Cyborg Ghosts, Space Dragon Boats, and the Deep Roots of Chinese Sci-Fi
Science fiction is about the future, or at least that’s how it’s usually perceived. In fact, the genre is one of the most versatile forms of speculative fiction, allowing the writer to draw from all manner of dimensions — past, present, and future — for their world building. A brief glance at recent stories from around the world confirms this, whether it’s Adrian Tchaikovsky’s exploration of non-human sapient worlds or Rebecca Roanhorse’s adaptation of Native American stories to a futuristic setting.
This is particularly true of the current golden age of Chinese sci-fi, or kehuan, one of the most distinctive features of which is the clever use of concepts, constructions, and imagery from traditional and classical Chinese culture.
The country’s last two centuries have been turbulent: In the early 20th century, Chinese literature barely had the space to absorb Western influences before it became caught in a cycle of occupation and war. The end of that turbulence brought with it not only a decadeslong interruption of progress, but also the destruction of thousands of pieces of traditional heritage.
Over the last few decades, however, the country has experienced a period of relative stability, one that has given Chinese writers and artists the space to think and create in an unprecedented way. During China’s first two sci-fi booms, in the 1950s and 1970s, respectively, writers tended to focus on technological utopias and issues such as international politics, scientific ethics, and extraterrestrial encounters. Currently, however, we can see a general movement in the arts, whether conscious or not, to reestablish a link with China’s cultural heritage.
Of course, not all of this cultural shorthand is immediately accessible to a non-Chinese reader, and often, the meaning can be missed altogether.
Take the award-winning author Hao Jingfang’s dystopian novelette “Folding Beijing” — translated by Ken Liu and published in Uncanny — for example. Set in a futuristic Beijing in which residents are segregated into three class-stratified districts by time and space, the story stars Lao Dao, a recycling plant worker from the slums of Third Space who suddenly finds himself in the wealthy First Space. Caught by a pair of robots, he is frog-marched between them: “Their movements were so steady, so smooth, so synchronized, that from a distance, it appeared as if Lao Dao was skating along on a pair of rollerblades, like Nezha riding on his Wind Fire Wheels.”
Both Nezha (sometimes transliterated as Ne Zha) and his flaming wheels would be instantly familiar to readers raised on successive adaptations of the story, from the iconic 1979 animation “Prince Nezha’s Triumph Against the Dragon King,” to 2019’s computer-animated “Ne Zha.” For anyone not raised in China, a quick Google search will still turn up the basic facts of the story: Ne Zha is a rebellious boy deity dating back to the Tang dynasty (618-907) who has appeared in some of China’s greatest works of literature, from “Journey to the West” to the “Investiture of the Gods” cycle. What Google won’t necessarily clarify, however, is that Hao Jingfang’s analogy is not just a visual cue to help readers picture life in a strange future. It also paints Lao Dao as a hero, a rebel fighting for a better life against what seems to be an unconquerable foe.
Other references are even more esoteric, small details which Chinese readers will immediately understand, but which come across merely as an odd turn of phrase to a non-initiate. In Liu Cixin’s “The Three-Body Problem,” for instance, large portions of the story occur in what’s called “the Three-Body VR game,” as the greatest minds in history endeavor to save a virtual world from the erratic, destructive behavior of its three suns. To avoid the extremes of heat or cold, those in the world may enter stasis, not by cryogenics or hibernation, but by expelling all the moisture from their bodies until they become dried flat husks that can be neatly packed away and stored.
It’s a fun image, but not an original one. Whether intentional or not, Liu’s concept bears a remarkable resemblance to the popular legend of Zhang Guolao, an immortal trickster deity who, whenever he reaches a destination, flattens his donkey out, folds it up like paper, and puts it in his pocket. Then, when ready to travel again, he simply unfolds the donkey, reanimates it with a splash of water, and off they trot.
The ongoing revival of traditional culture is also reflected in the presence of old beliefs and mysticism in contemporary kehuan. “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight,” a story by Xia Jia, borrows its central construct from the Eastern Jin dynasty (317-420) text “In Search of the Supernatural” by Gan Bao, a collection of legends, anecdotes, and accounts of immortals, deities, and ghosts. Rather than a procession of disembodied spirits, Xia’s story reimagines the ghosts of the departed as cyborgs, controlled by the brains of those who’ve traded in their bodies — “sold their souls” in Xia’s parlance — and now give performances for the benefit of consumers and companies.
The main character’s name, Xiaoqian, is itself a reference to one of the most famous female ghosts in Chinese literature, from Pu Songling’s “Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio.” In Pu’s story, Xiaoqian is a beauty who dies young and whose spirit is trapped in a deserted temple where a traveling scholar named Cai Chen shelters for the night. Xiaoqian is forced to prey on the living by a powerful demon, but she cannot bring herself to hurt the hapless scholar. While Xia’s version of the character retains Xiaoqian’s benevolence, it brings a different dimension to her appearance. Cybernetic technology gives Xiaoqian luminescent skin, crimson tears, and an aversion to light, all designed to enhance the “authenticity” of her ghostliness. This authenticity exists in stark contrast with the artifice of latex, circuit boards, and wires beneath, to say nothing of the cold commercialism that motivates it. The act of preying on humanity for a demon in the original story becomes ‘preying’ on an audience for corporate gain.
Xia Jia’s work often explores the tension between how old desires interact with new technology, something that has real relevance in contemporary China. In the world of “A Hundred Ghosts,” where you can sell your body parts for money, the act of becoming a cyborg means surrendering your identity to a corporation. In both the literal and metaphorical sense, the sellers are turned into ghosts. Obviously, this can be read as an analogy for China’s dehumanizing working environments, but it also raises questions about how to balance our inner selves against our desire for material wealth, and what it is to be human.
In Ken Liu’s translation, first published in Clarkesworld Magazine, Xia writes: “Every ghost is full of stories from when they were alive. Their bodies have been cremated and the ashes mixed into the earth, but their stories still live on. During the day, when all of Ghost Street is asleep, the stories become dreams and circle under the shadows of the eaves, like swallows without nests.”
These are merely a handful of examples of the various ways in which Chinese kehuan writers are drawing from traditions and classical culture for their imagined futures. After decades of looking primarily to Western writers for inspiration, whether Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, or William Gibson, Chinese authors’ fascination with the interaction between old customs and new technology reflects a society-wide revival of interest in Chinese traditional culture and cultural pride. Young Chinese are heading back to old temples, embracing traditional Chinese medicine, and rediscovering traditional Chinese clothing.
But when kehuan authors connect their work to these traditions, they’re not simply reveling in the past — China’s bookshelves are already groaning under the weight of all the works dedicated to that particular pastime. Rather they’re acknowledging that China and its people are still intrinsically linked to its traditions and its history, and that collective experience and belief will remain important in the future. Whether this heritage is a net positive or negative depends on how it is used: Some writers see in it the potential for exploitation, while others choose to portray the past as the key to saving our shared humanity.
In Luo Longxiang’s “Away From Home,” interstellar settlers live on vast artificial “planetships” piloted by genetically enhanced pathfinders. Yet, despite the light-years between them and Earth, they continue to commemorate the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival, originally held to remember the tragic suicide by drowning of the fourth century BC poet, scholar, and statesman Qu Yuan. They eat zongzi rice dumplings, hold dragon boat races in Qu’s honor, and one of the genetically enhanced characters even throws a zongzi into the artificial sea, a ritual first performed by ancient Chinese to keep the fish from eating Qu’s body.
This takes place not on Earth, or even in a real body of water, but the act still serves the same social, cultural, and philosophical need. “Sometimes I think it’s a shame that after old school master Qu wrote (his poem) “Questions to Heaven” with all those important scientific questions, nobody thought to take him seriously and figure out the answers,” Luo writes in Nick Stember’s translation for Clarkesworld. “Otherwise our tech would’ve developed way past where we are right now.”
It’s no coincidence that China’s current Tianwen 1 probe to Mars shares a name with Qu’s “Questions to Heaven.” Qu’s questions are finally being answered, so who’s to say he won’t one day also be honored by spacefarers tossing zongzi into an artificial sea, thousands of light-years from Earth?
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A promotional image from the 2021 animated film “New Gods: NeZha Reborn”. From Douban)