In China, the incredible rise of SF despite censorship – L’Express

what vision of China – The Express

A huge star measuring 60,000 square meters placed on a lake. Designed by the prestigious Zaha Hadid firm, the new Chinese science fiction museum catches the eye. For the first time, China hosted the 81st global science fiction convention, Worldcon, last October in Chengdu, the largest event dedicated to this cultural genre. A way of recognizing the weight taken by the Middle Kingdom in a universe formerly dominated by the West, and more especially the Anglo-Saxon world.

This event illustrates the transformation, over four decades, of a literary genre considered politically suspect, which has become one of China’s most famous cultural exports. The standard bearer of this fever is the author Liu Cixin, whose trilogy The Three-Body Problem, published in China in 2006, won a Hugo Award upon its publication in English in 2015 and an international audience including fans like Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg. Its rating should rise further with the release, a few weeks ago, of a big-budget Netflix adaptation. Nine million copies of the three parts have been sold worldwide since 2015.

READ ALSO: “The Three-Body Problem” adapted by Netflix: a “great epic” in the service of science

This movement has not been a long, quiet river. Science fiction flourished in China in the first half of the 20th century, a boom fueled by interest in new technologies. But it was swept away with so many other “bourgeois” literary genres during the Cultural revolution. Opening up to the world in the 1980s gave rise to a new generation of authors like Zheng Wenguang and Ye Yonglie, when China’s space program took off. Fanzines then multiplied, including Kehuan shijie (“Le Monde la science fiction”) in Chengdu, at the origin of this organization of the Worldcon in the capital of Sichuan. Beijing is breaking this second momentum by launching a national campaign to clean up spiritual pollution to wipe out the influence of the decadent West. Science fiction is accused of being contrary to official ideology. At the same period, as shown in the book The Politics of Cultural Capital by Julia Lovell, the country wonders why no Chinese writer has ever won a Nobel Prize for literature. The victory of exiled writer Gao Xingjian in 2000 changed nothing.

Forced march towards a knowledge economy

The appetite for sci-fi continued to grow at the turn of the century, driven by the success of the Taikonauts and Yang Liwei’s first space flight. But readers mainly consumed Western works, from Philip K. Dick to Arthur C. Clarke. Everything changed when Liu Cixin, then an engineer in a coal-fired power station, published his novel as a serial in Kehuan shijie in 2006. The book was published in 2008, and the authorities quickly noticed the public’s enthusiasm. The genre is encouraged in all its forms: cinema, video games, books, magazines and exhibitions. An official research center was even created in 2020. Kehuan shijie reached a circulation of 400,000 copies, and, in 2019, another film adaptation by Liu Cixin, The Wandering Earth (“The Wandering Earth”), generated an astronomical sum of $673 million at the Chinese box office. Science fiction is now an integral part of the forced march towards a knowledge economy.

READ ALSO: “The Three-Body Problem” soon on Netflix: what vision of China?

However, it would be abusive to speak of Chinese science fiction. The genre is varied. The new Folding Beijing, which won a Hugo Award in 2015, tackles the issue of social inequalities in a surreal version of the Chinese capital, divided into three strata. Younger, foreign-trained writers like Regina Kanyu Wang and Tang Fei explore themes like gender fluidity and environmental crises. But the government’s shadow is never far away. Emails revealed by specialist journalists Chris M. Barkley and Jason Sanford suggest that the Hugo Prize committee automatically disqualified authors who were not Chinese but had family ties to China, such as Rebecca Kuang and Jay Zhao, respectively American and Canadian, because he feared offending Beijing. Can science fiction thrive in a society where thought is monitored? That’s the whole question.

Robin Rivaton is Managing Director of Stonal and member of the Scientific Council of the Foundation for Political Innovation (Fondapol)