Chinese sci-fi writing has been the recipient of prestige awards across the world and is increasingly popular among western readers. But what (and who) inspires Chinese sci-fi writers? What can Chinese sci-fi novels tell us about the country’s anxieties and fantasies? On 7 October 2018 we welcomed novelists Xia Jia and Chen Qiufan (aka Stanley Chan) to Southbank Centre for a discussion on these themes, chaired by co-chair of the Translators Association, Nicky Harman.
Ahead of that event, part of our China Changing festival, Nicky Harman, put a couple of questions to Xia and Chen to get the ball rolling.
Nicky Harman: Chinese sci-fi has become very popular in the west in the last few years. Why do you think that is? What makes Chinese sci-fi special?
'I believe the main reason for that is China itself has been more visible in recent years, with people curious about China’s present situation, as well as its influence on humanity’s future. China has experienced a unique process of modernisation in the 20th century, and this uniqueness can be found in Chinese science fiction as well as in literature and academic works. The question for China is how to become on one hand modern, and on the other, overcome western modernity? So Chinese sci-fi tackles the main concerns of the human community from a special approach, one which can provide readers with the detail and inspiration to imagine an alternative future.
'On a more practical level, we have a group of people and institutions to give thanks for, including influential writers like Liu Cixin, translators like Ken Liu, editors like Yao Haijun, Neil Clarke and Liz Gorinsky, and academic researchers like Wu Yan and David Wang. They have played the roles of ‘bridges’ (or rather ‘portals’) to connect different worlds.'
Chen Quifan (Stanley Chan)
'Science fiction of every culture is bound to have its own traits, reflective of its language and culture. The biggest characteristic of China is the drastic transformation, and the fracture between different social forms. In a hundred years China experienced the progress that the West took many centuries to complete. From the late Qing dynasty to the Republic of China, to the founding of the People’s Republic of China, to learning from the Soviet Union, to the reform-and-opening-up of the 1980s; every stage lasted only about a few decades. There is something very science fictional and fantastic about this very drastic social transformation. At the foundation the soil of rural China is still there, not thoroughly washed away. This has led to the co-existence of many different layers of society, which science fiction is best suited to present.
'It is said that this is the golden age of Chinese Sci-Fi. The answer is yes and no. On the one hand, we have Hugo Award winners and huge capital seeking good sci-fi for film adaptations. Apparently, we can reach a broader market and be more influential not only in China but internationally. The government also considers science fiction to be a valuable cultural export'.
'I think the broader background is the rise of China as a whole, in politics, the economy, and culture; it is playing an increasingly important role. When its overall political and economic strength reaches a certain level, a nation will usually seek out cultural exports. In the past, China’s cultural trade deficit was rather obvious; we had very few cultural exports. It also has to do with chance and luck. Ken Liu played a key role. We were very fortunate to have a translator like him who has native proficiency in both English and Chinese, and who is not only familiar with but also interested in science fiction.
'On the other hand, we don’t have as solid a writer base as America or Europe. Our readers have narrow tastes and mindsets in science fiction. Our film industry is not ready for science fiction movie production. Money might boost the industry, but that might eventually damage the passion. As we are relatively young, there’s still a long way to go'.
Nicky Harman: What are your favourite books and stories from any language? You both have very different styles of writing. Which story of each other’s do you admire most and why?
'I love Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin and Ted Chiang. All of them are more or less crossing boundaries in their writing. In Chinese I can give an even longer list, like Zheng Wenguang, who is known as the ‘Father of Chinese Science Fiction’ as well as being my own personal torchbearer. Last year I edited a contemporary Chinese science fiction collection entitled Lonely Soldiers in Ambush, including thirteen short stories by thirteen authors published in the past thirty years, some of whom inspired and encouraged me to try to write my own stories when I was very young.
'One of the thirteen stories is Chen’s G For Goddess, depicting a female’s curious sexual experience in a post-human context. Since I got to know Chen and began to read his stories (including an unpublished series called Sex & Machine) at college, his continuous interest in body, vision and sensation seems to me a brave exploration, as well as a precious complement to contemporary Chinese science fiction, which has long had a tradition of overvaluing mind rather than body'.
Chen Quifan (Stanley Chan)
'For a novel, I will say Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clark. For a short story or novella, I would say Hell is the Absence of God by Ted Chiang (although you could argue it's not a typical sci-fi story). I met Xia Jia around fifteen years ago in the university and I have been reading her stories since then, so I am a big fan for sure. I think Tongtong’s Summer is a wonderful story, maybe one of Xia Jia’s best. It’s very subtle and sophisticated, describing the human condition of aging and loneliness. To me it feels more like a cruel fairytale rather than sci-fi. But it is effective and powerful, and evokes empathy in the readers'.