What makes Chinese science fiction Chinese? That’s the million-dollar question for China’s booming sci-fi scene, and one I’ve been asked countless times in my role as an academic and translator of Chinese sci-fi. Ever since Liu Cixin’s “The Three Body Problem” became a global sensation in 2014, writers, editors, translators, and fans of the genre, once members of a tight-knit, domestic community, have struggled to cope with the global spotlight — to say nothing of the expectations of new readers not present when the contours of Chinese sci-fi first came into focus.
In my experience, the interest in Chinese sci-fi among Anglophone readers is genuine, at least in the abstract. But it often boils down to a desire to know what makes Chinese sci-fi different from the stories they grew up reading. After all, why else should they care about translated works, when there are so many sci-fi stories by writers coming from Anglophone literary backgrounds already available? The phrasing of the question gives away the game: It is Chinese sci-fi’s supposed ability to convey a certain, particularized “Chinese-ness” that makes it an object of interest to a non-Chinese audience.
For translators, the demand for Chinese-language sci-fi has been a boon. Writers, on the other hand, must grapple with the implications of their newly enlarged platform. Equipped with the knowledge that their work is now internationally marketable, many wonder whether they should change the way they write to make it easier to translate — or highlight the fact that they are not merely sci-fi writers, but Chinese sci-fi writers.
But why must the “Chinese-ness” of Chinese sci-fi authors be heightened? When we talk about the artistic intentions of a Chinese writer, why must their identity as Chinese always come first, instead of their identity as a writer? Can’t we just read Chinese sci-fi as sci-fi, and not as some tortured political allegory or cultural window into China?
This dilemma is not unique to Chinese sci-fi, of course. The established hierarchy of the global literary market and the residual legacies of colonialism are obvious factors. The Anglophone world affects ignorance towards cultures and languages that are viewed as peripheral. Translated works generally regarded as “lesser,” and their central market position also allows Anglophone editors and buyers to play gatekeeper.
Sci-fi, which is rooted in both Euro-American literary traditions and a colonial fascination with unchartered territories and the “Other,” is perhaps especially prone to categorizing and ranking works from other cultures. The idea that universal criteria for quality, taste, or literary beauty exist is a trap, but writers who do not adhere to a Euro-American literary tradition are often criticized for writing in an awkward or crude way. How much of the criticism stems from a rejection of foreignness versus the writing’s quality can be hard to determine, but the false assumption that impartial, academic discussions of quality are even possible is frequently used as a cover for ethnocentrism.
The prevalence of orientalism layers another problematic perspective onto how Chinese sci-fi is viewed and read. In the context of Chinese sci-fi, orientalism simultaneously manifests itself in antagonism towards the modern Chinese state and a fixation on Chinese culture and society. The intricate relationship between China and sci-fi buzzwords like science, technology, and politics only further mystifies the genre. Whereas American authors have the luxury of disavowing politics, every Chinese sci-fi writer is believed to be knowledgeable and concerned about Chinese politics. “The Three Body Problem” is the most abused example of the trend, with pieces warning of a “a sci-fi invasion on the U.S.” The trilogy’s human-alien relationship was widely interpreted as a coded metaphor for China’s geopolitical future, despite the fact that Liu wrote the first book two decades ago, for a tiny audience of Chinese sci-fi fans.
Notably, China itself is complicit in perpetuating the myth of a uniquely “Chinese” sci-fi. Chinese experts and official-backed panels have referenced “The Three Body Problem” as a classic example of a successful “cultural export.” Writers who achieve international success are paraded around like literary heroes, and Chengdu’s winning bid to host the 2023 World Science Fiction Convention was hyped up by officials in language once reserved for events like the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The relationship between Chinese sci-fi, state rhetoric, and the nation’s supposed “soft power” is intimate, turning sci-fi into a vehicle for the sale of a fast-food version of Chinese culture to the rest of the world. This focus on the “Chinese-ness” of sci-fi authors and stories, defined here in terms of national identity, is arguably a form of self-orientalizing, an attempt to win a larger share of the global literary market by conforming to the market’s expectations, whether by showcasing differences or assimilating entirely.
This totalization of Chinese sci-fi risks misreading an otherwise diverse literary scene. For example, in conferences on international science fiction, it’s become common to dedicate an entire panel to Chinese sci-fi, with four or five creators lumped together based on nothing more than their shared “Chinese” identity. Characterized primarily by their foreignness, Chinese sci-fi authors are quarantined in their own little playground sealed off from the rest of the park, the sharp lines between them giving way to a homogenized definition of Chinese-ness. If they were Americans, readers would laugh off any attempt to lump writers like Liu Cixin, Chen Qiufan, and Hao Jingfang into the same box. A golden age space enthusiast, a Pynchon-esque enchanter with a sharp wit, and a master of cerebral social allegories, it would be like sticking Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick and Margaret Atwood on a panel together.
Admittedly, our efforts to decolonize sci-fi are always going to be imperfect; there is no black-and-white solution. As the postcolonial theorist Robert Young wrote, “the politics of recognition is once again a self-fulfilling paradigm that only seeks to cure the illness that it has itself created.” Any deliberate attempt to highlight Chinese-ness is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, the international success of Chinese sci-fi adds to the representation of works produced outside of the Anglophone tradition. On the other hand, its presentation to Anglophone readers always risks reinforcing stereotypes and the tendency toward segregation.
This poses a challenge for translators. When translating Chinese sci-fi into English, writers and translators alike must determine how a work should be presented to international readers. Should they thoroughly domesticate the English version so that it reads seamlessly like a work produced in English for an Anglophone audience? Or shuffle over to the other end of the spectrum and performatively flaunt — some might say exoticize — the story’s supposedly Chinese elements?
As a translator, I constantly find myself straddling the delicate line between making a translation sound like native English and preserving the charms of an author’s voice. For instance, in translating Anna Wu’s mythology-heavy “The Facecrafter,” I had to decide how to translate the mythological long. The ready-made equivalence was “dragon,” despite the Chinese long bearing minimal resemblance to the beast St. George slew; the translation is rooted in orientalist readings produced by early Sinologists. Ultimately, I decided to not translate it at all, instead preserving the pinyin “lóng.” At the same time, after consulting with the author, we added a new part to the story to explain the creature and ease readers into the story: “Storm clouds gathered in the sky, shrouding the outline of a giant beast: half indigo and half purple; antlers like a stag, claws like a hawk, and body like a snake. It was the long, the guardian of emperors and bringer of prosperity in mythology.”
Returning to my earlier question, what is Chinese sci-fi, and what makes it Chinese? I do not have an easy answer, but there is a plenitude of examples of grassroots work by Chinese sci-fi practitioners to decolonize the future and struggle out of the various constraints they are bound in. Apart from the work of translators, Chinese sci-fi writers, many of them already being published in English, are putting forth their own versions of a genre rooted in colonialism.
If we look past the medium of traditional publishing, sci-fi published online operates by its own set of rules, and online authors are vigorously updating the tropes and tools used to describe science and magic. Some writers, like the above-mentioned Anna Wu, are veering away from the politicization of sci-fi by actively returning to older Chinese traditions such as the classics and mythology and reimagining them in a modern context, in part as a means to mend the broken links between China’s past and present. Others, like Zhao Haihong, choose to place their personal experiences at the center of their works, as parents, lovers, thinkers, and adventurers, thus diminishing the need to highlight their Chinese-ness in the first place.
The symbiosis of writers and translators in the Chinese sci-fi space, a relationship arguably closer than many writer-translator pairs due to the small size of the community, its collaborative tradition, and the growing multilingual fluency of young writers are further blurring the boundaries between languages, cultures, and nations, making Chinese sci-fi more cosmopolitan than ever. After all, connected as we are, the concerns and emotions voiced in Chinese sci-fi are hardly unique to China. In the words of Chen Qiufan, as he described his recent, explicitly global work “AI 2041,” “I consider myself a world writer who writes in Chinese, rather than a ‘Chinese’ writer.”
Despite the arguments I make in this essay, I recognize that, realistically, Chinese sci-fi will still have to go by its Chinese-ness for a while. Certainly, the question of “What makes Chinese sci-fi Chinese?” will most continue popping up on social media, on panels, and in research papers. But I want to call attention to the fact that the definition of Chinese-ness is fluid, dynamic, and constantly transforming in the face of new expectations and contexts. With every work being produced, a different Chinese sci-fi writer is offering a unique definition of their own version of Chinese-ness — or, rather, what it means to be a Chinese writer in contemporary times. Chinese-ness can be many things, of which nationality is the narrowest. Perhaps, instead of trying to define the genre, we should follow the lead of its writers and embrace its openness to change.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: VCG)