Immediate Pasts and Soon-to-be Futures: Sinofuturism in Review

By Virginia L. Conn. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

This is an extended version of the essay that first appeared in volume 50 number 3 of the SFRA Review.

Like a snowball picking up speed, the last year has seen a growing aggregate of academic and popular interest in sinofuturism, both in China and abroad. Writing in a special issue of Screen Bodies on queer sinofuturism, scholar and designer Yunying Huang notes that as of 2020, the only results in Chinese for the term were a conversation between artists aaajiao, scholar Gabriele de Seta, and curator Xuefei Cao, and “a workshop on ‘Wudaokou Futurism’ (Space 2019) which convened a discussion of Sinofuturism in the geo-physical location of the Beijing region” (Huang 59). This Wudaokou futurism workshop, in fact, was the impetus behind the SFRA Review’s 2020 sinofuturism special issue, with many of the same speakers who participated in the workshop — including original workshop organizer Dino Ge Zhang — contributing articles that built on their prior presentations.

The Wudaokou alternative futurisms conference itself was held in December 2019, when China was already in the grips of the pandemic that would soon engulf the United States, the United Kingdom, and the rest of the world. I participated from a dark hotel room at 5 am, Skyping in (this was before Zoom became an omnipresent part of our connectivity — a lifetime ago!) to talk about alternative modes of temporalities to an audience that was, themselves, temporally and geographically disparate. Since then, the technology that sweeps us along towards an increasingly interconnected future has also come under the same orientalist scrutiny that informs so much sinofuturist anxiety in the first place: from then US president Donald Trump’s abortive move to ban both TikTok and WeChat in the States, to the widespread conspiracy that Covid-19 is a Chinese bioweapon deliberately engineered to destabilize Western nations, to the fear of surveillance technologies deployed in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, the role technology plays in China’s place in the future is as central to Western perceptions and fears of global power relations as it ever was.

As I wrote in the introduction to the SFRA Review special issue on sinofuturism that grew out of the Wudaokou workshop, the theory itself has largely emerged as a concept applied externally to China by Western observers. By compartmentalizing sociocultural development as a form uniquely tied to the nation-state while also seeking to maintain both distance and otherness, sinofuturism differs from theorizations such as Afrofuturism (to which it is often compared) through its application to, not development from, the subjects it takes as object. As a result, the very label of “sinofuturism” developed out of the same orientalizing impulses that previously relegated China to a space of backwardsness and barbarism (Niu, Huang, Roh 2015) and which now attribute to it a projected futurity. Yet this Western label is one that Chinese authors and artists have appropriated and weaponized for their own creative ends, without necessarily sharing unified goals.

Authors of science fiction in China have uniquely grappled with this impulse, especially insofar as digital technologies — such as the growing e-publishing industry and networked media platforms — allow for the proliferation of new voices historically barred from traditional publishing venues (Xu 2015). What’s more, contemporary science fiction in China functions as a transnational form that centers a technoscientific process or material object as a means of introducing social change, rendering the aim of science fiction inherently future-oriented even when relying on the past or focused on the present. Because potential future ontologies are expected to be relevant to present extrapolations, they fundamentally rely, to some degree, not only on realistic depictions of possible technologies and circumstantial realism, but also the familiar perceptions of the extant material and digital worlds — a central tenet of sinofuturism’s omnivorous inclusion of technology, labor, art, and the visions it makes possible (Lek 2016).

Lawrence Lek, Geomancer , 2017. Poster from CGI Film. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

The globalizing effect of the internet and the subsequent rise in wide-scale digital exchange, in particular, has created a space for production in which Chinese authors are writing for an increasingly global audience and shifting their goals correspondingly. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, authors and public reformers in China (such as Liang Qichao, who, in his 1902 unfinished novel The Future of New China, described a utopian 1962 in which China was the dominant global power) were envisioning sinofutures in which China was preeminent on the world stage. The idea of China as a dominant force in the world yet-to-come continues through much Chinese science fiction today, from standout international sensations such as The Three-Body Problem to anonymously published digital short stories like “Olympic Dream.” For science fiction authors describing the Chinese future (or the future as Chinese), an awareness of the fact that American and Western media largely paints China as a place of repression and censorship is an integral part of the worlds they depict.

To the extent that this is true, publishing regulations in China mean that the internet and other digital forms of publications, such as video games and online message boards, have become increasingly important outlets for science fiction. The Three-Body Problem, for example, was serialized first in the online-only Science Fiction World before being published as a book, and Western publication outlets like Clarkesworld have partnered with China-based Storycom to publish more Chinese science fiction in translation online. Because of the expectation of a global audience that online publication ensures, science fiction is changing as readership expands, yet the balance of global power remains uneven. Noted science fiction authors such as Xia Jia still describe science fiction coming out of China as having the mission of educating Western readers (Xia 2016), while English translators are increasingly burdened with the necessity of explaining historiocultural specificities through lengthy footnotes (Liu 2014). That is, just as the West applies the term “sinofuturism” to an entire national development project, Chinese authors are put in the position of responding and catering to Western assumptions in order to be legible on a global scale.

Here is where the specificity of China as a technologicized imaginary, located outside of both space and time, results in an orientalizing impulse fundamentally different from the fetishization of a high-tech Japan seen prominently in cyberpunk and the gleamingly sexualized noir adoration of the 80s. Shaped by and reliant on Western projections of Asia as the techne through which to shape a future defined by and created for the West, sinofuturism not only projects China as a temporal locus for the project of modernity (Niu 2008), but also posits Chinese individuals themselves as resources, not originary producers of cultural or technological capital. Reduced by the West to faceless algorithmic data points, Chinese laborers and producers are commodified in an ideologically reproductive system informed by the racial panic of outsourcing, common in the early nineties with the rise of overseas data centers (Atanasoski and Vora 2015). Chinese science fiction writers are well aware of this and increasingly find themselves in a position to either push back against it or grapple with those fears in order to appear legible to an international readership.

Some authors do this by writing directly to the negative visions of a Chinese future most commonly held by the West: Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide, for example, deals with the physical detritus left behind by the dreams of digital development and the environmental devastation created when those developments are made obsolete and discarded, while Ma Boyong’s “City of Silence” shows both digital message boards and spoken language as subject to the same censorship as physical media, giving lie to the aspirations of online communications as a state of expressive exceptionalism. Other Chinese content producers actively embody the digitizing impulse that seeks to turn human beings into images for consumption: Naomi Wu (Shenzhen’s “sexy cyborg”), for example, has created a 3D scan of her body and uploaded it for the purpose of 3D printing models. These models are marketed alongside 3D models of Major Motoko Kusanagi from the Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell — an explicit juxtaposition of two stylized bodies (one real, one fictional) that, in their respective worlds, represent the future through a conscientious abandonment of the biological for the constructed.

So what, then, does it mean for Chinese science fiction to attempt to depict a sinofuturist vision in the increasingly globalized space made possible by digital technologies? And what does it mean to produce content within a framework that imagines a techno-utopic future founded on artistic labor while simultaneously reproducing racialized tropes of dehumanization? How is material production changed by an increasing reliance on the digital?

As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the idea for the 2020 SFRA Review sinofuturism special issue developed out of a workshop organized by Dino Ge Zhang as part of the Wudaokou Futurists collective, a collective aimed at decentring sinofuturism from its Western articulations. The workshop, “Alternative Sinofuturisms,” already presupposed sinofuturism as a venue for alterity and retained a space for various approaches and understandings of who and what is being foregrounded. Centralized in Beijing but held online with invited speakers from four different continents, the workshop was organized around a series of provocations, most of which were included in the SFRA Review special issue. Xenofeminist Amy Ireland articulated a view of darkside empathy that positioned sinofuturist visions as methods of inculcating weaponized empathy, while media anthropologist Gabriele de Seta argued that sinofuturism functions as a framework for denying the possibility of coevalness to China on the part of the West. I discussed sinofuturism as an aestheticized projection that fixed images of the country in a perpetual futur antérieur; while political theorist and accelerationist Vincent Garton argued for a reappropriation of the term by Chinese theorists and politicians in order to reconstruct a new world system inclusive of heterogeneous futures. The organizer, Dino Ge Zhang (without whom neither the original symposium nor the special issue — nor, for that matter, much of the forthcoming work on sinofuturism — would be possible), expanded on his concept of Sino-no-futurism to describe a world post-pandemic, which in many ways now reads as a science fictional dream for an American and British audience trapped in the perpetual now of our own countries’ ongoing pandemic-based immiserations.

Since Yunying Huang was doing her initial research and since the publication of the SFRA Review special issue, interest in and articles on sinofuturism have increased exponentially. To some extent, this is simply a reflection of the confluence of interest in Chinese science fiction and interest in a more global China itself — the two are part and parcel of the same globalizing turn towards imagining futurity. For example, podcasts on sinofuturism and Chinese science fiction have proliferated in the past year in both English — such as Angus Stewart’s Translated Chinese Fiction podcast — and Chinese — such as Culture Potato’s (櫓뺏皐떴) podcast episode unpacking accelerationism — while the number of science fiction novels written in Chinese and translated into English, written in English by Chinese and diasporic authors, and as products of science fictional exchange between countries has increased so much that it would be difficult to exhaustively list it all. Theorist Yuk Hui, long a leading voice outlining alternative epistemologies across time and place, continues to articulate possibilities for futures thinking in his public and academic work, while within the last year superstar new scholar Xiaowei Wang has published a book on the entanglements of technology and global innovation in rural China while also finding the time to speak with Ling Ma — author of the eerily prescient pandemic SF novel Severance — about how, when writing “about China for an American audience, fantasy and sci-fi are always palpable” and, in fact, inextricable. This entanglement itself is nothing new, although its recognition has been ramping up in the last year. Writing in December 2020 for the Chinese-language news and culture outlet, The Paper (톺탯), Wang Xin wrote about the historical impact of futurism and its global impact on Chinese art and literature — without naming sinofuturism directly, but laying the groundwork for future developments in the arts. In this, the past is future and the future is already past.

To a more limited extent, however, some of this development has resulted from the SFRA Review special issue itself. The aforementioned special issue of Screen Bodies on queer sinofuturism, while in production at the same time, made several references to the SFRA Review issue in its introduction, touching briefly on a number of salient points introduced by SFRA contributors. Developing out of my previous collaborations with Gabriele de Seta, a special A&Q section of the journal Verge: Studies in Global Asias is forthcoming that focuses on sinofuturism(s) in a digital context. Drawing on essays from both of these publications, an edited collection of essays on sinofuturism will soon be published in Chinese by the independent publisher Pulsir — the first collection of academic writings on sinofuturism to be published in Chinese at all. And as for the SFRA Review itself, it will soon host another special issue on Chinese science fiction in a global context, collected and edited by comparative scholar Jinyi Chu. It’s safe to say that as much of a bumper year as 2020 was for sinofuturism and Chinese science fiction, 2021 promises an even richer yield of scholarly and popular interest.

So what next? It’s possible that sinofuturism will follow in the footsteps of the techno-Orientalist turn towards Japan that characterized so much of the cyberpunk and global economic focus on the pre-Nineties boom years — that is, a cultural and economic anxiety on the part of the West that posited a specific Asian country as the harbinger of the future while also maintaining its ineradicable otherness. Projecting an imaginary China forward in time and simultaneously insisting on its total opacity to some kind of monolithic “Western thought” (look no further than the innumerable thinkpieces claiming to understand China as a product of “Confucian values” or reposition their economic nationalism as a Sun Tzu-inflicted art of war strategy game) is itself a science fictional approach, but an unsustainable one of alienness and alterity. At the same time, as Yangyang Cheng has pointed out, Beijing is itself complicit in “self-orientalizing gestures” to excuse the crackdowns on free speech and ethnic minorities within its own borders, explaining that people with “Confucian values” welcome such authoritarianism (Cheng). Of course, what this points to more than anything is that no large-scale entity — national or political — can speak to either a national or political future drawn up in broad, othering strokes. Perhaps more to the point, “China” itself is not a discrete entity around which a future can be built — what of the diaspora, of non-Sinitic national minorities, of bridge translators and fourth-generation immigrants and non-Han émigrés? Aside from Beijing’s own national myth of “56 recognized ethnic minorities” (China 2010 Census Report) — itself an ethnonationalist convenience on par with the American myth of society as a “melting pot” — the idea of a single unified China has far-reaching repercussions. Xi Jinping’s oft-repeated maxim, the “Chinese Dream,” sees the future as a collective “reclamation” or “rejuvenation” (Xi) of a collective national greatness predicated on technological and economic progress. In this unified dream, all individual ethnic or cultural groups are enfolded into a collective national identity with similar developmental goals. This emphasis on a singular national goal is perhaps most apparent in the ongoing political and carceral efforts Beijing continues to exert over Taiwan and Hong Kong (especially in the recent crackdowns on pro-independence activists in Hong Kong), as well as in the repression of Uighur citizens in Xinjiang. Hidden from view both literally (in concentration camps) and figuratively (in the party emphasis on a unified ethnonationalist state), efforts to develop a singular Chinese future require that both China and those in the West continue to posit a “Chinese future” as, essentially, a Han future developed by the party. A singular “Chinese future” is itself already an imaginary one that erases the complicated, overlapping, messy reality of political and ethnic difference in favor of a monolithic entity favoured by Chinese, American, and British governments alike. 

I think — optimistically, utopianly — that eventually sinofuturism will look as anachronistic as the katanas that symbolically stood in for a Japanese-inflected (but never fully hegemonic) future in the 70s and 80s. As a pure aestheticization, sinofuturism is easy and appealing, but ultimately misguided as a discrete theoretical approach. What future do we want that’s organized around a nation? Individual national powers rise and fall; China’s global ascent may be short or it may be long, but it will eventually be eclipsed by another national entity that will be invested with exoticism and alterity. To imagine a future based on a set of imaginary national characteristics is to remain mired in presentist ideology, unable to imagine an alternative. Science fiction can do better than that, and should do better than that. Without flattening historical nuances and cultural differences into a homogenous neoliberal ontology, science fictional approaches to global development can — and should! — imagine more complex, beautiful, potential paths forward. By pulling back from national borders and focusing instead on a bottom-up, collaborative web of theoretical and fictional voices shaping a communal future, we’re better positioned to imagine a future for people, not for imaginary political entities. Sinofuturism may be an important step to thinking outside of a standard “Western” vision of progress, but it’s just that: a stepping stone to something larger. Thinking through and beyond sinofuturism, beyond any national futurism, we can leave ethnonationalism and its futures in the past where they belong.

Works Cited

Atanasoski, Neda and Kalindi Vora. “Surrogate Humanity: Posthuman Networks and the Racialized Obsolescence of Labor.” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience, vol. 1 no. 1, 2015

Cheng, Yangyang. “‘China-Watching’ is a Lucrative Business. But Whose Language do the Experts Speak?” The Guardian, January 13, 2021

Culture Potato 匡뺏皐떴. “Unpack Accelerationism 속醵寮屢 桿桂.” December 7, 2020. http://www.podchaser.com/podcasts/culture-potato-907153/episodes/unpack-accelerationism-80554214

Huang, Yunying. “On Sinofuturism: Resisting Techno-Orientalism in Understanding Kuaishou, Douyin, and Chinese AI.” Screen Bodies vol. 5, no. 2, 2020: pp. 46-62.

Lek, Lawrence. “Sinofuturism (1839–2046 AD).” zkm.de/en. 2016

Liu, Cixin. The Three-Body Problem: Remembrance of Earth’s Past. Tor Books, 2014

Ma, Ling. Severance. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018

Ma, Ling and Xiaowei Wang. “‘One Person’s Apocalypse Is Another Person’s Day-to-Day’.” Wired Magazine. November 17, 2020

Niu, Greta Aiyu. “Techno-orientalism, Nanotechnology, Posthumans, and Post-Posthumans in Neal Stephenson’s and Linda Nagata’s Science Fiction.” Melus: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, vol. 33, no. 4, 2008: pp. 73-96

People’s Republic of China, 2010 Census Data, volume two: Ethnicity Data. http://www.stats.gov.cn/tjsj/pcsj/rkpc/6rp/indexch.htm

Roh, David S., Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu, eds. Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media. Rutgers University Press, 2015

Stewart, Angus. The Translated Chinese Fiction Podcast. podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-translated-chinese-fiction-podcast/id1454517628

Wang, Xiaowei. Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside. FSG Originals, 2020

Wang, Xin. “The Futurism Passing Lightly through Feng Zikai’s Translations (瞳료綾崇럇陋櫓햐햐트법돨“灌윱寮屢”).” The Paper, October 21, 2020

Xia, Jia. “What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?” Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, edited by Ken Liu. Tor, 2016

Xu, Jing. “‘Golden Age’ Dawns for Chinese Web-Writers.” China Daily, June 9, 2015

Virginia L. Conn  holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Rutgers University. She studies visions of the future in socialist science fiction, with a particular focus on the development of the “new socialist human” and associated population planning policies.

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