Chen Qiufan’s Parallel Universe
Chen Qiufan, a.k.a. Stanley Chan, joined Noitom Technology Ltd. as its Vice President in 2015 after working for Google and Baidu in the past decade. He first published a sci-fi story in 1997 and has since published dozens more. His SF novel THE WASTE TIDE was crowned the Best Novel at the 2013 Xingyun Awards, China’s Nebula. His works were also translated and pulished on F&SF, CLARKESWORLD and LIGHTSPEED. Chen is currently adapting one of his stories into a film script.
Here is the extract of an exclusive interview The Chinese Film Market had with Chen Qiufan. He shared his view about the world, virtual reality, China’s SF literature, and more.
China in 2025?
A lot of things can happen in ten years. Right now, we are at a historic transition which might lead us to a bright direction or a dark one. A bright perspective suggests China moves up to the league of developed countries, Chinese people enjoy higher disposable income and become happier. An idealistic prospect would see technocracy in China if the Internet can be further utilized for a flat structure. But if the economic reform fails and all the debts and bubbles in real estate and stock market burst, it might enter a status of stagflation, which I have discussed in my novel, leading to the other side of the coin, something similar to 1984. And this might give birth to various underground influences, for example, the rise of hackers.
People will spend more time on self-improvement and less time on commuting because the Internet will offer more convenience. Meanwhile, some will become addicted to virtual reality.
Four key figures in China’s SF literature
Liu Cixin is surely on top of the list: he created a phenomenal series of science fiction THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM, which has extensive influence in China and invites the whole world to have a look at China’s SF works. This series also inspires the Chinese society to take a closer look on Chinese science fiction – people begin to dig its practical values and business opportunities. In this aspect, Chinese are indeed quite utilitarian.
Yao Haijun is an extraordinary talent scout. During his years as the Editor-in-Chief of SCIENCE FICTION WORLD as well as a sci-fi fan, he has discovered many SF writers – almost all the current SF writers became known, thanks to this magazine. We could say that without SCIENCE FICTION WORLD, there would be no science fiction in China.
Professor Wu Yan has contributed so much from a different angle, as a teacher in Beijing Normal University. He does research on Chinese science fiction, offers science fiction creative writing classes, and nurtures new generations of SF writers. His influence in China’s Science Fiction Writers Association has raised science fiction’s status in academia and supportive policies were launched for SF writers.
The respectable Han Song plays an essential role, too. He is a SF author and a leader in Xinhua News Agency,
who has promoted sizable publicity for SF authors like Liu Cixin both at home and abroad, so that more people including the Chinese authorities to learn about these writers and their works.
Status quo of China’s SF films
Too many Chinese film companies are planning SF films at the moment, but honestly there are no really confident ones, because there is a lack of almost everything – screenwriters, directors, concept design and VFX, etc. SF film is very demanding in terms of industrial standard, but China’s film industry is still yet to be industrialized. At present, even previsualization is a rarity. So in pre-production, the actors, directors and even DPs are not sure how to visualize the screenplay. Very few have realized the importance of pre-vis. It is getting better though, because more students and fillmmakers have come back to China after a period of overseas studies and working. They come back with their work experiences.
Still, China’s film industry remains at an overall agricultural stage of development, which will unavoidably lead to a line-up of horrible SF films: pioneers turn into martyrs upon birth. However, this wave will at least give the local filmmakers a lesson – to let the ensuing projects avoid usual pitfalls and utilize a more standardized and professional work flow, so that the whole industry can promote itself in all aspects.
I think what happened in South Korea was that the filmmakers were selected and sent to Hollywood and came back after a period of study, later make great films.
At present, there is no SF screenwriters, so some of SF authors take their time to learn to adapt their stories into film scripts. It shall be time-consuming.
Examine the most profitable films in the China market – you’ll find, more often than not, they are Hollywood SF films or fantasy films. It is very likely that after years of immersion in the Hollywood formula, the local audience might have a natural prejudice that Chinese SF films will not have fancy VFX and thus suck. It is not possible for Chinese films to compete with Hollywood films in VFX, at the moment.
Though the fantasy film MONSTER HUNT has boost local filmmakers’ confidence, the story is actually quite Hollywoodish. It is a blending of Chinese and western tastes. The audience has been cultivated this way, so it won’t be easy to explore a Chinese way to make SF films. Maybe in the first phase, to make SF films with a comic touch is one way to solve the problem, because in the current market, comic cross-genre films sell really well, like JIAN BING MAN and LOST IN HONG KONG.
Hardcore SF fans probably won’t buy such contents, but maybe the general audience would find it acceptable. To make a film like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in China will point to a totally different path, but there is no one in sight that is capable.
China’s SF reading community
In colleges and universities, there are SF reading clubs. Once they graduate, they hardly have time for such gatherings, except for China’s Nebula Award Xingyun Award ceremony and the Yinhe (Galaxy) Award ceremony, which unite SF fans each year.
Some local publishing houses and bookstores also run SF readings. For example, Yu Feng Bookstore in Beijing joins hands with mook OFFLINE and YEEYAN (China’s largest online translators’ community) in launching book clubs to connect readers with SF authors.
Lots of people who work for IT companies are SF readers, and the crowd is getting bigger. Some of them used to read SF when they were young – thanks to THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM, they have restored their enthusiasm in science fiction and resumed SF reading. Sort of back to the club.
Virtual reality in China
There are many Chinese companies tapping into the VR business, making headsets, which is relatively easy to manufacture and makes a good story to attract investment. Currently, the Chinese products are not so competitive as their American counterparts, due to technical issues and talent tank. But I believe it is very likely that the Chinese products will catch up, because we learn fast and we are quite efficient. Still, the 2016 Oculus Rift release will lead to the doom of a number of copycat VR products in China: Rift can offer the best UE at a cheap price, so the copycats hardly have a chance to survive.
I am personally very interested in virtual reality and think it will be the next generation media – it will change a lot of things, include the way we tell stories. I thought I needed to join this tide as soon as possible. It is exciting to be able to witness or participate in a historic progress, so I joined Noitom as one of its partners.
Noitom has just closed its Series B funding round with a couple of million dollars. We have three major businesses. The first one is for the film business, a wearable suit to manipulate a virtual avatar for animation, VFX and VR filmmaking. Also, virtual reality is our key business field: various types of interaction and immersion. Besides, we develop gears for sports and medical care, with motion capture, which can help people’s traning in golf, baseball, or other sports. China has an immense VR hardware market.
My World View
I don’t see the world as a clearly-divided existence: I think the line between facts and fiction, between dreams and reality is quite ambiguous. What we see is just one aspect of a particular phenomenon – there are many rules behind it that we don’t see. I see the world as a system of vast intertextuality. It is partly agnostic.
Maybe there is a great filter in front of us. We just do not know when exactly it will function.
Wang Ren: On a Beam of Light
When news came that a Chinese video game company was going to make a film adaptation of Liu Cixin’s THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM, the Chinese science fiction fans were quite concerned – that company was rich enough, but the fans were afraid it was not able to present this chef-d’oeuvre cinematically. Such doubts went even deeper when its posters and other details were unveiled.
However, a month ago, a short fan-fiction film WATERDROP made by Wang Ren went online, and it shocked us all. With one single long shot, Wang Ren accurately portrayed the sharp contrast between human civilization and Trisolarian civilization and how arrogant humanity would be. The 14-minute film thrilled the viewers all along by zooming out with more and more details of the whole picture and a constant flow of voice-over. Intense suspense was aroused by eerie curiosity to find out what would emerge at the end of this reflection. Viewers were mesmerized by Wang’s understanding of the second book in the series, his approach to visualize the essence of story, his ability to employ the jigsaw puzzle of voices, and his music taste, etc. Fans exclaim that IF ONLY the upcoming feature film would be this good.
In fact, if you are a hardcore science fiction fan, if you have ever read THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM, you’d find the above words pale in front of this short film. Go watch the film on http://www.project-57.org.
The Chinese Film Market is proud to present an exclusive interview with writer director Wang Ren, who gives us hope for China’s science fiction film.
I’m very interested in science fiction. The first novel I read was 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. I became a science fiction fan since then. I wouldn’t say it is a family legacy, but my dad is interested in science fiction movies and novels, we discussed a lot on what we watched and read.
THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM by Liu Cixin is definitely one of the best science fiction series I have ever read. The bizarre yet poetic scenes and stories in the book prompted me to make this film. I’m not professionally trained in film school, I would say the influences come from all the books and movies I’ve read and watched so far.
I’m currently studying architecture at Columbia University. Like everyone else, I’m very interested in films and wondering if I can make one. The film was made out of my interest in this book. I produced a lot of videos for school assignments and office work in architecture field. I have gradually learned through making these videos, and through making WATERDROP as well.
The most difficult part was to find time for production. School classes really took up a large amount of my time, and homework, too. I could only work on the film an hour a day at most. The production of this version took a year and a half. There is production being done based on the previous versions of screenplay, which tells a longer story. All of those added up to about three or four years. However, it did help me to think about the screenplay and everything else when I was not actually in production. If I could work full day or have someone do production together, the film would have been done faster.
I didn’t expect that the film would be this welcomed in the community. I feel grateful and also relieved that science fiction fans, as well as the author Liu Cixin like it.
To people who want to make films, I would say carefully setting up and following the schedule is crucial; otherwise, it will end up taking up too much time in production like me.
I do like telling stories through motion pictures. However, I haven’t thought about much on what I’m going to do professionally or what exactly my next project will be in the future.
I believe the existence of aliens. Some might have already lived among us. Some might have already forgotten their original identity, so they write stories.
Vivian Ma – Queen of Debate
Vivian Ma attended her first national debate competition in 2002 and led different teams to championship. Ma later worked as an instructor in her home university Sun Yat-sen University, train- ing the next-gen champion debaters. TV audiences have remembered her logic and eloquence, and were surprised with joy to see her joining an online debate variety show LET’S TALK run by iQIYI in 2014. In this unconventional series of debate, Ma further conquered a nation of younger fans with her gentle questioning, unequivocal reasoning, and her graceful wits. Meanwhile, she has shown to the viewers that debate can be fun.
This Chinese youth’s new idol has since hosted more TV shows and even begun acting. She recently accepted our interview despite her tight schedule. Here is the essence of this talk.
About her current occupation
I now spend most of my time working for different media: LET’S TALK is going to launch its third season and I will launch a public WeChat account publishing some articles. Besides, I host a number of TV shows.
I think LET’S TALK a really fun show, where people exchange insights on relatable issues. It also ushered me into the show biz, enabled me to see the world outside debate. Meanwhile, it allows more audiences to see what debate is. To me, LET’S TALK is a great life experience.
I will act in a film this November, because it sounds like an interesting experience. In the beginning, I will choose to act modern roles that are close to my own character.
About the recent Chinese films
The recent success of some Chinese films suggests at the moment, verbally interesting stories have a better shot at the box office. Unlike western block- busters, these films are not so visually appealing, but they amuse the local audiences with puns and jokes. The audiences cannot resist the punsters’ ingenuity although the visuals are relatively mediocre.
Films that I enjoyed watching
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, LUCY, HUGO, and a recent Chinese film SAVING MR. WU. I also watch the SAW franchise to relax, and I like the values in THE ADDAMS FAMILY.
FURY ROAD’s major breakthrough is its action scenes. We have seen all kinds of action films in which they have exploded almost anything they could find and jumped off all the skyscrapers, but FURY ROAD shows us a chain of beautiful chase and fight with a simple story. It is OK that it runs with no plots – the chase itself is quite exciting.
LUCY had very polarized reviews, but I think it is not so much of a sci-fi film, but a philosophical film. It actually tries to illustrate what exactly humanity is. I felt quite enlightened by this film.
Regarding the Chinese directors, I like Feng Xiaogang and Jiang Wen. Jiang is
more artistic than Feng, while Feng is more casual and colloquial.
About the Chinese youth born after 1990
Compared with those born in the 1980s, the post-90s Chinese are more practical. Still in college, they have begun to think about what kind of jobs they’ll going to have or whether to build a start-up or not. Whereas in our college days, we thought more about where to go to have fun. Some might sigh upon those born after the 1990s young Chinese that their innocence is lost too soon, but on the other hand, it can be understood that they become mature earlier than we used to.
If there is any message I need to deliver to the young, I think that would be – Do not just believe your ideas are better than others’, but if you really do, go and take some action. Do not just dwell on fancy ideas. Once you make some attempts, you’ll know whether you are as good as you thought.
I would like to write film scripts, but I’d begin with writing a novel. At present, I want to try two kinds of stories: science fiction or romance, both of which requires lots of home- work. I have not signed a publishing house yet, because I am not sure I could finish writing within the dead- line. Another problem is if I am to write a romantic novel, my perspective might be a bit masculine. You know, I cannot stand tiring plots and bland talks.
Zhang Mengning, born in 1990, is better known to Chinese netizen as Ma Jiajia. She opened a sex shop called Powerful upon commencement, whose creative outspoken slogan and imagery immediately put her under the spotlight. She was voted as a pioneer young entrepreneur by THE FOUNDER magazine in 2012. Last year, her penetrating speech about the Internet’s impact on China’s real estate business overwhelmed massive netizen. Invited to be the chief editor of the digital COSMO China, she went on to build an App called HIGH for independent young girls to discuss relationship problems and coming- of-age issues. She also founded Beijing MB Entertainment Ltd. to make funny videos, and is now thinking about making a feature film.
Ma Jiajia is unique due to her sharp eye, cute alter ego, unrivaled PR sense and expressive audacity. The Chinese Film Market had the honor to talk with Lady Jiajia about her take on the Chinese film industry, the Chinese society and her business endeavors.
About the recent Chinese films
JIAN BING MAN and GOODBYE, MR. LOSER have a lot in common: both are based on an already-popular IP; both have multifold forms of puns and jokes; both tells a story of a nobody’s life struggle. They also each includes moments of the young’s collective memory, either of drifting in Beijing, or of songs that were in fashion a decade ago. This device works because regardless the quality of the film, the audiences would be drawn into their own relative memories. It has almost become a formula with an underdog, a great beauty and a rich guy: The beauty went away with the rich guy, leaving the underdog heart-broken, who’d do anything to get rich or famous to win the beautiful girl back.
Despite these films’ success, I think such post-80s mind-set quite old-fashioned, because the roles are so patriarchal, material and sexualized. I am sure the films to be made by directors born in the 1990s would not adopt such values. The younger generation would not need to go to such great lengths to mate. It is a different age now.
Besides, many Chinese films tend to present useless info by using large-scale expensive mise-en-scene. They boast how much money they’ve spent on the VFX and 3D production, but those settings are neither touching nor relatable. Merely posing.
Films made by the post-90s directors shall have a better vision with assorted species. I mean, their films will be more open on themes and storyline, regardless gender or sexual orientation, be it the animals, the nature or other beings. We have a different worldview.
A common idea about China’s post-90s generation is that they live in a subcultural context full of Japanese anime, comics and games, or under-ground music, but I think this context is only a slice of a bigger map. For this new younger generation, the opportunity lies in the transition from an industrial society to the Internet Era. Many young men want to do business in the Internet way, but lots of traditional forces will stand in their way, including interference from their parents, who wish them follow the conventional industrial path. Such a conflict is prevalent in both urban and rural areas, no matter you were born on a farm or with a silver spoon.
I hope people will not discourage the younger generation to move forward, but to support them to go into the new Era. Most of the young are still at a loss about what to do next, though they are not happy doing the routine things in a traditional way.
China is flat
I think China is undergoing a drastic change – so drastic that it offers the young untold number of opportunities. Young people cannot get more chances in any other country in the world, not even in the United States, even if you are quite excellent.
China is able to offer so many opportunities for the young because there are still lots of uncertainties. Since no one is sure what the future will be, or whether their current approach is correct, they are willing to try new ways and this generates all the countless opportunities. You can feel that the young have been quite respected in recent years and their diverse innovations are encouraged and protected, hence the mushrooming of that many start-ups.
I can also relate to my own experience that when you did something creative, people and media would react to your creativity. Even though some of the voices are not so friendly, those are still feedbacks, showing at least others have noticed your innovation. Whereas in a too stable society, no matter what you do, no body will pay attention to you.
I am creating new online communities
I founded sex shop Powerful because it could make loud media buzz in the society. It was not what we were selling, but how. It is noticed that many new voices first rose because of the media buzz. Now that I have gathered sufficient attention, there is no need to just stick on the sex shop business. In fact, what I did with Powerful was quite sub-cultural – the comics we drew, the puns and harmless practical jokes we made.
I built HIGH because girls can be really insecure and complain often about their partners. In HIGH, we encourage girls to be independent, edgy and unaffected. Girls talk to each other online and go offline becoming friends. It is a community of girls with similar values. I gather them in this digital platform to take root and be there for each other. It now runs with steady traffic and I no longer need to spend much time on it. The users can run this community on their own, once the style and values are estab- lished.
So I am now creating a new professional community, sort of China’s LinkedIn for the post-90s. It is noted that LinkedIn has never made it in China, because this is a country with such a different office culture, especially when the post-90s has come up with a set of even more varied criteria: I have such and such skills for this job, but if I don’t like the boss that I am going to work for, or every colleague to work with, or the work environment, I will not take this job. The post-90s has to like the job and all the people involved, or they will not be committed. “My colleagues should be become my friends, or there is no point.” I find this change a big chance.
Digital natives have a wider selection of job choices because they can access information more easily and learn faster; also, the benchmark to decide whether a person is a talent has changed – as long as he or she is an expert in a certain area and can bridge his or her skills with the Internet, he or she shall have more chances to stand out.
The new online community I am creating can help spot more talented people and I would surely support some of them build their own start- ups, to maximize their values.
Lay low in order to talk more freely
The Internet enables lots of provincial people to pretend to be urban, rich or idyllic online and they are often mocked by those who are not pretentious.
The current society appreciates those who can mock themselves, so some smart rich and famous will sometimes sound boorish to appear friendlier and less pretentious. To lay low, and you can enjoy the freedom to criticize others; to stand too tall, you’ll be mocked by others. This is actually the context of the Internet. This is also the essence of the most prevalent humor in China, the northeastern school of humor. Both JIAN BING MAN and GOODBYE, MR. LOSER are disciples of this school.