Tag Archives: Han Song

Social commentary in Chinese SF: 2013, Han Song, and others

Age of Prosperity
John Chan Koon-Chung (陈冠中)
261 pages

In a prosperous China where nearly everyone is happy, a few individuals attempt to track down why an entire month seems to have been wiped from history.

That’s the premise of Age of Prosperity (盛世, 2009), a political fantasy novel by John Chan Koon-Chung (陈冠中). Chan is known for his stories and essays about cities, and his fascination with urban landscape, people, and power structures. Previous fiction includes the Hong Kong Trilogy (香港三部曲), and his extensive writing about Beijing culture includes the essay “Bohemian Beijing,” which approaches life in the city through residents who are situated on the margins.* His new novel, which imagines a China in which the government has succeeded in building a “harmonious society,” displays a similar eye for detail presented in a reportorial style.

Age of Prosperity is a fascinating book that succeeds on a number of levels but fails in one fatal way. The novel presents a convincing depiction of Beijing’s intellectual circles through his protagonist, Chen (a mirror-universe version of the author), and the meandering plot gives the author the opportunity to explore aspects of contemporary Chinese society. References to contemporary scandals such as milk additives, mass demonstrations, brick kiln slaves, product quality concerns, and underground religious movements give the story the feel of a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller at times. Chen, who doesn’t realize at first that a month has gone missing, is drawn into the search by an old colleague who’s noticed the gap and a former flame who feels vaguely uneasy. This uneasiness is all the more remarkable because of the happiness of the public as a whole: two years before, the world slipped into an economic crisis, yet China managed to reach new heights of prosperity and stability.

Eventually the protagonists are able to seek answers through a point-blank interrogation of a high-level official who was in on the plan. What he tells them is both a darkly comic echo of “red menace” fears from 1950s America and a bleak revelation that brings new meaning to the author’s frequent references to the tragedies of the last sixty years – the anti-rightist movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and more recently, the “strike hard” campaign in 1983 and the crackdown on the student movement in 1989 – and underscores the prophetic element of the narrative.

Unfortunately, the story grinds to a halt midway through that interrogation. Once the secret of the missing month has been revealed and the official begins to explicate China’s place in the world and its pursuit of international influence, the work feels less like a novel and more like a political speech (at one point, the official is described as responding to a question “as if he were giving a lecture”). Whether or not this is a deliberate subversion of genre conventions, it certainly is tough going for a reader who is looking for a plot movement as opposed to a 40-page political treatise.

And it’s that treatise, and the political commentary in the rest of the novel, that’s at the heart of the attention that Age of Prosperity has received. An interesting exploration of novel’s critique of the “Chinese model of development” by Zhansui Yu can be found at The China Beat; other recent reviews include those by Linda Jaivin at China Heritage Quarterly and by Xujun Eberlein at Foreign Policy. (These reviews all include extensive spoilers, so exercise caution.)

The Foreign Policy review tags the book as “the return of politically charged science fiction in China,” and in it Eberlein suggests that socially-conscious science fiction disappeared in the wake of the anti-spiritual pollution campaign of 1983. It was replaced by “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.” Although the campaign did bring to a close the first stage of reform-era Chinese SF and end the careers of a number of prominent writers, in the decades that followed, science fiction stories that addressed issues in contemporary society and politics were never totally absent.

Chan is not even the first writer of socially-oriented science fiction in China to propose the idea of authorities seeking to maintain stability, boost national prestige, and ensure GDP growth by keeping the public contented and ignorant (chemically or otherwise). For example, “The Olympic Dream” (奥运梦, translated at CDT), a short story that was widely reposted across the Chinese-language Internet in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, imagined the Beijing authorities giving local residents hibernation pills so they’d stay out of the way of the foreign guests attending the Games. Continue reading

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: Continue reading

Chinese SF writers bid farewell to Arthur C. Clarke


The death of science fiction master Arthur C. Clarke last Wednesday drew reactions from science fiction authors and fans all over the world, China included. Here are some of the commemorations that Chinese SF enthusiasts posted online this week:

· Wu Yan, probably the most well-known SF critic in China, immediately posted an old appreciation piece he had written on the occasion of Clarke’s 75th birthday. The article, which ran in Science Fiction World in 1992, told of the early encounters that Chinese SF had with Clarke: letters exchanged in which he expressed interest in Chinese SF.

· Liu Cixin, possibly the most popular Chinese SF currently writing, also wrote on his blog of drawing inspiration from Clarke:

Clarke has left us….

Twenty-seven years ago, he was the one who gave me the idea to write science fiction. 2001 taught me how SF could be used to exhibit the breadth and mystery of the universe. Rendezvous With Rama let me see how SF could be like a creator, fashioning an imaginary world real enough to practically reach out and touch. Later, all of my own novels are but clumsy imitations of those two classics.

Now, alas, that man is gone…

· The SFW group on the book-related social networking website Douban changed its name to “Farewell to Clarke.” In its extensive obituary thread, Commenter BRDX wrote:

Arthur, have you become tired of the 21st Century?

We have no moon city, no space elevator to a synchronous orbit, no robot that can read our feelings — we have nothing at all!

In the first year of the 20th Century, Marconi’s wireless signal crossed the Atlantic. In the the third year, the Wright brothers took to the skies in the flying machine they built. In the fifth year, Einstein wrote out his mass-energy equation….

In the 21st Century, a complacent humanity has lost its spirit of adventure.

Sorry, we have let you down.

Farewell, Arthur, farewell.

The dreamer may die, but the dream never will…

· Another commenter, NStar, posted a link to a blog post:

More than twenty years ago, I read Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama. My enchantment with that book was probably one of the reasons I ultimately fell in love with science fiction. About one year ago, I happened to receive a letter from the master. When I opened it, I saw it was an invitation to join the Planetary Society. In my excitement, I couldn’t help feeling confused: how did the master know of me? Thinking it through, I decided that it probably was because of a science fiction Sudoku — just a small block of text — that ran in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine that gave the Planetary Society the idea that I was a prospect. Probably, they had given the master a whole stack of things to sign, which they then sent to all the authors whose names appeared in the British and American SF mags, so their advertisement had been sent to me.

Although it wasn’t the master himself who had noticed me, at any rate I was fortunate to receive a letter with his autograph.

· Han Song, SF author and Xinhua journalist, remembered Clarke in a blog post that characteristically touched on contemporary Chinese politics:

When I heard the news that Clarke had died, it was already late, but although I was ill, I still wanted to get up and write a few words. I first read 2001: A Space Odyssey in Modern Foreign Science Fiction, edited by Shi Xianrong and published by the Shanghai Literature and Arts Press. This was probably around 1984-85, and at that time lots of publishers would go to universities to sell old books. I bought that book (it was only the second volume). Clarke’s classic story was the first, and was translated by Guan Zaihan. Published in 1968, this story is still readable today. Clarke’s strongest influence on me was on my outlook on the world and on the universe, just like Marx, the Buddha, Einstein, and Plank. Like Kubrick said of Clarke, he gave us a new perspective, letting us see humanity in its earthly cradle extending its hands to a future in the stars. Very few people you meet in your life will truly influence you. Regrettably, however, I often feel that a compliment from a certain leader was most influential in my life.

In the late 1990s, my office was about to send me to Sri Lanka, but because the departmental leader thought “things are too busy now, so we can’t let you go,” I ended up not going (you see the enormous influence a leader has). This was fairly regrettable. I had even planned out how I would request an interview with Clarke. Later, friends told me that Sri Lanka was oh such a nice place. And it was the place where Clarke predicted a space elevator going out to the universe. The communications satellites that Clarke predicted have become reality. And after humanity ascended to the moon, an American astrophysicist praised Clarke for providing the most important motivation.

Clarke said: “I regard myself primarily as an entertainer and my ideals are Maugham, Kipling, Wells. My chief aim is the old SF cliché, ‘The search for wonder.’ However, I am almost equally interested in style and rhythm, having been much influenced by Tennyson, Swinburne, Housman, and the Georgian poets.” “My main themes are exploration (space, sea, time), the position of Man in the hierarchy of the universe, and the effect of contact with other intelligences.”These ideas had an influence on contemporary Chinese science fiction authors. But today there is still not enough of that “search for wonder” (猎奇), and poetry is still lacking.

Let us draw inspiration from these words, just as we draw inspiration from President Hu Jintao’s remarks at the legislative sessions, to work cleanly for the country and the people, or as we draw encouragement from the words of Premier Wen Jiabao: we must liberate the minds of every individual — that is, we must have independent thought, critical thinking, and creativity.

I think that Clarke could be said to have worked cleanly within the science fiction realm (as clean as the ocean and skies of Sri Lanka), and his independent thought, critical thinking, and creativity should serve as a worthy model.

Clarke worked cleanly in science fiction until he was ninety years old. I am quite young compared to him, but already I’m not very clean: I’ve been polluted, led astray, made mistakes, a body covered in mud. What will the future bring? Will independence, criticism, and creativity — values intrinsic to science fiction — be illuminated by the Olympic torch climbing Mt. Everest?

· Just a few months ago, the now-defunct translations magazine World Science Fiction ran a short biographical introduction to Clarke in its December, 2007, issue. The piece was written by Chinese SF author Xing He, who also posted a commemoration to his blog this week.

Image from Wu Yan’s blog.

Could you direct me to the science fiction section?

From Han Song’s blog:

Where’s the SF?

I bring up this question because yesterday, when I went to the Beijing Book Building to buy a science fiction book for a guest who was visiting from far away, I found a sign reading “Chinese Fantasy” in an area that had once sold domestic SF; the whole bookshelf was like this, and it was identical to what I had seen at the Wangfujing Bookstore – they’d all been changed. So in Xinhua Bookstores today, there are only “Chinese Fantasy” and “Western Science Fiction” sections that seem to mock each other. This in and of itself makes an excellent SF topic; I couldn’t help but recall that back when Liu Cixin described the SF-Fantasy Wars, he had complete confidence in SF being victorious.

At this point, I searched carefully through the “Chinese Fantasy” section of the bookstore, and finally came up with three or five SF books — Science Fiction World‘s Nebula IV and V, an annual SF anthology edited by Wu Yan, and two volumes of a four-volume collection of Pan Jiazheng’s works — nothing else. So I asked the salesgirl, “Where’s the domestic science fiction?”

She said, “Here, it’s basically all fantasy. There’s no pure science fiction. Tell me the title you want.”

I said, “Ball Lightning?”

She said, “Nope. That’s an old one.”

I asked, “Why are there so few domestic SF books?”

She said, “They don’t publish them, so we don’t have them.” I didn’t know whether she was joking or telling the truth.

The International SF-Fantasy Conference hosted by Yao Haijun et al. will open in Chengdu at the end of the month. From what I hear, it might be a Zunyi Conference. Fortunately at this point I found Lala’s chilling “Projection of the Multiverse” and I let out a bitter sigh.

I’ve wondered about the strange lack of SF at the major bookstores in downtown Beijing; the bookstores in Zhongguancun seem to have a better selection. Why this is I don’t know — is it their proximity to the university district, or does SF sell better to the tech crowds in so-called “Beijing’s Silicon Valley”? Or it could just be a random coincidence; shelving systems in most Chinese bookstores make it fairly difficult to find a title without knowing the publisher.

Might as well just order online, as people have suggested in the comments to Han’s post.