A few questions to Robert G. Price, author of 'Space to create in Chinese Science Fiction'.

Space to createRobert G. Price, born in Grimsy, UK, has spent many years travelling and working with foreign languages. Fascinated by hearing of his Grandfather's military service in Hong Kong in the 1940's, he first started learning Cantonese as a teenager. Teaching in East Asia for nearly five years gave him the opportunity to learn about the culture and languages of South Korea, Taiwan and China. In 2015 he gained his Masters (Magister) in Chinese Studies at the University of Cologne, Germany.

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Is sci-fi popular in China?

Well, this really depends on whether we are talking more about Western / Hollywood SF or home-grown Chinese SF and which format – movies vs. literature. Huge Hollywood blockbusters are as popular in China as anywhere despite governmental limits on how many and which films are allowed in Chinese cinemas. This quota was set to be relaxed at the beginning of 2017 – but in any case as many people who visit China experience, most Hollywood films find their way onto the illegal DVD markets.

resetThe number of Chinese films based on SF is indeed quite small but this is starting to increase over time. Stephen Chow’s ‘The Mermaid’ has been described as a “science fantasy romantic comedy” and was a hit in China last year and this year saw the release of ZHA Muchun’s time-travel based ‘Reset’, directed by Korean director Chang and produced by Jackie Chan. But the film that a lot of people are awaiting for is the film adaptation of LIU Cixin’s ‘The Three Body Problem’ which is due for release some time in 2017.

SF literature has seen a rise in popularity over the last couple of decades and especially so since the release in book form of LIU’s ‘The Three Body Problem’ (it was originally serialised in the SF literature magazine Science Fiction World) but it’s still seen by many as something for children – at least this is the impression I get from Chinese friends.

Until recently, Chinese SF literature has been mainly used as a background for teaching science to children. This goes back to one of the major supporters of SF in the very early days, a scholar and writer named LU Xun. LU had studied at a Japanese University in the 1880’s and was one of the very first to translate European SF (Jules Verne) into Chinese from Japanese translations he’d read in Japan. At that time, China was technologically lacking and LU saw SF as a way of teaching modern science. Of course, it was a well-meaning intention but SF became stuck in this role for most of the first 100 years of its existence in China. You see, part of China’s problem until the early 20th century was that they used one style of language for writing and a different syntax for the spoken language. It’s a complicated thing to grasp, but imagine using only Latin to write but speaking modern Italian. The time that was necessary in learning to read and write made it inaccessible to the masses.

Robert G. PriceIn 1918, LU published a story written in a more colloquial style of writing which echoed the spoken language more closely. There had been other examples of this so-called ‘Baihua’ style of writing in the past, but LU’s ‘Diary of a Madman’ was the first to use it to tell a whole story. LU later became revered as the father of modern literature and this had the effect in later generations that certain ideas he had of education for the masses were adopted by the Communist Party and consequently SF in China became used only for instructional purposes.

One scholar, WU Yan has termed this the "shackles of utilitarianism" and it’s because of this view of SF that has led to it actually being banned in mainland not just once, but twice. The first time was in the late ‘60s with the onset of the Cultural Revolution when science and arts were considered bourgeois. This lasted until after the death of MAO in 1976 when it was tentatively reintroduced until it was once again banned in 1983 in a campaign of “anti-spiritual corruption.” The second ban was due to the usage of ‘unscientific themes’ such as sex with robots that had started to make an appearance.

Over time, things became relaxed once more and thanks to the efforts of Mrs. YANG Xiao, the then-editor of the Chengdu-based magazine Science Fiction World, China hosted the 1991 World Science Fiction Convention. From then on, the popularity has grown steadily but one gets the impression that it’s still a niche genre in China and more popular with young people or the so-called ‘nerd’ culture. (Some things do seem universal!) It’s close cousin ‘wuxia’ or martial heroes / fantasy seems to have a much larger following having spawned a multitude of books, fan-fiction and even films and TV programs.

What are the major influences of Western Scifi on Chinese sci-fi?

That’s a difficult question for me to answer as I’m also an outsider looking in. I believe that Hollywood plays no small part in introducing new SF to the masses in China and abroad. There are many people out there who would never consider buying an SF novel but would not think twice about watching a movie such as those belonging to the Marvel franchise which can also be considered as SF.

When it comes to literature, the aforementioned Science Fiction World now produces two SF literature magazines. One that deals with SF by Chinese authors and a magazine for Chinese translations of foreign SF. This alone means that there must be enough of a market in China for SF written by foreign authors.

As to what the influence of Western SF on its Chinese counterpart is hard to say. What I have observed and what forms part of the conclusion of my book is that over a period of forty years, the number of themes within Chinese SF has broadened and the number of themes that scholars have observed to be missing from Chinese SF have actually started to make an appearance. My observations were based on a random selection of shorts stories written by three authors over a time span between the early 1960s until the short stories of LIU Cixin who is currently the most famous SF author in China.

The results I’ve gained may be due to an influence of Western SF on Chinese SF, or it could be due to relaxation of regulations on Chinese SF publications, or it could be down to the necessity of being so much more creative when writing SF than in the past. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to come up with original SF ideas that haven’t actually already been written about or even appeared somewhere in the real world. We seem to be already so much within the singularity, where technology is doubling at such a pace that could not have been foretold only a few years ago.

How does censorship affect Chinese sci-fi books?

It does. However, it’s not so clear how. There seem to be certain ‘unwritten rules’ that are recognized by Chinese authors and publishers, although there are always individuals who will try to push the envelope. It has often been reported that one author, in particular, HAN Song has written a number of stories that have not yet been published. He, along with LIU Cixin and WANG Jinkang are referred to as the ‘Three Generals’ of Chinese SF. His stories tend towards the dystopian and it is well known that many have not made it past the censors. One 2011 article by journalist KUN Kun stated that as little as only 20% of his stories have made it to publication.

Even LIU Cixin has related that before he submitted stories for publication he took his time to consider the themes and stories that had already been published and avoided SF themes and genres which he had noticed didn’t get published.

Of course, certain historical events, especially over the last nine decades have to be carefully vetted. US-Chinese author Ken Liu, who also translated two of the ‘Three Body’ books into English explained that certain lines of his ‘The Paper Menagerie’ had to be changed when translated into Chinese to avoid certain references to the Cultural Revolution. At first, he was displeased by this but then recognized that the Chinese translators, editors, and publishers would be subject to any political repercussions that such inclusions may cause.

Who are the most popular authors in the country?

As has already been mentioned, LIU, HAN Song and WANG Jinkang are firm favourites with Chinese readers although there are always new authors on the scene.

Two Years ago, LIU became the first Chinese author to win a coveted Hugo Award for the English translation of his ‘Three Body’ translation and this year saw the first female Chinese author, HAO Jinfang, win a Hugo for the English translation of ‘Folding Beijing.’

Incidentally, ‘Folding Beijing’ is one of the 13 stories that appears in ‘Invisible Planets, alongside other short stories by HAO, LIU Cixin, CHEN Quifan (aka Stanley Chan), XIA Jia, MA Boyong, and CHENG Jingbo and translated and edited by no other than Ken Liu. So there’s a good starting point for people to find out more about contemporary Chinese SF.

How is Chinese sci-fi perceived abroad?

When I was writing my MA in Chinese studies I would tell my friends that my thesis subject was Chinese science fiction and people would look at strangely and ask “Is that a thing? Does that even exist?”

However in the last few years and mainly thanks to the international recognition of LIU’s ‘Three Body’ Chinese SF has become more well-known. Even Barack Obama included ‘The Three Body Problem’ on his book list in a New York Times interview.

Certain aspects come across as ‘strange’ for readers who have little experience with reading Chinese translations. A German friend of mine who has read ‘Three Body’ found it strange that the characters in the Three Body online game had all taken on the personae of historical figures such as Qin Shi Huan, Copernicus etc… This is something I’ve noticed in other examples not only SF (e.g. The Poetry Cloud by LIU Cixin) but also of Chinese literature such as in Guo Moruo’s tale of Karl Marx meeting Confucius. Other elements that can be described as a certain ‘Chinese-ness’ also make an impression on readers who are not really familiar with the literature. Added to this, the idea that the purpose of SF is to teach can lead to some pretty bizarre combinations.

Does sci-fi have any influence on Chinese society?

That’s another difficult question to answer. I would say – yes - but indirectly. Although a lot of SF is actually impossible to make reality given the current level of technology, there is plenty of documented evidence that indicates how SF can and has influenced inventors, engineers, designers etc… in the past. Firstly, I have to make it clear that I’m talking about SF in the west and how that has influenced the world we live in today. Of course, certain aspects such as the internet were not really predicted, unless you count the Murray Leinster story ‘A Logic Named Joe’ or the 1934 musings of Belgian scientist Paul Otlet.

Other ideas such as rocketry and space flight were most definitely influenced by early SF as can be seen from the memoirs of the father of modern Rocketry Robert Hutchings Goddard who took his inspiration for manned-rocket flight from the writings of H.G. Wells. The mobile phone is another prime example of SF-made-reality. SF can also make people think about alternative futures such as in the story of population growth out of control, ‘Make Rooom! Make Rooom!’ by Harry Harrison which is more popularly known by the feature film adaptation ‘Soylent Green’.

From these and numerous other examples we can see how the modern world in the West has been influenced by SF, which conversely affects other countries including, of course, China. Now, if the question refers to whether Chinese SF has had any influence on Chinese society, I would tentatively say that it’s probably too early to say so. But we should keep our eyes on the future.

Interview by Matteo Damiani

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  • umbrarchist

    I would like to see a Chinese writer create an alternate history series where the Chinese colonize Australia and California about 200 years before Europeans and play that out.

    • Rob Price

      Now that's an interesting concept. How would the interaction be between the aborigines and any Chinese settlers? Would the Chinese settle - as had been done by the Fujianese in Taiwan or would they expect to pay tribute to the Emperor?