Science Fiction in China: A Conversation with Fei Dao
by Alec Ash
Fei Dao, a science fiction writer born in 1983, chose for his pen name the two characters for “flying dagger” (飞刀). When he achieved some success, he changed the second character to another, also pronounced Dao (氘), that made the nom de plume sound less jejune.
Science fiction in China is attracting special interest of late. The mind-bending trilogy Three Body by Liu Cixin has been selling strong for its genre. Sci fi is also a theme of the new edition of the Beijing-based (English language) literary magazine Pathlight, slated to come out next week. Alice Xin Liu, managing editor of the magazine, tweeted “Chinese scifi is, politically, most daring genre in Chinese contemporary literature”.
So, who should we be reading? Does this sci fi have Chinese characteristics? What is its history in the mainland? And does it matter?
I sat down with Fei Dao in Tsinghua university, where he is studying comparative literature, to ask him these questions and more. Here it is, straight from the horse’s mouth.
Alec Ash: How did you start writing science fiction?
Fei Dao: When I was at middle school, 16 or 17, I started to read a lot of sci fi. I read the magazine Science Fiction World, and became more familiar with sci fi literature. I liked it because there was a lot of imagination and novelty in it. At that time, my dream was to become an author. When I started out, I didn’t think at all about writing science fiction. Back then I felt sci fi was very difficult to write, and needed some knowledge of science, so I could only appreciate it but not write it myself.
Like many post 80s authors, I started out writing campus stories about young people in school. But I couldn’t get them published. Until one day in university, I wrote a science fiction story on the side, and sent it in to Science Fiction World. I was just giving it a go, I had no idea that that first story would get published [in 2003]. A year later, I had another idea, and that second story also got published. So that encouraged me, and I started writing sci fi.
AA: How popular is sci fi in China?
FD: In my opinion, it’s mostly popular among young people. This has a big connection to Science Fiction World, because a lot of students at middle school and university buy that magazine. It has a very large readership. But after people graduate and start to work, most people don’t read science fiction. They think it’s just youth literature and that grown-ups should read more mature stuff, not childish stuff.
AA: How do you feel about that?
FD: Of course I don’t think it’s childish literature. But Science Fiction World is, after all, for young readers. The whole feel of the magazine is like that. So while there is lots of mature science fiction for grown-ups, the readers are still mostly young.
I feel lots of people are prejudiced against sci fi. They think that if you’re a certain age and still read sci fi, that’s immature and unrealistic, like you are letting your fantasies run wild. So I think that prejudice is a problem. But now that Three Body (三体) [by Liu Cixin] has been publically praised, I hope that is slowly changing people’s opinion.
AA: Who are the Chinese authors we should read?
FD: The most popular authors now are Liu Cixin, Han Song and Wang Jinkang. Those three are the most famous at this time. Some people jokingly call them “the three generals”.
AA: What is unique or particular about Chinese science fiction?
FD: Chinese sci fi has about a hundred years of history. When it started, in the late Qing dynasty around 1902, it was chiefly concerned with the problem of bringing ancient China into modernity. At that time, Liang Qichao [translated sci fi] because he thought it would be beneficial for China’s future … as something that could popularize scientific knowledge. And Lu Xun thought that if you gave ordinary people scientific literature to read, they would fall asleep. But if you blended scientific knowledge into stories with a plot, it would be more interesting. [He thought that] in this way, the people could become more modern.
So at that time science fiction was a very serious thing to do in China that could allow ordinary people to get closer to modern scientific knowledge, and serve as a tool for transforming traditional culture into modern culture. It played a very important role, and had a serious mission to accomplish.
Today, there is a commercial publishing market for sci fi, and people don’t have such weighty expectations of literature, yet authors are still discussing serious topics. Three Body by Liu Cixin or Subway (地铁) by Han Song both have many reflections about the direction of this country and of humanity. So this kind of writing can convey concerns about the future, or discuss the current situation in China.
For example, Han Song’s Subway is about a subway station. In China, subway systems are an emblem of modernization. Many cities in China are building huge subway systems, because to have one or not is the standard of a city’s modernity and development. So in discussing this symbol, Han Song seized on a sensitive point. After publishing Subway, he wrote another book called Highspeed Rail (高铁), another emblem of technological innovation. So Han Song is consistently concerned with the potential catastrophes of the process of modernization.
Liu Cixin, on the other hand, is expressing a more grand feeling of the universe in the tradition of Western sci fi. In doing so, he wants Chinese people to look up at the sky, and not just be concerned with earthly matters. The mainstream of Chinese literature is about real-world subject matter, such as the countryside or urban life. Very few people are concerned with the fate of humankind, the future of the universe, or even aliens. These things are themselves alien to Chinese readers, but can be introduced through this kind of writing.
I think that the key theme of Chinese science fiction, no matter how it develops, is how this ancient country and its people are moving in the direction of the future.
AA: What is the relationship between Chinese sci fi and the culture and censorship authorities?
FD: Because I’m an author not a magazine publisher, I’m not sure precisely what the relationship between them and the censorship department is. But in China, no matter what the subject matter of literature is, you have to communicate with the censorship department. For example, if you write realistic fiction about a sensitive subject, you’ll also come up against objections. It’s the same for sci fi.
AA: Is there a big Western influence on Chinese sci fi?
FD: Science fiction is a new variety of literature [in China]. Before a hundred years ago, it had no frame of reference, so it just studied Western works. Of course there were native influences too, but in the end the learning process was from the West. [Chinese] sci fi writers today have also read a lot of Western sci fi. They’re very familiar with it, and it’s given them a lot of inspiration. For example, Liu Cixin emphasizes his admiration of Arthur Clarke.
AA: What are the other main influences?
FD: There’s also a big influence from Japan. Historically there were a lot of Japanese [sci fi] stories translated into Chinese. Jules Verne was also first translated from Japanese into Chinese. And contemporary Japanese sci fi, for example Japan Sinks (日本沈没) by Sakyo Komatsu, is very popular in China. Anime and manga are also an influence, but only starting from the post 80s generation … because that is the generation where TV shows began to become popular.
Another big influence on Chinese sci fi is Soviet sci fi. Especially after 1949, when China had less connection to the West and more connection to the USSR, the most famous Chinese sci fi authors were most influenced by Soviet sci fi with communist themes. So there are three big influences: the West, Japan and the USSR.
AA: Who are your biggest influences?
FD: I’ve been influenced by a lot of non science fiction writers, and I’ve read classic Western sci fi such as [Arthur] Clarke and [Isaac] Asimov. But when I was young, one of the works that most subtly influenced me [was] a novella by Ted Chiang (姜峯楠) called “Tower of Bablyon”. That story gave me a new understanding of science fiction – i.e. that it doesn’t have to be just about technology.
In the story, they built a high tower in Babylon that became a world with different floors and people living inside. They built it bit by bit, until it reached the top of the sky. Then they burnt through the sky, and the protagonist entered into the heavens, where there was water and a sandy shore. So this world was cyclical – you arrive in the heavens and it’s like the seabed. It’s hard to explain, but this was a very serious science fiction or fantasy story, and it opened up a large imaginative space for me.
AA: Do you think sci fi is important?
FD: I do. I think that imagination is very important. People must preserve a curiosity about the future. Many people, because of everyday pressures, don’t have the time or the energy to care about things that don’t seem to be about everyday reality. But I think that to be curious is very important, and so is sci fi.
Read last week’s interview with Mara Hvistendahl at The China Blog here.