Chinese rarely utter the word “future.” “Five thousand years of history” and “a profound traditional culture” tend to roll off our tongues more easily. Instead of robots, interstellar perils and secret empires tucked away in the swirls of the Milky Way, Chinese television is dominated by imperial courts, ancient emperors and flying swordsmen. In recent years, we have seen a bit of progress. Our televisions now play fabricated acts of espionage during the War of Liberation (1945-1949)—a little closer to the present, but not quite “futuristic.”
Compared to pressing, current concerns like housing prices, education, food safety and other issues, the future is a little more remote for the average person. But every civilization needs its Platos—people who ponder the metaphysical and imagine what has yet to materialize. Premier Wen Jiabao said, “A nation is only hopeful when some of its people are capable of looking at the starry sky, and hopeless if all the people only have worldly concerns.”
In China, there are the nerd-freaks who enjoy thinking about the future. They exist on the periphery of society. They hold regular jobs, but they carry secret identities. They are real life Clark Kents and Bruce Waynes. They are China’s science fiction authors. I am one of them.
I am proud to be part of this group. Over the last century, Chinese sci-fi authors have opened wormholes into different literary dimensions: cunning satire, gleaming hope and dystopian rumblings.
I would like to take you on a voyage back in time and re-visit those imagined futures.
Just Another Magic World
Enlightenment, rationalism and prosperity of the country formed the mantra of the late Qing (1840-1912). Sci-fi novels from the West were seen as a means to meet that end. But people were still ignorant to the scientific bases behind the genre. They had little scientific education. The first Chinese writers to tackle science fiction tended to portray a future of magical scenes.
In the book “New Tales of Mr. Fa Luo” (《新法螺先生谭》Xīn Fǎluó Xiānshēng Tán, 1905), author Donghai Juewo (东海觉我) imagined an object that produces light created by the materialization of spirits. The object emits light ten times brighter than the sun. As it travels in curves, the light poses no threat to the eyes and its reflection is delayed—an impossibility if one were to believe the laws of physics.
The book “Electricity World” (《电世界》Diàn Shìjiè, 1909) by Xuzhi Yan (许 指严) depicts a world rooted in electricity. Education, sanitation, transportation and the economy are super developed. We no longer need generators to produce electricity. A mineral called “metal star” is rubbed in the atmosphere and creates endless amounts of electricity. Once charged, the mineral will rub against itself automatically. No wires or cables are needed to source the electricity. A small gadget on top of the mineral sends the currents out everywhere they are needed. Late Qing authors turned a deaf ear to the rules of science in order to depict the wealthy, powerful China they wished for.
Magical imaginings soon turned into indecisive gloom. In the time of the Republic (1912-1949), the country’s future path weighed heavily on people’s minds. Lao She (老舍), a fierce critic, wrote “Cat Country” (《猫城记》 Māochéng Jì) in 1932.
In the book, the character “I” crashes on Mars and finds himself in a country of cat people. He shoots one as he tries to escape. The cats worship him as “Mr. Earth” for his gun power. The cat aristocrats eat miye (迷叶, literally “delusion leaves,” something akin to marijuana). This import, which causes those who ingest it to lose all sense of reason, is treasured as “the food of the nation.” Any temptation of personal gain drives the cat people to disregard all moral principle. They are cold, selfish, murderous and xenophobic.
When their country is taken over by foreign imperialists, the feline cowards fight each other to be the first to surrender. The enemy buries them alive in droves. In the end, “I” boards a French exploration vessel and returns to a magnificent, free China. Bright readers can sniff out Lao She’s cynicism here. Cat Country is a fictional stand-in for China; Cat People, a reflection of its people.
On October 1st, 1949, a brave new world began. “The farmer grew a five-ton pumpkin! He launched a satellite!” the people cried. This was the skewed reality exhibited in China’s “Great Leap Forward (大跃进 Dà Yuèjìn),” a social movement from 1958 to 1960 that cried for the rapid advancement of agriculture and industry. “Launch a Satellite” (放卫星 fàng wèixīng) was a metaphor used in propaganda for an incredible agricultural or industrial feat (sometimes too incredible).
During the 17 years between the founding of New China and the Cultural Revolution (1949-1966), reality in China was a reflective pool shimmering with futuristic occurrences, even more sci-fi than science fiction itself. “Catch up with Britain! Surpass America!” was the people’s slogan. They dreamt of transporting their socialist ideology to the rest of the planet. Their breasts heaving with revolution and optimism, they went about transforming their land. Newspapers motivated the masses with wild claims, like 50,000 kilos of rice being produced per 800 square meters of land. This shimmering reality was just as real in the period’s original and translated science fiction.
“Elephants With Their Trunks Removed” (《割掉鼻子的大象》Gēdiào Bízi de Dàxiàng), 1956, by Chi Shuchang (迟书昌), was a book about pigs as big as elephants. In the novel, China develops advanced technology. Barren deserts are transformed into green oases on which modern cities are constructed. A breed of super-pigs is created by stimulating their pituitary glands. Each pig weighs 12 tons.
In these futures, science is invincible, it will solve everything. These ideas were influenced by Soviet sci-fi and Jules Verne’s books. Science fiction was applied as a tool for the “popularization of science” and socialist utopias built on amazing technological feats leaped out of writers’ pens.
In “Buck’s Adventures” (《布克的奇遇》Bùkè de Qíyù), 1962, by Xiao Jianheng (萧建亨), a dog who aspires to become a famous circus dog has his dreams crushed when he is run over by a truck. Just as his fans are giving up hope, Buck returns strutting in a shiny brand-new body. The new dog body is the successful result of an organ transplant experiment, a new technology that can bring hope to millions.
Stories like this were typically written in interview form, the narrator a reporter visiting a farm or investigating a lead. A wise old scientist would then appear and explain the technology used. The ending always had a reporter broadcasting his praise. Inspired, the generation brought up on these stories dreamed of and pursued careers as scientists and engineers.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), science and dreams disintegrated. By the end of the 1970s, people were desperate to fill the cultural vacuum left by the turmoil. Sci-fi authors picked up their pens again in earnest. The most influential book to come out was “Xiao Lingtong Travels to the Future” (《小灵通漫游未来》Xiǎo Língtōng Mànyóu Wèilái), written by Ye Yonglie (叶永烈) in 1961 but not published until 1978. It was designated as a children’s book for the popularization of science.
In the story, Xiao Lingtong is a reporter visiting “Future City” in “Future World.” He finds greenhouse technology, airships, TV watches, contact lenses, 3D movies and plastic objects (not too far from the technology we have today). He also finds a man-made moon, robot servants and immortality.
The book is still China’s best-selling science fiction novel. It has sold three million copies and is re-published every other year. Middle-aged Chinese remember how they sincerely believed the inspirational future of the book—a bright world in which technology can end conflict and strife.
The post-Cultural Revolution renaissance of the sci-fi genre was short lived. Debate broke out over the soundness of scientific theories in these novels. Qian Xuesen, vice president of the China Association for Science and Technology, declared his severe distaste for the stories. As writers and scientists argued, the problem of scientific accuracy in the books soon evolved into a problem of the political ideologies exhibited by the genre.
In the second half of 1983, science fiction, along with other literary styles, was classified as “spiritual pollution.” The books were banned. Another dark moon had enveloped the genre. For a second decade, sci-fi writers would find themselves with no platform for their work and quietly put away their pens.
1993 – PRESENT
Trillion Year Doom
Parents subscribed en masse to Science Fiction World (《科幻世界》Kēhuàn Shìjiè) magazine in 1999. They were out to secure their children’s academic success. That year, the essay topic on the gaokao, or university entrance exam, was “If memories could be transplanted…” By coincidence, Science Fiction World had just published a story on the subject and parents wanted their children to read it. This “coincidence” doubled the magazine’s circulation. Imagining future worlds is only important when it brings benefits on exams today in China.
On the peripheries of society there does remain those nerd-freaks, cloaked in the normalcy of their day jobs. They do imagine the future. The “Three Generals” of China’s sci-fi writing circle today are Wang Jinkang (王晋康), Han Song (韩松) and Liu Cixin (刘慈欣).
Wang’s public persona is a high-level engineer. In his 2009 novel “Cross” (《十字》Shízì), a bio-terrorism campaign, “912,” begins in the US. The terrorists are a group of fanatical scientists called “the cross organization.” They protect viruses in the name of preserving biodiversity, and they plant extinct viruses in humans. Soon, the terror spreads worldwide. Wang’s stories uses dystopias as carriers of “The Oneness of Nature and Man” concept described in Chinese philosophy. He draws on the struggle between science and nature.
Han Song is ostensibly a deputy director at Xinhua News Agency. His awareness of political sensitivities fills his works with euphemisms. In “Red Ocean” (《红色海洋》Hóngsè Hǎiyáng), published in 2004 he intertwines four stories of desperation set on the sea. Pollution and exploitation of the oceans have led to a nuclear war. Mankind has turned itself into a race of aqua-humanoids and thrives on a primitive way of life. We eat each other and murder our parents. Han Song writes a cyclical historical perspective. In “Red Ocean” he romanticizes the navigation of the sea with characters of the likes of Columbus and Vasco da Gama. The future is just the past played over again.
Liu Cixin’s cover is also a high-level engineer at a power station. His acclaimed masterpiece “Three Body Trilogy” (《三体》Sāntǐ) was published in three parts in 2006, 2008 and 2010, respectively. The book spans from the Byzantine Empire (395-1453) to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and trillions of years into the future. Human Civilization and Three-Body Civilization are in competition and they enter a technology race. Three-Body Civilization prevails and takes over the Earth. But the human race doesn’t go extinct. Survivors escape on the last rocket ship to blast into space. There, they witness the ultimate fate of the universe. (For a more personal glimpse of these three “Sci-fi Generals” see their interviews with The World of Chinese on page 37). This was the first Chinese sci-fi novel to make it on a bestseller list and go mainstream. “Three-Body Trilogy” lays down the cruel laws of “the black forest.” The laws echo Stephen Hawking’s theory of existence and nature of extra terrestrials. Through calculation he concludes that life exists outside the earth. But their nature is hard to predict. An intelligent extra-terrestrial civilization could be a serious threat to humanity. “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”
In Liu’s fictional laws the universe is a dark forest. Each civilization within is an armed hunter. These hunters dare not make a sound. The forest is thriving with other camouflaged hunters. Upon discovering one another, they are forced to act: shoot that being and eliminate its existence! In this forest, others are enemies. Civilizations of the Universe are thus darkly portrayed.
In Chinese sci-fi of the millennium, the extinction of the human race is executed in a multiplicity of contrivances. Chinese sci-fi authors seem collectively predisposed to focus on humanity’s tragic fate. This point of view differs from the assuring, bright voice of the public media, which broadcasts daily, “the rise of China’s GDP, social stability, peace and security for the people.”
Stop for a second and imagine a China existing within alternative realities. The country’s people exist within these layers where diverging rifts obstruct communication. People see things differently and sometimes have trouble understanding each other. To some, passing exams may be more important than imagining the future. To others, writing about the end of the world may be more engaging than the latest news story. Naturally, the futures we see are also different.
The bleak future I imagine in my book “Switch” (《开关》Kāiguān) is filled with people suffering from split personality disorders. The ever-growing complexity of social roles and relationships disturbs the neurons in the brain that manage “role changing.” People can’t adjust their personalities when they meet with other members of society. Managing the tragic after-effects of these confrontations and the cost of treatment causes a huge drain on society. Children start being taught from a young age how to switch personalities. As Chinese are used to managing complex relationships and playing “face” games to get what we want, China comes out on top of the epidemic.
As a self-proclaimed pessimist, I conclude this voyage back to the future with the words of George Orwell. “Who controls the past controls the future, and who controls the present controls the past.” So, let us face the present.