Note: This piece was originally posted at ZHWJ on 3 July 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?”