Racism and China in Science Fiction
October 1, 2013 10:15 AM   Subscribe

Is David Wingrove's Science Fiction series Chung Kuo Sinophobic? If so, why? And is it so racist that one should not buy or read the novels in order to avoid supporting Wingrove's point of view?

I read the original series in the 90s and loved it. I thought it was relatively non-judgmental about the concept of one civilization dominating another--bad guys and good guys of different races abound and the dystopian tyranny it describes is awful but could have been perpetrated by Western nations just as easily. Meanwhile they are full of large amounts of (I assume) real detail about Chinese history and Confucianism.

But then I read the most recent additions to that series and I'm not so sure. I'm not very familiar with Sinophobic tropes and stereotypes about China so I wouldn't necessarily know if the author was engaging in those. If you're familiar with these novels, what is your reading of them--should I stop buying this series?

Second part of the question: Whether it is or isn't racist, what are some science fiction novels that also explore the ascendency of China in world culture, are set in future China, or that otherwise contain a ton of info about China? (Unlike, say, the Firefly universe which had some gestures as Chinese language and culture but nothing specific about China itself). Thanks!
posted by Potomac Avenue to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Have you read The Fat Years?
posted by bradf at 10:39 AM on October 1, 2013

Best answer: I read them a long time ago and they didn't strike me as being Sinophobic (and I'm Chinese, though born and grown up in Canada), but the reason you should not read them is because the original ending (spoilers) sucked ass. I know he's gone back and made changes, and no idea if it sucks less now in some ret-conned way, but fool me once, shame on me etc.
posted by juv3nal at 10:46 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: China Mountain Zhang is canonical, of course, but I find it kind of creepy - I am uneasy about a white woman who seems to get way too into writing sexually violated and socio-sexually vulnerable male bodies writing a story with a gay male Chinese protagonist. The book is widely praised but it makes me uneasy.

Liu Cixin's Three Body trilogy will be out in translation soon and I'm looking forward to reading it.

I just stumbled across this link to an issue of the DePauw Journal of Science Fiction Studies which is all about Chinese science fiction.

Also, here is a really interesting list of translated more recent Chinese SF and some Chinese critical writing about it. It looks really neat.
posted by Frowner at 10:47 AM on October 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: The Years of Rice and Salt is speculative historical fiction about what would have happened if Europe had not recovered from Bubonic Plague. China and various Islamic cultures are the most prominent historical forces as a result. There is a lot of information about actual historical China in it.
posted by ignignokt at 10:48 AM on October 1, 2013

Best answer: Not positive it meets your criteria because it branches from Earth history far in the past, and I wouldn't say the stories are crystal clear on how the future society works, but Aliette de Bodard's Xuya Universe is probably worth a look, not least because several of the stories are free online.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:11 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I read the first book while I was an Asian Studies major--I was really excited about it--and I mostly remember just being irritated by it in general. I think my irritation started with the outdated (or was it randomly combined?) romanization style and continued: irritation with female characters, irritation with Yellow Peril tropes (which are apparently even more of a thing in the new books!), irritation with references to culture and history which seemed kind of lazy and superficial. But since it's been years, I couldn't give you any particular details.
posted by wintersweet at 11:12 AM on October 1, 2013

Best answer: Is David Wingrove's Science Fiction series Chung Kuo Sinophobic? If so, why?

I read the first book or two and it struck me as incredibly racist. The Chinese characters are either giant archetypes of evil, or female archetypes of wilting flowers. Meanwhile, the white people seem to struggle nobly against their oppressors.

The writing style was fairly compelling, which is why I read more than one, but really, they're just terrible, terrible books.

I could never buy that 200-300 years could completely obliterate society's conception of what went before.
posted by Squeak Attack at 11:38 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Meanwhile, the white people seem to struggle nobly against their oppressors.

I don't remember the books that well, but this strikes me as not entirely accurate. Two of the main baddies are white, including the really central main one mentioned in the spoiler flagged link in my previous comment. The other one is even an Albino. How much more white could he be? The answer is none. None more white.
posted by juv3nal at 12:09 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't remember the books that well, but this strikes me as not entirely accurate.

Yeah, that's possible. I read them a long time ago too.
posted by Squeak Attack at 12:38 PM on October 1, 2013

Response by poster: juv3nal if Squeak is talking about the prequels, that is a pretty accurate description of the plot, though there are plenty of things that are wrong with the near-future Western Society that the Chinese destroy in those books, in general its a lot more simplistic (along the lines of that awful-sounding final volume!).

Thanks everyone! I'll finish up the two I'm working on and move on to the great suggestions listed here.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:49 PM on October 1, 2013

It's not exactly Chinese in nationality, but I enjoyed the first book in Liz Williams' Detective Inspector Chen series, set in the future megalopolis of Singapore 3.
posted by smoke at 4:57 PM on October 1, 2013

Best answer: I'm one of the people who praise China Mountain Zhang. Guess I disagree with Frowner here. I find it a compassionate, nuanced depiction of a gay Chinese male protagonist, with a very lived-in world and an amazing plot. McHugh's Chinese is off in a couple places, and I'm slightly wary of her depiction of a possibly-trans character in the book, but otherwise, it's one of my favorite books.
posted by jiawen at 6:36 PM on October 2, 2013

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