Chinese Science Fiction in Contemporary Russia
In 1998, Russian literary scholar Evgenii Viktorovich Kharitonov wrote, “though the popularity of science fiction is growing exponentially in China, China’s own science fiction is still not a solid phenomenon. The time of a serious conversation on Chinese science fiction has not arrived yet” (Kharitonov). The rising global fame of Chinese science fiction today certainly has rendered Kharitonov’s statement outdated. Kharitonov, who surveyed the history of Chinese literature with fantastic elements from the Zhou dynasty to 1970s, must be glad to witness the recent development of Chinese science fiction. How do Russian readers, critics, and scholars today interpret Chinese science fiction? What are the available editions on the Russian market?
While I do not attempt to enumerate all Russian translations, reviews, and studies of Chinese science fiction, in what follows, I highlight three aspects of burgeoning Russian interest in contemporary Chinese science fiction. First, the existing English translation plays an intermediary role in the Russian reception of Chinese science fiction. To my knowledge, the majority of Russian publications of Chinese science fiction is translated from English. Second, Russian readers tend to focus on the social critique in Chinese science fiction in which they find an alternative to the Western counterpart. Third, while there is still a paucity of Russian scholarship on contemporary Chinese science fiction, the recent publication of the Russian translations of the works of major Chinese science fiction writers suggest that the situation will be improved in the foreseeable future.
In 2015, the Estonian journalist, writer, poet, and cartoonist Nikolai Karaev took over what Kharitonov left behind. Karaev published a short history of Chinese science fiction on the Moscow-based journal Mir fantastiki (The World of Fantastic Literature). Karaev’s article is entitled “Fantast v Kitae bol’she, chem Fantast. Istoriia nauchnoi fantastiki Podnebosnoi” (Fantastic Writer in China is more than a Fantastic Writer: A History of Science Fiction in the Celestial Empire). The title implies that Chinese writers offer an alternative vision of the role of science fiction in a society. Karaev laments that Russians barely know anything about Chinese science fiction, apart from Lao She’s Cat Country, the Russian translation of which was published in 1969 by Molodaia Gvardiia (Young Guards) in the series of Biblioteka sovremennoi fantastiki (Library of Contemporary Fantastic literature) (Karaev 7). In this well-written and comprehensive account, Karaev introduces Russian readers to celebrated Chinese science fiction writers, e.g., Zheng Wenguang, Ye Yonglie, Wang Jinkang, Liu Cixin, Han Song, Chen Qiufan, and other names rarely known by the Russian public. He seeks to place that contemporary Chinese science fiction in the Chinese literary tradition, e.g., the works of Pu Songling, Lu Xun, Lao She, with which Russian readers are more familiar.
This 2015 issue of Mir fantastiki also features Nikolai Karaev’s extensive interview with Liu Cixin. Though the content of this interview may resemble what Liu Cixin has expressed elsewhere, it still presents an image of Chinese science fiction in the eyes of Russophone readership. Karaev’s main interest lies in how Liu Cixin sees himself and his Chinese peers in the global genealogy of science fiction. The eleven questions that Karaev asks Liu Cixin are all about “How Chinese is Chinese sci-fi?” and “How sci-fi is Chinese sci-fi?” It seems that Karaev seeks for a statement on the Chineseness of Chinese science fiction in Liu Cixin’s answer. However. Liu Cixin stresses that contemporary Chinese science fiction is more influenced by the Western science fiction than Chinese national tradition. Karaev becomes a little disappointed, thus he follows up by asking “but what about your story ‘The Cloud of Poetry’ in which feature Tang-dynasty poet Li Bai and other mythological figures?” Liu Cixin simply answers that “The Cloud of Poetry” was an exception.
Karaev’s advocation of translating more Chinese science fiction soon became reality. It was in this issue of Mir fantastiki that Il’ia Sukhanov’s Russian translation of Liu Cixin’s “Shanyang shangdi”《赡养上帝》(“Taking Care of God”) was published (Liu Cixin). The editors of Mir fantastiki also introduced Russian readers to the Chinese journal Kehuan shijie 科幻世界 (The World of Science Fiction), which they called the Chinese Mir fantastiki. From this perspective, readers who are more familiar with contemporary Chinese science fiction can also see Mir fantastiki as the Russian Kehuan shijie.
The survey, interview, and translation published on Mir fantastiki in 2015 are only preludes to a new wave of Russian translations of Chinese science fiction. In recent years, the Russian publisher “Fanzon” has been actively promoting and publishing Chinese science fiction. Fanzon was established in 2016. The editor-in-chief of Fanzon Natal’ia Gorinova sees the mission of the publisher as “reestablish the status of science fiction as grand and serious literature (Bol’shaia literatura),” rather than as merely genre fiction (Fantlab). Fanzon’s ardent promotion of contemporary Chinese science fiction is motivated by its aspiration to revitalize the Russian interest in global science fiction. The description of Fanzon’s series Sci-fi Universe indicates, “this is a series that includes contemporary science fiction and space opera. In the framework of this series, we publish the cult texts (kul’tovye texty) in the West that previously have not yet appeared in Russian before, and those loud debuts which won the recognition of critics and readers. We recommend you to read Stanley Robinson, Liu Cixin, Nile Stevenson, and etc.” (Fanzon).
Since 2017, Fanzon has published eight volumes of Russian translations of Chinese science fiction in the series Sci-fi Universe. All of these volumes are available in the formats of hard copy, digital version, and audiobooks. In December 2017, Fanzon released the Russian translation of the first two instalments of Liu Cixin’s trilogy Diqiu wangshi 《地球往事》 (Remembrance of Earth’s Past): Olga Glushkova’s translation of Santi 《三体 》(The Three Body Problem) under the title Zadacha trekh tel and Dmitrii Nakamura’s translation of Heian senlin《黑暗森林》 (The Dark Forest) under the Russian title Temnyi les. Glushkova and Nakamura collaborated on the translation of the third volume Sishen yongsheng《死神永生》(Death’s End) which was released in February 2018 under the title Vechnaia zhizni smerti (The Eternal Life of Death). The popularity of these separate editions led to the publication of the single-volume edition of Liu Cixin’s trilogy under the title Vospominaniia o proshlom Zemli. Trilogiia (Rembrance of Earth’s Past: A Trilogy) in early 2019. This edition also includes two separate forewords by the Russian translators Glushkova and Nakamura, and the Russian translations of the two different afterwords by author Liu Cixin and English translator Ken Liu. The Russian translation of the anthology of Liu Cixin’s shorter works Qiuzhuang shendian《球状闪电》(Ball Lightning) under the Russian title Sharovaia molniia was also published in 2019.
The popularity of Liu Cixin’s works led to more Russian publications of other splendid contemporary Chinese science fiction. In November 2019, Fanzon published the Russian translation of Chen Qiufan’s Huangchao 《荒潮》(Waste Tide) under the title of Musornyi priboi. Following this trend, in 2020, Fanzon published the Russian translation of Baoshu’s Santi X: Guanxiang zhi zhou 《三体X：观想之宙》(The Redemption of Time) under the title Vozrozhdenie vremeni (The Rebirth of Time). In July 2020, the popular American anthology of Chinese science fiction Broken Stars edited and translated by Ken Liu will be published by Fanzon under the title Slomannye zvezdy (Broken Stars). These eight books introduce Russian readers to the science fiction of Chinese authors Liu Cixin, Chen Qiufan, Baoshu, Xia Jia, Tang Fei, Han Song, Cheng Jingbo, Hao Jingfang, Fei Dao, Zhang Ran, Wu Shuang, Ma Boyong, Gu Shi, Wang Kanyu, as well as a scholarly essay by Song Mingwei. The Russian translation Xia Jia’s short story “Baigui yexing jie” 《百鬼夜行街》(“A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight”) under the title “Ulitsa prizrakov” (“The Street of Specters,” translated by Il’ia Sukhanov) was included in the anthology Stranstvie trekh tsarei (The Journey of Three Kings) edited by Vladimir Arenev published in Kharkiv, Ukraine (Arenov). Not long after this publication, Ukrainian scholars L. S. Pikhtovnikova and A. I. Motrokhov chose Xia Jia’s story as a case study for the “composition and style” of contemporary Chinese prose (Pikhtovnikova and Motrokhov 24-28).
To my knowledge, the majority of the Russian editions of contemporary science fiction is translated from English. However, this does not indicate that Russian translators do not care about accuracy. Russian translators also consult with Russian Sinologists in the process of translation. Ol’ga Glushkova wrote in the translator’s foreword to the Russian edition of The Three Body Problem, “When I first finished reading the English translation of the novel The Three Body Problem by Chinese writer Liu Cixin in 2014, especially after he won the Hugo prize in 2015, I came up with the idea of translating it for the Russian readers. I do not know Chinese, so I translated it from English” (Glushkova). Using Ken Liu’s “remarkable” translation, Glushkova worked with Sinologist Al’bert Krisskoi, on the final draft of the Russian translation of The Three Body Problem. In the translator’s foreword to The Dark Forest, Dmitrii Nakamura also remarked that working with Sinologists, he and Glushkova even reconstructed some excerpts omitted in the English translation (Nakamura).
Unsurprisingly, Russian readers tended to use Western and Russian science fiction as a frame of reference in their interpretation of Chinese science fiction. Scholar E. Iu. Potapchuk compared Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem with Stalnislaw Lem’s “The Star Diaries.” (Potapchuk 72) Karaev found the parallel between Han Song’s Ditie 地铁 (Subway) and Russian writer Dmitrii Glukhovskii’s Metro 2033 a little far-fetched (Karaev 16). However, when the two writers met each other in 2013 in Beijing, they told journalists of Chinese magazine Xinzhoukan 新周刊 (New Weekly) that many aspects of Chinese Ditie and the Russian Metro 2033 were comparable, especially, their political allegory. (Zhang) After reading Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide in Russian translation, Russian writer Zhanna Poiarkova wrote, “Chinese science fiction has its own characteristics, the most important of which is that they are always social novels, not genre fiction as a simple person would understand it. Thus, it is very interesting to read how it addresses the economic problems of silicon island and the spread of digital narcotics… I don’t see the calls for rebellion which is quintessential in their western counterpart” (Fanzon). Reading Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem, Sergei Sirotin found “the social” element strikes him the most. Sirotin wrote, “Liu Cixin’s fantastic plot, similar to all the good social science fiction e.g., the works of the Strugatsky brothers, follows the concerns in reality. The portrayal of aliens is not an idle imagination of the writer, but an attempt to sharpen the terrifying realities that reign on Earth.” These accounts show that Russian readers seek to find an alternative possibility of science fiction in China.
Contemporary Chinese science fiction still remains an understudied field in Russian Sinology, compared with the consistent scholarly interest in Chinese fantastic literature since the early twentieth century. In the 1910s, when the young Russian Sinologist Vasilii Alekseev was conducting research in China, he faced criticism from his Chinese xiansheng (teacher). They told this future Russian academician that one should focus on the Confucian canons rather than the low-brow texts, e.g., Pu Songling’s Strange Stories. However, Alekseev believed that fantastic literature was “the literature of the people,” and later published four volumes of Russian translations of Pu Songling which had become popular books since the Soviet era. Russian Sinologists of later generations, e.g., Pavel Ustin and Boris Riftin carried on studying classical Chinese fantastic literature. I believe that the publication of the aforementioned translations will certainly foster more academic projects on contemporary Chinese science fiction in Russia.
Arenev, Vladimir ed. Stranstvie trekh tsarei. Kharkiv: Klub semeinogo dosuga, 2016.
Fantlab. https://fantlab.ru/publisher7276. Accessed 19 Jun 2020.
Fanzon. https://fanzon-portal.ru/portal/about/ Accessed 13 Jun 2020.
Fanzon. “Prochitat’ stoilo:” Heresy Hub o romane “Musornyi priboi” Chenia Tsiufania, 9 June 2020. https://fanzon-portal.ru/press-center/news/knigi/prochitat-stoilo-heresy-hub-o-romane-musornyy-priboy-chenya-tsyufanya/ Accessed 13 Jun 2020.
Glushkova, Olga. https://knizhnik.org/lju-czysin/zadacha-treh-tel/1 Accessed 13 Jun 2020.
Karaev, Nikolai. “Fantast v Kitae bol’she, chem Fantast. Istoriia nauchnoi fantastiki Podnebosnoi,” Mir fantastiki, no.3, 2015, pp.6-19.
Kharitonov, Evgenii. “Za velikoi stenoi: (Fantastika v kit. lit),” Esli, no.1 (1998): pp. 247-260. http://www.fandom.ru/about_fan/haritonov_09.htm Accessed 19 Jun 2020.
Liu Tsysin’ “Zabota o Boge,” Mir fantastiki, no.3, 2015, pp.116-124.
Nakamura, Dmitrii. https://knizhnik.org/lju-czysin/temnyj-les/1/ Accessed 13 Jun 2020.
Potapchuk, E. Iu. “Dialog fantastov Kitaia i zapadnoi Evropy v sovremennoi literature,” Tendentsii razvitiia nauki i obrazovaniia vol. 50, 2019, pp. 70-73.
Pikhtovnikova, L. S. and A. I. Motrokhov, “Kompozitsiia i Stil’ fantasticheskogo rasskaza Sia Tsia 《百鬼夜行街》(«Ulitsa prizrakov»), Visnik Kharkivs’kogo natsional’nogo universitetu imeni V. N. Karazina 89, 2019, pp. 24-28.
Sirotin, Sergei. “Kitaiskaia fantastika. Liu Tsysin’ Zadacha trekh sil,” Ural, no.3, 2018. http://noblit.ru/node/3578. Accessed 19 Jun 2020.
Zhang, Dingge, https://www.cdstm.cn/theme/khsj/khzx/khcb/201710/t20171012_614661.html. Accessed 19 Jun 2020.
Jinyi Chu is assistant professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Yale University. He received his PhD from Stanford University. He is completing his first book project, Russian Modernism’s China. He is a member of the advisory board for the World Science Fiction Book Series, Peter Lang.