Today’s post deals with May the Fourth and popular science fiction, but it won’t be about Star Wars. Instead, it will focus on the May Forth Movement 五四運動 that was started a century ago on May Fourth 1919, as well as on the absolutely unconnected Ingress XM Anomaly that took place in Kaohsiung this Saturday, May Fourth 2019. I will use Liu Cixin’s 劉慈欣 Three Body Problem 三體 to bridge the gap between these two events. Is this going to be a stretch? Absolutely! But I think I can make it work.
The May Fourth Movement began in 1919 as a reaction to the Treaties of Versailles. In the treaties, the German territories in Shandong that had been leased from the Qing dynasty were not returned to the newly established Republic of China, but instead given to the Japanese Empire. Chinese intellectuals felt that this was a reflection of the way in which China was perceived internationally: an underdeveloped, backwards country that could be disrespected and whose objections to the willful redistribution of its lands could be ignored without consequence. As a result, these intellectuals joined into the concerted efforts of the New Culture Movement 新文化運動 to modernize China on all fronts: military, technology, education, culture etc. They sought to reach and educate the common people by adopting vernacular language in their literary writings and essays – this step was quite remarkable, since so far scholars and officials had used classical Chinese to communicate, a language as closely related to vernacular Chinese as Latin to modern French, Spanish or Italian.
One of the things the modernists sought to spread through their writings was technological knowledge. Arguing that the common people would be more open to science in the form of fiction, the genre of science fiction was first introduced to China around the turn of the 19th century. Yet, while the efforts for mass education stayed important during the rest of the 20th century, science fiction literature unfortunately did not. It disappeared from the literary scene for half a century and then only returned in the form of short stories in dedicated magazines like Science Fiction World 科學世界 from the 1990s onward. Until…
Until Liu Cixin published his Three Body Problem trilogy. Not only was this series a smashing success in China, the first volume went on to to the first novel in translation to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015, showing international recognition. The Three Body Problem more than revitalized Chinese science fiction: novels by a range of authors can now be found in major book stores and movies are being produced. Unfortunately, the first Three Body Problem movie appears to be stuck in production limbo, but The Wandering Earth 流浪地球, based on a short story by Liu Cixin, opened to great success in Chinese theaters.
Looking at Liu’s work in particular, it seems as if the worries of the May Fourth Movement have been overcome: these stories don’t seek to modernize China; they portray Chinese society and scientists as leading in the world. China no longer needs to fight to make its voice heard; China is a global superpower and a highly sought-after international partner. China safes the world.
While the PRC uses science fiction to celebrate its own greatness, the city of Kaohsiung in the ROC embraces science fiction in a very different way by hosting an event of the Ingress XM Anomaly that is part of a worldwide series. (See, I told you I could connect the May Fourth Movement to Ingress!) Last Saturday, they connected Taiwanese players to the to the worldwide community and inviting international players to engage with them in Pokemon Go style street battles around the city. (It should be pointed out though that Ingress launched years before Pokemon Go, meaning the latter technically uses Ingress style strategies.) My brother was one of these players, having come all the way from Germany to join into the fun and do a bit of sight-seeing before and after.
On May Fourth 2019, a hundred years after the May Fourth Movement was started in the Republic of China by intellectuals dissatisfied with how the international community viewed them, gamers in the Republic of China on Taiwan are a natural part of the Ingress community. Even though the company behind Ingress was probably more concerned with 5/4 2019 being a Saturday, their schedule decision nevertheless allowed me to both take a trip to Kaohsiung and write this far fetched post about the development of Chinese science fiction.
Please check out actual articles on 100 years May Fourth Movement as well. Here are some i liked:
Jeremiah Jenne: Memories of May Fourth in Downtown Beijing on The World of Chinese
Yang Chunmei: The May Fourth Movement in Chinese History on Sixth Tone
Shakar Rahav: May Fourth for the World on the China Channel