Stranger than Science Fiction

Chinese sci-fi as a Trojan horse for social commentary – Alec Ash

This essay kicks off Sci-Fi Week at the China Channel. We’ll be featuring Q&As from two Chinese authors, as well as a couple of stories in translation. It’s the perfect excuse to go see The Wandering Earth in the cinema, or to pick up one of the recent collections of Chinese sci-fi stories to get acquainted with this fascinating and varied genre, the historical and political echoes of which are introduced below. – The Editors

In 1902, Lu Xun, the celebrated author of modern China, translated Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon into Chinese from the Japanese edition. Science fiction, he wrote in the preface, was “as rare as unicorn horns, which shows in a way the intellectual poverty of our time.” In the same year, Liang Qichao, another reformist intellectual, in his unfinished novel Chronicle of the Future of a New China (新中國未來記), depicted a future in 1962 where the world came to admire China’s power at a global exposition in Shanghai (sounds familiar, albeit 50 years late). For both writers, exposing Chinese readers to sci fi was a way to promote new, scientific ways of thinking, and to drag the nation into modernity and out from under the yoke of the Qing Dynasty.


Generation Gaps

From old-timers to fifty shades of youth – Alec Ash

For China’s ‘post-80s’ generation, there are various tribes to identify with. The ‘working grunt tribe’ (shangbanzu) or ‘urged tribe’ (beicuizu) are the nine-to-fivers pressured into conformity. The ‘strawberry tribe’ (caomeizu) are nice to look at but soft inside, flitting from job to job and avoiding responsibility. The ‘moonlight tribe’ (yueguangzu) spend their monthly wages shopping – a punning double meaning of ‘moonlight’ and ‘spend it all’ – while the ‘bite the old tribe’ (kenlaozu) still live off mum and dad. Almost everyone’s in the ‘rush-rush tribe’ (benbenzu) but those who can’t hack it might join the ‘crush-crush tribe’ (nieniezu), named for a brief craze where stressed young workers took out their frustrations by crushing packets of instant noodles in supermarket aisles.

Chinese Corner


Invented Chinese characters, old and new – Alec Ash

Growing up in England, one of my favorite books was The Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams (author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and John Lloyd (creator of the British comedy show QI). Described as a “dictionary of things that there aren't any words for yet,” Adams and Lloyd took place names – often those funny-sounding Welsh ones – and reassigned to them meanings for concepts that should have words but don’t. For example, “Ahenny: The way people stand when examining other people’s bookshelves;” “Flimby: The safe place you put something and then forget where it was;” or “Goole: The expression on the face of someone who has clearly forgotten your name.”

Chinese is like that too: full of ideas for which there should be a character, but isn’t. Only when it comes to inventing those characters, we can have even more fun with an ideographic writing system by mushing together two existing characters in novel ways.

Chinese Corner

Strokes of Genius

When Chinese characters get complicated

There's a new noodle joint on my street, and this is the sign on the window. Biángbiáng miàn is a type of flat noodle from Shaanxi province, supposedly named after the slapping biang! sound that the uncooked noodle makes when hit against the kitchen table-top to stretch it out (or the lip-smacking sound of eating them, depending on who you ask). It’s one of my favourite street dishes in China, and I’ve had a few chance encounters in this particular Beijing eatery. But the noodle is more famous for how it is written than how it tastes


Festival of Peace

Christmas with migrants in Beijing – Alec Ash

'Twas the day before Christmas, and all was calm. Shops were shuttered, homes were locked; the streets were full of lights and the sound of jingles. A winter chill hung in the air, and after a year of hard work, men and women of the village dragged luggage over the frost-bitten tarmac – going home for the holidays.

Yet these migrant workers, on the outskirts of Beijing, were not celebrating Christmas. It was not a holiday in China, and they did not want to go home, nor to shutter their shops and lock their doors. The lights were from police cars patrolling the streets, jingling their alarm bells, making it clear there was no other choice than to leave.