Science Fiction and the Avant-Garde Spirit: An Interview with Han Song

By Cigarini, Chiara | Chinese Literature Today, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Science Fiction and the Avant-Garde Spirit: An Interview with Han Song


Cigarini, Chiara, Chinese Literature Today


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A journalist for Xinhua News Agency by day and science Action writer by night, Beijing-based Han Song mines his daily experience as a journalist for his science fiction works, which are often dark and experimental in combining social elements with new forms and styles. Interviewer Chiara Cigarini decided to ask him some questions regarding his poetics and his production, focusing in particular on "Moban," a short story centered on Beijing's subway. In the spring of 2014, they met outside Peking University cafeteria. After the interview, reality began to look a bit like science fiction when they both took the subway home.

CHIARA CIGARINI: Is it true that Chinese people don't like to talk about the future?

HAN SONG: Yes, in the past five thousand years the Chinese only talked about their ancestors and emperors. The future was a fixed one, it never changed and it was related to the dynasty-it had to last forever, that's why no changes were contemplated. In contemporary China sometimes the future is still a taboo. In 1983 science fiction was entirely forbidden, it was stimulating discussion about the future but there was just one future: the realization of communism. Nevertheless, a lot of people still like to write science fiction; they want a different future.

CC: Why did you start to write science fiction?

HS: When I was a student in primary school in the 1980s, Chinese society had just opened to the outside world, reforms took place in 1978, and the entire 1980s had been quite open. Foreign science fiction had been translated into Chinese and young people liked it very much. Those novels were very new and fresh to us; they arrived together with a lot of foreign mainstream literature from United States and Europe. This opened a new window to me and I started to write. When I was a middle school student a lot of people liked it, but some gave it up when they grew up, yet others persisted.

CC: How would you define Chinese science fiction and what makes it unique?

HS: Chinese science fiction is unique for several reasons. First of all, Chinese science fiction writers pay more attention to reality, to what happens in daily life. They combine the future with social problems, such as the population problem, the environmental problem, the food problem, even the corruption problem. They try to observe all these problems from a futuristic perspective. Many of these problems are uniquely Chinese. Second, some writers like to focus on our ancient culture, combining unique elements of our tradition with the features of this genre. China has a very long history.

CC: According to some critics, in your novels, you describe China's transition from tradition to modernity. Is that true? How can this relate to science fiction?

HS: Science fiction is a by-product of industrialization. China is in a critical period of industrialization, like the one Western counties experienced in the nineteenth century. Just like a mirror, science fiction represents the whole picture of this modernization process, from the agricultural time, throughout the industrialization time, and on to post-industrialization. Science fiction puts together those elements in the same space and time. With this tool you can design very extreme conditions where all those three periods exist together, and test what will happen.

CC: What is your writing process like?

HS: I take my ideas from real life. Let's take Subway (Ditie ⅛^) as an example. When I first took the subway I was shocked: I felt it was a very strange modern means of transportation, and it was suddenly carrying the entire Chinese nation in one car. Besides, I noticed how in the subway human nature can be destroyed in many ways. I thought the whole society is behaving just like in the subway: people are squeezed together, and they struggle for money, food, basically everything. Closed in a single car, they cannot breathe. …

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