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The Success of Sino Science Fiction or Chinese Conceptions about Change

Updated: Jan 31, 2022

Novels about science fiction have inspired people throughout modernity, with some stories even becoming scientific facts. Recently, sci-fi literature from China gained international attention, finding a wider audience outside of Asia. This article will show how to read between the lines of what those ideas reveal about Chinese conceptions of the world today as of its coming changes.

Yellow mountains or Pandora? ©7860839/ Public domain/ Pixabay

Science as Fact as Fiction- Creativity of Chinese Science Fiction

"Science is the first productive force" claimed the paramount leader of the People's Republic of China (PRC) Deng Xiaoping in 1989, emphasizing the importance of scientific achievements as factor for the progress of society. Attached to that claim, science-fiction widens that perspective further, as scientific fact is still fixed to the present, the freedom of utopian thinking includes a foresight perspective. Reading sci-fi stories give an idea, inspiring one to consider what might be in the future (Xia, 2020, p. 136). This is more salient after comparing the changes of China during the last 30 years, which gives an impression of the dynamics taking place in that country.

Since about 2008, authors like Liu Cixin (representative for 三体 (sān tǐ), translated as “The Three Body Problem”) or Hao Jingfang (representative for 北京折叠 (Běijīng zhédié), translated as “Beijing Folding”) are two of the most prominent contemporary Chinese sci-fi writers. Both were well received in the West and awarded with the Hugo Award for the best sci-fi novels. This distinction is handed out by the World Science Fiction Convention in Los Angeles (Zhang, 2016). Chinese sci-fi literature gained international attention, finding a wider audience outside of Asia (Junker, 2019, p. 24).

Astoundingly, sci-fi literature has served a rather niche position for a long time. Such books were mostly considered as tools for science-communication, to explain the most recent developments in the scientific world (Song, 2015, p. 7). Conversely, science fiction is about strengthening imagination, inspiring us to think about what the impacts of such changes imagined in literature could translate into in reality. Experiencing this tremendous change in Chinese society in a very short time is reflected by the rise of Chinese science-fiction literature. “Science fiction is now the label for China’s economic miracle, as well as for its achievements in modern technologies” (Han, 2013, p. 16). On the one side, there is soft-science fiction addressing mostly social issues, rather than focussing on scientific precision. A comprehensive overview of these social changes is given by the book “Young China”. The author, himself born in 1990, tells a comprehensive story of the young Chinese generation born after 1989. Reading from his experiences gives a feeling for the societal dynamics taking place within the People’s Republic of China (Dychtwald, 2018). On the other side, there is hard science fiction, focusing on technological changes, as can be found within “China in Space: The Great Leap Forward” (Harvey, 2013).

Reading between the lines – The functions of fiction

The historic roots of Chinese science fiction start very early. Already in the 16th century during the Ming Dynasty, a local official called Wang Hu was obsessed with watching the stars. Thus, making use of the power provided by recently invented fireworks, Wang Hu built the first rocket for flying to orbit. When his assistants ignited the fireworks, the official had a lift off, leaving toward heaven and never being seen again (Watkins, 1909, p. 243). Obviously, this story is just a legend, however, some centuries later in 1985 China managed to send Yang Liwei as the first Chinese astronaut into space, proving the scientific capabilities of the country.

Reviewing famous Western sci-fi authors such as Jules Verne, the literary genre evolved in China around the beginning of the 19th century. Translators and political activists such as Liang Qichao made the fantastic work of Verne, a famous French author, accessible to his compatriots. In 1902 Liang Qichao (1873-1929) launched Chinese science fiction with his novel “Xin Zhongguo Weilai Ji”(Chinese: “新中国未来记”, translated as “The Future of New China”). In this pioneering work, Liang sketches the “unfinished history of China” (Fitzgerald, 1999, p. 17) in the year 1962. After six decades of reform the story begins at the World Expo in Shanghai. China has become the most dominant and most advanced country on earth, even causing brain drain from the West. Despite remaining an unfinished work, “The Future of New China” is considered the first utopian novel in the history of China (Hao, 2002, p. 65–66). Together with other creative thinkers such as Lu Xun or Liang Qichao, those pioneers wanted to promote acceptance of Western science in China, which was seen as a tool for the underdeveloped country to catch up with the West. Astoundingly or maybe ironically given the novel, the World Expo 2010 in fact took place in the city of Shanghai.

Yet, during the Maoist period, science fiction literature was instead decried as “pseudo science”, prone to confuse people (Han, 2013, p. 15). The Western concept of science as a tool for progress was considered as rather foreign to the Chinese scientific tradition. Both differ in their basic foundations. Whilst Western science puts a strong focus on metaphysics, the Chinese scientific tradition is rather determined by a practice orientation. Obviously disciplines like mathematics, medicine or astronomy already existed in Ancient China. However, astronomers in Ancient China studied the movement of celestial bodies not for astronomical laws or theory but for the practical use of developing a calendar for administrative purposes. Chinese traditional mathematics as a symbol of an abstract and systematic philosophy lacked a theory and deductive system. This can be seen by Qin Jiushao (1208-1268), the greatest representative works of the Chinese mathematical tradition. His publications resemble a collection of problem-solving operations rather than a deductive system. Conversely, the most iconic magnum opus by Euclid, “The Elements” encompasses a comprehensive deductive system of theories and proofs yet remains rather theoretical without a practical application (Guo & Radder, 2020, 592–594). At this point it has to be emphasized that neither the Western nor the Chinese scientific tradition is being portrayed as superior, yet instead portrays different concepts of what is understood by the concept of “science”. One side focuses more on the theory meanwhile the other side puts an emphasis on the practice. However, it becomes obvious that a genre like science-fiction, referring to fictional worlds, offers less guidelines for a direct practical application. Therefore, science fiction in China during the period until 1989 in accordance to the Soviet example was mostly used as an educational tool, to popularize scientific knowledge, serving as tool of science communication (Xia, 2020, p. 137). This sought to explain science, without fully making use of the creative potential ingrained in science-fiction literature.

Many aspects of Chinese mainstream literature focus on the past, meanwhile this new genre looks deep into the future, not just imagined but actively seen by the tremendous changes during the last three decades. “Sci-Fi writing is now supported by the Chinese government, as it is considered to be a genre that can inspire the whole nation’s ability to think imaginatively and popularizes science nationwide,” stated Yao Haijun, chief editor of Science Fiction World magazine, in preparation for the first science-fiction conference in Chengdu in 2007 (Author unknown, 2007) . This magazine founded in 1979 is considered the most circulated magazine of science fiction literature with more than one million readers (Song, 2015, p. 17–18). Most notably, the year 1989 poses a new paradigm shift in Chinese science fiction literature.

From this we can observe three periods for the history of Chinese science-fiction literature. During the last days of the Qin Dynasty, utopian novels served as a conveyer for the utopian narrative of a renewing modern China that will find its place in an idealized, technologically more advanced world. In the time from 1949 to 1989 during the establishment of modern China, science-fiction focussed less on the creative, utopian aspects, and instead explained the achievements in science. Therefore, the focus was less on thinking about the future but rather on understanding the present (Song, 2015, p. 7). Nowadays, considering the changes of contemporary China, science-fiction serves more as a point of reflection. The stories encourage readers to focus less on understanding certain scientific methods, but more to think about various ideas regarding the future, getting creative on their own.

Currently three leitmotifs shape the evolution of Chinese science fiction literature. Those are the rise of China as one nation, the notion of Chinese high-speed development, and the posthuman vision of technologies (Song, 2013, p. 87). The first motif can be found in Han Song´s novel “China 2066” or “2066: Red Star Over America (Chinese: “火星照耀美国”) which describes the scenario of a global world, where China has taken over the role of the ailing United States of America. A new period of peace and prosperity has begun. However, this global dominance is built upon a technical system called Amanduo, which controls people in their way of searching for happiness. Aligning to the dystopian ideas of George Orwell’s ‘1984’, here, the reflection of the past experiences and the future prospects are addressed. Furthermore, this scenario provides a critical reflection for the role of technology in the process of shaping change (ibid. p. 88). In contrast to “The future of China'' written by Liang Qichao in 1902, here, beings no longer human such as the emperor are on the lead, yet, an omnipotent machine controls the minds and consciousness of the people, having taken over the factual power of mankind (ibid. p. 90). Referring to the high-speed narrative, the evolutionary thinking of constant change is often confounded with constant progress. Works like “Ant Life” (masheng, 蚁生) by Wang Jinkang queries the idealistic goals of progress through technology. In this story, a young scientist develops a method for spraying people with an altruistic element. In contrast to the utopian dream of an egalitarian community, this invention turns into a nightmare, sacrificing the whole community for the price of presumed progress (ibid. p.94). Lastly, Lu Cixin represents the ideas of a posthuman world. In his renowned work, “The Three Body Problem”, mankind on planet Earth becomes a rather minor concern. The existence of mankind is conceded by the mercy of an extraterrestrial civilisation, but the extinction of mankind would not impact on the trajectory of the universe at all (ibid. p. 94). All those novels (“China 2066”, “Ant Life”, and “The Three Body Problem”) are samples of three leitmotifs confronting the audience with the unexpected, just like the developments of a future ever more impossible to predict.

A future of the past or the fiction of tomorrow

Discussing science-fiction is less about the future or science itself, yet what society thinks about the future. Utopian or dystopian thinking does not claim those ideas to become true, but, more to reflect on what might be possible in the future, as if those changes are rather desirable or undesirable. One of the founding fathers of modern social sciences, Herbert George Wells, argued that “utopic” or futuristic thinking, should be developed as the core and particular methodology of modern social science (Wells, 1906, p. 357). The increasing success of Chinese science-fiction is a symbol of the Chinese “Chronopolitics”, presenting the Chinese conception of change (Wallis, 1970), or to be more precise: “The history of culture is the history of its images of the future" (Polak, 1960, p. 115). Especially among young readers in China, science-fiction is getting popular, leaving its niche on the bookshelves. This young generation of readers corresponding to a young generation of Chinese science fiction authors stand as a point of reflection for the youngest changes and transformation in Chinese society. During the last thirty years, Chinese history was shaped by constant progress, yet the whole world around Chinais also changing. New challenges and new questions are surfacing nowadays. Traditionally, Chinese education has focussed on the application aspect, emphasizing on examination. Many students lack the deep insights into theoretical mechanisms of society, making it hard for those to read into the concepts pertinent to science-fiction. Accompanying the educational reforms, science-fiction encourages curiosity, innovation, and new visions on contemporary society; how science and technology might change it (Xia, 2020, p. 139).

To conclude, science-fiction serves as a conveyor of creativity, encouraging the audience to be curious and reflective, exploring what keeps the world changing, and likewise empowering our own ideas of how this change should be shaped. Discovering the utopian and dystopian ideas of Chinese science-fiction provides one simple message, that is to ask questions, best summarized by Sci-Fi author Ye Yonglie and his famous children’s book “100,000 Whys” (Chinese: “十万个为什么“).

Stephan Raab holds two Master’s in political science and adult education from the Otto-Friedrich- University Bamberg. Currently, he works as a scientific assistant at the Museum of the Future in Nuremberg. Besides that, he is an editor for the Institute for Greater Europe. His research interests are mostly in the field of educational diplomacy and global education, focussing on global interrelatedness. You can find his works on Twitter.

LI Jie holds a PhD in applied linguistics from the University of Leipzig. Currently, she teaches Chinese languages at the University of Heidelberg. Her research interests are in the field of cognitive linguistics, translation studies, and also science fiction as a comparison of the curiosities of Chinese and European (German) culture.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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