Academics explore sci-fi’s soft power potential

By By Li Yongjie / 04-20-2015 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The growing popularity of science fiction novels like The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, currently being adapted into a movie, has prompted a debate about the role the genre should play in society.


Interstellar, the sci-fi blockbuster released at the end of 2014, has caused a stir in China. Following the astonishing success of the space epic, Beijing Normal University announced the nation’s first doctorate program in science fiction studies, which will recruit one doctoral student to conduct research in science fiction beginning fall semester in 2015.

In an early stage
Science fiction, a form of literature closely tied to technological advancement, has a rich history globally. In the West, the genre is popular with readers of all ages, especially when adapted for the big screen.


“Sci-fi literature has gained popularity over the last 200 years in Western countries, but its development in China is still in the nascent stage,” said Wu Yan, the professor at the School of Chinese Language and Literature at Beijing Normal University who will be the sole professor to work with the future doctoral candidate.

Academics say the translation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days by Chen Shoupeng and Xue Shaowei in 1900 marked the introduction of science fiction to China. Liang Qichao and Lu Xun promoted the translation of sci-fi literature on multiple public occassions, believing it to be a good way to transmit scientific knowledge and inspire people.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Lao She, Ye Yonglie and other Chinese writers authored a few sci-fi tales. However, the development of the genre has been relatively slow and faces many obstacles.

The proliferation of science fiction has great scientific and ideological value because it reflects a nation’s capacity for imagination and creativity. Since the 21st century, China has made remarkable achievements in science and technology, such as the Shenzhou-series spacecraft, the lunar exploration program and the  Jiaolong submersible.

“However, science fiction literature has failed to catch up with the successive breakthroughs and innovations in technology,” Wu said.

Chen Qiufan, a science fiction writer, said that there are fewer than 50 sci-fi writers who are committed to the cause in China, and high-quality works are quite rare.

Adding Chinese flavor
The Three-Body Problem by Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin has become popular since it was first published in 2008. Its English version earned a 2014 American Nebula nomination. David Brin, an American science fiction writer, said: “Liu Cixin stands at the top tier of speculative fiction authors.”

In recent years, interest in Chinese science fiction has been on the rise. The translation of Chen Qiufan’s The Fish of Lijiang won the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award. In March 2013, Wu Yan and Veronica Hollinger launched a special issue on Chinese science ficiton in the American journal Science Fiction Studies.

“Similar to music, sci-fi literature can transcend systems, interests, culture, race and religion to spread globally. As a kind of cultural soft power, it is worthy of our attention,” said Han Song, a science fiction writer.

However, preliminary success cannot conceal problems in Chinese science fiction literature. Han said: “Chinese science fiction lacks both creativity and imagination, which is why well-known works like The Three-Body Problem are absent.”

To improve the quality of Chinese sci-fi works, some scholars suggested that an in-depth study on ancient fiction tales should be carried out to add some national spice to the genre, which will not only attract readers at home and abroad but also help spread fine Chinese culture.

Building soft power

“Sci-fi literature is a form of narrative literary work that depicts the reality shaped by science and expectations of the future. It originates from the moment when human beings begin to accelerate their understanding of nature while attempting to change and influence it,” Wu said, adding that it has become a growth point in natural and technical science.

“However, the revolutionary transformation takes place in the humanities, which formerly looked down upon the genre. Now, science fiction studies are booming in colleges of literature,” Wu continued.

He stressed that sci-fi literature should not only be considered in the context of narrative literature but also it should be taken as a sort of cultural phenomenon that needs to be reevaluated and given a chance to be treated as essential culture.

Wang Chunfa, secretary of the Secretariat Office at the China Association for Science and Technology, suggested that academics should step up theoretical and policy research on science fiction publishing while higher education should set up relevant elective courses.

Science fiction is conducive to elevating national soft power, enhancing the international competitiveness of cultural industry, promoting the integration of technology and economy, as well as encouraging the co-development of philanthropy and business, Wang noted.


Li Yongjie is a reporter at the Chinese Social Sciences Today.