China and Chinese aesthetics have been borrowed by the West as a sci-fi setting and McGuffin for years. Native Chinese science fiction, however, has remained relatively unregarded until very recently. Yet it has existed for over a century. This talk is a history of Chinese sci-fi and specualtive fiction from the turn of the twentieth century through to the present. Discover the influences of China’s unique history and culture on key themes and voices, from its first dawning to contemporary works.
Xueting Christine Ni
Disclaimer: I know basically nothing about Chinese history, literary, politics or culture. I know a tiny bit about the mythology, and I do mean tiny. If I make any mistakes in this blog, I sincerely apologise. Everything Xueting said was fascinating and my note-taking couldn’t always keep up.
Chinese fantasy is mostly set in the romanticised past of Chinese history, rather than creating new fantasy worlds.
The Chinese culture has been borrowed from extensively by the West to create futuristic otherworldly cultures. It’s “an alien culture without stepping onto a rocket”. This goes both ways – medieval Britain in classical Chinese 20th century literature is used in a similar manner.
The Politics of Sci-Fi
At the beginning of the 20th century there was a massive flair in SF writing, as the government pushed a ‘save the country with science’ agenda. This was repeated in the 1980s, when the country was forward-thinking and had stable development. One of the masters of the genre was a chemistry graduate – “science was important“.
In between these two periods, the country was too unstable to have much luxury for SF, due to war, invasion, and the change to a republic. As a result, a lot of SF writing has strong social and political commentary, both local and global. In China, the level of censorship was often a strong indicator of how much good work was (is?) being produced.
The Cultural Revolution had a huge impact on SF plots. The genre was used as a way to reclaim history and allow the readership to come to terms with the past. War and revolution brutally severed the link between the ancient and modern periods of Chinese history, and SF tries to form a bridge between the two distinct cultures.
The early tradition of SF set stories in the wider world, either to avoid insulting the homeland directly or as a reflection of China as a bit-player in global politics. Modern SF is far more likely to be set in China itself, suggesting either less concern about the consequences of critique, a new confidence in China as a dominant player on the world stage, or a more immediate preoccupation with matters at home.
The 80s single-child generation is now nearing their thirties, and this is having a massive impact on both modern Chinese culture and SF themes. That generation is currently having to care for their parents and grandparents without any siblings to share the burden. At the same time, the strong sense of community that flourished in a state-owned culture has been nearly obliterated in the current privatised, corporate culture.
Similarly, many graduates are currently unemployed. There is increasing social stratification, leading to a huge gulf in living standards (particularly in cities, where slums are growing rapidly). The overpopulation crisis has led to jobs, schools and living space all under pressure. This is reflected in the current trend of ‘Angry Young Man’ stories (see below).
Themes and Characters
Near future tech is very popular, especially virtual reality and robotics. AS more factories and restaurants employ robots in reality, the Chinese accept them as a fact of life. SF stories often explore the positive aspects of this, rather than Asmiov’s more doomsday approach. Bio-engineering is also popular. Altering bodies to fit ideals or achieve immortality has been a constant throughout Chinese history. There is a cult of conformity, adjusting looks and lifestyles in order to fit pereived ideals, and near-future science can enable this desire.
Not much is said about characters that break the rules and are removed. The reader is left to draw assumptions, based on history and cultural expectations. This speaks volumes.
The ‘Angry Young Man’ is a popular modern archetype, railing against the system with a certain sense of naivety. This character type is generally written by post-80s writers, who play heavily on themes of consumerist greed, tech advancement and commercialism leading to near-future dystopia. These anti-heroes tend to act as a lens of ‘realism’ for readers, rather than doing anything to change the situation. They are commentators, not actors.
The past is idolised, and almost portrayed as otherworldly. This tension between old desires and history, and new innovation is very obvious in modern SF. There’s still a desire for mysticism in the age of robots.
Lost in Translation
So why hasn’t Chinese SF been translated into English? One reason is that there’s frequently a direct and strong critique of Western politics, which Western readers might well find unpalatable. The USA in particular is a big target for Chinese dystopian futures, which isn’t especially popular with the Americans.
Western readers also generally lack a strong understanding of the history and culture which informs Chinese SF plots and characters. That makes it harder to engage with the stories at the right level.
If you’re interested in trying some, however, the following three authors were recommended as good starting points: Lagrange Graveyard by Wang Jinkang, The Fish of Lijiang by Chen Qiufan, and A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight by Xia Jia.
Next week: using foreign languages in genre fiction.