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When the Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin was published in English in 2014, it was many Americans’ introduction to Chinese science fiction. But, as journalist and science fiction writer Han Song writes, the genre has a history in that country that goes back more than a century.

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Han dates the beginnings of the tradition to 1902, when Chinese political leader Liang Qichao published a novel titled The Future of New China, looking forward to a 1962 in which China would be a world power. Along with writing his own original work, Liang translated Jules Verne’s 1888 novel Two Years’ Vacation from French into Chinese. He saw science fiction as a means to spread modern knowledge in the country, open minds to new ideas, and spur development.

And, indeed, science fiction became popular among Chinese readers of the early twentieth century. “The genre instilled pride in readers who saw China defeat Western countries with imaginary high-tech weapons in the future,” Han writes.

Following the Communist Revolution of 1949, science fiction experienced another brief boom, again driven by a quest for modernization. In 1954, as Mao Zedong’s government was working to industrialize the country, writer Zheng Wenguang rose to prominence with a short story titled “From Earth to Mars,” describing a Communist-led space mission. However, during the cultural revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, Zheng and other science fiction writers fell out of the government’s favor, and science fiction became understood as a corrupt Western form.

Han writes that Chinese science fiction began a more sustained revival in the 1990s as the Communist Party began to permit greater creative freedom. Translations of books by Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and other American writers appeared on shelves, with movies like E.T. and The Matrix showing up in theaters. By the end of the ’90s, the Chinese magazine Science Fiction World had a circulation of more than 400,000, the largest of any publication of its kind globally. Wu Yan, a science fiction writer and professor at Beijing Normal University, created the country’s first science fiction degree-granting program. The university has spread interest in the genre around the country and connected the Chinese science fiction community with counterparts around the world.

In the twenty-first century, Han writes, some writers continued using science fiction to glorify China’s place in the world. Wang Jikang’s 2011 novel Being with Me imagines China’s Communist Party uniting the world to fight an alien invasion. On the other hand, some take clearly critical stances. In one story by Ding Zicheng, Chinese hospitals use biotechnology to keep people alive indefinitely for financial reasons, and people who wish to die must fight through bureaucracy to receive a death passport.

Today, the Chinese government’s relationship with science fiction remains complicated. After the Hugo awards were held in the country for the first time in 2023, documents revealed that some writers critical of China’s ruling party appear to have been improperly excluded from the award ballots.

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Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 40, No. 1, Chinese Science Fiction (March 2013), pp. 15–21