Academic journal article China Perspectives

After 1989: The New Wave of Chinese Science Fiction

Academic journal article China Perspectives

After 1989: The New Wave of Chinese Science Fiction

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.)

Beginnings: 1989/2185(1)

Darko Suvin, perhaps the most important literary scholar devoted to science fiction studies, once described science fiction (SF) as "at least collaterally descended from utopia; it is, if not a daughter, yet a niece of utopia - a niece usually ashamed of the family inheritance but unable to escape her genetic destiny."(2)This amusing metaphorical comparison illustrates the two genres' shared intellectual tendency to envision alternatives to reality. Science fiction, which Suvin defines as the "literature of cognitive estrangement," (3) has given a modern look to utopianism in terms of scientific, technological, and social advancement since the early days of the nineteenth century - a century characterised by Industrial Revolution and nationalist movements. But in twentieth-century Western literature, utopianism cast dark, dystopian shadows in science fiction that has increasingly become a forefront literary genre to question modern visions of human progress, the use of science and technology, the institutionalisation of society, and the prospect of a technologised future. Dystopian science fiction that contributed to the rise of anti-utopianism in the West after the World Wars and Stalinism is the rebellious "niece" that Suvin perhaps has in mind, who is ashamed of her utopian heritage - but who cannot escape her genetic destiny, because even the darkest dystopian vision comes from the same subversive pursuit of alternatives to reality that inspired utopianism in the first place.

Suvin's metaphor can also be applied to a historical analysis of the relationship between Chinese science fiction and a certain utopianism mainly based on the prevailing evolutionary thinking and a cultural confidence in national rejuvenation, which began to dominate modern Chinese intellectual culture at the beginning of the twentieth century. Liang Qichao's ?? ? Future of New China(Xin Zhongguo weilai ji??????, 1902), an unfinished political novel that outlines a utopian blueprint for a revitalised Confucian China, has often been recognised as the origin of Chinese science fiction. The utopian vision and narrative structure of Liang's novel were essential to the earliest Chinese science fiction novels, such as New Story of the Stone (Xin shitou ji????, 1908), New Era (Xin jiyuan???, 1908), andNew China (Xin Zhongguo???, 1910).(4)It can be said that from its inception in the late Qing, Chinese science fiction "was instituted as mainly a utopian narrative that projected the political desire for China's reform into an idealized, technologically more advanced world." (5) The scientific "novum"(6)- submarine, flying car, spaceship, moon colony, or reinvented "sky"(7)- crystallises utopianism in concrete images of a future that is advanced equally in science, morality, and political life. While science fiction suffered long periods of inactivity in twentieth century China, the sweeping utopianism remained a guiding force in revivals of the genre after the late Qing. Science fiction during the socialist period, when it was categorised as a subgenre of children's literature, particularly further strengthened the genre's optimism and ideological correctness. After living through the Cultural Revolution, Zheng Wenguang ??? and his generation added some dystopian reflections on Chinese politics into the genre, but their experiment was quickly silenced by the government campaign against "spiritual pollution" in the mid-1980s.

Here I identify 1989 as the year when a new paradigm of science fictional imagination began to complicate, if not to deny or be ashamed of, the utopianism that had dominated Chinese politics and intellectual culture for more than a century. What served as the larger political/cultural backdrop for the changes in Chinese science fiction (and in perhaps all of Chinese literature) were the collapse of idealism and optimism as well as a pervasive disillusionment with communism - or, in general, a political utopianism instituted by the state - after the tragic end of the 1989 democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. …

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