Send a reporter!

elephant-sized pigNot long ago I ran across a microblog post (since deleted) that used the image at right to mock some sort of trendy pseudoscience — possibly Zhang Wuben’s mung-bean miracle cure. In his comment to that post, science fiction author and critic Wu Yan mentioned the story “Elephants with Their Trunks Removed” (割掉鼻子的大象, 1957), a classic of children’s SF from the early PRC.

The story is narrated by a reporter who is dispatched to an agricultural research center in the Gobi Desert to report on the latest achievements, and it reminded me of a number of other Chinese SF stories that feature journalists as narrators.

The five works discussed below may only be related by virtue of being narrated by journalists, but they are fairly representative of changing trends in Chinese SF in the latter half of the 20th Century.

“Elephants,” written by Chi Shuchang (迟叔昌) with contributions by Middle School Student magazine editor Ye Zhishan (叶至善), is a snapshot of Great Leap Forward-era scientific romanticism. Originally titled “A Twentieth-Century Zhu Bajie” (after the pig-demon hero of Journey to the West), the story is included in Classics of Chinese Science Fiction (中国科幻小说经典, 2006), edited by science fiction writer and court biographer Ye Yonglie, and is also available online here.

In the story, journalist Yuesen, meets up with his former classmate Li Wenjian, who now works at the research center. On the way, Yuesen notices what seem to be white elephants whose trunks are missing, but once he arrives, he learns that they’re actually gigantic pigs known as “Wonder #72,” which were created by accelerating the growth of cross-bred Sichuan white pigs and Yorkshire pigs by irradiating the pituitary gland.

The pigs in the story match up perfectly with the description given in the poem on the top left of the poster (source):

肥猪赛大象 Fat pigs that best the elephants,
就是鼻子短 But for a shorter snout.
全社杀一口 The commune kills and eats one,
足够吃半年 Six months before it’s out.

Like much of 20th-Century Chinese SF, “Elephants” is not simply entertainment — it also fulfills an pedagogical mission. Both men were math and physics enthusiasts in high school, and the story demonstrates that they were able to pursue that interest in their chosen careers. The value of math in agriculture is illustrated through a discussion of the cube-square law as it relates to breeding such enormous animals (they’ve had to use a special “bone strengthening serum”). The accelerated growth also means that the pigs are fully grown at ten months, making their meat especially tender and tasty. And math in journalism? “Look at the newspapers. Isn’t there an increasing amount of math and physics vocabulary?” (Ye, 128)

The story is set in some undisclosed year in the future (“19xx”). Hi-tech details, such as wristwatch radios and “Beijing” model hovercraft, place the action toward the end of the century, but many of the issues, from giant pigs to the necessity of conserving iron, are rooted in the late 50s. It’s a dissonance that shows up in several of the stories discussed in this post:

Li Wenjian took me across the pasture and we arrived at a large shed. The shed was a little like an airplane hanger, with a single large door over four meters wide and five meters high. As soon as Li pressed a switch, the door, which appeared as solid as an iron plate, suddenly turned as thin and soft as silk and rolled up immediately.

“Miraculous,” I gasped involuntarily.

“You mean this door?” Li said. “This isn’t a miracle. This door was made out of ‘plastic #908.’ It’s a plastic that can be compressed as thin as a sheet of paper, soft enough to roll up and practically weightless, but is also so hard that an American bison horn can’t penetrate it. Nothing’s more appropriate than using it for an animal shed. The roof, walls, and door to this shed are all made from plastic #908. We used this material especially to reduce the use of steel in the building frame.”

“Is this the newest achievement you mentioned?” I asked.

“No,” laughed Li. “Have you forgotten? My specialty is animal husbandry, not architecture. Of course, sometimes we have to combine things. But it’s not really an achievement. Our newest achievement is inside the shed! Come on in!” (129)

Perhaps the most famous writer of children’s science fiction in the late 20th Century is Ye Yonglie, whose series of SF adventures for children, Little Smart’s Roamings in the Future (小灵通漫游未来, 1978), remains popular to this day.

His hero is an eight-year-old magazine reporter who’s assigned to report on the future as a way of producing a ready-made answer that can be sent off to all of the children who write into the magazine asking “What will the future be like?” The answers are fanciful imaginings of life in “Future City,” set in no particular year. Little Smart returned for more roamings in 1984 and again in 2000 to offer new reports of life in the future updated for China’s rapidly-developing society.

'A Flight Across Eras' by Yan JiaqiTime travel is also an SF device in Yan Jiaqi’s A Flight Across the Ages (跨越时代的飞行, 1979), subtitled “Reason, Religion, and Practice: Visits to Three Courts of Law.” A Guangming Daily reporter is dispatched by time ship to visit courts in three eras: Italy in 1633 for the “court of religion,” France in 1755 for the “court of reason,” and Beijing in 2009 for the “court of practice.” His duty is to observe the workings of the law in those three eras for the purpose of educating his readers, who have just emerged from an extended period in which the law was abused.

The novel was first published in the Guangming Daily as a series of columns, which were then expanded for their publication as a standalone “philosophical fantasy” (哲学幻想小说). The original versions were translated by David S.K. Hong and Denis C. Mair for Toward a Democratic China, an English-language collection of Yan’s work. Portions are available via Google Books.

Yan’s reporter is more involved in his experiences than the passive journalist of “Elephants.” Fleshing out the legal theory are depictions of futuristic Beijing and its 21st-Century media, and the future setting makes his amazement at some of the advanced technology more believable:

At the door of the courthouse I showed my Guangming Daily press pass, much to the surprise of the judge who greeted me. He looked me over, then looked at my pass and said, “There is no Guangming Daily now! This pass is outdated. Look!” He held up the color-printed newspaper that was in his hand. On the masthead were printed the large words Guangming Times. The judge went on to say: “Beginning in 2005 the Guangming Daily officially changed its name to the Guangming Times. It now comes out in two daily editions to keep up with the latest domestic and world news. Why do you come to cover this story with a Guangming Daily press pass?” (translation by Hong and Mair; SPPH edition 94)

Later on he expands on the media landscape of the future (in my own translation):

In less than five minutes, the moving walkway delivered me to the Ritan Hotel on the south side of Jianguomenwai Street.

This hotel had been built in 2005 and equipped with the latest amenities. With the Information Transmitter, for example, you had no need to exit your room, but through the “television newspaper” you could learn the major news from inside the country and around the world for the day or the past week. The television newspaper wasn’t an ordinary TV; it was similar to the Information Storage Device in the R-1001 Airship. Its screen looked like an ordinary piece of paper laid out flat on a desk (the desk was especially designed for the TV Newspaper). With the press of a button, you could select different newspapers to read. One day at six in the morning I pressed the button for the Guangming Times and a true-to-life copy of the paper, printed just one and a half hours before, appeared on the screen. (115)

Given the book’s origin and purpose, it comes as no surprise that the people of 2009 Beijing are obsessed with Lin Biao, the Gang of Four, and the debate over the truth criterion. Yan visits a Panoramic Holographic Theater, where he’s shown an immersive film about Cultural Revolution-era show-trials. And when he is taken to the B-250 Nuclear Power Plant in the hills of Changping District, he learns how scientists are still struggling against bureaucrats who make their choices based on political expediency rather than scientific analysis (he may have hit the mark with that one, to be honest).

'Interviews with the Missing' by Meng WeizaiAppearing in the same era as Flight is Interviews with the Missing (访问失踪者, 1981) by Meng Weizai (孟伟哉). In this novel, a journalist for the magazine Lovely China (可爱的中国) is assigned to interview several missing persons. The year is 2026; the missing persons were abducted by aliens in 1974, before the fall of the Gang of Four and the end of the Cultural Revolution.

Although Interviews is more story-driven than Yan Jiaqi’s political tracts, the post-CR ideological slant is still laid on fairly thick, as in the following passage reflecting on the meaning of non-human life in the universe:

You ought to know that I used to teach Marxist philosophy. But what even the most revolutionary, least conservative Marxist philosophy on earth gave me was a perspective on the infinite boundlessness of the universe. This is of course correct, but the world of the universe is so rich in variety, so seductive and surprising. This doesn’t mean I blame early great thinkers like Marx and Engels at all, and really, they’re incredibly great men. I just want to say that no matter how great the individual and his theories, he is limited in the presence of the universe because of its boundlessness. If I have brought anything back from this voyage through the universe, first of all I would tell you: Don’t make anyone — even a great man — into a god! Don’t turn any theory into lifeless dogma! My voyage through the universe proves that Marx’s view of the universe is correct. (60)

One of the characters is given the name Zha Zi (查梓), which is a homophone for “scum” or “dregs” (渣滓 or 渣子), so you know right off the bat that he’s the villain — he’s a craven opportunist given to shouting CR-era slogans and , and his unfortunate demise is hinted at throughout the interviews.

Here’s a scene from early in the book, when the humans have just encountered a strange race of aliens:

The blue-haired people became quiet with amazement and curiosity, and looked us all over. My son said to me that he would play a Strauss waltz, and that we should dance to the music. No shame is felt in a completely unfamiliar environment, and since the black-toothed people had made merry for us, we naturally had to do something in return. Even though friendly dancing had been banned for many years, we were in outer space and no need to fear labels like “capitalist thought” and “revisionism,” so we began to dance to Zhongmin’s accompaniment. There were four men and four women apart from Zhongmin, which meant we could form four dancing pairs, but as our compatriot Zha Zi said that he did not know how to dance, my husband Yu Qimin and I had to take turns dancing with my daughter Aihua.

Our dancing pleased the blue-haired people, but I noticed that they were more interested in my son’s performance, and they seemed to draw more from the music than from the dance.

As we were dancing, the blue-haired people began to stomp their feet. This was difficult to interpret, but from their eyes and faces, they seemed happy.

After we had finished, Zha Zi said that he would add an another item to the program, and we had no right to stop him. What did he add? Somersaults and handstands. He turned five somersaults in a row, and the black-toothed people began to stomp their feet. When he turned upside-down, and used his hands to walk, the golden-haired people fiercely clapped their hands. We thought this was to applaud him, and he thought the same, but we soon discovered that their expressions were not right. Yet he continued to walk on his hands. To win more and more applause, he walked circle after circle on his hands until he could no longer remain upright and fell over. The spectators’ clapping became louder and more ferocious. The clapping continued as we helped Zha Zi to his feet, and we felt upset and angry that they would continue to clap after someone fell over. But much later we figured things out: they stomped their feet to express praise, and their hand claps represented full-on mockery and opposition.

Evidently the people of that planet had a unique ethical concept and moral standard. To them, people were great, and people were equal. Everyone had the same supreme dignity, and everyone should guard their own dignity and respect other individuals. No one ought to play the clown, no one ought to flatter someone else. Long ago in their early history, clowns and sycophants were represented by falling head-over-heels to crawl on the ground in front of the powerful. Therefore, they had interpreted Zha Zi’s actions, as a show of contempt and an insult to their dignity. That’s how strange it was. (52)

Zha Zi’s error divides the aliens into two camps who disagree over the humans’ intelligence and cultural status. As part of the subsequent evaluation process, the abductees are taken on tours of alien worlds at various stages of civilization. They have no idea that they are being tested until they finally prove themselves: armed and taken to observe a ceremony that involves the sacrifice of slaves, they intervene to kill a slaver. The aliens are convinced that humanity stands on the side of justice for the oppressed and accepts the abductees into their utopian civilization.

In a review of the novella written for the Literature Press (文学报) and included as a foreword to the book, Chen Jue (陈珏), now a well-known translator of foreign SF, called Interviews “China’s first utopian novel,” tracing its lineage back to domestic works like Tao Qian’s “Peach Blossom Spring” and Kang Youwei’s Great Unity, and more directly to voyage fantasies like Destiny of the Flowers in the Mirror and Gulliver’s Travels. Chen notes:

Under the author’s pen, 21st-Century China is already a utopia, but the missing persons return with news of another, even higher utopia; China will ascend to an even more perfect utopian plane. China will become an Evergreen Planet on Earth — I believe this is the main theme behind the fantastic story the author has carefully constructed.

Like any other work, Interviews with the Missing is not perfect. Like all Chinese SF, it is relatively young. Since the 1960s, it has been common overseas for famous literary writers to make guest appearances in SF. Our writers have just begun to write SF novels. E Hua (鄂华) and Zhang Xiaotian (张笑天) have written SF, and Interviews with the Missing is the first SF novel by a literary writer. The first volume has just finished its serialization, and we have high hopes that the author will continue to write, advancing the cause of world science fiction to new heights. (5)

In an afterword, Meng writes that the second volume, titled Confirmation for the Missing (失踪者信礼), would be forthcoming. I have not been able to find any evidence that it was published. It’s unfortunate, because underneath the ideology, the novel contains some engaging depictions of alien civilization. In particular, the tension and bleakness of a scene in a deserted cityscape where the humans and their alien guides are stalked by a fierce beast is handled quite effectively.

Let's All Look for Aliens by Han SongChinese SF grew up considerably over the next two decades. By the time Han Song’s Let’s All Look For Aliens (让我们一起寻找外星人, 1999) was published, a work of science fiction no longer needed to enlighten or educate its readership about science.

In this novel, a journalist is at the center of the action rather than a passive observer. Chen Yu, a reporter working for G Daily, launches an investigation into possible paranormal explanations of recent unexplained phenomena. His interest is sparked by a catastrophic subway accident (Han’s got a thing for subways and other forms of mass transit) that followed the vague uneasiness he felt after an interview with a disaster science expert. Chasing down stories of alien abductions and getting involved in the the work China’s UFO societies are doing with abductees is much more exciting than the monotony of contemporary urban life.

Chen’s status as a journalist gives him access to experts and institutions and often facilitates interviews with ordinary people, but unlike the earlier SF journalists whose editors expected them to inform the general public of their astonishing findings, Chen’s stories are quashed by his superiors. Han, himself a Xinhua journalist, is pretty cynical about the news media on his blog, and the journalists in this novel are constantly withholding information and watering down reports to get past the censors, while the novelty-seeking, publicity-mad public forgets major stories within a few days.

Despite all of the paranormal elements, the unknown remains unknown, and Aliens remains a rigorously scientific novel, even as it devotes a full chapter to a vision of what the world might be like if aliens really were to arrive on Earth. Han has written about ghosts, aliens, and other paranormal phenomena in Field Investigations of Ghosts (鬼的现场调查, 2002), and he is well-acquainted with rational, scientific approaches to such issues. As appendices, Han includes a timeline of UFO sightings in China, a translation of a 1997 Newsweek article on the subject, and a copy of a 1978 UN initiative on UFOs, and in an afterword, he dispels the notion that UFO investigation is a field run by kooks:

The work of the China UFO Research Organization is actually quite serious and professional. Eighty percent of its members have at least a junior-college education, and the core membership consists of people employed as experts in the fields of aeronautics and aerospace, geology, and meteorology. In the novel I mentioned that they also accepted qigong and spiritualism into their research, but even if they did, it was in their early stages. They certainly do not today, and in fact they actively oppose it. They strongly support using modern scientific techniques to study they mystery of UFOs. Many people are unaware of these facts and mock them as “zen for foxes”. (368; previously translated as a comment on Shanghai Scrap)

Han Song often notes that real life in contemporary China, particularly life in the state media, is often more science fictional than any SF story. He may have a point, but the imaginative stories written as fiction are usually more fun to read than fabricated statistics, reports filed before the events they purport to record, and credulous accounts of quack cure-alls.

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