Monday Original Content: An Interview With Wu Yan

This week on the WSNB, Charles Tan interviews Chinese editor, writer and teacher Wu Yan.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, what’s the appeal of science fiction for you?

When I was a child, science fiction was a colorful rainbow in front of me. It helped me overcome the difficulties of school life. I told Lavie Tidhar in previous interviews, I grew up in the days of the Cultural Revolution, and at that time, there was no literature in China. Culture was destroyed by revolution. Little Red Books were everywhere, each person having a copy.  It contained Chairman Mao’s quotations. So realistic! Most of these quotations were related to class struggle. How communists fight against capitalists. You can understand how exciting it was when I found Soviet science fiction, Jules Verne’s novels and the old magazine such as We Love Science, Popular Science, Science Pictorial, which was published during 1954-1966, contained Chinese short science fiction stories in the dark, locked library.  We broke the windows and entered the library.  We were told that all the books were bourgeois dirt.  We stole the dirt and read them crazily.  It shows a big different world.  Bright sunny future sky!  A lovely and wonderful world and there was a lack of class struggle. Scientists, what a great person they were!  I thought the most appealing spot of science fiction were both the characters and illustrations, as it can heal your wounded mind and spirit, and made you feel Prosperity.

What made you decide to create a university course on science fiction? In Lavie’s previous interview with you, yours was the only one. Is that still the case now in China?

In 1991, when Beijing Normal University wished to extend its curriculum resources, they began to permit teachers to launch a course which was a little bit away from his own area.  Generally, you only have the right to teach inside your own area.  For example, I was trained as a psychologist, so, I can only teach my organizational behavior class.  I was assured at that time that it was the only university class about science fiction taught using the native language.  Before me, as far as I know, was in 1982 where Wu Dingbo (Dingbo Wu in English name order) and Philip Smith had launched an English language class by using science fiction as materials. But the aim of that curriculum was not science fiction, but language.

I used this chance to create an undergraduate course of science fiction, then titled Science Fiction: Reading and Criticism.  This course lasted ten years. In some semesters, the enrollment reached 600 students. Then, from 2003, Prof. Wang Quangen, Vice-Dean, Dept. of Chinese Language and Literature of our university called me and asked if I would like to enhance this science fiction class up to graduate level.  I fully agreed.  So, beginning from that year, I stopped the undergraduate course, created a master’s program titled Science Fiction Studies. Each year, 20 or more students apply for this program. But only 2-3 passed the national examinations. 

Up to now, as far as I know, there are around 10 universities that have the undergraduate curriculum on science fiction, but only our university has a Master’s program that focuses on the studies of science fiction.  I do not know about other countries, how many graduate level programs specialize in science fiction studies today.  I guess not very much. We’re still looking forward to launch a Doctoral Degree.

You’ve lived in America and Australia. What made you decide to come back to China? How do you see yourself in terms of culture?

I entered the science fiction field in 1978.  My first short story, “Adventure in an Iceberg”, was published in 1979.  Then, I passed the college entrance examination in 1982 and became a student of the Dept. of Psychology, Beijing Normal University.  My doctorate area is organizational behavior.  I published two novels and dozens of anthologies during 1978 to 2003.  Within these six years, I focused on science fiction studies. I edited and organized 15 critic books. Eight of them have been published.

I have been in the States during 1993-1994, teaching an organizational science curriculum MBA program at the Wright State University for two semesters.  I used this chance to participate in some of the United States science fiction activities.  I have to say, Americans have the most active fandom activities in the world.  Such a lot of cons, a lot of signings, a lot of readings.  At that time, China is more conservative.  I wrote some articles on Science Fiction World magazine about these activities.  Fans were adored by it and yearned for the States.

Then, during 2003-2004, I stay at Queensland University of Technology and acted as a “visiting scholar”.  I joined a children’s literature research group which was led by Kerry Mallan, the former president of Australian Children’s Literature Association.  This activity gave me some idea to know how a Western children’s literature person viewed science fiction.  It is very interesting. Because in China, for the past few years, science fiction is a sub-literature which belongs to children’s literature. 

I know a lot of Chinese choose to stay in a foreign country, but I do not know how I could do it at that place.  My native language is Chinese. I love to remain in the science fiction field so I have to stay in China. At least the cultural sphere of China.

What made you decide to become a writer? An editor?

I published my first article; it is a critical essay on science fiction, in my secondary school in a national newspaper in 1978.  Then, in my second year, I published my first popular science article and short science fiction story.  Beginning from that time, I turned to be an author of 16 years old.  Then, I met nearly all the famous writers of science fiction and popular science.  Some of them gave me good points on my work.  And others gave me very good help. For example, Mr. Ye Yonglie, who is a famous science fiction writer at that time, helped me transfer my science fiction to the magazines.  Another author, Guo Yishi, was also an editor in a publishing house and added my name in National Conference in Science Literature and Children’s Popular Science in 1980.  This time, I turned into a famous national person.  I asked my secondary school to support my transportation to take a train to Harbin, the capital city of Heilongjiang Province which is near Russia.  The conference was held there.  

I think I am a lucky one in the writing field. I know some people who tried many times to submit their manuscripts to publishing houses or journals or newspapers.  But they always failed.  But I got it published only in my first try!

What are the hurdles of getting published in China?

Before the 1990s, the most important influential factor of the development of Chinese science fiction was the political situation.  Science fiction was always stirred or stopped by political movements.  These kinds of movement came one after another.  Some of them accelerated science fiction and some of them were hurdles to science fiction.  For example, if the movement was aiming to enhance science and technology in the nation, science fiction would get very good treatment.  1956-1958 and 1978-1981 were two very important dates for the nourishing of Chinese science fiction.  Both times were under the propaganda of “scale the heights of science”.  Science fiction was booming.  But during 1966-1976 and 1984-1989, science fiction was strongly damaged.  The first period was Mao’s Cultural Revolution that I had already mentioned.  All cultural things were damaged by the Red Guard.  The second period was under the Deng Xiaoping’s regime.  This time, the movement’s slogan was anti- bourgeois freedomization.  Sounds very strange?  Yes, strange.  But you can imply that science fiction is a kind of literature which seeks freedom in all aspects.

After the 1990s, the Chinese marketing system economy turned to its beginnings. The hurdles was not political issues, but “supply and demand”.  In these two periods, Science Fiction World magazine took on an important role in the development of Chinese science fiction.  For example, in January of 1999, Science Fiction World published an essay about the transplant of human memory.  Fortunately, in July, the National College Entrance Examination uses this topic as a test for writing.  This made Science Fiction World and science fiction itself very well known to the whole nation.  The circulation of the magazine rose to nearly 400,000 copies per month.  But after the turn of the century, after the Fantasy revolution created by J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, the demand for science fiction declined very quickly.  Now, most science fiction shelves turned into fantasy shelves in the bookstore.  I guess, in the future, Chinese science fiction will be less and less influenced by political issues, but more and more influence by market demand.

How would you describe the fantasy and science fiction field there?

I think I have already answered this question. The only one I will add: influenced by Harry Potter, Chinese native fantasy has strongly developed.  The Chinese way of fantasy is not Lord of the Rings style or Harry Potter’s style; it is more related to the Chinese classical novels, fairy tales, and legends.  New stories of the old characters is what new Chinese fantasy looks like.  Another fact I want to say is that most fantasy writers are all very young.  They not only write for publishing house, but also for websites.  They are richer than science fiction writers.

Who are the Chinese writers that we should be reading but the rest of the world is not aware of?

For a long time, the Chinese science fiction was not very mature.  That is why science fiction has always been included into children’s literature.  But within these few years, some  writers have really grown.  I strongly recommend two of them.  Liu Cixin, a writer from Shanxi province, is very well known in the field because of his novel The Era of Supernova (1991), Magic Bricks (2002), Ball Lightning (2004) , Three Bodies (2007), Dark Forest-Three Bodies II (2008), and novelettes like Please Bring Her Eyes (1999), The Wandering Earth (2000), Country Doctor (2001), Micro Era (2001) have all won prizes and readers’ favor.  Cixin tends to use a kind of globalization viewpoint to look at the world.  He thought science could solve most of the problems in the future.  His story has a lot of changing styles.  Sometimes it looks like a thought experiment.  For example, he wrote a story titled “I Do not Care to Die If I Have Got the Tao of Nature” (2002).  It comes from a quote from Confucius Analects.  Talks about people devoting their life to seeking the Tao (way) inside the world.  In Liu’s story, it turns to be a testing platform in front of earthmen. Answer the question correctly, or die for not succeeding!  He also has a story titled “The Cloud of Poems” (2003).  It talks of an earth artist who tries to compete with an alien artist.  They use Earth Sea as the materials to form their micro scale creation work.  After his work, the earth’s surface is covered by clouds of the poem which was made of ocean water.  Some of Cixin’s other novels and stories focuses on the future of the world; especially a world that contains China and Chinese.  For example, his first novel The Era of Supernova is a story about a near earth supernova suddenly shining.  The consequence is radiation will kill all earth people if you are over 14 years old.  Only children under 14 years old can survive, because their blood mechanism can heal from total damage.  But after a year, the whole world is under the control of children.  How can we help children to survive?  Each country tries to select their leading girls and boys.  Each parent is trying to train their child to learn their own work.  How can a child manage their world?  What will happen?  Does this child-managed world have a peaceful international relationship or a world war?  Cixin’s novel answers all these questions.  They initiate a world war game.  But the game will be held in the real world!

Three Body is a trilogy.  Now only two volumes have been published.  The novel begins from the period of the Cultural Revolution.  At that time, China began its secret plan to seek extraterrestrials and tried to contact alien beings before the U.S. and U.S.S.R.  Fortunately, China is the first country to get a response from the sky!  But it is a warning:  “Please do not contact us again; because our race is very bloody, I am the exception”.  The receptor is a young scientist and her father was just beaten to death by the Red Guard.  She was very angry with the Chinese politicians.  So she replied to this message and said we do not care.  The message evokes their bloodlust and aliens start to conquer Earth.  Due to the long distance, the foreign space fleet will take 400 years to reach Earth.  The Cultural Revolution stopped, and the world is turning into a global village.  But the threat is in front of Earth.  This concludes the first book.  The consequence is talking about the 400 years preparation to fight against aliens.  Earth’s development in technology has been locked by alien technology.  And aliens can use special methods to probe people’s behavior.  They still have not developed a useful technology to get what people think through scanning of the human mind.  To find freedom from this control, human beings start a secret plan.  It is called the Face with Wall Project.  Only super talented people were selected by world government.  They were invited to work their way individually to break out of the alien’s block.  Because the alien agents which are controlled by them are everywhere, the project person needs to protect themselves, especially their creative strategy.  Unfortunately, all the project people have been broken by alien agents.  Only exception is the Chinese.  But this strategy is to show our position in the universe, which is aimed to let all creatures know we are here.  Another alien species suddenly finds the shining star and also arrived at our solar system.  Two super species will fight against each other near Earth.  Can this strategy save humans?  The books stop as the alien spaceship destroys the frontline defense of the border and earth is in danger.  What will happen then?

I assure you Cixin’s work is very interesting for the people who wish to know how the Chinese in general perceive the world today.  When China turns into a superpower in economics, what will happen in the future?  His way of writing is in the traditional way of science fiction.  Not an obstacle to readers, including foreign readers.  

The second author I want to introduce is Sichuan-born writer Han Song.  Song’s novels are Red Star Over The United States of America (2000), Red Ocean (2004), while short stories and novelettes include Gravestone in Universe (1991), Escape out of Depressive Mountain (1998), Spring comes to Liangshan (2000).  Song is a writer and journalist, and his work is mixed with Buddhism and Taoism. 

Most of the meaning of Song’s work is very ambiguous. In Red Star over the United States of America, the main protangonist is a Chinese youngster who goes to the States to participate as a world champion of weiqi, a game played with black and white pieces on a board of 361 crosses.  As soon as he gets there, a revolution starts.  American gets thrown into chaos.  He tries to survive by himself and finds a way back to China.  In this work, China looks like the States and the States looks like contemporary China.

Red Ocean is a novel full of metaphor. In the far far future, people live among oceans, because the land is polluted.  This is not new.  Water World also has the same theme.  But how to live in the harsh situation is the focus of the author.  In Han’s Song’s novel, people have to mutually eat each other.  Those not familiar with Chinese ancient power struggles will not be aware of what the author intended.  It made people recall a lot of cruel stories of ancient politics and dynasty murders and usurpation.  Song’s work is a very complex style.  Most of it is implicit.  The timeline is also damaged, the future is the past, and the past looks like it could turn into the future.

Song is an author who is very sensitive of culture.  His novelette Spring Comes to Liang Shan is a rewrite of the famous ancient novel Heroes of the Marshes (Ming Dynasty) which was written by Shi Naian and Luo Guanzhong of the Ming Dynasty.  The original novel is about 108 heroes who conquered Liang Shang (Mount Liang) to fight against the government.  But in Song’s new story, Ming Dynasty troops have a new weapon to block them from getting out.  The universe was been closed, turned over.  So heroes need to find a way to live in this isolated mountain and water margins.  Finally they find that the weapon is not made by the government. It is imported from the United States of America. The story is very funny, but it implies the contemporary Chinese situation and the international relationship.

Unfortunately, the above authors, novels, and stories have rarely been translated into English.  Only one of Song’s stories have been published, in an anthology edited by Lavie Tihdar.

What are the hurdles of promoting Chinese fiction outside of your country? Do you think it’s a big challenge for Chinese science fiction and fantasy writers to write in English?

Yes, definitely.  The most important hurdle to overcome is that contemporary authors rarely have good English.  So, if they wish to send their work outside China, it needs to be interpreted.  Unfortunately, there is no good translator who has interests in science fiction.

Within a couple of years, China became a world power.  The aggregate GDP of China is exceeding Italy, Britain, France, and Germany.  Some economists even considered that the Chinese economy will exceed the States in the coming two decades.  Under this situation, I assume foreigners will be more and more concerned with the Chinese way of thinking. How do these people think about the future? How have they imagined their scenario for the future? For foreigners who have read only China Mountain Zhang of Maureen F. McHugh and The Middle Kingdom of David Wingrove, it will not be enough. Three Bodies Trilogy and The Red Ocean are all very good for your entertainment, as well as thinking.

The good thing is that young authors born from 1980s have very good training in English.  I assure you that in the future, some of their works will be written directly in English.

How does piracy play a role in the fandom there, especially during the height of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series when a lot of counterfeit books were popping up?

These are two different questions.  Piracy is very strong in Chinese printing and media.  Some famous writers here often collaborate with publishing house to organize a group of people to go to different provinces to find pirates and sue them.  For example, famous fantasy author Zheng Yuanjie always does this.  I have heard some unverified news about publishing houses sending the manuscript to a printing factory; the factory will print more copies than ordered.  Then, they sell the extra copies themselves and earn money.  Because China is such a big country and the copyright idea is very new for this country, enforcing it is sometimes an impossible mission.  Also, if your work is posted on the web, some fans really do it, and other websites transfer them, you cannot stop this chain of effects.

The second question is Harry Potter. This novel stimulated Chinese authors to revive old-style myths and fairy tales in our own culture.  Now fantasy novels are more prevalent than science fiction in the shelves of bookstores.  And the Chinese original fantasy is also divided into two directions.  One direction aims to create a new world.  It is a kind of western style, like J.R.R. Tolkien. We called it WEST-style fantasy.  The other direction is to describe a totally Chinese style story.  Sometimes it is about the life cycle of a naïve boy/girl who was circumvented or whose family was slaughtered in the beginning, and finally, he/she turns out to have the ability to master the world through Taoism.  It is just an example.  There are a lot of differences in this genre.  Some of them are a direct rewrite of ancient history.  We called this kind of novel CHINESE-style fantasy. Maybe the Chinese style is not suitable for this kind of work.  Oriental style is better.  Because Japan and Korea also share the same cultural sphere. They will understand easier than westerners.

Could you give us an update on the state of the fiction magazine market there?

The circulation of genre books and magazines are as follows:

Good fantasy will sell 1,000,000-2,000,000 copies. 

Good science fiction will sell more than 100,000 copies. 

Good science fiction magazine will sell 100,000 per month. 

Other science fiction magazine will sell only 10,000-50,000 copies.

I have no information about the pure fantasy magazine, horror magazine, and detective magazine.  But these kinds of magazines can be found in the street.

Could you tell us more about the relationship China has with Russia, at least as far as fiction is concerned. Do you think China is developing/will develop such relationships with other nearby countries such as Korea or Japan?

China and Russia had a very good relationship during the 1950s. After Mao refused to help Stalin to build a long wave radio station and military base in China, and especially after U.S.S.R. and the U.S. signed the treaty for nuclear weapons, the China-Russia relationship was broken.  Even these things happened a long time ago but the common Chinese people have very good memories.  People from my father’s age to myself are very familiar with Soviet and Russian literature.  Of course we are influenced by Soviet science fiction.  After the break of the Sino-Russian relationship, and after the Cultural Revolution, Russian literature declined and the new generation is not familiar with it.  

Right now, China and Russia looks like they have a very good relationship though there are a lot of problems.  China wishes to install a pipe so as to buy Russian’s gas and oil, but the negotiation is already over 10 years.  But still no deal.  I doubt Russia wishes to sell to China oil and gas.  In my opinion China and Russia still have a lot of problems in mutual trust. 

Talking about Japan, it is also very complicated.  Before 1978, we did not know a lot about Japanese literature, in spite of old generations.  But after the Deng’s administration, Japan and China’s relations turned very hot period during 1980s.  We began to know their modern works.  But in recent years, China and Japan always encounter problems with how to describe history. In 2007, I first went to Japan to join in the 65th Worldcon. Japan and Japanese friends gave me deep impressions. I also read some contemporary novels of Japanese science fiction.  I think I am fond of them very much.  I wish to join in next year’s Japanese SF conference.

For Korea, China got influenced by Korea more and more within this decade, from TV drama, books, clothes, and food. Right now, North Korea’s nuclear weapons test threatens China. So, how to keep North-East Asia in a peaceful situation is very important for China. I think the only way for China is to maintain balance and try to have a good relationship with these countries.

I’m from the Philippines and sometimes, translating science fiction terms into the local language is difficult. Is Chinese writing plagued with the same problems, especially with the unique characteristics of Hanzi? Do you go more for pronunciation or meaning?

Hope I am not misunderstanding your question. Chinese people translate foreign science fiction for more than a hundred years.  So, a lot of experience has been accumulated.  Sometimes we translate by meaning, and sometimes we translate by pronunciation.  It depends on what kind of concept. Generally if we can find some root in our culture, we use meaning translation.  If there is something brand new and looks like there is a lack of corresponding cultural reference, we use pronunciation and give explanations.  The very good thing is we have three big sub-groups of translators: mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.  We can look at each other and then adjust our own translations.

Where can Western readers find out more about Chinese science fiction?

I will provide you a list of Chinese works in English speaking media.  It is very rare. There is only one book that has been published in English which edited by Wu Dingbo(Dingbo Wu) and Patrick D. Murphy, it is Science Fiction from China (Hardcover).  It contain eight stories by six authors.  All of them are from the 1970s and 1980s, incuding Wei Yahua’s “Conjugal Happiness in the Arms of Morpheus”, Wang Xiaoda’s “The Mysterious Wave”, Tong Enzheng’s “Death Ray on a Coral Island” ,Ye Yonglie’s “Corrosion” and so on.  If you wish to taste Chinese SF in the period of its revival, you can find it and read it.  The Publisher is Praeger Trade.  And the publishing date was September 11, 1989.  In Vol 6 of James Gunn’s The Road to Science Fiction there are two Chinese short stories:  Zheng Wenguang’s “Mirror Image of Earth” and Ye Yonglie’s “Corrosion”.  In Tales from Planet Earth (1986) created by Fred Pohl and Elizabeth Anne Hull and published by St. Martin’s Press, there is Tong Enzheng’s short story named “The Middle Kingdom”.  All of the above stories belong to the age of the 80’s.  Within these years, as far as I know, only my short story “Mouse Pad” has been published in Issue one of Internova: the Magazine of International Science Fiction (2005) edited by Ronald M. Hahn, Olaf G. Hilscher and Michael K. Iwoleit.  The latest one is Lavie Tidhar’s The Apex Book of World SF (2009) which contains Han Song’s “The Wheel of Samsara” and Yang Ping’s “Wizard World”. The book is already published by Apex Publications.  Probably there are other short stories that have been published in English, but I assure you there is not any novel that has been translated into English.

How about your own work, where can they find more of them?

I have two novels and a couple of anthologies.  But most of my work is for children, though some of my short stories are written for adults. For example, I have a story talking about a special flower which can be the index of decline. So, most Chinese governments, factories, companies, schools, and even families, began to dig them around their own place.  The more you destroy, the more it grows.  And the more it grows, the end times comes closer.  How to deal with this critical problem?  At the end of the story, the huge population and the thousands of years of cooking art saves China.  Eat them as much as you can.  Cantonese restaurant lead China to overcome this difficult time.  I have not written any novel and stories since 2003.  Heavy teaching work and research work!  But I plan to come back next year. So sorry, for up to now, there is only one of my short stories that has been translated into English.  I hope in the future, there will be more of them translated.


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