Riding the New Wave of Chinese Science Fiction

A photo portrait of Mingwei Song, professor of Chinese

Photo by Lisa Abitbol

Photo by Lisa Abitbol

Mingwei Song, professor of Chinese, was a child in China when he discovered a stash of books in the factory where his mother worked. Song remembers the factory’s caretaker as quite strict, but willing to lend him the key to the locked library. “It was about this size,” Song says, looking around his seminar room in Clapp, “filled with bookshelves.” He recalls reading fairy tales and, before long, works by Dickens, Hugo, Balzac, and others.

Perhaps his early readings provided a key to the future.

“As a youngster, I dreamed of being a writer and, from age 14, had published over two dozen stories under a nom de plume,” Song says. When he was a college student, Song’s advisor encouraged him to do a senior thesis on Eileen Chang’s works that proved to be life changing. To acquire perspective on this prolific, influential author whose life and writings spanned the 20th century, “I had to visit archives, libraries, and learn Shanghai’s history during the Republican era. … That [academic rigor] converted me from a wild and crazy writer to a disciplined young scholar,” Song says. “It opened my heart. … I began to think about things larger than myself.”

That quest led Song from Shandong University to Fudan University and, eventually, to Columbia University, where he encountered “new theories, different worlds, and many literary perspectives.” He also befriended C. T. Hsia, the prominent critic of Chinese literature, who instilled in Song the importance of “facing the future with a grounding in classical foundations,” he says. Song’s dissertation on a young China driven by “a humanistic ideal of self-cultivation” evolved into his first monograph, “Young China: National Rejuvenation and the Bildungsroman, 1900–1959.”

Wryly assessing his doctoral project as “conservative” in comparison with his more recent work, Song says he is “lucky to be among the first scholars to identify a new trend of science fiction that was changing the face of Chinese literature at the beginning of the 21st century.” Cixin Liu’s bestselling trilogy The Three-Body Problem is a representative work; Song facilitated the English translation by Ken Liu, which won a Hugo Award for best novel.

A researcher, poet, and writer, Song publishes in several languages. The New Wave in Chinese Science Fiction: History, Poetics, Text (2020) features 20 essays examining “the literary events and cultural phenomena related to the genre and its revival.” This work is being translated from Chinese into German and Russian. Song’s second English-language monograph, “Fear of Seeing: Toward a Poetics of Chinese Science Fiction” (2023) posits a moral dilemma in storytelling that challenges narratives to expose invisible truths and sometimes hideous realities behind the glossy facades conjured by mass media and state propaganda.

“I consider science fiction the only modern literary genre that arrived after the Industrial Revolution … , after technology became an essential part of our lives … that evokes immensely powerful imagination about what can be possible,” Song says, “or what can be more real than the reality that meets our eyes.” As an example, he outlines the plot of Han Song’s trilogy Hospital (2016): China becomes a place of lockdowns and quarantines where “having disease is the new normal” and artificial intelligence morphs into the dictator.

As a teacher, Song hopes to motivate students to develop “a planetary consciousness” while encouraging their individual sensibilities and strengths. As a colleague, he embraces collaboration, and he has organized numerous programs at the Newhouse Center for the Humanities, including a 2013 conversation between filmmakers Ang Lee and James Schamus that attracted more than 1,200 audience members.

Song’s current research interests include the work of Generation Z women and nonbinary science fiction writers in China; he gave a talk on the subject at the College last year and is compiling a volume of Sinophone works by women and nonbinary authors in the diaspora. Describing these writings as “incisive … new wonders” that “cannot be summarized or essentialized,” Song likens their emergence to a chimera that is “yet to become visible.” In his introduction to the anthology The Reincarnated Giant: Twenty-First Century Chinese Science Fiction (2018), Song provides this contemporary context for readers: “[S]cience fiction is a literature of revelation. … If there were a superintelligence learning about human behaviors, what would it do about the identities or differences among us? In this sense, science fiction asks, in the end, an ethical question: How do we deal with the other? That also decides how we see ourselves.”

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