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.

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