Book Excerpt! The Reincarnated Giant: An Anthology of Twenty-First-Century Chinese Science Fiction
It is the final week of National Translation Month. All month long we have been featuring excerpts from recent titles and guest posts from translators and scholars. This week we have been focusing on Sinophone literature in English translation. Today we are sharing excerpts from the newly published The Reincarnated Giant: An Anthology of Twenty-First-Century Chinese Science Fiction edited by Mingwei Song and Theodore Huters, which showcases the best of contemporary science fiction from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the People’s Republic of China. Below is an excerpt from Mingwei Song’s introduction “Does Science Fiction Dream of a Chinese New Wave?” and three stories from the anthology.
Remember to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a copy of this book or any of the other titles we’re featuring this week!
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Does Science Fiction Dream of a Chinese New Wave?
By Mingwei Song
Until 2013, the only essay on Chinese science fiction published in the academic journal Science Fiction Studies characterized the genre’s history in China as a hesitant journey to the West and found science fiction “a fairly marginal phenomenon” in the Middle Kingdom. Or, in the words of the Chinese author Fei Dao, whose short story is included in this volume, Chinese science fiction was like a “hidden lonely army . . . laid low in the wilderness where nobody really cared to look at it.” The situation has changed drastically in the past five or six years. Chinese science fiction has suddenly gained worldwide recognition, thanks mainly to the success of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem (translated into English by Ken Liu), a novel that created an international sensation. It became a bestseller in the United States, causing the Wall Street Journal to report that “China launches a sci- fi invasion of the U.S.,” and it won the first Hugo Award for a novel written originally in a language other than English. Today Chinese science fiction is no longer a hidden lonely army, and the genre’s journey to the West is no longer hesitant; it has become a fresh new force that is helping shape the outlook of global science fiction.
It should be noted, however, that even before The Three-Body Problem “touched down” in the United States, the novel and its two sequels had already become landmarks in the Chinese sf world, and before the trilogy was published in China between 2006 and 2010, a new wave of Chinese science fiction had already emerged at the turn of the twenty- first century. The success of the trilogy in the American book market is a small echo of its record- breaking popularity among Chinese readers. In addition, Liu Cixin’s success should also be contextualized as one of the many facets demonstrating the revival of the genre in China during the past fifteen years, something conditioned by the genre’s long, complicated history in China.
“Chinese science fiction is no longer a hidden lonely army, and the genre’s journey to the West is no longer hesitant.”
At the very beginning of the twentieth century, Anglo- American and French science fiction novels were introduced to Chinese readers, primarily through translations based on secondhand Japanese translations. Jules Verne was one of the most translated Western authors between 1900 and 1912. The late Qing reformer Liang Qichao (1873– 1929) borrowed a concept from his Japanese mentors, Yukio Ozaki (1858– 1954) and Katō Hiroyuki (1836– 1916), in coining the Chinese term kexue xiaoshuo (science fiction). The first “golden age” of Chinese science fiction lasted ten years, from 1902 to 1911, giving birth to numerous novels and short stories that combined science fantasy, political utopianism, and technological optimism. About ten years later, the rise of a truth- claiming literary realism employing the image of cannibalism to make visible the hidden “evils” of the Confucian tradition, a new literary trend pioneered by Lu Xun (1881– 1936), also a translator of Jules Verne during his youth, eventually pushed science fiction to the margins of Chinese literary modernity. However, the realism “invented” by Lu Xun, which differed from the mainstream realism epitomized in Mao Dun’s (1896–1981) later epic novels, aspired to reveal the deeper truth beneath the surface reality, and the truth- claiming discourse of Lu Xun’s realism may have its roots in his earlier belief in scientific discourse and science fiction. Nonetheless, what is often referred to as May Fourth realism, Mao Dun’s naturalistic realism, and, later, the socialist realism under Mao’s regime made science fiction an obscure genre that was not taken seriously for most of the twentieth century. It enjoyed short revivals in Hong Kong during the Cold War, in Taiwan during the 1970s and 1980s, and in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) during the early reform era (1978–1983), but none of the revivals gained enough momentum to sustain the genre. The history of Chinese science fiction has, in other words, never been continuous.
The New Wave
The recent revival, particularly what I call the new wave, began almost exactly one hundred years after the late Qing golden age of Chinese science fiction. Some factors related to its recent revival appear similar to the circumstances of its boom in late Qing, such as a rapidly changing mediasphere and anxious expectations concerning change in China. In particular, the free platform for new authors to publish on the internet, the failure of a collective idealism for Chinese intellectuals in 1989, and the “perfect vacuum” for fantasy resulting when mainstream realism more or less lost touch with reality and thus could not avoid being marginalized in the field of literary production— all these could be the essential cultural and social conditions for the rise of the new wave. I first used the term “new wave” to refer to this recent trend of Chinese science fiction in 2013 when writing an article in Chinese for the academic journal Wenxue. Subsequently, I elaborated on the definition and aesthetics of the new wave in several articles written in English.4 My argument is that on its most radical side, the new wave of Chinese sf has been thriving on an avant- garde cultural spirit that encourages readers to think beyond the conventional ways of perceiving reality and to challenge the commonly accepted ideas about what constitutes the existence and self- identity of a person surrounded by technologies of self, society, and governance. However, the term “new wave” is a controversial concept for critics in China; its emphasis on the subversive, darker side of science fiction is questioned by those who have more faith in a utopia and China’s contemporary pursuit of wealth and power. Many scholars and writers in the mainland prefer the prosperous “golden age” to the subversive, cutting- edge new wave that sheds light on the darker side.
“This new wave has been marked by a dystopian vision of China’s future.”
It’s quite possible that, in a peculiar way, Chinese science fiction may have simultaneously arrived at its new golden age and generated a new-wave subversion of the genre itself. The poetics and politics of the new wave are both meaningful at a time when the Chinese government is engineering a “Chinese dream.” The new wave has unleashed a nightmarish unconscious of a dream that does not necessarily belong to an individual but rather to a collective entity. In its aesthetic aspect, the new wave speaks either to the invisible dimensions of reality or simply to the impossibility of representing a certain reality dictated by the discourse of the national dream.
This new wave has been marked by a dystopian vision of China’s future, ambiguous moral dilemmas, and sophisticated representations of the power of technology or the technology of power. The poetics of the new wave point to the darker, more invisible sides of reality, as mentioned, and in this connection several new- wave writers, with Han Song, Fei Dao, Chen Qiufan, and even Liu Cixin as prominent examples, often refer to Lu Xun in their stories. The irony in the history of Chinese science fiction lies in the seemingly improbable marriage of a truth- claiming realism and science fiction. The new wave achieves a high- intensity realism that surpasses the conventional realistic depictions of everyday life. It speaks to the deeper truth beneath the surface reality, as Lu Xun did in “A Madman’s Diary.” Han Song’s 2011 novel, Ditie (Subway), takes readers into the nightmarish, absurd, irrational, cannibalistic, and abysmal underground world beneath a prosperous Chinese metropolis. Han Song has stated, “China’s reality is more science fictional than science fiction,” pointing to a reality that people may fear to see, as so evident in the title of his short story “Kan de kongju” (Fear of seeing, 2002), but science fiction, through metaphorical, figurative, or poetic means, represents that incredible reality. To call again to mind Lu Xun, Han Song’s characters discover the dark secret of the social system. Like the madman’s discovery of the cannibalism in Confucian society, the secrets Han Song reveals are horrifying, unsettling, and challenge the fundamentals of contemporary Chinese society.
Does science fiction dream of a Chinese new wave? The invisible darkness that the Chinese new wave illuminates is the very magnetic force that makes the genre alive, attractive, and provocative in a worldwide context.
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The Reincarnated Giant is divided into three parts: “Other Realities,” “Other Us,” and “Other Futures.” Below is a story excerpted from each section.
Read “Histories of Time: The Luster of Mute Porcelain (excerpts)” by Hong Kong writer Dung Kai-cheung (author of Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City), translated and introduced by Carlos Rojas.
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Read the story “The Poetry Cloud” by Liu Cixin (author of the Three-Body trilogy), translated by Chi-yin Ip and Cheuk Wong.
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Read the story “The Rain Forest” by Chi Hui, translated by Jie Li