A burgeoning literary scene cues interest in all things scientific

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A regular column on Chinese science culture from the September 2006 issue of Seed:

chinascifi.jpg Credit: Francesco Francavilla

SHANGHAI—The plot line for the sci-fi series Angel Online is a bit tired: Set in the near fut­ure, an Internet cop struggles to defend a Matrix-like virtual world against ghost intruders. But the series is remarkable in another way. It is the first show of its kind to be produced in mainland China, where science fiction has for a long time had a complicated relationship with the state.

Chinese science fiction was born in the years just after the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, when the government saw the genre as a tool for promoting science. In 1954, astronomer Zheng Wenguang, now considered the godfather of Chinese sci-fi, brought it to the masses with the short story “From Earth to Mars.” But many of these early writers were persecuted when science fiction, like most fiction, was labeled a bourgeois excess during the Cultural Revolution. And so it went, back and forth: The genre flourished again in the political thaw of the late 1970s, only to be dubbed “spiritual pollution” in the 1980s.

But then, in the early 90s, China launched an ambitious scientific development program and seized sci-fi as a means of spurring enthusiasm for science. In 1995, State Science and Technology Commission Minister Song Jian proposed, in a widely circulated article, that science-themed literature would reflect well on the state of Chinese science.

The link between science fiction and actual scientific progress may seem specious to those reared on Western sci-fi, but in China the connection isn’t so farfetched. Kehuan, the Chinese term that means science fiction, suggests more forecasting than fiction—huan means both imagination and prediction. “Part of the value of science fiction is that it makes us consider the future,” said Jiang Xiaoyuan, professor of science history at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, who reviews foreign sci-fi films for the Shanghai press. “It can directly influence scientific development.”

The censors have reason to be wary: Much of Chinese science fiction has been inspired by political events, from the Cultural Revolution to the 1978 Democracy Wall to the Tiananmen Square protests.

Now, with China’s forays into space generating interest in all things extraterrestrial, Chinese science-fiction fans have achieved critical mass. China’s longest running sci-fi magazine, Science Fiction World, has doubled its circulation to 320,000 in the past 10 years and launched two publishing labels and a sister magazine. It now faces competition from several new magazines and dozens of sci-fi websites. This year, Beijing announced that it would start awarding prizes for sci-fi literature. Angel Online, which reportedly cost 18 million yuan (about $2.25 million) to produce and stars Hong Kong heartthrob Yu Rongguang, signals that Chinese television—traditionally heavy on stiff historical dramas—is evolving as well.

But this tendency to propose new ways of living—what James Gunn, director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas, calls an “inherent critique of society”—means that the genre’s position could still be somewhat tenuous in China. Certain subject matter is off-limits; one of Gunn’s novels was translated into Chinese but couldn’t be published because it dealt with student protests. The censors have reason to be wary: Much of Chinese science fiction has been inspired by political events, from the Cultural Revolution to the 1978 Democracy Wall to the Tiananmen Square protests. Even a hackneyed show like Angel Online has the potential for allegory; today’s censors, one imagines, are naturally sensitive to portrayals of Internet cops.

But with sci-fi gaining a following on the Chinese Internet and in other Asian countries (particularly India), censorship may become irrelevant. Next year Science Fiction World is scheduling an international conference in Chengdu, in the Sichuan province, to coincide with the World Science Fiction Convention, which will be held in Yokohama that August. Science fiction writer David Brin, one of the featured guests at the convention, has suggested that 2007 will be the year of science fiction in Asia.

And for China, at least, the prognosis seems to suggest even bigger things.

Originally published September 12, 2006

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