The Fantastic Truth About China

China Foto Press
Liu Cixin, author of The Three-Body Problem, which won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel in 2015

In 1902, Liang Qichao, a reformist intellectual of the late Qing dynasty, wrote a futuristic story called “A Chronicle of the Future of New China.” In the unfinished manuscript, he depicts Shanghai hosting the World Fair in 1962 (“Confucius year 2513”), on the fiftieth anniversary of a successful reform movement. By then, he imagines, China has developed a multiparty system and dominates a peaceful new world order in which Westerners study Chinese to improve their job prospects. This vision of a modern, technologically triumphant China would prove prescient—except for the multiparty system and peaceful world order—in 2010, when the Shanghai World Expo impressed visitors with its slick graphics, high-tech gadgets, and other emblems of modernization. Liang’s optimism for China’s rejuvenation was vindicated, only fifty years later than he thought.

Liang’s intention was not to predict the future, however, but to change the present. The message, if it reached those in power, fell on deaf ears, and the Qing court continued to reject Western science and democracy. With his mentor, the liberal Confucian scholar Kang Youwei, and under the auspices of the young Guangxu emperor, Liang had spearheaded the Hundred Days’ Reform of 1898, which ended with a coup d’état by the sixty-three-year-old empress dowager Cixi, who stymied further attempts at reform until her death in 1908. Liang and Kang fled to Japan, which was rapidly modernizing during the Meiji Restoration and importing ideas and literature from overseas. It was here that Liang came across the science fiction of Jules Verne, in Japanese by way of English from the original French, and translated it into classical Chinese, starting with the anti-slavery novel A Captain at Fifteen.

Liberal intellectuals from China in that era often studied in Japan, as if China could modernize by osmosis. In 1901 Kang Youwei published his own speculative work, The Book of Great Unity, delineating a future in which states, rulers, and conflict have been eliminated (women, less lucky, replenish the population by giving birth while calming music is played for them). Another young writer studying in Japan was Zhou Shuren, or Lu Xun, sometimes described as the father of modern vernacular Chinese literature, who translated other Jules Verne novels, including Journey to the Center of the Earth.

These translations and original works were meant to further the cause of Chinese reform, by educating the populace so that they might reject old customs and superstitions, such as ancestor worship, and embrace modern science. In the 1903 preface to his translation of Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, Lu Xun wrote:

The typical reader is bored by the tediousness of science books and cannot finish them. But when dressed up in the form of fiction, the science can seep into readers’ minds…

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