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Science Fiction, Globalization, and the People’s Republic of China

by Lavie Tidhar

Science fiction, as Thomas M. Disch argues, is “one of the few American industries that has never been transplanted abroad with any success”1. Yet, as Kurt Vonnegut gently points out in Slaughterhouse Five, “practically nobody on Earth is an American”2. In order to understand the emergence of sf as a global social movement, therefore, and the interplay between the world of science fiction and globalisation, we may do well to study China as a case in point.

Science fiction, says Han Song, “was imported from the West early in this century by some Chinese elites who believed that the genre could help people become intelligent and thereby modernise the country. „We may say that from the very beginning there was a lack of industrial background in China to enable sci-fi to prosper3. Han points accurately to industrialisation as a required foundation for the evolution of sf. And as a corollary, as Malcolm Edwards remarked4, wherever you find urbanisation you are also likely to find science fiction.

Sf, as a literature of development, was thus treated in varying ways in various times by the Chinese political machine. “Boosted for a period of time by the Chinese Communist Party in the 1950s [when] China was ready to achieve a socialist industrialization” (Han, p. 110), it “came to a halt” during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), which, Han dryly suggests has “brought a catastrophe to all kinds of literature”(ibid.). Author Zheng Wenguang suffered personally in that period: “I had to give up my pen and go to the countryside in Guandong province. I worked as a peasant. I grew rice and fed livestock”5. Sf was again promoted with the rise of Deng Xiaoping to power, exemplified by his statement “Science and technology is the No. 1 productive force” (Han, p. 111). As we can see, sf was considered variously positive or negative (or productive and counter-productive) for the nation, depending on the politics of the time. After a short burst of activity sf was again banned in China during the 1980s and only re-emerged towards the 1990s. So that while Chinese scholars identify three main “waves” of sf in China, it is only since the late 1980s that Chinese sf has truly blossomed. I suggest the reason can be attributed to the process of globalization.

In his article, “The Social Environment of Chinese Science Fiction”, in a sub-title suggestively headed “Golden Age”, Han Song glories in the expansion of sf: “The genre is entering another booming stage… Increased numbers of book titles on the shelves of bookstores… Fan clubs have been set up… A new generation of writers is rushing to the front stage… All these signal the first Golden Age of Chinese Sci-Fi” (p. 111, my italics). He moves to answer his own rhetorical question, how could this happen?

The first reason he identifies is at grassroots level:

“First, the global revolution of science and technology, featured by computers, the Internet and biology, finally found its way into China. […] The old concepts are being challenged as the country finds itself can no longer be excluded out of the planet [global]-village. The science and technology revolution is turning China from a traditional society into a more open and future-oriented society. […] Sci-Fi thus inevitably became commonplace in urban areas where youngsters grow up watching television, playing electronic games and surfing on the Internet.” (p. 111, my italics)

Yang Xiao, editor of SF World, China’s largest-circulating sf magazine, notes in addition that “after much research, we found the main readers of sf are youth and youngsters with a secondary education or above. Last year, we sent our readers 30,000 questionnaires. According to statistics, the ages of the majority ranged from 15-36. 81% of our readers have secondary education, and 18% have higher education”6.

Han Song identifies the second reason for the boom in science fiction as political:

“The Chinese government has attached a greater importance to science and technology. The national policy of ‘invigorating the country by promoting science and education’ is regarded by some commentators as an engine for Chinese Sci-Fi to take off. Actually, the country need Sci-Fi because of both political and economic reasons. […] Writing sf in China is not a mere personal affair, but is connected with the efforts to save an economically-backward nation”(p. 112).

The changes in the world economy have obviously not bypassed China. The globalisation of world markets forced the Chinese to change their economic politics and become a free market. Suddenly, multinational corporations are moving in; industry is producing anything from DVD players to Calvin Klein underwear and exporting most of the local production; Beijing and Shanghai are transforming into sleek, modern cities; foreign tourists are allowed freely into the country; and the Middle Kingdom is suddenly forced to admit there is a world outside its borders. How has that affected the budding world of Chinese science fiction?

On visiting China in the summer of 2000 I was surprised at the complexity and determination I found in the sf field. Structures were forming that I would not have expected to see outside the US-UK axis, paralleling to a surprising degree the field’s development in the West. At Beijing Normal University, for example, Professor Wu Yan now teaches a course on science fiction, covering novels by Jules Verne, HG Wells – and William Gibson. Beijing also boasts its very own specialist bookshop, Singularity, dedicated to science fiction. Independent, commercial publishers seem to flourish, with Beijing-based SF Ocean maintaining a line of translated novels as well as a specialist SF magazine (defunct as of late 2001). Dinner with professional sf writer Xing He turned into a long debate on the forefathers of Golden Age sf: Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke.

It could be argued that this is a process of Americanisation, that this immersion in an essentially American genre is proof of Disch’s statement that “most sci-fi still bears the label ‘Made in America” (p. 2), if not for the efforts put into the local sf market. In a ‘call to arms’ speech in 1992, SF World editor Yang Xiao said: “We are looking forward to seeing the bloom and prosperity on this land. We have set up a stage for you, sf writers and sf fans. We hope you will exert your creativity. Let’s do our utmost, hand in hand, to make a great contribution to Chinese sf”. (p. 43) Yang Xiao symbolises more than anyone else the new realities of Globalisation and its relationship with the PRC. The daughter of a high-up official in the Communist Party, she has founded China’s biggest and most influential magazine, Chengdu-based SF World, with an estimated readership today of more than a million7. It is a characteristic of Chinese sf, that rather than being passively influenced by the West it actively seeks to involve itself with the outside world. Brian Aldiss records:

“In 1989, The Eurocon, the major European convention, was held in the small republic of San Marino. We were surprised and delighted by a visitor from China, Miss Yang Xiao, with her interpreter. She proposed a World SF meeting in Chengdu in 1991, sponsored by her magazine, which maintains the honourable tradition of printing short stories. The proposal was accepted at a stormy WSF meeting at The Hague, Holland, in the following year“.8

Since then, contacts with China have mainly followed the route of academic conferences on the one hand, and the business transactions of translation on the other. Since China is not a signatory to any international copyright agreements, however, the situation can be complex. While the respectable publishers, such as SF World, contract and pay for translation rights, other publishers are less scrupulous. American author William F. Wu discovered on his recent visit that four of his Robot City novels have been translated and published in China without his knowledge or permission. These pirate publishers present a risk to the established publishers by pirating works already published, selling the copied books for a third of the price and utilising different outlets, such as “book carts”. These are present on the streets of most major cities, offering pirated books sold by hawkers who can disappear down the street the moment a police inspection walks by. It is important to understand, however, that the one way transaction of foreign publication rights from the West to China is still an active business, representing (at the moment) a small but profitable secondary market for Western authors and their agents.

Globalisation is generally viewed by the left in the West as potentially negative, emphasising the process of fragmentation – of national and ethnic divides, the growing abyss between rich and poor, the decline in power of nation-states against corporate entities. These changes are reflected in some of the major works of modern sf, from Gibson’s ground-breaking Neuromancer (1984) – with its gigantic corporations, an extreme free-market where practically everything, including life or death, is for sale – to Michael Marshall Smith’s celebration of fragmentation in Only Forward (1994), where a city (which, we later learn, is a future London) is carved up into loosely interconnected areas of exclusive interest groups with varying political and economic systems.

It is important to understand these changes in perception in the West in order to appreciate the differences in the People’s Republic of China. Translated novels of the 1940s and the 1950s are the backbone of the Chinese foreign novels market. Asimov, Clarke, Pohl, Heinlein and other Golden Age authors – with their ‘Humanity über alles’ (Disch, p.183) approach – are the works being sold, being read, being taught. New Wave authors are hardly known. According to Professor Wu Yan, only one Zelazny short story has ever appeared in China. Zelazny is, of course, best known for interpolating various religions and their mythologies with sf. Samuel R. Delany, whose complex novels deal with issues of religion, sex, and politics, is virtually unheard-of. Neither are the works of controversial authors Harlan Ellison and Philip K. Dick, while the early novels of 60s writer, Larry Niven, deemed perhaps more in line with the “ideals” of sf, are widely available. It seems that there is a forty-years’ gap in publication, a carefully-tailored policy of ‘weeding out’ unsuitable material in order to present sf ‘as it should be’. “Science fiction,” said Councillor of the State Council Comrade Song Jian, “can enlighten a nation on science”9. But not, evidently, enlighten a nation on sex, drugs, politics or religion. This is not a flippant remark. During my time in China I occupied myself by compiling a list of taboo subjects. Homosexuality and AIDS, for example, are ‘a foreign problem’ – this view being expounded in the daily papers (controlled, of course, by the Party). Drugs are another taboo subject, as are religion and politics. Indeed, William F. Wu once tried to sell a story set in Taiwan to SF World, a story that was swiftly, if politely, refused. Taiwan, as Tibet, is ‘a part of China’, and to claim otherwise is unwise. An important sign of change, however, was the publication of William Gibson’s previously-mentioned novel Neuromancer in 1999. Neuromancer is an anomaly: a seminal novel in its depiction of what are, in effect, the negative values of globalisation, and its mature treatment of such subjects as the emerging computer networks, global crime and the free market (not to mention designer drugs), it seems as out of place in the tame company of Asimov and Clarke as a visitor from 1984 would be to the denizens of the 1950s. Indeed, much in the way Neuromancer inspired the Cyberpunk movement in the west, Gibson’s novel is now acting as an inspiration for a new generation of Chinese writers. Described to me as ‘network stories’, this form of Chinese Cyberpunk is produced by an up-and-coming group of young authors, mostly in their 20s-30s. Beijing-based Yang Ping is a case in point. A recent university graduate, he now works as a network administrator for Tsinghua University. He keeps in touch with his fellow writers via e-mail, speaks fluent English, has his own web site. I would suggest that he, and others like him, are finding the new Capitalist economic reality of China liberating. In the west, genre fiction (sf/fantasy/horror) has long been a strong economic entity on its own merit.

For English-language authors, there is an existing market structure to support them, from small-press magazines and chapbooks to multinational publishing corporations. Without the backing of consumer culture, genre work can only be written for love, not money. It would seem reasonable to suggest that the formation of a viable market in China therefore attracts many more writers, and would-be writers, to the genre. An author selling a short story to SF World can possibly make more than in his or her monthly salary elsewhere. While, as in the West, the selling of short fiction does not usually represent a viable means of support, it can be successfully used to move on to genre novels, for which pay – and the market – are much bigger.

Indeed, the Chinese market is in fact unique in its potential: simply put, it represents the largest consumer market in the world. As such, there are dual opportunities for mutual benefits between China and the West. Chinese authors may command a huge following in their own country, and as such could represent a potential investment for the multinational publishing houses. Western authors, on the other hand, can, and should, look to breaking into the growing Chinese market where they could enjoy a much higher circulation than otherwise. The problem with this is twofold. Firstly, it must be recognized that multinational publishers, who now control the vast majority of English-language publishing, are to a very large degree Anglo-centric. This has less to do with editorial policy, perhaps, than with an Anglo-centric target market, but the result is the same. Foreign-language genre authors are very rarely published in English. It could also be argued that the cost of translation is high, and that this serves as a barrier, yet it must be noted translation fees are successfully included in the opposite direction (that is, in the publication of English-language works into other languages) and also that at least one company, the excellent Harvill Press in the UK, successfully publish translations into English (though sadly few with science fictional contents). Secondly, while the Chinese publishing industry may be very keen to breach the English-language market, they suffer from a lack of suitable translators, thus making the task of approaching Western agents or publishers very difficult indeed.

Finally, it is important to try and analyse what Chinese sf is like. Having looked at the political taboos on the one hand, and the political motivation for it as a propagator of science and technology on the other, it remains to be seen what level of sophistication Chinese sf achieves. In his 1997 article, William F. Wu addresses the question remarked on his previous visit in 1983. “The Chinese science fiction I read then reminded me of the science fiction written and published in the U.S. from the 1920s to the 1940s”10. In conversation with him in 2000, Wu likened current Chinese sf to the material written in the U.S. in the 1950s. This suggests to me that Chinese sf is still, to a large degree, led by the English-language material that is being translated and published. Indeed, it may not so far have been able to build up its own techniques, its own repertoire of science fictional devices and concepts. It would be interesting to see if it yet does so.

It also appears sf is still very much driven by political motives, a tool to portray progress and technological development as essentially positive. This, in a way, is built directly into the foundations of sf. Wu’s view, for example, is in support of this approach. “China’s science fiction writers”, he says, “have a unique opportunity in this time not only to entertain their readers with the display of new ideas, but to engage their readers with an active and positive view of life and its possibilities” (p. 80).

The effects of globalisation are apparent not only on Chinese sf but on Chinese society as a whole. China is struggling with a transformation from agricultural to industrial production, with a new divide between the rich and the poor, and with the very nature of a country too large, some say, to remain a single political unit. The gulf between the coastal towns of Beijing and Shanghai, and the poor inland provinces, is subject to much concern. Political unrest in Tibet, the seemingly-fanatical obsession with Taiwan, the overwhelming power still held by the ruling Communist Party, all suggest problems of possible fragmentation along political and geographic lines. In one of the only articles I’ve read to delve into the more negative side of progress, Liu Xingshi condenses the concerns of many anti-globalisation activists and movements:

“Where there is no war, no population expansion, no waste of natural resources, no environment pollution, no killing of wildlife, the world will be beautiful.[…]Never destroy our old earth again [or else] we will stand condemned through the ages.[…] There are so many books concerning visitors from outer-space in our sf. It seems that it is as easy for one to come from outer-space to the earth as you come to Beijing.[…] It is a beautiful dream[…] [but] We are like small germs living on this small star. […]We must face the facts, never [be] too romantic.[…]The bell of the new century will be ringing. Our sf must take on the sacred duty of warning the world.”11

It yet remains to be seen whether Chinese sf will evolve to reflect those issues.


1 Thomas M. Disch, The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World (NY: The Free Press, 1998), p. 2.

2 Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five (London: Jonathan Cape, 1986), p. 95.

3 Han Song, “The Social Environment of Chinese Science Fiction”, ’97 Beijing International Conference on Science Fiction: Essays (1997), pp. 110-112, at p. 110.

4 In conversation, Gollancz Annual Party, April 2001.

5 Zheng Wenguang, “Speech by Zheng Wenguang”, Locus 372 (Jan. 1992), p. 43. Transcript of speech given at World SF meeting in Chengdu, Sichuan, China on May 21, 1991.

6 Yang Xiao, “From SF World to World SF in China”, Locus 372 (Jan. 1992), p. 43.

7 SF World has a circulation of approx. 300,000 copies per month, with an estimate of 3-5 readers per copy. In addition, SF World publishes Amazing Files (similar to the British SFX, 70,000) and Flying (children, 30,000-50,000), with Amazing Files having an estimated 8-10 readers due to its higher price. (soruce: Stone Yan, Editor, Amazing Files, by e-mail, 14/07/03).

8 Brian Aldiss, “SF as World Movement”. ’97 Beijing International Conference on Science Fiction: Essays (1997), pp. 23-28, at p. 27.

9 Guo Jianzhong, “Prospects for SF in China”, ’97 Beijing International Conference on Science Fiction: Essays (1997), pp. 104-108, at p. 107.

10 Bill Wu, “Science, Science Fiction, Peace and Development”, ’97 Beijing International Conference on Science Fiction: Essays (1997), pp. 74-80, at p. 79.

11 Liu Xingshi, “SF, Do Its Bit For Protection Of Our Old Earth’s Environment”, ’97 Beijing International Conference on Science Fiction: Essays (1997), pp. 92-93.

First published in: Foundation. The International

Review of Science Fiction, No. 89, Autumn 2003

Copyright © 2003 by Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar grew up in Israel and South Africa and travelled widely in Africa, Asia, and Europe. After a longer stay on a Pacific island and a trip to South Asia, he is now back in Jaffa, Israel. He is the winner of the 2003 Clarke-Bradbury Prize (sponsored by the European Space Agency) and his short stories have been appeared in print and online in the USA and UK and in translation in France, Spain, Greece, Israel, and China. One of his stories was recently selected by Gardner Dozois for the 23rd editon of Year’s Best Science Fiction. Lavie’s nonfiction appeared in Locus, Foundation, Interzone, and the Internet Review of Science Fiction. He supported InterNova from early on by providing contacts with sf writers in several countries.

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