BBC Features Wellesley Professor’s Perspective on Popularity of Chinese Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing

January 8, 2019
A mother and son look at an exhibit about Black Panther

In a recent BBC article online, “What Our Science Fiction Says About Us,” Mingwei Song, associate professor of Chinese at Wellesley, discussed the recent surge of writers and filmmakers who are creating futuristic landscapes and plots populated by nonwhite characters.

As writers and directors from non-Western countries bring their perspectives to science fiction and fantasy, they mark a departure from the historically Western orientation of the two genres.

“Science fiction is now a global phenomenon,” Song told the BBC. “This has been one of the most remarkable developments of the genre because it transcends this Western and particularly Anglo-American domination of the genre.”

Song and Theodore Huters, professor emeritus in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at UCLA, coedited The Reincarnated Giant: An Anthology of Twenty-First Century Chinese Science Fiction, a collection of 15 modern Chinese science fiction stories and novel excerpts about interstellar wars, communications with a long-dead human race, robotics, and cybernetics, all by writers from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China.

In China, Song said, the science fiction and fantasy writing trend differs from both state-supported and author-centered literary practices in the country. “Many of these new popular novels first emerged in serial form on the Internet and were written by amateur authors,” he said in an email interview. “They were closely followed by and commented on by fans, and later published in book form when a substantial readership had been generated.”

Development of the genre progressed in three waves: the first came after the fall of Imperial China in 1902; the second after the Chinese revolution of 1949; and the third, and current, one in the 1990s, as the country developed rapidly.

Chinese science fiction has become increasingly popular in the West thanks to English translations of works by writers like Cixin Liu and Hao Jingfang. In 2015, Liu became the first Asian writer to win the Hugo Award for best novel for his book The Three-Body Problem.

In China, escapism is a dominant theme, though social exposés are still popular with older readers, said Song.

“The majority of the popular genres share some elements of fantasy, ranging from the sensational to the supernatural to the utopian/dystopian,” he said. “This phenomenon, as many critics believe, may suggest an unwillingness to directly engage reality, but it can also, as in some science fiction writing, nurture imagination of alternative worlds that reflect negatively on this world.”

Photo: The commercial success of science fiction stories, like 2018's Black Panther, highlight the growing global face of the genre.