Apart from the “Three-body”, what does Chinese science fiction have?

The outstanding characteristics of Chinese science fiction during this period are short stories, genre, conceptualization and internationalization, with a wide range of subjects, novel ideas, bold writing, and active and spiteful discussions in the circle.

This article was originally writen by Tao Duanfang, a Well-known commentators and scholars in Canada and translated by after it was licensed. Copyright belongs to the original author and it is forbidden to reprint without permission.

Author: Tao Duanfang

There was a saying that Netflix plans to shoot the “Three-body” TV series caused a sensation on social media in the early days of September, raising the high expectations of many sci-fi fans. However, it also caused more sci-fi fans to think differently and debate about the current situation and prospects of sci-fi in China.

PHS Roaming the Future, In fact, it directly means “smart soul boy roaming the future” in Chinese, but in the 1990s, Chinese telecom operators used “smart soul boy” to name PHS (Personal Handy-phone System) in Chinese. In many current English materials, the book is named PHS Roamig the Future, which is a kind of putting the cart before the horse.

If not recognize pre-Qin classics such as Shan Hai Jing and Zhuangzi as “Chinese science fiction”, this literary genre actually started very late in China. For the most part, there was a lack of soil for both science and fiction in China before founding of the the People’s Republic of China. Therefore, the early stage works that belong to science fiction can only be traced back to the 1950s when they learned from the Soviet Unio. Interestingly, this genre was regarded as unknown short stories of a branch of children’s literature (at that time, more Chinese think this is a fairy tale, or a story). Science fiction really began to take shape in the late 1970s after the Chinese National Science Congress set off an upsurge of “marching into science”.

During this period, China’s early science fiction, to a large extent, was still difficult to get rid of the stereotype of “children’s literature”. Most of the themes revolved around describing the bright future of human beings, launching rich imagination and describing a better and more powerful human world, yet lack of deep thinking about society. Ye Yonglie’s Petroleum Protein, the earliest science fiction novel in New China, published in 1978, and later known as the second of the three great works of early Chinese science fiction. This work, Ye Yonglie’s PHS Roaming the Future and Zheng Wenguang’s Flying to Sagittarius, were all follow this traditional path. At this time, most sci-fi writers were still too young, and all they could get was Verne and other representative works of the “early sci-fi era” in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Therefore, it is not difficult to understand why their style tended to be “retro”.

Dead Light on Coral Island Poster

But it was also during this period that with China’s reform and opening up, recommending by popular science magazines, many science fiction writers began to learn from foreign science fiction writers who were closer to the mainstream of contemporary era, such as Asimov. This gave the industry the preliminary understanding of the major method of modern science fiction, schools and “mature” development model. Some of them tried to imitate the trendy and fashionable theme, giving birth to “adult science fiction” works such as Ye Yonglie’s “Umbrella Murder Case” and other works that tried to combine science fiction with social issues. Others tried to integrate national culture and national consciousness into their works, trying to create science fiction with a strong Chinese flavor. “Dead Light on Coral Island” (by Tong Enzheng, also has a film of the same name in 1980 which is the earliest science fiction film in China), the most famous and the only work of the three masterpieces of early Chinese science fiction that adapted into film.

However, this courageous and groundbreaking attempt soon came to an abrupt end: for quite a long time after 1983, several ways of exploring “adult science fiction” fell into a low ebb. Ye Yonglie, Tong Enzheng, Zheng Wenguang, Xiao Jianheng and other early Chinese science fiction representatives either stopped writting or switch to other genres, hence very few works in this era were known by the mainstream and became minority creations that mainly relied on minor writers. Chinese science fiction suffered a setback for a while, even though this setback was affected by certain policy guidance and other factors. Objectively speaking, Chinese society was still in the “pre-industrial era” at that time, the development of science and technology was not good enough, and the factors such as industrialization, internationalization and urbanization were very inadequate. In such an environment, Chinese science fiction has a poor foundation and imagination.

In 1999, with the college entrance examination composition question “if memory can be transplanted” as the landmark, the second round of Chinese science fiction fever first rose in the form of associations in several well-known universities with the help of the emerging BBS. Liu Wenyang, Li Xingchun, Huang Mengxi, Liu Dantao, Pan Haitian, Liu Cixin and other famous Chinese science fiction writers who were familiar to us today, stood out in this period.

The outstanding characteristics of Chinese science fiction during this period were short stories, genre, conceptualization and internationalization, with a wide range of subjects, novel ideas, bold writing, and active discussions in the circle. It no longer reads like children’s literature nor as “retro” as it was in the early days. In short, as China began to industrialize and modernize, Chinese science fiction was gradually keeping up with the times.

However, the temporary prosperity soon came to a standstill: science fiction could be published, had a certain reader base, and most authors continued to write, but this modern, strong personal style, respecting for scientific foundation and relatively hard-core creative atmosphere, inadvertently became dull and weak. For a long time since then, there has been a lack of representative works and famous authors in Chinese science fiction, and it was still difficult to get rid of the restrictions of sub-culture.

In 2015, Liu Cixin, the “Big Liu” who has long persisted in writing but has always been a minority in China, was nominated for the 2014 American Nebula Award for a “three-body” and won the 2015 Hugo Award, becoming a first-line writer with both popularity and sales. The twice silent Chinese science fiction trend has given the third “golden cycle” so far.

Liu Cixin’s novel The Wandering Earth was adapted into a film in 2019 and won the highest box office in China. It tells a doomsday story, with the end of the life of the sun, humans decided to transform the entire earth into a giant aircraft, flying to another galaxy.

In this cycle, from domestic and foreign commercial publishers to commercial film and television organizations such as Netflix and iQIYI, they suddenly discovered the rich mine of Chinese science fiction overnight and began to dig it out. The movie version of “Three-body” was released as early as 2015, and “The Wandering Earth” relied on Chinese cinemas to set a box office record comparable to that of Hollywood blockbusters, so it was favored by Netflix and successfully exported overseas.

However, apart from the hustle and bustle, many science fiction fans still calmly find that this seemingly prosperous “the third wave of Chinese science fiction craze” has many hidden dangers that are insurmountable.

First of all, the bold exploration and passionate imagination of the “second golden era”, which was full of enthusiasm and courage, has been replaced by “market orientation” which aims to please investors and consumers.

As a result, “hard-core science fiction” is almost extinct.

[sociallocker id=”5614″]

“Pan-science fiction”, a very broad genre which is between science fiction and fantasy, science fiction and martial arts has become the mainstream. Despite there are many writers and works, the style is becoming more and more homogeneous. So much so that it is denounced as “fan-fiction” by many disappointed science fiction lovers.

Secondly, in the era of BBS and campus associations, there was a lack of readers and the degree of marketization was poor, and the stories might not be easy to read, but the overall quality and style were relatively stable, and the progress and growth of writers and works were obvious to all. In other words, many authors were trained during this period. In the “pan-science fiction” era, a small number of “head authors” are dominated by commerce, while most writers still struggle to survive. Some of them have to split the work into pieces and distribute them on social media, while others choose to flatter casual readers. These works indeed are good at making money, but the content is often empty.

Third, some good works with high standard or having the potential to become one, are under the interference of commercial capital which eager to cash in or film and television teams who have no basic sci-fi literacy. They were adapted into junk film and television works that were neither scientific nor fantasy, only inevitably disappoint fans.

Fourth, many hastily involved capital traders and professional teams only see the market potential of Chinese science fiction. As a result, many goods and service models derives from science fiction, yet far away from them. In this case, science fictions often bcome the theme or concept of capital speculation, and its own value and quality are not really discovered. In this abnormal atmosphere, the quality of science fiction itself is difficult to expect, and the so-called science fiction lovers have also become complex, which is not conducive to the further development of Chinese science fiction.

Despite after all these three “golden era”, the Chinese science fiction is still not mature enough: the exploration of style and genre, the balance of market commercial value and literary and artistic attributes, the integration of international and national character, the contradiction between children’s literature and adult stories and other complex problems are being solved gradually, but still far far away from the real solution. If this could not be done, the industry will never be truley grown.

The adapted movie of “Three-body”, which was filmed in 2015, might have arleady come to a dead end now. Whether the adapted version of Netflix can reverse the decline of sci-fi films such as “Shanghai Fortress“, we just can’t expect too much.

Science fiction, a young category of literature and art, came into being in the process of industrialization, science and technology, urbanization and modernization. Its maturity and development can hardly be separated from the growth of the above-mentioned countries and society itself. It is believed that with the deepening of China’s reform and opening up and the acceleration of industrialization, science and technology, urbanization and modernization, the development of Chinese science fiction is in the ascendant, and the real “golden age” will come sooner or later.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: