Saturday, March 2, 2013

Boldly going where no man has gone before- the story of science fiction in Taiwan

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12 October 2010

Ask anyone in Taiwan to name just one of their favorite science fiction classics and you’ll probably get an answer that is either Star Trek or Star Wars, two of the longest running and incredibly popular American science fiction entertainment franchises, or maybe the X-files TV series.

You might even run into someone who gives you a Vulcan salute hand or talks about one or two adventures of agents Mulder and Scully searching for the Little Green Men.

Ask the same people to pick any work of science fiction by a Taiwanese writer, and it’s a virtual certainty that they will give you a blank look with a question mark hanging above his head. Or, if he or she knows better, maybe the name Ni Kuang (倪匡) will come up, accented by a smile of triumph and in ignorance of the fact that Ni is actually from Hong Kong. OOPS

This is a glimpse of how science fiction developed in Taiwan where most people, like everyone else around the world, watch foreign-imported sci-fi films and novels. But not many of them know that, in fact, many Taiwanese writers are actively engaged in sci-fi writing, and the development of science fiction in the island nation has a history of nearly a century.

Travel back in time

According to Fu Chi-yi, (傅吉毅) in his Chinese-language book entitled “A Cultural Study of Science Fiction in Taiwan 1968-2001,” (台灣科幻小說的文化考察1968-2001), the first sci-fi work on the island was a novel by Yeh Pu-yueh (葉步月) entitled "Immortal” (長生不老) dated November 1946. It is interesting to note that Yeh was also one of the first writers in Taiwan to write detective stories.

Yeh’s early attempt was written in Japanese, however, and it is generally agreed that the milestone of the first Mandarin-written Taiwanese science fiction story should be credited to the famous female prose writer Chang Hsiao-feng (張曉風) in 1968 with her novelette “Pandora.”

Chang’s story deals with a mad scientist who attempts to clone a human being. The experiment ultimately fails when he is smitten by his conscience and calls it off at the last minute.

Chang later said she got the inspiration from a scientist friend who told her it is very likely that humans will clone another human in the near future.

"The idea really shocked me since these human clones would be just like slaves, which is a very immoral thing to do,” she once said.

In November of that year, American-based Taiwan computer science professor Chang Shi-kuo (張系國) also published his first SF story “The Chronicles of Over-men.” Rising star Chang would later become a go-to-guy and leader in the development of the genre in Taiwan, dominating the field for over a decade in promoting sci-fi.

In “Over-men,” the protagonist is yet another mad scientist. After he turns himself into a half-man/half-robot, the scientist is sent to travel in different parts of the galaxy to check on other places in habited by overmen, until he unfortunately finds out that even with their omnipotence and seeming super powers, these semi-robots are not as happy as they thought they would be.

At almost the same time, Huang Hai (黃海), inspiration by the example of Chang’s "Pandora”, made public his first attempt at SF, “Sailing to the Endless Journey.” Huang later became one of the most productive writers in the genre before he shifted his focus to creating sci-fi stories for children.

As varied as these different subjects may seem, these early works and attempts made by local writers in science fiction are more like the so-called techno-thrillers, which very often explored technology and problems concerning human interaction with it, usually resulting in catastrophes, much like those explored in Michael Crichton’s works.

Aside from these efforts by literary writers, Lu Ying-chung, (呂應鐘), more widely known as the Godfather of Taiwan’s UFO studies for his dedication to alien/alien culture investigations on the island nation, also began to popularize the genre with a series of futuristic magazines published from the 1970s to early 1980s.

However, due to the limited circulation of his magazines and stories, not many people are aware of Lu’s contributions.

But all and all, with a wave of promotion of local writers and translations of many classic sci-fi works like “1984” and “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the seeds of sci-fi started to take root in Taiwan and the stage was set, ready for Chang Shi-kuo to reign for the next few years.

The Rise and Fall of the Age of Chang

Following his first try in the genre in the late 1960s, Chang Shi-kuo later accumulated more experience with a series of sci-fi stories published in local newspapers which were later collected as the “The Suite of Nebulae,” one of the most important milestones not only for Changs but also for the history of sci-fi in Taiwan, according to Fu.

Dubbed an “important Enlightenment figure” in Taiwan science fiction genre by local literary critic Lin Yao-te (林燿德), Chang started to systematically translate many foreign sci-fi masters’ works and publish them in papers complete with analysis and together with his own creations, during the 1970s.

Then in 1982, Chang and his friends jointly launched a publishing house called "Knowledge System Publishing,” dedicated solely to “publishing local sci-fi,” to use Chang’s own words.

It was also under Chang’s influence that the China Times, one of the three major newspapers in Taiwan, launched a sci-fi writing contest in 1984 which opened the doors for young bloods to join the world of SF creation in Taiwan.

Danny J. Han-chang Lin (林翰昌), who holds an MA degree in Science Fiction Studies from the UK’s University of Liverpool, described the event in an article on Taiwan sci-fi history, “The Long and Winding Road to Science Fiction: A Brief Overview of SF Development in Taiwan (2003)”: "The China Times SF Awards were a milestone. They provided a way to raise new writers.”

The awards, however, lasted for only two years, and once again it was Chang who came to the rescue and continued holding a similar award in his own name until the awards folded again in 1989.

These awards not only cultivated a group of younger generation sci-fi writers, but also helped to solidified Chang’s leading position in the genre in Taiwan.

Chang’s own SF Award also helped him to find a rising star and successor in promoting science fiction, Yen Li-hua (葉李華), a regular contributor to the writing competitions, who was also a man with science-background that held a PhD in physics.

Following these awards, the launch of the Mirage Magazine in 1990, another effort by Chang, further lifted the development of sci-fi to a peak in Taiwan in which the movement “completely united the whole Chinese SF society under Chang Shi-kuo’s banner. Some of the contributors were even from Hong Kong and China,” to use Lin’s own words.

At the same time, it is also quite obvious that even with constant publicity of the genre through the efforts of Chang and his followers, sci-fi in Taiwan has remained largely unknown to the general public because of the elitist attitude held by these early genre promoters, a point that is made by both Lin and Fu.

Chang’s emphasis on moral teachings, heavy ideologies and connection to Chinese culture have limited the development of sci-fi among higher structures and high-minded literates, while these burdens have hindered the works’ ability to attract common readers who read simply for fun, they said.

Literary critic Lin Yao-te also noted that most genres begin by establishing their own lower parts, but Chang Shi-kuo only constructed the upper parts and neglected the lower ones.

Neglect of popular opinion also impacted the sales of many of the magazines which promoted sci-fi. Mirage Magazine, a monthly that featured the works of Chinese-language sci-fi writers, lasted only eight issues, while other similar magazines had even shorter lifespan.

Other than the burden of moral teaching, another reason for the lack of readers in Taiwanese sci-fi was the rise of Hong Kong writer Ni Kuang. An amazingly prolific writer, Ni first made an appearance with works in serialized form in the China Times in 1978. In 1981, a total of 44 books by Ni hit the local market, causing a storm in Taiwan’s literary world.

Ni’s sci-fi stories are normally action-packed with a lot of adventure that happens in exotic settings, and almost all of them involve an alien civilization that makes his adventures like something you might find in the X-files series, only with a lighter and more humorous tone.

These reader-appealing elements made all of his books page-turners and they have been wildly popular since the 1980s and still are.

So far Ni has written hundreds of such sci-fi adventures, making him literally an icon and franchise figure in Chinese-language SF literature.

Though Ni’s works won unsurpassed success in gaining a huge readership, his "pulp” sci-fi adventures also set him up as a target for many Taiwanese writers like Chang who believe that sci-fi should discuss more serious topics instead of these adventures with Chinese kung-fu and some erotic elements.

Nonetheless, even with the strong criticism leveled at Ni by local writers, who found themselves largely unknown to the public even though they held to high standards in their works, these SF writers gradually but reluctantly accepted Ni as an important part of the local science fiction world.

Even Chang himself once admitted the flaws in his concentration on moral teachings and top-to-down promotion of sci-fi. “We have not developed new readers, nor have we satisfied the tastes of the general public,” he noted.

After the demise of Mirage Magazine, with which Chang had originally wanted to better promote sci-fi in the island nation, Chang made use of a quite innovative approach in hopes of closing his gap with the general public with a launch of a so-called interactive serial sci-fi novel in the United Daily News and China Times, two major news outlets in Taiwan. It was warmly welcomed by readers who submitted their versions of the story Chang started.

But the phenomenon did not last.

When Mirage folded in 1993, Chang also slowly but steadily let his leadership lag and stepped away from Taiwan’s science fiction world.

The Age of Yeh

Just as Taiwan’s science fiction movement was continuing to slide downward with the inexorable departure of Chang, the torch of Father of SF was passed on to Yeh Li-hua. As an amateur contributor during Chang’s ascendancy, Yeh participated in the China Times SF writing contest three times and was a one-time first prize winner in 1989 with his novella “The Game.”

After receiving a PhD degree in physics at University of California Berkeley, Yeh came back to his homeland of Taiwan at the advice of his old time friend and mentor Ni to promote sci-fi here. This had been a lifelong interest ever since his childhood when he saw the SF film “Fantastic Voyage.”

He later became friends with Ni, his favorite sci-fi writer, who continued to encourage him to carry on his SF writing.

He came back to Taiwan in 1997 to serve as an editor to Chang’s Mirage Magazine and utilize his extensive knowledge of SF. As a professor, he also began to teach a general introduction to science fiction in local universities in 1999.

He later launched his own website to promote the genre until it closed in 2000.

In 2001 National Chiao Tung University where Yeh teaches even set up a Center for SF Studies under Yeh’s advice, the first institution of its kind in Taiwan. In the same year, the first-ever Ni Kuang Sci-Fi Awards were held in the name of Yeh’s mentor.

Unlike its predecessors, the awards have lasted for nearly a decade since their establishment, with strong support from Yeh and his university.

A total of more than 7000 Chinese-language sci-fi works were submitted to the competition over the nine years of the Ni Kuang awards, a huge number in comparison with the previous attempts.

Yeh’s professional knowledge on science and sci-fi mafe him a legal successor to Chang and the new leader of the local SF world.

In previous interviews with local media, Yeh has said he was devoted to the promotion of science fiction in order to “break down the prejudice local people have against the genre.”

"Sci-fi is not only about aliens and robots. It’s not some kind of mumbo jumbo but rather a way to break out of boundaries set by predecessors based on scientific knowledge.”

"The works of sci-fi are not only an imaginary version of the future, they are also attempts to predict the future,” he notes.

Many scientific inventions have been inspired by these sci-fi works or films, and all these efforts help push us toward a better future, Yeh adds.

To boldly go where no man has gone before

Under Yeh’s leadership the Center for SF Studies continues to promote the writing of sci-fi stories and the dissemination of scientific knowledge among Taiwan readers.

So far, Yeh says, there are only a dozen or so SF scholars in Taiwan dedicated to sci-fi research says.

But the launch of the Ni Kuang Awards and the holding of sci-fi seminars, lectures and related events are all having an effect on the encouragement of the readership of the genre in Taiwan with the birth of new talented writers.

Yeh is confident that with these efforts, another wave of sci-fi mania will soon sweep over Taiwan in the near future.

Yet science fiction is basically a foreign imported genre, which may have limited its development on local soil, but many critics have also suggested that with the introduction of more and more translated works and Chinese-language SF stories, there will be a day when science-fiction booms in Taiwan.

"Once we have a variety of works by authors from Douglas Adams to Roger Zelazny, once we get the complete works of Robert A. Heinlein translated as well as Agatha Christie’s, then we may have the ability and possibility to broaden and straighten this long and winding road to science fiction,” says Danny J. Han-Chang Lin.

Fu also notes that there are still a very limited number of local writers engaged in sci-fi writing, and the Ni Kuang Awards are the only annual event where they can have a chance to be read and heard.

There must be more new faces jumping into the world of SF creation in order to continue broadening the limited readership base in the island nation, he says.

At any rate, the seeds of science fiction were planted in the soil of Taiwan years before and are still waiting for another boost to let them sink deep roots into the island nation.

The voyage of sci-fi in Taiwan has just begun and is ready to - to use Star Trek’s famous opening credits in Captain Kirk/William Shatner's voice-over - to boldly go where no man has gone before.

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