The political schism between Chinese science fiction and fantasy

The current special issue of Science Fiction Studies is entirely devoted to exploring Chinese science fiction. Few western readers are familiar with Chinese contributions to the genre, though SF has been popular in China since the early twentieth century. Chinese SF scholar Yan Wu writes in the introduction to the issue that there are a lot of parallels between Golden Age SF in the west, and contemporary Chinese SF. Powered by the hopefulness (and cynicism) of industrial development, the Chinese SF and fantasy genres are stronger than they've ever been.

Wu also explains that the division between SF and fantasy in China has a very specific cultural meaning:

Since the student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989, radical changes have taken place in China's political and ideological landscape. Initially the demonstrations only strengthened the position of government hardliners, but within two years the government began to shift its focus from ideological control to economic growth, promoting China's place in the global economic system in accordance with the policies of Deng Xiaoping. This also contributed to the revival of Chinese sf, which has developed steadily in the past two decades, although it has not been without its challenges. In 2000, for instance, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series (1997-2007) sparked a reading craze in China that stimulated the growth of fantasy but reduced sf sales.

It is worth asking why fantasy and science fiction are evaluated so differently in China. When one recalls the rich fantasy elements in Chinese classical fiction, it is clear that fantasy and science fiction each have a very different relationship to traditional Chinese culture. It is more accurate to say that the Harry Potter novels reawakened China's deeply-rooted taste for fantasy than that it brought something new to Chinese readers. Does the relationship between fantasy and science fiction mirror the competition between Chinese and Western culture?

Recently, however, Chinese sf has increased in popularity. Science-fiction writers and texts have begun to enjoy an unprecedented level of recognition by Chinese readers, including bestsellers such as Liu Cixin's complex apocalyptic space opera, San Ti [The Three Body Trilogy, 2007-2011] and Han Song's Huo Xing Zhao Yao Mei Guo [Red Star Over America, 2012] and Hong Se Hai Yang [Red Ocean, 2004], both of which are filled with satirical political critique. Other leading sf writers include Wang Jinkang and He Xi. Several mainstream writers have also published sf novels.12 In addition, more and more new writers are contributing to the ongoing vitality of the field. When I attended the recent (2012) WorldCon in Chicago, I was accompanied by three young writers all born after 1980. They are the generation that will take Chinese sf into what promises to be a prosperous future.

What makes Chinese sf unique? In the wake of these historical frustrations and reforms, it is becoming possible to identify some of the features that are unique to Chinese science fiction. In my judgment, its most significant characteristic is the frequent exploration of themes of liberation and release from old cultural, political, and institutional systems. Another significant element is to be found in the reactions of Chinese writers to Western science and culture in their pursuit of themes of liberation. This raises a series of key questions: what is science? is science specifically Western or is it a universal human pursuit? how can writers integrate scientific and local cultural traditions into new and vital forms? These are compelling questions for Chinese authors-and for Chinese readers as well. A third key element in Chinese sf is its concern for the future of China and of Chinese culture, which is among the oldest surviving human cultures. Can it be revived in the postmodern scientific age? Finally, we might argue that, whereas Western sf is focused on the opportunities and losses of technoscientific development, Chinese sf, although it examines similar ideas, is more focused on anxieties about cultural decline and the potential for revitalization.

Let's hope that this special issue can get more western readers interested in these works, and pushing for good translations of them!

You can read all of Wu's essay, and several essays on Chinese SF, at the Science Fiction Studies website.