The evolution of Chinese science fiction, a genre that has recently seen a remarkable surge in popularity and critical acclaim, is a story of perseverance, creativity, and the seamless blend of literature and cinema. This journey, beginning with literary works and culminating in cinematic masterpieces, reflects China’s growing prowess in technology and storytelling.
In the realm of literature, science fiction in China initially struggled to find its footing. The genre, introduced to Chinese audiences primarily through brief mentions in early 20th-century works, didn’t gain significant traction until the 1980s. The magazine Ke Xue Wen Yi, launched in 1979, was one of the first platforms to publish science fiction stories aimed at young audiences. However, the magazine’s initial reception was lukewarm. Concepts like space exploration and time travel were deemed too distant from everyday life, and science fiction faced criticism and skepticism, with some even labeling it “pseudo-science.” This led to a period of stagnation in the genre’s development within China.
Despite these challenges, the editors of Ke Xue Wen Yi were inspired by the science fiction film “Dead Light on Coral Island.” Their passion led to the magazine’s rebranding in 1991 as Ke Huan Shi Jie (Science Fiction World), now targeting a broader audience including middle school and college students. This magazine played a pivotal role in nurturing a generation of science fiction enthusiasts and writers, including notable figures such as He Xi, Han Song, and Liu Cixin, the latter of whom would go on to win a Hugo Award for his novel “Three Body.”
The mid-90s marked a turning point, as Science Fiction World began publishing translations of works by internationally acclaimed authors like Robert Sawyer, Arthur Clarke, and Ursula K. Le Guin. This exposure to global science fiction literature not only broadened the horizons of Chinese readers but also inspired them to create their own stories. Among these inspired writers was Liu Cixin, whose novel “The Wandering Earth” would later be adapted into a highly successful film.
The transition from books to films in Chinese science fiction has been a natural progression, according to Yao Haijun, deputy editor-in-chief of Science Fiction World. Publications have laid a solid foundation, enabling film adaptations to flourish and, in turn, promote further literary works. This symbiotic relationship between books and films has been crucial in the development of the genre.
The film adaptation of “The Wandering Earth” is a landmark in Chinese cinema, showcasing the country’s growing capabilities in science fiction filmmaking. Initially perceived as a lavish and ambitious project, the film’s success paved the way for more adaptations and original works in the genre. Gong Ge’er, the film’s scriptwriter and producer, reflects on the journey from skepticism to triumph, as the film grossed a staggering 4 billion yuan ($547.6 million) and received accolades at top film festivals. The announcement of “The Wandering Earth III,” slated for release in 2027, further cements the genre’s growing prominence.
In 2022 alone, ten science fiction films were screened in China, with four making it to the top domestic box office earners. This reflects not only the genre’s popularity but also China’s advancements in technology and AI-driven film production. The financial success of these films and TV dramas, which garnered 8.35 billion yuan ($1.14 billion), marks a significant year-on-year growth.
The impact of science fiction extends beyond entertainment, influencing young minds and sparking interest in science and technology. Yang Lei, the chief director of the adapted TV drama “Three Body,” credits his early exposure to science fiction literature for his passion for the genre. Similarly, Guan Ziqing, a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, attributes his career choice to his fascination with science fiction films and novels.
Despite these successes, the journey of Chinese science fiction is ongoing. Acknowledging the genre’s “development” stage, experts like Wang Hongwei, a judge of Chinese science fiction movies, emphasize the significance of the newly founded Science Fiction Film Working Committee. This development marks a substantial step in advancing the genre.
The future of Chinese science fiction is bright, with an increasing focus from publishers, the emergence of young, creative writers, and the exploration of new mediums like games, cartoons, and animations. The interconnectedness of novels and films, along with other art forms, continues to inspire and engage China’s youth, shaping the future of this imaginative and thought-provoking genre.