Cyborg Ghosts, Space Dragon Boats, and the Deep Roots of Chinese Sci-Fi

Science fiction is about the future, or at least that’s how it’s usually perceived. In fact, the genre is one of the most versatile forms of speculative fiction, allowing the writer to draw from all manner of dimensions — past, present, and future — for their world building. A brief glance at recent stories from around the world confirms this, whether it’s Adrian Tchaikovsky’s exploration of non-human sapient worlds or Rebecca Roanhorse’s adaptation of Native American stories to a futuristic setting.

This is particularly true of the current golden age of Chinese sci-fi, or kehuan, one of the most distinctive features of which is the clever use of concepts, constructions, and imagery from traditional and classical Chinese culture.

The country’s last two centuries have been turbulent: In the early 20th century, Chinese literature barely had the space to absorb Western influences before it became caught in a cycle of occupation and war. The end of that turbulence brought with it not only a decadeslong interruption of progress, but also the destruction of thousands of pieces of traditional heritage.

Over the last few decades, however, the country has experienced a period of relative stability, one that has given Chinese writers and artists the space to think and create in an unprecedented way. During China’s first two sci-fi booms, in the 1950s and 1970s, respectively, writers tended to focus on technological utopias and issues such as international politics, scientific ethics, and extraterrestrial encounters. Currently, however, we can see a general movement in the arts, whether conscious or not, to reestablish a link with China’s cultural heritage.

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