Understanding the Dynamics of China Through Science Fiction

Science fiction literature is booming in China. Far from a trivial genre, Chinese intellectuals increasingly use science fiction to express their dreams and fears. Most of them paint a gloomy picture of China's future.

One dark night in 2185, a young computer engineer walks across the deserted Tiananmen Square straight up to the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. He has a mission: to scan Chairman Mao’s brain cells and simulate the consciousness of the deceased in a virtual reality. This night he succeeds. After similar procedures with five other powerful men from the past, the cyber republic called Huaxia emerges.

“A rebellion breaks out in cyberspace. A cry for democracy.”

Shortly afterwards a rebellion breaks out in cyberspace. A cry for democracy. Meanwhile a 29-year-old woman governs the China of reality. Considering the danger the digital parallel society poses to her country, she decides to shut down the entire internet. The Republic of Huaxia is destroyed.

This is the plot of China 2185 (Zhongguo 2185), written by China’s best known science fiction author Liu Cixin. In 1989, this debut fundamentally changed science fiction literature’s trajectory in China. Since the late 19th century, utopian thinking had been dominating the political and intellectual scene. But a tragic event put an end to that optimism.

On June 4, 1989, authorities savagely suppressed the students’ protests of the democracy movement on Tiananmen Square. This incident left Chinese society disillusioned with the communist government. Liu wrote China 2185 in February 1989. Rather than an attempt at coming to terms with the tragedy it was a kind of prophecy. But it contains neither a direct reference to the movement nor an open critique of Mao.

Between Darkness and Light

Liu is also credited with bringing the concept of posthumanism into Chinese science fiction literature. Alongside Han Song and Wang Jinkang, Liu is today considered one of the “Three Generals” of the genre. Not only did he win national prizes such as the Yinhe Award, he was even the first Asian writer to win the international Hugo Award for Santi (2006), the first part of his Three Body trilogy, in 2015. Thanks to this major success, readers from most European countries and from the US are able to find a translation of Liu Cixin’s masterpiece in the shelves of their favorite bookstores.

Santi‘s story is set against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) and deals with a secret research project that aimed to discover an extraterrestrial intelligence. Fifty years later the project succeeds. However, the contact with the alien civilization appears to be a frightening experience with the power to change the fate of humanity.

In 1991, Wang Lixiong designed one of the first apocalyptic scenarios. After his novel Yellow Peril (Huanghuo) was banned in mainland China, he reached out to a Hong Kong publisher. The English translation appeared as China Tidal Wave: A Novel in 2008.

Wang’s dystopian vision describes a series of catastrophes caused by a widespread flooding of the Yellow River after a twofold typhoon. Overpopulation, climate change, the rebellion of separatist provinces, the rise of an extremist environmental organization, and the invasion of the Taiwanese army herald a nuclear disaster.

Wang did not limit himself to the science fiction genre. Today, he is also known for his provocative political writings on Tibet and Xinjiang.

The Flourishing of Chinese Science Fiction

Other authors followed Liu’s line of drawing a reflective image of future China by blending hope and despair. Harvard professor and literary critic David Der-wei Wang has even found a new name for this distinctive mix of utopia and dystopia. According to Wang, what he calls “heterotopia” is a distinctive characteristic of contemporary Chinese science fiction.

In the early 1990s, two essential factors facilitated the boom of Chinese science fiction literature: market economy and globalization. When China’s economy was transformed from a planned economy to a market economy, the emerging competition lead to the development of a freer literary production. In addition, Chinese culture was increasingly commercialized and mass media promoted the establishment of a pop culture, allowing the genre to shake off its negative image dating back to the so called Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign of 1983.

“The internet became a central platform for Chinese writers.”

Although first exchanges with readers and writers from outside China already took place in the 1980s, globalization brought completely new opportunities of international communication. The internet became a central platform for Chinese writers. Many of them initially published online, where they enjoyed great popularity among the young.

In 1991, China’s major genre magazine Science Fiction World (Kehuan Shijie) hosted the annual conference of the World Science Fiction Association in Chengdu. Numerous international authors were also invited to the Beijing International Science Fiction Convention in 1997.

Conferences like these marked the opening of the Chinese science fiction community to the rest of the world. Today, English-language magazines such as Clarkesworld and Lightspeed are regularly offering translated Chinese science fiction short stories to the global readership.

The Multifaceted Nature of Contemporary Works

In the wake of the recent boom, the genre diversified in terms of authors and subject matter. The writers of the so-called Chinese new wave science fiction shape the contemporary scene—and it’s more heterogeneous than ever. At least twenty creative minds are currently voicing their ideas about the future in narrative form. Besides the “Three Generals” who have experienced the Cultural Revolution young talents born after 1980 like A Que, Bao Shu, Chen Qiufan, Jia Liyuan, Ma Boyong, Chang Jia and Zhang Ran have left their mark on the genre.

And for the first time, female writers occupy a significant spot in the scene. In 2016, Hao Jingfang became the first Chinese woman to win the Hugo Award. Other skilled female writers are Chi Hui, Cheng Jingbo, Gu Shi, Qian Lifang, Tang Fei, Wang Yao, and Zhao Haihong.

“For the first time, female writers occupy a significant spot in the scene.”

These new wave authors’ ideas and visions touch upon sensitive matters such as political guidelines and state control, China’s rapid development, consumerism and the fast-paced society, memory culture, Chinese history and the official narrative, identity and the individual psyche, cyberspaces, ethics, posthumanism, environmental problems, and gender issues.

a dark future for China and humanity as a whole

Han Song is known for his gloomy tales and weak protagonists. He envisions a dark future for China and humanity as a whole. His narratives insinuate that China’s modernization could unleash armageddon. In his view, Chinese society is full of unsolved problems and every human being has a dark side.

As Han Song’s stories express what no one in China dares to say out loud, most of his works are banned on the mainland. The ending of his stories is often obscure, offering much leeway for interpretation. One thing is usually clear though: the fate of humanity lies in the hands of a mysterious power.

Revealing Harmful Power Mechanisms

The short story Security Check (Anjian), which appeared in Southern People Weekly in 2014, is a case in point. Set in future New York, everybody has to pass security checks before entering the subway, similar to present-day China. However, special scanners replicate and substitute all objects that go through.

The protagonist Louis emigrates to China, which is depicted as the most liberal country in the world. Eventually he finds out that America has vanished into thin air. In consequence of repeatedly passing security checks, Louis has turned into a replica of himself.

Another story with the subject matter of state control is Ma Boyong’s The City of Silence (Jijing zhi cheng, 2005). The plot is set in a future New York ruled by a despotic government. Every spoken word is controlled and people are forced to talk in a narrow manner leaving little room for free thought. Silence reigns in consequence. Ma’s narrative forcefully reminds readers of Orwell’s 1984, which was published in Chinese translation in 1985. 

Waking From the Nightmare

Han Song published My Homeland Does Not Dream (Wo de zuguo bu zuomeng, 2003) only on the internet. A satire on China’s obsession with rapid development, the story centers on sleepwalkers who work at night in order to be more efficient. With the aid of a foreign journalist, protagonist Xiao Ji learns that his fellow citizens are under the control of the “Committee of Darkness”. Only death offers him a way out.

“A satire on China’s obsession with rapid development, the story centers on sleepwalkers who work at night in order to be more efficient.”

A Guide to Hunting Beauties (Meinü shoulie zhinan, 2002) also reflects China’s rapid economic growth. In 2014, it appeared in Han’s revised collection of short stories The Universe Tombs (Yuzhou mubei). The story is about a project to create artificial women. As a plaything they are installed on an island for rich men who hunt them down with weapons. This project boosts the local economy tremendously.

In 2000, Han’s novel Mars Shines on America: An Account of a Westward Journey in the Year 2066 (Huoxing zhaoyao meiguo (youming: 2066 nian zhi xixing manji) raised the question of whether the West might turn into an authoritarian regime when faced with a catastrophe. His narrative portrays a speculative future world order. While the date in the title reflects the beginning of the Cultural Revolution a hundred years past, the novel presents a comparable cruel fate for future America.

Modernization Casts Long Shadows

Post-80s writer Chen Qiufan’s trademark is his cynical humor. His works have been dubbed “Science Fiction Realism”. Chen’s short story The Fish of Lijiang (Lijiang de yuermen, 2006) pictures a divided society in which the gap between rich and poor has widened enormously.

On the one hand, a technology that manipulates the sense of time allows large conglomerates to increase the productivity of their workers. On the other hand, the same technology is used by health care institutions to prolong the lives of the rich and powerful population. This vision depicts the possible negative consequences of China’s rapid development on the psyche of the individual.

The losers of the Chinese modernization project occupy the center stage of Chen’s short story The Flower of Shazui (Shazui zhi hua, 2012). They live inside a high fence built around the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen. The protagonist observes his fellow citizens, who are always in a rush. Everyone believes that consuming luxuries or services (such as sex and fortune telling) will bring happiness to their stressful lives. Facing the dark reality, again, the only alternative for one of the main characters is death.

“Sleeping passengers in the subway transform into ghostlike silhouettes, mysterious aliens capture them in bottles, and witnesses disappear before they were able to tell anybody.”

Han Song is also concerned with the downsides of economic development. His novel Subway (Ditie, 2011) consists of five short stories depicting the fall of a civilization. Sleeping passengers in the subway transform into ghostlike silhouettes, mysterious aliens capture them in bottles, and witnesses disappear before they were able to tell anybody. Here, the subway—never stopping and beyond control—is a trope for the dizzying economic growth in China.

Wang Jinkang offers a supposed solution to the degenerating Chinese society. The protagonist of his novel Ant Life (Yisheng, 2007) creates a communist utopia by experimenting with pheromones extracted from ants. The so-called “altruism serum” strips humans off their selfish desires and changes them into hard workers. Nevertheless, the experiment has severe consequences.

The narrative of Wang’s short story The Reincarnated Giant (Zhuansheng de juren, 2005) compares China’s strive for economic growth with a megalomaniac Japanese millionaire. After transplanting Mr. Imagai’s brain into the body of a newborn he is growing ceaselessly. Thus, the responsible scientists face huge difficulties of handling the situation.

Curing Collective Amnesia

Chinese history and the culture of remembrance are at the heart of Chen’s short story The Mao Ghost (Mao de guihun, 2012). When a little girl’s father realizes he is dying of cancer, he tells his daughter that he was chosen to transform into a cat ghost to make farewell easier for his daughter. As the cat is a homophone to Mao Zedong’s surname it is used as a trope for the Cultural Revolution and to address official historiography.

The latter is further condemned by Chan Koonchung’s novel Prosperity: China in the year 2013 (Shengshi: Zhongguo, 2013 nian). It is banned on mainland China and was published in Hong Kong in 2009. The English translation is titled The Fat Years.

Chan’s glance at China’s near future shows a flourishing economy and a harmonious society. There is no trace of the 2008 global financial crisis. Everybody lives in Happy Villages and drinks Longjing tea latte at Want Want (former Starbucks). Only the protagonist Lao Chen doubts the seemingly perfect situation. Moreover, he cannot remember one month. Here begins the search for other misfits and the mission to unravel the mysterious memory loss of a whole nation.

Environmental Protection First

Contemporary Chinese science fiction writers also reflect environmental problems in their works. The protagonist of Chen Qiufan’s short story The Smog Society (Mai, 2010) works for an organization which analyzes the correlation between air pollution and negative emotions.

Nevertheless, the government bans the research report from being released. As a consequence, the protagonist is forced to find another employment. When he is playing music at a kindergarten, he notices that the more the children laugh, the less smog is covering the sky. The scientists of the “Smog Society” were right after all.

Chen’s debut novel The Waste Tide (Huangchao, 2013) is set on an island in South China which is built on a foundation of e-waste. Due to the pollution load, however, the island is scarcely habitable. Thus, the oppressed migrant workers start a revolt against the elite. This rebellion is led by the female protagonist Mimi, who evolves into a posthuman being.

Chi Hui has also dedicated a short story to environmental problems. In The Rainforest (Yulin, 2007) she imagines a future where the plants embrace the technology of nanostructures, thereby mutating into a higher intelligence. Finally, they devour the humans and reconquer the earth.

One Small Rey of Hope

Dystopian visions are legion in contemporary Chinese science fiction, but there are a few exceptions. Tongtong’s Summer (Tongtong de xiatian, 2014) by Xia Jia is narrated through the perspective of a little girl living in future China. Technologies meet the needs of an aging society. This positive narration stands out by its complete absence of criticism.

Only recently, the young female writer Hao Jingfang raised a media furor when her novella Folding Beijing (Beijing zhedie, 2014) was awarded with the Hugo Award. At first, the near future version of Beijing appears to be a dark projection of current social developments in China. Three diverging urban spaces unfold in a predetermined cycle of 48 hours and separate the inhabitants by social strata—upper class, middle class and working class.

However, this is only a backdrop for the story of an ordinary man. To be able to pay the kindergarten tuition for his adoptive daughter, protagonist Lao Dao takes on an illegal job with consequences. The novella is unique in its persistent optimism and the protagonist’s indifference towards the bleak situation countless citizens like him are living in.

“Hao’s aim is to raise awareness for social inequalities through her writings.”

Ultimately, Hao paints a critical portrait of Beijing by showing how present-day Chinese accept social reality with a shrug, believing that they cannot change it anyway and focusing on private matters instead. As she has stated in an interview, Hao’s aim is to raise awareness for social inequalities through her writings.

Another exceptional work is Chi Hui’s feminist utopia Nest of Insects (Chong chao, 2008). By reversing the actual situation in China, Chi calls the reader’s attention to the existing gender gap. The female protagonist Yi’ansa lives in a peaceful matriarchal society on the planet Tantatula. She belongs to an old species where only women are born and men are kinds of humanoid trees planted and carried around in pots by their female partners. However, the harmony on the planet is disturbed by the advent of male colonizers.

A Warning to Society

Undoubtedly, contemporary Chinese science fiction is more eclectic than ever. Nevertheless, according to scholar Song Mingwei the narratives can be distinguished by three main motifs:

  1. 1. The rise of China to the center of global politics and the downsides to this success story
  2. 2. China’s obsession with economic growth and the disclosure of inhuman side effects
  3. 3. The scientific utopia of posthumanism and the creation of a new universe

It appears that most of the works using the latter motif are less overtly political. They can be considered as hard science fiction like Liu Cixin’s magnum opus Three Body.

Since the introduction of science fiction literature in the late 19th century, Chinese genre works have stood out for their close connection to China’s past and present. To understand the stories and their complex symbolic implications, requires a certain knowledge of China’s history and culture.

Especially considering censorship, science fiction offers Chinese intellectuals more space for criticism and the articulation of their dreams and fears than other genres. To quote Chen Qiufan: “Faced with the absurd reality of contemporary China, the possibilities of extreme beauty and extreme ugliness cannot be fully explored or expressed outside of science fiction.”

Consequently, as long as the Chinese government continues its path of development, keen readers from all over the world can look forward to a great amount of compelling heterotopias from China.


[Title Image by David Revoy / Blender Foundation (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker

Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker is a PhD candidate, research fellow and lecturer at the Seminar of East Asian Studies of the Freie Universität Berlin. Apart from her current focus on contemporary Chinese science fiction literature, her research interests include gender discourses in Republican China, Chinese animation art, as well as LGBTIQ culture and activism in China.

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