How Chinese science fiction went from underground magazines to Netflix extravaganza

For an ephemeral period in October 2023, the pulsing heart of the science fiction universe was located in Chengdu, China. This historic event garnered global attention as Worldcon, the paramount annual meeting for science fiction enthusiasts, was conducted in China for the first time. Fans from every corner of the world descended upon the city, eager to participate in a gathering untouched by the tense politics between China and the West, and unmarked by Beijing’s stringent control over freedom of expression.

In the midst of this congregation stood Tao Bolin, a Guangdong influencer, who perceived the event as a signal that the world was ready to embrace Chinese literature. The mingling of admirers and authors occurred within the stunning edifice of the recently erected Science Fiction Museum, a Zaha Hadid Architects masterpiece that took the shape of a colossal steel starburst.

Just three months later, however, the perception of unity quickly tarnished in the face of controversy. Accusations surfaced that Worldcon organizers, who also coordinate the prestigious Hugo Awards, deliberately disqualified nominees to appease Chinese authorities. These celebrated awards are the pinnacle of honor within the sci-fi community.

The predicament of Chinese science fiction is steeped in paradox; it’s a genre that, over the span of four decades, transitioned from a politically dubious fringe group to one of China’s proudest cultural exports, with Liu Cixin’s work captivating global icons like Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg. The journey of Chinese sci-fi has been shadowed just as long by geopolitical tribulations.

As the Netflix adaptation of Liu’s “The Three-Body Problem” readies for release in March, helmed by the renowned showrunners of “Game of Thrones,” the genre could potentially captivate its largest audience to date. Its evolution is owed to the unwavering dedication of authors, editors, and cultural bureaucrats who believed that science fiction could serve as a unifying force across disparate cultures.

Yao Haijun, the editor-in-chief of Science Fiction World, China’s longest-running sci-fi magazine, has long championed the genre’s ability to connect people from diverse backgrounds. The magazine’s foray into the international scene traces back to a convention in Chengdu three decades ago, which was nearly capsized by political tumult following the infamous Tiananmen Square incident of 1989.

Despite foreign speakers withdrawing from the event, a determined delegation from the magazine traveled to Worldcon 1990 in The Hague to rescue the conference. Shen Zaiwang, who led the group across Eurasia, bore stuffed pandas and Chengdu postcards as emblems of hospitality, endeavoring to reassure international counterparts of a secure and welcoming environment in Sichuan.

A small number of international authors did attend that initial Chengdu conference, marking a humble yet significant milestone. Science fiction faced skepticism domestically as well, with the genre embroiled in the Chinese government’s “spiritual pollution cleaning” campaigns of the early 1980s, which resulted in the shuttering of numerous sci-fi publications. Through perseverance, Science Fiction World continued to publish, buoyed by the conviction that an innovative nation required science fiction.

The magazine’s seminal international event in 1997, featuring cosmopolitan luminaries such as U.S. and Russian astronauts, bolstered science fiction’s status in Chinese society. Liu Cixin’s emergence as a bestselling author further solidified the genre’s ascendance. “The Three-Body Problem,” serially published in 2006, found a readership hungry for Liu’s distinct and visionary storytelling.

Eventually, government agencies spotted the potential in Liu’s work, with the China Educational Publications Import & Export Corporation undertaking the task of translating the novel and its sequels for global audiences. This dual recognition—Liu winning a Hugo Award in 2015 and Hao Jingfang securing the prize a year later—was transformative, flipping the script from the genre’s prior state of suppression to being seen as an emblem of China’s cultural innovation.

The Chengdu Worldcon was envisioned as the zenith of these endeavors. Initially touted as a triumph, the subsequent fallout over transparency in Hugo Award nominations cast a shadow of censorship and compromise over the event, tainting its success.

And yet, the momentum of Chinese science fiction endures. Netflix’s forthcoming adaptation stands to exponentially broaden the audience for this unique storytelling tradition. Writers like Regina Kanyu Wang and Tang Fei signify the next wave of Chinese sci-fi, exploring progressive themes that echo with a global audience.

Although institutional support can sometimes stifle creativity, voices from the fringes continue to offer poignant and innovative narratives. Individuals like Yao and Song Mingwei remain steadfast in their belief that science fiction will persevere as a common language among cultures, particularly during times of unrest, asserting that shared understanding is forged through ongoing dialogue.

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