Chinese Fiction through a Western Lens

By Andy Thomas

Based on his own experiences as a reader and writer of science fiction, C. S. Lewis tried to describe “sub-species” of the genre in his 1975 essay “On Science Fiction.” He categorises it variously as a leap forward into an imagined future when planetary, sidereal, or galactic travel has become common; satiric or prophetic criticism of tendencies in the present by imagining them carried out to their logical limit; the real possibilities of as yet undiscovered engineering or scientific techniques in the actual universe; speculative science in an imaginary environment as experienced by an ordinary person; the ultimate destiny of the human species; and, finally, stories about gods, ghosts, demons, fairies, monsters, and so on.

There is always an extent to which an author’s background impresses itself on her writing, and it is possible that some Chinese science fiction authors might have a message, a satiric or prophetic criticism, about modern China, one which watermarks their writing. But fiction – or certainly, literature – should be more than this. The question for Chinese science fiction is how much of this “science fiction” is present without the allegory. If one discounts what may or may not be a critique of China, what else is present that orients the writing towards science?

In his study Celestial Empire, Nathaniel Isaacson provides a good summary (but not the first) of Cat Country by Lao She. He treats the Martian dystopia encountered by an alien Chinese visitor as an allegorical account of Republican China, with its scenes of drug addiction, the impossibility of learning in empty schools and museums, female subjugation in the binding of women’s feet and the wearing of high heels, factionalism, and an invasion by warlike “short people.” He finds in it “a broad, sweeping critique of China past and present and a damning vision of China’s future, as condemnatory of left-wing socialist demagoguery as it is of nationalist fascism.” As such, the novel functions primarily as satire and even prophetic criticism, with little emphasis on actual science. 

Isaacson’s overall work is anchored in his reading of Chinese literature and his broad account locates the origins of Chinese–language science fiction in the early twentieth century. As he summarises, “the emergence of Chinese SF was a product of the transnational traffic of ideas, cultural trends and material culture that was engendered by the presence of colonial powers in China’s economic and political centres.” In 1922 Bertrand Russell’s The Problem of China documented the late entry of science into Chinese culture, but science in today’s China is inseparable from Chinese identity. 

Where I find Isaacson’s account challenging is in his unexplained use of the Chinese language (characters, transliteration, and various political definitions), which can harm his argument. Because of this I am a little sceptical of his claim that “the term ‘science fiction’,” which he gives as kexue xiashuo (his pinyin without tones), “began to appear regularly as a literary genre associated with specific stories before it did in the English-language press” (emphasis original). Moreover, Isaacson is uncritical in his acceptance of the word “semicolonial” in descriptions of Shanghai and China during the late Qing period. I remember once being reprimanded that Shanghai was never a colony, but a European concession. We all have our own frames of understanding, which we apply to China. Overall, Isaacson’s book opens a new area of study into twentieth-century science fiction in China, one that has previously been ignored.

Neil Clarke’s sumptuous volume Touchable Unreality is an exemplary collaboration between Clarkesworld Magazine and Storycom. Here we encounter nine stories in which the Chinese text is accompanied by excellent English translations. There are no old-fashioned monsters or ghouls, but rather, in a term borrowed from on-line gaming, invisible “Non-Player Characters” in Chen Qiufan’s Coming of the Light. Aside from computers and computing in general, the flow of information is a frequent modern reference in these stories. Thus, Zhong Ran’s Ether addresses the efficiency of information flow in finger-writing and even makes reference to IBM’s Token ring network (a local area network protocol), and Han Song’s Security Check takes network infrastructure to frightening conclusions. I see these stories being as much about information flow and concerns related to modernity at large as they are an allegory about China.

In his edited and translated anthology Invisible Planets, Ken Liu examines the nature of Chinese science fiction vis-à-vis a Western readership. As he explains, “Given the realities of China’s politics and its uneasy relationship with the West it is natural for Western readers encountering Chinese science fiction to see it through the lens of Western dreams and hopes and fairy tales about Chinese politics.” The challenge for Western readers is to be aware of this lens between reader and text in order to avoid the trap of allegory. There is no need to look for allegory in these stories; they stand for themselves as excellent science fiction. Chen Qiufan’s The Fish of Lijiang, for example, responds to a dislocation of time and space as a result of corporate burnout felt by its protagonist and subsequent efforts to rehabilitate him. With its focus on the placement of souls into machines, A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight by Xia Jia’s explores loneliness and alienation, and Ma Boyong’s The City of Silence presents a poisoned Web in the year 2046, one dominated by censorship and control. It is of course possible to consider loneliness, isolation, and web censorship with reference to China, but I think here that they are challenges of modernity as well.

Liu Cixin enjoys some success and appreciation because of the English-language translation of his trilogy Three-Body Problem. He notes how his work “somehow gained the attention of information-technology entrepreneurs” and writes briefly about post-1949 Chinese science fiction, the import of socialist realism from the Soviet Union, and the promotion of science as a progressive force. By the 1990s, he writes that Chinese science fiction was “finally able to escape the fate of being a mere tool to serve the goal of popularizing science, and could develop in new directions.” With his experiences of toxic effluent from electronic and computer products, Chen Qiufan locates Chinese science fiction firmly in modern China. At a time when “old illusions have collapsed but new illusions have not yet taken their place,” he believes that “science fiction is capable of wedging open small possibilities.” Xia Jia writes of the particular Chinese “historic condition” and is firmly of the opinion that new “social experiences, transformations, integrations and reorganisations” in China provide a sense “in which Chinese science fiction can be read as a national allegory in the age of globalisation.”

Ultimately, in reading these short stories, it is for the reader to decide which scenes are set in China (and could only be set here); whether such scenes are allegorical, satirical or critical; and whether they portray the speculative science of the future or the implications of present-day science. As well-selected examples of (and, in the case of Isaacson’s study, about) an exciting genre of contemporary Chinese literature, all three books should be enjoyed for the meaning they convey.  

Nathaniel Isaacson, Celestial Empire: the Emergence of Chinese Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press, 2017.
Touchable Unreality. Edited by Neil Clarke. Beijing: China Machine Press, 2017.
Invisible Planets: 13 Visions of the Future from China. Edited and translated by Ken Liu. Head of Zeus (UK), 2016.

Andy Thomas is a reviewer for the “Writing Chinese” network of Leeds University, United Kingdom.