Chinese Science Fiction: The Dragon's Gaze?

SF writers in China seemed to want to use the typical narrative modes of the genre to criticize the trends of China's development. Is still so?

The Wandering Earth, the colossal film produced by the (state-owned) China Film Group Corporation and distributed by Netflix
The Wandering Earth, the colossal film produced by the (state-owned) China Film Group Corporation and distributed by Netflix

Although it has been presented as a " novelty" in recent years, science fiction is not new to China. No, the sensibility of science fiction and fantasy has been part of Chinese culture for centuries, in some ways surpassing the perception we in the West have always had of it. In 1949 (the year the People's Republic of China was founded), Chinese science fiction writers such as Zheng Wenguang and Ye Yonglie were included in Dingbo Wu and Patrick D. Murphy's 1989 book Science Fiction. It was the first formal encounter between American readers and Chinese SF.

Undercontrolled SciFi

Why delayed Science Fiction becoming established in China? Because Mao Zedong's rules had relegated it to the realm of children's literature. They stipulated that it should not deal with technological innovation and contemporary scientific quests, limiting it to "fantasy" (such as Xianxia). This was because technological progress and scientific study were seen as having come from Western Capitalism. When Mao died in 1978, Deng Xiaoping took power. Science fiction became freer and was able to deal with science and technology.

The Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign

In 1983, however, there was a resumption of "control" with The Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign. The purpose of the campaign was to prevent the diffusion of liberal and Western ideas among the Chinese people. The term "spiritual pollution" was used to denote ideas and matters that were considered antithetical to the country's social system. SF again became a problem because it was considered pseudoscientific and anti-communist, which in turn led to a reduction in the production of SF novels, stories and artworks. In theory, the only correct "philosophical science" in China was supposed to be Marxism, and therefore anything that threatened it had to be controlled or suppressed. As always, however, specialized journals and often clandestine publications helped to keep the passion for science fiction alive and to survive in anticipation of better times.

A New Generation of Writers

In the 1990s, the genre became freer again (though nothing escapes control, for them, as for us, freedom is really an illusion). The "new generation" (xin vhengdai 新⽣代) of Chinese writers has new scientific content, new narrative style, and new story standards. Chinese science fiction literature has gained an international reputation in the past decade: Liu Cixin's The Three-Body Problem (San Ti 三体) has sold more than a million copies in China and more than a hundred thousand in the English-language version, and won the 2015 Hugo Awards, a prestigious U.S. science fiction and fantasy prize, helping to "elevate Chinese science fiction to global status." Thus, the construction of Chinese science fiction as a planetary "literary case" (a cultural fad?) Today, Chinese science fiction is probably more detached from militant political engagement, focusing more on entertainment and individual self-expression. In short, it has been somewhat drained of the visionary charge it once had, settling into a more globalist and Westernized stance.

Syntopian SF

But what are the most popular themes in current Chinese SF? Utopian social designs (the "Chinese Dream") mix with dystopian beliefs. The strong presence of multimedia technology is hyper-futuristic. Protagonists' lives are filled with innovative applications, futuristic online services, and futuristic instruments. As in the cyberpunk subgenre, in Chinese science fiction the future and the present overlap and become one. Writers of the new wave of Chinese science fiction present China as a syntopia (scientific heterotopia). This refers to a vision of reality achieved by recomposing the connection between its elements in such a way as to reverse or multiply the whole they represent, with the aim of considering new possibilities and visions. In practice, China's science fiction is not the science fiction of hope or despair, of utopia or dystopia. It is the science fiction of Syntopia, that is, the revelation of alternatives, of new possible connections, of visions that can be opened up by changing the relationship between the elements that make up reality, using the position of an element in relation to its “adjoining” elements.

A Quantum View?

It is a kind of quantum view of science fiction, to reveal what is already there but hidden. Is this quantum superposition its key characteristic? Maybe. Certainly, Chinese science fiction uses the overlapping view of past and future, merging them without erasing them, making them sometimes synergistic, sometimes contrasting: youth and technology, old and tradition, peasant and rural worlds in an urban present and interspersed with an ultra-technological future, all delivered non-linearly in narratives that superimpose states of reality. This is why many Chinese science fiction stories are not linear. Instead, they follow a progression on different levels of development.

Stories main themes and Techneurosis

Robotics and cloning, technological espionage, space travel, environmental catastrophes, economic competition in the age of globalization, and the design of the human being of the future are the most recurring themes today. But there are also space missions and a certain amount of SF realism. Robots in particular, and the insistence on robotization, seem to reflect what has been called "techneurosis". One of the strongest concerns of the "Chinese science fiction reader" (and others) seems to be the danger posed by automated technology capable of replacing humans. Danger, denunciation, fear, doomsday scenarios, but also the revenge of the "Chinese people".

Is it really the Dragon's Gaze?

We see all this in The Wandering Earth, the colossal film produced by the (state-owned) China Film Group Corporation and distributed by Netflix, which tells a story in which the Chinese save the world from apocalypse while the Americans flee, all centered on the ethics of sacrifice and Chinese values (the film is clearly celebratory, which is how the Chinese government wants us to see China). Until not so long ago, science fiction writers in China seemed to want to use the typical narrative modes of the genre more to question or criticize the trends of China's development or the alienating factors that they saw in Chinese society. Now, in the world of film and mass literary production, are they instead adapting to the U.S. style?

Liu Cixin Novels

  • The Supernova Era
  • Death’s End (2010)
  • The Dark Forest (2008)
  • Remembrance of Earth’s Past (2009)
  • The Three-Body Problem (2008)
  • Ball Lightning(2004)

Other writers

  • The Waste Tide, by Chen Qiufan
  • Cat Country, by Lao She
  • The Fat Years, by Chan Koonchung
  • Illumine Lingao or Morning Star of Lingao, by Boaster (Xiao Feng), and originally published online in 2009 on Qidian Chinese Network.
  • Xin Zhongguo, by Lu Shi’e
  • Wisely Series, by Ni Kuang