“How do you make the world understand you?” – On Science Fiction in China


In a recent conversation at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Arts, famous Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, etc.) expressed admiration for his successful counterpart, Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi, etc.), whose movies are prominent not only throughout Asia but also in Hollywood.

The event was widely reported by Chinese and American media. China’s Sinobooks quoted Zhang’s question for Lee: “It sounds easy when one wants to insert certain Chinese concepts or Chinese ways into movies. However, while the movies are often presented to worldwide audiences, the world cannot easily and fully understand these Chinese ideas and details. How did you do it?”

The New York Times used only one sentence in the end of its report. “[Mr Zhang] asked (Mr Lee), rather intently, ‘How do you make the world understand you?’”

“How do you make the world understand you?” This question is particularly important in contemporary China. Today’s China is a “rising great nation”. As Chinese president Xi Jinping announced in his recent speech in Paris – China, the “sleeping lion”, has already awakened. And it cannot wait for the world to hear its roar. As American author Mark Reutlinger describes in his 2012 science fiction novel Made in China:

“Although China manufactures almost all of the goods consumed in America, as well as the machines that produce what little is still manufacturered here, it is still considered a second-rate political power. At least that is what Secretary Zhang and his followers in the [Chinese Communist Party] believe. They believe China does not get the respect it deserves, while America is looked up to as a great and powerful nation. Without China, they say, Americans would have almost nothing, no computers or televisions, no cars, even little to eat. They would quickly be back to primitive conditions. Yet China is still treated like a third-world country.” (Kindle version, location 1362 of 4834)

“The idea is to teach America and the rest of the world a lesson: that China is now the major power in the world. America will have to come to China hat in hand, as you say, and beg for favors. It will not take very long to do so… And during that period when the West is weakened and struggling just to survive, China will be able to take advantage of that weakness by asserting itself in various world forums. Zhang expects China, after this period of turmoil, to emerge as the country with which all others will have to deal on all important aspects of world affairs, now and in the future.” (Kindle version, location 1507 of 4834)

In fact, the focus of this article is exactly science fiction in China. In as early as September 2012, the New York Times published an article titled “Great Nation Rising in the World of Science Fiction” [Kehuan shijie de daguo jueqi]. The article was written against the background of that year’s World Science Fiction Convention, which took place in Chicago. Throughout the event’s more than 70 years of history, it was the first time that a delegation from China was present.

In this article, Chinese sci-fi author Chen Qiufan quoted Chinese sci-fi fan Tiberium as the latter commented on those attending the convention. “Judging by the attendees this year, the writing of science fiction in the West is in decline. Most participants are at the ages of uncles, aunties, grandfathers and grandmothers. [In contrast,] all the Chinese participants are young. They [the Western attendees] are counting on us… Now they are very interested in Chinese science fiction, ‘because everything is happening there at the same time’. We are the future.”

Chinese participants at the convention also commented on two winners of that year’s Hugo Awards – Ken Liu (Best Short Story) and E. Lily Yu (John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer), who are both Chinese American authors. In the words of Chinese sci-fi author Liu Cixin: “In my view, rather than saying that sci-fi authors from the East are being recognized, we should say that science fiction in America is in decline.”

In his article, Chen further cited two contemporary Chinese science fiction novels as examples of how China as a “rising great nation” is not an empty claim. The first is Han Song’s 2011 novel Mars over the United States [Huoxing zhaoyao Meiguo, also translated as “2066: Red Star over America”]. Set in 2066, the novel depicts an America tormented by financial decline and civil war. As the world-dominating China sends a team to the United States to “disseminate civilization” through the traditional Chinese board game Go, they witness the destruction of New York City and the Twin Towers by terrorists.

The second example is The Three Body [San Ti] Trilogy by the aforementioned Chinese sci-fi author Liu Cixin. The trilogy is considered by Chinese fans as a masterpiece that “single-handedly lifts Chinese sci-fi literature up to world class”. In their eyes, it deserves to win both the Hugo and Negula awards.

Indeed, the English rights of The Three Body Trilogy were recently purchased by Tor Books and the first book, The Three-Body Problem, is to be translated by the aforementioned Chinese American sci-fi author Ken Liu. This is an achievement that greatly excites fans and advocates of the so-called “Chinese-style science fiction”, which “displays prominent Chinese characteristics” and “is influenced and inspired by Chinese history and culture”. According to Chinese media, “it can be said that, different from their Western counterparts, Chinese and Chinese American sci-fi authors think in Chinese ways. The great Chinese culture has marked their writings with a prominent brand that is distinct from Western sci-fi literature”. More importantly, some claim that once The Three Body Trilogy is translated into English, “entering the American sci-fi literary arena is a reality that is immediately to be realized”:

“America is the center of the world’s sci-fi literature. Approximately 80-90% of the world’s sci-fi literary market is in the United States, and they have an even bigger share in the market of sci-fi movies. How much of the world’s sci-fi market does China currently occupy? Perhaps only 1%. As a nation with nearly no tradition in science fiction at all, China’s entry into the American market by The Three Body Trilogy itself is a huge success. It is even more meaningful to us than the numerous pairs of shoes we have exported to America. Starting with the trilogy, we will explore our chances to succeed in this battle between 1% and 90%.”

Thus the “Chinese-style science fiction” is granted a mission to “conquer the world/America”, and the responsibility to create sci-fi literature that “displays prominent Chinese characteristics” and “is influenced and inspired by Chinese history and culture” falls upon the shoulders of all Chinese sci-fi authors. To achieve this goal, even those American authors with Chinese ancestry, who were born and/or raised in the West, are lumped into the category of “Chinese authors”. Indeed, without Ken Liu’s English translation, none of the “Chinese-style science fiction” can by noticed by English readers. As Chen observed in his article: “Only those with two mother tongues can transform the subtlety and complexity of Chinese writing into authentic English expressions.”

So here is the first answer to the question “How do you make the world understand you?” In order to be understood by the world, Chinese sci-fi authors should write in the language of the world using “authentic expressions”. Obviously the “world” is not the same as America. However, as China often has its eyes on the United States when it thinks of the world (or the West), the best advice is for China to cultivate as many Chinese-English translators as possible – or to further discover and retain those Chinese American authors who are willing to translate and promote Chinese sci-fi literature.

Another answer to the question “How do you make the world understand you?” concerns culture and cultural expressions, which are very much related to language. For example, the Chinese newspaper Spring City Evening is a major advocate of the “Chinese-style science fiction”. A recent article cites the aforementioned “Chinese” author Ken Liu and his Chinese counterpart Liu Cixin as examples of how “Chinese-style science fiction” is supposed to “perfectly merge scientific imagination with Chinese culture”.

Consider the article’s quotation of Liu Cixin’s comments on Ken Liu’s Hugo Award-winning short story “The Paper Menagerie”: “[This story is] full of colors of the cultures of the East, such as ethics, moral values and a mother’s sense of responsibility toward her children.” Liu Cixin further praised Ken Liu: “As an author with Chinese ancestry, he is familiar with both Chinese and Western cultures. This enables him to create a style that is distinct from American mainstream sci-fi… His writing well combines scientific imagination with the cultures of the East.”

However, whether “Chinese culture” is the same as “cultures of the East” is an issue to be debated. Also deserving further examination is the view that the so-called “ethics, moral values and a mother’s sense of responsibility toward her children” are unique to Chinese culture and/or cultures of the East. Indeed, here is a misconception that only authors from China and/or the East understand and are able to feature these cultural characteristics in their science fiction, thus attracting the attention and recognition of “Western” readers. Instead, we would suggest that these are cultural characteristics that the world already owns and respects – content that the world already understands.

In other words, instead of asserting that Ken Liu won the Hugo Award with a short story that is “full of colors of the cultures of the East”, we would say his story features the most elemental and essential aspects of humanity that are understood and therefore recognized by the world. As for Liu Cixin’s comments — “in the science fiction literary arena where logic and rationality are held in esteem, the delicate emotions depicted by authors of the East are a breath of fresh air for Western readers” – these words do hold some truth. Nonetheless, can’t we suggest that “delicate emotions” are something that the world already understands? Aren’t prominent Western science fiction authors such as Ursula Le Guin, Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood already display “delicate emotions” in their writings?

Hence we would suggest that in order to attract more English readers, the so-called “Chinese-style science fiction” should firstly be rid of the word “Chinese-style” and purely focus on “science fiction”. This reminds us of Chen’s argument that “rather than hoping to take ‘great leaps forward” and surpass the United States and United Kingdom in a few years, Chinese sci-fi authors should start with the most fundamental work”. We would stop quoting his words here, because, in China, the “most fundamental work” means the definition of science fiction. Can Chinese sci-fi be independent from genres such as children’s literature, popular science and fantasy? Who are Chinese sci-fi authors writing for? When will Chinese publishers finally start promoting science fiction the way it is?

Let us go back to Chen’s words regarding the “most fundamental work”: “First, knock on the doors of Western readers and media, using excellent Chinese short stories to broaden their limited visions. Then, increase communications between the two sides. And finally, we should export our classics and establish a Chinese bridgehead in the territories of English science fiction.” These words were set against two backgrounds. The first is an “inequality” that Chen perceives China is facing, i.e. “While (American) publishers aren’t willing to pay extra for translations, the basic problem is that ‘Americans don’t read translated novels’. Even those popular novels featuring stories of minority groups or descendants of immigrants, the majority of them are written directly in English.”

Worse, in the words of Chinese sci-fi author Hao Jingfang as quoted by Chen, although Western attendees of the 2012 World Science Fiction Convention appeared to be passionate about Chinese science fiction, “what the West really cares about is Chinese politics. On the other hand, although Western audiences appeared to be curious about the size of Chinese sci-fi literary market and the sales performance of sci-fi books there, what they really care about is how many copies of their own books can sell in the Chinese market”.

Once again, this is a view based on the misconception that China and the West/America are opposites, with an emphasis on the “inequality” between the two sides. In other words, on the one hand, American/Western publishers, media and readers have “limited visions” and refuse to admit Chinese sci-fi literature. On the other hand, American/Western authors only focus on their entry into the Chinese market, without really caring about the development of science fiction in China.

Indeed, this view assumes that because China is a “rising great nation”, all American/Western readers and authors should actively embrace Chinese science fiction while refraining from trying to enter the Chinese market. This view further neglects the basic elements of cultural exchange, which are fairness, open-mindedness and mutual respect. How can Chinese authors be understood by the world if their whole focus is to “conquer the world” with “Chinese-style science fiction”? How can the talents, confidence and achievements of Chinese sci-fi authors be appreciated by the world if they refuse to also learn from the world?

Instead of focusing on “exporting in the fields of culture and values” as Chen suggested in his article, Chinese authors should strive to enhance “communications and exchanges of cultures and values”. To borrow Chen’s words, if Chinese sci-fi authors “remain on their own lonely planets and simply construct an image of their [Western/American] peers through imagination, thus misunderstand, embellish or demonize them, while trying to achieve new triumphs over them using language and ideology”, then the question “how to make the world understand you?” will not have an answer.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: How to create universal values: On “Chinese-style fantasy” by M.T. Chen | Voices under the Sun

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