When Lao She, one of Beijing's greatest satirists, took his own life in 1966, the world he left behind was an echo of the one he depicted in
, perhaps his most prophetic novel. The dystopian fantasy world of the cat people, who live on Mars, speak Felinese and practice Everybody Shareskyism, was a thinly veiled, scorpion-tailed metaphor for the world around him: China in the 1920s and '30s, where Communism was taking traction in the shadow of Japanese invasion.
At the time, the book was criticised for being too pessimistic and straying too far from Lao She’s popular humourous style, which characterised his earlier hits such as Mr Ma and Son (also published as a Penguin Modern Classic). Even the author himself was ambivalent about his sole foray into sci-fi. In the introduction to one of the latest editions, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Ian Johnson says that Lao She also regarded the novel as a deviation from his traditional oeuvre. Eventually, Lao She’s work was seen as subversive and, as the Cultural Revolution took hold, the author was persecuted by the Red Guards. No longer able to withstand their torture, aged 67, he drowned himself in Beijing’s Taiping lake.
Following his death, Cat Country has come to be seen as China’s first important work of science fiction. Though it was some time before another Mainland writer published openly in the genre, dystopian plotlines portraying societies divided by human misery, oppression and overcrowding continued to proliferate underground. Over the past ten years, the genre has seen something of a revival among Chinese writers: in 2011, Chan Koonchung's The Fat Years made international headlines, and in 2013, Pathlight, the English-language edition of People’s Literature Magazine, published a special issue devoted to Chinese science fiction.
Below, we pick out a few of the finest works from the genre.
By Han Song (2000)
Described by the LA Times
as 'China's premier science fiction writer', Han Song has written four sci-fi novels and won the prestigious Galaxy Award – China's foremost science fiction prize – six times. Born in Chongqing in 1965, Han is a journalist for the Xinhua News Agency, which he says gives him access to ‘real China’. His works tackle the damage caused by hyper-modernisation and the decline of overbearing states.
According to China Daily, Han describes himself as a ‘staunch nationalist at heart’, though many of his works are considered unpublishable on the Mainland. Han's 2066: Red Star Over America presents a world in which the US is on the decline and China is the dominant power. A delegation of Chinese Go players are sent to America to spread their superior knowledge, when a series of catastrophes take place (including, prophetically, a terrorist attack that brings down the Twin Towers), plunging the host country into anarchy.
Back in 2011, Han told Time Out: ‘Science fiction has a very small audience in China, as it is futuristic. Chinese people think that the past, such as Confucianism, is more important. Young people who read science fiction need temporary escapism. The goods and daily life cannot satisfy their psychological needs, so they run away from the real world. For me, it is both escapism and social commentary.'
The Fat Years
By Chan Koonchung, translated by Michael Duke (2011)
Officially banned in Mainland China, The Fat Years
is by Shanghai-born, Hong Kong-educated Chan Koonchung. Published in English in 2011, it met with critical acclaim in the West, with author and former South China Morning Post
editor Jonathan Fenby labelling it 'a triumph'.
In the book we see strong echoes of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four: an authoritarian state is tightening its grip over society. But whereas Orwell, writing in the 1940s, set his novel in the future, The Fat Years takes place in the present day. As with 2066, the Western states are in decline and China is enjoying a golden age of dominance.
Poverty has been wiped out and Starbucks has been bought by a Chinese conglomerate. All is well until the protagonist, Old Chen, discovers that all records of events occurring in February 2011 have been struck from the historical records. Most citizens are too preoccupied with their creature comforts to notice, so it is down to him to investigate and ultimately answer the question posed by another character: 'Between a good Hell and a fake paradise – which would you choose?'
The Fat Years is available from amazon.co.uk priced from 115RMB
The Three-Body Problem
By Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu (2006)
Liu Cixin published his first short story in 1999, and over the past decade he has won eight Galaxy Awards for science fiction writing and a Chinese Nebula Award for best author, making him the most decorated and most popular sci-fi writer in China. His recent novels, starting with Ball Lightning
(2004) and followed by the excellent Three-Body Trilogy
(2006-10), are credited with propelling the niche genre into the mainstream.
The Three Body Trilogy portrays the history of mankind and its wars with alien civilisations. The first book, San Ti (In English: The Three-Body Problem) begins in Cultural Revolution-era China, where a scientist attempts to make contact with a distant star system. Decades later we discover the communication went awry and alien ships are on their way to conquer Earth. Liu Cixin’s style is typified by his endeavours to create a distinctly Chinese form of sci-fi.
The Three-Body Problem is available at amazon.co.uk priced from 58RMB.
By Charlotte Middlehurst