After Yet Another Liu Cixin Adaptation, What’s Next for Chinese Sci-Fi?
Nearly 25 years after he first burst onto the scene, Liu Cixin remains Chinese sci-fi’s biggest star. The past three months alone have seen three major adaptations of his work released: live-action and animated versions of “The Three-Body Problem” and the long-anticipated sequel to the 2019 blockbuster “The Wandering Earth.”
The success of these adaptations is a powerful reminder of the appeal of modern Chinese sci-fi, and in particular Liu’s signature “hard sci-fi” style. Yet, notwithstanding his status as the standard-bearer for Chinese sci-fi, Liu’s work owes more to writers in the Anglophone world than any specific Chinese tradition. A devoted reader of golden age sci-fi authors like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, his stories echo their enthusiasm for the vast expanse of space, their fascination with technological advancement, and their speculations on the future of humanity.
In this, Liu’s work mirrors the history of Chinese sci-fi. Scholars generally agree that the first modern Chinese sci-fi story was written by the reformer and scholar Liang Qichao (1873-1929). Liang’s “The Future of New China” imagined life 2,513 years after Confucius’ birth, in which a rejuvenated China has overcome its past to emerge as a powerful, advanced modern nation-state. Liang, himself a translator who helped introduce Jules Verne into Chinese, saw the genre, and literature more broadly, as a way to save the nation by dispelling old conventions and cultivating interest in scientific knowledge in the masses; his story was meant as a direct response to China’s stagnant technological development in comparison to Europe and Japan.
After its introduction into Chinese, sci-fi did not develop in a straight line, as zeal for the genre fluctuated in response to social and political trends. In the early years of the People’s Republic, for instance, Soviet sci-fi was translated into Chinese and Chinese writers were encouraged by the state to envision a socialist utopian future powered by advanced technology. Works from this era simultaneously exemplify the Soviet cultural legacy that China inherited and China’s own practical concern with industrialization, science popularization, and production.
After falling out of favor during the 1960s, sci-fi reemerged in the late 1970s and 1980s as a symbol of Anglophone popular culture in a country excited to reenter the global community. Though the genre experienced its share of ups and downs, barely three decades later, “The Three-Body Problem” earned Liu Cixin the 2015 Hugo Award and made him a household name.
In many ways, Liu’s works epitomize the mindset and attitudes of Chinese creators in the early 2000s. After China reopened to the outside world, the rapid increase of translated American and European literature and the surge of economic globalization produced a creative desire to write the kind of sci-fi that could match the tropes, style, and, most importantly, scientific detail of its Western counterpart. The “harder” the technologies imagined, the better.
Liu’s 2015 Hugo Award was thus seen as a milestone for the genre: the first time a Chinese sci-fi writer beat their Anglophone counterparts at their own game.
However, it’s questionable as to whether the rising generation of Chinese sci-fi authors still view Liu and his works as their primary model. Many young Chinese writers are not only seeking to leave Liu’s shadow, but they’re also moving past Anglophone genre conventions and Soviet cultural legacies to redefine the sci-fi genre and recast the shape of Chinese futurity. In contrast to Liang Qichao’s day, the traditional and the progressive are no longer viewed as dichotomies or mutually exclusive. The result is a sci-fi inspired by Chinese traditions, history, mythology, and local practices.
This is distinct from indulging in orientalist fantasies of ancient China or stereotypes of its contemporary society. For example, alternate history, a subgenre of sci-fi, has become an effective sandbox for up-and-coming Chinese writers to imagine what China’s future would be like if its past was, well, not China’s. The British historian Joseph Needham once famously asked why modern science “had not developed in China.” Now, writers like Liang Qingsan and Zhang Ran are borrowing the trope of alternate history to ask: What if Chinese had defined the bounds of “modern science”?
Liang is a member of China’s post-’80s generation and an avid researcher of historical trivia and lore. In stories like “The Kite of Jinan” and “The New New News: Dark Shadow of the Magic City,” he draws on primary sources to tackle inventive “what-if” questions: What if the friction generated by cat rolling on rubber could produce enough electricity to power an e-bike, or what if a young engineer at the Jiangnan Arsenal had fashioned the first-ever manned aircraft out of a kite and a chair?
In the same vein, Zhang Ran’s “The Snow of Jinyang” imagines a medieval internet built from a mix of silk and woodblocks, one of the four major inventions of imperial China. Playing with the imagery of the “web” and “nets,” Zhang translates the mechanism of computer networks into the language of materiality, creating a physical version of the internet.
Other writers focus on retelling myths and utilizing symbolism from classical literature. For example, Anna Wu’s “The Facecrafter,” draws on one of the oldest Chinese myths, that of the deity Cangjie, who invented sacred Chinese characters that could materialize organisms, concepts, and phenomena.
These mythological allusions are more than just a quirky nod to traditional culture. In the Cangjie myth, language and arts are tools of ritual, social management, and interpersonal relationships. In Wu’s interpretation, they become the grand order of a world that has been destroyed by war, pollution, and unchecked acceleration and which can only be restored by reenchantment. By repurposing and revitalizing an ancient myth, Wu suggests that perhaps the way to a better future requires pausing and gazing back into our forgotten past.
While many perceive the Chinese tradition as monolithic, even imperial, it can also be used to conjure up stories more local and personal, a counterbalance to master narratives that strive to depict China as an essentializing whole. Chen Qiufan has integrated the folk culture of his roots along the polluted Guangdong coast into cyberpunk novels like the Ken Liu-translated “Waste Tide” and short stories like “The Ancestral Temple in a Box.” Drawing on his childhood and multilingual, international outlook, he reflects on both the complexity of his native traditions and the environmental and social concerns that define contemporary China. Likewise, Regina Kanyu Wang, author of short stories including “Paradise Lost” and “The Language Sheath,” offers a conflicted portrait of her hometown of Shanghai as a city overshadowed by technocracy and capitalism growing gradually more estranged from those who grew up there.
Taken together, these efforts mark a turning point for Chinese sci-fi. The genre once resembled a coming-of-age protagonist: not a naïve toddler, but not yet an adult with a fully formed style, either. Over the course of the past 100 years, Chinese sci-fi has emulated existing models to work toward an effectively domesticated version of the genre. That effort has panned out beyond most observers’ wildest dreams, but it’s not enough. The success of the previous generation is worth celebrating, but it shouldn’t blind us to the potential of the up-and-coming authors who are reinventing what sci-fi can be.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Details of an illustration for Liang Qingsan’s novel. From @梁清散 on Weibo)