Rapid rise of China’s sci­ence fic­tion re­flects the dy­namism of its cul­ture and econ­omy

China Daily European Weekly - - Front Page - By DAVID BLAIR david­blair@chi­

“Sci­ence fic­tion has grad­u­ally be­come a real soft power of China.” HAN SONG prom­i­nent Chi­nese sci­ence fic­tion writer and also a se­nior ex­ec­u­tive at Xin­hua News Agency

As re­cently as 2012, sci­ence fic­tion was a small mar­ket in China. The mar­ket was so poor that writ­ers Liu Cixin and Han Song de­cided to do­nate 10,000 yuan ($1,516; 1,285 eu­ros; £1,130) each of their own money just to al­low the Chi­nese Ne­bula Awards to hold its an­nual prize pre­sen­ta­tion.

But Chi­nese sci­ence fic­tion is hot now. Liu Cixin won the in­ter­na­tional Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015 for The Three-Body Prob­lem.

Ma­jor movies are in pro­duc­tion, based on the tril­ogy of which the book is a part. In ad­di­tion, Hao Jing­fang won the Hugo for Best Nov­el­ette for her story Fold­ing Bei­jing in 2016, and a movie based on it is also planned. And multi­bil­lion-yuan in­vest­ments in China are cre­at­ing sci­ence fic­tion parks and fa­cil­i­ties for pro­duc­ing films, videos and games.

This month, the 800-hectare, 10 bil­lion yuan Ori­en­tal Sci-Fi Val­ley theme park will open in Guiyang, in South­west China’s Guizhou prov­ince. Em­pha­siz­ing vir­tual re­al­ity, it will tie in with Guiyang’s large big data in­dus­try.

Also, in Novem­ber, the Sichuan As­so­ci­a­tion for Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy an­nounced plans to build, in the city of Chengdu, a 12 bil­lion yuan China Sci­ence Fic­tion City, which will de­velop and show off the role of sci-fi in China’s cul­tural in­dus­try.

Why is Chi­nese sci­ence fic­tion surg­ing now, and what does it tell us about China’s econ­omy and cul­ture?

To ex­plore the cul­tural and philo­soph­i­cal in­flu­ence of sci­ence fic­tion in China, China Daily spoke with seven writ­ers or ex­perts in the field: Han Song, Hao Jing­fang, Liu Cixin and Xia Jia are well-known sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers. Wu Yan and Nathaniel Isaac­son are univer­sity pro­fes­sors who spe­cial­ize in sci­ence fic­tion. And Ji Shaot­ing is an en­tre­pre­neur who has started a com­pany to de­velop and pro­mote China’s sci­ence fic­tion.

China’s place in the world

In her es­say “What makes Chi­nese sci­ence fic­tion Chi­nese?” Xia Jia, sci­ence fic­tion writer and as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture at Xi’an Jiao­tong Univer­sity, writes that “the crises of cap­i­tal­ist cul­ture ac­com­pa­nied by the process of glob­al­iza­tion are man­i­fested in the daily lives of Chi­nese peo­ple.”

In an in­ter­view, she says: “The past 30 years were a great trans­for­ma­tion in so­ci­ety and cul­ture and eco­nom­ics — every as­pect of China. Many dif­fer­ent as­pects of this trans­for­ma­tion are re­flected in sci­ence fic­tion sto­ries. For ex­am­ple, in these sto­ries you can see that Chi­nese peo­ple have much anx­i­ety about the ten­sion be­tween the tra­di­tional China and the dream to be part of the mod­ern world. You can feel there is an anx­i­ety about the des­tiny of hu­man be­ings, but also you can say this anx­i­ety is Chi­nese peo­ple’s anx­i­ety about their fu­ture. How can they sur­vive in this cruel com­pe­ti­tion?

“You can see such anx­i­eties in, for ex­am­ple, Liu Cixin’s works and other short sto­ries. Some peo­ple ex­plain the main com­pe­ti­tion be­tween hu­man be­ings and Liu Cixin’s aliens as like an­other ver­sion of com­pe­ti­tion be­tween big na­tions. It’s a feel­ing of a cri­sis dur­ing the process of glob­al­iza­tion,” Xia says.

How­ever, Liu Cixin him­self says his story part of the

tril­ogy, is not meant to re­flect com­pe­ti­tion on Earth.

“The re­la­tion­ship be­tween dif­fer­ent groups of hu­man be­ings on Earth is very dif­fer­ent from that be­tween mankind and crea­tures from other plan­ets. ... We are the same species on Earth and are more likely to un­der­stand each other. Civ­i­liza­tions are not iso­lated from each other. They can ex­change and dis­cuss many things that they do not un­der­stand. This op­por­tu­nity does not ex­ist be­tween in­ter­stel­lar civ­i­liza­tions.”

Han Song, a prom­i­nent sci­ence fic­tion writer and also a se­nior ex­ec­u­tive at Xin­hua News Agency, says: “From the very be­gin­ning, when sci­ence fic­tion was in­tro­duced into China, it served as a mir­ror of Chi­nese so­ci­ety and the process of China’s mod­ern­iza­tion. China has a very long civ­i­liza­tion, and sci­ence fic­tion first played a role in the re­ju­ve­na­tion of that civ­i­liza­tion in the first part of the 20th cen­tury. For ex­am­ple, a lot of sci­ence fic­tion at the very be­gin­ning just imag­ined how China be­came a very, very strong coun­try.”

Nathaniel Isaac­son, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of mod­ern Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture and cul­tural stud­ies at North Carolina State Univer­sity, points out that Chi­nese sci­ence fic­tion first arose in the early years of the 20th cen­tury, at a time when the Qing Dy­nasty (1644- 1911) was col­laps­ing, Euro­pean coun­tries had again in­vaded Bei­jing to end the Boxer Re­bel­lion, and many coastal ar­eas were un­der Euro­pean con­trol. Early Chi­nese sci­ence fic­tion of­ten ex­plored the place of China in the world and looked at ways China could over­come Euro­pean colo­nial­ism.

“Fairly of­ten, what they imag­ined was a fu­ture where China is po­lit­i­cally, eco­nom­i­cally and cul­tur­ally dom­i­nant,” says Isaac­son. “For ex­am­ple, the short story New Story of the Stone (writ­ten by Wu Jian­ren in the early 1900s) imag­ined a world where Shang­hai had be­come a world cen­ter of trade and com­merce and hosted a world expo and global po­lit­i­cal sum­mits. But the nar­ra­tive falls apart. At that time, peo­ple could not imag­ine such things com­ing to pass. But they did hap­pen in the early 21st cen­tury,” Isaac­son says. Writer Han Song says, “Sci­ence fic­tion has grad­u­ally be­come a real soft power of China. It even in­flu­enced (for­mer US pres­i­dent) Barack Obama — we could not have imag­ined that. Its real power is be­cause it touches some real prob­lems — philo­soph­i­cal and spir­i­tual things. That is soft power.” In ad­di­tion, Han says, “Ev­ery­body can see it has be­come more and more pop­u­lar. The pop­u­lar­ity of sci­ence fic­tion ac­com­pa­nies the rise of a coun­try. If the coun­try con­tin­ues to rise, this genre will be­come more pop­u­lar. “When the United States be­came a world power, sci­ence fic­tion be­came pop­u­lar. Be­fore that, the United King­dom dom­i­nated the whole world. That was a golden time for Bri­tish sci­ence fic­tion. When the Sovi­ets be­came a power con­fronting the US, that was a golden time for Soviet sci­ence fic­tion. “Even Ja­pan in the 1970s had a lot of very good sci­ence fic­tion at that time. China is now at that junc­tion, maybe.” How­ever, Chi­nese sci­ence fic­tion’s fo­cus on Chi­nese cul­ture and the fu­ture of the na­tion does not im­ply that it is jin­go­is­ti­cally na­tion­al­ist. Ac­cord­ing to Wu Yan, pro­fes­sor of hu­man­i­ties at South­ern Univer­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy in Shen­zhen, Guang­dong prov­ince, “Liu Cixin’s idea is very, very Chi­nese. In the fu­ture, prob­lems are solved. The Earth will be united as one. It is a kind of an­cient Chi­nese think­ing about ‘un­der Heaven.’ It’s like the Chi­nese view of the world in im­pe­rial times that de­rives from Con­fu­cian­ism. Con­fu­cius has four stages of de­vel­op­ment — cul­ti­vate your­self, man­age your fam­ily, ad­min­is­ter your coun­try, make all un­der Heaven united.” Wu notes that sci-fi is used to pro­mote both sci­ence and cul­tural in­dus­tries. “In the new cen­tury, the coun­try be­gan to think about chang­ing China into a cre­ative coun­try. They want to en­rich the cre­ative in­dus­try. They want to en­rich a new kind of sci­ence. We want to com­pete with the United States of Amer­ica by mak­ing sci­ence more ad­vanced. The gov­ern­ment is think­ing about that. They think sci­ence fic­tion loves and un­der­stands sci­ence and also makes the Chi­nese cre­ative in­dus­try grow.”

Change in cul­ture

Han Song says sci­ence fic­tion is now leav­ing its roots as a way to pop­u­lar­ize sci­ence and gives deep in­sights into China’s cul­ture and cur­rent life. “Al­though sci­ence fic­tion has a his­tory of over 100 years in China, over the past 20 years it has grad­u­ally be­come a new way to ex­press some ideas or thoughts about what is hap­pen­ing in Chi­nese so­ci­ety, not only about the

uni­verse or tech­nol­ogy. It deals with what the change in Chi­nese cul­ture is about.

“The ear­lier con­cep­tion was that sci­ence fic­tion was a tool for spread­ing sci­en­tific knowl­edge and spread­ing in­no­va­tion. Sci­ence fic­tion is a pop­u­lar lit­er­a­ture, but now it is be­come more and more a se­ri­ous lit­er­a­ture in China, touch­ing on some quite sen­si­tive is­sues in so­ci­ety. It has been turned into a com­pletely new genre,” he says.

Sim­i­larly, Wu Yan sees sci­ence fic­tion as a way to ex­plore phi­los­o­phy: “Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey,

Ren­dezvous with Rama and The Foun­tains of Par­adise had been trans­lated. We were very shocked that it is not only talk­ing about sci­ence. Be­fore, we were think­ing sci­ence fic­tion talked about sci­ence, but we found it is not only sci­ence, but also phi­los­o­phy and re­li­gion. All of this came as a shock. My gen­er­a­tion born in the 1960s paid very, very great re­spect to Arthur C. Clarke.”

Three women in the field es­pe­cially fo­cus on how or­di­nary peo­ple’s lives are chang­ing in China.

Xia Jia says, “Many sci­ence fic­tion works fo­cus on in­ter­plan­e­tary re­la­tions and the sci­ence of the dis­tant fu­ture, but my works look at or­di­nary peo­ple’s lives. What I’m try­ing to do is to imag­ine the near fu­ture of or­di­nary Chi­nese peo­ple’s lives, which is also a way to re­flect how we feel about the cur­rent time. So you can see that some of my sto­ries hap­pen in a Chi­nese core fam­ily with the par­ents, child, old peo­ple. Their re­la­tion­ships are changed by the tech­no­log­i­cal revo­lu­tion. I also want to ex­plore the pos­i­tive side of this change, not just the dark side. For ex­am­ple, I want to try to ex­plore how or­di­nary peo­ple can use these tech­nolo­gies to re­build their re­la­tion­ships, to keep their tra­di­tional feel­ings and val­ues dur­ing this process.”

Hao Jing­fang, who re­ceived a PhD in eco­nom­ics from Ts­inghua Univer­sity and is now deputy di­rec­tor of a macro­eco­nomics re­search de­part­ment at the China De­vel­op­ment Re­search Foun­da­tion, won a 2016 Hugo Award for her nov­el­ette Fold­ing

Bei­jing, which deals with the in­equal­ity that has de­vel­oped dur­ing rapid growth.

“I my­self am in­ter­ested in peo­ple’s hearts, what peo­ple are think­ing about. What are the dif­fer­ences be­tween peo­ple in ev­ery­day life. I re­ally like to study these kinds of de­tails of peo­ple. So I al­ways write some sce­nar­ios not re­ally far away from life. Per­haps in the fu­ture, I will try to write about some far away univer­sal em­pire or some­thing like that,” Hao says.

Ji Shaot­ing, founder and CEO of the Bei­jing-based com­pany Fu­ture Af­fairs Ad­min­is­tra­tion, says the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion of rapid change has cre­ated China’s new sci­ence fic­tion.

“The back­ground of the golden age of sci­ence fic­tion in Amer­ica was the fast-de­vel­op­ing sci­ence. So, right now in China, sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy is de­vel­op­ing so fast that it changes peo­ple’s lives every day. You can pay by your phone, you don’t need money at all. And, you can ride bi­cy­cles ev­ery­where and you can call peo­ple to fetch your food,” Ji says.

“Peo­ple can feel that our coun­try is launch­ing into the stars and they fo­cus on that. Now China is de­vel­op­ing so fast that we can ac­tu­ally feel the im­pact of sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy. Sci­ence fic­tion is about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween peo­ple and sci­ence. Right now, if sci­ence fic­tion is de­vel­op­ing fast, that means peo­ple are think­ing about that,” Ji says.

“I al­ways tell my col­leagues and in­vestors, and also sci­ence fic­tion fans, that if the golden age can come back, it will prob­a­bly be in China,” she says.


Fold­ing Bei­jing.

Hao Jing­fang, sci­ence fic­tion writer, won the Hugo for Best Nov­el­ette for her story

Xia Jia, sci­ence fic­tion writer, says her works look at or­di­nary peo­ple’s lives.

Liu Cixin, sci­ence fic­tion writer, au­thor of the

Three-Body tril­ogy. Han Song, sci­ence fic­tion writer and also a se­nior ex­ec­u­tive at Xin­hua News Agency


The Ori­en­tal Sci-Fi Val­ley theme park will open in Guiyang, South­west China’s Guizhou prov­ince this month.

“Be­fore, we were think­ing sci­ence fic­tion talked about sci­ence, but we found it is not only sci­ence, but also phi­los­o­phy and re­li­gion.” WU YAN pro­fes­sor of hu­man­i­ties and di­rec­tor of the new Re­search Cen­ter for Sci­ence and Hu­man Imag­i­na­tion, South­ern Univer­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy

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