasty (1833-1911) to the Republic Era (1911-1949). Lao She (老舍)’s Cat Country (《猫城记》) came out in 1932. It may be the best-known Chinese SF around the world before the new era. In the novel, the main character (narrated in first person) flies to Mars but the aircraft is crushed as soon as it arrives. As the only survivor, the main character is taken to the City of Cats by feline-faced aliens where he then lives. With his ironic description of the alien community, the author criticizes his own society.
After the establishment of People’s Republic of China in 1949, the first tide of new-era Chinese SF came in the 1950s. Some of the big names at that time were Zheng Wenguang (郑文光) and Tong Enzheng (童恩正). Seen as the first story with SF elements in the PRC, Zhang Ran’s (张然) A Dream Tour of the Solar System (《梦游太阳系》, 1950), introduces astronomical bodies in the solar system in the format of a dream narrative, more like science fairytale than hard sci-fi. Zheng Wenguang’s From the Earth to the Mars (《从地球到火星》, 1954) was regarded as the first SF short story in PRC; it’s about three Chinese teenagers stealing a spaceship and flying to Mars for adventure. Contemporary SF writers of the period were largely influenced by SF from the former Soviet Union. The complete collection of Jules Verne was translated from Russian into Chinese during 1957-1962 because it was highly praised in former Soviet Union. Works by former Soviet Union writers like Alexander Belyayev were also translated. The bulk of the period’s science fiction was written for kids or as popular science texts, optimistic and limited in scope.
Then came the Cultural Revolution, leaving little space for literature, and even less for science fiction. Anything that bore any relation to “western capitalism” was regarded harmful. Many writers were forced to stop writing. After the reform and opening-up policy, the golden age of Chinese SF finally arrived in late 1970s. A large body of work emerged along with a growing number of fandoms and magazines specializing in SF. During this time, Ye Yonglie (叶永烈) was one of the most prestigious writers. His Little Know-all Travels around the Future World (《小灵通漫游未来》, 1978), has sold more than 1.5 million copies, and its comic adaptation sold another 1.5 million copies. Zheng Wenguang and Tong Enzheng started to write SF again. Wenguang’s Flying to the Sagittarius (《飞向人马座》, 1979) became a milestone of Chinese SF; it tells the story of three teenagers trying their best to return to the earth after roaming outside the solar system for years. And Enzheng’s most famous work, Death-Ray On The Coral Island (《珊瑚岛上的死光》, 1978), is about scientists fighting against evil corporations to protect the peace of humanity. Coral Island was adapted into the first SF movie in China in 1980 with the same title.
In 1983, the anti-spiritual pollution campaigns wiped SF from the map again. Since 1979, there had been arguments on whether science fiction should be literature or popular science. Criticism of pseudoscience was hatted on science fiction. In 1983, Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese supremo then, spoke against capitalism and exploitation in literary works. Science fiction was regarded as spiritual pollution because of the elements of capitalism and commercialism in it. Stories which talked about more than science were regarded as being harmful to politics. Very few or none dared to write or publish SF during the period. It wasn’t until late 1980s and early 1990s that Chinese SF recovered from the attack and flourished again.
2. Publication of Prozines
The definition of prozines in China is a bit different to that in America. In China, you have to get a special number called “CN”, similar to an “ISBN”, certificated by the government to be allowed to publish prozines.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, lots of SF magazines popped up in China. In 1979, Science and Literary (《科学文艺》) began to publish in the Sichuan Province. Age of Science（《科学时代》）, Science Literature Translation Series（《科学文艺译丛》）, SF Ocean（《科幻海洋》）, Wisdom Tree（《智慧树》）and SF World–Selected SF Works（《科幻世界——科学幻想作品选刊》）appeared within the following 3 years. However, all of these magazines except Science and Literary stopped publishing during the anti-spiritual pollution campaigns.
In 1980, Science and Literary sold about 200,000 copies of each issue, while after the anti-spiritual pollution campaigns, the number dropped as low as 700 copies. After 1984, Yang Xiao (杨潇), editor of the magazine, was selected as the president of Science and Literary. Together with her team, she made great efforts to hold the fort for Chinese SF. In 1991, the name of the magazine was changed to Science Fiction World (《科幻世界》) and that year in Chengdu, they held the annual conference of World SF. We can look back to 1991 as the year Chinese SF started to flourish again. By 1999, an essay question in China’s National Higher Education Entrance Exam, “What if memory could be transplanted,” was the same as the title of an article published in Science Fiction World that year. This partly pushed sales of Science Fiction World to its peak: 361,000 copies of each issue in 2000.
As the 21st century drew closer, another important Chinese SF magazine came to life in the Shanxi Province. Science Fiction King (《科幻大王》) started to publish in 1994, changing its name to New Science Fiction (《新科幻》) in 2011. The peak sales were around 12,000 copies per issue in 2008. Unfortunately, at the end of 2014, New Science Fiction stopped publishing due to its relatively low sales. Science Fiction Cube (《科幻Cube》) is the youngest member of the current existing SF prozine market in China. Its first three issues only came out in 2016, and each issue sold about 50,000 copies. Some other SF magazines appeared and disappeared in this period, including World Science Fiction (《世界科幻博览》) and Science Fiction Story (《科幻-文学秀》). Other publications like Mengya (《萌芽》), Zui Found (《文艺风赏》) and Super Nice (《超好看》) publish science fiction as well as other genres.
3. Birth of Early Fandoms
The first Chinese SF fandom appeared in Shanghai in 1980. Philip Smith from University of Pittsburgh visited Shanghai International Studies University (SISU) and delivered a course on science fiction literature. A scholar who worked at SISU at the time, Wu Dingbo (吴定柏) regards the science fiction club formed there as the first Chinese SF fandom. In 1981, Science Fiction Research Associations were founded in several cities like Shanghai, Guangdong, Heilongjiang, Ha’erbin, Liaoning and Chengdu, and then all swept away by the anti-spiritual pollution campaigns. And it wasn’t until 1988 that the Science Fiction Literature Committee was founded in Sichuan Writer’s Association, chaired by Tong Enzheng. The committee aimed to unite science fiction writers in Sichuan and make Chinese SF writing prosper from its low valley.
In 1990, Yao Haijun (姚海军) established the Chinese Science Fiction Readers’ Association with the help of his fanzine Nebula.
In the 1990s, regional fandoms and university clubs boomed all around China. The Science Fiction World magazine also founded its own fan club.
In 1998, the first online SF fandoms appeared in China. Chinese Science Fiction Online Association (中华网上科幻协会) and Feiteng Science Fiction Writing Group (飞腾科幻创作小组) were established. The latter one was renamed Feiteng SF Corps (飞腾科幻军团) after it expanded. Some of the other important online fandoms were SF Utopia (科幻桃花源), River of No Return (大江东去科幻社区) and Space Lunatic Asylum (太空疯人院). Unfortunately none of them exist today. Some of the active members continued their discussion in the Science Fiction World group (with no relation to the magazine) on douban.com (a SNS website popular in China based on hobbies).
Quite a number of Chinese SF authors were active members of these fandoms.
(ostatak na link)