Narratives of Modernization: China’s History of Science Fiction

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On Saturday, August 22nd, 2015, author Ken Liu stepped up to the podium at Sasquan, the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention, to accept the Hugo Award for Best Novel on behalf of Liu Cixin, author of The Three-Body Problem. It was a historic moment: Liu Cixin’s novel was the first translated novel to ever win the award, one of the highest honors in SF/F fandom.

Precipitating this moment is a long history of science fiction in China. The genre enjoys its own vibrant tradition of speculative works, developed over the past century. Liu Cixin’s award comes at an interesting time for China: the Asian nation has become a major player in the world economy, and as it grows, its authors and culture are reaching new, global audiences, introducing the western genre culture to new worlds of ideas and stories.

Realizing modernity

To understand the development of this expanding literary movement, one should understand some of China’s history, and how modernization helped jump-start science fiction there.

From the middle of the 19th Century, China was engaged in a considerable amount of trade with the West. A pair of conflicts between Europe and China (known as the Opium Wars) was followed by a series of rebellions, which ultimately weakened the Qing Dynasty. From the mid-1870s to the end of the 19th century, the nation went through a period of “self-strengthening” as the country’s leaders implemented a number of changes to attempt to modernize the country in the face of increasing international trade and competition. However, according to Albert M. Craig in The Heritage of Chinese Civilization, “since the firepower of Western naval forces doubled each decade, the forces that China faced at the end of the century were vastly more formidable than those of the Opium War. Despite self-strengthening, China was relatively weaker at the end of the period than at the start.”

Beginning in August of 1894, the Qing Dynasty of China and the Japanese Empire fought against one another for control over the Korean peninsula in the first Sino-Japanese War. The war went badly for China, which sued for peace in February of 1895. The defeat of China was a major surprise to the Qing Dynasty, and had an impact on the thinking of the day in China. The tiny island nation of Japan had advanced much further technologically than the much larger country. A number of individual began to advance an agenda that would bring China further into the future. One such thinker, Kang Youwei, “described China as ‘enfeebled’ and ‘soundly asleep atop a pile of kindling.'”  Another intellectual, Liang Qichao, according to Ken Liu, “believed that China’s sclerotic culture and general backwardness could only be remedied via a massive infusion of Western ideas and thoughts,” and advocated for China to emulate some of the practices which Japan had adopted.

The Guangxu Emperor of the Qing Dynasty was receptive to Youwei’s ideals and proposals, and instituted “100 Days of Reforms,” styling his programs after major western leaders. These reforms were wide-ranging and covered every sector of Chinese life: the military, schools, governmental offices, and more. However, the program was largely a failure: only a single province instituted the changes, and Youwei and his associates fled the country to Japan.

In 1900, another rebellion flared up in the country, sparked by an anti-foreigner society known as The Boxers. The Boxer Rebellion prompted a foreign invasion of Beijing, and ensured western access into China. The rebellion prompted a new progressive reformation in the country, which injected a wealth of western values into the country.

Chinese science fiction begins

As part of this movement, one Chinese author, Lu Xun, became aware of science fiction when he read a translation of Jules Verne’s novel De la Terre de a la Lune, (From the Earth to the Moon), serialized in a Chinese magazine called New Fiction. The magazine, founded by Liang Qichao, was instrumental in bringing western literature into the country, and profoundly influenced Xun.

Xun was one of China’s leading literary intellectuals, and is considered one of the pioneers of modern Chinese literature. He was born Zhou Zhangshou on September 25, 1881 in Shaoxing, Zhejiang. He resisted his family’s calling to public service in local government, and entered the Jiangnan Naval Academy in Nanking for a short while before he transferred to the School of Railways and Mines. Both schools emphasized a western approach to education and knowledge, and following his graduation in 1901, he entered Kobun College in Tokyo.

Science fiction literature was promoted to encourage the general public to develop an interest in science, and other reforms ran in tandem: according to Craig, “Educational reforms began in 1901. Women, for the first time, were admitted to newly formed schools. In place of Confucianism, the instructors taught science, mathematics, geography, and an anti-imperialist version of Chinese history that fanned the flames of nationalism…. By 1906, there were eight thousand Chinese students in Japan, which had become a hotbed of Chinese reformist and revolutionary studies.” (Craig, 146) In addition to Xun, other authors produced science fiction stories during this time : one  notable example is Liang Qichao and his book Xin Zhongguo Weilai Ji (The Future of New China) written in 1902. Like Xun, he was inspired to bring scientific knowledge and learning to China through literature.

Xia Jia, writing for Tor.com, noted that China was going through an incredible transition: “’Chinese Dream’ here refers to the revival of the Chinese nation in the modern era, a prerequisite for realizing which was reconstructing the Chinese people’s dream. In other words, the Chinese had to wake up from their old, 5000-year dream of being an ancient civilization and start to dream of becoming a democratic, independent, prosperous modern nation state. ”

As a student, Xun travelled in Japan, arriving for medical school in 1903. While doing so, he came across a Japanese translation of Verne’s novel, titled Travelling on the Moon, translated by Inou Tsutomu. Not realizing that it was the same novel, and firmly believing that this style of scientific romance was exactly the type of story that could invigorate his country, he began to translate the book into Chinese. His translation is a sort of adaptation, one that expands upon the original narrative, while drawing in additional references and influences from Chinese oral tradition. Other novels from Verne had been translated into Chinese by Liang Qichao: Captain at Fifteen and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which were followed by numerous others.

In the preface to From the Earth to the Moon, Xun wrote about his intentions with his translation: he wanted to use the genre style as a means to improve the country: “More often than not, ordinary people feel bored at the tedious statements of science… Only by resorting to fictional presentation and dressing scientific ideas up in literary clothing can works of science avoid their tediousness while retaining rational analyses and profound theories.” It’s hard to understate the environment in which China found itself: many felt that the status of their country was in mortal danger of being overwhelmed by outsiders, and that society was unequipped to move into the future. Writers and intellectuals felt that it was a national duty to bring China in line with their Western counterparts.

Xun would later become known as the founding father of modern Chinese literature, and helped to unleash a new movement within Chinese literature, followed by other translators. According to Shaoyan Hu, writing in Amazing Stories, “translated science fiction works served as nourishment for the development of its Chinese counterpart. Chinese writers began to take their own initiatives to write science fictions.” Many of these stories were published in the country’s newspapers and began to reach broad audiences.

An example of one of these early science fiction stories was Tales of the Moon Colony, written by Huangjiang Diaosou. This was a serialized novel was published between 1904 and 1905 and followed a man as he invented a hot air balloon, with which he intended to fly to the moon. Although the story was never finished, it incorporated a number of technological advances of the time.

Science fiction had arrived, and as Nathanial Isaacson notes in Science Fiction Studies the genre was, “an anomaly of the emergence of science fiction in China that while the genre associated its origins with the translations of western imports, ‘science fiction’ (kexue xiaoshuo) began to appear regularly in China as a generic category associated with specific stories before it did so in the English-language press (circa 1904).”

Another story, 1910’s New China by Lu Shi’e, chronicled the life of a man who wakes up in a future Shanhgai in 1950. There, he discovers a “progressive, prosperous China, and is told that all this is due to the efforts of a certain Dr. Su Hanmin, who had studied abroad and invented two technologies: ‘the spiritual medicine’ and the ‘awakening technique’.” The discoveries allowed China to shake off its moral issues and, unburdened by their weight, advance rapidly in the international world.

Many of these stories followed a similar path and outlook on the world as their Western counterparts, coming in part from the same roots. Their authors imagined a world changed by the introduction of new technologies that were rapidly overtaking the world. While the West had a considerable head start on the technological revolution, Chinese artists were recognizing the same messages and implications as that of their western colleagues. Where scientific romances in the West were beginning to examine the ramifications of technology – and in some cases, the downsides – their Chinese colleagues recognized that the style of fiction would accomplish a couple of goals.

First, these stories dramatized underdeveloped scientific principles within Chinese society. By the turn of the century, China was unable to compete with neighboring Japan and other Western nations, and even unable to keep foreign interests from influencing domestic policy.

Secondly, reformers within Chinese society felt that a level of mysticism within Chinese society was impeding the country’s progress forward, holding it back from competing with other advanced nations.

Science fiction literature, reformers believed, would help inspire Chinese readers to take more of an interest in science and technology, and through a groundswell of support, help push the country forward. The genre, grounded in factual, empirical principles, would further help push China into the future.

Changing world

China was changing, drastically. By the late 1910s, “only members of an older generation of reformers, such as Kang Youwei or Liang Qichao came full circle and, appalled by the slaughter of World War I and the evils of Western materialism, advocated a return to traditional Chinese philosophies.” (Craig, 145)

In the years leading up to the Second World War, a number of new political movements appeared: leftist political ideals began to take root in the country, and after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Chinese intellectuals began to explore the possibility of bypassing capitalism, which was closely identified with the foreign invaders who had caused so many problems decades earlier.

Uprisings in the 1920s helped  a pair of organizations grow rapidly: the China Communist Party (CCP) and the Guomindang Party (GMD). After several years of infighting, the Nanjing regime emerged, which consolidated power from all corners of China, and carried out extensive military and police actions against communist agents. By 1937, the country was at war on two fronts: one against encroaching elements of the CCP, and the other against Japan as that nation sought to consolidate power in the Pacific (the second Sino-Japanese War). China’s government eventually persevered over Japanese forces, but in 1946, the CCP took control of the country through a bloody Civil War that ended three years later.

According to Yan Wu, (translated by Wang Pengfei and Ryan Nichols) in Science Fiction Studies #119, “Until recently, it was generally assumed that very little science fiction was written during the years of the Republic. Recent research has established, however, that a great many sf works were published during this period on a variety of themes, and significant discoveries continue to be made.”

Several science fiction works that emerged from this time were books such as Cat Country by Lao She (pen name for novelist Shu Qingchun). This novel follows a Chinese traveler who crash lands on Mars, finding that it’s entirely inhabited by Cat People. While there, he discovered that society is in decline. The novel has been hailed as a novel that took a stark, satirical look at Chinese society.

Another work published around this time was Under the North Pole by Gu Junzheng in 1940 . Gu was characterized by The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction as an “author and translator whose handful of genre works represented the bulk, indeed almost all, Chinese sf published in the troubled 1930s”. Working as a school teacher and later an editor and writer, he used his position as a platform from which to popularize science through stories and nonfiction articles that sought to illustrate a scientific point. Although he largely abandoned writing fiction, he was assigned to the China Youth Press and the Committee for the Popularization of Science, two institutions which the SFE noted was influential in bringing the works of authors such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells to China during this time.

People’s Republic of China

On October 11949, following the end of the Chinese Civil War, the People’s Republic of China was formed. It’s leader, Mao Zedong, sought to modernize the world through a series of reforms that consolidated land and industrial power. His program, Great Leap Forward, echoed historical movements to advance China technologically and economically in the world. This came at a price: 45 million deaths are attributed to his policies, a number that climbed in 1966 with the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.

Because of China’s Communist government, numerous Soviet era science fiction novels were translated into Chinese, “shaping the local sense of what sf should be, particularly along the lines of the Russian calque kepu wenxue, or ‘literature for the popularization of science.’” (SFE)

Numerous authors were beginning to publish during this time. One who became popular was Zheng Wenguang, a Vietnamese author who moved to China. He published his first story in 1954, “From Earth to Mars,” about China’s first mission to Mars.

As China advanced into the twentieth century, science fiction authors had to tread carefully with their content, for fear of retribution, or of being silenced altogether. Expressing any deviation from party lines was punished harshly: one author, Hu Feng, was sentenced to a quarter century in prison for a letter he published, in which he criticized Mao Zedong’s policies on the arts; which he viewed as mere propaganda: work that only emphasized and supported Mao’s government and politics.

Wenguang noted that science fiction, as a distinct literary movement, had some appeal to the China’s political parties: “The realism of science fiction is different from the realism of other genres; it is a realism infused with revolutionary idealism because its intended reader is the youth.” In some ways, genre fiction functioned in two roles: continuing the idea of national self-improvement, while also instilling a political and patriotic narrative within China’s youth.

The emphasis on literature that directly supported a social and political movement persisted in China, and, as a result,  dramatically affected the tone and style of all science fiction published during this time. According to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, genre arts survived by navigating “a path through this Orwellian minefield by embracing its role as a didactic medium for children. As a result, almost all Chinese sf stories from 1949 until the 1980s were Technothrillers and Edisonades for juvenile readers.” Furthermore, the Encyclopedia noted that science fiction was primarily written with the following elements: a setting in the near future, with patriotic scientists solving problems bolstered by their faith in the system, and story lines that were primarily designed to fill some sort of educational role.

“Science literature” was encouraged to help promote a socialistic utopian future, and scholar Mingwei Song noted that Chinese science fiction tended to promote utopianism and technological optimism: “It can be said that from its inception in the late Qing period, Chinese science fiction ‘was instituted mainly as a utopian narrative that projected the political desire for China’s reform into an idealized, technologically more advanced world…While science fiction suffered long periods of inactivity in  twentieth century China, the sweeping utopianism remained a guiding force in revivals of the genre after the late Qing.” (China Perspectives, After 1989: The New Wave of Chinese Science Fiction.) This fits hand-in-hand with the genre’s origins as a literature of self-improvement, one that pointed China towards a brighter, better and stronger future.

The original value of the genre had persisted: a style of fiction with an intrinsic purpose beyond mere entertainment: it remained a genre in which China would imagine better and brighter futures for itself.

The Cultural Revolution – 1966-1976

In May 1966, Mao Zedong urged his supporters, through a series of letters and rallies, to oust anyone opposed to the country’s political direction. Over the course of the summer, counter-revolutionary feelings grew to a fever pitch, leading to the rise of a student paramilitary group known as the Red Guard, which sought to push against ‘intellectual’ and ‘bourgeois’ factions within Chinese society. Supported by Mao, the movement gained steam and began to attack elements and individuals deemed to be working against Mao.

During the Cultural Revolution, intellectuals and artists were attacked and killed; books were burned and historic sites were destroyed; dissidents were sent to ‘reeducation’ camps. Ultimately, Mao was able to consolidate his power.

The Cultural Revolution marked a sudden stop for science fiction in China. Publication of science fiction ground to a halt. Han Song wrote in Science Fiction Studies, “writers were silenced because the genre was regarded as something from corrupt Western culture that could lead people astray.”   Lao She, the author of Cat Country, was but one example of authors targeted for their works: his critical look at China’s direction in his novel didn’t go unnoticed.  In 1966, during the height of the Cultural Revolution, he was singled out and attacked by a mob on August 23. Distraught and humiliated, he drowned himself in Taiping Lake in Beijing.

Zheng Wenguang was another silenced author. He would later resume writing in 1976 as the Cultural Revolution ended, and in 1979 published a novel, Fly to Centaurus.  His work changed in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, with “his generation [adding] some dystopian reflections on Chinese politics into the genre, but their experiment was quickly silenced by the government campaign against ‘spiritual pollution’ in the mid-1980s”, noted by scholar Mingwei Song. (China Perspectives). Zheng’s public career  ended in the 1980s after a stroke left him paralyzed, and he  passed away in 2003.

Rebirth

In 1976, Mao Zedong died, and the Cultural Revolution largely ended. With its end came a reopening of society: Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, enacted a number of economic reforms and eased governmental controls over the lives of individuals. The lifting of governmental controls on society had a profound and game-changing impact on the lives of Chinese citizens. Major changes in international relations, governance and the arts were felt across the entirety of society.

The end of the Cultural Revolution also brought a rebirth of science fiction. One immediate result was the formation of a dedicated genre magazine, Kexue Wenyi (Science Literature and Art), which began publishing in 1979. The magazine was a state-supported publication until 1984, when it went independent after losing its government funding. The magazine relaunched with Yang Xiao as editor, becoming “the nexus of a group of interrelated ventures in book publishing and translation. In 1989 the magazine was renamed Qitan (Amazing Stories) , and in 1991 renamed again, as Kehuan Shijie (Science Fiction World) . The magazine did exceptionally well in the 1990s, with circulation peaking at 400,000 subscribers before dropping off to roughly a quarter of that at the present day. When compared against circulation figures from US genre publications, Science Fiction World is one of the most widely read SF publications on the planet.

Mingwei Song points to 1989 as a point in which science fiction began to blossom full-force in China; in that year “a new paradigm of science fictional imagination began to complicate, if not deny or be ashamed of, the utopianism that had dominated Chinese politics and intellectual culture for more than a century.” (China Perspectives).  Song points to Cixin Liu’s first novel China 2185 (which has been posted on the internet, but not formally published in print), in which a student scans Mao’s brain and resurrects him in a virtual environment.

Song identifies the explosion of new authors as China’s New Wave of science fiction: a new generation of authors born during or shortly after the Cultural Revolution. These include Hang Song, Zhao Haihong, Chen Qiufan, Fei Dao, and Xia Jia. Coming of age in a time after the harsh years of the Cultural Revolution, these authors have enjoyed a considerably more open environment in which to imagine China’s futures, and aren’t as bound by the genre’s earlier tendencies to act as a guidebook for the country’s future.

This sea-change in attitudes is a significant one: when authors don’t feel compelled to follow ideological tendencies, a significantly wider pool of stories open up from which to draw. The result has been an explosion in the diversity and the volume of science fiction stories being written.

Wang Jinkang began publishing stories in 1992 after making up and telling stories to his ten-year-old son. Putting the stories to paper after discovering Science Fiction World, he quickly began to sell story after story to the publication. A retired engineer, Wang focuses extensively on what’s realistic: “He doesn’t describe an imagined technology unless there is logic behind it.” Since his first story, he’s written dozens of others, becoming one of the country’s most popular authors.

Another author is Han Song, another of the country’s leading authors. An editor at Xinhua News Agency, Han published throughout the early 1990s, and released his first short story collection, Gravestone of the Universe in 1998. He noted that he observed that while China has a relatively small fan population, the genre is important because “young people who read science-fiction need temporary escapism. The goods and daily life cannot satisfy their psychological needs, so they run away from the real world. For me, it is both escapism and social commentary.”

He also noted that living in China now means that one is living in a science fictional world, and his stories are accordingly commentary on the world he observes around him. There’s a certain level of cultural anxiety, and he noted that the western ideals that China has adopted over the 20th Century are alien to the culture at large: “”Science, technology and modernization are not inherent in Chinese culture. They are like alien entities. If we buy into them, we turn ourselves into monsters, and that’s the only way we can get along with Western notions of progress.”

An inherently science fictional condition is coping with the tension between world views, and that tension is one that genre fiction is ripe to exploit.

Chinese science fiction today

Ken Liu and Xia Jia each noted that they’ve heard or been asked a similar question a number of times: how is Chinese science fiction different from ‘regular’ (read: American) science fiction? The answer, they note, is complicated:

“I usually disappoint them by replying that the question is ill defined and there isn’t a neat sound bite for an answer.” Liu wrote. “Any broad literary classification tied to a culture—especially a culture as in flux and contested as China’s—encompasses all the complexities and contradictions in that culture. Attempts to provide neat answers will only result in broad generalizations that are of little value or stereotypes that reaffirm existing prejudices.”

Jia affirmed with her own answer: “It is true, however, that for the last century or so, ‘Chinese science fiction’ has occupied a rather unique place in the culture and literature of modern China.”

It’s not that there aren’t differences in the science fiction that’s been produced – reviewers have compared Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem to the works of that of Arthur C. Clarke – it’s that Chinese SF has developed along very different ways that that of its Western counterparts, much as China has undergone tremendous changes in the last century.

In the past decade, China has advanced rapidly in developing its spaceflight capabilities, putting its first astronaut, Yang Liwei, into space in 2003, and landing its first probe, Jade Rabbit on the moon, in 2013. The country has also begun to lay down the steps for the Tiangong Space Station, with a module, Taigong 1 launched in 2011, with another laboratory set to launch in 2016. The country also aims to reach the moon and beyond. All of these programs are feasible due to the country’s economic and technological growth.

In this environment, Cixin Liu found his greatest success with his Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy. He published the first novel Three-Body as a serial in Science Fiction World and subsequently republished the story in book form in 2008. In 2008, he published a sequel, The Dark Forest, and in 2010, completed the trilogy with Death’s End.  Since their publication, Liu has sold half a million copies of each novel, making him one of the country’s foremost popular science fiction authors.

This is a far cry from the state of science fiction publishing in China just years earlier. Speaking to The New York Times, Liu indicated that due to the economic successes China’s had, science fiction has come along with it: “China is on the path of rapid modernization and progress, kind of like the U.S. during the golden age of science fiction in the ’30s to the ’60s. The future in the people’s eyes is full of attractions, temptations and hope. But at the same time, it is also full of threats and challenges. That makes for very fertile soil.”

It’s difficult to fully comprehend the scale impact that the trilogy has had on Chinese readers. Cixin Liu observed that the novel has captured the attention of an enormous segment of China’s reading public. Far from youths and college students consuming the books, the books have captivated professionals and scientists alike, who have in turn created social media parodies, fake trailers and have otherwise turned awareness of the book into a popular meme that’s widely understood.

In an interview with Locus Magazine, Ken Liu tried to convey the popularity of the novels and the impact of the first novel’s Hugo and Nebula nominations on the general readership in China: ‘‘One of the things that surprised a lot of American readers is the fact that The Three-Body Problem being translated into English and then nominated for a Nebula Award was such a huge deal in China. It’s inconceivable for readers here. Some reporters asked me, ‘Why are Chinese readers so excited about the Nebula Award? American fans wouldn’t be so excited if one of their books was translated into Chinese and won some award.’ I said, ‘You wouldn’t care. You’re coming from the modern Rome, the core of world culture, whereas China is at the periphery. For Chinese fans, something they love in their language is being recognized by readers in America, who are perceived as the prestige readers.’ One of the aspects of being from a prestigious culture is that you don’t necessarily perceive yourself as having power.”

Not all of China’s science fiction derives from technological advances and technological optimism, however. One notable example is Chan Koonchun’s novel The Fat Years, in which February 2011 ceases to exist for the country: people can’t remember what happened, and all official records are non-existent. Writing for the LA Times, Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore noted that “insecurity over China’s meteoric economic growth coupled with an authoritarian leadership has produced ripe pickings for the genre’s top writers.” Koonchung’s novel, a heavily political critique of the country’s leadership, has since been banned from publication within China, and was translated into English in 2011.

The dramatic rise of China throughout the 1990s and 2000s has prompted responses in science fiction literature outside of the country. One example comes from Ghost Fleet, by P.W. Singer and August Cole. The pair are international relations experts who work for two US think tanks. China’s rise in international politics serves as the the background for their novel, which followed how a 21st century World War might play out between Russia, China and the United States.

In this novel, Singer and Cole look to current military and political trends on the world stage, and see an  China asserting its increasingly aggressive dominance in the Pan-Pacific Region that puts it onto a collision course with the United States. This isn’t too different from another genre trope, the Invasion Novel, which counts books like The Invasion of Dorking and The War of the Worlds as members.

Additionally, as China’s science fiction community has grown at home, a comparable amount of interest has been directed at the works of Chinese-American authors who have their own notable careers in the United States.

One notable example is Ken Liu. (Disclaimer: I’ve interviewed and spoken with Ken about this article, and have published his fiction in my anthology War Stories: New Military Science Fiction). Liu, who was born in Lanzhou, China at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, grew up in the United States and began publishing science fiction and fantasy stories in 2002.

In 2012, Liu earned the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards for his short story ‘The Paper Menagerie’, originally published in The Magazine Of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 2011 (since republished at io9, which put him on the map as a writer to watch). Since the start of his career, he’s published hundreds of short stories in a variety of publications, including Clarkesworld Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Asimov’s, and Analog, among others.

In 2014, Tor Books decided to bring Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem to the United States with an English language translation: Ken Liu was brought on to translate the first volume. On io9, Liu noted that translation goes beyond simple word replacement: translators must find ways to interpret an entire culture in another language:

“Modern translation scholars are increasingly shifting their attention from the mechanical aspects of linguistic manipulation to deeper analysis of translation as cultural performance. When the cultures being mediated by the translator are very distant from each other, the translator must take audacious, bold steps to bridge the gap.”

This had long been done with the translated Chinese science fiction that had been published throughout China, but it hadn’t been done often going in the other direction. If done properly, a translation does more than provide a foreign-language reader with a new story: it introduces them to the culture of a foreign land.

Tor’s efforts paid off: The book was met with immediate success in the United States, where it earned praise from genre and national publications such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and National Public Radio. In 2015, it was honored with the Nebula Award for Best Novel, and later, with the Hugo Award for the same. It was the first time an Asian author had won the award. Later books in the series have also been brought over: The Dark Forest was translated by Joel Martinsen, while Ken Liu’s translation of Death’s End is due out in 2016.

The release of The Three-Body Problem, and the next installment of the trilogy, The Dark Forest, help provide Western audiences a glimpse into a science fiction tradition that, up until now, hasn’t really made its way into US sf genre communities.

Liu isn’t alone, and several science fiction publications have begun to make a concerted effort to translate the works of other authors from China: publications such as Clarkesworld Magazine and Lightspeed Magazine have each published their share of translated fiction, often, with Liu as the translator. Indeed, Liu noted in an article for Clarkesworld that increasingly, Chinese science fiction is making its way to mainstream US fandom:

“This situation is now being remedied to some degree. In recent years, Anglophone science fiction markets such as Apex, Clarkesworld, F&SF, Interzone, Lightspeed, and others have all published works translated from Chinese. In addition, academic journals such as Renditions and China-based English literary journals like Pathlight have also been publishing some excellent genre translations, though my impression is that few genre readers in the West are aware of them or have sought them out.”

In 2015, Liu published his own novel, The Grace of Kings, the first installment of an epic fantasy (or as he prefers, Silkpunk) trilogy called the Dandelion Dynasty. The novel is Liu’s own re-imagination of epic Chinese literature in a fantasy-like world incorporating stories from China’s history and tales.

The future

So, what does the future hold for the state of Chinese science fiction? The answer lies in the state of China today: a country that has been catching up with an incredibly rapid technological and economic modernization on the world stage.

Consider the Planet Money podcast run by National Public Radio: towards the end of Episode #649: China, China, China, host Jacob Goldstein noted that this could be seen pretty clearly one town and in one family:

Goldstein: All in Ted’s hometown, a place where, when he was growing up, there were no stop lights, a place where the house that he and his sister grew up in had no running water. They had to go to the well to get water.

Kestenbaum: In just one generation, there’s been this astounding change in China. Now, there are lots of people in his hometown who live like the global middle class. You know, and they go out for fancy coffee. They buy cell phones. They take vacations. They go to the movies.

This type of explosive growth has catapulted the country in line with the rest of the world. This type of economic change can easily be viewed as the future coming to its population. Think of the changes: where before people had little to no access to running water, they now have the ability to carry around a personal computer that can connect them to the rest of the world.

In many ways, Science Fiction is a medium that  allows people to make sense of the changes happening around them: the rapid and world-changing events of the Victorian era helped to invent the genre in the first place, and Chinese intellectuals recognized the ability of such literature to help spur a mindset for change in at the end of the Qing dynasty.

With a population rapidly catapulted into the middle class, China is ripe for a similar rise in science fiction stories that grapple with the modern existence in the country. This is a population with a newfound ability to spend on entertainment such as books in ways that simply didn’t exist years ago. Moreover, this infrastructure is new: where science fiction culture in the United States grew between the 1920s and the 1970s along with changes in the genre’s mediums, Chinese SF has the technological advantage and infrastructure to be distributed far more quickly than its US counterparts, which will continue to lead to a very different culture within the genre. Now, the ability to become a successful author is far more open: authors can serialize their stories online and publish their work far more freely than before.

This is giving rise to a new generation of authors, such as Chang Jia, Xia Jia and Chen Qiufan, among many, many others. These authors have an audience larger than any before, with few of the restrictions placed on their predecessors. Moreover, they increasingly have access to the world’s stage, and can reach audiences on a scale never seen before.

Moreover, as cross-cultural exchanges continue, either through translated editions of Chinese or English works of science fiction, or simply through expanded access, ‘traditional’ science fiction will have to come to terms with the very different types of stories that Chinese authors will be telling. Theirs will not be stories of space ships with Chinese names attached to the characters: these new stories will be written through a very different cultural lens, and will push the larger body of literature into a more diverse collection of ideas, political viewpoints and values. Nor is this limited to just China: science fiction is rapidly internationalizing, and it has begun to tell a new set of grand stories in a rapidly changing tradition of literature: the modern, technological 20th/21st Century experience.

The future is very bright indeed, and science fiction literature will be made all the better for the infusion of the works of China’s science fiction authors. Cixin Liu’s Hugo Award is just the first.

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