Future Perfect: Ye Yonglie 葉永烈 and the Origins of Chinese Speculative Fiction

The following is based on a short talk on Chinese science fiction which I had the honor of presenting to the CHIN 40: Popular Culture in Modern Chinese Societies course at UCLA on February 16, 2017, at the invitation of Micheal Berry. I had originally planned on posting this a couple of weeks after giving the talk–it seems a little superfluous to be talking about obscure Chinese authors and artists with everything that is going on in the news at the moment. At the same time, I’m starting to wonder if the situation we find ourselves in has something to do with our inability not only to come to terms with history (particularly as a mirror for the present), but whether it stems from a more fundamental failure to think about what words really mean. Politics is about discourse, about framing ideas and making calls for action. But if we fail to interrogate that discourse, to pick apart those ideas, and question those calls for action, then we give authoritarians an open door to exploit the weak for the sake of the powerful.

Okay, so I’m going to start off on a bit of an odd note for a talk on Chinese science fiction, but I’m going to start with a nod to the Tongva people, on whose ancestral and unceded lands we find ourselves today. This is something they do up in Canada, thanking the First Nations peoples and acknowledging the enormous debt of gratitude (and almost impossible degree of contrition) that we owe to them. If you’re planning on giving a talk any time in the future, I encourage you to do the same.

I would also like to thank Professor Berry for inviting me, and thank all of you for signing up for this course! I guess we should also thank UCLA for making it possible for you guys to learn about Chinese pop culture, something that’s hardly a given these days with budget cuts and all.

Now, on the Chinese science fiction!

So, we’re going to be talking (a little) about Ye Yonglie 葉永烈, a science fiction author I’m interested in who was born in 1940. I think he’s important, because he was born at more or the less the midpoint of the history of contemporary sci-fi in China, which has just over a century and a half of history, depending on how you define what sci-fi is. For that reason, his career makes a useful frame for talking about Chinese science fiction, and what that means. In fact, I’m not going to be talking very much at all about Ye, so I encourage you to read The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry if you’d like to know more about Ye and the stories he wrote.

A lot has been written about Chinese science fiction in English, but one essay I recommend for covering the key points is Regina Kanyu Wang’s “A Brief Introduction to Chinese Science Fiction.” Jeffery Wasserstrom’s recent article for the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative on the same topic is also worth checking out for a shorter, and more academic take. Finally, Ou Ning has compiled a list of classic Chinese and English sci-fi novels, which echoes some of what we see in these two pieces, but with some interesting additions as well, as we will see.

But before we can start unpacking all of this, I’m afraid we’re going to have to talk about some pretty abstract concepts, and I’m not a very abstract kind of guy. So I thought we might use an old parable to help frame our discussion:

Does anybody recognize this image? If you do, don’t shout it out just yet okay?

I went ahead and edited the illustration (and the Chinese, for those of you who read Chinese), but if you look you’ll see there are five men—five blind men, to be specific.  And the five blind men are touching something:

One of them says, “The thing that we are touching is rope, it’s long and thin.”

And the one over here says, “No, no, no, it’s a pillar, it’s thick and strong.”

And this guy right here says, “You’re both wrong, it’s a wall, it’s long and flat.”

And the guy in yellow says, “You guys really are blind! It’s a definitely a metal pipe, can’t you tell?”

Finally, the guy at the end says, “Pipe? What pipe? This obviously a rubber hose!”

Now of course, it’s none of these things at all, it’s a…drum roll, please…

 

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Chinese Star Wars Comic (Part 6 of 6): A Fitting Memorial to the Empire

This is the final installment of a six part post in which I translate a 142 page Chinese comic book adaptation of Star Wars originally published in Guangdong, China, in the 1980s. Thanks to Maggie Greene for giving me the go ahead to re-post her scans, and Brendan O’Kane for bringing this to my attention. In this episode the Rebels mount a surprise attack on the death Star, with both sides suffering heavy losses…

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122. The Empire originally thought that the Rebels would have put all of their energy into defending their base, so they are entirely unprepared for the [Rebel] offensive, forcing them to rush to employ high-energy weapons and lightning (shan dian 閃電) to repel [the Rebels].

 

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123. The Rebel fighters fly back and forth, firing upon the [radar] equipment [and gun arrays] on the “Death Star.” Luke’s sharpshooting leaves a string of fireballs across the sky.

 

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124. But Luke’s spacecraft can’t turn in time, forcing him to fly directly through the fireballs. Luckily the space craft can withstand the extremely high temperatures, allowing Luke to escape by the skin of his teeth.

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Chinese Star Wars Comic (Part 5 of 6): We have to destroy the Death Star!

This is part of five of a six part post in which I plan to translate a 142 page Chinese comic book adaptation of Star Wars originally published in Guangdong, China, in the 1980s. Thanks to Maggie Greene for giving me the go ahead to re-post her scans, and Brendan O’Kane for bringing this to my attention. In this episode, Obi-wan sacrifices himself  so that Leia and droids can be escorted to Yavin IV,  Han and Chewie take off with their big reward, and Luke joins the Rebel assault on the Death Star… 

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100. Luke takes out a small communicator and impatiently yells for C3PO, but he gets no response. Just as all four of them are about to be crushed by the walls of the garbage chute, C3PO’s reply is transmitted [through the radio]. Luke quickly asks him to turn off the device which is controlling the garbage chute so that they won’t be turned into a meaty pulp (roujiang 肉醬).

 

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101. Once the two walls have returned to their original position, Luke pushes aside the trash covering the escape hatch so that he can see the [garbage chute] number clearly. Right away he radios C3P0, saying, “Open the inspection hatch for [garbage chute] 336-191.” In this way they are able to escape from the garbage chute.

 

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102. But as soon as they enter the corridor they run into the Imperial Stormtroopers again. Solo takes Chewbacca to fight them off while Luke and Princess Leia run off down a side corridor only to discover a bottomless chasm blocking their way. With no way forward and the enemy close behind, what can be done?

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Chinese Star Wars Comic (Part 4 of 6): THX-1138, why have you left your station?

This is part of four of a six part post in which I plan to translate a 142 page Chinese comic book adaptation of Star Wars originally published in Guangdong, China, in the 1980s. Thanks to Maggie Greene for giving me the go ahead to re-post her scans, and Brendan O’Kane for bringing this to my attention. In this episode, Vader is duped by Solo’s Trojan Falcon, Obi-wan strikes out alone to take out the tractor beam generator, and Luke rescues Princess Leia only to find themselves trapped in a trash compactor…

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75. Meanwhile, in the meeting room of the “Death Star,” Vader is staring fixedly at star map. Fascinatingly enough, even after the largest device of mass destruction ever—the “Death Star”—destroyed the planet Alderaan, this star map looks the same as always. Indeed, it is only after careful inspection that it becomes apparent that a tiny dot is missing [from the map].

 

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76. The loudspeaker announces that a ship has been taken captive in the ruins of Alderaan. The identifying marks match those of the spacecraft which left the desert planet without authorization. Vader immediately heads to the docking bay (feichuan tingbochu 飛船停泊処) to direct a search of the vessel by the [Imperial] troops.

 

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77. The Imperial Troops enter the spacecraft. Although they look everywhere, they are surprised to find that the ship is empty. The controls are offline and every system is shut down. A soldier turns on the controls [only to discover] that, according to the navigation log, the crew of the ship disembarked before the spacecraft took off [from Tatooine] and that the ship flew to Alderaan on autopilot (zidong zhuangzhi 自動裝置).

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Chinese Star Wars Comic (Part 3 of 6): Once we’ve entered hyper-speed, they’ll never catch us!

This is part of three of a six part post in which I plan to translate a 142 page Chinese comic book adaptation of Star Wars originally published in Guangdong, China, in the 1980s. Thanks to Maggie Greene for giving me the go ahead to re-post her scans, and Brendan O’Kane for bringing this to my attention. In this episode, tragedy strikes at the Skywalker ranch on Tatooine, Luke masters the art of the lightsaber, and Grand Moff Tarkin and “The Dark-Robed Lord” Vader resort to extreme methods to learn the location of the Rebel base…

 

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51. Kenobi opens a box, looking for something, saying, “I’ve saved something from your father in here. He wanted me to give this to you once you were grown. I wanted to give it to you earlier, but your uncle wouldn’t let me. He doesn’t want you to follow the same path as your father.”

 

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52. Kenobi pulls out something which looks like the hilt of sword. With one press of a button, the guard of the sword [hilt] emits a blue-white beam resembling an incomparably sharp blade. He tells Luke, this is a light saber (jiguanjian 激光劍, lit. ‘laser sword’) , the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Those who can master the light saber are one in a million (butongfangxiang de ren 不同凡響的人).

 

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53. Luke asks how his father died. Kenobi says he was murdered by Vader. Originally Vader was Kenobi’s brightest disciple, but he ended up using the martial skills which he learned and his own extraordinary innate powers to help the Empire destroy virtually all of the Jedi.

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Chinese Star Wars Comic (Part 2 of 6): I am a Jedi Knight…

This is part of two of a six part post in which I plan to translate a 142 page Chinese comic book adaptation of Star Wars originally published in Guangdong, China, in the 1980s. Thanks to Maggie Greene for giving me the go ahead to re-post her scans, and Brendan O’Kane for bringing this to my attention. In this episode, Luke and the robots have a close call with the Sand People in the desert, Princess Leia delivers her message, and Obi Wan reveals that he is a Jedi Knight, sworn to protect and serve the old Republic…

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25. Flustered, the girl hurriedly says, “Obi Wan Kenobi (Aobiwan Kainuobi 奧比萬•凱諾比) save me! You are my last and only hope!” But the image quickly gives way to interference (shoudaoganrao 受到干擾) before he can hear what else she has to say.

 

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26. Surprised, Luke asks, “What happened?” C-3PO doesn’t understand, either. R2 beeps away for a while, and C-3PO translates for him, saying, “This is an old data tape, it should have been deleted a long time ago. It must have been left out by mistake. You really shouldn’t take it seriously.”

 

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27. Luke ignores [C-3PO] and continues to stare at the image longingly. “Who is she? She’s really beautiful! Is that all that was recorded? It sounds incomplete.“ He reaches out with his hand to touch R2, and R2 pulls back in fear. C-3PO is very displeased with his partner’s behavior.

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Chinese Star Wars Comic (Part 1 of 6)

This is part of one of a six part post in which I plan to translate a 142 page Chinese comic book adaptation of Star Wars originally published in Guangdong, China, in the 1980s. Thanks to Maggie Greene for giving me the go ahead to re-post her scans, and Brendan O’Kane for bringing this to my attention.

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Star Wars 星球大戰

 

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Star Wars 星球大戰

Based on the original American science fiction movie

Adapted by Zhou Jinzhuo 周金灼

Illustrations by Song Feideng 宋飛等

Popular Science Press, Guangzhou Branch 科學普及出版社廣

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Synopsis

This lianhuanhua is an adaptation of the American sci-fi blockbuster Star Wars. According to the story, there is Empire in a certain galaxy which cruelly oppresses all of the planets in the galaxy and therefore builds a “Death Star” to put down rebels. Princess Leia (Laia Gongzhu 來阿公主) from the planet Alderaan (Aoerdelan 奧爾德蘭), who leads the rebel resistance, falls into the hands of the enemy and is imprisoned on the “Death Star.” With the help of the Jedi knight Kenobi (Kainuobi 凱諾比) and two robots the young Luke “Skywalker” (Feitianzhe Luke 飛天者盧克) braves difficulty and danger to save Princess Leia and finally attacks and destroys the “Death Star” in a space battle.

 

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1. In a certain vast galaxy, the entirety of which was ruled by the Galactic Republic (Yinhe Gongheguo 銀河共和國) in the past, but now this Republic has been destroyed and is now ruled by a Galactic Empire (Yinhe Diguo 銀河帝國). Not only does the Galactic Empire use despotic violence to oppress all of the planets in their galaxy, but they also are trying to rule the entire universe.

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Chinese Lianhuanhua: A Century of Pirated Movies

Seeing that Eric Abrahamsen’s translation of Xu Zechen’s Running Through Beijing was released by Two Lines Press earlier this month, it seems appropriate to sketch out a tradition of movie pirating that existed in mainland China before the advent of bootlegged DVDs:

Star Wars lianhuanhua

This is a lianhuanhua 連環畫 adaptation of Star Wars which historian Maggie Greene picked up at the infamous Wen Miao 文廟 book market in Shanghai in 2011. She recently posted a complete scan to her blog The Wayward Historian, which Brendan O’Kane OCRed and reposted here. According the copyright (sic) page, this work was published in December, 1980, by Yuebei Press 粵北印刷廠 and distributed by the Guangdong branch of the state-owned Xinhua Bookstore 廣東省新華書店, with editing by Zhou Jinzhuo 周金灼 and illustrations by Song Feideng 宋飛等.

Lianhuanhua, or “linked picture books,” have been around since roughly the turn of the 20th century, when cheap printing technology made it possible for publishers to mass produce high fidelity images and text at low cost, providing a new form of entertainment for growing numbers of literate urbanites.1 As comics historian Paul Gravett described them in a 2008 interview for the Manhua! China Comics Now Exhibition2 (appropriately introducing an unauthorized 1984 lianhuanhua adaption of Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Blue Lotus ):3

What I’m going to show you here, this is actually what Chinese comics came from. Chinese comics, before they were called manhua they were called lianhuanhua, which means, basically, the hua means drawings and the lianhuan means linked up, joined together in a chain. So it’s like, comics in sequence, or drawings in sequence. And they appeared in color, and in black and white, particularly in this format and also in larger format books, with one image per page, often with the text appearing underneath. But interestingly, they did actually use speech balloons as well. As we see here there are examples of it. And they were cheap; even if you couldn’t afford them you could actually sit in the street and rent them. Literally, you’d read them in the street, there’d be some chairs, there’d be a guy with a whole shelf loan of these little tiny comics, and you could read them. Because of course some of these comics run for several volumes, maybe, ten, twenty, thirty volumes, and you could read them all in one sitting, just like manga cafes now. Just like the way manga’s gone now—that was already going on back in the twenty and thirties.4

Although it is somewhat misleading to say that lianhuanhua proceeded manhua, as both emerged more or less contemporaneously as distinct forms of production, Gravett correctly points out that it wasn’t until the 1920s and 30s that lianhuanhua really took off, and that for most of its history lianhuanhua was something that you would rent rather than own. Due to their inherent disposability relatively few of the earliest lianhuanhua have survived. That said, one which did seems to indicate that the tradition of adapting American movies to lianhuanhua is older than we might think:

All Quiet on the Western Front lianhuanhua

All Quiet on the Western Front 西线无战事 published in the 1930s by Shanghai Aikesi Bookstore 上海爱克司书店, adapted from the original, translator and artist unknown.

This is a lianhuanhua adaptation of WWI veteran Erich Maria Remarque’s bestselling novel Im Westen nichts Neues, first serialized in 1928 and later translated into English by Arthur Wesley Wheen in 1929 as All Quiet on the Western Front. Presumed to pirated, this adaptation appears to have been based on the 1930 American film version directed by Lewis Milestone which was released in China only to be banned along with all other “anti-war” films by the Nationalist government in 1934.5 Curators at the Rauner Library Special Collections at Dartmouth which purchased the adaption in 2013 have pointed out that although antiwar films were banned in China, versions of the story continued to circulate in Shanghai as a form of “cultural resistance.” Moreover, despite reports which indicate that attendance for anti-war films such as All Quiet on the Western Front was poor,6 the existence of this work shows that its anti-war message must have held some appeal.7

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  1. For a history of the medium, see Shen, Kuiyi. “Lianhuanhua and Manhua – Picture Books and Comics in Old Shanghai.” In Illustrating Asia: Comics, Humor Magazines, and Picture Books, edited by John A. Lent, 100–. University of Hawaii Press, 2001. []
  2. This exhibition ran twice, first at the London College of Communication from March 7 to April 11, 2008, and then again the next year at Durham Oriental Museum from May 2 to September 27, 2009, and included over 200 examples of Chinese comics and cartoons. []
  3. Hergé [埃爾熱], Lan Lianhua – Ding Ding Lixian Ji (Shang)藍 蓮花—丁丁歷險記 (上) [The Blue Lotus – The Adventures of Tintin (Vol 1 of 2)], trans. by Binggang Li [李秉剛] (Beijing: Zhongguo Wenlian Chubanshe, 1984), Beijing; Hergé [埃爾熱], Lan Lianhua – Ding Ding Lixian Ji (Xia)藍 蓮花—丁丁歷險記 (下) [The Blue Lotus – The Adventures of Tintin (Vol 2 of 2)], trans. by Binggang Li [李秉剛] (Beijing: Zhongguo Wenlian Chubanshe, 1984), Beijing. []
  4. Alex Fitch / Paul Gravett, Panel Borders: Manhua! China Comics Now Part 1, 2008 <http://archive.org/details/PanelBordersManhuaChinaComicsNowPart1> accessed 16 April 2014 []
  5. Zhu, Ying, and Stanley Rosen, eds. Art, Politics, and Commerce in Chinese Cinema. Hong Kong University Press, 2010, 66 []
  6. Ibid. []
  7. Rebecca Onion also draws this connection in her short article on Slate “All Quiet on the Western Front: The Book Translated into Chinese Lianhuanhua.”, which I found via the China Books blog post “Chinese Graphic Novels or ‘Lianhuanhua’ « China Books,”  both accessed May 23, 2014. []

Jin Porn Mei: Comic Book Adaptations of the Chinese Novel

The Jin Ping Mei 金瓶梅1 is a notoriously pornographic vernacular Chinese novel believed to date from the late sixteenth century. Authored during the disastrous reign of the Wanli Emperor 萬里 who posterity has come to remember as a sort of Robert Baratheon of the Ming dynasty, later commentators such as Zhang Zhupo 張竹坡 (1670-1698) have convincingly argued that the author of the Jin Ping Mei meant for his work to be interpreted as political allegory.2

Nevertheless, biting political allegory of long dead historical figures doesn’t exactly fly off the shelves these days, and for better or worse the Jin Ping Mei has come to be known mostly for the dirty bits. As part of a guest lecture for a class on the book3 I recently delved into the murky world of comic book adaptations of the great novel. Many of these are, unsurprising, porn, plain and simple, while others are “neither meat nor vegetable” 不葷不素. 4

 

Jin Ping Mei: The Children’s Book

Jin Ping Mei: The Children’s Book

This seems to be the most common illustrated version of the story available online. Although the author and publisher are not identified, although one version identifies as being “for use in schools” (学校专集).  In total there are 100 images with abbreviated text to the side in an updated lianhuanhua 連環畫5 style. Also known as 小人書 or ‘children’s books,’ lianhuanhua emerged in the 1920s as a popular form of story-based comics, defined in opposition to manhua (漫畫) or European and North American style newspaper cartoon strips.

In content, the first 85 pages are spent retelling the Wu Song 武松 chapters of the original novel, with the arrival of Li Pinger, the death of Guange, the death of Ximen Qing and the death of Pan Jinlian at the hands of Wu Song compressed into the last 15 pages. Chunmei and her postscript is also largely absent from this adaptation. Not surprisingly, most of the sex and violence in the text is alluded to but not shown in the illustrations.

 

Jin Ping Mei: The Picture Book

Jin Ping Mei: The Picture Book

Similar to the above version, this lianhuanhua style adaptation by Cao Hanmei 曹涵美 (1902-1975)6 includes 500 images with abbreviated text underneath. Originally published in Modern Sketch《时代漫画》1934-1937, it was later collected into one volume in 1942.

Interestingly, from what I have seen of this version, it seems to tell the story from the perspective of Pan Jianlian, beginning with her birth. It is also not particularly pornographic, as it seems to focus more on telling the story of the novel rather than just the juicy bits. Nudity also tends to be incidental, as in the panel above. Although Pan Jinlian’s breasts are exposed, they are just one detail in a complex composition.

Cao’s illustrations were also used in the opening credits to Li Hanxiang’s 李翰祥 1974 film adaptation of the Jin Ping Mei, Golden Lotus 金瓶雙艷, starring a very young Jackie Chan 成龍:

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  1. In the earlier Wade-Giles transliteration still preferred by many academics it is rendered ” Chin P’ing Mei.” David Roy includes the literal translation,  “Plum in the Golden Vase,” as the subtitle to his version although the accuracy of this is disputable, given that the title is generally assumed to refer to the names of three most important female characters: Pan Jinlian 潘金蓮, Li Ping‘er 李瓶兒 and Pang Chunmei 龐春梅. []
  2. Chang, Chu-p’o. “How to Read the Chin P’ing Mei.” In How to Read the Chinese Novel, edited by David Rolston, translated by David Tod Roy, 196–201. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1990. []
  3. ASIA 441B taught by the incomparable Catherine Swatek who also happens to be David Roy’s cousin. []
  4. In other words, neither fish nor fowl. []
  5. Abbreviation of lianhuatuhua 連環圖畫 or ‘linked-picture’ books []
  6. Given name Zhang Meiyu (张美宇), middle brother of the more famous cartoonists and publishers Zhang Guangyu 张光宇 (1900-1965, née Zhang Dengying 张登瀛) and Zhang Zhengyu 张正宇 (1904-1976, née Zhang Zhenyu 張振宇). []