Cat Years in Cat Country: Sci-Fi in China

Graeme Smith  00:11

Welcome to the Little Red Podcast which brings you China from beyond the Beijing beltway. I’m Graeme Smith from the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs, and I’m joined by my co-host, Louisa Lim, former China correspondent for the BBC and NPR, now with the Centre for Advancing Journalism at Melbourne University. We’re on air thanks to support from the Australian Centre on China in the World.


Louisa Lim  00:37

China’s reality is more sci fi than sci fi. Those are the words of Han Song 韩松, one of China’s earliest science fiction writers. Today we’re looking at the reality of China’s sci-fi boom. The science fiction industry in China reached $12 billion last year. And of course, the crown jewel in that Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem is soon to be on Netflix in a show made by the creators of Game of Thrones.


Clip  01:10

We fear the dark. There are those who say we should not inquire too closely into who else might be living in that darkness. Better not to know.


Graeme Smith  01:27

That’s the trailer which has just been released. This month we’re talking all things sci fi with Emily Jin, a science fiction and fantasy translator, as well as a PhD candidate at Yale University. We’re also joined by Han Song’s translator, Michael Berry, who is also a professor of contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Michael, let’s start with that statement of Han Song’s. If you could channel Han Song for a minute, how is China’s reality more sci-fi than sci-fi?


Michael Berry  01:58

You know, I think any Chinese scholar or anyone who has travelled or spent extended periods of time in China over the last several years, will, it will be, you’ll be hard pressed not to be startled by the radical social transformations that are playing out right before your eyes. I often, for years now, I’ve been telling people who know very little about China, when I’m trying to describe it and give them a sense of the pace and the urgency of this transformation. To think about it like cat years, or dog years, which are usually it’s seven cat years for one human year. For a long time, especially. I first went to China in the early 90s. I think 1993. And from that period all the way through, I would say the first decade of the 2000s, that’s really what it felt like. If you went to a city and left and came back a year later, you couldn’t find your way. Entire streets were ripped out, you know, buildings were torn down. Neighbourhoods were reimagined. And it had a very, a sense of dislocation. And I think a lot of people who lived through that or would go to travel through China during that time would really be startled by just the pace of this kind of transformation. And so it really did feel like a science fiction movie playing out before your eyes, the demolition and the reconstruction. And what that also did the people’s sense of values and place and morality, because just as the physical space was transforming, so two, people’s sense of where they belong in the world was also constantly in flux.


Louisa Lim  03:37

And Emily, what do you think? I mean, in terms of young Chinese readers, why do you think sci-fi is kind of speaking to them at this moment?


Emily Jin  03:46

This is actually my first time back in China after two years in America. One major point is that the prevalence of technology of app using, of, you know, facial recognition, all of those things just permeating, you know. I’m in Beijing now. The streets, the malls, wherever you go, not being here at home for quite some time and then coming back, makes me realise how unadapted I am to life in China. Even if it’s just two years, like you’d assume that two years isn’t, you know, too much of a time to be spent away from home. But once you’re kind of in that situation, you realise that you don’t actually know what’s going on. Where are the shops? How do you get groceries, the pace in which online delivery is happening, and you’re home and it’s kind of your parents now teaching you what to do when you’re back in China. It was obviously the same feeling when I travelled, when I last travelled back to Beijing back in 2020. So that was when the pandemic just kind of hit the world. So to put that together, I think technology actually plays such a huge role in everyone’s daily lives in China that you know, still here in the US, we you know, walk around with credit cards and carry little purse. But now, it’s that, from me, to my parents to people that I know, everyone’s just out there with one phone that does everything. It’s like your social life, your, you know, bank account, everything about yourself just kind of confined in this little black box that is a smartphone. And I’ve talked to many friends in my generation, and they were kind of equally as confused as I am being back in China, especially for the summer, because this is, you know, the peak in which a lot of us who were kind of stranded, quote unquote, abroad are coming back to visit. And everyone’s like, Oh, no, I don’t know how to pay. I don’t know where to store my like identity cards and all that. So I think to bring this back a little, the reason why sci fi is being so popular is because of the sheer amount of technology we’re interacting with on a daily basis, and also at the rate in which that’s evolving. And I think it’s just happening in such a way that no matter if you’re coming in from the outside, like us having lived abroad for most of our lives, adult lives. Or if you’re just you know, having lived in China, all your life, but still having to constantly adjust to the new apps that are coming out, the new kinds of tech that you’re dealing with. I think, science fiction kind of functions as a sort of mental anchor for you to be like, okay, there’s still some kind of imaginary space I can escape into that somewhat prepares me not even like factually, but like more like emotionally for the world I’m living in.


Graeme Smith  06:27

Our sci fi canon has works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was written way back in 1818, and has sometimes been described as the first work of science fiction.


Clip  06:37

This is the story you’ve heard about, talked about. The spine tingling, blood killing story that stunned your emotions. Frankenstein, don’t touch that.


Louisa Lim  06:51

There’s also Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, filmed in 1968 in scenes which appear ever more likely today. How a computer comes to life and becomes murderous.


Clip  07:04

Open the pod bay doors, HAL. I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that. What’s the problem? I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do. I don’t know what you’re talking about HAL. I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me. And I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.


Graeme Smith  07:27

Michael, what are the antecedents for China’s science fiction writers? What do they draw upon?


Michael Berry  07:32

Oh, you know, it’s a very diverse set of influences. The ones you just quoted are certainly influential for a lot of Chinese writers today. But also earlier, earlier works. Also, local Chinese works, some of the writers, you mentioned, Liu Cixin 刘慈欣, Han Song. They’re very influential for the newer generation. But if we want to break things down, Chinese science fiction has gone through several waves over the years. And there’s been starts and stops. And so I really look at the first start as being the late Qing Dynasty. Where if you look at that historical period, this is where the Meiji Restoration was very successful in Japan. And China was really struggling with how to modernise and how to envision its own future. And one way that they were trying to imagine their future was through the lens of science fiction. And so you have this first explosion of sci-fi during the late Qing. When we get to the May 4 movement, by then it really starts to die down. And you have a long period where there really isn’t a lot happening in science fiction. During the early socialist period in the fifties, there’s a slight blip in terms of a couple of films, a couple novels that are in the science fiction genre. But I would really look at the second major wave after the late Qing being the early reform era. Where after Deng Xiaoping opened up, and you have of course, the Four Modernizations, right, where China overnight was trying to modernise its military, bring in science, technology. And one powerful avatar for that was science fiction. And that’s where you see the second boom, and all of a sudden the creation of science fiction journal, a huge influx of translations of Western science fiction into China coming back for the first time or introduced for the first time. The import of Western science fiction films in the 1980s and 90s. And so you have the 80s as the second wave. And then again, it dies down for a while. And then it’s really not until the 2000s, post 2000s that you get this third wave, the current wave, which we’re currently in the middle of. With the rise of writers like Wang Jinkang 王晋康, Liu Cixin, Han Song, etc, where, it’s probably the biggest wave yet, in terms of its global impact. And so each of those waves had different influences. But I think it’s always been a mishmash of both local and foreign influences. And of course in China you have the very robust wuxia 武侠 or martial arts tradition, especially the more fantastical, mystical side of that. That’s also played into the reimagination of science fiction by borrowing elements of that side by side with elements from the Western canon.


Graeme Smith  10:23

So, Emily, I mean, one work that some people cite as being kind of China’s first work of science fiction is Lao She’s Cat Country (猫城记), which oddly is a book that he himself ended up not liking, because he thought it wasn’t very funny. I mean, do you think that has any influence? Or is it even a science fiction work? Some people say it’s not?


Emily Jin  10:44

Yeah, actually, I’m like, kind of interested in talking about how exactly is the genre of sci-fi defined in China? That, you know, Michael, just now kind of traced the entire history of how this whole idea of Chinese Science Fiction gradually came into shape. And the one thing I’m interested in is talking about, you know, when we mention science fiction, in China, what exactly are we referring to? So, I know that you know, cat city, it has been, in a way canonised into the entire history of Chinese science fiction. But was it actually viewed a sci-fi in a way that, for example, us in the Anglophone world define a sci-fi? Or is it just, you know, to Lao She 老舍, more like an experimental way of metaphorically expressing what he’s been feeling, observing at the time? And I think the same question can actually be extrapolated to talking about the current trend of Chinese sci fi. In which we are somewhat moving away from the generation of Liu Cixin, which, you know, came under the impact heavily of these, you know, what we call the golden era American, British science fiction writers. You know, the whole Space Odyssey fascination with tech details and all that. We’re moving into a generation, which on one hand, as also Michael said, just now. You know, the opening up of the genre of sci-fi to incorporate elements from wuxia. From also, you know, self-cultivation, as they call it xiuxin 修心, which got popular primarily online. The prominence of internet fiction, online forums of people adding various influences from pop culture, also from their own local folk culture into writing science fiction, into imagining science society, and what it means to, you know, fundamentally be Chinese in a world like this. So I think all of that put together makes us constantly think about how to actually define what we call by Chinese science fiction. So are we you know, a community? Are we a genre? Are we somewhat canonised at this point? Are we not? Are we still exploring? What is our potentiality for change. So like my generation, who are just ready to emerge onto the stage, writing sci-fi, being translated. Of course, coming under the assumption that their work has a higher chance of being translated than, for example, when Han Song and Liu Cixin first started writing. So I think we’re really in this really exciting period. And so if that’s, you know, moving too far away from the question about Lao She. But I think I’m getting very similar feelings towards how are we actually interpreting sci-fi as we move into the near future?


Louisa Lim  13:24

So for those really young writers, a lot of them are kind of writing online, aren’t they? And being discovered not the way that traditional writers were discovered? How do you think that’s changing the genre Emily?


Emily Jin  13:35

Yeah, I think, you know, in the past, our common understanding is that if you want to read Chinese sci-fi, so, Science Fiction World, kehuan shi jie 科幻世界is kind of the big magazine that you go to. So having your stories being accepted by that magazine, marks a certain kind of prestige. It means that you’re officially kind of initiated into this Chinese sci-fi cult, if you can say that. But now, people aren’t going on, you know, popular Internet fic sites. So it’s jinjiang 晋江, or qidian 起点. They’re writing sci-fi in the way that they don’t even need to have an interaction with what we call, you know, the more proper Chinese sci-fi. They don’t have to have read the Three Body Problem to write a sci-fi. They can simply just be fascinated with, you know, I want to write a story that incorporates romance. I want to have these people fall in love with robots. And they’re perfectly fine with doing that. And that is also sci-fi. Except that, you know, the thrill you get from that may not be so much centred on what we do in our reading of sci-fi, which is like, oh, intellectual experiment. It’s all about philosophy, society. But for them, it’s really just, I just want to see a good love story that’s happening between human and a form of nonhuman. And sci-fi seems to be the most convenient place to take these tropes from. So for them, it’s kind of like, really, they’re doing their own thing. And without the burden of having to represent some kind of, I am writing sci-fi for China or for the world. It’s more like I’m writing this simply for myself and a handful of audience that are interested. So that’s where, you know, it’s really just a storytelling. The characterization that matters, instead of having to really come to some major understanding about human technology.


Graeme Smith  15:24

And so are we starting to see, and this might be a question for either of you, crossover with other popular online genres? Are we seeing, for example, boys love sci-fi?


Emily Jin  15:33

Of course, that’s actually a huge thing right now. Boys love, actually to trace back the history, I think China got the tradition largely from Japan, which it became its own little niche genre were largely female, or queer writers describe the romance between two male characters. And that became kind of a way for, especially, you know, younger women to imagine, explore romantic relationships, while coming out of gender confinements. So that kind of started evolving in China for the past two decades. And it’s always been, you know, going strong in China. So now, the entire idea of like, boys love genre fiction plus sci-fi, is quite popular. Because now instead of writing two characters, you know, developing a romance in real life reality, you know, going into work, being at school, they want them to meet each other on a spaceship. Which is fun, and adds the flavour. So, it has been really popular.


Louisa Lim  16:34

And it’s actually really interesting. I mean, I’m just thinking about my students from China. And recently, we did a audio assignment where they had to do an assignment on breaking the binaries. And so many of them did assignments about breaking the binaries between online life and real life, and they were living quite sci-fi existences. You know, there’s one who had an AI boyfriend. And there were people who wrote about how they were Tomb Sweeping virtually. And you know, you know, and all these other kinds of online relationships inside games like Second Life. And I just did feel like, it is almost like a more dystopian world. Or, you know, one step further ahead than what we’re doing in the West, when it comes to this sort of integration of online life and real life. Is it hard for Chinese sci-fi writers to go that much further into the future?


Michael Berry  17:31

You know, that, I mean, that’s a question I’ve asked a few writers. Especially during the COVID period, where our everyday lives because, you know, you know, people, just to leave their house you have to scan a QR code. You have to go get swabbed. And that level of the intervention of technology into people’s everyday lives. And the level to which it penetrated into these everyday activities. It really felt it was, you know, one of the classic cases where reality became much stranger and more bizarre than fiction. And I’m certain that it certainly did pose some challenges to certain writers, and in some cases, preempted certain suppositions that writers had about what the near future might look like. I mean, recently, Chen Qiufan 陈楸帆, he co-authored a book… Stanley Chen, he co-authored a book with Lee Kai-Fu 李開復called AI 2041. It’s a collection of short stories, that imagines what the world looks like in a few decades with the penetration of AI. And I ran into one of the co-authors Stanley a few months ago. And he said, just you know, a year and a half after the book was published, so much of the content was already outdated. Because what had actually happened with the real-life progression of AI complete, was completely, outside the box in terms of what they had imagined when they were writing the book. And I think that’s a great example of how the technological advancements in terms of AI in some cases are even giving our most sophisticated science fiction writers a run for their money in terms of trying to really anticipate where where things are going.


Louisa Lim  19:09

It’s like in America, political satirists, couldn’t deal with the Trump years in China. Sci-fi writers are in trouble. Michael, let me ask you about Han Song’s hospital trilogy, which you translated, and it was published in March. And it seems like a thinly disguised take on Chinese politics. You know, it’s the story of this new age of medicine where hospitals have become cities and patients have to submit to the hospital for this sort of endless ongoing, never-ending treatments. I mean, how was Han Song allowed to write this? Is it the case that sci-fi writers have more leeway for manoeuvre in their sort of imaginary universes than fiction writers, straight fiction writers?


Michael Berry  19:55

Yeah I think that in some sense, it’s still quite remarkable that this trilogy got published in China. It was published originally 2016, three volumes: 2016, 2017, 2018. So one volume per year during that period. So this is already under the flag of Xi Jinping. And it is quite remarkable that it was able to pass the censors, because we all realise that censorship in terms of cultural discourse in China has gotten increasingly stringent over the last couple of years. And I think the way that this was able to get past censorship and to get published, is because on the one hand, he’s using the genre of science fiction, so it’s this alternate space, this alternate reality, he actually never uses the word China in the entire book. And so it’s a very deliberate avoidance of those those terms. And besides science fiction, I also really look at it almost more so as avant garde fiction. It’s very weird. It’s very strange. So much so that I doubt many censors even got through the book. And those who did get through the book, I wonder if they really even got what he was trying to say. It’s very experimental, it’s very contorted in terms of its language. And I think, in some sense, when you were approach the book, you have to go through a process of decoding as a reader to understand what Han Song was really trying to say in a book like this. But it’s a great testament to the power of fiction, that even in a moment where so many books are being banned. Or not even, you know, just being pulled off shelves. That the ingenuity of this writer was able to pull off this grand literary feat to publish not just one but three volumes, where he was saying things that are quite explosive and quite, quite bold, much more than I think, many of his contemporaries.


Graeme Smith  21:52

And so do you think it’s just the censors are not keeping up? Because I mean, if you think of time travel dramas are banned. Hospital dramas are now banned. Also an effect this, in many ways, was a combination of those two genres, two of the most sensitive genres in Chinese censorship. Do you think possibly in the future, they might go, oh, hang on? What’s this story really about?


Michael Berry  22:14

I mean, that’s part of it. Also, I think, you know, literature doesn’t have the power that it once held. I mean, Han Song, although he’s very well known in science fiction communities, he’s not a bestselling writer. And the type of fiction that he’s writing is very niche, you know, like I said, experimental, dark, weird, strange. It’s not, you know, for your Tom Clancy, or Stephen King market, it’s something very, very different. And I think because of that, because it is a relatively small market, he’s able to get away with more. Also, because of his day job. Han Song leads, leads something of a double life. He is a reporter and an editor and head of the translation newsroom at Xinhua news, you know, the big state media conglomerate in China. And so by day, he’s part of the system. And then at night, he puts on his cape and writes these strange, fantastical stories, horrific stories, where he assumes a very different identity. But I also suspect that his good standing in terms of his day job also maybe helps him in terms of getting some of these works past the stringent censorship standards.


Graeme Smith  23:23

His day job probably helps him gather material too, I guess?


Michael Berry  23:27

Yes and he’s talked about, he’s been very open about that, about how his experiences. Not one as someone who deals with chronic illness and has spent a lot of time in hospitals, but also living through these kinds of bureaucracies of the state system, in his professional life. Have really been a direct inspiration for a lot of this fiction.


Louisa Lim  23:47

I feel like my experience at an Australian university might qualify me to write bureaucracy lit. But maybe there’s no audience for that. Emily, what about those younger sci-fi writers? Do they struggle with censorship? Or are they doing stuff or using platforms where they can kind of bypass it?


Emily Jin  24:06

I view this rather as an action-reaction loop, in a sense, because people talk about censorship in China and publishing, especially as if, it’s something that it’s just kind of impossible to get past. That, in many ways, that itself, especially to the outside world also becomes somewhat of its own, you know, yet another overblown myth about China, that people kind of hyper focus on in many ways. But I think just my knowledge of the younger generation of people, I think, we are definitely born in a generation where we learn how to write things smartly. You know, how to play these kinds of fascinating language puns, how to incorporate thoughts into metaphors. So I think that’s actually a direction in which the language that the generation is, the younger generation, is using is really evolving. It’s a combination of having read books by writers who are already being careful about what they’re writing, growing up, and also a large influence coming from the internet community. Because that’s usually where the censorship hits on a day-to-day basis. So if they’re using, you know, social media, they have to be savvy about what keywords cannot appear. Not even just in a narrow political sense, but like porn, for example. If you’re hinting at, you know, these people are doing something obscene, there’s a chance of the entire kind of article being censored. And just very weird censorship, like pops up here and there, that can also get pretty absurd. And once again, that’s a combination of human censors plus AI censors. So it’s become some kind of an interesting ecosystem in the sense that it’s not really that you are confined in a box in which you just kind of can’t get out, hard walls. But it’s more like you get to leak out from all directions, you can kind of move around the cracks, but then appear as if you are doing it, like sneakily. talking in metaphors has been has become a skill in which everyone slowly got adapted to. And in a way, in a pretty like neutral way, I guess that is also contributing to the way that these like avant garde fiction, or how this new generation is really exploring literary creation in general. So this is kind of like, once again, you see a combination of, you know, human society procedures, things that are purely human, combined with the internet. Really just magnifying things or exacerbating things all put together, resulting in this new kind of new generational, modern Chinese language.


Louisa Lim  26:44

But in a way, that’s really an internalisation of censorship that, although it is, I can see that it’s a driver to creativity in some ways. But also, the younger generation has, to that extent already internalised a lot of those dictates. And that drives the way they write, no?


Emily Jin  27:03

Now, to use the word internalisation still seems somewhat like kind of reducing the complexity of the situation. That it’s not really just like a, oh, like this has been happening, that it’s like boiling a frog and warm water that this is all that it is. But I think rather, like I was trying to emphasise, I think it’s still a combination of that. But also, the internet once again, provided simultaneously freedom and also a space to further kind of self-evolve. It rather feels like the current generation of writers is evolving like some kind of a call or algorithm, that they get a certain kind of input, and they digest it and what comes out is a result of that. So in terms of not exactly really internalising, but it’s just that whatever you get fed, you produce accordingly. And this is just a version of what’s being produced.


Michael Berry  27:57

For the last 20 years or so, Chinese Science Fiction really did provide a somewhat, a liminal space, a marginal space wherein writers were indeed able to kind of smuggle things into their fiction that they wouldn’t be able to get in so-called serious fiction. Because it was taking place in this alternative space or outer space or, you know, this imaginary setting. One thing, though, that nobody, I think really anticipated was what Louisa mentioned at the very beginning, this science fiction overnight. I shouldn’t say overnight, but over the course of a very short period of time transforming into this multibillion-dollar industry as so-called IP. I mean, for a long time, the Chinese government had been figuring out how do we so called ‘send Chinese culture out into the world,’ right? That was a government policy. And for a while they thought Mo Yan would do it or so and so would do it and they had their eyes on various potentialities. I don’t think anyone imagined Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem being the work that would truly send Chinese culture into the world. It was kind of the Black Horse. And so in a very short period of time, a lot of investment has gone into the Chinese kind of science fiction cultural enterprise. But what that also means is that this genre that historically had been able to fly under the radar, in terms of publishing stories and ideas that were quite explosive, and really pushing the boundaries is now being commandeered to some extent, by the system. So you know, it’s now there’s so much government, there’s so many eyes on the genre. Now, there’s so much investment, that it also makes it harder and harder to smuggle those ideas that could have gone through very smoothly a decade ago. Now, there’s going to be much more policing. And there’s also going to be more flag waving, very sneakily embedded into some of these science fiction stories. Which you thought, well, since it’s set on Mars or set in some alternate future, you know, you don’t have the burden of nationalism, but somehow it’s still kind of reappearing. And so I think the rise, the financial rise of Chinese Science Fiction is also creating a challenge for those creators that would like to maybe push the boundaries a little bit.


Graeme Smith  30:10

Yeah, it’s so interesting that the people who are in charge now I grew up on I guess the first wave of Chinese science fiction which was sort of based on Soviet science popularisation, rather than what we have now, which is something totally different. But to get historical for a moment, Michael. I’ve always been struck by the party’s evangelism around science and that every turn citizens are urged to believe in science, which is kind of ridiculous, you know, xiangxin kexue 相信科学. And if you go way back to the regime’s origin, in the May 4 movement, you had Mr. Science who you were meant to, to rally around. Not many regimes have that in their DNA? I mean, how does this fetishization of science, this almost as a substitute for religion impact Chinese science fiction in the way the party sees it?


Michael Berry  30:55

Well, I think it plays into that to some degree. I mean, even you look at test scores among say, Chinese high school students in the sciences and mathematics compared to their western counterparts. There is there’s still a much greater investment in knowledge about science and scientific history than I think there is, at least in the United States, and I think also in a lot of other Western nations. And so I think that certainly contributes to the popularity of writers like Liu Cixin and those who are working in the so-called, you know, hard science fiction and really, kind of unpacking these sophisticated theories and weaving them into their worlds. There’s a much greater base of general readers who can get it who can understand that, because the base knowledge for you know, an average educated Chinese is quite high in terms of what they know about science and mathematics and the history of medicine and all of these kinds of topics. So I think it does create a much stronger reader interest in the, in the genre. And then, of course, this is good for the state, too. I mean, if so, it’s something that’s certainly encouraged. And I think it, it all works works together.


Louisa Lim  32:05

I was reading these reports about the recent science fiction convention in in China, you know, you always imagine those as being sort of super nerdy, but it sounds like this one was a sort of full-on government-organised thing. And Xinhua was quoting the Vice President and Executive Secretary of the Secretariat of the Chinese Association for Science and Technology, Xu Wei, who said that sci-fi was a unique and effective form of science, popularisation that is increasingly playing a prominent role in enhancing scientific literacy. I mean, Emily, do they really like sci-fi, these government departments or is it just opportunistic, a cultural export that’s finally stuck. And they’re jumping on the bandwagon?


Emily Jin  32:49

Yeah. So actually, I’m really glad that you gave this really funny example. Because I think that really just encapsulates much of what I’ve been talking about. Is that, you know, on the surface, you get these big overblown, like, master narratives of how you know, science, sci-fi, the country is all coming together. But in reality, if you’re actually at a convention like that, it is still the super nerdy convention that you’re expecting. That, you know, you don’t actually get officials walking around in like cosplay gear. It’s still, you know, like, people just up like Star Wars characters appearing, you know, doing like lightsaber fighting, buying books, lining up to meet Liu Cixin, to get his like autograph whatsoever. That’s like, you know, the usual package of convention attendance. And just to add on to that, actually, people who actually go to the conventions, as in the community of sci-fi fans in China is, to my surprise, much younger than the average age of fans like that. In America, for example, because I’ve been to many of these different conventions, especially Worldcon I was at the 2017, 2018, and 2019 Worldcon. And just in comparison, it seems like the main body of sci-fi fans who are actually you know, buying books who are following the writers, both online and offline are college students, some even high school students. Many of the universities in China have their own sci-fi communities, these like after school reading clubs, which is something that I don’t see necessarily in, you know, like US universities, that people who actually come to conventions are people who have a more stable income, who like many of them are there with family and children and all that. But in China, sci fi still feels very young and vibrant.


Graeme Smith  34:37

And Emily, I mean, it seems the science fiction scene in China, it’s still really dominated by one writer, Liu Cixin. And particularly the Three Body Problem, just you know, was the first Asian book, I think, to win the Hugo prize, which is sort of the science fiction equivalent of a Nobel Prize. And, you know, people like Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg, you know, vocal fans of it. I mean, there’s that sort of celebrity, how does that affect the younger riders in his shadow? Is it good for them? Or is it a bit hard for them to emerge?


Emily Jin  35:07

One of the big reasons of why he’s still popular is obviously what you said just now. And I think people still, in general, in China, do take the idea that one book from any Asian writer being recognised kind of internationally, especially in the English world, becoming a best seller and all that, that adds to all of this, you know, this halo effect surrounding the book, basically. And it’s not that like science fiction, fans read it, not only younger people, but you know, like my parents, like even my grandparents have heard of it. So I think it’s really became this national phenomenon, that everyone’s not even just like celebrating the success of one person. But the, also the, success of finally being kind of recognised. You know, not only that Chinese writers can write like great novels, but everyone else in the world is also seeing that happen. So there’s like a sheer sheer sense of like joy and pride in that. That’s also I think, pretty, pretty wholesome in its own way. But to bring this back, I think, obviously, this resulted in the people that came after Liu Cixin, once again, especially the younger generation of writers going from, you know, people who are born in the 1980s. So, as the aforementioned, Chen Qiufan, Baoshu 宝树, etc. They all came into their own writing careers, reading Liu Cixin reading, Han Song and Wang Jinkang. And they were the people who kind of also shaped their first like understandings of what is it like to write Chinese sci-fi. So for them, I think what’s happening for them now is that they’re gradually trying to go their own ways, while acknowledging the influence of those sin and his generation. Finding a path that suits themselves better. So I think you see many interesting efforts happening. So for instance, to Chen Qiufan. And as an example, his exploration right now is to also combine some of the avant garde experimental literary attempts into writing science fiction. And he’s also working on you know, adding in more, for instance, elements of traditional culture of his own locality to really put out the message that though he’s writing as a, you know, Chinese writer, and he’s taking experiences from having lived in China, it’s not so that he’s representing a sense of confined Chineseness. Or, since he’s been translated so much to really show his international audience that Chinese sci-fi is just one Liu Cixin after another, by writing, for example, for his novel Waste Tide, he’s writing about his coastal hometown, on the southern coast of China. And that’s, you know, a place where people don’t normally talk about or pay attention to, especially once again, in the Anglophone world, when they’re talking about China. That China isn’t just Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. It’s not just, you know, these facial recognition techniques, or people constantly scanning QR codes. But there’s a large part of China or actually, I would say, most of China is so diverse and so complex, and technology is influencing these places to very different extents. So there are writers kind of capturing that. And of course, there are also writers who made their name on the internet, who are doing this, largely also for the market for the group of audience they already have. And they’re only writing sci-fi to test out new waters, doing this for entertainment. All of that add together people are recognising here in the writers’ community in China on science fiction that though we do celebrate and we like love the system very much. It is right now at a turning point where it’s about time that not only kind of within China domestically, but also spreading out to the rest of the world to really demonstrate that Chinese science fiction isn’t just this like one syllable phrase that has some core characteristics. That even just to bring this back to Han Song again, his writing is so different from those a student and I’m just really happy that he’s being translated.


Louisa Lim  39:11

Liu Cixin’s translator Ken Liu, who has this lovely quotation, that the act of translation involves breaking down one piece of work into one language, and ferrying the pieces across a gulf to reconstitute them into a new work in another language. And he said when the gulf separating the two is as wide as the Pacific Ocean that separates China from America, the task can be daunting. I mean, both of you are translators as well. Maybe both of you could talk a little bit about the sort of particular challenges in translating Chinese sci-fi into English. Maybe Michael, you first?


Michael Berry  39:52

Oh, you know, the Han Song project is my first real work of science fiction I’ve translated. I’ve been translating since I was an undergraduate. Yeah, 25 years. But I’m kind of new to translating Chinese science fiction. And I think the sheer volume of knowledge of fields that I’m not that comfortable with, like medical history and technology. You know, there’s especially a book like this, there’s just an amalgamation of medical tests and diseases and strange disorders. I don’t even know what half of those things were in English, when I first encountered them. And so there was a lot of homework and also medical history. There’s all it’s almost Encyclopaedia of Western and Chinese medical history that’s embedded into Han Song’s Hospital. And so there was a lot of homework that I needed to do, as I would encounter these strange terms. But probably, from a translator’s perspective, the most challenging aspect of the Hospital trilogy, what had simply had to do with the, there was a peculiarity in terms of the source text. So when I started translating this, Han Song actually sent me, maybe Emily knows this story. Han Song had sent me a PDF of the book. And that’s what I was working off of. And after I was maybe halfway through the book. And one day, I took the hardcopy off my bookshelf, and I laid down to thumb through it and just get a sense of what was coming next around the corner. And it was completely different than what I just translated. And I had this ominous feeling descend upon me. And I immediately texted Han Song and said, Did you send me the right version? He’s like, Yeah, it’s fine. Whatever version, you know, you have is fine. Don’t worry about it. And I said, Well, it’s really different than the published version. He’s like, No, it’s fine, whichever you pick, whichever you want to use. And I sent him back what he sent me and I said, this is what you sent me says, Oh, that is quite different. He said, that’s actually an early version of the book. Before we had really gotten under the hood, and done editing, and major revisions, and he said, but the good thing is that before the censors got their hands on the books, so there’s a lot of things that I had to take out that are preserved there. So he actually liked it in a strange way. And then he started sending me other versions. And there were four different versions of the book that he sent me, all in different states. And the published version in English is something of a mutant because half of it is based on the early manuscript. Another half, the second half is based on the published manuscript. And then Han Song, who also he was an English, he’s an English editor, at Xinhua. So he reads and writes beautiful English, and he actually did a lot of revisions directly to the book, directly in English. And so this is a little bit long-winded, but in short, it was probably one of the most unique translator experiences I ever had. Because of the real hands on intervention of the writer and how much he actually did to it. And it was a sense that we were working together to create something new based on those different versions of the manuscript. And also it was very science fiction, it was as if these were… Metaverse is all the rage these days. It was as if I had four different hospitals from four different metaverses. And we were trying to traverse these different universes and kind of bring them together. But it was a really fulfilling, but also really challenging project because it wasn’t just the straight Chinese to English, but it was this navigation of these different versions of Han Song’s world. And ultimately, he was so happy with the end result, he actually asked the other foreign language publishers to use that as the source text for any future editions.


Louisa Lim  43:48

But that’s really interesting, because isn’t that what happened with Liu Cixin’s book as well. That he had originally written it, starting with the Cultural Revolution, and then the censors asked him to change it. And then when Netflix came along, they switched it back. So is it the case that the translations we’re seeing are not necessarily particularly pure, but maybe a translation of a different iteration that includes stuff that is not allowed in Chinese?


Michael Berry  44:17

There is some of that and I think there is an almost a restorative process that went into at least the Han Song process, for for part of the manuscript. And part of that was accidental, and later that became very self-conscious as we started working together on bringing these different assets, different versions of the source texts together to produce the translation. With Liu Cixin’s novel, I think also that just had to do with different sensibilities in terms of English readership and Chinese readership. I mean, what works in English sometimes, it’s just very different than what works in Chinese. And this can be in terms of what’s a good hook to start a chapter with, or try start a book with, to issues of gender. I know there’s been a lot of times talk about subtle gender references in the Liu Cixin’s fiction which went underwent some tweaks to make them more palpable or less objectionable to Anglophile readers.


Graeme Smith  45:11



Emily Jin  45:12

First of all, I think the gender aspect of things. And this is also to add on to the previous response I gave regarding younger generation of writers trying to leave the shadow of Liu Cixin. Unlike Michael, who kind of came in translating Yu Hua 余华. For example, in a more traditional translator writer paradigm. I think, when I first joined this entire like act of translation, I started with actually working with sci-fi writers, so straight out of college. And the experience I had was obviously really different because the writers I first worked with are writers who are mostly very fluent in English. So I’ve gotten the whole translator-writer talking about what to do, changing the English version of things based on what suits the market better, what suits the habit of English readers better. And also, another important aspect is the author’s own personal growth. That it’s entirely possible that the author just felt one thing when they’re writing the Chinese a decade ago, than a decade later things have changed in their creative process and their lives. And having the translation happen then, and having the chance for them to be involved in shaping this translation meant that they kind of have a second chance to go back to the story to redo things that they didn’t like those concerns and those efforts. Also, step beyond the simple it’s translation, helping people get past censorship, etc, etc. So I think a lot of is also because of the author’s personal approaches to a same piece of text. And many authors also tend to circle back to things in questions they’ve been concerned with throughout their creative career. So that’s one experience I’ve gotten translating with them. Because to add a little personal background of this. Is that I did grew up reading a lot of the writings by the authors I work with now. So I think to see how much they’ve evolved as writers and networking with them as translators, one major aspect is the amount of like, younger male writers realising that the language they’re using is not okay is something that actually is quite impressive. Because I’ve had more than one author kind of tell me that after being translated, I started realising in a way that, oh, I should probably not, you know, automatically put down these few words to describe a woman. Or, you know, after being translated, I’m realising that my novel utterly lacks female characters and all that. So I think to have that happen, is really also a learning process for both the translator and the author, to give them a chance to, you know, reexamine not only the way they write science fiction, not only the novel itself, but habits in language use in general. And I think it’s a nice trend that’s happening, that the process of translation can actually help writers and translators together achieve that sense of perspective that extends beyond our own bodies and cognitions. I’m also seeing more and more, once again, younger female writers purposely wanting to work with female translators. So it’s no longer kind of like a linear blackbox process that the writer just gives up their work and whoever gets to translate, it just does the job and moves on. That the writers are, you know, asking for people who they think would understand their background better their mentality better.


Graeme Smith  48:38

Really briefly from you both, because this has just been such an amazing episode. I mean, how do you see the future of Chinese science fiction, five, ten years from now? I mean, do you think it could end up being a victim of its own success? Or is it going to just keep going from strength to strength?


Emily Jin  48:52

Okay, I’m gonna go ahead and be the radical. But I think having heard the term Chinese science fiction, so many times, being you know, on podcasts and at conventions, and all that, actually, my personal wish is that in five years to ten year’s time, we no longer refer to Chinese science fiction as a collective, that people are recognising the writers who are writing now who are the most active by names by volumes by their work and approaches. Rather than, oh, they’re all Chinese and they write sci-fi. So I think science fiction being expanded majorly as a genre. And also, you know, wiggling out of the shackles of many kinds of expectations of big, you know, social, political, and also cultural expectations. Also, notably, being translated into English. The gaze placed upon Chinese sc- fi, slash Chinese literature by an audience largely not knowing China. All of that put together I just hope that those layers would be eventually removed one by one and Chinese sci-fi writers can be seen as writer’s before anything.


Louisa Lim  50:01

And for you, Michael, do you think the government approbation and oversight combined with just the fast pace of change, will that end up killing it?


Michael Berry  50:11

I don’t think it will kill it. But there are challenges ahead. But there’s also a lot of promise. I mean, a lot of the writers we’ve been talking about, like Liu Cixin, Han Song, they’re part of, you know, the so-called apex, you know, the big three, or the big four, they’re sometimes referred to. And they were all male writers. And they were, kind of peaked, you know, maybe I don’t know, a decade ago or so. But there is a younger generation now of women writers like Xia Jia 夏笳, Hao Jingfang 郝景芳and even younger writers and non-binary writers, and writers who I think are bringing a whole new perspective to the field. And there’s also in terms of cinematic adaptation and television adaptation of science fiction stories. China has had some bumpy starts early on. I mean, there was a Three Body Problem film that was haunted with problems and kind of in limbo for a long time. But as we saw a few years ago, the adaptation of Wandering Earth became one of the most profitable films in Chinese cinema history. Its sequel kind of reduplicated that success. And I think there’s a lot of potential in the future for more television and film adaptations for science fiction, which will, and of course, the big Netflix adaptation of Three Bodies coming very soon. That will, of course, blow this up even bigger stage globally. And so I think there’s a lot of exciting room for development in terms of new voices, and also adaptations of older classic works. But there is the big caveat or the elephant in the room is the fact that as more eyeballs start concentrating on this genre. The government will want to regulate it, and kind of commandeer it, and utilise it to make main melody-style themes. You know, politically correct themes that are woven into these and make them kind of fulfil the political line of Xi Jinping and the party. And so I think that’s going to be a delicate dance that writers and filmmakers and creators are going to have to navigate moving forward, but I do see a lot of potential. But there, there certainly will be landmines ahead as well.


Graeme Smith  52:20

What a perfect way to end. Michael, Emily, thanks for joining us.


Michael Berry  52:23

Thanks for having us.


Graeme Smith  52:31

You’ve been listening to the Little Red Podcast which brings you China from beyond the Beijing Beltway. Many thanks to our guests and to my co-host, Louisa Lim. We’re on air thanks to support from the Australian Centre on China in the World. Our editing is by Andy Hazel. Background research by Wing Kuang, [our transcripts are by Juliette Baxter], our music is by Suzy Wilkins and our cartoons and gifs are courtesy of Seb Danta. Bye for now.