Literature at the Margins: Learn Chinese, Read Sci-fi

In my experience learning Chinese over the past decade, one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is getting enough practice reading (and writing) characters:


“Study them every day, use them every day” 天天学,天天用 1

Characters take an inordinate amount of time to memorize, and the lack of spaces between words means that proper nouns, set phrases, and foreign transliterations have to be parsed out from the more common vocabulary of everyday writing.

This is the easy answer for why so few Anglophones read untranslated Chinese literature:

Because Chinese is hard.

As the old joke goes, though:

Q: What’s the difference between ignorance and apathy?
A: I don’t know and I don’t care!

My suspicion is that there are a lot of people out there like me — people who are being held back not so much by the difficulty of learning Chinese, as by the difficulty of finding things to read in Chinese, so that we can actually get the practice we need to become (and stay) functionally literate.

Ignorance and apathy are self-perpetuating, of course: The less one reads in Chinese, the harder it is to pick up a book or story to read casually.2

At the same time, one hears over and over again that nothing worth reading is being published in China today. Just a couple of days ago, Ha Jin, an author who I respect and admire, was quoted on LitHub saying that, “Many of my novels—A Free Life, War Trash, A Map of Betrayal—which have political resonance, are not allowed to published.”3 Can Xue has gone even further, saying, when asked about contemporary Chinese literature, “I have no hope, and I don’t feel like evaluating it.”4

Setting aside, for the moment, questions of censorship and literary merit (which seem to, somewhat conveniently, to do double duty as pitches for dissident lit), genre fiction—particularly short fiction—provides interesting examples of ‘marginal’ or ‘weird’ literature: the queer, the dystopian, the creepy.

The trick is finding it.

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  1. ‘Them’ here isn’t actually characters, it’s ‘the words of the Chairman Mao’ but same diff, right? []
  2. In language acquisition studies, this is referred to as ‘attrition’ and it probably affects us more than we think, since most of us have a pretty high tolerance for reading words that we don’t entirely understand. It’s more obvious when it comes to spelling (or writing characters), especially when we’re deprived of spell check (and IMEs). Two related concepts are the ‘plateau effect,’ which points to the fact that we learn L2 languages in stages, rather than all at once, and ‘fossilization,’ which refers to becoming trapped at a sub-fluent level. []
  3. Ha Jin on the Long Reach of the Chinese Government: Love, Betrayal, and the Totalitarian Machine []
  4. Q&A with Author Can Xue on the State of Chinese Literature []

Mo Yan talks to Chen-ning Yang about Chinese sci-fi, name drops Liu Cixin

[Transcribed from a talk between Mo Yan and Chen-ning Yang, moderated by Fan Zeng, that took place Wednesday May 15th at Peking University.]


Fan Zeng: Chen-Ning Yang once said, “Scientists have never been able invent anything, all they are doing is discovering [that which already exists].” I want to ask Mo Yan, is your writing an act of invention, or do you use another method [to create your work]?


Mo Yan: I think the creation of literature and discovery of [new] science have a lot things in common, and they also have some differences, too. Writers pay attention to people, scientists pay attention to things; writers delve into human emotions, scientists pay attention to the principle of matter, I suppose. So it’s possible that the same object viewed through the eyes of a writer and a scientist doesn’t [appear] the same. I remember Lu Xun once said, “When most people look at flowers, all they just see are beautiful blossoms. But through the eyes of a botanist they become the reproduction organs of plants.”


But in the process of creation they also have a great deal of things in common. Strictly speaking, writers don’t ‘create life from nothing’, [because] all of the characters that a writer gives form to in his works are composites of real people who have been passed through [the writer’s] imagination and embellishing, but they really can’t be matched to the name of any living person, either. They belong the writer’s act of literary creation. So to my way of thinking, in this literature is somewhat freer than physics or chemistry.


Fang Zeng: I think it is much freer, especially [the writing from] your pen. [Your pen is] like a magic pen, it affects miraculous transformations while giving people a even more realistic feeling. That’s my impression [at least].  So, while we are on the subject of style, [the fact that different] writers have [distinct] styles goes without saying, [but what about] a scientist’s style?  What is stylistic differences exist between scientists and writers?


Chen-Ning Yang: I think that there are differences. This is closely related to the question you asked a few minutes ago, regarding the relationship between invention and discovery. It doesn’t matter if you are a scientist, a writer, an artist, the boundary between discovery and creation isn’t fully apparent [in any of these fields]. But I think the following makes a lot of sense: the amount of discovery that occurs in science is slightly less than in literature. To approach this idea from another direction, I know that Mo Yan likes to write ‘fantastic tales’,  is there such a thing as

‘fantastic science’? I don’t think there is, [because] science as a branch of learning is based on conjecture and not fantasy. I think fantastic science is a dead end, because what science wants to understand is phenomena that already exist. Before humanity existed, there was already electricity, magnetism existed [too]. Scientists want to understand the structure of the universe [and] you need imagination for this, you need conjecture, this is really different from the fantasy [employed] in literature. I don’t know if Mo Yan agrees with my opinion on this or not.


Mo Yan: Of course I agree. Writers really do need fantasy, we also know that there is a significant genre of literature called ‘science fiction’, with a large number of readers. Actually, many writers really don’t know anything about physics or astronomy, but they can still describe [these things] in their novels. I remember reading Pu Songling’s short story ‘Conductor of Thunder’ a long time ago. It’s a story about a scholar who plucks the stars [down from sky]. There are a lot of these sorts of descriptions in literature. Really, works of literature are built on the foundation of one’s experiences in life, and so science fiction authors build atop a certain amount of scientific knowledge. The difference between literary fantasy and the conjecture of scientists is larger [because literary fantasy] is built atop a certain amount of life experience, followed by [the addition of] imagination and analogy.

[Source:, accessed 18/5/2013]

Apparently just after this transcript cuts out, Mo Yan mentions Liu Cixin. The best I can find is the following snippet from an article on China Daily:


The amount of discovery that occurs in science is more than that which occurs in literature, [and] the amount of invention which occurs in literature in more than that which occurs in science,” [Chen-Ning Yang] said.


In response Mo Yan talked to Chen-Ning Yang about science fiction. He told Pu Songling’s story ‘Conductor of Thunder’ and he also complimented Liu Cixin’s _Three Bodies_, [saying that] it was well written. Mo Yan had already talked about the influence and inspiration Pu Songling[‘s writing] gave to his writing during his acceptance speech in Stockholm last year.

[Source:, accessed 18/5/2013]