Xujun Eberlein: The Return of Politically-Charged Chinese Sci-Fi

Roundup: Media's Take

[Xujun Eberlein is the author of Apologies Forthcoming, a story collection set in China. Her reviews of China-themed books can be found in Women's Review of Books, The China Beat, and elsewhere.]

In the euphoric Beijing of 2013, Starbucks is Chinese-owned and called "Starbucks Wangwang." Its trademark drink is Longjing Latté, named for a famed Chinese tea. It is a place where Mr. Chen, an immigrant from Hong Kong, feels comfortable escorting a marginalized woman named Xiaoxi, the secret love of his youth. After running into Xiaoxi in a Beijing bookstore, their first encounter in many years, Mr. Chen asks her whether she had gone abroad. "No," she replies....

So opens an early scene from The Prosperous Time: China 2013, a hotly controversial Chinese science-fiction novel. Written by 58-year-old Hong Kong novelist Chen Guanzhong, who has lived and worked in Beijing for much of his life, China 2013 presents an ambivalent vision of China's near future: outwardly triumphant (a Chinese company has even bought out Starbucks), and yet tightly controlled. There is a mood of mounting tension, here evident as a woman with dissenting thoughts is followed by secret police....

The significance -- and uniqueness -- of the novel is that it is a work of social science fiction, a subgenre that has become virtually nonexistent since the establishment of the People's Republic. Such keen reader interest in visions of China's political future is remarkable -- and reveals a pent-up appetite among readers. Take a look at recent issues of the popular Chinese Sci-Fi World magazine, published in Chengdu, or at Internet rankings of today's most-read Chinese sci-fi stories, and you'll find every kind of plotline you might find in Western sci-fi literature -- time travel, space voyage, robot battles, you name it -- but social or political criticism, as you might read in books like George Orwell's 1984, is almost completely lacking.

That isn't because politically charged science fiction never existed in China. As popular sci-fi writer Ye Yonglie has documented, the history of modern Chinese science fiction goes back to the early 20th century. The genre was catalyzed by the first Chinese translation of Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days, published in 1900. Early Chinese sci-fi works often doubled as political parables and social criticism, starting with 1904's The Moon Colony. Now commonly cited as the first Chinese sci-fi novel, The Moon Colony tells the story of an anti-Qing dynasty revolutionary's life in exile; taking a cue from Jules Vernes' heroes, he travels on a balloon around the world, and eventually migrates to the moon. The book was in part a commentary on corruption in contemporary society.

This politically-charged tradition in Chinese sci-fi continued for more than four decades, epitomized by Lao She's controversial 1932 novel, Cat Country. Lao She, one of the most important Chinese writers of the last century, published his only science-fiction novel as serial installments in a magazine. The story is set on Mars. Although it was published 13 years before Orwell's Animal Farm, the political satire functions in similar fashion, with intrigues among a colony of cats on Mars serving as criticism of contemporary political reality in China. It was the only Chinese sci-fi novel then translated into foreign languages....
Read entire article at Foreign Policy

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