How China Became a Sci-Fi Powerhouse
by Emily Feng / February 24, 2017 / Foreign Policy
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.” Read more…