Orientalism and Sci-fi in the People’s Paradise

In The Questionable ‘Chinese-ness’ of Chinese Sci-Fi, Emily Xueni Jin (金雪妮) writes: 

Notably, China itself is complicit in perpetuating the myth of a uniquely “Chinese” sci-fi. Chinese experts and official-backed panels have referenced  “The Three Body Problem” as a classic example of a successful “cultural export.” Writers who achieve international success are paraded around like literary heroes, and Chengdu’s winning bid to host the 2023 World Science Fiction Convention was hyped up by officials in language once reserved for events like the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The relationship between Chinese sci-fi, state rhetoric, and the nation’s supposed “soft power” is intimate, turning sci-fi into a vehicle for the sale of a fast-food version of Chinese culture to the rest of the world. This focus on the “Chinese-ness” of sci-fi authors and stories, defined here in terms of national identity, is arguably a form of self-orientalizing, an attempt to win a larger share of the global literary market by conforming to the market’s expectations, whether by showcasing differences or assimilating entirely.

2 thoughts on “Orientalism and Sci-fi in the People’s Paradise

  1. Totally agree! But what do you expect? After decades of hearing about “Japanese uniqueness”, we now have the Chinese version which boldly sets out to challenge the supremacy of the Western model and proudly put the Chinese model in its place. Operating, of course, within the existing Western framework of a genre called “sci-fi”.

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    1. Personally, I find the official China narrative re: literature tiresome, in that I don’t read fiction depending on the citizenship of the author. So much of what one reads in the China media is about “Us” and “Them,” and this inevitably narrows the discussion down to what my country produces vs yours. B-o-r-i-n-g.

      That said, I can imagine the PRC’s literary apparatchiks are pleased as punch with the overseas success of “The Three Body Problem.” After all, the breakthrough to international acclaim came only fairly recently — a decade ago, actually — with Mo Yan and his Nobel. Or rather, Mo Yan and his writing as “interpreted” by Howard Goldblatt. A lesson was learned: Ensure that the translator or the translator team includes at least one native speaker of the target language, and recognize that editing, and even some rewriting, may be necessary to capture the foreign reader’s attention.

      With Three Body, the spotlight can more readily be focused on the Liu Cixin and his creative writing. If that means that the apparatchik gang will be pouring their energies and even funding into nourishing the next generation of Chinese literary export “stars,” however, I suspect that what they will get will be more akin to China’s risible national football team.

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