When he isn't teaching China's only university course on science fiction, Professor Wu Yan works as an editor, writer, and commentator on the SF field and is one of China's premier SF personalities. He is the author of numerous short stories, several novels, and many academic publications. He has lived and taught in America and Australia but makes his home in Beijing. Lavie Tidhar met Wu Yan on a visit to China in 2000, and they have remained in contact since then. Lavie has written previously on Chinese SF for Foundation: The International Journal of Science Fiction.
Lavie: When I first met you, I didn't know very much about Chinese science fiction—in fact, it was quite a surprise to discover how vibrant SF is in China! I think what people are immediately most impressed with are the numbers; for example, SF World, a Chengdu-based magazine, has a reported circulation of around 400,000, which is more than all the American magazines put together. It is also not unknown for a successful novel to sell 250,000 to half a million copies. Has it always been like this?
Yan: I would say that the circulation of Chinese SF books and periodicals has decreased. During the turning point years of 1978-1983, a SF book could sell over half a million to a million copies. When Mao died in 1976, the Cultural Revolution stopped. Cultural activities came back to daily life. All books could sell a lot of copies; we were starving for spiritual food. But now, after nearly thirty years of economic reform, people begin to pay more and more attention to the material life: a good house, a lot of money, a new car, etc. This leads to the loss of spiritual values. Books on fashion and lifestyle, as well as the life of celebrities, can sell a lot of copies. But the classic markets like mainstream novels, science fictions and popular science books have decreased a lot in the last thirty years.
Lavie: China can be called the new economic powerhouse of the world. I think it's safe to say a large percentage of things used in the West are manufactured in China—anything from watches to clothes to computers—and this must affect the concerns and interests of Chinese writers. Are you still in your own Industrial Revolution?
Yan: Third world countries in the contemporary world are in a very complex situation after the formation of the global village. For example, contemporary China is a mix of industrial, pre-industrial, and post-industrial elements. Two-thirds of Chinese citizens are peasants, and most of their working ways are very old-fashioned, although they have TV sets and watch China Central Television News everyday. Things that happen in the TV news look like something that happened on another planet for these remote civilians. The Chinese democratic and communist movements have lasted nearly one hundred years, but the way of the common people's thinking is still in feudalism to some degree, especially in the rural village areas. At the same time, in the big cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, the most post-modern lifestyles have emerged among the white collars, the intellectuals, and, of course, most of the teenagers. American-based Time magazine (international edition) used one of our Chinese teenage writers, Chun Shu, on their cover last year.
Writing SF in such a comprehensive context is really a challenge to all writers. I remember in the 1997 Beijing International SF Convention, the Chief Editor of SF World, Ms. Yang Xiao, told me that seventy percent of the subscribers of her magazine came from the countryside. "You have to think about it," she said. Each year, when SF World wishes to raise prices so as to beat the rise of cost, they need to carefully calculate how many readers will be lost because they cannot afford this small price rise.
I mention the above issues because I want to show you that contemporary China mixes a lot of pre-industrial, industrial and post-industrial factors. The Industrial Revolution is still the main element of the equation. That is why the works of writers like Liu Cixin have been welcomed by the readers within these two to three years. I've written an academic article titled "Liu Cixin and Neo-classicalism," where I explain why his novel and stories are welcomed today. He matches the Jules Verne style with today's industrial China.
Lavie: Has the New Wave movement in Western science fiction been an influence? How is it regarded?
Yan: I have very little knowledge of the New Wave. Chinese publishers thought these books would not attract readers. We thought they are "slow moving", monotonous, and that they "lack plots." I have discussed this with the former president of SFRA, Betty Hull. She did not agree with me. She thought they were "full of plots." I guess there are some culture differences.
Interestingly, we also had a period of "new waves" in the turning years of the late 1970s to the early 1980s. At that time, China's "open door policy" made possible writers' first contact with the New Wave writers like Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard. Chapters of Robert Scholars's critical book Science Fiction had been introduced. Writers began to think of writing in a new way. Zheng Wenguang and Wei Yahua and others tried to extend their themes from pure science and technology to politics, religion, and sociology. Ye Yonglie tried to mix his daily life with science fiction. The future is now, they argued. Also, at that time, Chinese SF writers began to imitate the mainstream.
Unfortunately, the Chinese New Wave movement failed quickly. Yeyonglie published a book titled SF as Cinderella (Shi Shi Fei Fei Hui Gu Niang) in 2000 which goes into detail about this.
Lavie: When I was in Chengdu [in the annual gathering of SF World's writers] I met several fantasy writers–how successful is fantasy in China? Is there an obvious difference between it and SF, or do most authors write both?
Yan: China has a strong literary history of myth, fairy tales, and martial arts fiction. You know, the famous Ming Dynasty fantasy, A Monkey's Journey to the West is always viewed as one of the highest cultural achievements of Ancient China. In the last 100 years, fantasy was not very well developed. When Mao was alive, he encouraged writers to write realistic novels. As his advocate, a novel should show the reality, our socialist achievements. Ironically, most of this kind of realistic fiction does not look realistic. They are pure fantasy! In these novels, living in China looks like living in a heaven. At the same time, China was listed as one of the poorest countries in the United Nations statistics.
After Mao, things changed a lot. Writers were not pushed to write realistic works. Deng began his economic reform. This turned things the other way. The passions of materialism dominated our society.
It is J. K. Rowling who saved our fantasy writing. After Harry Potter's market success in China, native writers began to fetch back their old passion for fantasy.
I am very sorry for I have not paid more attention to this area. I cannot talk more about it. But I have just read a new novel titled Red Ocean, written by Han Song. It is a strong fantasy-style SF. It is excellent! The novel has four parts. Part one talks about a remote future. The whole earth is turning into a sphere of red ocean. Our offspring have divided into several tribes. Life is struggle for survival. If you want to be alive, you have to kill others and eat them! The title of this part is "Our Present." Then, the following two parts are titled as "Our Past" and "The Past of Our Past." These two parts try to give some reason for why the world turned into Red Ocean and why human beings declined. The second part is full of fairy tales. Each of the tales look reasonable, but each of them also look unreal.
The mood of the first two parts is fantastical. But part three turns out to be realistic fiction. It looks at what happens right now in China. Global warming, wars between nations and uncontrolled pollution damage our earth.
Then the final part, part four, is titled "Our Future." It is not the future. The author brings you back to the years of Zheng He, the great sailor who made seven journeys to the Pacific Ocean and very possibly America in the year 1421. (For information about Zheng He, you can refer to the book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World by Gavin Menzies). Chapter by chapter, you passed through Chinese history with the author. I was particularly impressed with two anecdotes. One was about the first Chinese geographer, Mr. Xu Xiake, trying to locate all the water in a map of China. The secondary is a Chinese fleet that conquered the world in the 15th century. The map and the globe are two important things in this part. The author tries to transfer a view of the relationship between Chinese future and world future through a backward journey of history.
I am sure it will be the most important work in Chinese SF, fantasy, as well as mainstream literature.
Lavie: And how much of it is commercial, Sword and Sorcery fantasy?
Yan: The martial art novel (Sword and Sorcery fantasy) has a very good market in China. For example, Hong Kong writer Jin Yong's works are the second largest circulated books that have ever been sold in China. (The first largest book is Chairman Mao's Little Red Book during the Cultural Revolution. Everyone had a copy.)
The chief editor of SF World, Ai Lai, predicted that modern fantasy would also have a good market in the future. This is why SF World created a new magazine in that genre. Sorry, I do not know how successful this magazine, Fantasy World, is yet.
Lavie: I'm interested in how many readers and writers are women.
Yan: Not more than ten percent of SF writers are female. Some of them are well known by the contemporary young readers like Zhao Haihong and Ling Chen. As well, I feel sorry for not having paid more attention to female SF writers. It looks like I have to start now.
Lavie: Tell me a little more about the effect of the Cultural Revolution on SF in China. How did it affect writers?
Yan: The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was a disaster for Chinese culture overall. None of the genres of literature and art escaped from it.
In fact, the Chinese political situation influenced science fiction earlier. Two or three years before the Revolution, science fiction had already disappeared. Of course this was not only the case of science fiction. All genres stopped. It made way to a political movement.
A very important article was published in Science Pictorial magazine in 1967, one year after the Revolution: "Weeding out the Poison of Suaima." Suaima is a Russian science fiction title. It is also the protagonist's-a self-learning robot-name. The author is Anatoly Dnieprov, a very talented Soviet science fiction writer. At the end of the stories, after self-improvement, Suaima decides to know what a Human Being means. He finds a scalpel from his creator's laboratory and wishes to open his creator's mind. According to the editorial, the author of this critical article is a "worker" who worked at one of Shanghai's factories. He/she points out it is an anti-Marxism story because it talks about "a robot fighting against human." Even today, I still do not know whether or not Carl Marx or his colleague Fredrick Engels or successor Vladimir Lenin have ever written anything about the relationship between human beings and robots (and whether either is a useful metaphor for a system of government). I do not know if Marx definitely said a robot would not have the power to challenge human beings. The whole issue looks ridiculous. But at that time, people took it seriously. Fortunately the creator of this story was not Chinese writer. If he lived in China, I assure you the Red Guard would have swept him out of home.
The Cultural Revolution was such a time that everyone tried to be a radical Marxist while at the same time, nearly no one knew what it meant. Then, the social order was completely in disorder.
There is a true story. In 1969, a small-scale conflict broke out on the border of China and Soviet Russia. Soldiers shot each other. Soviet leaders felt anxious. Though the alliance of the two countries has been broken, it had not gone as far as going to war. Then, the Soviet Prime Minister made a "hotline" phone call to the Chinese leader. At that time, the phone system was mostly undeveloped. It needed an operator to transfer. The operator on duty that day was a young female Red Guard. She remembered that Chairman Mao said the Soviet Union is our enemy because they are Revisionists, not Marxists. The operator decided to kick his phone call out. She said our leader scorns you and does not want to pick up your phone call. This operator nearly decided the fate of China. The good thing was that the Soviets really did not wish to go to war. So they made another endeavor. The Primer Minister's flight passed by China and landed in Beijing Airport for several hours. He talked with the Chinese Primer Minster and solved the problem. A nuclear war had been avoided.
It looks like science fiction. But it really happened. Westerners always talked about things behind the Bamboo Curtain. The Bamboo Curtain was used to differentiate China from the Soviets at that time. But if you opened the curtain, there were a lot of science fictional stories.
There was only one short story published in the last year of the Revolution. The author was Ye Yonglie, a popular science writer during the 1960s. Why could it be published? Because the Revolution was reaching its end.
Lavie: That's a great story–and it's scary to think how many small incidents like this may have happened during the Cold War! Would you say Chinese SF readers had more of an exposure to Russian SF than people in the West? What do you think of Russian SF? And how does it compare to, or differ from, Chinese or Western SF?
Yan: Most of Chinese writers in my generation are familiar with Soviet writers like A. Tolstoy, A. Yefremov, A. Kazhantsev, A. Dnieprov and a lot more names. In the 1950s, China translated a lot of Soviet SF. That is why I said Jules Verne and Soviet SF are two important resources of inspiration for the Chinese SF writers.
Things changed after 1978. US and UK writers were introduced. The people we are most familiar with seem to be Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, and Isaac Asimov. We also translated Japanese, German, Spanish, and Italian SF, though not as much.
It is really difficult to say what Chinese SF looks like. It differs from all of the above. The best way of understanding Chinese SF is to read it. Unfortunately, there is only one book that's been published in the Western world. It is titled SF from China (1989), edited by Dingbo Wu and Patrick D. Murphy with a forward by Fred Pohl. The stories look pretty old now. The works of the new generation are more diverse stylistically, more intellectual, and have a high literary standard.
Lavie: Also, I understand there was period in the 1980s when science fiction was very much disapproved of. Can you tell me more about it? What happened, and why?
Yan: After the Revolution, Deng Xiaoping took power. Deng tried to liberate intellectuals and make a way to a renaissance. It worked. Literature and art revived quickly. That included science fiction.
At that time, ninety percent of SF writers were those who originally wrote popular science. These writers, such as Ye Yonglie, Zheng Wenguang and Tong Enzheng, got a lot of attention from the common readers. They became very famous. Their previous colleagues who had no talent to write science fiction still worked on popular science. Generally they found themselves abandoned by the readers. They began to feel it was unfair. Why can these storytellers get such a lot of readers? Jealousy of the "celebrities" began to initiate a plot.
In 1983, some of the popular science writers created a column in China Youth Daily. It was under the title of "Remark on Popular Science Works." This column published a series of articles aimed at the criticism of science fiction. The focus was on Ye Yonglie, Zheng Wengguang, and Tong Enzheng. Unfortunately, an article was also aimed at my two short stories, "The Abyss of Gravity," and "Flying to the Great Void."
I know criticism is not a bad word in the West. But in China, it contains a bad idea. If someone gets a criticism, especially these articles that come from government authorities, it can be a more serious issue. At the beginning, the criticism only viewed our SF as "far away from science," "full of scientific mistakes." Suddenly, they changed their directions to the political side. Your works had already "lost hope of a Socialist future!" Wow, it is a big issue now. Not stopping there, they made a remark of our SF as "Spiritual Pollution," polluting not only science but also society. The worse thing happened then. The government made an announcement and pushed publishing houses to stop publishing SF. As the same time, the government expropriated earnings from Ocean Press and Geology Press, two publishing houses who had a series of science fiction books with a very good market.
Up to this time, a plot created from jealousy turned into political and governmental behavior. Science fiction disappeared again in China. It lasted six years. A small scale Cultural Revolution. Key writers left. Ye Yonglie changed his writing genre to reportage. Tong Enzheng paid all his attention to his anthropological studies and finally migrated to the United States. Xiao Jianheng, a famous children's SF writer, began to operate in the stock market at the age of 70. Zheng Wenguang had a stroke. He was paralyzed just ten days after being criticized on his famous novelette The Pacific Ocean Man. In the following twenty years, he still couldn't write. He died in 2003, just several months before the first Chinese manned spaceship entered space. He never got to see that moment, though he wrote about it many times in his novels.
Compared with the Cultural Revolution, this time the damage was even worse. The Chinese science fiction community was deeply destroyed.
Lavie: You told me some of this before, I think, but I didn't realize how difficult that must have been. Is this behind us now? I know the new space program must have generated new interest in SF. Can we say SF in now more respected than ever? And is it only for the science, or is it being taken seriously as literature, too?
Yan: Who knows? Chinese politics are running out of anyone's imaginations. I do not think SF gets more respect now than before. The fact is that the influences of criticizing SF as a kind of "spiritual pollution" largely decreased. The new SF consumers born after 1985 would have had no chance to be influenced by the old propaganda. They view SF in their own way.
You are right, the new advance in science and technology really boosted SF. Not only the Chinese manned space program, but also cloning techniques, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence like Deep Blue, the Human Genome Project, and a lot more.
It is such a pity that the mainstream literary critics still lack interest in the SF field. But we made some progress. You couldn't imagine we would have a MA program on SF in the past. But we have now! We will create a Doctorate program in the near future.
Lavie: When did you begin to read science fiction? Was it at quite a young age or later in life? And when and how did you first become involved in it as a professional? In what capacity?
Yan: I began reading SF at the age of nine or ten. A Chinese writer, whose name is Guo Yishi, wrote the first SF novel I read. He had written only one book, called In The World of Science. It was a children's book for primary and secondary school students. It looked very Soviet in style. Even the illustrations were Soviet-looking, in a 'Science is Power' style. I don't know if you're familiar with this kind of Soviet popular science magazine. I read this novel several times. Each time the plot made me cry. You cannot believe which part of the novel moved me. It was the epilogue! At this part, the protagonist came back from the moon, deprived from the World of Science. He came home. His father was waiting for him and said, "I have some gifts for you." Then the father opened the drawer. It was full of scientific instruments, from telescopes to microscopes. I was really moved. My father didn't buy any of this kind of instrument because it is very expensive. My father even did not like me reading books of science because he thought it would disturb my school learning.
During that age, science fiction could not be found easily. But I still found 2000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island. Jules Verne's eight novels had been printed in the 1950s in China. Also, some Soviet books and short stories could be found in some secret areas. I liked Soviet SF more than Verne. Verne's works are too long to read for ten-year-old kids.
Beginning in 1975, Chinese writer Ye Yonglie turned his writing from popular science books to SF stories. One year later, Mao died. The term of science fiction begin to live again. People were shocked by this kind of literary genre. What a bright future we can have! Look at the science fiction, it is brilliant! The magic of science! Nearly all the young people were addicted to SF at that time. I began to write my stories. The first two stories I sent to Ye Yonglie. He had become famous in the whole country. But he still tried to encourage young writers to write. He was a director of science movie at the Shanghai Science and Education Movie Studio. He often went around the country for his movies. Once he came to Beijing, the city I live in. He called me and let me to go to his hotel. It was such a big excitement for me, you can imagine. I met him. Very good person. Nice to talk to. He discussed with me about my works. He made some points and told me he does not like a young boy who writes like a 50 years old man. He liked me to speak what young people would speak. I kept writing. Beginning at 16 years old, my first article was published in Guangming Daily. This was a critical article on Ye Yonglie's science fiction and popular science works. Ye read this article and called me and said he thanks me. The year before last, he wrote an autobiography about his life in SF. He is thinking my article is the milestone of his career. Before my article published, he was a Shanghai-based writer. Now, the critical article was published in Beijing, the capital. He was known by central government. He would turn into a nationwide writer. It is true. He then turned into a nationwide writer.
The next year, my first SF stories were published in Junior Science, a Shanghai-based magazine. Ye Yonglie suggested to the editor to use this article. He thought it wass a publishable work. In spite of Ye Yonglie, I also tried to find some local writers and meet them. For example, I met Guo Yishi, who is the author of In The World of Science. I also met Zheng Wenguang. He is the first SF writer after the building of the People's Republic. He is the astronomer. Because of this, these writers all liked me. They lent me books. Finally, in 1979, they arranged for me to join in a national conference about children's popular science writing and science literature writing. Because I was a secondary school student, the newspapers and even the national news agency Xinhua News Agency published the news. I began to be a well-known writer, though I had only written several popular science articles and short stories.
I have been involved in the SF field for twenty-five years now. I am a young old writer, though I wrote very little. Only two novels and dozens of short stories. My novels are all aimed at children readers. One is Life and Death in the Sixth Day (1996). It based on my award wining short stories. The other is Adventure in Soul (1994, 1996). It based on two Zheng Wenguang early short stories. Most of my short stories were collected in an anthology titled Green-time in a Drawer (1999). I am not a very good writer. But I connect the old age to the new age. So I experienced all these years of the rise and fall of the SF market. I also experienced the political influences, sometimes, even more than the economic influences.
Lavie: You teach China's only university course on science fiction (at BNU) but your specialty is education and management, not SF. What attracted you to those fields, and do you see ties between being an educator and being an SF writer?
Yan: Writing SF made me a famous person. Some of the old popular science writers really did not like this. They were thinking I needed to get the higher education. But I failed for the first time trying to enter the university. In China, the college entrance examination is very young people's gate of fate. It takes three days, and six to seven subjects are tested. Every July 7 to 9 is the day of misery for high school graduate students. The news of my failed attempt to go to university turned to be news for them. They said that I am a bad example for young people. High pressure was put on me that year. Ye Yonglie and other writers encouraged me to do it again. The second year, I passed. I became a student of the Dept. of Psychology of Beijing Normal University. In 1986, I graduated from the Dept. of Psychology and worked as a teacher in the Faculty of Education Administration of the same university. The majority of my work is to train the officials and principals of the education system. My area is organizational behavior.
I began to write again. I also tried to get my masters and Ph.D. in the following years. Now I am a qualified university Associate Professor. Beginning in 1991, I applied to teach a course titled SF: Criticism and Studies. It is an undergraduate course for all the Beijing Normal University students. Free for choice, not a required course. The students warmly welcomed it. In some semesters, the number of students who wished to take this class reached more than 600! Two students who studied in my classroom during 1991 to 1992 turned to be national award winning writers. They are Xing He and Yang Peng. Now, Xing He is a professional writer in Beijing Writer's Association. Yang Peng is a researcher in the Institute of Literature of China Social Science Academy. Beginning from 2001, the Faculty of Chinese Language and Literature of our university began to call me. They asked me if I could join in their team as a guest Associate Professor. I agreed. This time, after ten years of teaching in undergraduate level, I began to teach in a Masters' level. In 2003, the Faculty of Chinese Language and Literature started a new project: Science Fiction Studies. In 2003, we had three students enrolled in this project. In 2004 and 2005, another four students enrolled in it. Now the top foundation of social science research, the Chinese Social Science Foundation, has also granted us money, the first time this has happened with regards to SF.
Lavie: As someone who is very much involved in education, is this the way you see science fiction? As a tool of educating people about science? Or do you see its values as mainly literary, even as art?
Yan: I've been involved in SF many years earlier than education. For me, work in the education sector is just a coincidence. I graduated from Beijing Normal University and work here. I like to teach. As well, working for a university gives me a good chance to take care of science fiction, either in studying or in teaching. All my friends complain their work and their writing career conflict. For example, Han Song is a journalist. He's very busy and has no time to write. Another example is He Hanjiang. He works for a web site. He is big fan and also publishes stories. The only shortage is time to devote to SF.
I am very lucky; I have time to do it. I can do it formally. For me, science fiction is a kind of literature, not a tool for science communication.
Lavie: Finally, what are your hopes for the Chinese space effort? Can you see colonies in space or on the moon in the future?
Yan: The Chinese space program developed under the pressure of the Cold War. Now, it tries to turn more and more to non-military usage. The second Shenzhou spaceship carried two males. Female astronaut selection has started. We have also started a moon exploration project. I guess the space station project will soon be announced. As I have said, the Chinese space project is not aimed to catch the States, Russia and European Union, but we probably could try for a leading position in the second group, which includes India, Japan, Brazil and others.
The other shifting aim of Chinese space project is from "show force to others" to focusing on aspects such as nutrition and economy. Maybe you know that most of our spaceships carried seeds and were trying to make more genetic mutation in zero gravity. Some of these kinds of experiments look very good. For example, green peppers and watermelons which traveled around earth orbit have been planted. They take a significantly bigger shape than before. After these kind of experiments been verified by academic checking, we will plan a world first Agriculture Aimed Satellite (AAS).
Earthquake studies are also a serious concern for the Chinese space people. In 1976, a big earthquake happened in Tangshang, and 240,000 people died within seconds. Now, we could monitor such things in earth orbit.
Living in this space age, I find that most of the Chinese SF writers lack information. For example, space flights in most of contemporary Chinese SF are far backward from today. I agree that SF is not talking about science, but about the issues around science and technology. If you are not familiar with science and technology today, how can you discuss ethical, cultural, social and even romantic issues related to it? You have to catch the space age and post-human age. In this meaning, most of the Chinese SF writers still have long way to go.
As the same time, I hope westerners could have more of a chance to understand changes in China by using contemporary science fiction. My American friend Joel Martinsen created an English web site to introduce Chinese fantasy and SF. The site is Chinese Science Fiction and Fantasy. It is a very good web site. Hope you can touch Chinese SF by using it.
For most of Chinese SF writers and me, the advantages for us are our history and culture. But this is also the uneasy crossing-fence inside our soul. If Chinese SF writers could set free their spiritual energy from these restrictions, Chinese SF will enter a new stage.
I hope in the colonized moon, Chinese people could play more important roles. If possible, I will let my protagonist call for all the Chinese residents living in Lunar Chinatown to sell their Chinese restaurants!
I will also try to call for all people from other parts of the world to go into a China shop. A bull in a China shop on the moon will be a very good experience for you. I promise!