The Year in Chinese Science—And Science FictionRoundup: Historians' Take
tags: China, science fiction
Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California-Irvine and the author, most recently, of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, an updated edition of which, with contributions by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, was recently published by Oxford University Press.
Thanks to China joining the elite club of countries that have carried out successful moon landings, 2013 will definitely be remembered as a special year in the annals of Chinese science. What’s likely less widely appreciated in some quarters is that it’s also been a banner year for Chinese science fiction.
This genre has had its share of dramatic ups and downs in the past, with the Communist Party literary establishment treating it as a suspect form for much of the last half-century. Now, though, it is definitely on a roll. Science fiction novels are selling briskly in China. Foreign specialists in Chinese literature, only a few of whom paid attention to the genre twenty years ago, now routinely take it seriously as a subject for scholarly attention. And Chinese SF has become so mainstream that the official Xinhua News Agency even found a way to bring practitioners of the genre, such as bestselling author Liu Cixin, whom they described as “one of the China’s most celebrated sci-fi writers,” into their campaign to use the lunar breakthrough to buttress national pride. The December 17 Xinhua article “Chinese sci-fi writers laud moon landing,” not only quotes Liu and other SF authors on the accomplishments of the country’s space program but also reminds readers that Lu Xun, the country’s most venerated modern literary figure, began his career by translating works by Jules Verne and wrote in 1903 that science fiction could play a crucial role in “the advancement of the Chinese nation.”
Lu Xun’s famous comment appeared in the introduction to the translation he did (working from an earlier Japanese edition) of Verne’s A Journey from the Earth to the Moon, a work that presciently predicted that Americans would someday take the lead in lunar expeditions. The young intellectual’s interest in foreign SF had been sparked by commentaries on the genre by the country’s most famous progressive intellectual of the day, Liang Qichao. Liang celebrated science fiction’s ability to introduce readers to new technologies and new ways of thinking simultaneously, and in 1902 even tried his hand at a story with some SF dimensions. Titled “The Future of New China,” the tale was set in a Shanghai in the far-off year of 1962 that was hosting the first-ever Chinese World’s Fair....