The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, November 18, 2019

Blue sky over China

I returned just over a week ago from eight days in Beijing, courtesy of the China Association for Science and Technology, which on Sunday November 3 held the China Sci-Fi Convention 2019. My airfare, and our hotel stay during the convention weekend and some incidental expenses, were covered by CAST. One further hotel day was covered Tsinghua University. (My wife's airfare, and other hotel days, we paid ourselves.) Throughout our stay, including all but the last of our sightseeing days either side of the convention, we were most cordially guided and helped by science fiction scholar Fan Zhang, and accompanied by student volunteer translators.

On our arrival we were met at the airport by a young volunteer from CAST, who escorted us to a taxi and took us to the Riverside Hotel on the outskirts of the city. The hotel lobby was already prepared to greet SF fans. While Carol slept off the jet-lag, Fan took me and Francesco out for dinner with a local publisher in the nearest restaurant, which was miles away and reached by a DiDi (local equivalent of Uber) cab. The restaurant was in a residential suburb of high-rise apartments, in a street with a lot of people on bicycles and mopeds as well as in cars, and was big, ornate, and well-patronised. This was my first experience of eating Chinese food in China. I can recommend it.

For our first full day Carol and I decided to explore the hotel's own neighbourhood. This turned out to be the sprawling Beijing International Garden Expo Park, which extends from some rather neglected and run-down exhibits from the 2013 expo to a succession of stunning, elaborate traditional Chinese formal gardens.

One exhibition that we encountered by accident was the Astronautical Theme Park, which had two disused hypermodern exhibition buildings, a closed but still imposing 1.2 scale model space station, and a battery of rocket and spacecraft models on various scales. Grannies and small children wandered through it, over cracked concrete and dry grass. A crow had nested in the upper stage of the tallest rocket. Every few minutes a high-speed train whizzed by on the overhead viaduct. In its melancholic, nostalgic futurism this park was the most Ballardian sight I'd ever seen.

On we wandered, into a Garden Valley built over an old landfill site, past some fish and lily ponds to a viewing platform high above. The approach was by a ramp so wide and long it was like walking into the sky. From there we looked out over Beijing. The city has a few skyscrapers, a CBD cluster, and lots and lots and lots of high-rise apartment blocks. It was a fine day with only a slight haze, and we noticed a zigzag line across the distant hills. The Great Wall!

By mid-afternoon we were searching for refreshments. We later found there are indeed plenty of stalls, but along a main route through the park which just happened not to be the one we'd taken, except now and then accidentally. We went into what was called a souvenir shop, which turned out to be full of jade pieces – from expensive-enough bracelets to eye-filling work at eye-watering prices. In yuan, the price tags of these enormous and elaborate carvings had lots of zeroes. After a mental conversion to sterling, they still had lots of zeroes. But you could see why. The shopkeeper (having evidently sussed us as not likely customers) was warm and friendly, urged us to sit on furniture fit for a palace, took photos for us and waved us a cheery goodbye.

We left the park (which I've only begun to describe) late in the afternoon, via a visit to the shop at the exit gate, which sold soft drinks, snacks and tourist tat. In China this includes quantities of revolutionary kitsch, which seems to fill the exact market niche that royalty kitsch does in the UK. The shop also had a table heaped with of vintage pocket-sized comic-books on patriotic and revolutionary themes.

The following day, after an interview by Cora Chen for Science Writing, a popular science and science fiction magazine, I was introduced to Cece, my volunteer translator. She managed to do what had defeated me and even Fan: she set me up an account on WeChat, the universal communications app in China. Then Carol and I promoted ourselves from tourists to tour guides and conducted Rob Sawyer, Francesco Verso and Jim Kelly around the gardens, accompanied by Cora Chen and by Cece and Vivian, our translator volunteers.

The convention was held in the gigantic conference centre behind the gigantic Riverside Hotel, and was quite unlike any other SF convention I've been to. It was officially sponsored, with representatives from government ministries and other institutions giving opening speeches. Simultaneous translation was available throughout. Huai Jinpeng, the leading Party official at CAST, spoke frankly of China's continued need for further development in science and technology as well as science fiction, and of the importance of 'the sci-fi industry' to Chinese socialism. Professor Wan Yu recounted the field's current statistics and status, which are already impressive. The success of Liu Cixin's Three-Body trilogy and the blockbuster film The Wandering Earth have raised the international profile of Chinese SF, and written SF is seen as an inspiration and source for TV, film, videogames and their associated merchandise, adding up to a multi-billion-dollar sector with huge growth potential.

The group I was in included Francesco Verso, Tullio Avoledo, Robert J Sawyer, Lavie Tidhar, James Patrick Kelly, and Ian McDonald. Other writers from overseas, who spoke on other tracks or in the opening ceremony, included Kevin J. Anderson, Mary Robinette Kowal and Russell Davis. We were only a small part of the convention, which featured many high-profile Chinese SF writers and scholars including Hugo winners Liu Cixin and Hao Jinfang, internationally active fans such as Carolina Gomez Lagerlöf, Crystal Huff and Vincent Docherty, as well as presentations and exhibitions from the media and tech industries. Altogether there were at least a thousand fans in attendance, and the convention was well covered by the Chinese media.

On the Saturday we gave talks at Beijing's China Science and Technology Museum (a bright and amazing place, swarming with delighted children) and on the Sunday we had the above-mentioned opening ceremony followed by a session in the afternoon which began with the founding ceremony of the Science Fiction Committee of the Chinese Science Writers Association, continued with talks from venerated Chinese SF scholars and writers, and concluded with panels by us, ably and affably chaired by Professor Yan Feng and Stanley Chan.

The afternoon session was followed in short order by a banquet. A Chinese banquet consists of many small courses, and many toasts. (Options for the toast were wine, orange juice and a potent Chinese spirit.) Our hosts from every institution involved went around the tables chatting to each individual, group or couple, and each such conversation was concluded by a toast. After that we were hastened through to the conference centre, where a less formal banquet (buffet-style) was going on for the attendees. A local band was performing Frank Sinatra songs. We took a glass or two of wine from the circulating trays, picked up our freebie bags and headed off for an early night.

On Monday, after a later than usual start, Fan decanted us all to the Holiday Inn Beijing Deshengmen, much closer to the city centre. Rob invited us and Jim to go out with him and a local friend, Nancy. Nancy took us further downtown by foot and by taxi, via lunch at a local diner, to two very different bookshops. The first was Zhengyang Shuju Two, in a courtyard containing a pagoda tower, and specialised in books and memorabilia of Old Beijing.

The second was the Beijing Book Building, the biggest bookshop in China. It's like a very big Borders, with one small difference. Near the entrance there's a bookcase of 'Leaders' Works' – on one side Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, then on the other an aisle devoted to Mao and Deng and their comrades and successors, and on to the works of President Xi Jinping. A table alongside displayed copies of Reliable Marx, a recently-published popularising work. Next, a couple more aisles on 'Party-Building in the New Era' and 'Honest Administration'. And then, for aisle after aisle and floor after floor, book after book on everything else: art, craft, science, economics, management, history, philosophy, and Chinese and foreign fiction of all kinds – science fiction very much included.

A hasty half-hour browse there was followed by a taxi back to the hotel, a quick change, and another taxi that took me, Rob, and Jim to Tsinghua University, to a regular weekly class taught by Jia Liyuan (who writes SF under the penname Fei Dao) on writing science fiction. We each spoke for about thirty minutes (with an interpreter) on various aspects of the craft. The class was of about fifty people, more or less evenly divided between men and women, and between science and humanities backgrounds. They listened with great attention and asked searching questions. The campus was still whizzing with bicycles when we emerged at about 10 pm.

On Tuesday morning Fan took Jim, Rob, Carol and I (with Alice, our translator) to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Besides beauty, the scale of the succession of walls and palaces gives an overwhelming impression of power.

By contrast the Summer Palace, which we visited in the afternoon, gives an equally powerful impression of tranquillity.

On Wednesday Fan took Carol and I, Rob and Jim, and Alice to the Great Wall. The views are sweeping, the climb exhilarating, the Wall astonishing. We had a good day for it, clear and sunny and above all dry – climbing a succession of steep ramps and steeper stairs was challenging enough in these perfect conditions, and must be outright scary in the wet. At some parts it's like clambering on a roof. Naturally we were overtaken at various stages by old folk and small children.

On the (even steeper) route down I paused at the foot of a stone ladder that I'd descended one stoic step at a time to see a young woman dance down, arms out.

Fan then took us all out to dinner, during which we discovered that Alice was a science fiction fan herself, and in a science fiction club at her university in Beijing. Quite a small club, she explained, with only a few hundred members...

For our last day in Beijing, Carol and I took a walk through two linked parks south of the hotel, along the shores of Xihai Sea and Hoahai Lake, to a busy historic shopping street with a marked variety of shops – from the boutique where we admired but didn't buy exquisite and expensive painted fans to the dusty, untidy antique shop where I bought a small green stone Buddha for 800 yuan. After buying gifts and souvenirs at shops and stalls in between these extremes we negotiated (with some spontaneous help from a young woman passer-by) a late-afternoon taxi ride to The Bookworm – a thriving English-language bookstore, library, cafe and meeting place which, as we'd sadly learned, was about to have to close down (as indeed it just has).

There we met Rob, Jim and some local friends for a beer, a quick dinner and a lively discussion, followed by an all too brief session with a science fiction fan group which (like the shop's clientele in general) was a mix of expats and locals. The local fans had interesting things to say about Chinese SF, based on their own reading of it from childhood on. The expats gave an interesting perspective on how fast Beijing is changing. Air quality has improved markedly over the past few years, as Rob Sawyer had noticed as soon as he arrived.

An early start on Friday, as we met Fan in the lobby at 8 and he arranged us a final taxi, to the airport. Our warmest thanks to him! -- and to all who made our trip so unforgettable.


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