Tea Leaf Nation

How China Became a Sci-Fi Powerhouse

Would-be superstar authors once toiled in obscurity. Online publishing changed all that.

A woman looks at a portrait of futuristic rendition of late Chinese leader Mao Zedong displayed at the design and Innovation exhibition as part of Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) expo at the Convention and Exhibition center in Hong Kong, 21 November 2005.  Hong Kong's jobless rate continued to drop at 5.3 percent for the three months to October, with employment outstripping labour force growth, official figures showed 17 November. The expo will start 21 November.    AFP PHOTO/TED ALJIBE / AFP / TED ALJIBE        (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman looks at a portrait of futuristic rendition of late Chinese leader Mao Zedong displayed at the design and Innovation exhibition as part of Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) expo at the Convention and Exhibition center in Hong Kong, 21 November 2005. Hong Kong's jobless rate continued to drop at 5.3 percent for the three months to October, with employment outstripping labour force growth, official figures showed 17 November. The expo will start 21 November. AFP PHOTO/TED ALJIBE / AFP / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)

Chinese science fiction superstar writer Liu Cixin is about to take his published work to the silver screen, with a film adaptation of his short story The Wandering Earth set to begin filming in March 2017. The news comes on the heels a big year for the genre. In August 2016, Beijing-based writer Hao Jingfang earned a Hugo Award, one of the genre’s top honors, and became the first Chinese women to do so; that same month, a stage adaptation of Liu Cixin’s bestselling trilogy The Three Body Problem debuted in Beijing to considerable commercial success, to the surprise of some.

In its early days, Chinese sci-fi was merely the side project of a cohort of internet-based writers and fans. Today, China’s twist on the genre is hovering up international awards and attracting serious commercial interest from Chinese production companies. It is an astonishing transformation that tracks the coming of age of the genre’s most decorated writers — and of the Chinese internet.

Science fiction as a genre has roots extending far back in Chinese literary history. Canonical writers like Lu Xun and Liang Qichao published and translated science fiction stories, most notable those of Jules Verne, well through the late 19th and early 20th century, driven by questions of how science, technology, and other signifiers of modernity might solve China’s perceived “backwardness.” (In his unfinished manuscript The Future of New China, Liang takes his readers to 1962 Shanghai during the fiftieth anniversary of the “Great China Republic,” a modern nation-state blessed with the political stability and economic might the Qing dynasty so conspicuously lacked.)    

But science fiction in China languished in the late 20th century, even after widespread economic reforms in the 1980s and 1990s loosened controls on speech and opened the country to outside influence. The threshold for publishing was high, the gatekeepers few. Into the 1990s, young and up-and-coming authors were effectively cut off from the publishing world, dominated as it was by state-backed publishing houses and a handful of large literary magazines, including the state-run People’s Literature Magazine, which virtually never published science fiction. The only major publisher of original and translated science fiction within China was Science Fiction World, a magazine that continues to serve as an important platform for the genre.

Chen Qiufan, a sci-fi writer who has won the Milky Way Award and Xingyun Award, China’s equivalent of the Hugo, remembers life before the web changed everything. “All we could do was write in paperback books and magazines. We sent out our stories on paper by mail,” Chen told Foreign Policy. Sending them out and waiting for a response and feedback took a long time — sometimes forever.” But the early 2000s saw an explosion of dedicated online sci-fi forums that allowed writers and fans to mingle virtually, swapping stories, publishing serialized works, and exchanging intense feedback. Social media sites like Baidu Tieba, the arts and literature-focused site Douban, and college messaging boards hosted the most active online communities.

Suddenly, anyone could be a writer; and writers could get instant, massive feedback on draft work. This development was particularly important for the heretofore much-ignored genre of sci-fi; a large portion of today’s most well known and decorated Chinese science fiction writers did not start inside the formal publishing and literary world.

One of the most famous forums for science fiction was Shuimuqinghua, literally meaning “water wood green flower,” which began through a digital bulletin board hosted by Tsinghua University, a prestigious school in Beijing. The platform was especially popular with university students. With the frequent reader feedback It provided, Shuimuqinghua became an important training ground for writers old and young, including stalwarts like Liu Cixin as well as rising starts like Bao Shu, and Xia Jia. Online essay writing competitions drew hundreds of submissions, and winners earned attention and often space in publications like Science Fiction World. The forums have fostered real success; Beijing-based writer Hao Jingfang first published her novelette Folding Beijing in 2012 directly to Shuimuqinghua. Her story of a father’s efforts to provide for his daughter in a futuristic iteration of China’s capital caught editors’ interest and was later published in two literary magazines. In August 2016, Hao became the first Chinese woman to win a Hugo.

“When I put a story online, a lot of people would read and pay attention. Not everyone liked it, of course, but they would read it,” Bao Shu, 36, winner of three Milky Way Awards and six Xingyun Awards in Chinese, told FP. “To people who are just beginning as writers, this is really important. You didn’t have this before. You had to pitch editors, story after story.” Xia Jia, also an award-winning science fiction author, told FP“When we wrote stories online, it was not really solely to get our work published, but simply just to write together, because writing can be lonely.”

Ironically, only by first sidestepping the formal publishing world did Chinese science fiction writers gain traction, fans, and eventually institutional recognition. “In print publishing it was always difficult” for science fiction, said Michel Hock, director of the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies at the University of Notre Dame and the author of a book on Chinese internet literature. “The state still owns most of the publishing houses, and state ideology is very ambivalent about literature that caters to mass taste.” Hock noted that “the Communist Party represents the masses, but does not like the masses’ taste very much.”

The Internet has changed not just how Chinese science fiction writers wrote, but also what they write about. In the analog age, monthly magazines like Science Fiction World largely published translations of classic works from abroad, such as those of U.S. writers Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. That meant a generation of would-be science fiction authors grew up reading translated work that tended towards American “Golden Age” science fiction, favoring strong male leads, the epic scope of a space opera, and tech-heavy plot structures.

With the internet, writers suddenly had near-instantaneous access to science fiction from abroad written in a diversity of styles. “More voices mean more perspectives, and that means the potential for lots of new, interesting stories,” said Joel Martinsen, who translated the second installment of the Three Body Problem trilogy into English. That includes “new wave science fiction,” which emphasizes creative forms of storytelling and plots in which references to science or technology sometimes barely surface, alongside the so-called “hard science fiction” considered by some to be classic science fiction.

That diversity is visible among China’s current science fiction luminaries. Liu’s Three Body trilogy, with its liberal use of quantum physics and space travel, easily meets the standards of “hard” science fiction. Yet Hao’s Folding Beijing is more humanistic than it is technological. It tells of a father’s struggle to care for his daughter in a harsh and unequal world; the focus is on the human characters, rather than on the technical aspects of the world they inhabit. Last year’s recipients of the Chinese Milky Way and Xingyun awards was also equally split between older, “hard” science fiction writers like He Xi, Liu Cixin, and Wang Jingkang as well as more new wave writers like Xia Jia and Chen Qiufan.

While Chinese sci-fi has historically struggled to enter new publishing markets, “the Three Body trilogy broke through the limitations of the market,” said Li Zhaoxin, a Beijing-based translator, editor, and literary critic of sci-fi who writes under the pen name Tuzi Qiao. “It attracted the rising interest of the film industry and effected a change for the genre.”

Writers now enjoy a new degree of institutional recognition and encouragement, but that means fewer full time science fiction writers now publish exclusively online, where royalties and profits are much lower. The internet forums where young sci-fi writers and fans once congregated have shrunk in membership and activity. Shuimuqinghua, for example, still commands several tens of thousands of registered members, but the vast majority of sci-fi works now originate elsewhere.

Much of the interest in science fiction within China is now driven by film and television companies, say writers and editors. China’s fast-growing media and entertainment industry is already worth about $180 billion, and companies are eager to capitalize on the burgeoning enthusiasm for sci-fi stories. A September 2016 article in Chinese outlet Today’s Headlines speaks of a “science fiction film investment fever.” It mentions that 85 sci-fi related film projects were undertaken in China in the first eight months of 2016 alone.

Yet writers warn against the diversion of attention away from their core craft. “The film industry is too obsessed with intellectual property stuff and franchises. They are trying to find IP [intellectual property ] for everything,” complained writer Chen. “I don’t think it’s healthy.” Despite the frenzy of film and television rights being bought for science fiction stories, not a single movie or television show has yet been made based on the work of a well-known sci-fi writer. “China’s copyright protection is not satisfactory, so Chinese companies do not want to take risks to build a series of specific sci-fi derivatives based on specific roles or stories,” Liyuan Tuoye, a Japanese researcher of the genre, opined on sci-fi site Kedo.cn. A lack of technical experience producing big budget sci-fi films has also held projects back; a major motion picture of the Three Body Problem was supposed to be released in this past July, but that date has been pushed back to some time in 2017.

Initial hiccups are to be expected, says Yang Feng, a former editor at Science Fiction World. In a sign of the times, Yang too has moved away from the written word; she left the magazine in August 2016 to start a company that promotes sci-fi works in print and animation. Yet for her the simple fact that sci-fi writers have landed any kind of movie deal is gratifying. Says Yang: “We are finally reaping the rewards of all our labor.”

TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Feng is a journalist based in Beijing who previously worked at the New York Times.

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