Chinese science fiction from censorship to “soft power”

Chinese science fiction from censorship to “soft power”

By adapting the work “The Three-Body Problem”, Netflix wanted to make this science fiction epic, written by Chinese novelist Liu Cixin, a hit. Created by Game of Thrones directors David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, as well as writer-producer Alexander Wu, with a budget of $160 million, the series is supposed to pay homage to the works that inspired it.

Because the trilogy science fiction novel has gained more than 260 million readers in China and around the world. It's an even more surprising number considering that the relationship the Middle Kingdom has maintained with science fiction has long been complicated.

“At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, science fiction was the genre promoted by intellectuals at the time to create a modern nation, dependent on science, and trying to project itself into the future.” Gwenal Gavric, lecturer in Chinese language and literature at the University Jean Moulin Lyon 3, who specializes in fantasy literature in the Chinese-speaking world, recalls this topic. “It is therefore a literature with a century of history in China.”

Science, QED

58 minutes

From Mao to censorship

In 1949, with Mao Zedong coming to power, the influence of Soviet science fiction took precedence. utopian and optimistic, “The regime used science fiction, or at least stories that could be linked to science fiction, to imagine a glorious and wonderful future for China, according to Maoist doctrine.”

However, not all genres of science fiction are included in the chapter: rather “scientific novels” that glorify the idea of ​​progress are highlighted – such as the stories of Jules Verne in France. Stories involving aliens, for example, are banned; Science fiction should serve a specific purpose.

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In 1978, at the end of the Cultural Revolution and with Deng Xiaoping coming to power, the genre experienced a brief resurgence of interest… which proved short-lived. “There was indeed a moment, but a very brief one in the 1980s, when it was considered, like rock music for example, to come from the West and to be ‘spiritual pollution’.” explains Gwenel Gavric, who translated Liu Cixin's works into French. “This was the term used. It wasn't necessarily a mockery of SF, but it put an end to it, even if it was very short…” Science fiction, which was considered bourgeois and Western, was subsequently expelled from Chinese literature.

Revival of this genre

However, it has made a bit of a comeback since the beginning of the 1990s, with a few authors reworking the genre, including Liu Cixin, who later became the leader of Chinese science fiction. “This science fiction is not as optimistic as it was during the Maoist period.”Gwenel Gavric continues. Perhaps it explores a dark future or a future that addresses more social or international issues. There is a generation of young writers, in the 80s and 90s, who draw a lot of inspiration from other literary genres, more specifically Chinese. It can be martial arts literature, or fantastic stories borrowed from folklore… There is an enrichment of cultural references, historical or philosophical references that make little difference compared to science – Eurocentric or Americanocentric. imaginary…”

So from 1989, Liu Cixin wrote china 2185, However, he is with The three-body problem The matter takes on an international dimension. The first pages of his story, specifically, take place in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, of which the author implicitly delivers a scathing critique. “The Cultural Revolution, and its excesses, are not the most taboo topics in China,” notes Gwenel Gavric. “In fact, there are more taboo topics, such as the Tiananmen Square events of 1989 or the Great Famine forward… These are more sensitive topics than the Cultural Revolution, which has already made the subject of a fair number of literary stories,” not necessarily science fiction. Science fiction, until fairly recently, may have benefited from some relaxation of censorship.”

More generally, science fiction authors face another problem: future stories, or dystopias, are essentially stories that condemn the dangers posed by the emergence of new surveillance technologies. Series of anticipation black mirror, For example, he spoke often about his conception of a system for classifying individuals, which was later implemented in China. How can science fiction authors deal with this problem? “There are a number of stories by contemporary Chinese science fiction authors that actually ask very similar questions to those asked by European or American authors! Gwenel Gavric confirms. “They don't necessarily make contemporary China the center of their story, but we also find stories, as in Euro-American science fiction, of critique, interrogation, dystopia, and highly surveilled worlds or technologies put at the service of harmful people. There is a literature [chinoise] Which is moving in this direction. Perhaps something is a little different, which is that it is difficult to say that it is under the rule of the Communist Party. However, when we look at American dystopia, we don't necessarily have a direct reference to political news either.

Soft power tool

Since then, science fiction has gradually become an instrument of soft power. “I would say that China, before 2015, was not necessarily particularly pushing for gender development.” Gwenel Gavric thinks. “Perhaps it is actually the success of the Western trilogy that has given, paradoxically, in name elsewhere, some ideas to diplomats or leaders in China. This is quite consistent with the idea of ​​projecting a country into the future, of showing modernity and modernity. “Even futurism in a certain way.” , In China. Science fiction as a genre lends itself well to promoting this type of fantasy. So it's not necessarily directly on the literary works themselves, but there are more and more films, for example, that are in production with enormous resources.

Already in 2019, one of the first international Chinese blockbusters was an adaptation of a short story by Liu Cixin: Wandering Earth. In this story, the sun will explode sooner than expected and planet Earth will transform into a giant ship, leaving the solar system drifting through the massive Milky Way Galaxy, searching for another system to inhabit. “The original short story deals very little, in fact, with what countries can do in the face of this disaster. Published in 2000, it tells these events as seen by a witness, who is Chinese but could be of any other nationality.” The film is a paper on what it means to be Chinese, and who is at the helm. This is an element that does not appear at all in the original short story. But it shows the efforts made to give the picture accurately. A China that can lead for the greater good of humanity.

A secret way to highlight the “Chinese Dream”, a concept supported by the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, who wants to project a China into the future, while restoring its past glory.

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