3000 Years of Chengdu Science Fiction

(A painting of 9th century poet Xue Tao, photographed at Wangjiang Pavilion Park in Chengdu, Sichuan)

There is much to love in Memories of Chengdu (成都往事) -- a time traveling romance story spanning 3000 years of Chinese history -- but one moment made me laugh out loud. Deep into the 21st century, the protagonist is explaining the decision to test out, for the first time, a time travel device by journeying forty years back into the past, to the International Science Fiction Conference held in Chengdu in 2017.

My rough translation of the passage: The date and place were chosen because if the time traveler looked or sounded out of place, the conference attendees would assume she was engaged in some kind of special performance tied to the festival. But if they did figure out she was from the future, that would be fine too, because an audience of science fiction authors would most likely be delighted at proof of time travel.

A foolproof plan!

I have written elsewhere about the incredible vibrancy of Chinese science fiction. While reporting that story, I learned that, within China, Chengdu is considered the capital of the nation’s science fiction establishment. The country's premier SF publication, Science Fiction World, is headquartered there, helmed by Yao Haijun, the mentor and editor of many of the genre’s leading lights. The International Science Fiction Conference of 2017 was a real event: in fact, Baoshu, the author of Memories of Chengdu, writes that the story was specifically commissioned for that conference.

I learned of the existence of Memories of Chengdu when I asked Ken Liu, the American author and translator, if he knew of any science fiction or fantasy that had specifically Sichuanese themes. My reasoning was simple: As a lover of both Sichuan and science fiction, what better way to buff up my Chinese reading comprehension than with a strong dose of Sichuan SF? I had no idea what I was in for. Memories of Chengdu is a journey through Chengdu's past that namechecks nearly every major historical event in the history of Sichuan. In so doing, Baoshu demonstrates an inspiring roadmap for how to solve the challenge of creating a coherent narrative out of the anarchic jumble that is history.

Baoshu kicks off his narrative in 800 B.C., in the kingdom of Shu, an offshoot of the even more ancient Sanxingdui culture, notable for having arisen separately from the traditional north China plain heartland of Chinese civilization. Baoshu's main protagonist manages to play a role in the development of the irrigation system that assured Sichuan's prosperity through the ages, and in the invasion and annexation of Sichuan by the Qin, the founders of imperial China, and in the creation of organized religious Daoism (which happened in Sichuan in the third century A.D.). He drinks wine with the poet Li Bai, recites poetry with Du Fu, and dallies with Sichuan's most famous female poet Xue Tao. He is a witness to the unthinkable devastation wrought on Sichuan in the 17th century by the combined forces of the murderous bandit leader Zhang Xianzhong and the conquering armies of the Manchus.

(Occasionally, he even gets out of Sichuan, such as when he becomes Zhuangzi's disciple during the Warring States Era -- and receives some useful advice from the sage pertaining to his really messed up love life -- or when he journeys to the United States to get up to date on the rise of science and technology. But for my purposes here, those are digressions.)

Three years ago, before I started ransacking the UC Berkeley library system for every book and journal article related to Sichuan, I would not have been able to make head nor tail of Memories of Chengdu. I would not have understood the cuckoo's symbolism for the kings of Shu, or what the significance of the Way of the Five Pecks of Rice was for Daoism, or how Zhang Xianzhong's barbarity paved the way for the arrival of the chili pepper. Perhaps most shockingly I had never even heard of Xue Tao, who, in addition to being a remarkable poet, was also a courtesan, Daoist priestess, and renowned paper-maker.

I have now read a dissertation about Xue Tao, a novel roughly based on her life, and have visited the gorgeous public park devoted to her memory in Chengdu that doubles as a magnificent bamboo conservatory. But while I have found reading her poetry and learning about her life fulfilling on a purely intellectual basis, I have occasionally struggled to imagine how she, or Zhang Daoling, the founder of the Way of the Celestial Masters, or the Shu king who transformed into a cuckoo could possibly be made to fit into my narrative. I've been accumulating shiny facts like a magpie, hoping that eventually they will all add up to something that makes sense, that is a story.

I did not expect that the first proof I wasn't wasting my time in random excellent adventures through Sichuanese space and time would be my new-found ability to read a Chinese science fiction story with pleasure. That was cool. I learned the Chinese words for both "dark matter" and "pleisosaur" and that was pretty neat, too. But I am even more excited about the tantalizing promise that I might somehow follow the path blazoned by Baoshu. In the scope of one short story he hop-scotched through multiple dynasties, laced together the unknowable future with the murky ancient past, danced with paradox and philosophy and science... and told a rip-roaring love story. He reminded me again that a good writer is the greatest magician; that nothing is impossible when you start putting words on a page.

(One of the hundreds of different varieties of bamboo at Wangjiang Pavilion Park.)