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2018-05-28 07:03:45 Commentary

On April 20, I attended a science salon in Beijing that was cohosted by the China Science Writers Association. During her speech, Yang Xujie, the deputy editor-in-chief of Popular Science Press, bemoaned the fact that high-quality Chinese popular science books are extremely rare, and few sell more than 5,000 copies. Indeed, most best-sellers are translations from foreign languages.

Yang is correct. In 2017, domestic works made up less than one-fifth of the top 100 popular science bestsellers on e-commerce website JD.com, and only around a quarter of a similar list on its competitor, Dangdang. “A Brief History of Time,” written by the late British cosmologist Stephen Hawking, was the most popular science book in China last year.

This is hardly surprising: Chinese readers haven’t yet taken to works of popular science. A report published this month on China’s book retail market stated that the country spent more than 80 billion yuan ($12.5 billion) on books last year, nearly 15 percent more than in 2016. Popular science books made up less than 3 percent of those sales.

This is largely a consequence of China’s low scientific literacy. The China Association for Science and Technology (CAST) estimates that in 2015, just over 6 percent of the Chinese population had a “basic level” of scientific literacy — that is, they broadly understood the scientific method, had a certain amount of technical knowledge, and could apply some of that knowledge to practical problems. CAST hopes to nudge that number above 10 percent by 2020. Meanwhile, a report written for American Airlines and NASA by the University of Michigan indicated that 10 percent of Americans had some level of scientific literacy three decades ago, a figure that has risen close to 30 percent by 2016.

Most Chinese scientists fail to strike the right balance between scientific accuracy and universal appeal.

China also suffers from a shortage of competent domestic scientists willing to write. In the West, many frontline research scientists double as well-known science writers. The late Stephen Hawking authored “A Brief History of Time” while teaching at Cambridge University; the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger adapted a series of 1943 lectures at Trinity College, Dublin, into his classic “What Is Life?”; and his countryman, the trailblazing zoologist Konrad Lorenz, published “King Solomon’s Ring” while teaching at the University of Vienna. But in China, most scientists do not view writing for the general public as an indication of a successful career.

Popular science writing isn’t financially lucrative in China, either. An article in a newspaper or magazine only nets you between 100 and 300 yuan per 1,000 characters. But writing a 3,000-character science article usually involves reading a dozen or so academic publications in the space of a few days, which can be exhausting if combined with full-time research.

And when they do write, most Chinese scientists fail to strike the right balance between scientific accuracy and universal appeal. Many choose topics readers find boring or deploy scientific jargon that readers can’t understand.

In spite of the low pay and the sneers of my peers, I nonetheless try to write science books that a general audience would enjoy. My background is in biochemistry and molecular biology, and I work mainly in cell cloning and genetic engineering. I know that many Chinese readers are unfamiliar with cutting-edge biotech, while others openly oppose transgenic technology, gene editing, and other biotechnologies. I know that public distrust can be a major obstacle to research, so I set aside time to introduce innovative biotech to the audience at large and dispel their misconceptions.

Beginning in early 2016, I started using my evenings and weekends to write, publishing in various science magazines, papers, and official accounts on WeChat, China’s popular social messaging app. When I first started, I could only write one article a month, but now I can churn out an article every few days. I’ve done more than 50 articles, and with the help of the Popular Science Press, I’m now writing a work of fiction underpinned by modern scientific concepts.

I’m targeting young readers because Chinese children read about twice as many books as adults. At first, I wanted to introduce the wonders of biotech to kids — cell cloning, stem cells, transgenic technology, gene editing — but these concepts proved hard to explain in ways that they would understand.

I have written about cloned mammoths, a transgenic silkworm that dreams of being Spider-Man, a transgenic rabbit that produces recombinant protein drugs, and a gene-edited monkey with human-like hereditary diseases.

But kids love reading about animals. They also love adventures, which is great for me, as it allows me to channel my inner Jules Verne — the inspirational author of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” So, I dreamt up a number of weird and wonderful creatures made all the more fantastic by a number of modifications they have undergone thanks to biotechnology. I have written about cloned mammoths, a transgenic silkworm that dreams of being Spider-Man, a transgenic rabbit that produces recombinant protein drugs, and a gene-edited monkey with human-like hereditary diseases. The book’s title is “Finding Fantastic Animals.”

I have a young daughter at home, and most of the stories I write are for her. My young, female protagonist, Tang Xiaodi, is a little bit like my daughter: She is passionate about technology and reading. Xiaodi wants to create a theme park full of fantastic animals, so she journeys around the world with her parents during her summer break, visiting scientists in different countries who study bizarre animal species. The idea is to stimulate young readers’ creativity and imaginations, while also remaining scientifically accurate. My publisher even helped find a professional illustrator to draw the animals I describe.

“Finding Fantastic Animals” was finally published in March this year. Although it has received a few positive reviews, I still don’t know if it will buck the trend and rise up the best-seller lists. But I’m pressing on as a writer, anyway; I’ve already finished a draft for my second book, “The Miracle of Life,” to be released at the end of this year. This time, I’m trying to tell heartfelt stories of how significant medical breakthroughs have saved many people from severe diseases like AIDS, leukemia, Huntington’s, and ALS, none of which is well understood by the Chinese general public.

Along the way, I’ve fallen in love with science writing’s ability to connect with kids, who have such vivid imaginations. My daughter enjoyed the science stories in my first book and has since thought of more fantastic animals for me to create. Her support encourages me to keep writing, even if I ultimately earn little money from this avocation. Hopefully, her generation will be more scientifically literate than mine, and will have access to many more wonderful works that make them find science as spellbinding as I find it.

Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: Children read popular science books in Shaoyang, Hunan province, May 30, 2016. VCG)