The rise of Chinese sci-fi: No longer in the distant future
Lu Xun, considered by many critics to be China’s preeminent literary figure, began his career by translating fiction by Jules Verne. In 1903, he wrote that science fiction could play an important role in “the advancement of the Chinese nation.” But as the scholar Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom notes, the genre “has had its share of dramatic ups and downs in the past, with the Communist Party literary establishment treating it as a suspect form for much of the last half-century.” However, the last few years have seen unprecedented international recognition of Chinese sci-fi:
- In 2015, Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem (published as a Chinese-language book in 2008, but not translated into English until 2014) won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, one of the highest honors in science fiction. Liu was the first Asian writer to receive a Hugo.
- In 2016, Hao Jingfang won a Hugo Award in the category of Best Novelette with her story Folding Beijing.
Popular interest in Chinese sci-fi has also quickly grown for this once-niche literary genre, and the government has been acquiescent about its rise. According to a 2015 report released by the publishing industry journal China Book Review, the publication of Liu’s Death’s End — the second sequel to The Three-Body Problem and the end of the trilogy called Remembrance of Earth’s Past — at the end of 2010 marked a watershed in Chinese science fiction history. In the seven years since, the number of new science-fiction novels published yearly in China has almost doubled.
You can listen to a discussion about the state and significance of Chinese science fiction in this episode of the Sinica Podcast with translator and author Ken Liu. Below is an introduction to notable Chinese science-fiction works of recent years – award winners by Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang up first, and then a chronological selection. Books available in English include a link to purchase.
- During China’s Cultural Revolution in 1967, a young woman named Ye Wenjie witnesses her father being beaten to death for teaching Einstein’s theory of relativity. Four decades later, Wang Miao, a nanomaterials researcher and amateur photographer, suddenly finds that a countdown appears in every photo he takes, followed by a series of strange things that happen around him. As Wang tries to uncover linkages between these phenomena, he discovers that an alien civilization is plotting an invasion with Ye involved.
- The first book of this trilogy was published in 2008. The English version translated by Ken Liu reached Western readers six years later, and won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel. The film adapted from the novel is expected to hit the big screen in 2017. The second and third books in the trilogy are The Dark Forest, translated by Joel Martinsen, and Death’s End, translated by Ken Liu.
- The story is set in a future Beijing, where the city is physically divided into three layers — the elite, the middle class, and the underclass. Residents from different social classes are further separated by time: They aren’t allowed to interact with one another and set to awaken in different hours during a 48-hour day. The protagonist is a waste-processing worker named Lao Dao from the third class. In order to pay for his adopted daughter’s kindergarten tuition, Lao accepts a risky job offer — sending a love letter from a member of the second class to a woman in the first class.
- The story first appeared in 2012 on newsmth.net, the online discussion board of Tsinghua University, where Hao was a student. According to the author, the story was inspired by her chat with a Beijing taxi driver who, during the ride, complained about difficulties getting his child into kindergarten due to his lack of Beijing hukou, or residence permit — a document that officially grants access to a city’s social services. In the story, Hao depicts a similar challenge facing Lao Dao. Folding Beijing, translated by Ken Liu, won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.
2066: Red Star Over America, by Han Song (2000)
- This ambitious book by Han Song depicts a world where China rules and the U.S. obeys. As the U.S. falls into financial crisis and civil war, the Chinese government sends a team to America to restore civilization through the traditional Chinese board game Go. But when a critical Go match is held at the World Trade Center, a terrorist strike happens and throws all humanity into doubt.
- Han Song started publishing stories in the early 1990s and became one of the country’s leading science-fiction authors. His first short story collection, Gravestone of the Universe, was given an award at the first World Chinese Science Fiction Awards in 1991. The core of Han’s work is often his reflections on culture and the clash between Western and Eastern values. Aside from writing science fiction, he works as an editor at Xinhua News Agency.
- Beijing-based Hong Kong author Chan Koonchung’s novel has never been published in mainland China but was widely circulated on the internet. In the story, China is prosperous and powerful, but an entire month is missing from official records and the country’s collective memory. Driven by curiosity, the central character Old Chen embarks on a dangerous journey to find the truth.
- In 2011, an English translation of the book was published. In its review, The New York Times called The Fat Years “an uncommon novel,” adding, “With its offbeat puzzle and diverting characters…Chan’s story is not only absorbing in its own right, it also shines reflected light on the foibles of the West.” Below is an interview with Chan by SupChina editor-in-chief Jeremy Goldkorn.
Zero and Other Fictions, by Huang Fan (2011)
- A collection of the four best works of Taiwanese author Huang Fan, including “Lai Suo,” “The Intelligent Man,” “How to Tell the Width of a Ditch,” and “Zero.”
A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight, by Xia Jia (2012)
- The story starts on Ghost Street, an entertainment district where protagonist Ning is the only human being among ghosts (Ghost Street, or Gui Jie, is a popular dining destination in Beijing). As the story progresses, Ning starts to question everything, including whether the ghosts are really ghosts, and who exactly Ning is.
- Born in 1984, Wang Yao, known by her pen name Xia Jia, has received five Galaxy Awards for Chinese Science Fiction, and six Nebula Awards for Science Fiction and Fantasy in Chinese. In addition, one of her short stories received an honorable mention at the 2013 Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards.
The Waste Tide, by Chen Qiufan (2013)
- In a dystopian future China around the 2020s, factory workers in an “economic zone” in Guangdong Province are transformed into cyborgs perfectly suited to perform manufacturing jobs. Meanwhile, a wealthy elite keeps tight control over the internet and media. Chen Qiufan, 35, is a Beijing-based writer who used to work for Google and Baidu. There is no published English translation of The Waste Tide, but you can read an essay by Chen on his work and his generation here.
Will of Heaven, by Qian Lifang (2013)
- In 218 B.C., a young man named Han Xin is approached by a mysterious stranger who claims to be a divine messenger. On behalf of his god, he offers a deal: Han will become emperor in return for a seemingly bizarre favor. But along Han’s path to power, he gradually realizes that he is part of a larger conspiracy and the burden of saving all mankind falls on his shoulders.
- Qian Lifang is a history teacher at a middle school. Will of Heaven is her first novel and the book won a Galaxy Award for Chinese Science Fiction in 2004.
Pathological, by Wang Jinkang (2016)
- A young scientist tries to find a vaccine for a deadly virus left over from Russian scientific research during the Cold War, while a terrorist, who also has obtained the virus, is trying to wage a biological war.
- Wang Jinkang, a former engineer, is one of the leading figures in the contemporary generation of Chinese science-fiction writers. Wang has published more than 50 short stories and 10 novels.