The Beginning of Chinese Science Fiction

As you may know, the primary spoken Chinese language is Mandarin and the characters used to write Chinese are a combination of pictograph, ideograph and homophone.

If you are curious and try to use Google Translate, typing in “science fiction”, it will give you




However, “Science” by itself will give you this:

科學 (traditional)
科学 (simplified)
and “Fiction” by itself this:

小說 (traditional)
小说 (simplified)

But simply combining the two individual words does not produce the same set of symbols for the compound word “science fiction”.

Well, there is a reason for it. According to some scholars, the term “science fiction” was neatly transferred into French and into countries where English terms were readily accepted. However, in China, science fiction is commonly known as “科幻小说,” which literally translates to “science-fantasy fiction”. You might be surprised (or not) that this term is actually rendered from Russian.

In the early 1900s, the genre was first introduced to the Chinese. During that initial transition period, it was dubbed by the Chinese translators and publishers as “科学小说”, which is a precise match to the English phrase “science fiction”. This term had been in general use until in the 1950s, when large amount of Russian-Soviet SF works were translated into Chinese language. The Russian term nauchanaia fantastika, which means “science fantasy” in English, or “科学幻想” in Chinese, was then adopted as the common tag for this type of literary writing in China. Now, if you append the Chinese word for “fiction” to “科幻”, a skeletonized version of “科学幻想”, you will have “科幻小说”, which is exactly what Google Translate will yield for “science fiction”.

As it was, science fiction was imported from the West and came into existence in China during the Late Qing and Early Republic period (roughly from 1900 to 1919). This is not an academic essay, so I will not bore you with trivial details, but share some curious anecdotes, instead.

At the turn of the century, Western science fiction began to reach Chinese audience through translation.

In 1903, Lu Xun, who is generally considered the “founding father” of modern Chinese literature, translated Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon while he was studying in Japan. But he did not translate it from the original French text. What happened was that he found the translations of another two novels by Verne published as serializations on a Chinese magazine called New Fiction, which was founded by Liang Qichao, one of the leading Chinese intellectuals at the time. He was deeply intrigued by this peculiar type of fictions. Then, one day, in a second-hand bookstore, Lu Xun encountered a Japanese book called “Travelling on the Moon”, translated by Inoue Tsutomu. Without knowing that it was written by the same author as the two novels in New Fiction, he decided to translate this Japanese version into Chinese because he felt it shared the same flavour with the other two. Unfortunately, not many people had read this Chinese version because it did not sell. Even years later, when Lu Xun became well known in China’s literature world, the reprinted version did not have the translator’s name on it for some unfathomable reason.

Comparing to the fate of From the Earth to the Moon, the other two novels by Verne mentioned above, A Captain at Fifteen, (this one was translated by Liang Qichao himself) and Two Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, had reached a wider readership. Meanwhile, a number of other translations of SF came out in succession. However, for various reasons, the “translation” might not mean translation as we know today. Regarding this topic, I would like to recommend an interesting article by Ken Liu, The “Heroic Translators” Who Reinvented Classic Science Fiction In China.

Nevertheless, the translated science fiction works served as nourishment for the development of its Chinese counterpart. Chinese writers began to take their own initiatives to write science fictions. As it was a common practice during that period, quite a number of those tales were serialized in magazines or newspapers. However, sometimes, for various reasons, the writers would stop updating for new chapters and left the stories unfinished.

One such example is known to be Tales of the Moon Colony, serialized in the magazine Illustrated Fictions. The main theme of this novel was hot air balloons, which became the primary way of transportation for the protagonist. There is one paragraph, describing a journey from Singapore to New York, read as below:

At nine o’clock the next day, they got on board the balloon together. The wind was roaring in their ears, the boundless sea and the towering mountains all in blurry motion. After four hours of travel, the steam engine stopped and they began to descend.

It was not clear what route they took, but assuming they went by way of the North Pole, the speed of the balloon would be 4000 km/hour!

After the story had been in serialization for one and a half years, the author suddenly stopped publishing new chapters, for reasons we could not possibly know today. By that point, the protagonist was still on the earth although the title of the story suggested he would have gone to the moon someday. Come to think of it, although the speed of the balloon was much faster than that of the aeroplanes today, it was still far below the speed needed to escape the gravity well of the Earth. Maybe that was why the protagonist could not go to the moon – He was simply trapped by gravity!

An illustration for Tales of the Moon Colony
An illustration in Tales of the Moon Colony

Another curious novel is The New Story of the Stone, written as a sequel to The Story of the Stone (more commonly known as Dream of the Red Chamber). Starting from 1905, the story had been serialized in a newspaper, The South Daily, and lasted for about half a year. In the novel, Baoyu, or the Stone, returned to the mundane world from his sojourn of sad romance. After wandering around for some time, he came to a utopian world where flying cars and robot workers were ordinary scenes. Whoever reading it in the newspaper could consider themselves lucky because although the serialization had been discontinued halfway through, the complete novel was published by Shanghai Reform Fiction Press later in 1908. At least they had a chance to see the end of the story.

A reprinted version of The New Story of the Stone
A reprinted version of The New Story of the Stone

So, I believe this will give you some idea what was happening when the Chinese science fiction just began to bud. It might not be systematic, sometimes even teetering on the edge of absurdity. But without that initial fumbling, we would not be able to create real and serious science fictions in later years. Now, more than one hundred years after the first translated work of Verne, a novel written by Chinese author Liu Cixin, translated into English by Ken Liu, has been nominated for Nebula Award, Hugo Award and Prometheus Award. It has been a long way from then to now, but if you are wondering how Chinese science fictions look like nowadays, this book, The Three-Body Problem, will probably answer the question.

[Some of the facts in this article are borrowed from Liang Qingsan’s special column for science fiction in the Late Qing Dynasty (written in Chinese).]



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