China censored sci-fi, then it swept the world

What’s more evident, though, is the incredible success of the original novel – first serialised in Science Fiction World magazine in China in 2006, and translated for Western readers by Ken Liu in 2014. Its champions include Barack Obama and Game of Thrones writer George RR Martin; and after winning the prestigious Hugo Award for best novel in 2015 (placing Liu in the ranks of Dune writer Frank Herbert and the Foundation series’ author Isaac Asimov), the book and its two sequels have sold nearly nine million copies worldwide. Today, Liu is lauded as the man who put Chinese science fiction on the map – an incredible feat given the historic suppression of the genre in his native country.

“[Over] 40 days, in Beijing alone, more than 1700 victims of struggle sessions were beaten to death,” reads an early passage in the English-language translation of The Three-Body Problem. “Many others picked an easier path to avoid the madness.” The novel is set in 1967; over the course of the next decade up to two million perished in China’s Cultural Revolution, as the radical, student-led “Red Guards” moved to violently reinforce Mao Zedong‘s communist policies. Many victims killed themselves as a means to “end the pain of persecution” – a truth alluded to via the unexplained suicides in the scientific community in The Three-Body Problem’s present-day plot-line. But what’s even more compelling than how this true history shaped events in Liu’s work, is how Mao’s regime would also shape the course of science fiction in the real world.

Sci-fi’s dormant period

Liu was born in 1963, just three years before the Cultural Revolution began – a time in which scientists, writers and other intellectuals were denounced as counter-revolutionary, and sent to labour camps for “thought remoulding”, says Dr Hua Li, professor of Chinese at Montana State University and author of books such as Chinese Science Fiction during the Post-Mao Cultural Thaw. Party propaganda aside, little literature was published during this time – and for science fiction writers to navigate the tumultuous political situation was especially difficult. “A lot of common motifs were taboos,” Hua says. “For example, in Mao’s era, Marxist-Leninist doctrine made no provision for the possible existence of space aliens in the universe.”

With technological innovation and scientific ambition declared the products of corrupt Western capitalism, “Chinese science fiction remained dormant from the early 1960s to 1976,” says Hua. But, as revealed in The Three-Body Problem’s postscript, six-year-old Liu Cixin would be struck, nonetheless, with “indescribable curiosity and yearning” after witnessing China’s first artificial satellite sail across the sky in April 1970. Upon discovering a box of books – including Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth – under his father’s bed a few years later, he found himself harbouring a determination that, like his character Ye Wenjie’s, would eventually have far-reaching consequences. “My persistence stems from the words of my father”, Liu told Guangming Daily in 2019, “Who had explained that this… creation based on science could only be read in private.”

More like this:

What science fiction says about us

The sci-fic genre offering radical hope

Why Children of Men still shocks

Chairman Mao died in 1976, and just as “the horror experienced during the Cultural Revolution gradually subsided” for Ye Wenjie in The Three-Body Problem, so too did an era of reform and openness towards intellectualism and the West allow science fiction to briefly flourish following Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power from 1977. As Deng declared that year: “science and technology is the number one productive force“, Scientific Art and Literature magazine began to publish translated and original science fiction in 1979, and young Liu, too, began to put pen to paper for the first time. But just as the re-emergence of “nightmarish memories” would convince Ye that “the real pain had just begun” in his novel, so too would the Communist Party hamper the sci-fi resurgence once again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *