Peng Yang: The Foremost Writer of Chinese Teenager Science Fiction
The “Re-Enlightenment” of Contemporary
Chinese Teenager Science Fiction
The first issue of Science Fiction Studies in 2013 published a special collection of China’s science fiction reviews, providing international science fiction scholars a basic understanding of China’s science fiction writings and an access to the works of contemporary Chinese science fiction writers such as Wang Jinkang, Liu Cixin and Han Song, etc. (SFS March 2013, Vol. 40). However, what is noteworthy is the fact that though the above-mentioned writers can be considered as the most influential voices in the field of Chinese science fiction, they can’t represent the whole scene—in today’s China, which is in the process of the gradual acceptance of the enlightenment rationalism, and the highly compressed development (or “leap-forward” development) of market economy, a variety of non-mainstream literary groups are attempting to seize the opportunity to promote their ideas and win the market. In this collision of thoughts and rivalry for the market, Yang Peng, who is regarded as “the foremost writer of Chinese teenager science fiction”, is outstanding for his uniqueness and deserves the full attention of those researchers concerned with Chinese science fiction.
1. Ethics of Science and Technology and the “Re-Enlightenment” in Contemporary China
Yang Peng (1972- ) is a renowned “teenager science fiction” writer and one of the few writers who claim to write science fictions “only for teenagers”. He has created a large number of works, now reaching more than one hundred with the word count of about ten million, venturing into films, TV series and animations, etc. His important works include science fiction series Xiaoyuan Sanjianke [The Three Musketeers on Campus], children’s series Zhuangzai Koudaili De Baba [ Papa in Pocket] and science-fiction drama Dai Lvse Huijia [Take Green Home]. His short story Zhuiru Aihe De Diannao [A Computer in Love] was awarded the “Galaxy Award” in 1992, the highest award for science fiction in China. Though his creation is far from the 1950s and 1960s, the heyday of Chinese teenager science fiction writing, he is opposed to the practice of Han Song and other writers who have claimed to “refuse to write for teenagers”, and writes exclusively for the young. He aspires to defend their imagination and targets at the guidance of their ethics of science and technology. His works has a unique, phenomenal significance in Chinese science fiction writings. In 2006, Yang Peng initiated a movement titled “Imagination in China—A Campus Book Tour”, proposing the idea of “defending imagination”. In his view, the most important means of protecting and cultivating teenagers’ imagination is to popularize the fantasy writings: the fantastic elements overflowing in science fiction can effectively stimulate teenagers’ imagination. Based on this idea, Yang’s works encompass diverse subjects, from the subjects of “cosmos and aliens”, “monsters”, to those of “future society”, “mankind (evolution)”, “ time and dimensions”, or those of “computer and internet”, “robot”, “superman”, and “invisible man”, almost touching on every kind of scientific materials. [note1]However, the depiction of science in Yang’s most influential series The Three Musketeers on Campus only functionally assists the readers in understanding of the space-time paradigm in the novels. The Three Musketeers on Campus is centered on the conflict between human beings caused by their differing views of science and technology, and its main purpose is the construction and guidance of teenagers’ ethics of science and technology. The Three Musketeers on Campus series (hereafter referred to as Three Musketeers) have a typical group of three protagonists: Yang Ge, a boy who has the superpower of detecting people’s “thinking waves” and other supernatural capacities; Bai Xue, a girl who possesses specialized knowledge of biology; and Zhang Xiaokai, a computer genius. This young group is courageous and always successful. No matter the world-class myth of Bermuda (Shengsi Baimuda [Life and Death in Bermuda]), the startling consequences caused by ordinary dolls (Beijing Wan’ou [Beijing Dolls]), the enigmatic monster of Loch Ness (Nisihu Guaishou [The Monster of Loch Ness]), or the survival difficulties facing future mankind (Zhongji Huanxiang [Final Fantasy]), all scientific mysteries and conundrums are smoothly solved. Actually, “science fairy tales” are an appropriate term to describe these fictions, as Brain Aldiss said, science fiction is a kind of literary works which is trying to define human being and understand its status in the universe. It will appear in our advanced and chaotic knowledge system (the science), 1 and “science fairy tales” incorporate this pursuit and the encouragement for the pursuit into teenager literature. For instance, in Three Musketeers, the nearly omnipotent capacities of the three protagonists are a distortion of real life experience—thus fitting into teenagers’ reading habit and the expectation of fantasy. Indeed, Darko Suvin thought that this kind of fictions had the gesture of explaining the supernatural rationally, but “science” in these fictions is actually represented as some kind of metaphysics instead of physics。2 However, in the more positive perspective,“science fiction is overwhelming to the new readers of this genre, especially young adult readers, because it brings an acceptable scientific element into their exsiting experience”.3 “science fairy tales” enjoy popularity because they can help their readers experience and observe the world from the perspective of science, not only facilitating their contemplation on science that push the world forward, but also provoking their thinking on themselves and the roles and status of human beings in the world. It is for this reason that “science fairy tales”have undeniable value. Judging from the dozens of books from the Three Musketeers series, this kind of work has a singular significance in China, that is, through the medium of “fairy tales”, it undertakes a mission which is just like the Enlightenment, and disseminates basic ethics of science and technology, trying to help the teenagers make their own judgments when facing possible scientific scenarios in the future. This is just the essential education that is sorely needed in China’s process of modernization by scientific and technological innovations. It is also the field that is rarely touched upon by elite science fiction writers for various reasons. Yang’s Three Musketeers series set the themes and bring the scientific elements (not any other elements) in the adolescent literary works, which clearly conveys his wish to build a bridge between the world of teenagers and that of science and technology. In The Monster of Loch Ness, different groups including military all tried to decipher the myth of the monster of Loch Ness. Finally, with the help of the “Grand Wizard”, the “three musketeers” managed to reveal the truth. However, this so-called wizard with amazing magical power only turns out to be a scientist who has mastered the technique of time travel—no matter how romantic this story is, it unswervingly emphasized the rational understanding of science and technology, and constantly enhanced the authority of science. In the series, the superpowers these young persons relied on—information technology, biological science and technology, etc.—are closely related to the latest development of cutting-edge science and technology, while their actions are metaphors of the optimistic view of the future that mankind will gradually be able to solve all the supernatural with advanced scientific technology. Thus, this series strengthens teenager readers’ awareness and trust of science and technology. At the same time, Yang not only affirms the immense power of science and technology, but also emphasizes the ethical responsibilities of human being as the master of science. From the perspective of modern ecology and reflections on anthropocentrism, in enlightening teenagers, Yang also continuously portrays the disastrous consequences of science and technology may bring if they develop in a nihilistic manner. This prophecy is the key point of his novels that concentrate on the theme of environmental protection, of which Beijing Dolls (1999) is one typical work. This is a gothic style novel: in a seemingly normal world, all of a sudden the rivers begin to flow backwards, human bodies lean sideways, and other abnormal phenomena occur; afterwards, the dolls called “Beijing Dolls” become incredible popular throughout the whole world; meanwhile, Zhang Xiaokai’s disappearance and the popularity of the dolls deeply worry Yang Ge and Bai Xue; their friend Dr. Leisen discovers that as recorded in the ancient Chinese history book Hanshu [Book of Han], Chaoye Qianzai [Anecdotes from the Court and the Commonalty] and other works, there are legends of dolls that appeared and gained popularity during the reign of King Mu of Zhou, Emperor Gaozu of Han and the Tang Dynasty as well as other historical periods, and their appearances corresponded with the crucial moments of the unity or collapse of different dynasties. The writer employs the stories in ancient Chinese history books, transforming the dolls into some kind of magic figures that appear every millennium and bring about dramatic social changes—Dr. Leisen proposes that these dolls might come from an advanced civilization of a prehistoric period. Yang Ge and Bai Xue are attacked by the Doll King, and from whom they gain the truth of these mysterious dolls: the “magic dolls” are the “guardians of the earth”, the supervisors that left over by the last civilization on the earth. In their millennial inspections of the earth, if they find any later civilization that severely devastated this planet, they would destroy the civilization wholly. When the whole world is on the verge of destruction under the attack by the dolls, Yang Ge, Dr. Leisen and others finally find the underground computer which manipulates those dolls. With the assistance of computer genius Zhang Xiaokai, they manage to defeat the dolls and restore peace and stability in human society. In this novel, Yang ingeniously combines fantasies about ancient animated dolls, the concept of “recurring civilization” with contemporary environmental ethics, presenting an arid picture of “treeless wild lands, polluted rivers, boundless deserts, cornered animals, butchered whales and gray skies…”. Thus, in treating dolls as the archenemy of mankind, the author also attributes certain sense of justice and righteousness to their protection of the world. It is in this tension the novel warns human beings (especially the teenagers) that mankind’s attitude towards global ecological system now have the importance of life and death. From this, it can be perceived that Yang’s teenager science fiction provides clear guidance for educating the teenagers and enhancing their awareness of the responsibilities of environment, fully performing the didactic function of literary works. What is worth mentioning is that Yang Peng is particularly interested in applying Chinese elements to some of his Hollywood-like science fiction, as is evinced in the above mentioned novel Beijing Dolls and Gongfu Milaoshu [Kung fu Mickey Mouse] (2010) series which he has cooperated with Disney. These works demonstrate the effort to integrate with global trends as well as highlight the local characteristics, for which he has won “Five ‘One’ Project Award” given by the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the CPC, “National Books Award” and other prestigious awards set up by Chinese government. Faced with a book market which is oriented towards Chinese readers, adding Chinese elements will surely attenuate their cultural resistance, but the more important effect is that in China’s current debate over whether there are so-called “universal values”, Yang inserts Chinese elements into the framework of mainstream western culture, whose novels thus differ from the ideals of “Chinese system, western materials”, “Japanese spirit, western things” which used to be advocated by China and Japan respectively on their threshold of modernization. His novels are built on the basis of universal values or at least the communication of these values. This kind of indirect responses to the zeitgeist is quite common in contemporary Chinese science fiction, such as the “black jungle law” rendered in Liu Cixin’s novels, etc., all of which contain reflections on today’s China, a country that has plunged headlong into modernity or even post-modernity without undergoing the full process of Enlightenment. In short, Yang’s works respond to the significance of fulfilling the still unfulfilled mission of Enlightenment, and the applicability of universal values and other issues, by the ignored literary genre of teenager science fiction.
2. Structuralist Theory and Consumption-Oriented Writing
What also interests the researchers is that besides science fiction, Yang published Kehuan Leixingxue [Typology of Science Fiction] in 2009, the first book in mainland China that studies science fiction and its sub-genres. As an academic work, this book targets “a large number of collections that belong to the sub-genres of science fiction”, with particular focus on the basic narrative grammar of science fiction and its repeated forms of expression, including story formulas, stereotyped characters, formalized conflicts and solutions, etc.（see Typology of Science Fiction 3）. The essential part of this book which is over 260, 000 words, is its second chapter “Studies of the Literary Genres of Science Fiction”. This chapter uses the methodology of structuralism, presenting a closed discussion of science fiction, animations and films. Specifically, it investigates into science fiction from the four perspectives of “narration”, “characters”, “structure” and “background”. Its distinctness lies in the fact that the writer examines the rules of science fiction in the view of the writers (not academic researchers), and also, its exploration of the capabilities to generate numerous stories once these rules are mastered. For instance, in the analysis of the narrative sequence of science fiction, Yang applies the theories of Propp and Todorov to the works of Superman, Batman and Spiderman, concluding with the sequential pattern of “superman” stories: X (mad scientist) stirs up troubles →Y (Superman) comes to the rescue →X is temporarily thwarted →X uses Y’s weakness to defeat Y →Y overcomes difficulties to turn the tables →X takes Z (Superman’s lover) hostage on the verge of being defeated →Y is in a dilemma →Y finally rescues Z and defeats X →X is not destroyed who is bound to come back. What is more, Yang utilizes the famous “Greimas Square” to analyze the relations between X, Y and Z（Typology of Science Fictions 73-74）。All in all, with the aid of structuralism and narratology, Yang delves into the writings of Wells, Verne, the works of the “Golden Age”, “New Waves” and “Cyberpunk”, as well as Hollywood films, which stretch across a timespan of one century. It can be said that as a theoretical work employing narratology in analyzing science fiction, Typology of Science Fictions will contribute to the further research in this field. Of particular interest to the present study is that if we compare the theories of Typology of Science Fictions with Three Musketeers series, taking Beijing Dolls as an example, we will find that the narration of this work almost perfectly fits into the pattern just proposed: the dolls take Zhang Xiaokai hostage, causing numerous abnormal phenomena; →Yang Ge comes to the rescue; →the dolls almost conquers the whole world; →Yang Ge tries to use “thinking waves” to defeat the computer which is controlling the dolls; →Zhang Xiaokai defeats the computer by implanting virus, thus saving mankind; →the dolls are not completely destroyed, who would come after another millennium. Except for the adaption for Chinese teenager readers, that Y’s lover Z is replaced by Y’s friend, and some other small variations of the episodes (it is not Y but Z who defeats X), Beijing Dolls fits into the pattern of “superman” stories very well. As a matter of fact, a lot of Yang’s novels have followed the existing patterns. For example, he has summarized the clue pattern of science fiction（Typology of Science Fictions 96-99）. If this pattern is used to analyze his own fictions, it can be found that nearly all of his novels have applied the classic patterns: though the Three Musketeers series are filled with exotic (or alien), adolescent and adventurous elements, all these novels follow one or multiple storylines designed for Yang Ge (with Bai Xue, Zhang Xiaokai and Dr. Qin Guan as branch lines), and finally conclude at the same terminal point. How can such kind of “coincidences” occur? Actually, Yang Peng, who is well informed about narratology, can not be unaware of literary formal experiments. On the contrary, he has willingly and conscientiously given up challenging classic narrative patterns. In fact, though Yang is an associate researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, which is China’s most influential social research institute, and has published academic works such as Typology of Science Fiction, his most important role is the leader of “Yang Peng Workshop” (established in 2002), a producer in the assembly line of the culture industry which now are strongly advocated in China. The production and promotion of best-selling science fiction by “Yang Peng Workshop” is based on the learning of the theories and experiences of the culture industry market. Yang doesn’t aim at the literary innovation, as he has clearly argued in Typology of Science Fiction, “The vast majority of readers are more willing to accept this kind of structural form which has already undergone the test of hundreds of years and therefore is quite suitable for reading. That is why most Hollywood films adopt this structure.”（Typology of Science Fiction 97）. That is to say, Yang’s science fiction writing pursues Hollywood-like success, and is committed to literature consumption theories that hold commercialized consumption as the criterion. Typology of Science Fiction is both a summary of his successes and a guidepost for the future. Indeed, Yang has written some exquisitely designed fictions with “the vastness of thoughts that connect with the universe”, such as his short story Huhuan Shengming [Calling for Life], in which “my wife, daughter and I” trekked long distances in the universe to search for other intelligent lives, and with nuclear bombs blasted open a planet that sent out life signals, only to find that the living organism was this planet itself. This type of stories’ reflections on mankind’s insatiable desires for exploration, and their contemplations on the ontological status of the “self”, are both remarkable and thought-provoking, but as a whole, Yang’s teenager science fiction is prone to industrialized mass production/creation and more profits. It is obvious that due to the relative shortage of knowledge and simplicity of the mindset, teenagers are more likely to accept and consume culture commodities. In the culture industry, which is dominated by consumption and consumer-oriented, teenager science fiction writers own certain advantages in operating (writing), which should be one of the main motivations for Yang’s persistence in writing teenager science fiction.
Confronted with the trends of modernization, marketization and globalization, many Chinese science fiction writers are feeling deep anxieties, while Yang advocates “culture industry” and “assembly-line writing”. Indeed, his propositions are quite unusual, which therefore could easily arouse controversy. Though Yang admitted that popular fictions might lack of individuality and originality, he also argued that the replicability and mass-producibility of these works are “undeniable essence of contemporary culture and the underlying foundation for film, animation and game industries”. At the same time, “the development of science fiction, especially the kind of ‘assembly-line writing” of popular science fiction, is the best illustration of ‘cultural industry’ theories” (“Science Fiction, Culture Industry, Assembly-line Creation”). In the practice and “illustration”of the “culture industry”, Yang Peng Workshop is the first workshop in China that creates science fiction with commercialized means, and works such as Shijie Zhimi Shaonian Qihuan Xiaoshuo [The Mysteries of the World: Teenagers’ Fantasy Stories], Heike Shaonian Shijianbu [Teenager Hacker Incidents] and animation YOYO Qiyuji [The Adventures of YOYO], etc., have gone viral in various mass media. In this immense culture market of teenagers where yearly productions over hundreds of millions, Yang has been cultivating this land with meticulous care and has now made tangible achievements of growing influence and number of readers (consumers). Actually, the production of over one thousand episodes science-fiction cartoons, which are popularized on TVs, movies and cyberspaces, and the selling of the tie-in products, are indeed the copies of the American science-fiction market operational mode. This practice has. However, as the Frankfurt School questioned, could this over-commercialized writing deprive people of their capacities to critique and doubt? Could this practice reduce people to “onedimensional men”? Or, could the excessive consumption of “assembly-line products” obliterate young readers’ imagination and creativity that are vigorously promoted by Yang Peng himself? Where are the limits of this so called “culture industry”. All of these are the issues that need further consideration and discussion. Thus, Yang Peng’s teenager science fiction has important significance in contemporary Chinese science fiction writing. For one thing, as a literary genre, and especially as the genre of non-mainstream science fiction for teenagers, it plays the role of the disseminator and preacher of the ethics of science and technology. In China’s re-enlightenment process, it’s not only embodying the spirit of popularization of science of the early 20th century, but also demonstrating the efforts to integrate with the dominant culture of the world - western civilization. For another, in the process of capital globalization, Yang’s response to the rapidly growing “culture industry” reveals the predicaments facing Chinese science fiction writers— whether to try to create masterpieces and make the breakthrough of Chinese science fiction, or embrace the “serialization of works, branding of books and idolization of characters” and leave elite literature to the elite readers? In any case, Yang’s teenager science fiction and his theoretical views deserve researchers’ observation and in-depth exploration.
1. These nine categories are provided by Yang Peng in his Typology of Science Fictions, but as Professor Wu Yan said, inevitably, there are considerable overlaps among these categories. 2. “Recurring Civilization” refers to the hypothesis that there have been one or more advanced civilizations before the appearance of mankind. This novel puts forward that the last civilization on the earth has undergone the process of growth, prosperity and decay, and vanished in nuclear wars, the catastrophic memories of which are still retained in some history books and legends, for instance, Indian epic Mahabharata. 3. Yang Peng summarized the features of the Japanese writer Nasu Masamoto whom he praised as his “foreign mentor”, “serialization of works, branding of books and idolization of characters”, and “originality of ideas, fast-paced plots, suspense of stories”, etc. Cf. “Yang Peng’s Sina blog”
Aldiss, Brain. Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Yang, Peng. Typology of Science Fiction. Fuzhou: Fujian Children’s Press, 2009. Yang, Peng. “Science Fiction, Culture Industry, Assembly-line Creation”in Southern Literature, 6(2010). Yang, Peng. Yang Peng’ Sina blog. [EB/OL]
Abstract: Yang Peng is the most renowned writer of Chinese teenager science fiction. His writings possess phenomenal meanings. Yang’s well-received fictions, such as The Three Musketeers on Campus Series, focus on the guidance of teenager readers’ ethics of science and technology. These fictions contribute to the dissemination of the ethics of science in the current re-enlightenment process of China. At the same time, Yang’s academic work Typology of Science Fiction carries out a panoramic scan of science fiction in the perspective of structuralism, which corresponds to the consumption-oriented and “assembly-line creation” that he advocates. It is the reverberations of contemporary Chinese culture industry.