“A Form of Prophecy for the Near Future”: Chinese Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century and Beyond

Found in Translation

By Jing Jiang

Jing Jiang is Associate Professor of Chinese and Humanities at Reed College and author of Found in Translation: “New People” in Twentieth-Century Chinese Science Fiction, the latest Asia Shorts title released by AAS Publications.

Chinese science fiction (SF) has flourished in the last ten years. Writers who had been toiling quietly in this genre for decades have not only managed to break out and draw the attention of literary scholars and critics, but also gain a global audience through translation and garner a number of top international literary prizes. Liu Cixin, author of The Three-Body Problem trilogy, is perhaps the best known example, with fans including former President Barack Obama and a planned Netflix adaptation of his work.

Literary critics and scholars are now calling this period the “New Wave,” or the “Third Boom” of Chinese science fiction, with the first boom back in the late Qing/early Republican period at the turn of the twentieth century and the second following at the beginning of the reform era in the late 1970s. A recent workshop, jointly sponsored by Harvard University and Wellesley College, that brought together prominent SF authors writing in the Chinese language (from both the mainland and Taiwan) and literary scholars and translators, offers yet another testament to the genre’s growing popularity and prominence in Chinese literary studies.

Participants in the workshop discussed the recent success of Chinese SF, which has given rise to new momentums and ambitions, captured in the slogan, “new SF comes out of the East.” Acutely aware of the liminality of the present moment, when China’s leaders claim to be moving away from the so-called “New Era” to a “New Stage of Comprehensive Modernization,” writers ask what role science fiction can play during a time of unprecedented and accelerating change in all aspects of Chinese society and life. Discussions among the panelists emphasized the value of SF as a cognitive tool that explores questions of universal and increasing importance for us today, such as the porous boundary between humans, posthumans, and machines; sociopolitical reality, virtual reality, and dream state; technology, control, and matters of the human heart and soul. They also addressed the features and functions of the genre in a specifically Chinese context: SF as a form of historical thinking, a form of realist writing, a narrative vernacular that can assist with the construction of either a modern Chinese myth, or a conceptual bridge back to traditional Chinese thinking. Also discussed at length was a thematic resonance (on cannibalism) that is palpably detected between works of contemporary Chinese SF writers (such as Han Song) and the works of China’s most canonical modern writer, Lu Xun.

While SF works currently coming out of China are much different from those of the past in form, many of the themes that concern contemporary Chinese SF writers echo those of their twentieth-century predecessors. In my Asia Shorts volume Found in Translation, I explore the prehistory of these themes and analyze the concerns that contemporary Chinese SF writers continue to grapple with today.

Science fiction first entered China at the dawn of the twentieth century—a moment of mounting crises, numerous failed reforms, intellectual fermentation and agitations for change, and the simultaneous presence of a sense of radically new possibilities with a sense of radical uncertainty. The crumbling of the Qing empire also brought about a fundamental epistemological crisis, with the ensuing vacuum soon to be filled by modern science. Literature, particularly fiction, became a last hope for those who were looking for ways to effect broad societal changes necessary for the survival of the nation. The development of two parallel discourses (science and the nation; fiction and the nation) thus accounted for the meteoric rise of science fiction in fin-de-siècle China in terms of both popularity and prestige. Because science fiction was born in China out of the confluence of these two discourses at that particularly fraught juncture in recent history, it inevitably took on a certain set of features: its covert preoccupation with the present reality and a desire to usher in a different future through the means of technology; its obsessive concern with the fate and fortunes of the Chinese nation; and its creative exploration of what it means to be modern, human, and enlightened.

As the title of my book suggests, it is the imagination of “new people” that constitutes the focus of my own inquiry and contribution to this ongoing discussion. Furthermore, I argue that imaginations about the modern “new people” were not only mediated by science fiction, but also by world literature that made its way into the Chinese cultural scene contemporaneously through translation. In that sense I am also making a methodological intervention: Chinese SF certainly needs to be studied for its nationalistic motifs and within its own historical context, but it also needs to be studied beyond an inward-looking, China-centric interpretive framework to bring into view how ideas about the modern nation and people were almost always born out of a dialogue, a process of active and creative engagement with the outside worlds and texts.

The imprint of such engagement on Chinese SF is unmistakable and ubiquitous. For instance, Lu Xun’s early dabbling in the translation and promotion of the genre at the beginning of his literary career followed a distinctly transnational and translingual trajectory. In 1905, he published “The Art of Creating Humanity,” a translation of an abridged Japanese translation of an American short story. Lu Xun’s translation in turn inspired a fellow Chinese writer to not only retranslate the story, but also return to the topic again years later by translating yet another story that goes further with the original theme.

Through producing the sense and state of being modern, science fiction was a prominent arm of new literature that took nation-building to be its own mission at the turn of the twentieth century. By that point, science not only stood for a new form/system of knowledge, it also began to epitomize a modern and enlightened way of understanding and being in a world that old Chinese learnings could no longer make sense of. Science fiction thus established itself as a unique literary form with transformative cognitive powers, distinguished from all older forms of literary production.

This emphasis on the cognitive powers of science fiction dovetails well with the philosophical, moral, and aesthetic claims of realism that have come to define much of modern Chinese literature. One thing we repeatedly hear from Chinese SF writers, including those present at the recent Harvard-Wellesley workshop, is that science fiction, whether as metaphor or mirror, ultimately depicts reality. It is thus a form of realist literature, despite the dominant element of fantasy in the makeup of the genre. I too look into this connection in my work, focusing in particular on a notion of science fiction as a form of prophecy for the near future. Through reading side by side an American novel on human cloning in the late 1970s translated into Chinese, and the few Chinese sequels it inspired, I explore the stylistic appeal of investigative journalism for Chinese SF writers, and their redoubled effort to produce rigorously scientific fiction in the hope of redeeming realism from its revolutionary pitfalls and restoring it to its true spirit. The second boom of Chinese science fiction at the beginning of the reform era thus rose and fell with the initial success and subsequent failure of science fiction to realign itself with realism.

Science fiction in China has a rich history prior to its spectacular florescence in the present time. That history deserves our attention because of its serious engagement with contemporary issues, ranging from cultural self-criticism, nationalism, humanism, and realism to environmentalism. In a century when the shadow of the nation loomed large, SF was also remarkable for transcending the national framework in its readiness to tap into the rich strata of global science or world literature while grappling with specifically national questions. In our present world, torn by the tension between globalization on the one hand and the resurgence of nationalism on the other, Chinese science fiction of the twentieth century provides us with interesting food for thought.