Why Chinese Sci-Fi Fans Love Homegrown Heroes

Film and literary protagonists wield ancient philosophy to ward off alien invasions.

The growth of the Chinese film market in recent years has brought an increasing number of foreign sci-fi films to the country’s cinema screens. People might assume that domestic films can’t hold a candle to the polished products put out by Hollywood’s slick sci-fi screenwriters, yet actual box office figures beg to differ.

In 2016, “The Mermaid” became China’s highest-grossing sci-fi fantasy movie of all time, raking in 2.2 billion yuan ($333 million). “Monster Hunt,” meanwhile, led the charge for fantasy films at a whopping 2.43 billion yuan ($360 million). Both are domestic movies. The former posits the existence of an isolated population of mermaids in a future war with humans, who wish to destroy the mermaids’ habitat as part of a sea reclamation project. The latter tells the story of two hunters in a world populated with people-eating monsters.

At the same time, the latest installments of popular Western movie series — like last year’s “Star Wars” episode or this year’s “Alien: Covenant” — have had decidedly unspectacular performances at the box office.

Domestic sci-fi films seem to fare better in terms of appealing to a mass audience, perhaps in part because of China’s unique historical and cultural context. In the eyes of many Chinese moviegoers, native sci-fi heroes differ vastly from their Western counterparts.

First, let’s remove the “sci-fi” label and talk about heroes in traditional Chinese culture. In “Biographies of the Assassins,” a Han Dynasty work compiled around 100 B.C., we read about the lives of authentically Chinese heroes. Tenacious, determined, and ever willing to make sacrifices, Chinese assassins supposedly went to extraordinary lengths to gain their targets’ trust — even blinding themselves, covering their faces in paint, or swallowing hot coals to make their voices huskier. In traditional China, an assassin was virtuous, possessing a strong moral compass and succeeding in his task by following the Tao, or the universal principle of nature that flows through all things.

The Tao continues to influence Chinese sci-fi heroes today. In China, a hero’s success isn’t just about discerning between right and wrong and carefully completing one’s mission. Following Taoist philosophy helps heroes understand how best to approach the crises they face.

One ancient Chinese hero, the semi-mythological Qu Yuan (340-278 B.C.), appears in the novel “On the Miluo River” by Chinese sci-fi author Xia Jia. Born during the Warring States period, when a number of small kingdoms vied for power on the Chinese plain, Qu watched as his country, the state of Chu, was destroyed. He felt that as his emperor’s subject, he should perish along with his country, so he threw himself into the Miluo and died. Xia’s novel, which explores time travel as a narrative vehicle, conveys the wistfulness that later generations felt toward Qu for his loyalty and dedication.

The Tao Te Ching — Taoism’s core text — argues that respecting the laws of nature and utilizing its power means learning from the natural world. Mastering the laws of nature, in turn, influences how Chinese heroes fight perceived enemies, meaning they rarely employ mechanical weapons or superhuman skills.

Another popular sci-fi novel is “The Rural Teacher” by Liu Cixin, an author whose claim to fame today is the Hugo Award-winning novel “The Three-Body Problem.” In “The Rural Teacher,” a teacher from a small, impoverished mountain village who has terminal cancer teaches his students about Newton’s three laws of motion before he dies.

Later, an advanced alien civilization comes to Earth, threatening to exterminate humankind if it cannot prove its intelligence. Taking the teacher’s students as a sample, the aliens discover that humans have mastered Newton’s laws and abandon their plan to destroy the world. Chinese sci-fi heroes don’t need to attempt bombastic solutions to save the world; they do so by following their mentor’s teachings. As long as an ordinary teacher can achieve his purpose, then he, too, can become a great hero.

Written records of Chinese military tactics also influence modern sci-fi literature. “The Art of War,” a treatise dating from the fifth century B.C. and attributed to the military strategist Sun Tzu, claims that “the highest form of generalship is to attack the enemy’s plan; next, to attack his alliances; and after that, to attack his army.” In other words, the best method is to undermine the opposition’s strategy and political relationships; all-out war should only be used as a last resort.

In Qian Lifang’s speculative fiction novel “Will of Heaven,” the Han Dynasty general Han Xin faces off against a powerful alien civilization disguised as Fuxi, a traditional deity partially credited with the creation of humankind. Han lacks advanced weaponry but is extremely adept at scheming. He deceives Fuxi by strategically attacking a dormant volcanic island inhabited by extraterrestrials, setting off an eruption in the process and vanquishing his enemy.

These examples show that Chinese sci-fi doesn’t need to blindly follow the path that Hollywood sci-fi flicks have taken. When confronted with a problem, the heroes of Chinese sci-fi refrain from attacking the challenge in the kind of gung-ho manner we expect from American blockbusters. Instead, their approach is more measured and philosophical. In the end, ren — “benevolence” — dictates that our heroes must ensure their behavior sets an example for all living things.


–This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone