Chinese Science Fiction of the Republican Era, 1912-1949: A Treasure Trove Cries for Excavation

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Symposium: Chinese SF and the World

Chinese Science Fiction of the Republican Era, 1912-1949: A Treasure Trove Cries for Excavation

Dongmei Ren
Translated by Micky Liu

I started my science fiction research as an undergraduate in the Chinese Department of East China Normal University, with my thesis providing an in-depth analysis of the first Chinese science fiction story, Lunar Colony Novels(《月球殖民地小说》Yue Qiu Zhi Min Di Xiao Shuo), with a view towards time and space alongside the history of science and technology (A Science Fiction Utopia: Realistic and Imaginary, Lunar Colony Novels and the Transformation of Modern View of Time and Space(《科幻乌托邦:现实的与想象的——<月球殖民地小说>和现代时空观的转变》), Undergraduate Thesis 2007). At that time, David Der-wei Wang had just published his groundbreaking Fin-de-Siècle Splendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction, 1848-1911 (2005), which attracted a great deal of academic interest in late Qing Dynasty science fiction on the  Chinese mainland. Being a sophisticated sci-fi enthusiast and undergraduate in the Chinese Department, I naturally joined the trend and continued to rigorously study late Qing science fiction. My post-graduate project explored the entire literary genre from the conceptualization and generation of science fiction in the late Qing Dynasty (1902-1912: The Naming of Science Fiction and the Meaning Behind It, 2010). In my doctoral phase, I extended my academic horizon to the study of science fiction from the Republic of China (ROC , 1912-1949), under the guidance of my supervisor and with a view toward my academic development.

Due to the lack of historical data, even senior sci-fi researchers devoted to the history of literary production in China would assert that science fiction had hit rock bottom in the ROC period, as only a few books from this period were recognized as belonging to the genre: China after the Next Decade (《十年后的中国》Shi Nian Hou de Zhong Guo)by Jingfeng (1923), Cat Country: a Satirical Novel of China in the 1930’s (《猫城纪》Mao Cheng Ji)by Lao She (1932), Iron Fish Gills (《铁鱼的鳃》Tie Yu de Sai) by Xu Dishan (1936) and four other novels created and translated by Gu Junzheng during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). However, I assert that despite scant evidence to the contrary,  there should be more under the surface. After digging into the historical data for a long time, I discovered many previously lost examples of science fiction published during this time period.  These included texts in the magazine, The School of Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies (Saturday School, or yuanyang hudie pai) and other popular science journals during the ROC period, followed by a few novellas and novels. My doctoral dissertation, The Dream of China–The Changes of the “China Image” in Social Fantasy Novels from the Late Qing Dynasty to ROC (2013)  concluded with these findings. After graduation, I continued my research, publishing The Comparison between the “Future Chinas” of the Late Qing and ROC (《晚清与民国科幻小说中“未来中国”形象之比较》,2015), A Primary Exploration of “Science Fiction”(Ke Xue Xiao Shuo) in the Period of the ROC(《民国“科学小说”初探》,2019), participating in the academic project managed by Prof. Wu Yan (Science Fiction Major Prof. in Beijing Normal University)and covering the actual writing of the chapter A History of ROC Science Fiction(“民国科幻小说史”).

Based on my archival discoveries, there were roughly 100 pieces of science fiction published during the ROC period, including prominent long literary pieces such as Lunar Travel Notes (《月球旅行记》, 1941) and After a Millennium (《千年后》, 1943). However, it is a huge pity that historical records and preservation  remain extremely insufficient for systematic data collection, such that the current contents of my work need further verification, selection, and reorganization. On the other hand, a lack of research successors has led to a lack of specialized academic works on this topic, with the rare exception of a single research paper on ROC science fiction films by scholar Jia Liyuan, as well as some papers mainly focusing on ROC period journals and the School of Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies.

This state of the field does not correspond with the actual productivity of ROC science fiction authors at all. Perhaps the biggest reason for this gap in the research is the lack of abundant data-digging and the fact that most researchers are still ignorant of the existence of ROC science fiction at all. In the future, I hope more researchers will devote themselves to this field, improving their data-digging and conducting an intensive study of major works in order to fill the gaps in Chinese science fiction studies. Only then can we place Chinese science fiction into the field of literature as a whole, comprehend science fiction from the perspective of cultural change over time, and establish its literary value and status.

Ren Dongmei, Litt.D. of Beijing Normal University, is an associate research fellow of Taiwan Institute CASS, member of World Chinese Science Fiction Association, and judge of the 1st and 2nd Global Chinese Nebula Awards. Her research focus includes science fiction and modern and contemporary Chinese literature. She has published more than 20 papers in journals such as  Contemporary Literary Criticism, Comparative Literature in China, and Southern Cultural Forum, as well as the book, Fantasy Culture and Literary Images of Modern China.

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SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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