Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.
In this cross-interview, we have two prominent writers interview each other about their respective debut novels. Maggie Shen King is the author of An Excess Male, one of The Washington Post’s 5 Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels of 2017, a James Tiptree Jr. and Lambda Literary Award Finalist. Chen Qiufan (a.k.a. Stanley Chan) is the author of Waste Tide, which has been praised by Liu Cixin, China’s most prominent science fiction author, as “the pinnacle of near-future SF writing.”
Maggie interviews Stanley
Maggie: For those of us who recycle diligently, it’s easy to become complacent and forget about the magnitude and consequences of our consumption. I really appreciate that Waste Tide brings to the fore the sheer volume of the Western world’s electronic usage and creates in the process a twenty-first century waste land in its electronic recycling center. I understand that you grew up near Guiyu, the town that inspired your novel. What do you hope to accomplish in elevating this issue to center stage? As China becomes a superpower and increasingly begins to turn away this sort of work, what are your thoughts and hopes for the emerging nations of the world?
Stanley: I try to stir up the awareness of the truth that all of us are equally as responsible for the grave consequence of mass pollution happening across the globe. In China, the issue escalated during the last four decades along with the high speed of economic growth. We try to live life as Americans, but we have 1.4 billion people. China has already replaced the USA as the largest producer of e-waste simply because we are so after the consumerism ideology. All the trash that China fails to recycle will be transferred to a new trash yard, perhaps somewhere in Southeast Asia, Africa or South America. If we continue to fall into the trap of consumerism and blindly indulge in newer, faster, more expensive industrial products, one day we may face trash that is untransferrable, unavoidable, and unrecyclable. By then, we would all become waste people. Technology might be the cure but fundamentally it’s all about the lifestyle, the philosophy and the values we believe in.
By Dev Agarwal. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.
To state that art does not exist in a vacuum is to loosely paraphrase the late filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. That in turn leads to his further observation that “the artist exists because the world is not perfect.”
China is home to the largest film production economy in the world, surpassing Hollywood as well as the juggernauts of India and Nigeria. In 2012, it was the second-largest market in the world by box office receipts. It has had the largest number of screens in the world since 2016, and in 2020, it became the largest market. CNN reports that Chinese cinemas brought in $3.1 billion at the box office in 2020, nearly $1 billion more than the United States did that year.
China has also become a major hub of business for Hollywood studios, encouraging their entry into its domestic market. Yet it is interesting to note that at the same time, in 2016, China passed a law banning film content deemed harmful to the “dignity, honour and interests” of the People’s Republic, and encouraging the promotion of Chinese “socialist core values.”
Discussing China’s film business (and its science fiction output as a subset thereof) is not purely an economic matter, as to discuss any facet of China’s art is also to discuss the confluence of one of the world’s five remaining self-described communist states, the world’s most populous country, and a nation that may become our newest superpower. As Tarkovsky said, there is no vacuum.
The multi-media artist Lawrence Lek observes that “Sinofuturism is an invisible movement. A spectre already embedded into a trillion industrial products, a billion individuals, and a million veiled narratives. It is a movement not based on individuals, but on multiple overlapping flows … Because Sinofuturism has arisen without conscious intention or authorship, it is often mistaken for contemporary China. But it is not. It is a science fiction that already exists.”
Sinofuturism is with us, through a wide array of products, individuals and narratives. As a movement it has reached the point where commercial cinema has paid it attention and invested in it, bringing to Netflix The Wandering Earth (2019, Frant Gwo). This was a big SF spectacular, with a suitably cosmic story of moving the earth to safety past Jupiter on its way to the star Alpha Centauri, as our sun turned inhospitable to life. The film was successful both at the box office (posting $700 million in receipts worldwide) and with critics.
A core theme of The Wandering Earth is sacrifice. The global population has died en masse, and a big problem (the sun is turning into a red giant in three hundred years rather than in its projected five billion years) is solved with a big solution — moving the planet all the way to a new star. The Wandering Earth, therefore, works on a big scale both in terms of the disaster — it’s planet-wide — and of the loss that’s occurred in the backstory. The solution is not about calling on actors to work individually, rather, the characters are representatives of the Chinese state and function obediently within it.
Reviewed by Sandra Unerman. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.
Uyghur Folklore & Legend, compiled by Abela Publishing, 2009.
The Effendi and the Pregnant Pot, Uyghur Folktales from China, translated by Primerose Gigliesi and Robert C. Friend, New World Press, 1982.
These books both contain collections of Uyghur folktales. Both have their limitations but it is very difficult to find translations of any speculative fiction from the Uyghur community in China. Some basic information about Uyghur history can be found in a few references in The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan (Bloomsbury, 2015). These outline Uyghur origins in Central Asia, their role during the Mongol Empire and their current position in Xinjiang province, but that is all. I know very little about the culture of the Uyghurs, so I hoped to learn something about them from these books.
A young man will only go near his bride in the dark and leaves the house before she can see him by daylight. But this is not the story of Cupid and Psyche and the resolution owes more to the man’s cleverness than an ordeal undergone by the woman.
A sheep and her lamb travel from a valley in Tibet to a high plateau for the summer grass. On the way, they meet a wolf, who wants to eat them both. The sheep persuades him to wait until they are on their way back down, when they will be much fatter. They return according to their promise but trick the wolf, with the help of a hare, who pretends to be on a mission from the Emperor of China to collect wolfskins.
These examples indicate the range of stories in the 2009 collection and their similarity to folktales from other cultures across the world. There are fifty-eight entries, although some are variants of the same basic tale. The book’s title is somewhat misleading, in that no information is provided about folk customs or legends in the sense of tales about specific places or figures from history. The names of storytellers are given and dates, ranging from the 1870s to the 1920s, so presumably these were oral tales, written down by folktale collectors during that period. However, we are given no information about who the collectors were, the circumstances of collecting or the basis of selection of these particular tales. No editor or translator is identified. The similarities between these tales and those from elsewhere may result from universal human responses, the influence of the collectors or from long-standing historical connections among the people who told the tales. No introduction could have disentangled those strands completely but background information could have helped the reader understand the context and the kind of community to which the stories belong.
The stories do read as versions authentically collected from oral sources, rather than polished up for literary purposes. This can be seen from the gaps and flaws in some of them. In the first, a fox brings grass for a lamb to eat and is betrayed by a wolf, on whom she takes revenge. It looks as though the fox has taken over the role which ought to belong to a sheep, at least in the opening action. Some of the references are difficult to understand, without further information, especially the figure of the ‘pyhrqan,’ who appears in several tales. This is translated in a footnote as ‘monk’ but the stories suggest a being with supernatural powers.
The narratives have the terse, direct strength of oral tales. The descriptions of settings are minimal but the background of sheep pastures and mountains evoke a landscape of open spaces and long journeys. A hare plays the trickster in several of the animal fables, reflecting the role of the hare as a significant mythological figure in many cultures, as discussed in Marianne Taylor’s The Way of the Hare (Bloomsbury, 2017). Other stories, set in villages or towns, provide glimpses of the daily life of ordinary people and their concerns, about family relationships, making a living and oppression by the powerful. They are set in what might be described as a timeless past, with a social and religious framework that appears to draw on more than one tradition.
Oppression of the workers by the powerful is the theme of the stories in the 1982 collection, which all feature Nasreddin, the Effendi of the title. As the translators explain in their introduction, he is a legendary figure widely known in traditions from Turkey, North Africa and Asia. They say that stories about him have spread from the Uyghur community to become popular throughout China. They are not themselves folklore collectors, so their versions of the tales are not directly taken from Uyghur oral tradition. Their translation is made from Chinese and was published in Beijing.
Visit to a Prison
One day the padishah took the effendi with him on a visit to the prison. “What crime did you commit?” the padishah asked the prisoners.
“None!” yelled the men in unison.
The padisha began questioning each by turn and, it seemed, there was only one guilty person among them.
“Protector of the Universe,” the effendi said to the padisha, “please order this man kicked out of here at once! How could he have gotten himself into this place? It is inadmissible that there are people like him in your prison!”
The translators claim explicitly that the Nasreddin stories can help to create a new, socialist culture, because they highlight the abuses of rulers, together with the humour and wisdom of the poor. The sixty-five brief stories in their collection reflect these ideas accordingly. Like those in the 2009 collection, they are set in a timeless past but with a social structure more specifically focused on Moslem traditions. In most, the effendi gets the better of an important official, who attempts to insult or bully him. In one typical example, the padishah (the ruler) blames Nasreddin, who has accurately predicted the death of his prime minister. He threatens Nasreddin with death, unless he can say how long the padishah himself will live. The reply is that the padishah will live two days longer than Nasreddin, who is released as a result.
These stories are more polished than those in the 2009 collection and put more emphasis on urban life, although sheep and wolves do appear in several tales. They reflect one strand of the wider tradition about Nasreddin. However, he is a more complex figure than is expressed here, someone who can be stupid as well as clever and whose exploits are not always directed against the ruling classes. (His relationship to the traditional figure of the fool or jester is outlined in Enid Welsford’s The Fool, a social and literary history [Faber & Faber, 1935]). By reducing his ambiguity, this book flattens his character and reduces the implications of the stories to a single, basic message, although that is expressed with humour.
Taken together, these two collections give an impression of one historical aspect of Uyghur culture, as it shares folk traditions from elsewhere. Both are readable and lively but tell us very little about that community today.
Sandra Unerman is studying for an MA in Folklore at the University of Hertfordshire. Her article about folklore and fiction appeared recently in Focus and she writes for the BSFA Review and the BFS Journal. She is the author of two fantasy novels, Spellhaven and ghosts and exiles, and is a member of london clockhouse writers.
By Regina Kanyu Wang. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.
If you listen to a lecture on Chinese science fiction (SF), or check a list of representative authors of Chinese SF, eight or nine times out of ten, you will hear the names of male authors first. There is Liu Cixin, Wang Jinkang, Han Song and He Xi, the “Four Heavenly Kings.” Or Chen Qiufan, Baoshu, Zhang Ran and Feidao, the leading post-80s writers. If the list goes on, you may finally hear of Xia Jia, Hao Jingfang, Zhao Haihong and Ling Chen, the female authors who are equally extraordinary but less mentioned. During a panel at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki in 2017, the moderator Xia Jia, who is also a prominent scholar, gave a short introduction to Chinese SF. For the first time in such major occasions, she decided to present the female writers before the male ones. Her efforts emphasized that Chinese female SF writers are not inferior to their male counterparts, and questioned the routine of male writers always being the first and the dominant.
Despite the growing popularity of Chinese SF both inside and outside of academia, far less attention is paid to female authors’ works compared with male authors’ works. Research on Chinese SF from a gender perspective is even more rare. This article intends to re-narrate the “herstory” of mainland Chinese SF in the larger historical background of China and hopes to invite more discussion on this topic in the future.
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.
Guangzhao Lyu, Angela Chan and Mia Chen Ma. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF. If you’d like to receive the issue, join the BSFA.
This is a transcription of Chen Qiufan’s public talk at Goodenough College, London, invited by London Chinese Science Fiction Group (LCSFG), on 12th August 2019, which is followed by a conversation with Angela Chan and Mia Chen Ma. This was originally published in Chinese on LCSFG’s WeChat account.
The London Chinese Science Fiction Group (LCSFG) is a community for people interested in Chinese languages (sinophone) science and speculative fiction. Since it was founded in April 2019, LCSFG has been organising monthly reading groups focusing on short stories available both in Chinese and English and has been inviting established/emerging Chinese SF writers to participate in online discussions following the pandemic lockdown since March 2020. During our meetings, we explore the story’s themes, literary styles and even translation techniques and choices, as a way to better understand the piece, as well as the evolving field of contemporary Chinese SF.
Firstly, many thanks to the London Chinese Science Fiction Group for inviting me here, and to Goodenough College for providing such a gorgeous place. Today, I would like to talk about my debut novel, and only novel to date, Waste Tide. And don’t worry, there won’t be any spoilers. Before I discuss the story itself, let me give some general background information and my inspiration, that is, why I wanted to write a science fiction novel about China’s near-future in conjunction with e-waste recycling.