Fate in Historical SF

Note: This piece was originally posted at ZHWJ on 3 July 2004.

Reviewed in this article:
A Step into the Past
Huang Yi 黄易
Hong Kong[1]

Qian Lifang 钱莉芳
Sichuan Science and Technology Press, 2004

The establishment of the Qin dynasty is a popular subject of historical dramas, and for good reason — aside from the oft-mentioned propagandistic uses of the unification story, the end of the Warring States era offers the intrigue surrounding Ying Zheng’s rumored illegitimacy, his rise to become king of Qin, the annihilation and subsequent unification of the six kingdoms, various assassination attempts, and the emperor’s infamous ruthlessness as ample fodder for the screen. Television serials and large-scale epics, such as Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin (荆轲刺秦王), Jiang Wen and Ge You’s The Emperor’s Shadow (秦颂), and Zhang Yimou’s Hero (英雄), offer interpretations with varying degrees of historical and psychological fidelity. More fantastic renditions stray further from the historical record; Zhang Yimou himself had previously acted alongside paramour Gong Li in A Terracotta Warrior (古今大战秦俑情), a romantic fantasy about a Qin general who, sentenced to death for his affair with the emperor’s concubine, reawakens in the twentieth century to fall in love with a movie star who resembles his lost love. Chinese science fiction, as expected, contributes its own perspective on this time period.

Huang Yi reverses the time-traveler concept in A Step into the Past (also translated as The Search for Qin), a science fiction flavored historical adventure. This sprawling novel of nearly two million characters tells of the experience of the special-forces officer Xiang Shaolong, who accepts a mission to test out an experimental time machine. He is sent back to record the coronation of the king of Qin on video, but an error drops him five years earlier than his intended arrival date, leaving him to fend for himself in an unfamiliar culture. With his modern outlook, he fits uneasily in the social framework of the state of Zhao, where he lands, but he quickly captures the interest of the elite by displaying his tactical knowledge (from his special forces training) and inside knowledge of major court affairs (from half-remembered historical novels and texts he studied back in school).

Future Qin king Ying Zheng is still being held captive in the state of Zhao at the time Shaolong lands, so his mission is to return him to Qin and protect him until the coronation, after which he can pick up the time signal and return to his own time. Huang Yi brings a twist to the illegitimacy story — because Ying Zheng’s mother feared that growing up in the Zhao court would lead him to turn against his homeland, she secretly sent him to live in among peasants in a small village, taking another child to be kept under house arrest with her. When Shaolong eventually finds him, the real Ying Zheng has been killed fighting in one of Zhao’s wars. To preserve his chances of getting home, he makes the choice to have his orphaned student Zhao Pan act the part of Ying Zheng and return to Qin. This decision to live a lie leads to the Qin emperor’s later ruthelessness.

Although A Step into the Past became quite popular, Huang Yi was criticized for the historical errors and anachronisms that were littered throughout the novel. The term “emperor”, for example, is used in an era when it didn’t exist, and characters are called with names they only received after their deaths. There is also a question as to whether the novel can be accurately characterized by the label “science fiction.” Although Xiang Shaolong makes use of modern technology in an ancient setting, it plays a fairly minor role. His use of modern slang and foreign terms, confusing the other characters, is played to comic effect, but the whole issue of the radical differences between Qin-era Chinese and modern dialects is dismissed in the second chapter. Shaolong meets a woman beside a river, and finds that after a short time of conversation he can understand her fairly well, although her accent is a little strange. And the story drops him in the past and leaves him there; no reconnection is made with the present; when he is finally given the chance to travel back to his own time, he refuses. Since there is no confirmation in the present of his experiences in the past, the time machine could just as easily be explained by death, or a dream from which he does not wake up.

In fact, it is Huang Yi’s view of time travel that constrains the science fiction content in the novel. He has commented that western science fiction places too much emphasis on technology and the scientific method; Chinese SF ought to explore humanity’s interaction with the unknowable mysteries of the universe. In the concept of history in A Step into the Past, fate is pre-determined, and history cannot be changed since it already happened. What convinces a scholar, for example, that Shaolong is actually from the future is not any of his technical knowledge, but the fact that his historical “predictions” concord with the scholar’s astrological readings. The popular television adaptation, starring Louis Koo, expresses this idea explicitly in its theme song, with lyrics starting off “The ages only listen to the command of the universe / Destiny — who can change its track?”

The wildly popular TV series — for a time, you could walk into any web café and find someone watching an episode — makes major modifications to the novel: it eliminates a great number of love interests, makes Shaolong’s success in the past more believable by having him undergo training before his mission, and consolidates some characters[2], but ultimately it follows Huang Yi’s general conception of the restrictions of time-travel. A “Back to the Future”-inspired device has Shaolong’s reflection disappear whenever Ying Zheng is in danger of failing to become king and consequently erasing Shaolong’s timeline. As a result of this, Xiaolong does only as much as he deems necessary to keep history on its correct track, which, as Ying Zheng becomes more and more ruthless, puts him in the difficult position of being unable to interfere in unjust situations. Were Shaolong not to exist, however, Zhao Pan would never have become a fake Ying Zheng. This paradox is not fully explored, but the fact that his fate is linked with Shaolong drives the Qin king to erase all mention of him in the historical records rather than killing him, setting off the infamous “burning of the classics.” A final irony sees him living out a happy life in the countryside with his two wives (having gotten over the modern aversion to polygamy), when his son chooses the name Xiang Yu, a character famous in history for destroying the remnants of the Qin state and burning the capital.


It is from Xiang Yu’s conquest of Qin that Qian Lifang’s Providence begins. The Qin Empire has crumbled after the death of the emperor, and once again the kings of the various tributary states are fighting amongst themselves for supremacy. An incredibly skilled tactician from the state of Chu named Han Xin attempts to advise the king Xiang Yu on the most expedient way to conquer his rivals. He does not listen, however, because of a rumor that Han Xin had once crawled through someone’s legs rather than fight, which in Xiang Yu’s eyes is a mark of a lack of courage. Han Xin is recruited away to the commoner Liu Bang’s growing army under the Han banner, but languishes in a series of dead-end jobs until he finally decides to run away.

Before laying all this out, however, Providence starts off with a prologue in which a young man, later revealed to be Han Xin, is visited by a mysterious stranger dressed in black. The stranger, giving his name as Sea Traveler, claims to be the representative of a god, and proposes to conduct an exchange: Han Xin will one day reach an impasse that he cannot conquer by himself. The god offers to assist him, and in exchange, Han Xin must complete some task to be revealed later. The young hero, fully aware of his talent, does not want help from anyone: “The future is my own; I don’t want to sell it out to anyone, even if he is a god.” The stranger promises him that he will reconsider in twenty years, and leaves Han Xin musing about free will and destiny.

Twenty years later, Han Xin has had his dreams of achieving great things dashed by short-sighted leaders, and his pride prevents him from going to his closest friends for help. He deserts the Han camp, but before he can get very far, the stranger in black meets him to discuss the god’s offer. The Han army has retreated to a remote position, blocking pursuit by Xiang Yu but at the same time trapping itself in a besieged position. There is an old road through the mountains, but it has not been maintained and is impassable for a large army. The god offers to clear the road, and in exchange requests Han Xin to construct a giant causeway out to a particular point in the ocean after he gains power. Han Xin considers this offer, and finally decides to accept it for the time being, curious as to how fate will lead.

Sure enough, after Han Xin returns to lead the Han army around the blockade, he finds a smooth path taking them to the rear of an unsuspecting enemy. In fact, in every succeeding battle he is victorious, and eventually the Han king grants him the kingship of the conquered Qi state. In the course of sacking the palaces of the various kings he defeats, Han Xin discovers some disturbing facts about the Qin emperor and the general course of Chinese history up until that point. According to ancient legend, an empire’s hold on power was dependent on possession of a collection of nine bronze ding cauldrons. Han Xin learns from an old minister of the former emperor that the fabled nine ding were in fact a single cauldron that the Qin emperor kept in a special chamber; the number nine came from the old division of the empire into nine states. Xiang Yu, however, had failed to find it when he annihilated the capital. The emperor had also developed a desire for immortality, and had sent courtiers on missions far and wide to search for an elixir or pill, or the ingredients to make one. Many of his ministers felt that he had fallen under the evil influence of a mysterious stranger in black.

The first half of the novel is narrated from the point of view of Han Xin himself. His self-confidence is always apparent, even while the reader can sense his confusion at the strange things he witnesses. His past is revealed gradually; we learn that as a young man he had one of Qin’s former prime ministers as a master, learning from him an Yijing-based chess game and Sunzi’s military strategy. In the second half of the novel, the point of view switches to that of the maid who combs Han Xin’s hair. She too is highly intelligent, but as Han Xin does not often reveal the depth of his knowledge about Sea Traveler and the god, the reader is presented with strange events for which no explanation is immediately given. For example, objects start appearing and disappearing without notice, and the call of a wild chicken can be heard at night, but Han Xin does not seem concerned. It is only later that we learn he is learning to use a kind of time machine he found in one of his conquered cities.

While Han Xin is king of Qi, he is again visited by the Sea Traveler, who it turns out is the same man who had the emperor’s ear, and who has been advisor to kings and emperors throughout the ages. Han Xin refuses to spend an immense amount of his country’s resources on a building project of which he does not know the purpose, and he persuades Sea Traveler to take him to visit the god out in the ocean. Upon his return, he drives a hard bargain, convincing the god to give him three powerful guns with which to assassinate his last remaining rival, the Han king, so as to ensure peace and unity during the several decades the construction will take. This he does not do; rather, he returns to the seashore and fires the weapons at the volcanic island the god inhabits, triggering an eruption that destroys the palace and all the advanced technology inside.

The god turns out to have been an alien who crash landed on Earth, mistaking the ocean for stable land. Without a ship, and with the planet lacking the necessary materials to create one, the alien’s only hope was to develop human civilization to the point where a giant causeway could be built into the ocean. Using its time-travel device, the alien would then be able to cause its ship to land on solid ground. Han Xin realizes that were the alien to land safely, all of the technological guidance and training given to Chinese civilization would no longer be necessary; their timeline would cease to exist.

The author weaves the alien into traditional Chinese history: the legends of a dragon-like ancient emperor Fuxi stem from the alien’s snake-like appearance; the ancients’ mad quests for elixirs of immortality were actually missions ordered by the alien to collect the necessary materials to make its machines; the Yijing is a means of accelerating humanity’s intellectual development; even the united empire is shown to be merely a way to preserve a peaceful environment for the most rapid technological advancement. The patriotic view of China’s famed five-thousand years of history and its superiority at the time of the Qin dynasty to any other world civilization is in evidence here, but the novel subverts it by suggesting that the advancements were the result of an outside influence rather than a native development.

While the alien’s high-tech gadgetry plays a key role in the novel, the ancient characters relate to it in terms of their own worldview. An X-ray like device that displays internal organs, for example, is perverted by the Qin emperor into a lie-detector to test whether his concubines are harboring malicious intentions toward him. The ding is treated as possessing magic power, when in fact it is merely a container for a controlling microchip that Han Xin eventually destroys. Even the Yijing, originally intended as a mental exercise, becomes merely a manual for fortune-telling among most of the people.

According to Han Xin, creating the Yijing was the mistake that led to the alien’s downfall — it hadn’t counted on developing a rival with the cunning and desire of Han Xin. The alien confesses that even before losing the time-travel device, it could not use it to divine his future actions. The destiny referred to in the prologue, however — the providence of the title — still exists; the alien does not die in the explosion but returns to advise the Han king against Han Xin — it made him what he is, and can return him to what he was. Han Xin accepts the outcome of the bargain he made, and is ultimately satisfied with his sacrifice, especially since his only true desire in life was to meet someone against whom he could test his wits.

Unlike Xiang Shaolong in Huang Yi’s novel, the characters in Providence, with the exception of the stranger and the alien, can all be found in the standard histories. Minor characters are not given a full identification — the non-Chinese reader might not recognize the name Li Si, for example–but knowing the history only adds more depth to what is already an engaging novel. And many of the more obscure legends are Han Xin himself is unfamiliar with; he is a tactician, not a historian, so he must rely on his combing-maid who has studied the ancient histories to describe the stories to him, and thus to the reader. Qian Lifang writes that she was intrigued by Han Xin’s interesting life and tragic end — he is forced to leave Qi for Chu, and ultimately is killed and his entire clan wiped out by the Han king[3] — and decided to take advantage of time she had in a typing class to type something of her own rather than copying from a book.

Providence has been published in two versions; the first edition, paired with Lala’s “The Opposite Horizon” as part of the Nebula series, sold quite well, so a second, independent edition was published soon after. According to an editorial note in the July issue of Science Fiction World, the second edition has been significantly revised from the first. Not only have the typos been removed and anachronistic phrases rectified, but the author has responded to comments made in online forums and has retooled the ending. It is possible to consider Nebula a magazine, which would make revisions before book-publication a standard affair, but the advertisements for early orders seem to indicate that it is the first in a series of books. Given the speed at which the revised edition was issued, the first edition has the feel of a commercial beta-test, penalizing in a way the early adopters. Liu Cixin’s Ball Lightning, the second entry in the Nebula series, was finally published on 30 June; it will be interesting to see if this becomes a trend.


  1. I have found it very difficult to find accurate publishing information for Huang Yi’s novels.
  2. Xiang Shaolong’s early rival Lian Jin is killed during a duel in the book version, while in the TV series, he only has the tendons in his right hand severed. This allows him to assume the identity of the left-handed assassin Lao Ai, a historical personage whose name is famous enough, as the seducer of the emperor’s mother, to merit a gloss in the Shuowen, a Han dynasty lexicon.
  3. The historical record states that the family name “Han” was wiped out; there is another record, however, that tells of a branch of the family removing the right side of the character, changing their name to “Wei” to avoid slaughter.

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