[Essay] Chinese Science Fiction Goes Global

  • onSeptember 25, 2020
  • Vol.49 Autumn 2020
  • byRegina Kanyu Wang

Chinese SF has become a global phenomenon, winning laurels and fans all over the world. In this special essay we take a look at how this came to be and to see if Korean SF, and Asian SF lit in general, can take some pointers on how to reach global readers.—Ed.


On the evening of August 22, 2015, fans of science fiction from the United States, the UK, Australia, Japan, China, and other countries quietly converged for a convention in Spokane, Washington, where they clustered around the stage, eyes anxiously fixed on a giant screen. On the screen was Kjell Lindgren, an astronaut of half-Chinese descent, broadcasting live from the International Space Station to announce that Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem (translated by Chinese American science fiction writer Ken Liu) was that year’s winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel. Inside the hall, fans went wild, with those from China relaying the news back home on social media. The Hugo Award represents the choice of SF fans, and it has a long history as being one of the genre’s major awards. For Chinese literature, winning a Hugo is also an international honor that attests to the rise of China’s soft power.

Though five years have passed, The Three-Body Problem’s Hugo win marked a turning point for Chinese science fiction. In 2016, Hao Jingfang’s Folding Beijing (also translated by Ken Liu) won a Hugo in the Best Novelette category, and that September, then Politburo member and Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao delivered an address at the 2016 China Science Fiction Convention in what may well have been the first time in history that such a senior Chinese government official endorsed science fiction in public.

Looking back, science fiction has had its high and low points in modern Chinese history. Neither the SF wave that rode the PRC initiative to popularize science nor the enormous commercial success of Ye Yonglie’s Little Smart Explores the Future in the late ’70s lasted long, and as such, they hardly survived the Cultural Revolution and the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign. If we consider the new wave of the late ’80s and early ’90s, Chinese SF has been something of an ambush waiting to happen, silently welling its power for more than two decades. The outside world did not take notice until The Three-Body Problem was publishedwhen the “Dark Forest Theory,” “dimensionality reduction strike,” and other terms spread across the Chinese internet—and until the Chinese government had given science fiction its official seal of approval.

In past years, the Hugo Award was presented at the World Science Fiction Convention—better known as Worldcon—as votes were cast by World Science Fiction Society members of that year. Whether it be the awards or the convention itself, the longtime tradition of Worldcon is a cultural feast for fans, whose zealousness can be felt in the sheer extent of advance planning. Outside of China, many such conventions are like a gathering of old friends, in that even when business is conducted, there is little government regulation. But in China, the situation is somewhat different. Holding a large-scale science fiction convention—or at least an international one—first requires gaining the permission and support of authorities. It is difficult for science fiction as a popular literary genre—as opposed to “serious” mainstream literature—to gain government support for publishing and translation, regardless of whether it was originally published at home or abroad. And yet, ever since science fiction conventions were first held in China, the government’s stance has been abundantly clear.

Back in 1991, 1997, and 2007, Science Fiction World, the largest SF magazine and publisher in China, convened for international conventions that not only received government support, but featured government leaders in attendance. Since 2016, the China Association for Science and Technology has sponsored the China SF Convention in Beijing, Chengdu, and Shenzhen. Not only was the opening ceremony attended by the Chinese vice president, but association leaders and local officials have attended every year since then. In 2017, Chengdu, Sichuan Province, co-hosted the 2017 China SF Con as well as the China International SF Conference, and it was declared that the latter event would, in perpetuity, become biennial and be held in Chengdu.

The aforementioned names and their linkages may be a complicated matter, but suffice it to say, the two major SF conventions in contemporary China are led by the China Association for Science and Technology and the Sichuan Province Association for Science and Technology. Another grassroots science fiction event—the Xingyun (Nebula) Awards for Global Chinese Science Fiction ceremony—gained government support and commercial viability a few years after being financially sponsored by its founders. Unlike the fan-fueled activities of their international counterparts, the major SF conventions within China are tied to the popularization of science and development of the SF industry and rarely do without speeches from officials, high-level summits, laser light shows, closed-door banquets, and the like. To solidify the connection between domestic and foreign conventions, the science and technology associations and local governments have regularly sent representatives to Worldcon in recent years, heading overseas to study how to hold international SF conventions, with panel discussions, marketplaces, exhibitions, and parties—and various other activities that have since become commonplace. Relatively speaking, China’s science fiction conventions have become fancier, as well as more commercial, whereas overseas science fiction conventions have generally become more grassroots.

Particularly noteworthy is the case of Chengdu, Sichuan Province, home of the longstanding Chinese SF institution, Science Fiction World magazine. Today, Chengdu is competing with Memphis in the United States to host the 2023 Worldcon. This is but one such initiative designed to cement Chengdu’s reputation as the Capital of Science Fiction. According to the 2019 Chinese Science Fiction Industry Report: “In order to develop the city’s ‘Silicon Valley’ for science fiction film and television industry, Chengdu plans to invest more than 2 billion yuan and add another 200,000 square meters to its current size of 150,000 square meters, for a total gross investment of 26 billion yuan.” Chengdu is not the only local government to invest in science fiction as a growth sector. In the city of Mianyang, also in Sichuan Province, the Pisces Dome Sci-Fi World is a project that spans about 2500 Chinese mu—or 412 acres—and calls for a total gross investment of 5 billion RMB to implement cutting-edge VR/AR (virtual reality and augmented reality) technology, establishing the city as a science and technology tourist destination. In Qianjiang, Hubei Province, plans are underway for the construction of the so-called Chinese Sci-Fi Author Village, where authors will be invited to assume the post of village head and write works on the theme of the Qianjiang crawfish (a local delicacy), and engage in other related commercial activities.

Thus, it should be clear that to the Chinese government, science fiction is not only literature, but a lucrative industry. In 2017 and 2018, it accounted for a total output of 14 billion yuan and 45.6 billion yuan, respectively. Of the total, the book industry accounted for only 6.9 percent and 3.9 percent. The lion’s share belonged to the film industry at 13 billion yuan and 20.9 billion yuan. And in 2018, the science fiction game industry achieved a total output of 19.5 billion yuan. With China now home to two winners of the Hugo Award—the equivalent of an “SF Nobel Prize”—the world of film and entertainment has become the main driver of economic development within the SF industry, drawing the interest of the government. It is no surprise that this August the China National Film Administration and China Association for Science and Technology issued a document titled “Some Opinions on Promoting the Development of Science Fiction Films” (or so-called “Ten Opinions on SF”) that describes the Chinese government’s policy measures to promote the production of SF movies, including talent cultivation, VFX (visual effects) technology development, tax benefits, and other measures.

In contrast to the government’s promotion of Chinese language and culture through projects such as the Confucius Institute, the spread of Chinese science fiction overseas was almost entirely by word of mouth. By 1964, Lao She’s dystopian novel Cat Country had been translated into English, followed by other works of Chinese science fiction that were translated into English, Japanese, German, French, Italian and other languages. In the twenty-first century, works by a new generation of SF authors underwent translation, and authors would search for independent translators or self-translate, receive story commissions from anthology editors, be represented and publicized by publishers and agencies, and reach overseas readers through whatever means possible. A good case in point is author Chen Qiufan, who found Chinese American science fiction writer Ken Liu on the internet and introduced himself in an email. After recommending that Liu’s works be translated into Chinese, Chen enclosed a work of his own in an English translation that he himself had commissioned, asking if Liu might take a look. Liu, who decided that the translation fell short, took it upon himself to retranslate the work, marking the start of his career as a translator of Chinese SF. That short story, “The Fish of Lijiang,” was published in the American science fiction and fantasy magazine Clarkesworld, becoming its first work of Chinese science fiction. It won the 2012 Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Award, and as is now widely known, Liu went on to translate numerous works of Chinese science fiction into English. Clarkesworld and Chinese SF startup Storycom collaborated to create a regular column dedicated to Chinese science fiction. To this day, more than fifty works ranging from novellas to shorter fiction have been published, while a talent pool of translators has been cultivated.

From its origins as a labor of love to its transformation into a commercial product, Chinese science fiction has enjoyed a popularity in the United States that seems both fortuitous and inevitable. The Three-Body Problem is nothing short of outstanding, and seeing its commercial potential, China Educational Publications Import & Export Corporation Ltd. funded its translation. The book has now been published into numerous languages. With its success, American publishers have undoubtedly been clamoring to win translation rights from Chinese companies, and confidence in the market has only grown along with a willingness to publish newer and more original works in the US market. As a major cultural influencer in the world, American publishers are making decisions that are noted by publishers in other countries, enabling Chinese SF to be translated into a multitude of languages.

But American publishers aren’t always willing to assume translation costs, which can be high. In terms of government funding, this type of literature isn’t a priority. As a result, there are two primary funding models for translations of Chinese science fiction. In the first, the author and the translator split the royalties, whereby the translator does not receive a predetermined sum and instead accepts any remuneration earned, necessitating that the collaboration be based on mutual agreement and confidence in the work. This model is more common in the early stages. In the second model, funding comes from a Chinese cultural organization, such as the case of the Storycom-Clarkesworld collaboration. With translation costs subsidized by Storycom, Clarkesworld essentially paid the standard author’s fee for an English-language author to a Chinese author. Naturally, such developments have been accompanied by the growth of a translator pool, and Chinese-to-English translators have been able to negotiate better terms, such that in some cases, American publishers have been willing to cover translation costs. Guaranteed remuneration has allowed more translators to specialize in the field, allowing more Chinese science fiction to be translated into English. Interestingly, in an exchange with Italian publisher Francesco Verso, I discovered that in Italy, many students of Chinese are more interested in science fiction than in classical literature, and thus are more willing to make Chinese science fiction the subject of term papers and research. Through his publisher Future Fiction, Verso has published several bilingual Chinese-Italian books of Chinese SF. Meanwhile, in Germany, a group of young enthusiasts founded the bilingual German-Chinese magazine Kapsel, which not only takes Chinese science fiction as its main theme, but also received funding from the Senate Department for Culture and Europe in Berlin to host a series of talks featuring Chinese SF authors.

Moreover, Chinese science fiction fans, domestic or overseas, tend to make recommendations every chance they get. For a long time, science fiction fandom was just a minority group in China, but they have since developed into several tight-knit cultural circles. Through the process of such groups connecting with fan groups overseas, science fiction has become an intercultural language, with fans who will stop at nothing to promote the works they love. In the wake of Chinese SF’s international success, domestic fans have also discovered a newfound pride in their national identity and in their identity as SF fans, with an increasing number embracing the role of cultural ambassador. Chinese SF counts Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, and other notables among its overseas fans, as well as key opinion leaders in science fiction circles, whose favorable remarks have turned a spotlight on it.

A universal literary genre, science fiction is more apt to transport readers to a different country and different culture than its classical counterpart. Whether it be artificial intelligence, climate change, e-waste, or space invaders, its themes have found global resonance among audiences. China’s rise as a major power has naturally drawn the gaze of the world amid the upheaval of the present and anxiety and curiosity over the future. Although Western readers and mass media may interpret Chinese science fiction through a political lens, for many others it satisfies a need for great and diverse stories. For authors, works do not serve political purposes; more often, they speak of possibilities, or sound alarms—or remind people not to allow a terrifying future to happen, and that the future must not divide nations. Government support and commercialization in the development of the Chinese science fiction industry have undoubtedly been critical, but it all started with the passion of the fans, and with the words ni hao crossing borders.

I am pleased to see that Korean science fiction, with the support of LTI Korea, has made it into the pages of Clarkesworld, with no shortage of younger writers like Kim Choyeop. Her stylistically breathtaking and conceptually brilliant short story “Symbiosis Theory” has garnered positive reviews from English-language readers. A few months ago, Kim Juyoung’s Time Exile became the first Korean SF novel to be published in China. I immediately bought it and read it, and felt as if I could see the story on the big screen. I couldn’t put it down—or as Kim Bo-young remarked, “It is a story of epic proportions.” I look forward to seeing more Korean science fiction translated into Chinese and English, and I hope that Asian science fiction as a whole will win over more Western readers and command their attention.


Translated by Bonnie Huie

Regina Kanyu Wang is a bilingual writer from Shanghai who writes in both Chinese and English. She has won the SF Comet International Short Story Competition and multiple Xingyun Awards for Global Chinese SF. Her writings can be found in various magazines, anthologies, and in two individual collections, Of Cloud and Mist 2.2 and The Seafood Restaurant