This past weekend I attended my first World Science Fiction Convention at Chicon 7. During the convention I listened in on several panels about Science Fiction in China. These panels were extremely interesting and very informative. There were discussions of many historical facts and ideas regarding the history of Chinese science fiction, which dates back to the late 1800’s with the first “modern” Sci-Fi novel in 1903. In addition to the history of the genre there were dozens of other topics, three of which really caught my interest.
The first topic (in no particular chronological order) discussed foreign Sci-Fi and Fantasy books that inspired the authors. For the most part these inspirations were the same as any Sci-Fi lover in the US; authors such as Gibson, Bradbury, Clark and others were mentioned. The only notable author specifically mentioned as not well read in China was Lovecraft. The reason given was the lack of a “horror” story tradition in China. This is true as China has many ghost stories typically used to instill moral and ethical teachings rather than frighten.
The second topic was the motivations of modern science fiction authors and readers. During this particular discussion I was struck by what one young author, pen name Xia Jia, said. From her perspective one of the things that draws readers in general, especially young readers, to Sci- Fi is the wish to look forward. She pointed out that much of Chinese literary and television looks to the past. By reading forward-looking novels Chinese readers can think about what may come rather than linger on the past. They can imagine what China will be like in the future.
This is a very powerful and true observation she made. There are so many sub-topics extending from her observation it would require a term paper to cover them all. Instead I will utilize her core point to highlight a pressing problem facing China. Many scholars and observers like to focus on rote learning as the core problem with China’s modern education system. While this is a concern that requires changes I argue it is not the sole area worthy of critique. I believe the 100% focus on past events is actually the key flaw in China’s education system.
Coupled with the fact that 95% of all books, TV shows, and movies are also centered on the past, China faces a lack of forward thinking. The focus on the past rather the future across the education and entertainment aspects of Chinese culture is creating a core component of the current growth and development issues facing China. Most Chinese and foreign observers would agree the lack of homegrown innovation is a core developmental issue in China. I would argue it is not China’s rote learning regimen, acute respect for authority, or family centered societal structure that are inhibiting innovation; it is all of these aspects combined with an educational and cultural focus on the past.
China’s current education and media environment like to focus on highlighting China’s glory days, embarrassments at the hands of foreigners, and how far China has come. Little effort is made to focus on China’s future. If there was more attention given to where China is going and the possibilities of what it can achieve, I believe the other changes required to spur innovation would be more easily attained. By constantly looking backwards, China is harming itself moving forwards.
The third topic revolved around the need to share Sci-Fi across borders. The authors on the various panels spoke of a need to translate more foreign works into Chinese. They pointed out the barely filled need to translate Chinese works into English. Their point is well taken as intercultural and literary exchanges typically lead to greater mutual understanding. I fell this is a wonderful idea and Science Fiction and Fantasy are best suited to take advantage of the opportunity. I for one will be adding my skill to this endeavor.
Overall I think it is wonderful that Sci-Fi in China is fulfilling much of the same role it does in other cultures across the Earth. This only goes to show no matter how large our differences, our similarities are even larger.
If this topic interests you please go to Emily Jiang’s blog at www.emilyjiang.com to read her posts as she shares her notes and thoughts about all four Science Fiction in China panels from Chicon 7.