Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Subversive sci-fi in China

Folding meanings

Young Chinese writers use science fiction to criticise their society. Alec Ash discovers a new dimension of fiction

Young Chinese writers use science fiction to criticise their society. Alec Ash discovers a new dimension of fiction

Alec Ash | April/May 2017

Chinese sci-fi is having a moment. Liu Cixin’s bestselling alien-invasion trilogy “The Three-Body Problem” has sold more than 4m copies. Since 2015 it has won international fans too, after becoming the first Chinese book to win the prestigious Hugo award for best science-fiction novel, and a major movie is due out this year. But whereas Liu, 53, writes about aliens, physics and man’s place among the stars – traditional science-fiction concerns – a new generation of Chinese writers is experimenting with the genre as a way to discuss the realities of 21st-century China.

Hao Jingfang won international acclaim when one of her stories, “Folding Beijing”, won the novella category in the latest Hugo awards. In China the story was hotly discussed online, not just for its literary merits, but also for its social criticism. The story follows Lao Dao, a migrant sewage worker living in the underbelly of the capital who is saving up to pay kindergarten fees for his adopted daughter. Yet this Beijing is divided into three segments: an elite 5m live in “First Space”, 25m more occupy “Second Space” and a teaming underclass of 50m are in “Third Space”, where Lao Dao toils.

As well as being separate socially, these strata are physically divorced. Every day at 6am the skyscrapers of one space fold in on themselves and pivot like “gigantic Rubik’s cubes” so that the earth literally turns over to reveal the next lot who have their turn at living above ground. Lao Dao rides the folding, morphing city up into Second and then First Space, smuggling a lover’s message and stumbling across an explanation of how the city came to be as it is.

As a commentary on inequality and those who are left behind by China’s breakneck urbanisation, Hao’s message is hard to miss. (Her inspiration for the story was a Beijing taxi-driver who complained to her about his daughter’s high kindergarten fees.) Over coffee in a central hutong near where she lives, Hao told me how her central theme was the “disease of big cities”, where “the rich never encounter the poor” and development leaves the underclasses behind. “I wanted to express my ideas about how isolated people are from each other,” she said. But chatter among Chinese readers focused on how the story handled migrant workers, stagnating social mobility and the super-rich who control the city. Even the authorities got nervous, closing down discussion threads online – an act worthy of its own dystopian sci-fi.

Now 32, Hao read “Fahrenheit 451” and “Around the World in 80 Days” in translation as a child, before getting into the sci-fi classics of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. At Tsinghua University in Beijing she read physics before switching to an economics PhD (both subjects helped her to “see the world as a big system”). Meanwhile, her own fledgling sci-fi was a “mental experiment” in how to consider the society around her.

Her first novel, “Wandering Sky” (as yet untranslated), depicts two worlds: an Earth dominated by a global market and an automated Utopia on Mars. To Hao the metaphor represents China’s generation gap, in which people like her, who were born in the 1980s, now occupy a different world to their parents. In another short story, “The Last Brave Man”, she explores the role of the individual in a collectivist society through the tale of a fugitive clone, Si Jie 47, who is being hunted by the authorities. And in “Invisible Planets” we are reminded of China’s noxious air pollution through the planet of Chincato, with an atmosphere “so dense that no light can penetrate it”.

Hao is not the only one to use the misdirection of the form to explore hard truths. Chen Qiufan, 35, uses his sci-fi stories to explore sensitive issues including smog and graduate unemployment. In “City of Silence”, by Ma Boyang, citizens communicate online using a list of “healthy words”. Authors in other countries have long used the genre to satirise or issue warnings, from “1984” by George Orwell to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s Soviet-era dystopia, “We”. Chinese science fiction has a history of veiled political commentary too: Lao She’s 1933 novel, “Cat Country”, for instance, depicts a Martian civilisation that is addicted to opiates and seeks liberation through a new ideology called “Everybody Shareskyism”.

Hidden meanings are even more precious in today’s China, where essays and realist literature are subject to strict censorship while sci-fi, often dismissed as kid’s fare, can slip more easily past the censors. China has gone through such monumental changes over the last few decades that the futuristic mode is a natural fit to express its complexities. When regular literature fails to directly tackle social or political issues – or is sanitised when it tries – it is no surprise that readers look to more imaginative fare. As Hao says, in sci-fi you can talk about things more freely. And in China, the truth is often stranger than science fiction.

Readers' comment

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.

Gantal - March 18th 2017

Alienation, isolation and anomie are hardly confined to China. In fact, inequality there is far less severe than it is in the USA. In China, the top 1 percent earned 13 percent of personal income in 2015 — double their share in the 1980s. In the U.S., the top 1 percent earned 20 percent of income. That's also roughly double the level from the 1980s. The paper notes, "our estimates should likely be viewed as lower bounds, due to tax evasion and other limitations of tax data and national accounts in China." But it points out the difference in the fortunes of those at the bottom in both countries that makes the income gap far worse in the U.S. According to the research, the incomes of the bottom 50 percent in China (those earning less than $9,280, using purchasing power parity-adjusted exchange rates) fell from 27 percent in 1978 to 15 percent. In the U.S., the bottom 50 percent (those with annual incomes below $36,000) have seen a "complete collapse" in their share of national income. Between 1978 and 2015, their share of income went from 20 percent to 12 percent — 3 points lower than China's. "Policy discussions about rising global inequality should focus on how to equalize the distribution of primary assets," the researchers concluded. That includes better education, access to skills and minimum wage reform. IGLOBAL INEQUALITY DYNAMICS: NEW FINDINGS FROM WID.WORLD Facundo Alvaredo Lucas Chancel Thomas Piketty Emmanuel Saez Gabriel Zucman Working Paper 23119 http://www.nber.org/papers/w23119 NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH 1050 Massachusetts Avenue Cambridge, MA 02138. February 2017. https://eml.berkeley.edu/~saez/ACPSZ2017NBERWP.pdf . And incidentally, the author has no need to hide her social criticism. Nobody in China is punished for that.