龙马精神* Dragon Horse Vitality Spirit

* This is a common Lunar New Year greeting

Guest editorial by Yen Ooi. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

Chinese science fiction’s (CSF) growth in popularity has followed the rapid development trend of China itself. In his interview with fellow writer Maggie Shen King, Chen Qiufan (a.k.a. Stanley Chan) highlights that China has over the last four decades achieved the technological and economic advancements that countries in the West achieved in the last century. The speed of modernisation and urbanisation is a remarkable thing to behold, with 100 million people lifted out of poverty just since 2013. China’s rise has been subject to international scrutiny and criticism, which is to be expected. The most unfounded of which plumbed new depths in the past year 2020 through the pandemic. While the previous president of the United States of America (among many) used the term “Chinese virus” in his description of Covid-19, East Asian diaspora communities living in Western countries experienced increased instances of racism. What is the connection?

Genres are in general difficult to define, but CSF is especially complicated. Both the terms Chinese and science fiction defy any clear definition, yet are used so commonly that every user has their own pre-assumed definition. One popular assumption in the West is that CSF should always be read in terms of political dissent or complicity with state power. As much as that might be true for some, it is an unhelpful generalisation. After all, we do not assume that British SF is only about Brexit, or American SF only about Trump. In one sense, all storytelling is inherently political, and within Anglophone SF especially, the racist and queerphobic attack on representational diversity is often disguised as a demand to “remove the politics” from our stories. However, the necessarily political nature of storytelling is complicated in the case of the Anglophone reception of CSF. The insistence of many Western readers on interpreting CSF exclusively in relation to government censorship can itself have a paradoxically censoring effect. Some CSF authors have even resisted writing stories set in China, or allowing the translation of their work into English, for fear that readers will ignore its actual aesthetic and intellectual qualities, while using it as material for simplistic speculation: Whose side are you really on? To quote Ken Liu for what is a publication on CSF without mentioning the writer who, it feels like, has single-handedly brought CSF to Anglo-American readers?  — 

Like writers everywhere, today’s Chinese writers are concerned with humanism; with globalization; with technological advancement; with development and environmental preservation; with history, rights, freedom, and justice; with family and love; with the beauty of expressing sentiment through words; with language play; with the grandeur of science; with the thrill of discovery; with the ultimate meaning of life.

Ken Liu, Invisible Planets, 2016.

Chinese means many things: culture, ethnicity, nationality, language, people, food, celebrations, traditions, dance, art, tea, etc. It is impossible to talk about all things related to CSF, but we hope that we’ve managed to introduce some key ideas and concepts in this issue, and that you’ll find areas that particularly excite you as a writer, researcher, or reader to want to learn more.

As a scholar of the field I’ve always drawn a very wide definition of CSF, to include literature written by writers from Chinese-speaking states as well as writers from Chinese diaspora communities worldwide (not necessarily writing in a Sinitic language or English). In researching CSF this way, what has been interesting is in the comparability of the CSF journey for literature written by writers in China and outside of China. The similarities come from applying our personal and individual experiences of being Chinese (whatever that may mean) to the genre of science fiction. Most of our journeys, in China or internationally, have only found stability and creative flow in the recent decades, and progress through information technology has hit us at similar speeds. In China, CSF as a cultural development began again in earnest from the late 1980s. For those outside of China, whether we’re the first or umpteenth generation, recognition and development of ethnically-charged creative production only happened recently. This shared experience  —  not unlike the “Chinese virus” example has the potential to bring us together as a community.

It seems East Asian studies in the West still has difficulty shedding an orientalising “exoticisation” of its subject, and CSF in our current climate is not immune to it. As China grows in economic and technological power, Orientalism becomes techno-Orientalism through science fiction from the West in representing East Asia as a mindless, savage machine.

Techno-Orientalism is the phenomenon of imagining Asia and Asians in  hypo- or hypertechnological terms in cultural productions and political discourse.

Roh, Huang, and Niu. Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media. 2015.

There is an inevitability in this representation when we consider that China is now the highest technology exporter in the world, and since 2019, the leader in science research and development expenditure, overtaking the US. In this sense, China must now be understood in hypertechnological terms. However, despite being the second largest economy in the world, China is still categorised as a developing country, which stands in apparent contradiction with the hypertechnological reality, in hypotechnological terms. It is also important to note that China’s drive for progress is from the pressures of globalism, to contribute and compete in a world of information capitalism that is led by the West. This techno-Orientalist representation could seem to be a self-fulfilling prophecy determined by the West, using terms that insidiously centre the West for comparison Chinese technology is always ‘too advanced’ or ‘not advanced enough’ while ignoring meaningful details of progress. If we’re to give CSF a space of its own that is distanced from the stereotyping tropes encouraged by Western anxieties, we need to look at how the genre copes with, responds to, and compensates for these Western notions. This is CSF’s techno-Occidentalist movement and the question that we should be asking now is, “How is Chinese science fiction responding to the pressures of progress and modernisation that is motivated by the West?”

In his paper on “What Do We Mean When We Say ‘Global Science Fiction’?” Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr talks about the big issue in global science fiction.

Much of what I have to say about literary global SF revolves around Anglophony. The stubborn imperial fact is that English is the lingua franca of globalization. […] Cultural capital has tended to flow one way.

Reflections on a New Nexus. 2012

Whether a writer is based in an Anglophone country or not, if we want to be a part of the wider science fiction community, we have to learn and understand how the Anglophonic market works. Take Wuxia as an example: it is a known genre of its own in China and among East Asian communities internationally, but when it is presented to the mainstream Anglophone market, it is forced under the umbrella of fantasy or science fiction, something that writers are having to navigate. China’s own publishing and entertainment industries have their own categories and genres, which do not directly map onto the Anglophone market. Some of what we read as CSF in English isn’t published as science fiction in China. For instance Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City by Kai-cheung Dung (2012) won the 2013 Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards, but is not regarded as science fiction or fantasy at all in China.

Recently, an exciting development that has gripped the attention of readers and researchers in Chinese literature, Chinese studies, and Chinese science fiction is the development of internet novels in China. Much like on Wattpad, stories are serialised and published. However, because it is accessible using mobile phones and 99.3% of China’s total internet user base are on a mobile device (KAWO 2020), production and consumption speeds are high, with translators and researchers trying hard to keep up with the developments on that platform. In a recent discussion, Regina Kanyu Wang (who is guest co-editor with me on this issue) mentioned that academics in China are trying to figure out if internet novels can be studied as part of ‘literature,’ or if they constitute their own separate field of study. In another conversation, Sarah Dodd, of the Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing, mentioned that internet novels are high on their radar, and something that comes up in many conversations among researchers. Perhaps the development of internet novels is starting to break down some of these concepts of genre, but while Chinese writers and East Asian diaspora writers are still writing for the mainstream English markets, the Anglophone concepts and expectations of genre remain in play.

Another interesting dimension of Chinese science fiction is how it embraces modern science and technology, and how it manages more traditional Chinese practices of science like Daoist alchemy, studies of Qi, and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Though they’re used in practice around the world, they’re considered “alternative medicine” or “pseudo-science.” If we consider that China needs to compete economically and technologically on the global market (and in a short period of time), we can understand that China also needs to do so within modern knowledge of science and technology that is West-driven. In order to achieve the success they have to date, China has had to pool their strategy towards Western ideas of progress, including teaching English as a second language to children from as young as Primary Three.

However, if we try to extrapolate China’s recent progress because they’ve achieved in 40 years what the West had in 100 years their trajectory will surpass Western expectations soon. We are already seeing this in CSF, where China officially recognises CSF as an industry, acknowledging it as a large contributor to its cultural trade, and in ecosystems thinking, where China is pioneering new policies designed to enhance ecosystem services, to “better balance [economic] development with ecological protection” (Green Growth That Works, 2019). And when the West is unable to provide China with further inspiration for modernisation and economic growth, China might finally be in a position to pave its own way, something that it had previously enjoyed through most of the Imperial China era, until the early 19th century. If we are allowed to speculate a future (we do work in science fiction, after all), the trajectory of China and of CSF becomes even more of an area for creativity and the imagination, moving away from just the economic drivers into genuine scientific exploration. If China does indeed become a technological research superpower, might that even transform the way we conceive of technological innovation itself? Perhaps Chinese cultural production and CSF will be able to pave new directions that draw inspiration from more traditional, cultural, and historical experiences instead. It is also interesting to note that internationally, East Asian and South East Asian communities are starting to see more engagement and support in their creative and cultural production, suggesting another parallel development in cultural movement between Chinese states and Chinese diaspora communities internationally.

At home in the UK, for the recent Lunar New Year celebrations, there were a lot more collaborations to be noted among British East and South Seat Asian (BESEA) creatives. A fun project to highlight is a collaboration between the artist Gordon Cheung (featured in an interview in this issue) and chef Andrew Wong. Gordon designed and produced a virtual mural for Andrew’s restaurant to celebrate the festivities of the year of the Ox, using an app that can be downloaded here.

We’ve also seen more development, growth and success among BESEA organisations and communities, to name a few:

  • BEATS (a not-for-profit advocacy organisation founded by British East and South East Asians working in the Theatre and Screen industry)
  • besea.n (a grassroots movement born from six ESEA women, created to shine a light on Britain’s East and South East Asians)
  • SEEAC (Southeast and East Asian Centre is a welcoming home to the migrants, refugees and anyone of Southeast and East Asian heritage in the UK).

There are also creative communities like the writing groups BESEA Writing Group and Bubble Tea Writers, of which I’m a member, together with SFF writers Cynthia So, Eliza Chan and Zen Cho. I’m not sure if it’s because of Lunar New Year, but the energy and excitement from the various BESEA communities are palpable.

With this same energy, Regina and I would like to first thank the BSFA, and Polina and Jo in giving us a chance to explore Chinese science fiction through this special issue in such a creative and expansive way. We would also like to thank all our contributors for sharing their work and thoughts so openly with us, and especially Storycom for coordinating the work with our colleagues in China. We hope that the articles in this print issue and online through Vector’s website will encourage you to explore the many facets of CSF. And if you are interested, keep an eye on Vector-BSFA.com and CoFutures.org (where Regina is a Research Fellow), as we will be collaboratively developing an open database of CSF resources in the near future.

And finally, in thinking about Chinese science fiction, its future seems to be uncharted.
May it be renewed with the vitality and spirit of dragons and horses.

Yen Ooi is a writer-researcher whose works explore cultural storytelling and its effects on identity in science fiction. Yen has written Road to Guangdong (game), Sun: Queens of Earth (novel), A Suspicious Collection of Short Stories and Poetry (collection) and various articles and papers. Yen is also a lecturer, mentor, and consultant.

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