In the past decade, as Chinese SF has steadily gained more visibility in the eyes of fans beyond China’s domestic borders, its fandom has also become an intriguing topic of study, warranting interest, misunderstandings, and inquiries. Emily Jin, an enthusiast of translated Chinese science fiction, suggested that I write an introductory essay based on my own perspective as an involved SF fan, and highlight the question “Who are the Chinese science fiction fans?” for more people to see. Of course, this question has remained prevalent over the past decades. Therefore I wouldn’t dream that one essay could answer it once and for good; however, I do believe that a thorough walkthrough of historical facts is always the most effective way to communicate and dispel some of the confusions.
There is one person I need to acknowledge before I begin: Professor Wu Yan, one of the founding scholars of SF studies in China. He was awarded the Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service by the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) on June 30, 2020. The Thomas D. Clareson Award is often considered the highest form of recognition for individuals engaged in pedagogical activities related to SF, and Professor Wu is the first Chinese person to receive such an honor.
Wu’s history as an adamant fan of SF is several decades long. He was the first scholar to design a science fiction studies course in China, which he taught at Beijing Normal University in 1991. Since then, he has been involved with the SF fanzine Nebula (1988-2007), the first SF fanzine in China. Originally written by hand, it did not have an official cover until its ninth issue.
Nebula published letters from SF fans all over China: discussions surrounding the genre of SF, fan content creation, reviews of stories published by Science Fiction World (the most prominent professional SF magazine in China at the time), and commentaries on Western SF films and TV shows. In particular, Doctor Who and Star Wars were extremely popular in China in the 1990s and early 2000s—they were the “bibles” of SF fans who grew up during that era.
American SF fanzines were born as early as the 1930s. Without the internet, fans relied on written letters to communicate. Many historical archives were preserved as a result. The Visual History of Science Fiction Fandom compiled by the father-son duo David Ritter and Daniel Ritter, which is currently into its third volume, includes many of those documents: letter exchanges as well as early fanzines.
However, Chinese SF fanzines only started to emerge in the late 1980s. Starting from the early 2000s, everyone communicated via the internet instead of writing letters; the few letter exchanges from the past were left unpreserved, and therefore lost. As a result, rarely has anyone paid attention to the history of Chinese SF fanzines, let alone studied or translated them. For researchers, preserving physical archives in the digital era has always been a great challenge. Many important documents and materials were lost to time.
Bringing my discussion back to Professor Wu Yan, he has, in fact, made three attempts at different times to support Chinese SF fanzines. In 2007, under his supervision, the discontinued fanzine Nebula published a special issue on SF studies. He served as the head of the special issue’s editorial board in Beijing. The issue included twelve academic essays on SF studies, such as “On the Oeuvre of Chinese SF Writer Han Song,” “Foreign SF Studies,” “SF Literary Criticism,” “A Study of SF Writers.” Most of the contributors were from the department of literature at Beijing Normal University, presumably Wu’s students or former students. It’s a pity that Nebula never published anything again after this special issue.
In August 2010, Wu became the editor in chief of a new SF fanzine, Chinese Science Fiction Studies. The fanzine included four columns: “Science Fiction Theory,” “Research on Writers’ Works,” “Experts on Science Fiction,” and “Book Review”. Unfortunately, it did not last past its second issue, which was published in January 2011.
In 2013, in affiliation with Beijing Normal University’s Science Fiction and Creativity Education Research Center, Wu edited an issue of Science Fiction and Creativity Education. This fanzine, published electronically, only contained eight pages. The fanzine included a message that asked pedagogical workers who were interested in SF to help prepare an SF-related textbook. This fanzine, however, was also discontinued after its initial issue.
Around 2016, Sichuan University attempted to publish a magazine called Chinese Science Fiction Reviews, but the project was soon abandoned.
It wasn’t until 2020 that Wu started to publish The Chinese Science Fiction Yearbook annually, which included articles from contributors that reviewed stories, discussed topics pertaining to the publication of SF, and chronicled the year’s major events. Finally, Chinese SF studies found its own space to flourish—a space in which fan effort and professional support merged. In 2021, the Chinese Science Fiction Studies Center was established. And in 2022, the China Writers Association established a branch for the genre of SF.
In April 2021, Professor Li Guangyi of Chongqing University established a new magazine, Newsletter for Science Fiction Studies, which was supposedly sponsored by the Chinese Science Fiction Studies Committee. I specifically consulted Professor Wu Yan about the committee, and found out that the committee is, in fact, still undergoing preparation. I hope to see its inauguration in the near future.
In conclusion, I argue that SF fanzines in China mostly played a transitional role. That is, when no professional platforms were available to publish articles and stories, fanzines stepped in. Though most of those fanzines did not last very long, they played the important role of compiling and delivering information. The key reason why I identify those magazines as fanzines is because all the contributors joined out of their interest in SF and worked for free. However, I also recognize that the label of fanzine is perhaps not enough to address the positioning of those semi-scholarly, semi-fanbased magazines. Like Wu, many people who later became professional researchers and publishers started off as SF fans and major contributors to grassroots efforts. Therefore, fanzines they organized often carried a certain duality that blurred the boundary between fan endeavor and professional project.
Now, onto the main topic: who are the Chinese SF fans?
In June 2015, a group of young SF fans who met each other via Baidu.com’s SF novel forum decided to create a fanzine called The Science Fiction Bimonthly Magazine. Each issue published not only the works of established writers but also stories by new writers.
Sanfeng (Feng Zhang), an expert in Chinese SF research, founded New Realms of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 2009. After the magazine was discontinued in 2012, he established Nebula Science Fiction Review in 2019, an online platform that posts reviews of new SF works. Sanfeng, in support of the efforts made by The Science Fiction Bimonthly Magazine, wrote them a message of encouragement: “Though friends may part ways and magazines may be discontinued, the love will always go on.” Unfortunately, love alone is not enough to sustain a fanzine. The Science Fiction Bimonthly Magazine was discontinued on November 30, 2016, shortly after they published their tenth issue.
In July 2015, Liaojia Zhashu, founder of the SF society at Changsha University of Science and Technology, gathered a group of teenage SF writers and formed a writing club. Later, the same cohort established the fanzine Huangqi Science Fiction. In the preface to the inaugural issue, Liaojia Zhashu writes, “Huangqi Science Fiction was born on a sultry summer night last year, when three high school students let out their first cry of solidarity across the internet. A year has passed, and now they finally have the chance to let more people hear their voices.”
Indeed—the same group of young SF fans, and the same kind of persistent, romantic enthusiasm. After twelve issues, the fanzine, dedicated to publishing SF stories and commentaries, was discontinued in 2016. In 2017, Liaojia Zhashu connected the SF societies of twelve universities together and organized an SF writing contest named Loop Breaker and printed a collection of award-winning stories for all the nominees.
The reason I am mentioning those fanzines is because of the intimate connection that the founding members of those fanzines and Zero Gravity Science Fiction—the fan organization that I am currently a part of—share. Bigai, Lingshizhen, and zmb48 from The Science Fiction Bimonthly Magazine, Buxia Zishuai from Huangqi Science Fiction and Zhao Xiaoyu, who won the Loop Breaker award of excellence, all joined in a newly founded writing contest that eventually evolved into Zero Gravity Science Fiction.
At first, a fan named Chenchen established a monthly writing submission platform called Chenchen Cup. In the beginning, it was solely for the sake of having fun; the participants of the platform contributed the prize money from their own pockets, and they collectively voted for the winners.
Gradually, the works that some members produced have reached the standard of professional publication—accepted by Science Fiction World. Chenchen and various old participants were unable to run the writing platform because of their respective jobs and schoolwork. Another founding member, Wall-E, stepped up to face the challenge. He renamed Chenchen Cup to Zero Gravity Science Fiction, created a website, and established the organization as another Chinese SF fandom group. Starting from the twenty-sixth writing contest of Zero Gravity, the organizers decided that all authors must submit their work anonymously to ensure that the selection process was fair. All the managing members of the group nominated the themes they wanted to see at the monthly writing contests and voted on them.
Wall-E is an experienced programmer. When he was in charge, Zero Gravity flourished. More fan events happened: Zuo Luofu (who has published several works with Science Fiction World) and Liu Laodeng organized an SF read-aloud competition; Runnian and Haibao launched a competition for SF reviews; Shiguang initiated an event to encourage other fans to write comments for the writing submitted to Zero Gravity, where every fan who left comments for three months consecutively would receive personalized Zero Gravity merchandise that Shiguang designed; Hadi, Liyuan June, and Bitian Hongyue (both Hadi and Bitian Hongyue have published personal SF story collections) were a part of a subtitle group that translated SF short films in other languages into Chinese; Dungege was in charge of an SF-themed AI art competition. Every month, Wall-E provided those fan events with prize money. Of course, he did not claim any of the copyrights or ask for anything in return; he only wanted to encourage Chinese SF fans in their respective endeavors of creating and organizing projects.
Recently, Zero Gravity has expanded to add a separate section for novella submissions, run by Merlin. The accepted entries are 15,000 to 50,000 characters in Chinese. The reason for the novella section is that we have been receiving many submissions that exceeded the previous short story character limit (2,000 to 15,000). We realized that the demand for a platform to submit novellas was strong, and therefore we acted in response.
The number of Chinese SF fans who turned to Zero Gravity skyrocketed. Many of them stepped in to write commentary for works by their peers who submitted to the platform. As of now, we have received more than 1,700 SF stories from aspiring writers; more than 100 of those stories were later accepted by professional publications. Thus the motto of Zero Gravity: “A community for SF fans, beginner’s guide to SF writers.” With permission from the authors, we would publish some of the best submitted works on our own website. Yinluoxing and Except1% are the editors in charge.
Zero Gravity Newsletter, the publication that I am currently in charge of, was also established due to the encouragement and help of other members. I managed the submission and selection process, editing, and production all by myself; it wasn’t until this current issue that I invited Lingshizhen to help me with editing. I believe that keeping things simple is the way to go; too many heads trying to get at one thing would often result in conflicts and constraints. I can say with confidence that every new publication of Zero Gravity Newsletter is better than its previous issues. With every decision made in design, printing, and font choice, I strive to refine the magazine.
Now that I have introduced myself, it’s time to introduce to my readers the vast array of professional and fan platforms of Chinese SF.
Which are some of the fan-run SF organizations in China that are currently active? This is a question worth pondering. First of all, what criteria can we rely on to determine which are professional organizations, and which are fan organizations? The question itself brings about ambiguity. Truly, the Western, Anglocentric world of SF has its ways of calibrating fan effort; but SF communities outside of those bounds have their own history and standards, too. The same goes for Chinese SF. After discussing with many people who currently work in the SF industry, I came to a conclusion: the platforms sponsored by institutions and official organizations are “professional,” and are usually backed by independent companies; the rest are “fan-based,” where the participants pay out of their own pockets to fund events and publications, and most of the contributing writings receive little to no monetary compensation.
Which are some of the platforms in China that publish SF works regularly? I categorize those platforms into three groups: mook (magazine book), magazine (printed and electronic), and new media (not physically printed but published on a consistent basis online).
Of course, printed books count as professional, so I’m omitting them from my discussion. As of now, there are four series of magazines and books that are published consistently: the Non-Exist series by Future Affairs Administration (established in 2018), an annual publication; the Galaxy’s Edge Chinese edition by Eight Light Minutes Culture (established in 2019), published regularly but with no set time interval; and the Imagination W series and the Thought Experiment X series by Changjiang Publishing House (established in 2018), an annual publication that consists of up to ten books per edition.
Currently, there are only two professional magazines in print that primarily feature SF from China. One is Science Fiction World (by Sichuan Science Fiction World Magazine Co. Ltd.), which publishes five to six works of fiction and four to five nonfiction articles per issue. In addition, Science Fiction World contains three subpublications, respectively named Science Fiction World Translated Edition, Science Fiction World Children’s Edition, and Science Fiction World Illustrated by Newton Jr. These four magazines are published on a monthly basis. The other one is Science Fiction Cube, published bimonthly by Baihua Literature and Art Publishing House, which also combines fiction and nonfiction.
The other professional platforms are primarily web-based, and we refer to them as “new media.” Examples include Beijing Science and Technology Association's own platform Tadpole Stave and its affiliated writing competition Lightyear Award, founded in 2011; Future Light Culture's Master of Future Award, founded in 2012; Science and Fantasy Growth Foundation’s The Morning Star Science Fiction Award, founded in 2015, and China Dunhuang Science Fiction Invitational Competition in 2021 that encourages its participants to combine traditional Chinese culture and SF tropes; Qixiang (Wonders) online magazine by Migu Digital Media Limited that publishes six original SF works per issue, founded in 2021; World Science Fiction Frontiers which focuses on non-Chinese SF publications and research, affiliated with the China Science Fiction Research Center, a subbranch of the China Science Writers Association, founded in 2021; and Lenghu Award by Eight Light Minutes Culture that collects SF stories based on the Mars-resembling town of Lenghu, founded in 2018.
From 2015 to 2019, some non-SF platforms attempted to host SF writing competitions, but none succeeded. For example, Douban Read (Beijing Douwang Technology Co. Ltd)’s Douban Read Writing Competition–Science Fiction and Fantasy Division, ran from 2015 to 2020; Huawei Books (Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd)’s Huawei Books SF Writing Competition only took place once in 2019; Tencent’s Water Drop Award, which included stories, comics, film commentaries, and original screenplays, existed from 2016 to 2019 (notably, this award was born out of the university-based writing competition Science Association Award).
In addition, various mainstream literary publications have begun to include SF columns or competitions. For example, Literary Port Magazine, a monthly magazine published by the Ningbo Federation of Literary and Art Circles, has held the New Voices in Chinese SF writing competition since 2018. After new sponsors joined, the magazine changed the competition’s name to He Cailin SF Award, and published all the award-winning works via its own “Fantasy” and “Science Fiction Narratives” columns. Works Magazine by the Guangdong Writers Association started an SF column in 2018. In January 2019, the column was renamed “Genre Fiction,” and more genre fiction has been published since. Literary and Arts News by China Writers Association started publishing SF nonfiction from 2018; China School Literature–Youth, a monthly literary magazine, initiated a column called “Meeting the Future” in January 2020; and Petrel by the Dalian News Media Group established a column called “Science Fiction Nebula” in March 2022 and publishes three to four SF stories per issue.
In addition to literary magazines, many popular science magazines have also included SF sections. For example, The Science for Juvenile had a column on SF between January 1984 and December 1999. It brought back the SF column between 2000 and 2008; Amateur Astronomer had a special column between February and August 2012 which deciphered the astronomical references in The Three Body Problem; Modern Science launched a column called “Visions: Science Fiction” in 2018; Science in 24 Hours also initiated a column called “Literature Garden,” which published SF stories and book reviews.
A reader might wonder why children’s SF isn’t included. The answer is that children’s literature in China is always in high demand. Every once in a while, a demand in purchasing children’s books will surge. With China’s population and birth rate, the market for children’s literature is always flourishing—much higher than its adult genre fiction counterparts. Consequently, the Chinese Science Fiction Database is currently unequipped to gather more information, simply because the number of children’s SF works is too great.
Right now, the Chinese Science Fiction Database contains approximately 30,000 records of publications. If we include children’s SF, however, the number may rise to 150,000. More importantly, since the database is operating on a volunteer basis, we do not yet have the resources and energy to distinguish between “adult fiction with children as protagonists” and “children’s fiction with adults as protagonists.” According to my estimation, there are more than thirty children’s literature magazines with SF columns. Every SF writer who writes for children usually has a total word count of more than 1,000,000 characters published. Though children’s SF continues to strive, its form and contents don’t contribute much to expanding the horizons of the SF genres, therefore academia mostly focuses on adult SF’s history and progress.
I have listed in detail the professional platforms that publish works and related works of Chinese SF. Next, I will expand on the fan-based platforms.
At present, there are approximately twenty SF fan groups in China that are active online; almost no groups are active in person. Why is that? Before I discuss specific conditions related to Chinese SF fandom, I will first give an introduction of those respective groups and platforms.
The fanzine Kehuan Wenhui, established in 2013, published SF stories and commentaries. However, after its editor in chief Li Lei started his new job at Bofeng Cultures, an independent book press, he no longer had the time to manage Kehuan Wenhui, and thus the fanzine was discontinued in 2018.
Gaoxiao Kehuan Pingtai (Science Fiction in Colleges and Universities Platform), founded in 2019, is a community formed by university-based student-run SF societies and book clubs. With an aim to include more young SF fans and aspiring writers, Gaoxiao Kehuan Pingtai publishes interviews with emerging writers and spearheads Starfire Cup, an SF writing competition for young writers. It also established The Starfire Academy, a writing workshop that helps writers polish their works and learn from experienced editors and writers. This year, it went on to establish The Lab of Science Fiction Studies for the Youth that focuses on providing resources to SF researchers at the undergraduate level. In the same vein, a separate peer critique group was established in April 2022, where members of university SF societies exchange works and give feedback to each other. The peer critique group would encourage all members to write 1,000-word flash fictions and self-publish collections of submitted works.
The Mamenchisaurus Science Fiction Library is dedicated to building a collection of Chinese SF books. It was established in 2020 by Huawen, an ardent fan who has been very active in the Chinese SF fandom. Huawen hopes to expand the library into a large-scale community service project: a public SF library free to all. As of now, it holds a collection of 20,000 books. A similar community service endeavor is the Jiulong Project (otherwise known as the Chinese Science Fiction Historical Publication Archive), an open access online database that digitalizes existing Chinese SF publications. Many researchers have benefitted from the Jiulong Project.
I have also initiated a project of my own in 2021, through which I chronicle the history of university-based SF societies in China. I think it is important for fans to tell their own stories and document their efforts in organizing all SF-related clubs and events. With support from Science Fiction World, I produced A History of University Science Fiction Societies in China, a book that records the work that I’ve been doing.
The London Chinese Science Fiction Group, established in 2019, invites writers to give talks online on a monthly basis. Many SF fans based in the UK have attended their events. The group would post transcripts of the talks on their official WeChat account.
The aforementioned Newsletter for Science Fiction Studies, established in 2021, with Professor Li Guangyi of Chongqing University as editor in chief, publishes historiographies, semi-academic essays, and translated SF-related articles.
The Chinese Science Fiction Academic Workshop, founded in 2022, regularly invites researchers of Chinese SF to give talks and host panels under the support of Science Fiction World. It posts updates on the most recent published SF-related academic papers written in Chinese, on its official WeChat account.
The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, which originated in 2018, would provide an annual summary of publications and major events. Arthur Liu, the founder, would read through all of the nominated works for the Hugo Awards every year and write introductions as well as commentaries for Chinese fans. He has also translated a lot of essays and stories from English into Chinese.
There is an abundance of fan-organized SF writing competitions, amassing to more than fifty per year. Some examples include Eclipse Award hosted by Kehuan Xingkong (Science Fiction Starry Sky) since 2018, Mailbox Cup hosted by No. 42 Post Office since 2017, Cambrian Award hosted by Xiao Kehuan (Little Science Fiction) since 2013, Q-fiction World Competition hosted by Science Fiction World’s official Tencent QQ software online chat group, and so on.
Zhong Tianxin, another ardent fan, has been collecting information on various SF competitions and publishing instructions on how to submit stories to competitions and magazines since June 9, 2016, and he has been doing the same work up until now. I have to say, he is one of the top contributors of Chinese SF archival work. In 2021, he received official support from the Future Affairs Administration. His work was promoted to a wider array of Chinese SF creators so that more people could submit their works.
Chinese SF fans also have a strong say in critiquing published Chinese SF works, and they are never afraid to voice their dissent. For instance, every year since 2014 the Chinese SF fandom would vote for the Monolith Award, dedicated to the worst work of Chinese SF of the year. It is the SF community equivalent of the Golden Broom Awards for Chinese Films, which originated in 2009. The Nebula Science Fiction Review, established in 2019, with Sanfeng as its founder as well as editor in chief, would regularly reach out to SF fans and ask them to review Chinese SF works. All of the reviews are posted on its official WeChat account.
A group of Chinese SF fans founded the Chinese Science Fiction Database (CSFDB) in October 2020. Aiming to archive all data related to Chinese SF, the database positions itself as a hub of information that covers authors and their works, books, magazines, organizations, awards, trends, and other diverse information in the field of SF.
Future Affairs Administration supervises the Weibi Kehuan Xiezuofang (Not Necessarily Science Fiction Writing Workshop), a platform for writers to engage in peer critique and improve the quality of their works. Most of the participants are undergraduate students and people who have day jobs.
In addition, there are a few SF societies formed by fans who are still in high school, such as the Halo City (named after the worldsetting of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem series). They invite Chinese SF writers to give talks regularly.
However, a key difference between Chinese SF fanzines and SF fanzines elsewhere is that Chinese fanzines cannot be sold, as every publication for monetary gain in China needs to apply for an official identification number, and the process is rather complicated. Therefore, tracing back to my previous point—why do most of the Chinese SF fandom activities take place online instead of in-person?—because most fanzines are distributed electronically, and groups formed within the big fandom are not necessarily based on subscriptions to particular magazines.
Honestly, it’s not that Chinese SF fans don’t want to reach out and continue more of the work they are doing; it’s really that most people are only available to indulge in the joys of SF during college. After they graduate and start working, they had to put their hobbies behind and work tooth and nail to meet the demands of real life. “The gravity of reality,” as we call it, is so powerful that almost every one of us gets dragged down to Earth. After all, if we can’t even pay rent and buy groceries, how can we escape into SF?
In total, 177 different kinds of SF fanzines have appeared in the history of Chinese SF. However, most of them did not last past the first couple of issues. Most of those fanzines were created by university SF societies, which further illustrates my previous point. That’s why we rarely see Chinese SF fan groups and fanzines last for longer than a few years.
I hope that my essay can shine light on what the Chinese SF fandom is like and dispel some of the existing confusions as well as preconceptions. My fellow SF fans from the Anglophone world and beyond—I really hope that I could meet you all next year in Chengdu, at the 81st WorldCon!
[The author, translator, and Strange Horizons wish to thank Regina Kanyu Wang for initiating the conversations that led to this article, and for her help with it.]