The Long and Winding Road to Science Fiction: A Brief Overview of SF Development in Taiwan (2003) (1/5)

* A more concise version of this essay was published in Foundation 94 (summer 2005). Here is the original one expanded from my 2002 SFRA Conference paper.

The Long and Winding Road to Science Fiction:
A Brief Overview of SF
[1] Development in Taiwan

It is generally agreed that the first Taiwanese science fiction story is Chang Hsiao-Feng's 1968 novelette 'Pandora.'[2] Compared to the western world, Taiwanese sf is indeed a latecomer. Still, it has now seen over three decades. Curiously, though, it never got popularity enjoyed by its western counterparts. The general public is aware of its existence, but his/her knowledge comes largely from Hollywood movies, TV series and novels heavy with pulp adventures. Dedicated readers are very few, so publishers thus give up the genre. The goal of this paper is to introduce a brief history of Taiwanese sf along with its characteristics as well as to find out the problems we have been facing.

Characteristics of Taiwanese Science Fiction
The first and foremost feature of Taiwanese sf is its being dominated by a 'genre leader.' As a foreign literary genre imported from the western world, most local writers' and readers' knowledge about sf is quite limited. Any member of the mainstream literary writers with a little bit better understanding of science fiction instantly becomes the expert of this field. Original scientific/technological background, like a doctor's degree in science or engineering, makes his/her voice more convincible. Since most Taiwanese readers believe that there is a strong connection between science and sf. What is more, some people also believe in a myth that the popularity of sf can improve the citizens' attitudes to science and encourage more people devote themselves to scientific research, promoting the competitive ability of Taiwan.

Chang Shi-Kuo, a famous mainstream literature writer as well as a computer science professor[3], who has been contributing in Taiwanese sf since 1969, was regarded as the most significant figure from the 1980s to early 1990s. Even now, he still has a certain influence to this field. Yeh Li-Hua, who claimed to be the apprentice of both Chang and infamous Hong Kong sci-fi writer Ni Kuang, though not a literature person and only wrote an sf short story collection, succeeded the role of genre leader since the late 1990s after receiving his PhD degree in Physics and coming back to Taiwan. Their dominations in this field have been ever direct and prominent, without any challenge.[4] It is essential to bear this in mind when discussing Taiwanese sf.

The second characteristic also appears in Anglo-American sf genre, but nowhere as drastic as in Taiwan, that sf writings tend to be either pulp escapism entertainment or serious 'literature', but nothing between them.

The quantity of 'literary sf' is quite small and the writers are very few compared to the western world. Most authors of literary sf stories were actually mainstream writers. In their eyes, sf is another method of creation, so they just wrote several short fictions for experiment. Besides, these works, though rich in social commentary and literary values, are not popular among general readers, whose knowledge about sf comes from Ni Kuang's pulp adventures. This prolific writer has produced hundred of novels, all filled with action and adventures but lacked more serious substances. Therefore, the genre 'science fiction' in Taiwan has been treated as stories or novels that contain omnipotent protagonists who encountered all kinds of mysterious or supernatural experiences, most of which had something to do with aliens.

As for foreign science fiction, both Hollywood sci-fi films and Japanese comics/animations are ready available and wildly popular among general public. A great number of so-called sf lovers in Taiwan are in reality fans of Star Wars, Star Trek or the X-Files, or comic/animation otakus on Gundam, EVA and other noted titles. But it is usually the only way they get to know sf besides reading Ni Kuang’s works, because they seldom fetch written sf. Translated science fiction books do not sell well; not only is their quantity very limited, but they are also not given proper marketing attention, not to mention the quality of the translation could be questioned. These problems will be discussed in later sections.

Four Periods of the Development of Taiwanese Sf
I divide the history of Taiwanese sf into four periods and separate them with three important events according to the rise and decline of sf genre leaders. Taiwanese sf was still in its infancy from 1968 to 1983. Chang Shi-Kuo came to total prominence in 1984, the year he persuaded China Times, a famous local newspaper and literary publishing house, to hold an sf writing contest.[5] His opinions dominated this field in the next ten years, until his quarterly magazine Mirage folded in 1993. And then the third period began; a time during which science fiction was largely neglected by the mainstream and the output within the field was almost nothing remarkable. Yeh Li-Hua became the new spokesman of sf with his sf/popular-science website 'scisci.com' (which was closed in 2000) and sf course in college in 1999.

[1] All 'sf' in this paper stand for 'science fiction', not 'speculative fiction' if not specifically mentioned. Since people treat science fiction and fantasy as two different genres in Taiwan.
[2] All translations are mine, wherever there is not an official English translation. Names of persons and publishing companies are translated in Wade-Gilos system, surnames first. Titles of books and short fictions are translated according to their meanings.
[3] Chang, an IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) fellow, was in the staff of Computer Science Department in University of Illinois, Illinois Institute of Technology and has been a professor in University of Pittsburgh since 1986.
[4] Though Chang Ta-Chun accused Chang Shi-Kuo of 'murdering Taiwanese sf' in the judgment meeting of 1991 Worldwide Chinese Sf Art Award (previously named 'China Times Sf Award' and 'Chang Shi-Kuo Sf Award'), the whole event was only a debate without further consequences on how to popularise sf in Taiwan. Besides, Chang Ta-Chun did not challenge Chang Shi-Kuo's leadership in Taiwanese sf society.
[5] Newspaper publishers play important roles in Taiwanese literature society, since all the local newspapers have 'feuilleton pages' along with news pages. These pages have been traditionally the largest fields for writers to get their works printed. Most of the works printed in 'feuilleton pages' are in shorter formations, but there are still novel serials. Big local newspaper publishers have their own book publishing departments. A piece of literary work often appeared in the feuilleton first, and if got an opportunity, it would be collected, edited and printed in book form. However, more works in feuilleton whose authors are mainly amateurs would disappear. Authors may re-write the works after first publication, so texts in the book form edition are sometimes quite different from the original feuilleton ones.

>>> Part II

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