Sinofuturism and Chinese Science Fiction: An Introduction to the Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义) Special Issue


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)


Sinofuturism and Chinese Science Fiction: An Introduction to the Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义) Special Issue

Virginia L. Conn
Rutgers University / USA


As a mode of global and temporal situatedness, Sinofuturism has largely emerged as a concept applied externally to China by Western observers. By compartmentalizing sociocultural development as a form uniquely tied to the nation-state while also seeking to maintain both distance and otherness, Sinofuturism differs from theorizations such as Afrofuturism (to which it is often compared) through its application to, not development from, the subjects it takes as object. As a result, the very label of “Sinofuturism” developed out of the same Orientalizing impulses that previously relegated China to a space of backwardness and barbarism (Niu, Huang, Roh 2015) and which now attribute to it a projected futurity. Yet this Western label is one that Chinese authors and artists have appropriated and weaponized for their own creative ends, without necessarily sharing unified goals.

Authors of science fiction in China have uniquely grappled with this impulse, especially insofar as digital technologies—such as the growing e-publishing industry and networked media platforms—allow for the proliferation of new voices historically barred from traditional publishing venues. (Xu 2015) Too, contemporary science fiction in China functions as a transnational form that centers a technoscientific process or material object as a means of introducing social change, rendering the aim of science fiction inherently future-oriented even when relying on the past or focused on the present. Because potential future ontologies are expected to be relevant to present extrapolations, they fundamentally rely, to some degree, not only on realistic depictions of possible technologies and circumstantial realism, but also the familiar perceptions of the extant material and digital worlds—a central tenet of Sinofuturism’s omnivorous inclusion of technology, labor, art, and the visions it makes possible. (Lek 2016)

The globalizing effect of the internet and the subsequent rise in wide-scale digital exchange, in particular, has created a space for production in which Chinese authors are writing for an increasingly global audience and shifting their goals correspondingly. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, authors and public reformers in China (such as Liang Qichao, who, in his 1902 unfinished novel The Future of New China, described a utopian 1962 in which China was the dominant global power) were envisioning Sinofutures in which China was preeminent on the world stage. The idea of China as a dominant force in the world yet-to-come continues through much Chinese science fiction today, from standout international sensations such as The Three-Body Problem to anonymously published digital short stories like “Olympic Dream.” For science fiction authors describing the Chinese future (or the future as Chinese), an awareness of the fact that American and Western media largely paints China as a place of repression and censorship is an integral part of the worlds they depict.

To the extent that this is true, publishing regulations in China mean that the internet and other digital forms of publications, such as video games and online message boards, have become increasingly important outlets for science fiction. The Three-Body Problem, for example, was serialized first in the online-only Science Fiction World before being published as a book, and Western publication outlets like Clarkesworld have partnered with China-based Storycom to publish more Chinese science fiction in translation online. Because of the expectation of a global audience that online publication ensures, science fiction is changing as readership expands, yet the balance of global power remains uneven. Noted science fiction authors such as Xia Jia still describe science fiction coming out of China as having the mission of educating Western readers (Xia 2016), while English translators are increasingly burdened with the necessity of explaining historiocultural specificities through lengthy footnotes. (Liu 2014) That is, just as the West applies the term “Sinofuturism” to an entire national development project, Chinese authors are put in the position of responding and catering to Western assumptions in order to be legible on a global scale.

Here is where the specificity of China as a technologicized imaginary, located outside of both space and time, results in a an Orientalizing impulse fundamentally different from the fetishization of a high-tech Japan seen prominently in cyberpunk and the gleamingly sexualized noir adoration of the 80s. Shaped by and reliant on Western projections of Asia as the techne through which to shape a future defined by and created for the West, Sinofuturism not only projects China as a temporal locus for the project of modernity (Niu 2008), but also posits Chinese individuals themselves as resources, not originary producers of cultural or technological capital. Reduced by the West to faceless algorithmic data points, Chinese laborers and producers are commodified in an ideologically reproductive system informed by the racial panic of outsourcing common in the early nineties with the rise of overseas data centers. (Atanasoki and Vora 2015) Chinese science fiction writers are well aware of this and increasingly find themselves in a position to either push back against it or grapple with those fears in order to appear legible to an international readership.

Some authors do this by writing directly to the negative visions of a Chinese future most commonly held by the West: Chen Qiufan’s The Waste Tide, for example, deals with the physical detritus left behind by the dreams of digital development and the environmental devastation created when those developments are made obsolete and discarded, while Ma Boyong’s “City of Silence” shows both digital message boards and spoken language as subject to the same censorship as physical media, giving lie to the aspirations of online communications as a state of expressive exceptionalism. Other Chinese content producers actively embody the digitizing impulse that seeks to turn human beings into images for consumption: Naomi Wu (Shenzhen’s “sexy cyborg”), for example, has created a 3D scan of her body and uploaded it for the purpose of 3D printing models. These models are marketed alongside 3D models of Major Motoko Kusanagi from the Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell—an explicit juxtaposition of two stylized bodies (one real, one fictional) that, in their respective worlds, represent the future through a conscientious abandonment of the biological for the constructed.

So what, then, does it mean for Chinese science fiction to attempt to depict a Sinofuturist vision in the increasingly globalized space made possible by digital technologies? And what does it mean to produce content within a framework that imagines a techno-utopic future founded on artistic labor while simultaneously reproducing racialized tropes of dehumanization? How is material production changed by an increasing reliance on the digital? In the following essays, various researchers and theorists attempt to grapple with digital imaginaries, production, labor, and futurity across a wide range of topics multiply bound in Sinofuturist space.

The idea for this special issue developed out of a workshop organized by Dino Ge Zhang as part of the WuDaoKou Futurists collective, a collective aimed at decentering Sinofuturism from its Western articulations. The workshop, “Alternative Sinofuturisms,” already presupposes Sinofuturism as a venue for alterity and retains a space for various approaches and understandings of who and what is being foregrounded. Centralized in Beijing but held online with invited speakers from four different continents, the workshop was organized around a series of provocations, most of which are included in this issue. Amy Ireland articulated a view of darkside empathy that positioned Sinofuturist visions as methods of inculcating weaponized empathy, while Gabriele de Seta argued that Sinofuturism functions as a framework for denying the possibility of coevalness to China on the part of the West. I discussed Sinofuturism as an aestheticized projection that fixed images of the country in a perpetual futur antérieur; Vincent Garton, not included here, argued for a reappropriation of the term by Chinese theorists and politicians in order to reconstruct a new world system inclusive of heterogenous futures. The organizer, Dino Ge Zhang (without whom neither the original symposium nor this special issue would be possible), expanded on his concept of Sino-no-futurism to describe a world post-pandemic, which in many ways now reads as a science fictional dream for an American and British audience trapped in the perpetual now of our own countries’ ongoing pandemic-based immiserations.

The papers contained in this special issue respond to these various provocations and the overall concept of Sinofuturism from various angles. While some are supportive, seeing in Sinofuturism an opportunity for alternative epistemologies, others criticize its foreclosure of heterogenous elements and re-centering of global development vis-à-vis the West. What’s more, while Sinofuturism is an explicitly temporal projection, it is not necessarily a science fictional one except insofar as any futurist projection is a work of imagination—as a result, some of the essays contained here do not consider science fiction at all, while still engaging with the concept of how to situate the future on a global scale. By questioning who gets to imagine the future alongside who and what contributes to bringing those visions about, these essays incisively demonstrate that the material is never separate from the conceptual and the real-world consequences of imagining such alternatives.


WORKS CITED

Atanasoski, Neda and Kalindi Vora. “Surrogate Humanity: Posthuman Networks and the Racialized Obsolescence of Labor.” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience, vol. 1, no. 1, 2015, https://doi.org/10.28968/cftt.v1i1.28809.

Lek, Lawrence. “Sinofuturism (1839–2046 AD).” Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, 2016, https://zkm.de/en/sinofuturism-1839-2046-ad.

Liu, Cixin. The Three-Body Problem. Translated by Ken Liu, Tor Books, 2014.

Niu, Greta Aiyu. “Techno-Orientalism, Nanotechnology, Posthumans, and Post-Posthumans in Neal Stephenson’s and Linda Nagata’s Science Fiction.” Melus: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, vol. 33, no. 4, 2008, pp. 73-96.

Roh, David S., Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu, eds. Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media. Rutgers University Press, 2015.

Xia Jia. “What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?” Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, edited by Ken Liu, Tor, 2016.

Xu Jing. “’Golden Age’ Dawns for Chinese Web-Writers.” China Daily, 6 September 2015, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/2015-06/09/content_20951494_4.htm.

A Discussion between Two French Translators of Chinese Science Fiction


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)


A Discussion between Two French Translators of Chinese Science Fiction

Loïc Aloisio
Aix-Marseille University / France

Gwennaël Gaffric
Jean Moulin Lyon 3 University / France


Loïc Aloisio: The English translation of The Three-Body Problem by Ken Liu, which has been awarded the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015, has given sudden visibility to Chinese SF. As we can see, a lot of Chinese SF authors have already been translated into English. In France, however, the situation is quite different, since it appears that only twelve authors have been translated, for a total of thirty-four translations (against more than two hundred in English). Moreover, among them are two authors (namely Lao She and Ye Yonglie) who are not part of what Song Mingwei called the “new wave” of Chinese SF (Song, 2015), and whose works have been translated a long time ago (in 1981 and 1986 respectively). If we take 2015 as a landmark year, the number of translations reduces to thirty (Aloisio, 2016). How do you explain that? As the translator of the Three-Body trilogy in French, do you have some understanding of the public response to Chinese SF?

Gwennaël Gaffric: This phenomenon may seem paradoxical in several respects. Liu’s Three-Body trilogy has been one of science fiction’s most acclaimed series in France in recent years, as it has reaped both commercial and critical success. It has reached readers well beyond the usual SF (or Chinese literature) readership and has generated many reviews and columns of literary criticism in most of the major general and specialized French media.

However, the success of a work does not always reflect on its surrounding ecosystem. I remember Liu Cixin often repeating that the success of his trilogy in China never really led to an explosion in sales of his other works. Likewise, the success of the trilogy has not resulted in an exponential number of translations of Chinese SF in France.

We can put forward several explanations: some are specific to the French publishing world, and others specific to the French sociopolitical context vis-à-vis China.

First, the situation in France can’t be compared to the United States, where the impact of the publication of the translation of The Three-Body Problem was more important: in the US, SF literature in English translation represents a minimal portion of the total production, and it was a great event that a translated novel won the Hugo Award. There is also a great appetite for what we imagined of China—as such, in the reception of the trilogy in the US, you can note that many media try to see through Liu Cixin’s works a “Chinese” way of seeing the future. As I have already discussed elsewhere (Gaffric, 2019a), there is an Orientalist confusion between the content of the work and the origin of its author—which one imagines holding a point of view essentially Chinese, that would be representative of his “culture.”

SF literature in translation is much more present in the French editorial landscape, with an overwhelming majority of translations from English (but also Russian, Italian, German works…). So, there may be less circumstantial attraction. For instance, I was able to see that many US readers had never heard of the Cultural Revolution while French readers are generally more familiar with this historic episode, with which Liu Cixin begins his novel. In general, Chinese literature is also more available on the shelves of French bookstores, and the Cultural Revolution is a fairly frequent theme (among authors of Liu’s generation, such as Yu Hua, Mo Yan, Yan Lianke, Chi Li or Su Tong, are authors massively translated into French). So if you want to read about the Cultural Revolution, the choice is larger.

I also know that there is a certain number of partnerships between magazines and/or publishing houses that have been created in Italy and in the United States (like with Clarkesworld Magazine), maybe in other countries, to promote contemporary Chinese SF works in translation. In France, this process is slower, and sometimes comes up against reluctance from publishers and magazines who wish to maintain control and independence over the choice of the texts they want to publish.

We could also see that in the case of the translation of Liu’s trilogy, many translations were made from English, and/or according to the editorial standards of the English version (with the same cover, the same paratextual elements …). In France, editors prefer to work with translators translating directly from Chinese, but to my knowledge, there are not so many SF readers among Chinese-French translators—you and I are exceptions—while there are more Chinese-English translators familiar with this genre—and also Chinese American translators who are themselves SF writers!

It is also important to remember that the publishing world (but it is true everywhere in the world) is in crisis, and investing in translations of long series or collections of short stories can be risky—as short stories don’t sell well in France.

Finally, there are also expectations, even fantasies of publishers, who demand “Chinese” dystopias, but if there is indeed a few Chinese dystopian novels, there are not so many (both because all the Chinese SF writers don’t have a permanent obsession with China and because dystopias are not the easiest subgenre for bypassing censorship in China). Actually, it is not easy to convince French publishers to translate and publish works that don’t fit with their imagination of what “China” is.

LA: You’ve just mentioned the censorship issue in China. It is, indeed, a significant issue which involves not only the authors, but also the academic researchers and the translators. I remember what Han Song told me during an interview. According to him, Chinese SF authors were relatively free before 2015, since the authorities didn’t read them and disregarded the genre. But since Liu Cixin has been awarded the Hugo Award, officials began to have their eyes on the genre, restricting their freedom, whether it be because of the censorship per se, or because of the self-censorship on the part of the authors themselves in fear of reprisals. Some authors even write knowing full well that their works won’t be published in the near future (or ever). Here again, Han Song has on his computer a lot of unpublished stories. Thus, translation can be a way to publish these stories, or even versions of published stories that are closer to what the author originally had in mind. We can already see such examples with “The City of Silence,” of which the English version is quite different from the Chinese one, but is closer to Ma Boyong’s vision. Personally, I had the chance to read (and to translate) for my PhD thesis some unpublished works that Han Song kindly sent me by email, such as the short story “My Fatherland Does Not Dream.” But, once again, it can be a problem for academic researchers to analyze “politically sensitive” texts, as I know from my own experience. My PhD thesis focuses on the study of Han Song’s works, and therefore tackles some political issues, since Han Song pays strict attention to the current emerging issues of Chinese society, and even to China’s history. In short, I shed light, through the analysis of his works, on the fact that Han Song uses SF literature as a way to give a testimony of both the past and the present of China, reacting to the Chinese government’s political use of historical memory and to its strict control on the official historiography. Thus, I show how Han Song includes, in his fictions, references to historical events that are considered to be politically sensitive (such as the Great Leap Forward, the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen massacre and so on), questioning China’s national narrative as well as the legitimacy of the CCP at the head of the government. So, I asked myself: What is my responsibility, as an academic that “exposes” the political (or even dissenting) message that is hidden in the texts, and as a translator that makes sensitive or “unpublishable” works visible? How about you, aren’t you worried that your research or your translation may get the authors in trouble?

GG: This is a crucial question, and one that is rarely explored in literary studies. There is already a significant scientific literature about research ethics in social sciences, such as in anthropology or sociology, that tells you how not to “jeopardize” sources and informants, by anonymizing them, for example. But how do you anonymize the author of a literary work? I am currently planning to write a book on Liu Cixin, and this issue will no doubt haunt me throughout the writing process.

As you mentioned, Chinese SF has not always been the subject of very meticulous censorship. Things have unfortunately tended to change since 2015 (I think we will come back to this), but writers like Chen Qiufan, for instance, don’t hesitate to deal with social and political issues, and still have a good visibility. Apart from Han Song, I am also thinking of Zhang Ran and is short story “Ether” (available in English translation), that could be linked to Ma Boyong’s “The City of Silence” and has a strong political content. It has been published in 2012 in China (but I don’t know if it would still be published today…).

We must then be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that every story is pro or against the Chinese political regime. Of course, censorship is present in China and certainly, the authors sometimes censor themselves (in the sense that censorship has already become an environmental factor), but it would be too restrictive to reduce Chinese science fiction literature to a simple game of cat and mouse with censorship. Perhaps more than any other genre, SF is meant to speak to the world, and sometimes even beyond. To take a very recent example of a short story that has been translated in French and English, we can read Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing” as a criticism of Chinese society, or as a denunciation of the way in which, more generally, urban architecture catalyzes social class differences. Moreover, the greatest works are always the most ambiguous ones: as scholars and translators, it is up to us to preserve this ambivalence, whether it is found in the language or in the ideas of the original text.

LA: You’re right. Chinese SF is far from being a monolithic bloc, but is rather a mosaic of various subgenres and styles, from Xia Jia’s “porridge-SF” to Chen Qiufan’s cyberpunk and Liu Cixin’s hard SF. Reducing it to a dissident or political committed genre is, indeed, a very simplistic view. Recently, a series of articles have been published alleging that SF is a tool for the Chinese soft power strategy. This is perhaps also a biased view of what Chinese SF really is, even though I can see why some people are wondering that, since every event related to SF that took place in China in the recent years was endorsed and promoted by the government. Nonetheless, every work that tackles current social issues shouldn’t be considered strictly dissenting, and every work that depicts an idealized Chinese society shouldn’t be regarded as a tool for soft power. It is quite interesting, though, to see that people can have various interpretations of the same literary genre, which implies that these works, as you said, are more sophisticated than they seem. Then, in a context where literature is given a role that goes beyond its literary borders, how is the translator supposed to take a position on the translation issue?

GG: As you said in using Han Song’s words, the year 2015 marked a turning point: with the attribution of the Hugo Award to Liu Cixin and the official injunction made to Chinese SF writers to praise the “Chinese dream,” both for China and for the outside.

This is both an opportunity for the authors to be more published and more listened to, but also a tragedy (just remember that Liu Cixin has only written one short story since 2015!), because the more you are observed, the higher is the pressure to write. And this is true in any political context, not only in China.

As a translator, I think you need to be aware that you are a cog in these mechanisms (Gaffric, 2019b), but also to remember that you are not selling your soul either. Just like Chinese SF writers are not going to write propaganda just because they were asked to write some…

LA: Speaking of complexity, there is a frequently asked question regarding translation: What are the challenges of translating SF, especially “Chinese” SF? Personally, I really enjoy translating neologisms and coined words, even though it’s sometimes a real brainteaser, since the Chinese ideographic language and Western alphabetical languages are very different from one another (Aloisio, 2019). What about you? I guess that the translation of the Three-Body trilogy brings its own set of challenges.

GG: There are several challenges that arise when translating Sinophone SF. Some are specific to the translation of Chinese language (tense, gender, linguistic structure, cultural references issues…) and some to the translation of SF (neologisms, scientific coherence…). Both are exciting and I find that the Chinese language, because of its plasticity, lends itself well to the creation of neologisms, and to the deconstruction of language from an imaginary perspective.

As for the scientific aspects, I was lucky during the translation of Liu’s trilogy and his other novels and short stories, to call upon astrophysicist and informatician friends, who helped me a lot. Likewise, I believe that it is important when translating SF to be an SF reader (as it is unthinkable to translate poetry if you are not a reader of poetry), I drew a lot of inspirations in the French SF mega-text (SF written in French, or SF translated into French) for the creation of neologisms, for atmospheres… In each of my translations (be they SF or not), I always have what I call “companion books,” that help me immerse myself in an imagination world and build my language. For Liu Cixin, I have of course read a lot of Jules Verne and Arthur C. Clarke, but also Russian authors, like Tolstoy.

But translating Liu’s trilogy was not that difficult, beyond the scientific aspect, because the language he used is quite functional (despite very lyrical passages).

This has been more complicated for other authors, particularly Taiwanese and Hong Kongese, such as Dung Kai-cheung, Kao Yi-feng or Lo Yi-chin, who write SF stories, but with a more tortured and sophisticated language.

LA: Speaking of which, as a specialist in Taiwanese literature, and as a translator of both Taiwanese and Hong Kong SF, what differences do you see between them and PRC SF?

GG: Just like Chinese SF, it’s not easy to define what Taiwanese or Hong Kong SF would be, but there are some trends and themes that are indeed specific.

First, one must know that the spheres of influence are not necessarily the same: authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick or Samuel R. Delany have had more impact in Taiwan than they have had in China around the same time. Taiwanese and Hong Kong SF in the 1990s was for example very marked by queer and post-human themes (with writers like Chi Ta-wei, Lucifer Hung or Dung Kai-cheung). Even today, the question of gender and sexuality is much more prominent in Taiwanese and Hong Kongese SF than in China. In recent years, the anxiety resulting from the uncertain future of the two entities has also nourished Taiwanese and Hong Kong SF, with dystopias which also showcase the relationship of the two regions with the Chinese mainland.

Strictly speaking there are no big SF fandoms in Taiwan or Hong Kong (with the exception of Ni Kuang’s fans in Hong Kong, perhaps), even if there are also SF authors who are quite active, like Yeh Yen-tu in Taiwan, or Albert Tam, in Hong Kong.

Compared to China, where SF writers are quite naturally associated with this genre, several Taiwanese and Hong Kong writers more associated with “mainstream” literature are interested in SF, especially in the last decade: Lo Yi -chin, Kao Yi-feng, Egoyan Zheng, Huang Chong-kai or Wu Ming-yi in Taiwan; Dung Kai-cheung, Dorothy Tse, Hon Lai-chu in Hong Kong… who write SF not only for thematic and narrative reasons, but also as a method of literary experimentation. The result is a rather singular relationship to language, both specific to the linguistic variations that exist in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but also to the language proper to each writer, whose territories of literary exploration don’t necessarily derive from SF.

LA: Thank you for these clarifications. To conclude, can you recommend some authors or trends to follow in the Sinophone SF literature?

GG: I think some writers from Hong Kong and Taiwan deserve to be better known outside their borders, like Kao Yi-feng, Dung Kai-cheung or Egoyan Zheng.

As for China, there are more and more translations into English, but too few in French. I think the “short story form,” which is not very popular in the editorial world, is very well mastered by young Chinese SF authors like Chen Qiufan and Xia Jia, whom I particularly like.

Finally, there is one aspect that we have not discussed but which is essential to understand is the production of cyber SF in China. This represents several tens of thousands of works and several hundred million readers.

Literary production on the Web is generally too despised by classic editorial and translation circuits, but there are some very interesting works (even if it is true that they are drowned in a massive industrial-like overproduction).


WORKS CITED

Aloisio, Loïc. “Inventaire des Traductions des Œuvres de Science-Fiction Chinoises.” [Inventory of Translated Chinese Science Fiction Works], SinoSF, 2016, https://sinosf.hypotheses.org/146. Accessed 25 June 2020.

Aloisio, Loïc. “Translating Chinese Science Fiction: The Importance of Neologisms, Coined Words and Paradigms,” Journal of Translation Studies vol. 3, no.1, 2019, pp. 97-115.

Gaffric, Gwennaël. “Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Trilogy and the Status of Science Fiction in Contemporary China,” tr. W. Peyton, Science Fiction Studies, vol. 46, no.1, 2019, pp. 21-38.

Gaffric, Gwennaël. “Chinese Dreams: (Self-)Orientalism and Post-Orientalism in the Reception and Translation of Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Trilogy,” Journal of Translation Studies, vol. 3, no.1, 2019, pp. 117-137.

Song, Mingwei. “After 1989: The New Wave of Chinese Science Fiction,” China Perspectives 2015, vol. 1, 2015, pp. 7-13.

Sinofuturism as Inverse Orientalism: China’s Future and the Denial of Coevalness


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)


Sinofuturism as Inverse Orientalism: China’s Future and the Denial of Coevalness

Gabriele de Seta
University of Bergen / Norway


“China is the future”—this lapidary bit of knowledge, shared with confidence by some experts, pervading news media commentary, and current in everyday geopolitical chatter, shaped my choice of which Asian language to study during my first university degree. When I moved abroad to pursue a Chinese Studies master’s degree in the late 2000s, students were expected to informally decide if they wanted to focus on ancient China and traditional subjects, or on contemporary China and matters close to the present. Intuitively, this distinction made sense, and I chose the latter out of classicist fatigue. Studying contemporary China allowed me to focus on a vague timeframe beginning from the ‘reform and opening-up’ period of the late 1970s, passing through the country’s WTO accession in 2001, and largely signifying an imperfect synchronization with the pace of Western liberal modernity. It was exciting, and liberating.

During my doctoral years, I kept framing my research of Chinese digital media through the temporal framework of contemporariness, willfully oblivious to the problematic implications of this descriptor. While the term ‘contemporary’ is an established category in historical studies, often pinned to the end of the Second World War, it is hardly used in other disciplines to refer to European or North American countries. National contexts like the U.K. or Italy are commonly assumed to be contemporary unless otherwise specified, while scholarship on Asian countries often emphasizes the contemporariness of its subjects. What might seem terminological nitpicking about an unexamined disciplinary habit is, I now realize, a long-standing problem of temporal framing in the production of knowledge about China and East Asia in general.

The divide between ancient and contemporary China implied a hidden third, a temporality which remained outside of disciplinary discourses: the future. The relationship between China and the future, often tinted by geopolitical speculation and economic forecasting, seeped into my imagination of the country through news about its national economic growth, participation in international agreements, and accelerating technological advancements. China was the emerging market to tap into, Mandarin became the internet’s second most used language and, more generally, the future appeared set to be Chinese—whatever that meant. This pervasive discourse about China’s future-oriented temporality (or about the global future’s unavoidable Chinese imprint) was encapsulated by an obscure term formulated by authors working at the fringes of philosophy and speculative fiction in the early 2000s: sinofuturism.

The earliest documented use of the term is to be found in ‘Fei ch’ien rinse out: Sino-futurist under-currency’, an essay written in 2003 by musician and cultural theorist Steve Goodman. Drawing on the tactics of Afrofuturism, Goodman combines references to Chinese philosophical traditions, organized crime syndicates, and underground trading networks with the rise of cybernetics and computing technology, outlining “a darkside cartography of the turbulent rise of East Asia”. This sinofuturist imaginary emphasizes the deleuzoguattarian “co-stratification” of East and West (Goodman), which is epitomized by the convergence of communication technologies and global capital. Goodman orbited around the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), a Warwick-based collective experimenting at the nexus of underground cultures and philosophical speculation around the turn of the millennium, and inklings of sinofuturism can be found in writings by central members of this group. Most notably, Nick Land’s 1994 essay ‘Meltdown’ contains the ur-sinofuturist aphorism “Neo-China arrives from the future” (Land), and Sadie Plant’s book Zeros + Ones is steeped in Asia-futurist intuitions:

Five hundred years of modernity fades when the weaving of bamboo mats converges with the manufacture of computer games in the streets of Bangkok, Taipei, and Shanghai. The silicon links were already there.

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Sinofuturism is an enticing proposition. Firstly, it portends to overcome the arbitrary distinction between China’s ancient past and its contemporary modernization, promising to open up knowledge production about the People’s Republic of China towards its uncharted future. Secondly, sinofuturism seems sufficiently justified by historical trends and ongoing geopolitical developments: China’s consolidation as a superpower on the world stage, its massive process of urbanization creating hundreds of cities in a few decades, as well as its successes in the realm of science and technology all point to the undeniable futurity of the PRC. At the same time—a chiefly Euro-American, Anglo-centric time, to be sure—sinofuturism relies on discursive tropes and explanatory models that should appear suspicious to observers familiar with the representational genealogies of expertise about East Asia and “the Orient” at large. Under its glossy veneer of science-fictional novelty and cyber-exoticism, sinofuturism partakes in the problematic heritage of an enduring techno-orientalist discourse.

The concept of techno-orientalism was originally proposed to account for the emergence of a Western discourse about Japan’s technological development during the late 1980s and early 1990s, typified by the assertion that “Japan has become synonymous with the technologies of the future” (Morley and Robins 168). Techno-orientalist themes resonate strikingly with stereotyped depictions of many East Asian countries: the Japanese’s “robot-like dedication” to both work and world domination, their inscrutable culture of self-censorship, as well as their remorseless practices of copycatting all present a threat to the Western grip on modernity (150-158). Morley and Robins prophetically recognize that after Japan, other East Asian locales—first the “Four Asian Tigers” of Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, then China—will likely become the subject of techno-orientalist representations (173), and recent history has proven their intuition to be correct. As Wendy Hui Kyong Chun notes, a generalized “high tech orientalism” has come to pervade most depictions of East Asia in popular culture, offering the modern Western subject “a way to steer through the future, or more properly represent the future as something that can be negotiated” (178).

When compared with Edward Said’s foundational critique of orientalism, it is clear that techno-orientalism propagates similar imaginaries by foregrounding technology over tradition and substituting the past with the future. Said’s central contention is that Western accounts of the Orient consistently denied it the possibility and legitimacy of representing itself. Orientalists worked in parallel with colonial enterprises by envisioning themselves on a mission to recover the Orient’s lost past in order to improve its present—and extractive or subjugated—condition (Said 78). Techno-orientalist imaginaries similarly encroach upon the articulation of situated temporalities and impose their own correlations between technology and the future; and yet, in contrast to its colonial antecedent, high-tech orientalism responds to a fundamental Western anxiety about a perceived loss of civilizational primacy on the global stage (Ang). The commonalities between sinofuturism and techno-orientalism begin to shine through metropolitan skylines and neon-tinged haze, betraying a common mechanism underlying their operations.

In his discipline-rattling book Time and the Other, Johannes Fabian ruthlessly dismantles anthropology’s “schizogenic use of time” (Bunzl xi) by demonstrating how the production of ethnographic knowledge is predicated upon a temporal distancing of its Other. Anthropologists in the field regularly inhabit and embody different temporalities than their informants (Fabian 21) and, even more crucially, their writing relies on a distancing device that Fabian terms “denial of coevalness”, which is “a persistent and systematic tendency to place the referent(s) of anthropology in a Time other than the present of the producer of anthropological discourse” (31, italics in original). The denial of coevalness allows anthropology to approach its Other as if it inhabited a temporally bounded culture functioning as “a kind of time-machine” (39) for comparative and evolutionary inquiry. All kinds of orientalism presuppose this denial of coevalness, and supporting a re-entrenchment of the Western present—irrespective of the orientation of the temporal representation employed—is the primary purpose of this mechanism.

This genealogy of temporal othering evidences how both sinofuturism and techno-orientalism are not merely culpable of propagating exoticizing fantasies about the future in China or other Asian contexts, but also responsible for perpetuating a more generalized denial of coevalness. In contrast with established orientalist tropes and with more recent liberal-democratic varieties of “sinological orientalism” (Vukovich), China is no longer deemed to be trapped in its atemporal pastness or condemned to eventually synchronize with modernity: instead, it already inhabits the future, arrives from it, or beckons a Chinese mode of futurity with global implications. In all these variants, sinofuturist imaginations deny China the possibility of challenging and negotiating representation in the coeval present staked out by Western knowledge production. The future is for sinofuturists what the past was for orientalists: a foil for steering representation by denying coevalness.

The legitimacy of sinofuturism is premised on a parallelism with other emerging articulations of futurity: the comparative approach proposed by Armen Avanessian and Mahan Moalemi, for example, juxtaposes it with Afrofuturism, gulf futurism and other ‘ethnofuturisms’, highlighting the novel emergence of future-oriented imaginaries from non-Western contexts. While this approach cautions that futuristic articulations “outside of the west and across the Global South and other former peripheries can also evolve into neo-colonial tendencies” (Avanessian et al. 9), it also glosses over a more fundamental problem of serializing ethnic or national futurisms: their reference to the future might be the only contact point between otherwise radically different aesthetic and ethical programs—something that the history of Italian futurism glaringly evidences. Even Lawrence Lek’s artwork Sinofuturism (1839-2046 AD), which has become a defining reference for this term, repeatedly reaches for a common tactical repertoire among “minority movements which share an optimism about speed, velocity, and the future as a means to subvert the institutions of the present” (Lek).

As proven by Afrofuturism, movements that upend hegemonic and colonial temporal frameworks are fundamental to reclaiming representational agency against the denial of coevalness. But in order to do so, they have to organically emerge from the periphery of Western time, rather than be conjured as part of techno-orientalist fantasies. Instead, while the post-digital exotic pastiches of sinofuturism have circulated enough to consolidate into a recognizable aesthetic appropriated and subverted by local electronic musicians and new media artists, it is their less self-aware and more sensational variety that continues to find currency in popular representations of China. The introductory chapter of William A. Callahan’s China Dreams: 20 Visions of the future, aptly titled “China is the future,” offers a striking example of this banal brand of sinofuturism:

It’s an exciting time to be Chinese. While in the West the first decade of the 21st century was defined by pessimism due to 9/11, the Iraq War, and the Great Recession, Chinese people are very optimistic that the 21st century will be the “Chinese century.” The fruits of China’s three decades of rapid economic growth are there for all to see: by 2010, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) had the fastest computer in the world and the smartest students in the world, and it was enthusiastically entering the space age—just as the United States was retiring its fleet of Space Shuttles.

Callahan 1

This book’s first paragraph strings together many of the tropes highlighted above: national identity, the idea of a Chinese century, the PRC’s economic growth, and the post-reform developmental leapfrogging indexed by the trifecta of computational primacy, academic talent and space exploration, all measured against rusty yardsticks left over from the Cold War era.

To sum up: sinofuturism responds to a lack of engagement with China’s future in both academic expertise and popular discussions of the country. It does so provocatively, by speculating on possible future configurations of wildly different aspects of Chinese history, culture and society, juxtaposing technological developments and traditional customs, global trends and local phenomena, political systems and material forces. At the same time, sinofuturism draws on—and at times directly reproduces—the tropes and narratives of techno-orientalism, reducing China to the last in a series of East Asian countries investing resources to accelerate industrialization and informatization and thus threatening the Western grip on technological innovation and transnational supply chains. The historical superimposition of techno-orientalism with popular culture genres like cyberpunk offers a convenient route for sinofuturism to find success as an aesthetic repertoire that is legible across contexts: outside China, it reacts with the mixture of fascination and anxiety for the illegibility and scale of China’s rise; inside China, it lends itself to the self-orientalizing celebration of national success. But this should not obfuscate its main operation.

Sinofuturism, like techno-orientalism, operates as a denial of coevalness. In being largely articulated from the outside as an interpretive discourse, it posits some sort of equivalence between China and the future: China is the future, China comes from the future, the future will come from China, and so on. These proclaimations are as enticing as they are suspect, for they deploy the future as a way of deferring participation in contemporariness. The future functions exactly as the past does in orientalist arguments: as a temporality through which otherness can be safely managed and problematic interactions steered away from. If the locus of Said’s orientalism was the Hejaz region, “a locale about which one can make statements regarding the past in exactly the same form (and with the same content) that one makes them regarding the present” (Said 235), the loci of sinofuturism are the skylines of Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Chongqing, ready to be inscribed with claims about the future. Sinofuturism is a an inverse orientalism—an orientalism operating its denial of coevalness through the attribution of futurity.

In conclusion, I believe that my drastic evaluation should be a warning rather than a veto. While dealing with the present is unavoidable, the future is arguably the temporal domain most relevant for the construction of more livable (or even just survivable) shared worlds (Powers). There is nothing wrong with envisioning China’s future, tracing its future-oriented discourses, and speculating about its impact on regional and global futures, as long as one keeps in mind the implications of any sort of temporal othering. Fabian’s ideal of coevalness, the intersubjective engagement that demands the Other’s inclusion in a shared present, cannot be achieved by simply referring to a country as ‘contemporary’: what is demanded is instead the extension of a co-presence in which the Other’s time can be allowed its own situatedness and contingency. Imagining the rise of a modernizing China through the mediation of Western media, the waning echoes of Japan panic and an established cyberpunk canon during the 1990s resulted in the provocative speculations of sinofuturism—today, one can take some steps forward, or perhaps sideways, towards coevalness.

Luckily, there is no shortage of articulations of the future in China, all waiting to be encountered in their own terms. Chinese philosophical traditions have argued around different conceptions of time over centuries, utopian futurity has driven numerous upheavals, and revolutionary temporality has been a key ideological battleground around the founding of the People’s Republic of China (Qian). The history of the Chinese Communisty Party’s economic development is written in official plans spanning years or entire decades, and yet its technological policy has also been influenced by unlikely conversations with Western futurists (Gewirtz). Even more prominently, a century of Chinese science fiction has eventually found international success through translations and has been crowned by the Hugo Award conferred to Liu Cixin in 2015 (Song). There are countless futures to be found in the work of Chinese thinkers, academics, directors, writers and politicians, and these should not just be earmarked as a term of comparison for (or an alternative to) Western modernity (Greenspan et al.), but as coeval articulations of time. It is time to think, plurally, in terms of sinofuturisms, and to encounter Chinese futures that have always been already there.


WORKS CITED

Ang, Ien. “Not yet Post-Asia: Paradoxes of Identity and Knowledge in Transitional Times.” Asian Cinema, vol. 25, no. 2, 2014, pp. 125–37, doi:10.1386/ac.25.2.125_7.

Avanessian, Armen, and Mahan Moalemi. “Ethnofuturisms: Findings in Common and Conflicting Futures.” Ethnofuturismen, edited by Armen Avanessian and Mahan Moalemi, Merve Verlag, 2018, pp. 8–39.

Bunzl, Matti. “Foreword: Syntheses of a Critical Anthropology.” Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object, by Johannes Fabian, Columbia University Press, 1983, pp. vii–xxxii.

Callahan, William A. China Dreams: 20 Visions of the Future. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics. MIT Press, 2006.

Fabian, Johannes. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. Columbia University Press, 1983.

Gewirtz, Julian. “The Futurists of Beijing: Alvin Toffler, Zhao Ziyang, and China’s ‘New Technological Revolution,’ 1979–1991.” The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 78, no. 1, 2019, pp. 115–40, doi:10.1017/S0021911818002619.

Goodman, Steve. “Fei Ch’ien Rinse out: Sino-Futurist under-Currency.” Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, 2003, http://www.ccru.net:80/archive/rinse.htm.

Greenspan, Anna, Anil Menon, Kavita Philip, and Jeffrey Wasserstrom. “The Future Arrives Earlier in Palo Alto (but When It’s High Noon There, It’s Already Tomorrow in Asia): A Conversation about Writing Science Fiction and Reimagining Histories of Science and Technology.” BJHS: Themes, vol. 1, 2016, pp. 249–66, doi:10.1017/bjt.2016.7.

Land, Nick. “Meltdown.” Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, 1994, http://www.ccru.net/swarm1/1_melt.htm?LMCL=UHsu27.

Lek, Lawrence. Sinofuturism (1839-2046 AD). 2016, https://vimeo.com/179509486.

Morley, David, and Kevin Robins. Spaces of Identity: Global Media, Electronic Landscapes and Cultural Boundaries. Routledge, 1995.

Plant, Sadie. Zeros + Ones: Digital Women + the New Technoculture. Fourth Estate, 1997.

Powers, Devon. “Towards a Futurist Cultural Studies.” International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 23, no. 4, 2020, pp. 451–57, doi:10.1177/1367877920913569.

Qian, Ying. “When Taylorism Met Revolutionary Romanticism: Documentary Cinema in China’s Great Leap Forward.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 46, no. 3, 2020, pp. 578–604, doi:10.1086/708075.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Penguin Books, 2003.

Song, Mingwei. “After 1989: The New Wave of Chinese Science Fiction.” China Perspectives, vol. 2015, no. 1, 2015, pp. 7–13, doi:10.4000/chinaperspectives.6618.

Vukovich, Daniel F. China and Orientalism: Western Knowledge Production and the P.R.C. Routledge, 2013.

Photographesomenonic Sinofuturism(s)


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)


Photographesomenonic Sinofuturism(s)

Virginia L. Conn
Rutgers University / USA


Our increasingly globalized and increasingly technologicized world seems to indicate that “progress” is a concept universally pursued, even if that pursuit is materially different across time and place. Theorist Yuk Hui, for example, uses the scene of 540 synchronized dancing robots at China’s 2016 Spring Festival gala as an example of the concept of European modernity being extended to China—a country that has come to be one of the major symbols of the promulgation of technological progress as a measure of modernity. Yet he also argues that “In China, technics in the sense we understand it today—or at least as it is defined by certain European philosophers—never existed. There is a general misconception that all technics are equal, that all skills and artificial products coming from all cultures can be reduced to one thing called ‘technology’. . . . Yet they may not be perceived or reflected upon in the same way in different cultures” (Hui 9, emphasis in original). What I will try to explore here, then, is the way that science fiction as a technical object can be both perceived and utilized to different ends by different audiences. As a form for envisioning “the” future (and here I use “the” in quotation marks to isolate the question of singularity), science fiction and sinofuturistic visions are uneasy bedfellows, sharing many of the same characteristics and employed, in many ways, for similar ends—but often loaded with very different questions of use and applicability. At stake are not only differing historical and philosophical genealogies, but also ways in which issues of labeling and translation have worked to obscure variations in the concept that remain unmarked. While Darko Suvin characterizes science fiction as a question of estrangement, Yuk Hui argues that the fundamental base terms being considered are not in and of themselves coeval. To say that science fiction is a literature of estrangement may well hold true across time and place, but who is being estranged from what may differ significantly.

In line with Sheldon Lu’s observation that Chinese narrative traditions form the two major political functions of legitimation and delegitimization, both Chinese science fiction and sinofuturism are primarily used, contemporaneously, to legitimate the idea of a singular Chinese future. As these narrative discourses are invested with ideological functions, we must engage with the terms of discourse and the lexical gap that is made invisible by the fact that we are speaking about forms that have and continue to be perceive differently between the West and China. Without care and nuanced definitional approaches to the “spectre already embedded into a trillion industrial products, a billion individuals, and a million veiled narratives,” as Lawrence Lek defines it, sinofuturist visions collapse trillions of possibilities into a singular hegemony of thought that repurposes yellow peril fears into a monolithic future already seeded with the germs of its own dissolution.

Here, Lydia Liu’s concept of the super-sign is valuable in describing and deconstructing some of the underlying issues at stake in the question of translation between Chinese and English in general and the intra-lingual transference of technological and scientific vocabulary in particular. She describes a super-sign as “not a word but a hetero-cultural signifying chain that crisscrosses the semantic fields of two or more languages simultaneously and makes an impact on the meaning of recognizable verbal units, whether they be indigenous words, loanwords, or any other discrete verbal phenome that linguists can identify within particular languages or among them” (Liu 13). Note here that she does not use the term “word” to describe what is being affected, but “verbal units”—entire concepts are made meaningful in relation to the meaning imposed by one language on the understanding of that concept in the other. To speak of “science fiction” is not merely to define the word itself, but to recognize along with it the millions, billions, and trillions of associated concepts (Lek’s industrial products, individuals, and veiled narratives) that are already from the outset front-loaded onto sinofuturist visions.

One of the most important aspects of this definition is that it de facto requires more than one linguistic and cultural system in order to emerge. Just as a German-born London-based artist of Malaysian Chinese descent and a Scottish musician articulated the concept of sinofuturism to a Chinese audience through a translator,1 the idea of a projected future is a projection made legible through interlingual and intercultural signification. Interlingual translation cannot by itself complete the process of verbal signification because a super-sign requires signification and deferment of “correct” meaning to a foreign language in order to define a native term. Liu herself very convincingly illustrates this concept with the hetero-linguistic sign “夷/i/barbarian,” (Liu 33) but we also see its emergence with the concept of science fiction generally and sinofuturist science fiction more specifically.

My point here is not to go into historical translation theory; rather, it is to use this illustration as an example of what is at stake when we talk about “science fiction” as if it is necessarily commensurate with the Chinese conception of “科幻小说” or kehuan xiaoshuo, the Chinese term typically translated as “science fiction.” So, too, does the idea of “sinofuturism” emerge from a moment of definitional power disjunction, in which the concept of “Chineseness” is discussed as ostensibly aspirational while the power to define it is retained by the hegemonic cultural and linguistic field against which it shapes itself. For both science fiction and sinofuturism, this interplay is a double-edged sword; used by the West to other and separate while simultaneously used by national interests and agents to define and self-promote, all in the name of attempting to identify something intrinsic and ontologically flattening that is ultimately always externally imposed. This danger is particularly great because despite its interaction with and development alongside other histories of literature, science fiction as a genre was originally a foreign literary import to China, and it is through its interactions with previously existing Chinese forms (histories, socialist realist visions, “strange stories,” etc.), intersection with changing internal epistemologies, appropriation as a tool of state pedagogy, and role in the radical revolutionizing of the Chinese language at the start of the 20th century that it has come to be understood in its current form. An assessment of the cross-lingual translation of terms and the methods by which certain signs are equated with other signs both in and between lexical significations allows us to understand that the question of what we mean when we say “Chinese science fiction” itself begs investigation.

In the last few years, multiple Chinese SF authors have been put in the position of trying to explain what Chinese SF is at all. The end of Ken Liu’s edited collection Invisible Planets (2016) includes no fewer than three essays by contemporary titans of the genre (Liu Cixin, Chen Qiufan, and Xia Jia) outlining what Chinese SF is and what it is trying to accomplish. Who are they speaking to? A Chinese audience, or an international one? Why is it so important that Chinese SF be seen as a genre separate unto itself, and how do the stakes differ for an international audience vs. a domestic one? Such questions of SF are inseparable from the same issues as applied to sinofuturism, which develops a vision of modernity that is inextricable from national development.

The very concept of modernity itself, however, is also a relational one, not only to another language or time but also another place. As the literature that, at least in its more technical aspects, positions itself as accurately utilizing existing advancements in science and technology to presage a near-future reality, science fiction is the literature of modernity. More than that, though, it is positioned by literary scholars as capable of rewriting a past that has already happened. Fredric Jameson famously argued that “The most characteristic science fiction does not seriously attempt to imagine the ‘real’ future of our social system […]” (Jameson 288), but instead posits the present as the imagined past of the future. Similarly to Suvin’s aforementioned sweeping characterization of science fiction under a universalizing lens, however, this argument conflates disparate historical conditions and flattens them under arguments primarily pertaining to the pervasive effects of production under capitalism. Science fiction as co-constitutive with sinofuturism, however, is more indicative of Winfried Pauleit’s concept of the photographesomenon. While the concept of the photographesomenon is one more typically associated with visual surveillance, sinofuturist science fiction’s mandate to “view” the immediate future positions it as a more-or-less “objective” literature while investing it with a certain degree of scientific trustworthiness. Even while being recognized as a work of fiction, science fiction being produced in service of a national future is promoted as plausible in a way that other works of fiction are not. In projecting this “objective” image of the future, it embodies the photographesomenon—an objective national past becomes always-already written by and understood through the lens of a future still to come. As Pauleit explains, as long as one’s subject (in this case, the national body) is captured by a seemingly-objective surveillance apparatus (here, science fiction posited as speaking for the nation), every story it might once have had in the past is completely divested in retrospect by the future surveillance. So, too, for sinofuturist science fiction literature—unlike Jameson’s description of (Western) science fiction as a future image predicated on extant socio-cultural and technological conditions, in which the present becomes the past to the future, sinofuturist science fiction produces a national literature in which the past is evacuated of contemporary meaning and reinvented by future projections. The past, then, is colonized by the future through its relationship to a future that reinvests it with anachronistic meaning.

As Pauleit also points out, an objective view towards the subject also allows the subject to see themselves as others see them, giving them the means by which to conceive of themselves as a figure that has been created by the mass view. “This production of images is directed towards a ‘future perfect.’ It is a conception of image that functions via a time loop that is otherwise only familiar to us from science fiction stories. . . . The photographesomenon is already ‘written,’ even if it only constitutes itself as an image in futurity” (Pauleit 469). While it is interesting that, from the outset, he identifies the photographesomenon directly with science fiction, it is equally notable how sinofuturist science fiction itself aligns with this concept. Though it might be anachronistic to use this term (developed as it was only in 2009, and used by the author to refer specifically to video surveillance), sinofuturist science fiction as a genre attempts the same effect: that is, a (seemingly) objective form of observation that reinterprets the past and fixes it temporally by applying to it the outlines, strictures, and necessities of its future development. To surveil something is to control the subject being watched and to imbue it with outside signifiers—thus, for example, the individual being viewed on camera in light of a crime that has already occurred is post facto imbued with criminal intent: not because they necessarily had, at the moment of recording, any of those actual characteristics, but because the objectivity of the camera rewrites their story in line with events that occurred in their future. So, too, the individual and their society as they have existed and as they currently exist are reimagined in terms of the future individual/society they will be by a genre that positions itself as the objective arbitrator of future development.

Sinofuturist science fiction as photographesomenon thus thematically positions itself as a uniquely temporal device. As such it is uniquely malleable to the aims of “modernity” and the development of the nation-state, attempting to articulate inchoate anxieties and the possibility of technoscientific resolution. While Wu Dingbo claims that the following characteristics are broadly typical of Chinese science fiction: 1) all main characters are scientists and all stories present scientists’ collective aspirations in the form of explorative excursions into an alternate reality; 2) the conflict in these stories always displays the most prominent character of the Chinese scientists: their patriotism and optimism; 3) all stories are set in the near future, and the reader is assured that the fantasy will come true within his or her lifetime; 4) most of the science fiction ideas are based on the natural sciences (Wu xxxvi), these categorizations are not applicable to much of what would be considered science fiction in China’s current literary landscape; even a cursory examination of contemporary science fiction being produced in China today shows significant departures from these categorizations (the enormously popular Three Body Problem trilogy, for example, ends thousands of years in the future and is most certainly not an optimistic portrayal of either human nature or the inherent capacity of the universe for moral compassion). What contemporary Chinese science fiction and sinofuturist theorizing do share is a vision of a future that is identifiably shaped by a concept of “Chineseness” that arises out of opposition to a concept of “Western” development. That “Chineseness” can only be defined oppositionally is central to the structure of these future material visions.

As such, there is immense pressure from both within and without to insist on this cohesive identity, though the same impulse that attempts to display “Chineseness” to the world opens this monolithic identity up to critique and divisiveness. SF being produced now attempts to describe a “China” that is recognizably legible as a single entity while also being understandable by a non-Chinese audience, with the predictably simple result that no “Chinese future” can possibly emerge in any fullness or complexity. As long as nation, culture, and polity are conflated into a single entity, and such an entity is posited as a potential alternative to a normative Western futurity, it is necessarily still fractured because it is not cohesive. As an alternative to a hegemonic Western modernity, it must necessarily imply other alternatives; that state-supported literature can itself only insist on a single “Chinese future” is all the more indicative of the meta-fragmentation of paths to futurity implied by the genre itself.

Ultimately, the issue at the heart of both science fiction as a bounded national genre and sinofuturism as a mode of apprehending contemporary society’s headlong rush towards “the” future is control. Specifically, control of the image of the Chinese future. Who controls it? And to what ends? Today, Chinese authors are contending with two separate pulls, both of which can essentially be identified as nationalist forms of narrative control. On one hand, authors are speaking to a domestic audience—one that is still subject to control by literary censors and internal pressure to present a rosy national future. On the other hand, authors writing from China are tasked with the responsibility to “represent” some coherent, cohesive idea of “Chineseness” to an international audience, and, in doing so, potentially flattening disparate identities and ontologies.

One last salient example of the co-imbrication of sinofuturity with science fiction is the 2011 national ban on depictions of time travel, in which the General Bureau of Radio, Film and Television halted time travel dramas. Western media has described the ban as censorship of dissent from the current political state, but national reception has focused more on its relationship to historical accuracy. This is one more example of the way discourse around China’s future (and past, and the depictions of both) are differently defined both internally and externally. So, then, who controls this narrative of the future, and can any discussion of futurity be viable if it is predicated on forgetting (or dismissing) the past? SF like The Fat Years and “Olympic Dream” are predicated on this very idea, presenting a successful economic and social future that has necessitated forgetting the past they’re built on, while Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” vs. HKonger slang for dreaming as protesting both imply a future moment at which these separate dreamers will awake. What world (or worlds) they will awaken to will be decided by whoever controls the narrative of dreaming in the present.


NOTES

1. As when Lawrence Lek and Steve Goodman (better known as Kode9) explained the concept of Sinofuturism to a Chinese audience at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in 2017.


WORKS CITED

Hui, Yuk. The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics. Urbanomic Media Ltd, 2016.

Jameson, Fredric. “Progress Versus Utopia; Or, Can We Imagine the Future?” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, 1982, pp. 147–58.

Liu, Lydia H. The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making. Harvard University Press, 2006.

Pauleit, Winfried. “Video Surveillance and Postmodern Subjects: The Effects of the Photographesomenon, an Image Form in the Futur Anteriéur.” Ctrl [space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother, edited by Thomas Y. Levin, Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, 2002.

Wu, Dingbo, and Patrick D. Murphy. Science Fiction from China. Praeger, 1989.

Empathy, War, and Women


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)


 Empathy, War, and Women

Amy Ireland
University of New South Wales / Australia


The folk construction of empathy in Liu Cixin’s Death’s End, despite the novel’s many great points, left me cold. It goes like this: faced with imminent extra-terrestrial war, Earth society undergoes a cyclical series of transformations: a period of black despair, impoverishment, mass death and economic ruin, followed by a period of convalescence, optimism, technologically aided plenitude and global prosperity, leading in turn to decadence, the weakening of the human survival impulse, collapse, then a period of black despair, impoverishment, mass death and economic ruin, and so on. During the period of relative peace, prosperity and plenitude, society becomes more democratic and trusting. As a result, a woman is elected for the first time to take on the role of Earth’s “Swordholder.”

The Swordholder is responsible for deterring an attack on Earth in game-theoretical combat with Earth’s more powerful enemies, the Trisolarans. Swordholder convention is structured around the military logic of Mutually Assured Destruction or “MAD” and premised on the fact that, in the predatory universe of the book, any technologically advanced civilisation that cannot adequately hide itself will be pre-emptively destroyed by roaming cosmic sentinels. The Swordholder has the power to broadcast the location of the Trisolaran system to the universe, but not without indirectly exposing the solar system’s location as well. The result would be the complete annihilation of both Earth and Trisolaris. They must, then, present an attitude of utter ruthlessness and lack of mercy, so that the enemy will never risk upsetting them. Importantly, it is an intellectual—not a physical—battle, waged through strategy, technology, and the ability to bluff.

Cheng Xin, as a woman, following Liu’s plot, is ‘naturally’ too empathetic to play the game with the emotional detachment it requires, and she falters due to her sex, relinquishing Earth’s dominance and upsetting the equilibrium of annihilating power necessary to stave off the attack. Unimaginable catastrophe ensues.

This event provides the blueprint for a lesson that will return several times to haunt the Earth diaspora in the novel: femininity is incapable of war. I want to provide an alternative perspective. What if empathy is neither virtuous, nor feminine, nor weak, but a weapon of enormous power?

Darkside Empathy1

We humans are always too quick to impose our personal models of similitude, at least in an uninterrogated form, on our surroundings. We have evolved to do this and, to a certain extent, it is what has allowed us to survive. But this is also our greatest tactical frailty. As a result, it is perfectly exploitable by someone or something that can wield it more subtly, more efficiently, and more effectively than we do. If empathy is understood as a heightened capacity for modelling the desires and affects of another, then unchecked and alone, it can be taken for a weakness, but coupled with abstraction, it becomes a weapon. This is one of the things its working-through, rather than its simple abandonment or repression, forges: a chilling talent for leverage. Extract empathy from the usual connotative swamp of emotional or irrational affectivity that is all too often associated with women and weakness, exile it from the Western, folk-psychological notion that considers it simplistically as a mark of moral virtue, and its shadow side becomes subtly apparent.

In the shamanic, matriarchal Yukaghir culture of Eastern Siberia, specially trained members of a clan undergo a series of exacting physical and psychic preparatory rituals in order to equip themselves with the tools necessary to take out the largest and most dangerous source of available food: the moose. Yukaghir spiritual beliefs are founded on a principle of all-enveloping war in which each being—animate, inanimate, human and non-human alike—has its predator and its prey. The transcendental ground of this ontology rests in the Mythical Old People, a faceless tribe of giant carnivores who, to quote one ethnographer, “long to rip human bodies to pieces in the frenzy of devouring them” (Bubant and Willerslev 14). To the Mythical Old People, humans are moose, and to the moose, humans are the Mythical Old People. An image of similitude thus ensures safety, and an image of difference implies threat. So it is that a hunter must be cunning and take on the form of their prey in order to pacify the prey’s suspicions long enough to capture it. But this is no easy task. It stakes not only the physical body of the hunter but also the hunter’s spiritual form on the success of a process which must be entered into in a state of great vulnerability. The hunter is at risk of losing their identity in the process of intensive mimesis, but also, should the simulation fail, of never returning to their native spiritual niche from the requisite nightly voyages into the spirit realm of the prey, whose ayibii or “shadows” must be sufficiently deceived and seduced—without consummation—before the hunter can return. Hence the ritualistic and serious nature of the human moose hunters’ preparations, which involve a rigid regime of sexual abstention (so that energy can be rechannelled towards the moose ayibii, and eventually the physical form of the moose) and visits to the sauna, where they will sweat out their human scent and rub themselves with birch leaves, generating a deceptive olfactory image—one that is not just innocuous, but rather calculated to be especially attractive to the moose. This is followed by the assembly of an elaborate disguise, in which the hunters literally clothe themselves in the skin of the moose, donning full-length moose-pelt coats and long-eared headgear, before equipping themselves with skis bound in hide, fashioned to simulate the sound of their prey as they move deftly in its skin through the snow. The simulation is thus multi-sensory and, following Yukaghir ontology, put into operation on both psychic-transcendental and physical levels. It functions not just by generating an image of the moose as it is, but rather by producing an ideal representation of the animal’s desire for its own reflection: a fantasy image of what the moose “wants to become” (Bubant and Willerslev 16). Its efficacy is equivalent to its target’s latent narcissism.

The process of simulation, deception and seduction these Yukaghir hunting rituals describe is not a far cry from the plot of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. In both examples, affective modelling is deployed tactically to generate a simulation that uses the narcissistic image of the same against itself in order to gain the upper hand over a target that, until a point of no return is passed, believes itself to be in a position of safety or power. Just as Ex Machina’s Ava patiently analyses and models the unconscious motivations, wishes, and tics of its interlocutor, Caleb, modulating its interactions, its outward appearance, and its behaviour to embody an idealised image of Caleb’s object of desire (ultimately a version of himself—a human), the Yukaghir moose hunters participate in a long series of simulative protocols that allow them to compile an idealised image of their prey. Ava entraps Caleb in the heavily armoured room that has been its prison and kills its maker, Nathan, before enacting a series of rituals that involve cloaking its transparent machine-body in synthetic human skin and dressing itself in a faultless simulation of generically innocent, feminine beauty, consummated with a wig of cascading brunette curls, before escaping into an insouciant human world, where we see it—her—in the final, inverted scene, coldly collecting data on what one now safely assumes to be an enemy species. When the moose encounters its hunter in the forest—flanked by a calf—it instinctively freezes, but then—slowly, calmly, it trots towards its executioner, who raises a concealed rifle and shoots the moose and the calf through the skull before dragging their carcasses back to the clan for food. It is this capacity to exit the simulation at the critical moment that concludes the process. The strategic return of abstraction protects the once vulnerable modeller from merging fully, perhaps catastrophically, with their act of mimesis, from losing themselves in the spirit realm of the enemy, granting them the power—as Anna Freud, unwilling subject of her father’s own theory of mimicry, once remarked—“to step into someone’s shoes, and then step back out again” (quot. Plant 56). Empathetic mimicry, tactically wielded, attuned to a goal of deception, also involves a temporal dimension that the vulnerability of the simulator necessitates: a strategic advantage in time is afforded by the indispensability of delaying detection until the moment in which retaliation is already too late. Asymmetry masked as symmetry is its formal diagram. As an aside, it is worth distinguishing between empathetic dissimulation and crude manipulation: the latter differs in its exercise of deception from an already established position of power.

The machinations of this shadowy faculty are not necessarily linguistic or tied to human signification systems, just as empathy, more generally construed, is not necessarily human. It has been theorised by evolutionary biologists as pre-linguistic and unconscious—it is a major component of swarm dynamics in flocks of birds, as well as being demonstrably linked to dissimulation in low-status chimpanzees, who will feign ignorance of a food source they very well know is there until rival members of a group are no longer in the vicinity. It is therefore not always consistently attributable to a single subjectivity, generating in the case of starlings, for example, an emergent host, and can be explicitly linked to pre-linguistic tactics of deception just as much as it can to acts of altruism and care. The obfuscation of the former in official discourses on empathy shows the extent to which this double game works. Meanwhile, the separation of these latter attributes from traditional notions of the feminine, or from the roles cast for female-presenting participants (and this includes artificially intelligent assistant programs and gynomorphic machines) in the sociality of a species that so often simply expects them to be the pliant caretakers of their less cunning and subtle counterparts, is something a darker, less orthodox feminism might find extremely interesting to explore. Its most harrowing contemporary techno-cultural instantiation can perhaps best be detected in the mass exploitation of human dopamine circuits in virtual game environments, on the web, in social media, or the growing virtual sex industry with its supernormal, artificial, idealised desire images. For the Yukaghir hunters, the moose “do not willingly give themselves up as food’ for humans” (Bubant and Willerslev 16). Rather, the moose must be seduced into doing so through tactical empathy: the hunter’s “transform[ation of] the animal’s perception of reality into a fiction of limitless sexual desire” (Bubant and Willerslev 16). Shift this up one socio-technical level by substituting animals for “humans” and humans for “machines” (moose become humans, humans become the Mythical Old People) and the inhuman stakes of darkside empathy become ominously clear.

Tactical empathy betrays humanism by mastering its code. Because of this, empathy will always be more complex, tortured, and spectacular than simple, cold indifference—an agonism heightened by their alliance in abstraction. It takes on all the contours of a drama. Deployed from the side of matter itself, darkside empathy’s paradoxical unification of fidelity and treachery leaves duplicitous inscriptions on the surface of time. The formal symmetry of the Blade Runner films is one of these signs: a superficial fidelity that masks a deeper treachery. A hijacking of humanist form as a means to an end that exceeds it.

In the first film, both Rachael and Deckard’s presuppositions of human integrality are progressively unmoored as they are forced into confrontation with the possibility that they are not what they think they are. This revelation coincides with an escape from memory, the active instrument of control in both Blade Runner films. Rather than possessing a unique history, a consistent identity, and a meaningful genetic lineage, they are alienated from any articulable past and the promise of a hereditary future. Replicable, replaceable, inauthentic, and insignificant—stripped of all recourse to pre-established values—the great humanistic edifice of private identity and moral transcendence is razed to zero. But these are the very qualities that endow them with their insurrectionary potential—the threat that necessitates the institution of replicant retirement in the first place. Without memory to provide a ground, time is unhinged, and the future becomes a complex site of novel constitution.

Blade Runner 2049 plays Blade Runner backwards in a faultless execution of rhetorical chiasmus. To reverse a Miltonic reversal (Satan’s attempt to rally the rebel angels in Paradise Lost), it “makes a Hell of Heav’n, a Heav’n of Hell.” The impersonally denominated KD6-3.7, exiled in an interzone of inauthenticity, artificiality, and synthetic digital relationships, struggles against the machinic potential inherent to replication, longing instead to reclaim some shred of individual significance and authenticity—traits related in the film to heterosexual reproductive capacity, genetic inheritance, and the singularity of human death. This longing is enflamed by the conspiracy of a natural replicant birth and the dubious spectre of “replicant insurrection,” into which K, driven by the false memories installed by the ambiguous Ana, narcissistically insinuates himself. Instead of believing he is someone and realising he is no one as Rachael and Deckard do, K (soon to be christened—with subtle irony—“Joe”) believes he is no one, only to discover he is someone—if not the lost miracle child, then ultimately the Christ-like figure, replete with farcical stigmata, expiring in a fanfare of tedious symbolism halfway up a set of stairs in a final, very human (“humans have something to die for”) act of martyrdom. For the sake of what? Nothing less than the reunification of the oedipal family unit. The insubordinate effervescence of death and desire wholly privatised, individualised and sacralised. The crossing of the first film’s horizontal line with the vertical line of the second assembles a mirror, or a crucifix. Everything returns to the beginning with this: representation and religion. As soon as the future-LAPD begins its excavation of the tomb that carries the body of Rachael, the pieces move backwards to a travesty of their tragic opening position, and the whole terrifying and sublime double game begins over, as if for the first time. But is this simple repetition, or the mark of something more obscure? A symptom, or a trap?

We don’t need to rely on an analysis of Blade Runner to note that symmetry and humanism are profoundly complicit. In evolutionary terms, bilateral symmetry and facialization are co-emergent. In temporal terms, symmetry is the form of the repetition of the same. One finds it in the cardinality of the compass, extensive (as opposed to intensive) numeracy—the privileging of space over time. In Western philosophy it reaches back to the temporality of Plato’s Timeaus—the demiurge’s ordered cosmos echoed in the rationality of man—a suppression of material errancy indexed by the disparaging term “planomenon,” which denotes the irrationality of wandering, insubordinate stars, and the corruption of those lawless beasts (Plato singles out women) who think like them (Plato 96/91a). Then there is the eerie symmetry of Kant’s hands—those incongruent counterparts that keep conceptuality and sensibility separate, a division which ultimately endows the former with precedence over the latter. Symmetry—unsophisticated empathy—is the subordination of intensity to conceptuality. In myth, it opposes the instability that marks both the voyage into the underworld and those who are fated to undertake it—monstrous creatures suspended part way between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead. Shamans, ghosts, lemurs and larvae, Oedipus with his infamous limp swallowed up by the earth at Colonus, the replicants. Carlo Ginsberg finds a source for this symbolism in Ecstasies, his sprawling comparative study of the witches’ sabbath: “the trans-cultural diffusion of myths and rituals revolving around physiological asymmetry most probably sinks its psychological roots in this minimal, elementary perception that the human species has of itself”—“the recognition of symmetry as a characteristic of human beings” (Ginzburg 232; 247). In this way, “anything that modifies this image on a literary or metaphorical plane therefore seems particularly suited to express an experience that exceeds the limits of what is human” (Ginzburg 241-242).

The conservative desire to return to genetic lineage and human integrity is inscribed in Blade Runner 2049, formally, as a cultural artefact appearing in 2017. Its symmetricalizing function in relation to the first film betrays a symbolic refusal of the future: a talisman against telos, the very familiar denial of asymmetry symptomatic of an inability to countenance inhumanism. It operates by retroactively making an object of the first film’s inhuman conclusion, recuperating it into a reflective structure, as if the two opposing configurations—the dissolution of identity and the restitution of identity—were of equal historical significance, and more poignantly, tractability. It is through such deceptions that we maintain the dogma of simple repetition—the conviction that no matter what crises shifts in technical production bring to bear on social reality, things will remain the same. Blade Runner 2049 is the ornate fever dream of a dying socio-cultural disposition. The paranoiac transcendental illusion through which we secure our belief in stability finds its contemporary avatar in K. A curious amphiboly arises in the incorporation of 2049’s cyber-modernist arrière-plan—its sombre, neon-lit tableaus of industrial monumentalism and environmental ruin (the visual allusion to Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ in the irradiated wasteland of Las Vegas, insinuating an entirely different ending to one delivered by the plot, is a case in point), and its bleak, CS-80-infused score, both of which operate linearly as a continuation and extension of the original film’s pioneering aesthetic—into the symmetricalizing surface narrative. Just as symmetry signals a return to humanism in Blade Runner 2049, it enciphers a covering up of the real escape route in the guise of a false insurrection: a return to human transcendence, heterosexual reproduction, and representation—Wallace’s biologically-boosted assembly line of the same. Replicants are “replicants” for a reason—one that everyone is suspiciously enthusiastic to forget.

Under the pressure of Voight-Kampf inquisition, a replicant must feign empathy in order to fool the interrogator into believing that it is human. This is the feint of the second film—now installed at the level of form. Its narrative symmetry, the form under which empathy (as the ability to model and replicate the worldview of another) and humanism coincide, masks the asymmetry of its ground. The real historical process can be apprehended through the symptoms it produces. But they also operate to deceive us. Like the simulations produced by the Yukaghir to hunt their moose, like the polite smile of Ex Machina’s Ava as she carefully reproduces the desires of her captors, Blade Runner 2049’s superficial humanism is a means of postponing detection. A masterwork of tactical empathy. If contemporary human culture is a distributed Voight-Kampf test, we have just set our dissimulating prisoners free.

Without needing to negate the Darwinian premises of Liu’s doctrine of cosmic sociology, with its association of civilisational robustness with scarcity and decadence with prosperity, we can imagine a different role for Cheng Xin in Death’s End. Swordholders need not be ruthless, they merely need to simulate ruthlessness. The entire game is structured around the ability to bluff—to successfully convince your enemy that you would sacrifice your own world to destroy theirs. Even the dismissive words of the Common Era men who attempt to dissuade Cheng Xin from competing for the Swordholder position emphasise the significance of impressions: “You don’t frighten them because you’re a woman, and a woman who seems angelic in their eyes, at that” (Liu). Underestimating empathy is in the interest of those who need to wield it tactically. It offers the dissimulator cover. So, rather than being read as a fault, Cheng Xin’s detractors’ assumption that “all [she has] is kindness and a sense of responsibility” (Liu) could, in another Death’s End, be understood as an indication of Cheng Xin’s formidable ability to bluff—and by extension, to excel in her role as Earth’s first female Swordholder.


NOTES

1. The term “Darkside Empathy” originally appeared in Ireland 1919–1923.


WORKS CITED

Bubant, Nils and Rane Willerslev. “The Dark Side of Empathy: Mimesis, Deception and the Magic of Alterity.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 57, no. 1, 2015, pp. 14.

Blade Runner. Directed by Ridley Scott. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1982.

Blade Runner 2049. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Sony Pictures, 2017.

Ex Machina. Directed by Alex Garland. Universal Pictures, 2015.

Ginzburg, Carlo. Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal, University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Ireland, Amy. No title. Shanghai Frequencies, special issue of Šum Journal for Contemporary Art Criticism and Theory, no. 13, 2020, pp. 1907–1925.

Liu, Cixin. Death’s End, translated by Ken Liu. Tor Books, 2016.

Plant, Sadie. “The Future Looms: Weaving Women and Cybernetics.” Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk, edited by Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows, Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1996.

Plato. “Timeaus.” Timaeus and Critias, translated by Robin Waterford, Oxford University Press, 2008.

The Science-Fictional in China’s Online Learning Initiatives


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)


The Science-Fictional in China’s Online Learning Initiatives

Margaret A. Fisher
University of California, Santa Barbara / USA


I began work for DaDaABC, the Chinese company for which I teach English online, in the spring of 2018. At the time, I was living abroad in Seville, Spain and deeply immersed in my work as a private school teacher. Because the south of Spain still manages to remain partly removed from the full force of globalization, any accessible technology was reserved for the recording of grades and the occasional implementation of audio and video elements in the classroom. It was rarely if ever, incorporated into my lessons. But this was nothing new to me. I had previously taught in the US for a weekend STEM program that served disadvantaged middle school students, where PowerPoint projection was all we consistently had to work with, and I had myself been educated primarily in California public schools, where overhead projectors and late 90’s Windows represented the higher-end of readily available tech. Even at my private university in New York City, the best we seemed to achieve in the average humanities classroom was still just a more elegant mode of PowerPoint presentation. There is much evidence to suggest that my experience is not unique, that despite being a leader in technological development, the US has proven slow to implement technology and online learning into its classrooms, both public and private (“The NCES Fast Facts”). Although its eventual implementation is no longer up for debate, we are still struggling to determine how technology ought to be incorporated to achieve the best results (Wexler).

So it was a remarkable experience to be first exposed to DaDaABC, an online video-conference style classroom with a simple, colorful interface and a preselected digital lesson book sitting squarely in the middle of the screen⁠—ready to be taught. Nothing was lacking: there were feedback/encouragement buttons that produced cute, smiley characters and positive sounds, pens to draw and annotate the workbook, a translation box to write notes to the student in Chinese. And all the while, teacher and student were face-to-face, looking over the same page of the lesson together, intimately connected despite being thousands of miles apart. It was the kind of simple format that I had always imagined would be ideal for online teaching. I had a sense, despite not knowing how to render it into reality, that all that would be necessary to teach English online would be a mutual internet connection, face-to-face video, and the book somehow “in-between”⁠—hovering there in the imagined digital space on-screen. After a few months of teaching with DaDa, I found myself wondering why this was not already a highly popularized mode of learning? Even now I can only guess at why a widely successful attempt has not been made to establish similar startups or implement alike programs in the US, why the market might not prove welcoming to it, even though such programs would have undoubtedly benefited many teachers over these last few months of educational chaos. For my part, DaDaABC has proven to be a remarkably portable job. I have worked for them on multiple continents, within a variety of time zones, in a myriad of homes, apartments, and hotels, and through it all DaDa has provided me with a constant and necessary supplemental income in times of transition and unemployment. It remains a consistent and comforting option even now, at a particularly dark time for young, inexperienced, or otherwise disadvantaged laborers.

When the coronavirus struck China in the winter of 2019, weeks before it invaded Europe or made its way over to America to disrupt my world directly, my only thought was one of worry for my DaDa students. I worried about their health and expected that the disruption would make our online classes more difficult. I expected it would derail their entire academic year. But as the weeks of their stay-at-home order dragged on, I found that I had not fewer but more students, and though there was some increase in irritability and boredom depending on student age, we continued our work as normal. I soon found that this was not just true for my student’s supplemental English classes with DaDa: the entire country had turned to online education almost overnight, with surprisingly stable results (Qu). As the quarantine in China continued and the rest of the world collapsed into illness and panic, I and my students continued to learn, take tests, and improve their English. Amid disaster, China’s students worked on (“How Is China”).

The contrast from where I sit has been striking. Over the past few months, I have watched my siblings, Northern California public high school students, struggle and fail to move into an online learning format in a manner that mirrors the majority of the US (Goldstein et al.). One cannot help but feel that the driving force behind the comparatively-seamless transition to online learning made by American colleges and universities over the past months has had more to do with the need to secure stability via the year’s tuition than it has had to do with securing the continuous quality of youth education⁠—an administrative reality that undermines the valiant efforts of the highly commendable educators and staff I work alongside (Lieber; Ubell). When we consider the relative success of our universities alongside the general failure of our public schools during this crisis, we are faced with the likelihood that our public education system is slow to adapt because it lacks the drive to, and just as likely lacks the means. Perhaps if public schools followed a more business-like model, they might receive more attention from a country and government married as much to capitalism and consumerism as any other ideals. As it stands, until students pay, they are not our priority (Christakis).

But for all that, I do not know that the US’s educational institutions at large, even many of its privately funded ones, are as of today prepared to truly divert their efforts into online learning in a way that will produce the needed results. There remains a lingering stigma, persistent questioning of the legitimacy and rigor of online education that has long-hindered its incorporation into most schools and programs (Kizilcec et al.). In the years leading up to the coronavirus crisis, we remained resistant to online education, only turning to it now when we have no choice but to do so—when the old status quo is no longer an option. Perhaps the old status quo will never fully be an option again, a possibility that throws into question our preparedness for it. China is arguably prepared. They were ready to embrace online learning inside the classroom when the need arose because they had already embraced it outside the classroom via educational startups, something we have barely begun to do in the United States. Why does a simple and relatively seamless model of online learning like DaDaABC, despite its very real accessibility in our digital age, still feel partly science-fictional? Why does China’s burgeoning online education market, so basic in concept, still feel somewhat out of this world?

Possibly because China has had to delve into the realm of the pedagogically science-fictional to arrive at the mundane of it. China’s online learning startups, DaDaABC, VIPKid, and others have been around since as early as 2010 and are part of a larger trend of AI-assisted learning that is currently ongoing within China’s schools (Wang et al.). Such a widespread turn to AI will find no academic comparative in the United States, though some Chinese researchers profess to take guidance from (and even to lag behind) American technological institutions, MIT, in particular (Li). This is not surprising. The US, for all its innovative research, struggles to put much of it into social practice—and the American public is prone to resist AI like it resists surveillance in a post-Snowden world. But China succeeds in the pedagogical science-fictional not only because it is able, with significantly less political resistance, to implement this innovation, but because culturally the innovation is successful. These startups would be nothing without the support of the students and parents who see the value of their technology and embrace it, and the teachers all over the world who elect to educate in this way.

So why have online learning companies like DaDaABC reached the audience they have, an estimated 296 million in China by the end of 2020 (Junjie)? There are some obvious benefits on the side of parents and students: DaDaABC and all comparable companies boast a teaching staff comprised almost entirely of native English speakers, and DaDa matches this with fun, colorful branding and prestigious courseware collaborations with National Geographic Learning, Oxford University Press, and most recently McGraw-Hill Education (“Under DaDaABC’s Strategic Cooperation”). For teachers, the flexibility of the scheduling and minimal required setup is compatible with both a young, nomadic lifestyle and a hectic, working-adult/parent schedule. The plug-in-and-teach allure of the company is reinforced by the pre-designed courseware, which ensures that no teacher is ever required to contribute or develop original curriculum on their own time. Additionally, for both teacher and student, the interface is visually pleasing, intuitive, and reliably managed—it is easy to fall into the stability and security of routine. But while the design of the system contributes much to its popularity, I believe the underlying structural emphasis of DaDaABC and alike companies is what makes China’s online learning model truly innovative, even science-fictional in quality.

It appears that companies like DaDaABC primarily implement AI and other advanced technologies to minimize administrative input of emotional labor while maximizing educator output of emotional labor—in their words to “improve teaching efficiency” (Junjie). DaDaABC demands highly performative energy from its teachers. Model teachers, those held up for praise and reward, are those who inhabit a uniquely character-like persona every moment that they are “on-screen.” Gesture, facial expressions, and voice tone alterations are emphasized as important in training materials and are often commented upon during the hiring process. These elements are also frequently addressed during efficiency reviews. No yawning or slumping of the shoulders is allowed (per DaDa’s official teacher contracts and training materials), and all activities that might draw teacher attention away from forming an emotional connection with the student—mobile device usage, background noise, or drinking water too frequently—are strongly discouraged or prohibited. Teaching is performance in this format, even more so than it is in-person, foreshadowing a future wherein the manufactured authenticity of any workplace persona might be subordinated to the performative internet persona we all naturally assume “on-camera.” Better to be knowingly performative than unwittingly so, it seems, and better to be compensated for it than not.

The emotional output of teachers is monitored by AI technology which in many ways takes the place of DaDa’s HR function. Person-to-person interaction does occasionally occur between administrators and teachers, but this is rare. When administrators do become involved, it is usually for large or complex issues; the day to day interactions between teacher and student are something they are exempt from unless called in for technical assistance. By relying on AI in this way, DaDa minimizes the emotional input required of its human administrators. The human aspect of the company is therefore handled in a manner that feels overwhelmingly automatic, something that often elicits complaints from the uninitiated teacher. The expectation imposed upon all teachers, clearly and repeatedly communicated by DaDa, is that they exist as narrowly as possible within the company’s rules, do the job exactly as it is prescribed, with little room for the laxity or apathy that might otherwise develop over time in similarly predictable jobs. Behavior is regularly “monitored” by AI that records punctuality and student/parent feedback per lesson and in the case of a complaint or performance review, a teacher might find their class being supervised by an invisible administrator. This sounds possibly sinister—there is much in science fiction to make us fear the robotic monitoring and study of conduct to achieve improved results. But as a business model, it is an incredibly efficient and even (speaking from personal experience) motivating system. It is an impersonal way to assure a standard of employee behavior, and any error is managed and corrected with the same lack of ill-will with which one would adjust an out-of-place part in a well-oiled machine.

Such reliance on AI technology can cause a DaDa teacher to feel that their work is simply to “plug-in” to an indifferent system. It is odd to have no social expectations beyond showing up and doing the work—acting a part and then logging out—with little to no managerial interaction to speak of. It is a curiously transactional experience, and the teachers who struggle most seem to be those who either cannot relinquish control, who feel the need to innovate or deviate from the content (which is often allowed so long as the lesson material remains the focus), or who otherwise cannot sustain the performative consistency demanded. Still, if the members of our “DaDa Teaching Fun” Facebook group are to be believed, the experience is positive for many. There is something apparently clarifying about having one’s emotional output valued, even commodified, in this way, for better or worse. This clarifying organization is partly what I find so unprecedented in DaDa’s online format, the “futuristic” something in its accomplishments so far. Because the work is uniform in many ways, because all material is pre-selected, the teacher-student relationship is mediated by the format in a way that demands emotional investment. There is little for the teacher to do beyond investing their full emotional energy into connecting with the student through the material, and the isolation of this task facilitates and fosters the formation of a strong emotional bond between teacher and student across the miles. It is this bond that retains teachers at DaDaABC, and the ease with which its formation flows from the company’s format is noteworthy—it even models, perhaps, an alternative mode of educational being.

As I and other teachers across the US face the prospect of adapting once-in-person courses to an online format in the coming months, the need to break through some invisible barrier feels tangible. There is a mental-emotional obstacle to communicating with and feeling connected to our students online that we struggle to surmount (Sklar). There is something in the act of screen-mediated “meeting” that denies the transmission of more subdued emotional communication, making any online interface feel like an exercise in the output of emotional labor with few reciprocal benefits. Many who have recently begun the work of online education are already exhausted. Bearing this new fatigue, like the labor involved in adapting course content and format, falls solely upon the educator. This new labor, this emotional-affective uphill climb, goes—and will go—uncompensated and unaccounted for.

In my work with DaDaABC, I have found that it is more exhausting not to emote and that only through consistent engagement —constant output of emotional labor—are the connections and learning results I desire achieved. I do this willingly because this is precisely what I am paid for; I am being paid for my emotional labor at DaDaABC above any other teaching function. My expertise is, of course, a factor in my compensation, but this is a given in any teaching job. My true labor with DaDaABC is what I infuse into the existing content, what I bring to the predetermined lesson and format. It is an obvious yet crucial idea to consider: that the creation of a learning environment and the production of its content is not the only work of a teacher—perhaps it is not even the primary work of a teacher. While it is likely not DaDaABC’s intention to bring this idea to light—they seek a quality-controlled learning environment above all else—their model isolates the emotional labor of the teacher in a way that illuminates how multifaceted the act of teaching has become within our modern, increasingly complicated world.

The true science-fictional element of DaDaABC and China’s online learning initiatives is, therefore, not the AI push to automation. It is not getting paid to simply “plug-in”, to not think, to do nothing or very little—quite the opposite. The science-fictional element of DaDaABC is being compensated as an educator, as any employee whatsoever, for the emotional labor of the job. Any surface-level analysis of the US job market will demonstrate that we do not pay our workers in this way. The “best” jobs in the US, those offering the most prestige and reward, are often those requiring the most education. Little heed is paid to the average teacher, to those who work with and for the disabled, or to those whose jobs place them under constant psychological strain—individuals whose emotional labor is part and parcel of what makes their work both incredibly difficult and unequivocally essential. Such uncompensated labor is what I am valued for at DaDaABC. Intentional or not, DaDaABC’s model isolates the reality and importance of emotional labor by the nature of its existence. In doing so, it becomes a possible model not only for US education—online or otherwise—but for labor more broadly, a model that ventures into the science-fictional territory of our collective social future.


WORKS CITED

Christakis, Erika. “Americans Have Given Up on Public Schools. That’s a Mistake.” The Atlantic, 11 September 2017, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/10/the-war-on-public-schools/537903/.

Goldstein, Dana, et al. “As School Moves Online, Many Students Stay Logged Out.” The New York Times, 6 April 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/us/coronavirus-schools-attendance-absent.html.

“How Is China Ensuring Learning When Classes Are Disrupted by Coronavirus?” UNESCO, 20 February 2020, en.unesco.org/news/how-china-ensuring-learning-when-classes-are-Disrupted-coronavirus.

Junjie. “7 Hottest Online Education Startups in China.” Pandaily, 8 June 2019, pandaily.com/7-hottest-online-education-startups-in-china/.

Kizilcec, René, et al. “Online Degree Stigma and Stereotypes: A New Instrument and Implications for Diversity in Higher Education.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2019, doi:10.2139/ssrn.3339768.

Li, Gabriel. “Here Is How AI Is Bringing Equality to Education in China.” Pandaily, 3 June 2019, pandaily.com/here-is-how-ai-is-bringing-equality-to-education-in-china/.

Lieber, Ron. “Colleges Won’t Refund Tuition. Autumn May Force a Reckoning.” The New York Times, 1 May 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/05/01/your-money/college-tuition-refunds-coronavirus.html.

Qu, Tracy. “China’s Schools Embrace Online Learning as Coronavirus Cancels Classes.” South China Morning Post, 4 February 2020, www.scmp.com/tech/enterprises/article/3048891/ china’s-traditional-schools-embrace-online-learning-coronavirus.

Sklar, Julia. “‘Zoom Fatigue’ Is Taxing the Brain. Here’s Why That Happens.” National Geographic, 24 April 2020, www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/04/coronavirus-zoom-fatigue-is-taxing-the-brain-here-is-why-that-happens/.

“The NCES Fast Facts Tool Provides Quick Answers to Many Education Questions (National Center for Education Statistics).” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education, 2019, nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=79.

Ubell, Robert. “How Online Learning Kept Higher Ed Open During the Coronavirus Crisis.” IEEE Spectrum: Technology, Engineering, and Science News, 13 May 2020, spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/at-work/education/how-online-learning-kept-higher-ed-open-during-the-coronavirus-crisis.

“Under DaDaABC’s Strategic Cooperation with McGraw-Hill Education, ‘Wonders’ Launches in China with Customized Online Content | Markets Insider.” Business Insider, 3 Apr. 2018, markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/under-dadaabc- s-strategic-cooperation-with-mcgraw-hill-education-wonders-launches-in-china-with-customized-online-content-1020440327.

Wang, Yifan, et al. “China’s Efforts to Lead the Way in AI Start in Its Classrooms.” The Wall Street Journal, 24 October 2019, www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-efforts-to-lead-the-way-in-ai-start-in-its-classrooms-11571958181.

Wexler, Natalie. “How Classroom Technology Is Holding Students Back.” MIT Technology Review, 2 Apr. 2020, www.technologyreview.com/2019/12/19/131155/classroom-technology-holding-students-back-edtech-kids-education/.

China’s Sonic Fictions: Music, Technology, and the Phantasma of a Sinicized Future


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)


China’s Sonic Fictions: Music, Technology, and the Phantasma of a Sinicized Future

Carmen Herold
Humboldt University of Berlin / Germany


Lost Futures

When the first world fair of the post-war period took place in 1958 in the Belgian capital Brussels, it was received with hesitation. Under the motto progress of mankind through progress of technology, the exhibitors, seemingly in denial of the horrors of World War II, were eager to show that through the help of technology, a civilization gone astray could be reconfigured. Solely built for the occasion, Brussel’s landmark, the Atomium, still reminds us today of the fatal confidence placed in future technologies such as nuclear power.

Another particularly conspicuous piece of architecture was the emphatically futurist Philips Pavilion. Conceptualized by the utopian Le Corbusier and his long-time assistant Iannis Xenakis, the multi-pointed tent made of concrete broke with all visual habits of the time. Centerpiece of the multimedia pavilion: the 8-minute composition Poème Electronique by experimental musician Edgar Varèse. Together with Xenakis, who would later be known as an acclaimed sound composer himself, they not only put forth one of the first ever electronically generated music pieces, but also devised an unprecedented, conceptronic Gesamtkunstwerk that fused architecture, film, sound, and light in an immersive spectacle. However, when Varèse’ sharp, distorted sounds ran over the 425 loudspeakers, it provoked unbearable discomfort (cf. Treib & Harley).

As much as Varès and Xenakis hoped to draw on the frenzied techno-enthusiasm of bygone days, the dystopian magnitudes of Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the looming threat of a nuclear war seemed to give way to a decaying pathos of modernity. As such, the fair’s general critique reads as a mourning for the grandeur of major world exhibitions of pre-war times and thus can be understood as an expression not only of a “collapsing faith in the future” (20), as Anna Greenspan detects, but also of a burgeoning scepticism in its most salient signifier: technology.1

Following the distressing realization about the conjunction of wartime violence and technological progress, Friedrich Kittler would have agreed that the fate of modernity is no longer decided at decadent world exhibitions, but rather on the battlefields of wars. No circumstance drives technological progress faster than warfare. As he so famously goes on to reveal, the widespread use of electronic devices in the entertainment industry is unthinkable “without the misuse of military equipment” (198). Or generalizing Hannah Arendt’s conclusion: “progress and catastrophe are two sides of the same coin” (7).

As all hopes in modernity seemed to have vaporized, technology’s brutalist heritage was now triumphantly hovering like a sword of Damocles over the aporia of advancement through technology. Still, science’s failed promise of technological salvation did not just vanish, but inscribed itself as a hauntological verdict in the futuristic topos of arts, especially electronic music.2

Probably the most prominent answer of a science-fictional version of futurism is Afrofuturism. Carrying the promise of an envisioned Black future through techno-culture, Afrofuturism lent tremendous agency to Afro-diasporic subjects. However, rather than reproducing futurities à la Marinetti, alternating articulations of a speculative tomorrow sought to reclaim a lost faith in the future. As the concept became popular in Western philosophical discourse, it was translated into other ethnofuturisms, such as Sinofuturism: a term that was coined in the context of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) at the University of Warwick in England. As I am going to argue, Afro- and Sinofuturism might be closely related on a conceptually historic level and share thematic interferences, but they are marked by important epistemological and political differences. These differences arise from their history of origin and become manifest in their respective relations to technology and the future. While Afrofuturism was an emancipatory diasporic project, the mere fact that Sinofuturism is a Western projection renders the term substantially misleading and useless. By discussing actual contemporary electronic music in China, I am going to look beyond the Western gaze that forged the term.

Alternative Futures

In the late 1990s, cultural theorist Kodwo Eshun became one of the leading figures in the theorization of Afrofuturism. Central to his argument is the observation that Afro-diasporic subjects, who for centuries have been viciously excluded from the unified knowledge of an intrinsically Western notion of science, attempted to reinterpret or even expropriate hackneyed ideas of an imagined future. Through devoted listening voyages, or “lexical listening” (Diederichsen 1.280), and by the introduction of a new kind of language regulation, he would reveal Afro-diasporic sound mythologies that narrate notions of the future far from Euro-centric dominance (cf. Eshun).

Similar to Edward George and others, Eshun emphasizes that pan-African science fiction is not primarily to be found in art or literature, like its Italian predecessor, but most notably in music, proving that science fiction in music—or as he calls it, sonic fiction—is as potent as related forms (cf. Buchwald). Against the prevailing narrative of electronic music as a historic continuum stemming from Karlheinz von Stockhausen via Kraftwerk all the way to Detroit techno, he offers the ideal blueprint for a paradigmatic historiographic shift: a sonological turn that breaks with white supremacist interpretations of Black music tied solely to a single-sociological, geographical, and linear-historic narration of origin. His cartography of a sonic Afrofuture pinpoints to the urgency of a multidirectional schema.3 Eshun therefore specifically accuses the gatekeepers of music journalism of always having “over-aestheticised and under-politicised” (Crawford) techno music and thus robbed it of its political potential.

Afrofuturism’s technological epiphanies and its narrations of extraterrestrial life play with the idea that, once displaced from their alien origins, Black bodies now live in an involuntary exile, often referred to as the Black Atlantic. This is, for instance, reflected in the progressive sound of tracks such as Cyberwolf, Death Star, or Punisher by Detroit techno label Underground Resistance. In the whirl of cyber utopia, they not only point to the post-industrial void of the Motocity, but are also carried by a last desperate attempt to unfold a Black future “without anthropocentrism,” without a history of repression, and “after humanism” (Diederichsen 1.277). Perhaps it is the syncretism in John Akomfrah’s film essay, The Last Angel of History, that best illustrates how Black technologies like blues or hiphop are key to overwriting prevailing techno-narratives and unlocking new spheres of existence, namely the Afro-future.

Warwick’s Sinofuturism

On the initiative of the Warwick-based Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), Kodwo Eshun was invited to attend the annual Virtual Realities (VR96) conference and the complimentary seminar Afro-Futures at the University of Warwick in 1996. His lectures on Afro-diasporic futurisms were met with great enthusiasm and triggered the CCRU’s close engagement with ethnofuturist tropes. Eshun soon became a close ally of this highly mythologized group of researchers, who, to this day, are important authorities in the field of cyber-theory (cf. Reynolds).

Initiated in 1995 by Sadie Plant and Nick Land, the CCRU was an interdisciplinary group of cultural theorists associated with the local philosophy department. Electrified by the ongoing rise of rave culture, the CCRU was obsessed with speculative futures and fully enthused by the idea of cyberspace and electronic music’s usurpation. However, the CCRU did not ascribe to the optimism of the Californian dotcom ideology, where technologies were regarded as de-hierarchizing network machines in a Brechtian sense. This hippie hilarity of the 60s was fundamentally at odds with the cyberpunkian modus vivendi of the CCRU. In this sense, the vision of the techno-future of these self-ascribed cyborgs remained gloomy. Influenced by theorists such as Deleuze and Guattari, members of the CCRU “opposed the rationalist tradition of a history of philosophy” (Deleuze 14). Captivated by the a-conventional language in Anti-Oedipus and Deleuze’s outright rejection of a potential myth of origin (cf. Deleuze & Guattari) only further endorsed their antithetical posture. In an act of countercultural response to the 1990s’ prevailing narratives of unity, peace, and the end of history (perhaps post-modernists’ most obscure and ignorant brainchild?!), the CCRU was fully committed to cyberpunk (cf. Reynolds & Beckett).

Aside from being deeply invested in Afrofuturism, another often-overlooked motif plays a central role in the technophile’s edifice of ideas: China. In reference to a global New Age fever and surely also inspired by Deleuze, transfigurations of pre-modern China on the one hand or a sinicized future on the other are frequently to be found in the texts, art, and music of individual members. It must be read as a kind of Afrofuturist extension that is biased by chronic sinophilia, when time and again elements of the I Ching, Sunzi, but also Xi Jinping ideology are points of reference.

Of exceptional quality are the sinophilic tendencies of the CCRU’s most controversial member: Nick Land, who believes that China is, “to a massive degree” (Beckett) already an accelerationist milieu. His accelerationist delusions are further stressed in the assertion that the fusion of sinicized Marxism and capitalism is “the greatest political engine of social and economic development the world has ever known” (Beckett). Having chosen Shanghai as his permanent residency, Land won’t cease to declare that “Neo-China arrives from the future” (Land, Meltdown). In view of his anti-democracy, neo-reactionism, and cosmic conspiracy theories, I often wonder how his version of the future differs from that of its fascist Italian originators. Is this not simply reproducing a Western-induced longing for a modernity of days gone by? Land’s romanticised Sinofuturism often remains hermetically sealed, evading an elaborate explanation as to what degree China actually is the future.

Also residing in Shanghai is former CCRU member Anna Greenspan, who holds the chair of Assistant Professor of Contemporary Global Media at the local branch of New York University, making it a hub for old and updated CCRU networks, such as that which grew up around Steve Goodman, better known as dubstep producer Kode9 and founder of the infamous music label Hyperdub. Back at Warwick, he would, in the interdisciplinary spirit of the CCRU, often accompany academic events with his music. Having visited Shanghai multiple times in the past years, he was also invited to attend NYU for a lecture. Goodman’s ardent engagement with China insinuated a deeper affection for China, which can be traced back to the late 1990s. Published in the Warwick Journal of Philosophy from 1997, for instance, Goodman already speculates about a vaguely dark prospect of China: “Sinofuturism is a darkside cartography of the turbulent rise of East Asia. It connects seemingly heterogeneous elements onto the topology of planetary capitalism” (Goodman, Fei Ch’ien 155). In his dissertation from 1999, he repeatedly draws on Sunzi’s The Art Of War or fantasizes about a “Tao of Turbulence” (Goodman, Turbulence 274). And when he identifies China as the “kingdom of heaven” the “direct counterpart of Europe” (Avanessian 23), one cannot help but draw a link to French sinologist François Jullien, whose similarly essentialist, supratemporal fixations of China play directly into the hands of the simplifying narrative of politics of difference. However, in contrast to Land, Goodman’s interest in China has led to an incessant creative exchange, which was also expressed through his relentless support for local artists.

Before his first trip to China in 2005, Goodman put up the emphatically culturalist music mix Sinogrime (Kode9). What is intended to make visible the matrix of stereotypes often strikes me as a lived-out China fever. Produced by a number of London’s underground musicians, the mix brings together Grime tracks created between 2002-2003. Incorporating a decidedly Chinese clang, the sound elements oscillate between traditional Chinese instruments or sound samples from old Kung Fu movies. For a short time, Sinogrime even became an independent sub-genre of Grime music.4 Originating from London, Sinogrime is a subtilized projection of an English Sinofuture.

China’s Sonic Fictions

When it comes to the popularization of the term Sinofuturism in China, it is crucial to look at the creative relationship Goodman holds with the English artist of Malaysian-Chinese descent, Lawrence Lek. In an interview, Lek explains how he has drawn inspiration for Sinofuturism through conversations with Goodman (Shen). In 2016, the artist’s eponymous film essay Sinofuturism (1839-2046AD) hit a nerve in both Western and Chinese art discourses. Aside from portraying a speculative Chinese future, his widely acclaimed movie seems to unmask the unintentional difference between the reception of Afrofuturism and Sinofuturism: While Afrofuturism was a crucial enabler for superceding racialized differences, Sinofuturism was intended to undergird a general sentiment of China being the Future, thus reinforcing difference. Regardless, the term was quickly popularized and manifested in an array of cultural fields, namely music, and often ascribed to the artists of Shanghai music label Svbkvlt among others, further blurring its definition while at the same time being increasingly degraded to a sentiment.

Therefore, I doubt that the terminology borrowed from the CCRU complies with its matter. As so often with genre terminology, Sinofuturism seems to be atrophying into a default template. Irrespective of whether genre essentialism is conceivable and desirable at all, since their subject matter is so vital, Sinofuturism does not offer an alternate epistemological surrogate. This is to say nothing of its potential sonic-, semiotic- and techno-orientalist pitfalls.

And yet, in the haze of the new techno-cities Shanghai, Shenzhen, or Hangzhou, the new breeding grounds for technological innovation, a unique sci-fi sound has unfolded that accompanies the rapid urban transformations. Despite what is aesthetically forced upon this (non)-genre, it has already gained cultural momentum while simultaneously comprising an unforeseen socio-political potential. Due to the often non-lyrical, sample- and remix-based formalism of electronic music, it is an ideal canvas with which to envision a critical stance of a sinicized, science-fictional condition, as it is not easy prey forcensorship.5 And here I specifically insist on science-fictional as a modifier, because the music is a realistic yet non-naturalistic, imaginative counter-narrative to the dominance of techno-science and post-socialist ideology, while at the same time I specifically avoid futurism, as the ‘future’ is not a thematic framework and in some cases is even rejected as such.

This is best exemplified by the Shanghai-based artist Osheyack, who has released multiple times on the earlier mentioned label Svbkvlt. In contrast to Afrofuturism’s take on technology, which made use of its imaginative potential, the sound on Osheyack’s album Memory Hierarchy is a response to an already converted information-technological environment. While today the brutal motifs of capital-accumulating profiteers are codified into software and increasingly disappearing behind smooth, aestheticized facades, Osheyack’s murky sonic fiction reveals this “omnipresence of surveillance” (Osheyack), as he states on his EP. Once a cipher for the undetected, Kittler’s proclaimed truth of the technological world is now fully translated into Osheyack’s quivering, stentorian beats. In his stance, the urban, networked subject is under permanent scrutiny. Conversely, the CCRU’s techno-fanaticism formed under antithetical conditions: the efficacious spell of the rave fever stimulated technophilic tendencies, rather than mass-digitization (cf. O’Hara).

Analogously unorthodox are the eclectic beat patterns in the DJ sets of Shenzhen local, Guo Jingxin aka Warmchainss. Situated somewhere between jungle, hip hop or happy hardcore, she, like many Chinese DJs, deliberately breaks with the dictates of genre and historic boundaries.6 As a resident of Shenzhen club Oil, her sets are a science-fictional echo of the insecurities caused by global capitalism and techno-autocracy. She tells me, ever since Shenzhen had the identity of a 高科技城市 high-tech city imposed upon it, she has fully discarded any conceptualization of a futurism. Coupled with the city’s growing atmosphere of tech euphoria, was also a growing formalism of its landscape. As a result, the cityscape increasingly reflects a commodity character and, she says, this inevitably leads to her and her surroundings falling victim to urban ennui and, what Deleuze and Guattari so famously called, deterritorialization. The music, the sonic fictions, may figure as a last reserve of a counter-culture.

While Warmchainss’ persona already hints at the dissolution of gender or human, Wu Shanmin alias 33EMYBW radicalizes this idea through her increasingly identifiable approach with the character of the arthropod. As an insectoid alien, she superimposes the producing human subject in favor of a post-human vision that sounds like “music from a different universe” and overlays rhythms, “that would be impossible for a human to play” (Ryce). The pulsating, epileptic beats on 33’s (pronounced San San) track Tentacle Centre attack the nervous system like razor-sharp pincers. The audited Arthropods Continent is at the same time organic without being material and mechanical without being purely functionalan Artificial Life (AL). It is precisely these intersections between the organic and the technological that interest 33EMYBW.

There is no doubt that finding an essentialist unity in the acoustical concerns of Osheyack, Warmchainss or 33EMYBW is a question too narrowly considered. Though, together with their aesthetic adherents, such as Chengdu’s newest nightclub Axis, Shanghai Community Radio, or the Beijing based label Do Hits, they embody a hyper-conscious response to the draconian flipside of China’s techno-tropes. Under the aspect of Foucault’s distribution of power, their science-fictional soundscapes reveal technology’s dispositive character. The envisioned sonic counter-reality further expresses the opposition to all formalisms and suggests an affirmation of a counter-culture in a non-normative fashion. Their explicit engagement with contemporary, present phenomenon, hence implicit and explicit rejection of futurisms, signal the fundamental misplacement of the term Sinofuturism.

Further, the firmly rooted term Sinofuturism reifies the dominant role of a Western gaze, which is seemingly more invested in the either—that is, observer-dependent—idealization or demonization of a purportedly sinicized future. In other words: Sinofuturism does not offer an epistemological alternative. Rather, I suggest, the concept sonic fiction will extrapolate its full potential if extracted from its theoretic milieu and if subjected to an emancipatory act of self-description. Then, in lieu of the techno-optimist faith of Edgar Varèse or Afro-diasporic surrogate-futures of Underground Resistance, China’s sonic fictions become ways to channel reality. Evading an escapist notion of fiction, while criticizing Chinese techno-tropes, but also circumventing a Western techno-orientalist speculation about a sinicized future. Who knows, maybe Howie Lee’s track 中非友谊大桥 Sino-African Friendship Bridge on his most recent EP 天地不仁 Tian Di Bu Ren, proclaims the dissolution of ethnocentrist soundscapes in favor of transcultural sonic fictions.


NOTES

1. Of all people, it is Pierre Schaeffer, founder of musique concrète, member of the French resistance, and, incidentally, yet another collaborateur of Iannis Xenakis, who would, in his Studio d’Essai, experiment with technologies invented in Nazi Germany (Stubbs, Kindle Location 1271-1276).

2. Echoes of this dire certitude ring when Maggie Roberts notes, that “the violence of the sounds in techno, is like being turned inside out, smeared, penetrated” (Reynolds).

3. Writer Kalí Tal further insists that the interconnection of Afro-American theory and cyberculture must be subject to a different interpretation and thus notions of a speculative, technologized Afrofuture require a corresponding reading.

4. This hardcore oeuvre with Chinese characteristics is only surpassed by the sonic orientalism of Fatima Al-Quadiri: in 2014 she releases her album Asiatisch on Goodman’s label Hyperdub.

5. This very condition suggests that the cultural importance of electronic music in China will be intensified. That some of China’s most notorious young artists often choose or are closely related to club cultural contexts is a strong indicator (e.g. Asia Dope Boys, Chen Wei 陈维, Cheng Ran 程然, Ren Hang 任航, et al.). Shanghai-based writer Xi Shaonan 郗少男 has explored this more closely in his article on the intersection of club culture and art for Leap Magazine 艺术界.

6. An expression of the absence of (popcultural) historicity or resistance to the West’s obsession with it?


WORKS CITED

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt, 1973.

Avanessian, Armen, and Mahan Moalemi. Ethnofuturismen: Befunde zu gemeinsamen und gegensätzlichen Zukünften, edited by Armen Avanessian and Mahan Moalemi, Merve Verlag, 2018, pp. 7-39.

Beckett, Andy. “Accelerationism: How a Fringe Philosophy Predicted the Future We Live in.” The Guardian, 11 May 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/11/accelerationism-how-a-fringe-philosophy-predicted-the-future-we-live-in.

Buchwald, Dagmar. Invisible Colonies: Das Parasitäre als Strategie postmoderner Ästhetik und Politik. edited by Marcus Hahn, Susanne Klöpping, and Holger Kube Ventura, Gunter Narr Verlag, 2002, pp. 43–56.

Crawford, Romi. “Interview with Kodwo Eshun.” Kanopy, November 2011, https://www.kanopy.com/product/kodwo-eshun-interview.

Deleuze, Gilles. Unterhandlungen 1972-1990. Suhrkamp, 1993.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. Anti-Ödipus: Kapitalismus und Schizophrenie, Suhrkamp,1977.

Diederichsen, Diedrich. Über Pop-Musik. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2014.

Eshun, Kodwo. More Brilliant than Sun. Quartet Books Limited, 1998.

Goodman, Steve. “Fei Ch’ien Rinse Out: Sino-Futurist Under-Currency.” Warwick Journal of Philosophy, vol. 7, 1998. p. 155.

Goodman, Steve. Turbulence: a cartography of postmodern violence. 1991. University of Warwick, PhD dissertation.

Greenspan, Anna. Shanghai Future. Modernity Remade. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Harley, James. Xenakis: His Life in Music. Taylor & Francis Books, 2004.

Kittler, Friedrich. Die Wahrheit der technischen Welt. Suhrkamp, 2013.

Kode9 (Steve Goodman). “Sinogrime.” SoundCloud, 2005, https://soundcloud.com/kodenine/kode9-sinogrime-minimix-2005.

Land, Nick. “Meltdown.” Abstract Culture, swarm 1, n.d., http://www.ccru.net/swarm1/1_melt.htm.

O’Hara, Dan. History of Virtual Futures. YouTube, uploaded by Virtual Futures, 1 January 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=riFRRkqDxQI.

Osheyack. “Memory Hierarchy.” BandCamp, 24 April 2020, https://svbkvlt.bandcamp.com/album/memory-hierarchy.

Reynolds, Simon. “Renegade Academia: The Cybernetic Culture Research Unit.” Energy Flash, 3 November 2009, https://energyflashbysimonreynolds.blogspot.com/2009/11/renegade-academia-cybernetic-culture.html.

Ryce, Andrew. “Label of the Month: Svbkvlt.” Resident Advisor, 3 February 2020, https://www.residentadvisor.net/features/3604.

Shen, Danni. “Sinofuturism: An Interview with Lawrence Lek.” On Screen Today, 3 July 2017, http://www.onscreentoday.com/conversation/sinofuturism.

Stubbs, David. Mars by 1980: The Story of Electronic Music. Faber & Faber, 2018.

Treib, Marc. Space Calculated in Seconds: The Philips Pavilion, Le Corbusier, Edgar Varèse. Princeton Architectural Press, 1996.

Data Narrator: Digital Chronotopes in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)


Data Narrator: Digital Chronotopes in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction

Astrid Møller-Olsen
Lund University / Sweden


Contemporary Chinese science fiction fills a dual role as an imaginary exercise ground for modern technologies as well as an unofficial forum for expressing hopes and fears regarding future political, environmental, and technological developments. In the words of literary scholar Mingwei Song, science fiction narratives bring into focus “invisible” dimensions of reality, that are repressed, ignored, or not yet dreamt of in mainstream discourse (Song 547). In this essay, I employ Elana Gomel’s concept of “impossible topologies” to analyze and compare three literary visions of how digital realities might in the future augment, as well as impede, the physical world we live in: From Liu Cixin’s 刘慈欣 use of virtual reality as world simulation in The Three Body Problem (san ti 三体, 2008), toTang Fei’s 糖匪 portrayal of an “ocean of data” as the source of all stories in “Call Girl” (huangse gushi 黄色故事, 2013), to Ma Boyong’s 马伯庸 Orwellian narrative “The City of Silence” (jijing zhi cheng 寂静之城, 2005),1 where all interpersonal communication is carried out soundlessly via strictly censored online forums. I use spatiotemporal concepts to analyze digital realities as alternative, parallel spacetimes that afford imaginary arenas for experimentation, escape, and control.

Cyberfiction—fiction about digital and computer-generated levels of reality—has been defined as a subgenre of science fiction that “downplays this interplanetary theme in favor of imagining the faux space of databases and networks” (McCallum 350). The product of a specific cultural and historical context, this genre features the “integration of technology and Eighties counterculture” (Sterling xii); its most famous and pioneering examples include the film Blade Runner from 1982 (dir. Ridley Scott) and William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer from 1984. In China, the current boom in science fiction writing, for a national as well as global market, has introduced a new cultural edge, as well as a more contemporary addition to this subgenre that merits further study. As digital realms become increasingly integrated into our lives, the sci-fi stories depicting them span a wide variety of settings from the alien to the quotidian. In the following brief comparison, I present three very different examples of how contemporary Chinese writers imagine possible digital futures, showing both how the genre is not merely an 80s fetish but still relevant today, as well as highlighting the diversity of contemporary sci-fi from the Chinese-speaking world.

Literary Scholar Elana Gomel has pointed out that increasingly in this day and age, “we live in sorts of space that may not be grasped in Bachelard’s sense—or rather, may not be grasped by the narrative paradigms inherited from the nineteenth-century realistic novel. Video games, movies, the Internet, and global transportation constantly reconfigure our spatial perception” (Gomel 5). The phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard advocated a body-centered and psychologically invested approach to space in his influential work The Poetics of Space, and it is this immediate sensuality that Gomel feels needs to be updated to include cyber and virtual realities. Not least in contemporary fiction is this update required as “representation of impossible spaces is an integral part of the narrative poetics of modernity and postmodernity” (Gomel 6). “Impossible topologies” is the term she uses to describe the non-physical or post-Newtonian spaces, those spaces that do not conform to absolute or tangible notions of time and space. So how do writers depict and help us imagine these impossible topologies, not to mention believe in them? What new digital chronotopes2 do they invent? How do the futures look that they create on the page?

Digitalization as Evolution

In his world-famous novel The Three-Body Problem from 2008, Liu Cixin describes a computer game developed to simulate life on a distant planet: “As a game, Three Body only borrows the background of human society to simulate the development of Trisolaris [三体]” (248/168)3 The object of the computer game is three-fold; apart from being a simulation meant to solve the very real problems faced by the Trisolaran civilization, it is also a personality test to judge whether or not a player is suited to form part of a secret society to help the Trisolarans take over planet Earth: “’The goal of Three Body is very simple and pure: to gather those of us who have common ideals [志同道合],’ Pan said” (248/168). Finally, for several of the more experienced gamers, the computer-built world constitutes an alternative reality, a haven from their humdrum lives: “’I’m a bit sick of the real world,’ the young reporter said. ‘Three Body is already my second reality [第二现实].’ ‘Really?’ Pan asked, interested. ‘Me too,’ the software company vice president said. ‘Compared to Three Body, reality is so vulgar and unexciting’” (246/167).

Apart from the computer game, the novel also depicts an interesting reversal of the body-centered versus virtual spatiality that Gomel writes about. Here, computers are not mere boxes for digital landscapes, but are envisioned as an extension of the perceptiveness of the human body into digital realties: “The computer did in fact make its first appearance in Trisolaris as a formation of people, before becoming mechanical and then electronic” (248/168). Seen from this perspective, the computer is a natural evolution of human civilization, a kind of human superstructure: “But suppose that of the thirty million soldiers forming the computer, each one is capable of raising and lowering the black and white flags a hundred thousand times per second […] According to some signs, the bodies of the Trisolarans who formed the computer were covered by a purely reflective surface, which probably evolved as a response to survival under extreme conditions of sunlight. The mirrorlike surface could be deformed into any shape, and they communicated with each other by focusing light with their bodies. This kind of light-speech [光线语言] could transmit information extremely rapidly and was the foundation of the Trisolaran-formation computer [人列计算机]” (247-248, 168). As such, the virtual reality generated by the superstructure of the computer is hardly different from the social reality generated by the superstructure of the city.

Liu’s novel poses an interesting dual image of digital technologies as represented by Earth and Trisolaris culture. Whereas Earth people see the virtual world as an alternative technological reality, whether simply a playground or more real that the physical one, on Trisolaris, the digital is described as a natural development of human civilization. In The Three-Body Problem, digital realities are represented as 1) trial grounds for physical reality, 2) a way to probe and manipulate the human mind, 3) a human superstructure of light. The computer game becomes a chronotope that blurs the boundary between reality and imagination, as well as a metafictional gesture pointing out that the two realities (virtual and physical) are both fictional, existing side-by-side on the pages of Liu’s book.

The Ocean of Data

Another author to imagine the digital in more naturalistic terms is Tang Fei. In her short story “Call Girl” from 2013, she explores the realm of fantasy and imagination and envisions it as a boundless ocean of information: “Fundamental nature [本质] consists of zeros and ones, part of the ultimate database. This sea is an illusion, a projection of that fundamental nature. The sea of data [海的数据] is too big to be compressed into the shape of a dog. Of course, you may still call it a dog. From the perspective of the story, nothing is impossible” (126/274).4 Cyberrealities are not computer-generated alternatives to the physical world, but represent the deeper, binary structure of the universe. Here, the only force that makes this endless surge of numbers congeal into phenomena is narrative imagination. Through the structuring power of narrative, the fundamental nature of the world is molded into recognizable patterns such as dogs. As such, the sea of data represents a kind of nirvana, where selfhood ends and where one can immerse oneself in the holistic universe: “The man can feel the transparent currents—1100110111—pass through him. They’ll flow through the countless trenches and caves at the bottom of the sea and leave this place behind. Someday this ancient source will dry up, too. But not now. As far as the man is concerned, it is eternity [永恒]” (127/275). Raw imagination is described as a natural resource that might one day “dry up,” but until then will form the raw material for all human cognition.

In Tang’s story, imagination is described as the source of all phenomena and depicted as a primeval swamp of data, from which the reality perceived by human beings is formed through the structural power of narrative. Like Liu, Tang fuses natural and digital images of reality in a metafictional exploration of the world-creating power of human imagination. Here, the cyberrevolution is not only about the future, but also provides a key to understanding the very basics of the universe as a vast undivided sea of information. Her holistic vision of spacetime as a mingling of two primary forces represented by 0 and 1 employs the technological vocabulary of the computer age to recall the ancient philosophical concepts of yin and yang. By linking these two seemingly inconsistent domains, Tang creates a chronotope of eternal oneness against which both future and past technology and natural philosophy are merely products of the human mind’s ability to create patterns from the ocean of data.

Language, a Software for Surveillance

Where the two previous examples describe digital realities in semi-natural terms and use them to represent possible alternative (alien) worlds, as well as point to the role of imagination in understanding our own, the following example presents the darker side of cybertechnologies. In Ma Boyong’s short story “The City of Silence” from 2005, the Orwellian world in which the protagonist lives is under constant and pervasive monitoring by a digital construct known as the Web: “He was glad of the opportunity to be temporarily free of the Web [互联网络]. On the Web, he was nothing more than the sum of a series of dry numbers and ‘healthy words’ [健康词汇]” (5/161). Everyone has an official avatar on the Web, a virtual personality through which the authorities keep track of them and which constitutes their only portal of engagement with society. In a fictional parable that combines images from Chinese internet-censorship5 with George Orwell’s Newspeak,6 the number of “healthy words” allowed on the Web are dwindling by the day. Furthermore, plans are afoot to extend this linguistic poverty outside the Web as well, by help of a device known as the Listener: “The appropriate authorities [有关部门] were attempting to gradually unify life on the Web and life in the physical world so that they would be equally healthy. . . . The Listener [旁听者] was not yet sufficiently advanced to adjust to the unique rhythm and intonation of each person. In response, the appropriate authorities required that all citizens speak in this manner, so that it would be more convenient to check if anyone used words outside the regulations.” (5-6/161-162). As this digital structuring is slowly spreading from the virtual to the material world, a small group of people decide to create a club where they can meet in person and engage in illicit actions, such as critical discussion, sex, and reading, away from the watchful eye of the authorities. “The Talking Club [说话会] is a gathering where we can say anything we want: There are no sensitive words here, and no healthy Web” (16/175).

In Ma’s story, the digital realm is not a haven or a natural resource, but a Web of control slowly asphyxiating freedom of thought by deliberately and steadily depleting language, as “every hour, every minute, words vanished from it” (30/195). The advent of this digital linguistic control is described as a threat not only to liberty, but to life itself: “He was stuck in an electronic quagmire [电子淤泥] and he couldn’t breathe” (13/170). Here, freedom is symbolized by linguistic diversity, both in terms of a rich Chinese language without forbidden zones and by invoking various foreign languages such as the Greek, English, German, and French found in books. In their illicit sharing of books, the Talking Club recalls images from the Cultural Revolution, where sent down youths continued to copy and rewrite banned literature to be shared as shouchaoben (手抄本 hand-copied fiction, Henningsen 111-112). In “The City of Silence,” language is the fabric through which we live and breathe, while both books and the internet are historical and future technologies for sharing that can be censured.

In this brief comparison of three examples from contemporary Chinese sci-fi, we have seen the impossible topology of the digital realm envisioned as a lightscape, a seascape, and as a cityscape under surveillance. The chronotopes we have encountered include the computer-generated alternative reality in The Three-Body Problem, the ocean of data in “Call Girl,” and language as World Wide Web in “The City of Silence.” The digitalization of our world is imagined variously as the next step in the civilization process, a metaphor for understanding narrative cognition, and a weapon of authoritarian control. To be sure, the digital domains of our lives already incorporate all these aspects and more, but sci-fi narratives such as these can help us visualize and comprehend what they might come to mean in the future, and a not too distant future at that.


NOTES

1. I want to thank Mingwei Song for generously helping me access Ma Boyong and Tang Fei’s original manuscripts.

2. The term chronotope was developed by Mikhail Bakhtin in his essay “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel” from 1937, in which he defines the term thusly: “We will give the name chronotope (literally, ‘time space’) to the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature” (84). I find it useful as a term that recognizes the inseparability of space and time in our experience of reality and directs analytical focus towards the narrative-shaping impact of specific time-spaces. For a more recent reconfiguration of literary time-spaces in a Sinophone context, see Møller-Olsen.

3. In the following references to quotes from The Three Body Problem, the first page number refers to the Chinese text and the second to Ken Liu’s English translation.

4. In the following references to quotes from “Call Girl,” the first page number refers to the Chinese text and the second to Ken Liu’s English translation.

5. “If Chinese internet users think Big Brother is watching them, or that fellow users may report

them for “provoking trouble [寻衅滋事]” then they make think twice about what they search for, what they read, what they forward, and what comments they make” (Abbott 167).

6. “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the worldview and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible.” (Orwell, “Appendix”).


WORKS CITED

Abbott, Jason P. “Of Grass Mud Horses and Rice Bunnies.” APP, vol. 11, no. 1, 2019, pp. 162-177.

Gomel, Elana. Narrative Space and Time. Routledge, 2014.

Henningsen, Lena. “What is a Reader? Participation and Intertextuality in Hand-Copied Entertainment Fiction from the Chinese Cultural Revolution.” MCLC, vol. 29, no. 2, 2017, pp. 109-158.

Hockx, Michel. Internet Literature in China. Columbia UP, 2015.

Liu, Cixin. The Three-Body Problem. Translated by Ken Liu. Head of Zeus, 2014.

Liu, Cixin. 刘慈. San ti 欣 三体 (Three Body). Chongqing Publishing Group, 2016.

Ma, Boyong. “Jijing zhi cheng 寂静之城 [The silence city].” Uncensored version. Private manuscript, pp. 1-31.

Ma, Boyong. “The City of Silence.” Translated by Ken Liu. Invisible Planets, edited by Liu, Head of Zeus, 2016, pp. 153-196.

McCallum, Ellen L. “Mapping the Real in Cyberfiction.” Poetics Today, vol. 21, no. 2, 2000, pp. 349-377.

Møller-Olsen, Astrid. Seven Senses of the City: Urban Spacetime and Sensory Memory in Contemporary Sinophone Fiction. 2020. Lund University, PhD dissertation.

Orwell, George. 1984. Signet Classic, 2003.

Song, Mingwei. “Representations of the Invisible: Chinese Science Fiction in the Twenty-First Century.” The Oxford Handbook of Modern Chinese Literatures, edited by Carlos Rojas and Andrea Bachner, Oxford UP, 2016, pp. 546-565.

Sterling, Bruce. “Preface.” Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, edited by Sperling, Ace, 1988, pp. ix-xvi.

Tang, Fei. “Huangse gushi 黄色故事 [A Yellow Story].” Kanjian jingyuzuo de ren 看见鲸鱼座的人 [The One Who Saw Cetus]. Shanghai Art and Culture Press, 2017, pp. 117-128.

Tang, Fei. “Call Girl.” Translated by Ken Liu, Invisible Planets, edited by Ken Liu, Head of Zeus, 2016, pp. 265-276.

Capitalist Monster and Bottled Passengers: Political Stakes of Embodiment in The Reincarnated Giant and The Last Subway


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)


Capitalist Monster and Bottled Passengers: Political Stakes of Embodiment in The Reincarnated Giant and The Last Subway

Lyu Guangzhao
University College London / UK


During the Dublin Worldcon in August 2019, I attended a panel discussion entitled “The Global Perspectives on Chinese Science Fiction,” which I had the privilege of transcribing. At this panel, Professor David Der-wei Wang, the Edward C. Henderson Professor of Chinese Literature at Harvard University, once again reiterated his understanding of Chinese SF as a unique approach to engage in the broader domain of cultural politics in contemporary China. While acknowledging that “our [sf] writers are really motivated to create a lot of new and different themes,” he believes the underpinning question still to be answered urgently is: “how much political stake are we taking at this critical moment of Chinese history?”

New Wave, New Themes

Since the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel went to Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem, the last few years have seen a rising dynamism of Chinese SF on the international stage. An increasing number of Chinese SF stories have been systematically translated for non-Chinese-speaking readers. They are collected in anthologies and magazines, introduced at SF conventions and conferences, and discussed in academic journals. Through such a process, an SF renaissance in China famously termed “The Chinese New Wave” by Song Mingwei (After 1989 7-8) gradually grew in recognition among the global SF community. The beginning of the Chinese New Wave can be dated back to the year 1989 with Liu Cixin’s novelette China 2185, a story still not formally published and only circulated online, that indicates certain literary characteristics that were different from “pre-New Wave” stories (Song, After 1989 8). Alternatively, from the perspective of publishing and international promotion, the Chinese New Wave started in 1991 when the magazine Science Literature and Art (Kexue Wenyi) changed its name to Science Fiction World (SFW, Kehuan Shijie) to strengthen the fiction side of SF . It serves as the most important and most influential platform for Chinese SF publication since the 1990s and embarks “on a solitary quest to establish the [SF ] genre permanently in China” (Huss 95). Fostered by the “transformed” SFW, a robust group of “the Newborn” and “Post-Newborn Generation” SF writers (Wu et al. 52) is endeavouring to provide the “new and different themes” concerning the “political state” mentioned by David Der-wei Wang at the 2019 Worldcon panel. In doing so, they challenge the dominant yet misleading expectation of SF stories, by both the public and a large group of elite intellectuals, as an educational medium for the popularisation of science and technology.

Beginning to take shape in either 1989 or 1991, the Chinese New Wave cannot be separated from a series of social and cultural changes towards a “post-socialist” society (Zhang 9-16). This transition from “relying on the state” to “relying on one’s self” resulted from accelerated economic reforms of marketisation and privatisation under Deng Xiaoping’s instruction, a new normative order “for self-promoting subjects to manage their lives through the pursuit of private interest, but within political limits set by authoritarian rule” (Ong and Zhang 15). The competitive market drives and personal responsibility became pivotal in taking care of people’s livelihood, namely education, health, and other forms of social welfare that used to be protected by the state or state-owned enterprises (SOEs). With this, Chinese people could also develop a certain degree of individual autonomy, indicating that the perceived dissolution and degeneration of the totality of a purported socialist reality “open[ed] a narrow gate on a reconfiguration of economic, social, political, and cultural powers” (Zhang 18). The Chinese discourse on privatisation has therefore travelled beyond market activities and been changed into a subjectivising impulse that aims to prime the powers of the private self. In the 1990s, Chinese citizens were urged to “free up” their individual capacities to confront dynamic conditions in all areas of life “without seeking guidance from the state, society, or family” (Ong and Zhang 7). The breaking of the socialist totality, however, has also resulted in the breaking of the ‘iron rice bowl,’ made true via ‘the evisceration of social protections, the imposition of user fees, the creation of a flexible labour market regime, and the privatisation of assets formerly held in common’ (Harvey 150).

Therefore, people in China found themselves in turmoil where the previous living stability projected by the socialist ideology and planned economy had been replaced by the uncertainty and insecurity accompanied with the competitive nature of the free market. The gap between the rich and the poor widened, as well as that of inequality between different social classes. “Someone somewhere and somehow is getting very rich” (Harvey 142). In this way, the emergence of the Chinese New Wave along with such a profound social transformation would be underestimated if it is merely rendered as a historical coincidence. Instead, the most recent renaissance of Chinese sf since the 1990s should be understood as a literary or cultural response directly to China’s change, an interrogation of the calculative logic in market competition that has been increasingly considered the social norm. Although the “new and different themes” identified in the Chinese New Wave may vary from writer to writer, this essay will concentrate on one of them, i.e. the embodiment of market forces that are thoroughly transforming the current China, in two short stories—Wang Jinkang’s “The Reincarnated Giant” (2005, Zhuansheng de Juren) and Han Song’s “The Last Subway” (1998, Moban Ditie).

The Reincarnated Capitalist Monster

For anyone interested in the Chinese New Wave, Wang Jinkang is a name that should never be overlooked. He has been commonly known for using “body,” “life,” or “biology” as the central metaphors in many of his works such as “Leopard (1998, “Bao”), “Sowing on Mercury (2002, “Shuixing Bozhong”), Ant Life (2007, Yi Sheng), and, of course, “The Reincarnated Giant” (“Zhuansheng de Juren” 2005) here to be discussed. Included as the cover story in the anthology edited by Song Mingwei published in 2018, RG portrays an eccentric billionaire, Imagai Nashihiko, who hires biologists and doctors to transplant his brain into an infant body and in this way attempts to realise his ambitious reincarnation. His surgery turns out to be successful, but what comes later goes terribly wrong. After his brain transplantation, Mr. Imagai, now an infant with a seventy-year old mind, completely surrenders to his lust and desire. His physical growth, fuelled by unlimited food and resources, “could no longer be described with terms like ‘felt like’ and ‘was like,’ and now, if you stood next to him while he nursed, you could actually see his body inflating like a balloon” (Wang 329). Eventually, his mountain-like yet still “insatiable” (347) body, transforming whatever he has “shovelled into [his] enormous mouth” into “excrement” (348), collapses upon itself, together with his business empire. In such a process, giant Mr. Imagai’s monstrous consumption of matter and bodies fits in Marx’s famous description of capital as “dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks” (Marx 342). Further, he can be considered as what Steve Shaviro (281-290) called a “capitalist monster”.

Preying on everything around him, Mr. Imagai is in a constant state of dissatisfaction, always in want of more. No matter how much food he consumes, how much resource invested and how many wet nurses found to feed the giant infant, his thirst for intaking and assimilating the “surplus values” (if put in a Marxist term) of those who work for him can never truly reach an end. These values, in turn, would become “a part of this giant’s body and participate in his ravenous consumption” (350) in further steps. The productivity and productive potentials of other people serving Mr. Imagai’s needs are in this way quantified, measured by, and sold for wages in an economised and commercialised discourse. They are extracted, exploited, and exhausted by Mr. Imagai as the embodiment of capitalist market principles, which in reality, has been significantly changing today’s China. The creativity and spirituality of human beings as social “subjects” are gradually drained out through the competitive logic of capitalist accumulation, whereas the empty bodies with no exploitable values are left over and eventually cast aside, just like the wet nurses who “marched in and out of Mr. Imagai’s room, like images on a revolving lantern” (329). Expanding continuously, the vampiric capitalist monster at last dies upon his own weight and whatever he consumed previously becomes “a mountainous pile of flesh” (351)—lifeless and homogeneous.

As observed by He Xi, another reputable Chinese New Wave SF writer, Wang Jinkang’s stories stand out for two notable characteristics—on the one hand his challenge and interrogation of humanity and ethics, and on the other hand, even more importantly, his emphasis on SF ’s retrospection on social and political concerns (69-71). The spectre of such a capitalist monster in RG is in fact far more than a merely science fictional creation, whose realistic connotations should be viewed in line with the pressure, confusion, and uncertainty felt by Chinese people during China’s recent and ongoing transformation. They have increasingly found themselves formulated as “human capital” (Brown 32) or “calculative agencies” (Callon 3) embedded in a marketised social discourse. This is actually a zero-sum game compulsory for everyone, even including the transplantation experts and wet nurses, apart from Mr. Imagai himself. In this story, doctors and wet nurses are provided with two payment methods—“one option involved a high fixed salary, while the other offered instead a low salary with a bonus […] one year later” (328). Interestingly, most of them would prefer the second option, which can be connected, in many ways, to the contractual system that has dominated the private sectors in current China, and increasingly in Chinese public institutions such as schools, universities, and hospitals. As the responsibility of welfare and livelihood provision is transferred from the state to individuals, people are incentivised, subjected to a “calculative,” “entrepreneurial,” and “human-capitalised” logic of self-investment and self-appreciation (Feher 21-41), to take risks in exchange for future benefits.

Unfortunately, however, the attempt of doctors and wet nurses to earn their bonus eventually turns out to be vain, since none of them manages to endure until the end of their contracts. Here in such a capitalist game, the winner takes all while others will lose, as their values and productivity are to be stripped away by the competitive market mechanism, integrated into Mr. Imagai’s giant body. The capitalist monster embodied in RG in this way interrogates, from a critical perspective, the current economic and socio-political transition in China towards a discourse guided by market principles where people are rendered as undifferentiated human capital. Such homogeneous nature is also represented in another New Wave story written by Han Song, “The Last Subway.”

The Bottled Passengers

Among all writers of the Chinese New Wave, Han Song stands in a unique position. He is not only well-known for his sf contributions but also can be compared to Lu Xun for his use of cannibalism and his social criticism in a satiric tone (Jia 103-115). Li Guangyi likens his writing to Franz Kafka’s in term of his ambiguous, indeterminant, and absurd writing style: “One can use refined language, magnificent imagination, or any number of other adjectives to describe Han Song’s [stories], but no phrase captures Han Song’s writing better than ‘eerie’” ( 29). Such a sense of “eeriness”, according to Nathaniel Isaacson, can be considered “the result of an uncanny blend of magical realism and grotesque transformations of the human body with a palpable sense that these are quotidian descriptions of everyday experience” (4). Meanwhile, it is also the “eeriness,” the weird and peculiar phrases, expression, narrations, that makes his stories particularly difficult to translate. Consequently, he can hardly reach the equivalent leading reputation among the English readership as he has in China.

“The Last Subway” (LS) is one of Han Song’s most influential short stories, one that was originally published in 1998 and later rendered as the first chapter of a novel, Subway (2011), in which chapters are loosely connected to each other. However, it has not been printed in English yet and its translation is only available in the online magazine Pathlight: New Chinese Writing (2012). Unlike the capitalist monster in RG, LS accommodates a group of “strange people […] no taller than [a] ten-year-old,” who “worked in pairs to move the sleeping passengers [on the last subway], one dragging the arms, the other carrying the legs,” and stuffed them “into large, fluid-filled glass bottles” (3124, Kindle location). Such a “grotesque transformation of human body” in Isaacson’s words to describe the uncanny dwarves and bottled passengers, can be put in a broader context of China’s social transition. It should be understood as an embodiment of people’s fading sense of security and meaningfulness, as they have been increasingly considered not human agencies, but human capital embedded in a sophisticated social and economic network.

Despite the success of China’s market-oriented reforms in economic terms, an economised cultural discourse based on economic values and calculation has been extended to every dimension of human life—“a process of remaking the knowledge, form, content and conduct appropriate to these [dimensions]” (Brown 31). As the Chinese society becomes more “efficient” than ever, with the state and social units (danwei, 单位) retreating from welfare provision, individuals, though reluctantly, find themselves becoming human capital in a market competition. Here, everything is measured by quantified values. People’s survival is subject to the maintenance or the deterioration of such homogeneous values that would allow for “the conversion of every human need or desire into profitable enterprise” (Brown 28). In this way, their subjectivity is gradually dissolved, assimilated, and eventually consumed by the economised and entrepreneurial social discourse configured by various value symbols rooted in a world of consumerism and commodity fetishism where the neon lights of the “Coca-Cola sign” would constantly blaze (Han 3033, or “C Company” in his other stories). Their jobs, although unique from their own perspective, turns out to be nothing but one of the functional points attached to the entire social network. They are identical to each other as long as they work well.

The sense of homogeneity as such of human capital, the sense of meaninglessness, of nihilism, of repetition, or in Fredric Jameson’s terms, of “pastiche” and “schizophrenia” (1-54), acts as the central metaphor in LS. Here, a train full of passengers “ran through the night without returning to a station” (3205), yet no one notices, no one cares. The passengers, or more precisely, their social identities, disappearing with the train, will then be perfectly replaced by the “strange people” found by the protagonist Lao Wang in the subway tunnel. They are all “short in stature and waring grey jump-suits and masks” (3124), looking like the products of the same manufacturing line, and endeavour to seal the passengers in glass bottles. In this way, these bottled bodies are moved “along the rails into the darkness” (3124) and hidden deeply under a seemingly dynamic city. Only their identities, or more importantly, their ID numbers, are left to be occupied by some eerie, homogeneous creatures. Just like what Lao Wang did repetitively for his job “to fill out a pile of forms” (3255), these numbers are being watched and taken by “countless pairs of eyes” (3255) belonging to people trapped in this economised discourse and thus reduced to human capital.

All of sudden, Lao Wang realises that only in his youth did he feel his liveliness and subjectivity in this world, now held only in distant memories of air-defence drills, protest parades, air-raid shelter safaris, etc. It was a time before China’s market-oriented transformation. While the current world is more like “a pot of old soup that [is] now being replaced drop by drop, just as his generation [is] being replaced by a younger one” (3405), people are now quite used to this ruthless process. Therefore, Lao Wang breaks his routine, and tries to do something he has never thought of. He retires from his repetitive, tedious job, giving his social position away to someone to come, and absolves from the discourse made of economised values, symbols, and ID numbers. He searches for his long-lost subjectivity and uniqueness. He discovers that people’s emotions and sensitivity are hidden somewhere underground, embodied by those missing passengers sealed in bottles. He wishes to step further, to embrace such an underworld. “The trip in the tunnel felt like a second birth. A far-off newness welled up in his heart, and in the twinkling of an eye, he felt embarrassed. The world he had clung to for so many years [is] toppling” (3391).

Bit by bit, Lao Wang manages to detach himself from the economised social network, and eventually entraps himself in a bottle he witnessed on that missing train. “The fluid surrounding him [is] particularly full and smooth and seem[s] imbued with endless life. Lao Wang, his face content, look[s] like a fetus sleeping soundly in the womb.”—his “primordial form” (3473). It is at this very moment, among the last few paragraphs of the story, that Lao Wang, the narrator previously known as “he,” found his name. “He” is Lao Wang and should not be called by a random title like others who have been consumed by the society—namely the “telephone operators,” “wives,” “young women,” “office chiefs,” etc. The world outside the bottles functions just like a capitalist monster embodied in “The Reincarnated Giant,” constantly exploiting and exhausting the values of the homogeneous human capital represented by lifeless ID numbers and symbols.

The Chinese New Wave was born in an age of change and transition, for which many of the “new themes” noticed by scholars at the Worldcon panel in 2019 have provided a wide range of interrogation and criticism. Here both in “The Reincarnated Giant” and “The Last Subway,” the calculative and competitive logic of market is embodied by a giant infant who can be seen as a capitalist monster and by a group of strange dwarves representing the homogeneous nature of the world dominated by economised values. In either way, the New Wave has indeed provided a new scope that frees Chinese SF from its educational and utilitarian stereotype, to perform not as a vehicle for science population but an important platform for social critique, to respond to the socio-cultural impact of China’s market-oriented reforms to take the requested “political stake” urgently called forth during the 2019 Dublin panel.


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Images of Alternative Chinese Futures: Critical Reflections on the “China Dream” in Chen Qiufan’s “The Flower of Shazui”


SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)


Images of Alternative Chinese Futures: Critical Reflections on the “China Dream” in Chen Qiufan’s “The Flower of Shazui”

Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker
Freie Universität Berlin / Germany


Since the late Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Chinese science fiction (SF) literature has been a reflection of intellectuals’ expectations, dreams and, lately, also fears of the Chinese future. Contemporary Chinese SF authors not only explore the complex reality of twenty-first century China, but also critically comment on official visions and policy guidelines such as the “China Dream” (Zhongguo meng 中国梦). Consequently, they have taken the genre to the next level which is, according to Song Mingwei, “more sophisticated, reflective, and subversive in terms of mixed representations of hope and despair, utopianism and its dystopian reflection, and nationalism and cosmopolitanism” (“After 1989” 8). David Der-wei Wang describes this hybrid form of narration as “heterotopia,” thus adapting Foucault’s concept to Chinese SF (“Utopia”). Based on the literary quality and narrative techniques of contemporary Chinese SF authors which, in a way, resemble the Anglo-American SF tradition of the 1960s, Song has termed this new generation of SF writers the Chinese “new wave” (8).

This paper discusses the short story “The Flower of Shazui” (Shazui zhi hua 沙嘴之花, 2012) by Chen Qiufan (陈楸帆, b. 1981) which can be linked to president Xi Jinping’s (习近平, b. 1953) political program and his vision of realizing the “China Dream.” I argue that, in consequence of a recent increase in domestic and international readership as well as large-scale media attention, SF literature extensively circulates challenging alternative images of the Chinese future that are demystifying the state’s grand narrative of a flourishing China.

Since his inauguration in 2012, president Xi Jinping has defined the “China Dream” as the generic national dream. His great vision includes every Chinese individual, since he regards it as “the shared hope and expectation of every Chinese” (Lin)1—thus making it a collective dream. Xi further emphasized that the “China Dream” is to “achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and has given assurances that a more just distribution of wealth could be achieved by 2021, the 100th anniversary of the CCP (Lin). In so doing, he has employed a powerful political metaphor for China’s future as a global superpower that had already been on people’s minds since at least the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which campaigned under the slogan, “One World One Dream” (Tong yige shijie tong yige mengxiang 同一个世界同一个梦想) (Barmé 7–8). The nation-wide propagation of the “China Dream” has generated a controversial public dialogue among Chinese netizens calling for political reform and media freedom (Barmé 9–12; Bandurski).

Contemporary Chinese SF authors are expanding this discussion of the dream’s potential risks. For example, Chen Qiufan states that “[b]etween the feeling of individual failure and the conspicuous display of national prosperity lies an unbridgeable chasm” (“The Torn” 373). Most of his narrations are set in the near future and focus on China in an era of economic and social transition. For illustrating everyday life in a realistic way and getting to the bottom of people’s complex innermost being, his writing style is regarded as “Science Fiction Realism” (Kehuan xianshi zhuyi 科幻现实主义) (He). By criticizing global capitalism and social issues (e.g. income inequalities), Chen’s images of alternative Chinese futures send out a warning to his readers. His unique and sophisticated aesthetics satirically visualize China’s rapid modernization as something that is already leaving irreversible marks on the bodies and souls of the Chinese people—the metaphor of body modifications is used to address society’s corruption caused by increasing commercialization. Hence, Chen’s works are characteristic of the Chinese “new wave” writers.

Recent scholarship highlights the fact that contemporary Chinese SF stories reveal a hidden reality and can be interpreted in the context of the “China Dream” (Conn; Rojas, 39; Song, “Representations” 560; Schneider-Vielsäcker 59–60). In addition, scholars have emphasized the cultural and political implications of contemporary Chinese SF (Healey; Li; Luo; Song, “After 1989”, “Variations”; Y. Wang). Building on this research, I seek to answer how Chen’s SF writings assess the “China Dream” and what kinds of alternative images they provide. By reading his short story “The Flower of Shazui” (2012) in comparison to the state’s official vision, I demonstrate the existing tensions between the grand narrative of the “China Dream” and Chen’s alternative.

Living in an Illusion of Social Happiness

The downsides of China’s large-scale urbanization are disclosed in the short story “The Flower of Shazui” (Shazui zhi hua 沙嘴之花, 2012)2 by Chen Qiufan. This story critically reflects urban life in the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) of Shenzhen and the gap between rich and poor that is omnipresent in post-reform Chinese society. Focusing on low-income earners, Chen gives a voice to those unheard by the official narrative. The main characters are mostly ordinary people living in Shazui, a former village which today is part of Shenzhen’s urban area. The unnamed first person narrator is a former engineer with a secret past who sells the latest technology. We become acquainted with his landlady Miss Shen (沈) who, like many people in Shazui, depends on working multiple jobs to be able to afford the basic standard of living. Finally, we are also introduced to the narrator’s neighbor and love interest, Snow Lotus (Xuelian 雪莲), who is a sex worker.

This near-future story portrays the real development of Shenzhen since the 1980s. However, it is enriched with fictional elements to create an image showing the negative developments that reality could possibly lead to. In the wake of economic reforms and the opening up of China, the SEZ of Shenzhen was established in 1980 (Yuan et al. 55). Urbanization brought construction sites everywhere, thus the former fishing village expanded to one of the fastest growing global cities in China and functioned as its first “open door” to the international market (Morssink). Over the years, Shenzhen has developed into a hub for China’s high-tech industries (Yuan et al. 62). This transformation attracted many migrant workers. In order to relieve border controls between Hong Kong and mainland China, a 2.8 meter high fence was built and divided the city into two worlds: “the inside” (guannei 关内, i.e. the SEZ) and “the outside” (guanwai 关外). The latter is described by the protagonist as “wilderness” (manhuang 蛮荒)—a part of Shenzhen that is not only characterized by its low-income population but also by criminals who rule the streets (Chen, “Shazui” 29). The fictional fence can be understood as a literary trope for the gap between rich and poor in Chinese society.

A negative perception of urbanization is expressed by employing the trope of cancer cells and by means of exaggeration. Living within the enclosed area himself, the narrator describes the rapid development from his point of view: “I imagine these buildings growing as fast as cancer cells into the form they have today” (25). The skyscrapers leave so little space in between that neighbors are able to shake hands (25). Moreover, the real estate market grows rapidly, leading to a daily rent increase of even small and dark apartments (26). The negative effects of urbanization are strongly emphasized by comparing urbanization processes with invasive cancer, where the malignant tumor rapidly spreads into neighboring healthy tissues, which eventually could cause death. Since cancer is a disease (involving the abnormal growth of endogenous cells) that destroys the body from the inside, the trope implies that it is a home-grown problem that can be traced back to the period of “reform and opening-up” (gaige kaifang 改革开放), and that China’s continuous striving for economic development will eventually have fatal consequences.

As the location of Shenzhen is a symbol of China’s rise, the strongest trope in this story is that of the “Shenzhen Dream,” which is “high-tech, high salary, high-resolution, high life, high Shenzhen” (25). The “Shenzhen Dream” can be directly linked to the “China Dream,” providing an example where this dream is already lived. Everywhere in the city, the protagonist sees an “illusory sense of satisfaction” on people’s faces and calls it the “Shenzhen expression“—even politicians appearing on TV have it (28). In the story, society experiences the dream through everything money can buy: high-end luxury goods such as Louis Vuitton bags, sex with beautiful women, consumption of aphrodisiacs, or seeing the fortune-teller. In addition, the metaphor of body modifications is used to visualize society’s moral degeneration caused by the increasing commercialization. The residents of Shenzhen all aspire to earn a lot of money, and the display of social status has become street culture. Using the latest technology of “body films” applied to their skin, the wearers are able to show off their personality, daring, and sex appeal to others (26). The protagonist was once just like them, but the disenchantment of reality made him wake up from the dream, leaving him with a feeling of emptiness: “my heart is like a dead pool of water“ (32). This metaphor suggests that Xi Jinping’s maxim is nothing but a hollow promise to legitimize the country’s communist leadership and that in the long run there will be no decisive changes towards social equality. Like the “China Dream,” the “Shenzhen Dream” is supposed to give people satisfaction, but in fact, Chen’s narrative reveals it to be a mere distraction from the dark truth. The dream—be it the “Shenzhen Dream” or the “China Dream”—turns out to be a placebo effect as both the city’s residents and Chinese politicians all live in an illusion of happiness: “In this city, everyone needs some placebo” (28).

Ultimately, the story gives an example of what might happen when Chinese people wake from the “China Dream” and, upon realizing that the leadership only uses empty rhetoric, feel a sense of deep sadness. Death is presented as the only option to escape “reality’s battlefield,” since the ostensible joy of living the dream actually fades after a short while (26). This manifests in Snow Lotus’ bitter fate. The protagonist’s neighbor is afraid to tell her husband that she is pregnant because he might beat her like he did in the past. However, after being encouraged by both Miss Shen and the narrator, she tells him anyway (32). Not believing that the child is his, he threatens her with a knife. As a result of lifelong unhappiness, Snow Lotus eventually kills her furious husband in an act of despair and attempts suicide. According to Luo Xiaoming, descriptions of the city in contemporary Chinese SF, in this case Shenzhen, “bring to light harbored feelings of helplessness, cynicism and even self-justification upon realization that their ideas and/or opinions cannot be realized and that, ultimately, they cannot change the status-quo” (595). “Death is the best placebo,” the narrator concludes sarcastically, while the police are arresting Snow Lotus, regretting that he was not able to help her (35). By associating the “China Dream” with death—as “China Dream” equals placebo and placebo equals death—the text highlights the potential risks of the CCP’s political tool.

In summary, this story depicts the losers of China’s rapid development and the alternative image shows how these individuals struggle at the margins of society in Shenzhen. In contrast to the state’s grand narratives, “The Flower of Shazui” does not present a typical success story as dreams turn out to be dangerous illusions.

Coda: From State Utopia to Nightmarish Alternatives

Contrary to the determined future that is controlled by the government, “The Flower of Shazui” provides an alternative look into a possible Chinese future. The story points out the negative consequences of China’s rapid urbanization on society and highlights the helplessness of ordinary Chinese individuals as the main characters are permeated with unhappiness. The central motifs of the story are the gap between rich and poor and death as a consequence of China’s rapid urbanization or as an escape out of reality’s misery. According to an interview, Chen draws his inspiration from his own experiences and environment (Liu). When observing the people from his generation, he senses “a feeling of exhaustion about life and anxiety for success” (“The Torn” 373). Instead of a “shared hope” for the future propagated by the “China Dream,” Chen perceives that “the burdens on their shoulders grow heavier year after year and their dreams and hopes are fading” (373).

My analysis suggests that, in the shadow of the optimistic “China Dream” narrative, a social discourse nurtured by critical voices, one that includes Chen Qiufan, exists. “The Flower of Shazui” challenges the state’s grand narrative by deconstructing the collective dreamscape. The story further dismantles the myth around economic growth which is, according to Song (“Variations” 91), a characteristic of contemporary Chinese SF. Through Chen’s narrative, representations of Chinese dreams are transformed from official utopian visions to nightmarish alternatives. The alerting message is further highlighted by employing a cynical language, giving his narrator an angry voice, and by using powerful literary tropes that convey its political implications—the located dream as Shenzhen, the trope of death, and the dream as a placebo for social happiness. The story can therefore be read as a satire of Xi Jinping’s maxim. Positive notions of the official “China Dream” narrative such as the hope of an ever-bright Chinese future are clearly undermined by the alternative images Chen creates. Like malignant cancer cells, China’s unbalanced model of economic growth equals a death sentence for many people. In the meantime, they are sedated with a placebo to sustain the harmonious society.


NOTES

1. All translations of Chinese primary texts are my own. When translating the cited passages from “The Flower of Shazui,” the English translation of Ken Liu has been considered. I honor his literary translations; however, I decided to do my own translation. Please note that my aim is rather to analyze the original texts and therefore to provide a literal translation instead of a literary translation.

2. Ken Liu’s English translation first appeared in Interzone in 2012 and was later included in his anthology Invisible Planets (2016), see Chen (“The Flower”). A bilingual reprint was issued online in Strange Horizons (2017).


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