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An Introduction to Chinese Science Fiction

Eileen Guo By Eileen Guo Published on September 13, 2017

Chinese science fiction has taken the world by storm, recognized — twice in recent years — by the genre’s most prestigious award, the Hugo Awards, given out annually for the best literature of all formats and lengths in science fiction and fantasy. In 2015, Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem became the first translated work, as well as the first Chinese or even Asian writing, to ever receive the prize, and in 2016, Hao Jingfeng’s win for her novella Folding Beijing made her the first female Chinese recipient.

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Both The Three Body Problem and another of Cixin's stories, The Wandering Earth, are currently being adapted for forthcoming movies, and their releases will undoubtedly lead to even more interest in the literature behind the films. The novel is an ambitious work spanning decades and worlds — not only planetary, but also virtual reality within a computer game, and even subcultures of scientists, politicians, the military, and religious fanatics. It is also what science fiction (SF) aficionados call “hard SF”, dealing with actual science, and not afraid to go into detailed technical explanations of everything from artificial intelligence to quantum mechanics. Even its name, central to the plot, refers to a classic physics conundrum. And yet, The Three Body Problem also asks one of the most fundamental questions posed by SF authors, philosophers, and other visionaries over the millennia: How would contact with alien life — or, more specifically, intelligence — affect humanity?

The Three Body Problem has become the de facto introduction of many Western readers to Chinese SF, and while it is the most famous, it is not necessarily the most representative. As Ken Liu, a Chinese-American author and The Three Body Problem’s translator, said in an interview with Wired

If you asked 100 American authors to summarize the state of American genre fiction, you’ll get 100 different answers. That’s what it’s like in China.

That, perhaps, is the reason that Liu published Invisible Planets, a collection of 13 short stories and three essays. The collection serves to highlight the rising stars of Chinese science fiction, with some context provided by the essays. An essay by Liu Cixin, for example, “The Worst of All Possible Universes and The Best of All Possible Earths” gives an overview of SF’s history in China; meanwhile, Hao Jingfeng’s Hugo Award-winning novella, Folding Beijing, is one of the thirteen pieces of literature featured.

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Another way in to the genre of Chinese science fiction is to revisit of the earliest works of the twentieth century, such as Cat Country, by acclaimed writer, Lao She, published in 1932 amidst a drastically changing China. Cat Country follows a Chinese astronaut who crash-lands on Mars in a country inhabited by ‘Cat People,’ and becomes the pet of a Cat Drug Lord. This stranger learns all aspects of life of this strange land, from the language, “Felinese”, to their narcotic food staple, the reverie leaf. But as he becomes more and more familiar with the culture, he realizes that despite its facade of strength and power, Cat Country is a civilization in decline.

Often described as Orwellian — a mash-up, perhaps, of Animal Farm and 1984Cat Country as a satire served as a powerful critique of Lao She’s contemporary China. It was, unfortunately, also a sad predictor of the terror that enveloped the early days of communist China, which resulted in Lao She’s own suicide in 1966, during the Cultural Revolution. It was not until the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 that his work was republished in mainland China.   

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Meanwhile, a more modern example of using alternate worlds to critique contemporary China is Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years, which takes place in an alternative post-Global Financial Crisis China in the very near future, 2011. His book’s main premise is that a month has been stricken from the official record, as well as the collective memory, of seemingly all of Chinese society — except for a small group of friends drawn together because of their alternative memories and out of a conviction to find out the truth. The Fat Years is a critique on modern China and the state-sponsored collective amnesia about much of the country’s history.

The book was, unsurprisingly, banned in mainland China, though it circulated underground. For many readers, it is chilling precisely because of how close it hews to reality. But that, perhaps, represents exactly what is so fascinating about Chinese science fiction: having evolved completely separately from Western literature, it has its own mannerisms and stylistic devices, which is itself refreshing, but even more than this, the alternate worlds that its authors have envisioned serve as a fun-house mirror to real China.

Of course, this is not unique to just Chinese science fiction. As Liu wrote in his postscript to his translation of Three Body Problem: 

Science fiction is a literature that belongs to all humankind. It portrays events of interest to all humanity, and thus science fiction should be the literary genre most accessible to readers of different nations.

Featured image via Jay Products Painting.


Journalist + voracious reader covering + reading about communities on the fringe. Recent reporting from Mexico, China, and Afghanistan.