In Chinese, the word ‘wen’ refers to ‘pattern’, ‘civilisation’, and even ‘a sign of the movement of the cosmos’. In turn, the word ‘wenxue’ means ‘literature’. But unlike the West for whom literature is the art of representation, according to A New Literary History of Modern China , ‘wenxue’ is more subtle and capacious. It speaks to the active and passive roles performed by ‘wen’ .
More explicitly, to the Chinese, literature is that art which acts upon and, in turn, is acted upon by the world. According to this symbiotic definition, when the material world changes, the scope of ‘literature’ must also enlargen to accommodate the experience of this changing world.
Yet for all the extraordinary technological changes the Chinese have experienced over the past two generations, when one reads the novels and short stories by their ‘serious’ writers like Yan Lianke, Yu Hua, Can Xue, Gao Xingjian, the great Mo Yan and others — we learn about the social changes under way. There is precious little in their works about technology or its direct consequences. For them, technology is a second order effect — a film of cream atop a society in churn; when, in fact, technology is the Promethean fire that alters all social relations.
The absence of technology as a relevant theme for literary works is usually best seen in the edited anthologies of writing that surveys literature over long stretches of time. Whether it be entries in the volumes edited by Salman Rushdie (called Mirrorwork ) in 1997, by Amit Chaudhuri in 2001, or more recently The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature edited by Yunte Huang in 2016 — almost none think of technology as a master-concept worthy of exploration as class, caste, language, identity etc often are. This, of course, is not the fault of these editors. Yet, it speaks to how a common reader must reach beyond convenient silos of literary genres if she seeks to find art that actively thinks about how our material life has changed or will change. Be it from the proliferation of clocks, radio, phones, the internet and so on.
Plaything of misfits
Ironically, it is science fiction — a genre that is often dismissed as the plaything of nerds, geeks, and social misfits — that has actively imagined the consequences of technological changes. For the adherents of realism, or ‘serious literature’, science fiction is the literary equivalent of a petulant child in a room full of grown ups. To them, as the great writer Ursula Le Guin described this prejudice, “a science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future.” The underlying assumption of many realist writers is that science fiction is a litany of impossibilities for grown ups, shrouded in wooden prose. But the truth is far from this.
Location of diversity
In China, where the future is continually invented by engineers of the present, science fiction enjoys an efflorescence. From Cixin Liu whose intergalactic stories have found legions of admirers to the little-known Xia Jia (the pen name of Wang Yao) who writes about Confucian values set in the future — science fiction has become a location where a diversity of self-understandings now manifests freely. Ironically, ignoring this diversity, the West continues to treat all of Chinese science fiction as homogeneous despite the stellar efforts of translator-writers like Ken Liu and scholars like Mingwei Song.
There is an element of ‘Western’ snobbery in this reductionism but there is an inevitable question of what exactly is ‘Chinese’ about Chinese science fiction? This is a hard, or an ill-defined, question. No different than asking what is ‘Indian’ about Indian novels — barring the milieu of the narrative.
There is a tendency to think of China as an homogeneous state and every science fiction story as a metaphorical effort to subvert the State’s authoritarianism. Ken Liu cautions against this ‘temptation’ to over-interpret. That said, this is a question that is unlikely to vanish.
One useful way, albeit at a high level of generality, is to think of Chinese science fiction as a literature of converts — the literature of a culture that has embraced the monotheism of technology while retaining nostalgia for the polytheisms of an agrarian past. This tension from a dual loyalty is amplified when we note that they experienced radical changes in 40 years when the West was afforded nearly 200 years. Changes in fundamental values such as family, freedom, nation etc. are akin to the ongoing Indian experience. If we are to understand how Indians might conceptualise their presence in a modernity midwived by technology, some answers lie in Chinese science fiction, and the quest for self-knowledge it grapples with.
Keerthik Sasidharan is a writer and lives in New York City.