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How Chinese SF writers deal with “the invisible” – Worldcon 75

Day 2 of Worldcon 75 delivered an Academic Track session that was on par, at least in terms of content, if not presentation, with the latest ideas and findings in Chinese Science Fiction (SF), one of the sub-genres of SF that I find particularly interesting and puzzling. Prof. Mingwei Song of Wellesley College, Massachusetts, US, presented on Poetics and the Politics of “The Invisible” –  Science, Science Fiction, and Realism in China, 1890s-1920s. 

The one idea that he conveyed clearly, is that in China, SF is a “marginalized, hidden genre”, which, despite its lowly status, has become “a vehicle for conveying messages that are beyond popular interpretations”, particularly about subjects that are contrary to, or not part of, the Chinese government’s prevalent “Chinese Dream” of prosperity, stability and happiness.

One of Prof. Song’s slides. He ignores the conventions for Powerpoint presentations but his ideas are very interesting.

Origins of SF genre in China

Prof. Song introduced his subject with a straight face, saying that this research “was not manipulated by the Chinese government, and as a result is more liberal, more free.”

He demonstrated that, since the Qing Period, from 1644 to 1912, Chinese authors not only invented Chinese equivalents for common scientific institutions, adventures and ideas, such as “evolutionism” and “utopia”, used in Western SF, but also introduced translations of early SF works, for instance by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Louise J. Strong. As a result, they started the process of the “sinicization” of SF in China.

But these early authors and translators were subversive.

“Early Chinese science fiction, such as Xu Nianci’s New tales of Mr. Braggadocio (1904), and Wu Jianren’s New story of the stone (1908), is dominated by a truth-claiming scientific discourse: the invisible “truth” of the world is validated by cognitive logic and instrumental rationality; various advanced or imagined scientific instruments serve to visualize the unseen “reality.”
“Realism is to remove the “invisibility,” which however also changes the characteristics of the “invisible” objects or worlds.”

Mingwei Song, Poetics and the Politics of “The Invisible” –  Science, Science Fiction, and Realism in China, 1890s-1920s, Worldcon, Helsinki, 2017

Making the invisible world real

In other words, the supernatural and imaginary – ghosts, fairies, giants, space elevators and alien species – were normalized or made visible under the guise of SF writing, to convey criticism of the establishment and established beliefs. How do you deal with the invisible in Chinese SF? You turn it into realism. As one Chinese author, Lu Xin, said: “The madman sees the invisible in everyday life.”

So, when you read Chinese SF, like Liu Cixin’s Hugo Award-winning novel The Three-Body Problem, bear in mind that you might be reading about things that are metaphors for, or representations of, the realities of the present or future China, or of the harsh reality of China, rather than of the Chinese Dream.

High intensity mimesis

What Chinese SF authors have done, is to develop a high intensity form of mimesis, which is the representation or imitation of the real world in art and literature.

Which is why, as Prof. Song said, Chinese SF is a marginalized genre. Unfortunately, as authors like Liu Cixin’s works are translated  into Western languages and gain international fame, the government of their homeland becomes more motivated to control and intervene in the writing process and use the genre to promote its political agenda.

This certainly explains why Confucian ideas and fantasy-type elements appear in both Chinese literary fiction and SF, as plainly and without preamble as if they were just normal discourse and plots. To Chinese readers, that’s what they are.

Would a Western reader like me pick up on that or understand the inferences? Probably not, but it’s still fascinating stuff.

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