Chinese science fiction dates back to Qing dynasty

Xia Jia
Xia JiaPHOTO: SINGAPORE WRITERS FESTIVAL

Mention Chinese science fiction and many will think of The Three-Body Problem (2006), the first novel in Liu Cixin's trilogy about aliens which gained legions of fans worldwide - and scooped up a Hugo Award - after it was translated into English.

What fewer people realise is that Chinese science fiction has been around since the late Qing dynasty, said science-fiction writer Xia Jia at a talk at the Singapore Writers Festival on Sunday. Xia Jia is the pen name of 34-year-old Wang Yao.

Referring to the growing prominence of Chinese science fiction, she said: "We need to thank Liu Cixin, (author and translator) Ken Liu and all those people who somehow helped bring this about. But from a big-picture point of view, this is also the result of the rise of China and the global anxiety about the impact - whether negative or positive - China might have on the world."

Speaking in Mandarin at The Arts House, the Xi'an-born writer charted the genre's evolution from 1900 to the present day - beginning with Liang Qichao's 1902 unfinished political novel The Future Of New China, which presents a utopian vision of China in 1962, or the year of Confucius 2513.

This story, however, states the year as 2062 rather than 1962.

"Back then, people weren't so familiar with the Western calendar, so they could have easily counted it wrongly... Another reason is that he might have wanted to make it seem more futuristic by setting it in a new century."

But the most compelling reason, she added, is that this could function as an allusion to the Western calendar and the method of counting the year from Confucius.

Xia Jia, an associate professor of Chinese literature at Xi'an Jiaotong University, is known for her short stories, such as The Demon-Enslaving Flask (2004), where a 19th-century scientist is given a Faustian challenge; and A Dream Of Ever Summer (2008), about an immortal and a time traveller who cross paths.

On Sunday, she also spoke about Lao She's satirical novel Cat Country (1932), the Chinese film Ballad Of The Ming Tombs Reservoir (1958) and Ye Yonglie's popular novel Little Smart Roaming The Future (1978), where a young journalist reports on futuristic developments such as flying cars and an artificial moon.

"The darkest dystopias usually contain utopian elements," she said. "In Cat Country, what really touched me was a line where the main character dreams of the Cat Country becoming 'a garden city with music, sculptures, flowers, birds, order and beauty'."

"It sounds a lot like Singapore," she added, to laughter from the crowd.

Xia Jia said that the imaginative quality of many of the works by Chinese authors is "still lacking, and rather restrained".

"Our writing needs to be more imaginative if we are to produce something that has historic significance," she added.

History teacher Lam Cherng Yang, 38, who read Ni Kuang's adventure-science fiction Wesley novels when he was a teenager, said of the talk: "Chinese science fiction is something that is still quite alien to me... I've made a note of some of the books she recommended, such as the books by Liu Cixin and Xia Jia herself."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2018, with the headline 'Chinese science fiction dates back to Qing dynasty'. Print Edition | Subscribe