Chinese bookworms, used to learning from the country's 5,000-year-old civilization and its ancient literary traditions, are opening up to the worlds of the future in the burgeoning new science fiction culture.
The monthly circulation of Science Fiction World, one of China's most popular magazines, has exceeded 500,000, dwarfing all international counterparts.
Yang Xiao, head of the magazine's editorial board, said 70 percent of its readers were students who shared single copies of the journal between dozens of friends because they could not afford their own.
Millions of Chinese young people were affected by science fiction, said Yang, who hailed the rise of the modernist genre among the people who would decide the nation's future.
A professional science fiction writers group is also being weaned in China, with members ranging from senior storytellers who have been inventing fantastic tales since the 1980s to 18 and 19-year-old schoolchildren.
In recent years, some female writers have also joined the group, broadening the appeal of science fiction.
Yao Haijun, assistant chief editor of Science Fiction World, said a stable writers group was the most important precondition for the growth of science fiction in China.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), science fiction writers put down their pens for fear of being branded "unorthodox”, he said.
"I feel blessed to live in an economically and technologically developing era where science fiction is no longer considered a kind of children's literature, but one of the mainstreams of China's literature," Yang Dantao, a young sci-fi writer said.
Wu Yan, associate professor of Beijing Normal University and one of the country's best-known sci-fi authors, said an open China would bring about a boom in science fiction.
His university led the nation in announcing that it would recruit science fiction postgraduates next year.
Xing He, China's other paramount sci-fi writer, said science fiction embraced all of humanity's fantastic ideas and reflected heroism, mysticism and the spirit of exploration.
He believed science fiction was a great cultural treasure and should not be played down by any country or culture.
China's enthusiasm for the genre has even influenced recent national university entrance examinations. The composition section of the country's most important exam has replaced Confucian Thought and the testing of students' memory and analysis abilities with a test of imagination.
In 1999, the composition included the fantastic subject, "What if memory could be transplanted".
In the late 1990s, science fiction became the publishers' new favorite. A spate of sci-fi collections hit the bookstores nationwide, such as Collected 20th Century Chinese Science Fiction, issued by Hubei Children's Publishing House.
Wang Jinkang, one of China's most popular sci-fi writers, said science and imagination were limitless and a writer's mission was to endow them with philosophy and justice to give science fiction some practical meaning.
He also said the speedy development of science fired human development, but if science went too far and without ethical direction, it would be as bad as not going far enough.
A Lai, chief editor of Science Fiction World and winner the Mao Dun Literature Prize, the most important award in Chinese literature, said science fiction had existed in China for 100 years since Lu Xun, a great Chinese man of letters, translated "Journey to the Moon" by French author Jules Verne into Chinese in 1902.
Today, a growing number of Chinese writers prefer to express their thoughts and concerns about China's future by inventing high-tech stories. This nationally-aware science fiction may greatly influence the country's future.
(Xinhua News Agency August 21, 2002)