The Global Reach of Chinese Science Fiction in the Digital Era

I had the pleasure of being invited, along with three other wonderful guests, to be part of the Chinese Science Fiction in The Digital Age series of talks and forums held by the Hong Kong Metropolitan University. It was well received, with many enthusiastic questions from the students. And I have translated my short talk into English for Anglophone readers who are interested in the topic.

When I was at university, I grew to love genre literature, especially classic Anglophone science fiction. After graduating, I nurtured the idea of translating Chinese literature. At the time, the Anglophone publishing industry and market looked to China for its ancient civilization, classical literature, modern history and so forth. Even though, like the rest of the world, China had already entered the Internet Age, it had just joined the WTO, and to the West, it was still an alien and faraway civilization, that gave one the feeling of the glory of bygone eras. I decided to find a job in the London publishing trade, and while I worked, took up any translation and cultural work I could find. There were not that many opportunities.

In the last decade, as smart technology and social media became widespread, we have truly entered the Digital Age. As China’s economy and technological capabilities developed rapidly, it is now at the forefront of these fields. The Digital Era has raised the visibility of China’s current condition and its domestic media. On the one hand, it has “shortened the distance” between countries, and on the other, it illuminated just how wide a gulf there is between China’s path of development and those of the Western nations. And the world has grown more fascinated with its contemporary society.

In the last twelve years or so, I have made considerable progress with my cultural writing and public speaking. Having worked in the Anglophone publishing industry for a decade and a half, I have seen how, under the catalystic impact of the Digital Age, both the publishing ethos and readers’ tastes have turned towards diversity. People have slowly come to realise that the long-held worldviews and cultural viewpoints have been mainly Euro/U.S.-centric. And now, they are looking into the indigenous cultures of other nations, as well as paying attention to appropriate representational approaches.

These trends would provide good conditions for the overseas publication of contemporary Chinese literature. Although five or six years ago, most English readers would have known very little about Chinese science fiction, Now, there are already several anthologies and novels in English that I can recommend them. This includes Sinopticon, which I curated, translated and edited.

The Digital Age has doubtlessly facilitated the development and diversification of global platforms for Kehuan (Chinese for “science fiction”), whether publishing in translation, or in the original language. The nature of translated Kehuan publishers have become diversified. This has manifested in the variety of platforms for the digital publication in the original language. Apart from the web version of the major sci-fi periodicals, micro-publishing on social media are introducing new works to hanyu readers. International SF fans can read new SF from internet publishing platforms such as Qidian and Zongheng, all of which have well-developed apps in multiple languages, where enthusiastic fan translation are bypassing official publishing channels. Moreover, we have seen a diversification in the nature of Kehuan propagators. Apart from SF periodicals like Clarkesworld and Science Fiction World, publications that tended towards “literary” fiction, such as Paper Republic and Pathlight, have at last, begun to publish some Kehuan online. In the post-pandemic world, readers have adapted more to and are more reliant on digital media.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, during China’s early encounters with the modern age, pioneering intellectuals created the literary field. As part of the vanguard literature of the 21st century, I think the literary field of Chinese SF is just as important. The Digital Era has not only provided Chinese sci-fi with globally accessible platforms, but is having an immense impact the development of a global literary field. This can be seen on several fronts. When I was doing some research on Kehuan in 2015, as an independent researcher, it was not easy finding critical texts on the subject. Six years later, it had improved considerably. Apart from print academic publishers like Routledge publishing more Chinese SF research, both academic journals such as SFRA and mainstream SFF periodicals like Strange Horizons, are now all publishing some non-fiction articles on the subject online. The microprograms run by various organisations on WeChat now regularly publish reviews, critique and interviews from editors, researchers, scholars and writers.

Evidently, the Digital Age has immensely shortened the distance between Chinese sci-fi authors, translators, researchers, editors and readers. Recently, entities such as Chengdu Worldcon, Science Fiction World and RiverFlow have become active on Anglophone social media, directly communing with the international SF community. I feel very fortunate to be able to collaborate and work closely with writers on the other side of the world, and that Sinopticon was born in the Digital Era. It was released in 2021 at the height of the pandemic, but my publishers and I were still able to promote it in the digital sphere, hold salons and panels with the writers, and equally importantly, I am able to talk to readers directly about their thoughts and feelings on reading the book.

The world Kehuan community is slowly beginning to form. Soon the FAA will hold their 5th annual Chinese SF Gala, with an international creative attendance. The London Science Fiction Research Community holds regular forums, and the London Chinese Sci-Fi Society a monthly discussion group. More and more European and US digital media providers, be it official or indie, are looking into Chinese SF, such as conventions in Europe and the U.S., podcasts, societies and reading clubs. Of course, translated fiction discussion panels and diversity salons are always important, I feel there also needs to be integration of translated SFF into the mainstream discourse. In an event focusing on a topic on SF itself, such as dystopias or solar punk, there should be voices and perspectives featuring different cultures.

I do not know for how long Chinese science fiction will be able to maintain the current level of world interest it is enjoying, but no matter how it develops in the Digital Era, I believe it will be very interesting and something worth keeping an eye on.











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