Brave New World of Chi­nese Sci-fi

Chi­nese-amer­i­can au­thor and trans­la­tor Ken Liu has been help­ing in­tro­duce China’s science fic­tion to the world.

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Gong Haiy­ing

In Fe­bru­ary 2018, the Chi­nese ver­sion of The Dan­de­lion Dy­nasty , the first English novel by Chi­nese-amer­i­can writer Ken Liu, was pub­lished. This tra­di­tional West­ern fan­tasy epic has “re-imag­ined” the emer­gence of China’s Han Dy­nasty (202-220 A.D.). It com­bines the sci­en­tific spirit of the West with classical aes­thet­ics of the East. The core of the story and its nar­ra­tive is a mix of West­ern and East­ern el­e­ments, just like Liu him­self, who grew up in a cul­tur­ally di­verse at­mos­phere.

Liu trans­lated Chi­nese sci-fi works The Three-body Prob­lem and Fold­ing Bei­jing into English. The “nearly per­fect” trans­la­tion (ac­cord­ing to au­thor Liu Cixin) helped The Three-body Prob­lem be­come widely known in West­ern coun­tries. The novel is now hailed as a “trea­sure of global science fic­tion.” China’s science fic­tion is now world-fa­mous. Mean­while, its trans­la­tor Ken Liu has emerged as an ex­cel­lent science fic­tion writer. Since he be­gan to pub­lish in 2002, he has been hon­ored by many ma­jor in­ter­na­tional awards for science fic­tion such as the Hugo Awards, the Ne­bula Awards and the World Fan­tasy Awards.

The Print of Ori­en­tal Cul­ture

Born in the 1970s in Lanzhou, Ken Liu moved to the United States with his par­ents when he was 11 years old. He stud­ied Bri­tish lit­er­a­ture and law at Har­vard. De­spite his Asian roots, Liu man­aged to re­ceive the ed­u­ca­tion of a West­ern elite. He writes in na­tive English but is heav­ily in­flu­enced by East­ern cul­ture. Liu Cixin once re­marked that Ken Liu’s works have man­aged to “com­bine sci­en­tific imag­i­na­tion and tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture in a del­i­cate and pro­found man­ner.”

In The Dan­de­lion Dy­nasty , Ken Liu mixed East­ern el­e­ments such as an­cient Chi­nese le­gends, his­tory, mil­i­tary plots and tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tion in a novel man­ner. In­flu­enced

by “Steam­punk” science fic­tion, the novel cre­ated a world dom­i­nated by highly de­vel­oped an­cient Chi­nese en­gi­neer­ing tech­nolo­gies. Ken Liu said, “I want to cre­ate dif­fer­ent aes­thet­ics yet fea­ture some of the cool ma­chines of an­cient China such as mov­able type print­ing, a kite for mil­i­tary spy­ing in­vented by Lu Ban (507-444 B.C.), and a wooden ox used for trans­porta­tion of army pro­vi­sions in­vented by Zhuge Liang (181-234).”

Ken Liu has read many books on Chi­nese his­tory and is a fan of an­cient Chi­nese po­etry and con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese chival­ric nov­els, which have greatly in­flu­enced his writ­ing. The Pa­per Menagerie (2012), his first work to win a Hugo Award, de­picts the cul­tural col­li­sion be­tween a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grant to Amer­ica and his mother. Due to a re­bel­lious at­ti­tude and ju­ve­nile logic, the protagonist missed out on much of the pro­found love of his mother. Liu’s sub­tle writ­ing style in this novel is im­pres­sive.

Liu’s writ­ing has “an Ori­en­tal charm”—re­served, with lim­ited words but pro­found mean­ing. Chen Qi­u­fan, a fa­mous Chi­nese sci-fi writer, ex­plained Ken Liu’s style in cin­e­matic terms: “Rather than a

close-up, Liu will give you one side of the face or a back to the cam­era. Buried un­der the wa­ter are waves of emo­tion.” In The Man Who Ended

His­tory: A Doc­u­men­tary , Ken Liu in­vented a Ja­panese stu­dio called Yu­rushi. Chi­nese sci-fi writer Xia Jia first trans­lated it as “Kuan Shu” (for­give­ness), but Liu sug­gested she change it to “Ren Shu” (benev­o­lence and for­give­ness). The switch was in­spired by a sen­tence from The

Book of Han, a his­tory of the West­ern Han Dy­nasty (202 B.C.8 A.D.), ex­press­ing hope that the Chi­nese would for­give with benev­o­lence.

Pro­mot­ing Chi­nese Science Fic­tion

In ad­di­tion to writ­ing, Ken Liu has also trans­lated science fic­tion by con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese au­thors in­clud­ing Chen Qi­u­fan, Xia Jia and Hao Jing­fang into English, play­ing a key role in in­tro­duc­ing China’s scifi works to the world. Chen Qi­u­fan’s

work The Fish of Li­jiang , trans­lated by Ken Liu, won the World Fan­tasy Awards in 2012, the first to a Chi­nese au­thor.

“When I be­gin the pro­ject, the first step is ad­just­ing the nar­ra­tive struc­ture to tell the story in a way that is fa­mil­iar to Amer­i­can read­ers,” Liu re­veals. When trans­lat­ing Xia Jia’s A Hun­dred Ghosts Pa­rade

Tonight , Liu trans­lated China’s tra­di­tional 24 so­lar terms into English phrases that could be eas­ily un­der­stood in­stead of us­ing translit­er­a­tion. For ex­am­ple, Jingzhe, the third term, is trans­lated as “Awak­en­ing of In­sects.”

Of Liu’s trans­la­tions, the most fa­mous is the English ver­sion of The Three-body Prob­lem pub­lished in 2014. This book is about a Chi­nese story, but in or­der to in­tro­duce the en­vi­ron­ment to a new cul­ture, Liu de­cided to main­tain the orig­i­nal mean­ing as ac­cu­rately as pos­si­ble to re­tain a bit “won­der and strange­ness.” But to help West­ern read­ers un­der­stand the po­lit­i­cal back­ground, Liu in­tro­duced foot­notes, which are rare in English nov­els. “I wanted to help English read­ers un­der­stand the his­tory re­lated to the story with a few foot­notes.”

In 2015, Liu Cixin said in his ac­cep­tance speech for the Best Novel of the 73th Hugo Awards that “trans­la­tion al­ways tran­scends cul­tures and space, and as for this book, Ken Liu is the bridge.”

Af­ter fin­ish­ing that trans­la­tion, Ken Liu in­vited many Amer­i­can celebri­ties in the field of science fic­tion to write book re­views (in­clud­ing David Brin, who serves as a mem­ber of the ad­vi­sory board of NASA’S In­no­va­tive and Ad­vanced Con­cepts group). Many of the re­views were pub­lished in ma­jor me­dia out­lets such as The

Wash­ing­ton Post and The New York Times , which ul­ti­mately fa­cil­i­tated pub­li­ca­tion of the English ver­sion by the big pub­lish­ing house Tor Books.

Ken Liu is a rare and out­stand­ing fig­ure in cul­tural ex­change be­tween China and the United States, not only be­cause he trans­lates well, but also be­cause he en­thu­si­as­ti­cally pro­motes the works with all avail­able re­sources. Of­ten through his guid­ance, a growing num­ber of emerg­ing Chi­nese science fic­tion writ­ers are

finding more plat­forms such as Amer­i­can mag­a­zines Clarksworld and Light­speed to present their works to West­ern read­ers. Ja­panese au­thor Tachi­hara Toya once sighed, “Our science fic­tion is not as fa­mous as China’s be­cause we don’t have Ken Liu.”

Ken Liu be­lieves that the value of science fic­tion lies in the pos­si­ble ex­pres­sion of the fu­ture. The metaphors in­volved in huge changes in­spire us to ex­am­ine our­selves. Along with many other Chi­nese science fic­tion writ­ers, he is in­flu­enc­ing how peo­ple around the globe ex­am­ine the world and ex­plore the fu­ture.

Xinhua hua

Ken Liu de­liv­ered a speech at the open­ing cer­e­monye­mony of the Ne­bula Awards on Novem­ber 1, 2014.

In Fe­bru­ary 2018, the Chi­nese ver­sion of The Grace of Kings of the tril­ogy The Dan­de­lion Dy­nasty, the first English novel by Chi­nese-amer­i­can writer Ken Liu, was pub­lished.

In 2014, Ken Liu trans­lated the first vol­ume of the renowned Chi­nese sci-fi tril­ogy The Three-body Prob­lem into English, and China's science fic­tion has since gar­nered global fame. Above are the cov­ers of the three vol­umes of this tril­ogy. Ken Liu trans­lated the first and third vol­umes.

by Li Yibo/xinhua

Ken Liu (left) and Liu Cixin met science fic­tion fans at the award cer­e­mony for the fifth Ne­bula Awards in Novem­ber 2014.

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