A long time ago in a country far, far away, Chinese authorities managed to obtain a copy of America’s ultimate cultural weapon, a blockbuster movie ‘Star Wars’ with enough special effects to wow an entire planet.
Summoned to a small theatre in the southern city of Guangzhou in 1980, artist Song Feideng was shown “Star Wars” and instructed to transform it into a traditional Chinese comic book, known as a “lianhuanhua”, to promote scientific achievement to China.
Song was one of the first people in China to see George Lucas’ magnum opus, at a time when it was still banned – a marked contrast to the status of the series’ most recent instalment in a market Hollywood increasingly sees as crucial to success.
“The objective was to take the world’s advanced science and popularise it in China,” Song, who worked for a state-owned publisher at the time, told AFP.
He replaced the movie’s X-wing spacecraft with Soviet rockets and jet fighters. In one illustration, Luke Skywalker wears a cosmonaut’s bulky spacesuit, while rebel leaders are dressed in Western business suits. Darth Vader appears alongside a triceratops.
At the time, China was emerging from the isolation of the Mao Zedong era and “Star Wars” had still not been granted a release by Communist authorities, three years after it hit Western cinemas.
The movie “was very novel, very exciting”, Song said, adding that he felt as if he had seen a “glimpse of the world”.
The project came amid a brief flowering of Chinese science fiction following Mao’s decade-long Cultural Revolution, when the arts were reduced to glorifying the Communist Party.
Mao’s decision to send intellectuals to work in the countryside had badly affected basic scientific research.
Song spent the period on the then poverty-stricken Hainan island, producing propaganda slideshows.
Science fiction has had a fraught history in China, where genre pioneer Ye Yonglie once called it “one of the barometers of the political climate”.
Shortly after the 1977 US release of “Star Wars”, the Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily attacked it as a fantasy that demonstrated how Americans’ “dissatisfaction with reality” had pushed them to “seek comfort in an illusory fairyland”.
But the following year, as China began to reopen to the world, Beijing declared sci-fi critical to rehabilitating the country’s sciences, releasing a flood of almost 1,000 new titles.