Science fiction in China is brimming with energy. The genre’s visibility has increased in recent years, it has won recognition from the literary mainstream, and leading writers have produced fascinating, relevant work for a growing readership.
Today’s science fiction has its roots in the late Qing dynasty, a time when Chinese writers translated Jules Verne and H.G. Wells while penning their own imaginative tales. Early works either described futuristic utopias or fantastic voyages featuring tantalizing depictions of advanced science and technological marvels. For most of the 20th century, Chinese science fiction operated in a utilitarian mode, calling for national unity or providing educational, morally uplifting stories for children.
After the disintegration of the Qing dynasty, special sections of popular literary journals were devoted to science fiction stories, and several well-known authors tried their hand at the genre. Lao She (1899–1966) set his social satire City of Cats (1933)—translated into English by William A. Lyell Jr. as Cat Country (Ohio State Univ., 1970)—in a Martian cat society whose social problems mirror those in 1930s China. A handful of stories appeared in the 1940s, before civil war intervened, and children’s sci-fi flourished briefly starting in the mid-’50s, only to disappear again with the onset of the Cultural Revolution. A decade later, the older generation of authors returned, joined by new writers such as Ye Yonglie, and they were eager to take advantage of the liberalized climate. Writers moved away from utilitarian fundamentals, adding elements of fantasy and horror to their stories, skirting close to the boundaries of political acceptability. Stories from that era have generally fallen off the map—with the exception of Ye’s Little Smart Roams the Future (1978), which remains a beloved children’s classic to this day. The nascent golden age was cut short, and the genre was criticized for being decadent and pseudoscientific during the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign of 1983.
The SF scene struggled for the rest of the ’80s due to the pressures of politics and marketization, but it was re-energized in the 1990s by writers such as Han Song, Wang Jinkang, Xing He, and He Xi, who explored new frontiers in Chinese SF, introducing social and metaphysical themes, and experimenting with cyberpunk. The decade saw the emergence of popular women writers, including Ling Chen and Zhao Haihong. Chinese SF expanded its engagement with the global SF community by hosting international conventions and publishing stories in translation. Outside of the genre, mainstream authors started publishing a smattering of near-future speculative fiction, including the apocalyptic satire Floating City (1992), by Liang Xiaosheng; the cyberterror thriller Gate to Doomsday (1995), by air force political officer Qiao Liang; and the novellas collected in The Silver Age (1997), by Wang Xiaobo. Qiao’s technothriller now feels a little dated, but the other two titles hold up quite well.
Chinese SF Goes Mainstream
Liu Cixin made a huge splash at the end of the ’90s and is the most popular author in the genre today. His career—particularly after the release of the second and third volumes of his Three-Body trilogy—has led to increased mainstream attention to SF and a growing awareness of the new perspectives it brings to Chinese literature in general. Explicitly attempting to create uniquely Chinese SF, writers such as Fei Dao and Chang Jia have reinterpreted historical sources using SF, and both Lala and Pan Haitian have published award-winning retellings of an ancient automaton story. In Future Empire (2010), Jin He Zai inserts cloned heroes from the Three Kingdoms–era into a tale of intergalactic conquest, putting his own spin on the space opera subgenre, which has never been a big part of Chinese SF, despite a strong presence in translations and within the pulpier realm of online literature. Outside of history, Jiang Bo has furthered the cause of hard SF, and the recent work of Stanley Chan Qiufan is deeply influenced by contemporary issues in Chinese society.
Science fiction in China is short-story driven, to the point that many of the most popular authors in the genre have not published novels. Science Fiction World, the leading Chinese SF magazine practically since its founding in 1979, has a monthly circulation of around 100,000 copies. Circulation skyrocketed to around 400,000 at the turn of the century after a question on the national college entrance exam mirrored a story that had appeared in the magazine a few months earlier, and then it gradually fell back to normal over the ensuing decade. Although the decline was to be expected, SFW management fought back by making some shortsighted advertising and editorial decisions that sought to maximize revenue by pushing slapdash content directed at a younger readership. A staff rebellion in 2010 ousted the director and had the added effect of energizing the fan community.
SFW’s chief competitor is New Science Fiction, which is aimed at a slightly younger audience and has a smaller, subscription-only circulation. Launched in 1994 as King of Science Fiction, it was frequently dismissed as a home for second-rate stories that would have been rejected by SFW. Focusing on launching new authors, including the well-received Chen Qian, and a substantial redesign and name change in 2010 have improved the magazine’s reputation.
Other magazines have come and gone from a marketplace that seems unable to support more than two SF journals, while fantasy spinoffs have fared better. Novoland, a fantasy project set in a universe based on classical Chinese mythology, first appeared in print as a supplement to SFW and has since expanded to two magazines that publish shared-world stories, unrelated fantasy, and even SF.
Bookstores that have shelves for Chinese SF separate from fantasy are usually dominated by the Wisley series of pulp adventure by Hong Kong author Ni Kuang. Mainland SF is far outnumbered by translations, and SF in general is dwarfed by fantasy and martial arts books. For many years, the situation was self-perpetuating: due to the small market, novels traditionally received small initial print runs and no promotion, and, as a result, disappeared soon after publication. Novel-length SF from the pre-Internet age, apart from the work of a few big-name writers, remains largely unknown to the average reader. The genre’s association with children means that many novels continue to be put out by publishers of children’s literature, even though some are intended for an older audience.
The dominance of SFW, which has partnered with a variety of publishers, dates back to a decision in 2002 to start issuing standalone editions of international sci-fi classics. The first four titles went into multiple printings after selling out conservative initial runs of 3,000 copies each. By contrast, SFW’s first attempt at a line of domestic novels was ill-conceived. Wang Jinkang and Liu Cixin were chosen to kick things off, but both Humanoid and The Supernova Era failed to sell out their initial 10,000-copy print runs. It was only with the release of Qian Lifang’s historical SF novel The Will of Heaven, the first volume of the Nebula series, in 2004 that Chinese SF authors began to sell in quantity. That title has sold around 180,000 copies to date, according to the publisher. Dead End (2010), the third volume of Liu’s Three-Body trilogy, sold 150,000 copies in under half a year. Still, translated titles continue to dominate the market: SFW’s current catalogue lists roughly two dozen domestic titles, versus more than 130 translations.
Since the mid-’80s, SFW has run the annual Galaxy Awards for outstanding SF. Although prizes are occasionally granted to stories that have appeared elsewhere, the Galaxy Awards are largely an in-house competition. The more broadly focused Sky Awards were created in 2010 by New Realms of Fantasy & SF, an e-zine that launched in 2009 and has since published several independent anthologies. The recently founded World Chinese Science Fiction Association runs the Xingyun Awards for its members. The WCSFA is headed by Wu Yan, an author most active in the ’80s and ’90s, who is also the genre’s most prominent academic. Wu launched an SF program at Beijing Normal University in 1991, and although enrollment remains small, it has been a driving force behind science fiction studies in China. In addition to his own scholarly publications, Wu has edited a multivolume series of articles on a wide variety of SF subjects. The past few years have seen an upswing in SF-related criticism, including historical publications by SF authors Zheng Jun and Xiao Xinghan, and critical biographies of major SF writers by Dong Renwei. Hong Kong–based writer Sanfeng chronicles a growing fan movement and is also involved with both New Realms and the Sky Awards.
Although overviews of the genre have appeared in various English-language outlets, few actual Chinese SF stories have been translated. Science Fiction from China (1989) anthologized the work of early ’80s writers; The Apex Book of World SF (2009), edited by Lavie Tidhar, includes stories by Han Song and Yang Ping; a story by Zhao Haihong appeared in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet; an excerpt of Liu’s novel Ball Lightning (2004) was published in Words Without Borders (2009); and stories by several authors were published in an English-language insert to the June 2011 issue of Chutzpah magazine. Beyond that, there are many Chinese SF books that could sell well in translated editions.
Joel Martinsen is a contributor to the Paper Republic Field Guide to Contemporary Chinese Literature.