Science fiction’s new golden age in China, what it says about social evolution and the future, and the stories writers want world to see
Recent Hugo Awards for Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang have shone spotlight on new generation of Chinese sci-fi writers; we talked to some about their hopes and the deeper meaning of their works at a recent Hong Kong conference
The science-fiction genre in China was little known before Liu Cixin was honoured with the Hugo Award for best novel in 2015 for The Three-Body Problem. The first book in Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, it tells of an alien invasion during the Cultural Revolution and has sold more than a million copies in China alone. The English translation was recommended by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to members of his book club, and praised by former US president Barack Obama as “wildly imaginative, really interesting”.
Last year, Liu’s compatriot Hao Jingfang earned a Hugo Award for Folding Beijing, in which the city is divided into zones, each with a different number of hours in the day.
Liu has been nominated for another Hugo Award this year, for the final episode in his trilogy, Death’s End.
The two winning books are now being adapted for the big screen in China, marking a turning point for Chinese sci-fi and potentially expanding the genre’s exposure globally.
Some 104 original sci-fi titles were published in China in 2016, compared to 75 the previous year, and 461 novelettes were released last year.
Author Regina Wang Kanyu, 27, a long-time sci-fi fan, has witnessed its growth in recent years. “It’s the golden age of Chinese science fiction,” she says.
Wang is a co-founder of AppleCore, a group of mostly university students who get together in Shanghai to read science fiction. It grew from an alliance of several university clubs into a community, and organises film screenings, visits to virtual reality labs and annual festivals.
“It used to difficult for us to find sponsorship for our activities. Now [companies] actively seek us out to provide support,” Wang says.
She now works full time in the science fiction field – as a public relations manager for start-up Storycom by day and a sci-fi writer by night. Storycom purchases and publishes works by Chinese authors, and Wang’s task is to promote them in foreign markets. “We are not simply marketing the works owned by our company, but the entire genre of Chinese science fiction. We would like to increase its influence, outside China and especially beyond the field of literature, into arts and tourism.”
Last month, writers Regina Wang, Wang Yao and Hao Jingfang attended Melon Hong Kong, the city’s first science-fiction conference to bring together Chinese and Western writers.
“It’s a market miracle,” says Wang Yao, who goes by the pen name Xia Jia. “Ten years ago [when I started writing], we could never have imagined that these opportunities would be available,” she says, referring to the translation of Chinese sci-fi books and film adaptions.
It’s not the first golden age of sci-fi in China, though. Wang Yao says that was between 1978 and 1983 during reforms initiated by late Deng Xiaoping. “It was thought that science fiction could cultivate a scientific spirit, and the authorities assigned authors to write books in the genre,” says Wang.
More than 30 years later, the new golden age is very different but also being supported by the government. In its science and technology progress plan, published last year, the State Council cited a need to improve the population’s scientific literacy. Policies include the establishment of national science fiction awards and international sci-fi festivals.
Commercial interests are also backing Chinese science fiction. Outstanding novels – like those by
Liu and Hao – could be developed into lucrative spin-offs including films, but also merchandise and video games.
Although investors are eyeing sci-fi’s entertainment industry potential, the literature itself is not so highly valued. “The payment writers receive for fiction writing is very small. I also write for fashion magazines, which pay a lot more,” says Regina Wang. Since it is impossible to make ends meet writing sci-fi, most authors do it simply as a hobby.
Wang Yao’s day job is teaching Chinese writing at Xian Jiaotong University. Growing up in a family of engineers spurred her interest in the sci-fi genre, and she dreamed of becoming an eminent scientist, like Nobel laureate Marie Curie. She earned a place at Peking University’s School of Physics and majored in atmospheric science. However, after feeling out of place for a few years, she changed course and eventually pursued a doctoral degree in comparative literature.
She believes science fiction has a value beyond profit. “You can earn a lot of money by producing a sci-fi film. But more importantly, science fiction can raise relevant questions, help us understand the age we live in, and confront real-life dilemmas,” says Wang. These questions include how humans should respond to technology such as artificial intelligence, and more existential questions about the role of the human race and our traditions. Wang believes it is vital that Chinese society contemplates these questions.
“Science fiction looks at the process of modernisation and how our values, identity, lifestyle, traditions and even emotions change amid that,” says Wang. In Western countries, modernisation and the emergence of science fiction occurred at the same time. But in contemporary China, where development is happening at such a rapid pace, society has yet to comprehend the process of modernisation, giving rise to many problems – some of which people refuse to acknowledge, and others that are censored by the authorities.
“Sci-fi writers are very perceptive and they’re conscious of the influence of globalisation and modernisation. They ponder where Chinese people stand in this process and what our responsibilities are,” Wang says. “We are not copying how other countries develop. We are finding our own way and considering alternatives to modernisation.”
Increasingly, sci-fi writers are also using the genre as a means of social commentary, questioning the direction of urban development. Hao Jingfang works as an economic researcher for the China Development Research Foundation think tank, so her research informs and inspires her writing.
“Half of the theme [of my writing] concerns social systems, their history and future development. The other half concerns philosophical aspects, such as human agency and willpower,” Hao says.
For example, her award-winning novelette Folding Beijing addresses the inequality perpetuated by the social and economic system. The story takes place in a futuristic Beijing that is divided into three time dimensions. Protagonist Lao Dao travels illegally between dimensions to raise school fees for his adopted daughter. The story idea stemmed from a conversation Hao had with a taxi driver in Beijing, who had to spend a whole night queueing to get his child into kindergarten.
For Hao, it is easier to tackle social issues through science fiction because authors are not limited by reality and can use allegory to more easily explain complicated issues. “In Folding Beijing, there is a line between different spaces and you can see the differences between social classes. But in real life, the social divide is not actually visible,” she says.
Although the Hugo Awards have brought global attention to the Chinese sci-fi scene, as an industry it still has a long way to go.
“Unlike Western countries, we do not have a long tradition of a cultural and creative industry,” says Wang Yao. There are only about 100 writers, publishers and filmmakers in the Chinese sci-fi industry, compared with more than 4,000 sci-fi writers in the United States, she adds.
Although China’s cultural soft power is no match for that of the US, Wang believes Chinese sci-fi has something to contribute to discussions on the development of science and technology, and she hopes their voices can be heard.
“We believe we can be a strong force contributing to the dialogue. And dialogue is only possible when [the Western science fiction industry] acknowledges that our opinions are different, but still valuable,” says Wang. “Soft power is not a defining factor and is not necessarily related to economic power. It has its autonomy and cannot be boosted by simply investing a lot of money. In the end, [the value of our work] is decided by the intricacy and complexity of our thoughts.”
Whether we are witnessing a true golden age of Chinese sci-fi remains to be seen. “It is not determined by the number of writers, publishers or industry professionals, or the number of works produced,” says Hao. “It will only be called the golden age if we produce good work that stands the test of time.”
Correction: this story was amended on May 18 as follows: Wang Yao’s day job is teaching Chinese writing at Xian Jiaotong University, not practical English writing at Peking University.