You don’t have to be an expert in Chinese literature to enjoy Chinese Literature Today (CLT). And though this issue is dedicated to Chinese science fiction, featuring science fiction writer Han Song, you don’t have to be an expert in science fiction either. CLT features fiction, poetry, and interviews, in addition to literary and film criticism all by Chinese or (for the first time) Chinese-American and Tibetan authors. Framed by introductory and contextual pieces such as “A Very Brief History of Chinese Science Fiction” by Wu Yan and Yao Jianbin, translated by Andrea Lingenfelter, CLT provides readers with necessary background. All the same, be aware that a good portion of the journal is dedicated toward academic articles and scholarship rather then wholly fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction.
“The Great Wall” by Han Song, translated by Nathaniel Isaacson, jumps into alternate history. After a terrorist attack levels the Pentagon, pieces of the Great Wall of China are discovered under the rubble and then in patches across the United States. With what is arguably a small historical shift, Song’s alternate history creates a present day so alike our own, with Great Wall museums and tourist attractions. And yet the wondrous, exploratory pieces of science fiction still shine, “I’ve begun entertaining a marvelous notion—perhaps [ . . . ] the Great Wall is meant to extend off to some miraculous place, and when it gets there, the gates of time will open automatically.” Song balances the finer details of his alternate history all the while considering the social impact of his world. What if the Great Wall stretching across the continents is literally a way to connect humanity?
Carlos Rojas, the featured scholar of this issue, begins his critical essay “Han Song and the Dream of Reason” analyzing two Chinese slogans from the 1980s. These quotes are traditionally translated as “To enter the world” and “to match up with the world.” But Rojas translates them more literally to read “to walk or march into the world” and “to match the gauge of the world’s tracks.” He analyzes how the slogans operate under “the assumption that history proceeds along a fixed linear trajectory [ . . . ] but is also propelled forward by a powerful engine [ . . . ] that is capable of disrupting the status quo.” This understanding of transport is then matched with Song’s insistence to ground his work within “historical reality.” Rojas analyzes Song’s novels Subway (2010) and High-Speed Rail (2012) considering the political background that lingers behind these metaphors of rail-based transit. Rojas writes an academic essay that adds new knowledge to Song’s work. His essay encourages others to read Song to discover what we might find.
Wang Ping, an associate Professor of Chinese at Macalester College, is the first Chinese-American author to be featured in CLT. Her poem “Confession of a Ruby Throat” de-centers the human subject to further explore the relationship between humanity and nature. Ping considers how much blood is pumped into the heart—a blue whale’s heart. And we think she’s setting up to compare the blue whale with the human: “the heart champion belongs to us,” she writes. Yet us does not refer to humans at all, but hummingbirds. And even while she continues to use human references—“a body lighter than ten pinto beans”—she reminds us that humans are not the center of nature. When we are the hummingbird and can empathize with the hummingbird, we understand that it is us who are “Uttering cries half human half beast.”
Unfortunately, some pieces of CLT written by academics are not as readable for the general literary audience as Ping’s work. The scholarship utilizes academic language and citations in ways that are not always accessible to readers. Nathaniel Isaacson introduces Song’s fiction as a “narrative of incertitude coupled with perspicacious and ambivalent depictions of the human condition.” In the article “Evolution or Samsara?: Spatio-Temporal Myth in Han Song’s Science Fiction” by Wang Yao, translated again by Isaacson, Yao references theorists like Derrida and Foucault without enough context to include readers in the analysis. While these pieces still provide worthwhile angles on Song and his work, it’s necessary to come into these pieces knowing they are directed to a different audience.
All the same, where CLT succeeds above all else is drawing parallels between ideas that would seem worlds apart. As Song describes in an interview with Chiara Cigarini, “Chinese science fiction writers pay more attention to reality, to what happens in daily life.” That connective thread that everything from the fiction to the analysis to the poetry is somehow grounded in realism makes us rethink what it means to be human, as well as human consumers of literature.