The Three-Body Problem adds diversity to world literature


FILE PHOTO: The covers of the English edition of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem trilogy

Since its debut in 2008, The Three-Body Problem, an epic sci-fi trilogy authored by renowned Chinese sci-fi writer Liu Cixin, has become a worldwide sensation. The series is unique not only for the innovative science fiction scenes within, but also for its thought-provoking themes and far-reaching contributions to world literature. It has received enormous acclaim among readers at home and abroad, while sparking heated discussions on Chinese sci-fi literature and cultural communication.

Overseas communication

In recent years, the serial works of The Three-Body Problem have been leading bestseller lists at brick-and-mortar bookstores and book sales websites in China. On the internet, hundreds of millions of views of various editions continually vault attention to the works to new heights. From encouraging sales to winning different honors and awards, on to discussions on social media platforms, a slew of data has evidenced the profound influence of the trilogy in both the domestic and international markets.

In terms of sales, since its first publication in 2008, millions of copies of The Three-Body Problem have been sold around the world, and it has been translated into more than 40 languages, transmitted to more than 100 countries and regions. The sales of the English edition have exceeded 1 million copies. In the French market, its sales top global sci-fi rankings. In Germany, Spain, and Japan, the masterpiece has also been welcomed. The record-breaking numbers speaks to the novel’s success, and to effective transnational communication of culture.

In addition, The Three-Body Problem has earned high domestic and international acclaim. In China, the works are well-known among sci-fi readers, and have won multiple awards. Especially in 2015, the first novel in the series not only won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, but was also nominated for many international sci-fi awards, such as the Nebula Award and the Locus Award. The third book Death’s End won the 2017 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and was nominated for the Dragon Award and the Hugo Award. The international awards are proof of The Three-Body Problem’s global impact and recognition.

In the press, the series made the New York Times bestseller list, and the Sunday Times, Britain’s largest newspaper, spoke highly of the trilogy for its profound philosophical thinking and plot which seamlessly moves across time and space. This further enhanced its global recognition, and provoked discussions that resonated around the world.

Records of communication data on social media and online platforms show that discussions on and attention to the works have steadily increased, with the scope of communication and readership continuing to widen. This buzz highlights the works’ topical nature and attraction globally. Sustained online interactions and discussions have provided powerful support for international communication of the trilogy.

Factors for successful communication

Breaking national boundaries and language limitations, The Three-Body Problem has left deep imprints on the international literary arena and showcased the charm of Chinese sci-fi literature. The novel’s success overseas can be attributed to multiple factors.

First, the distinctive narrative model and compelling plot engage a host of readers. By virtue of profound wisdom, wild imagination, and outstanding narratives, Liu Cixin constructs a unique universe. The works not only build magnificent sci-fi scenarios, but also give rise to profound discussions on technological advances, human dilemmas, and the fate of the universe. The narrative model, told through the lens of all humankind, makes The Three-Body Problem entrenched in the hearts of overseas readers, breaking through the standard unidirectional model of cultural communication.

Second, translation is a key link—making it possible for Chinese literary works to enter the view of foreign readers. Being translated into more than 40 languages is foundational to the overseas success of The Three-Body Problem. In the translation process, translators should ensure the works are well understood by foreign readers, while retaining their indigenous features. Ken Liu, a Chinese-American sci-fi writer, translated the first and third works in The Three-Body Problem series, and Joel Martinsen was the translator of the second book. The two translators’ professional knowledge and literary abilities laid a solid foundation for high-quality translation.

Third, the success of The Three-Body Problem in the international market is also owed to globalized communication. The rapid development of information technology and the popularization of social media created an ideal environment for the worldwide distribution of the works. The launch of editions in different languages furthered the works’ internationalization. Cross-cultural marketing and publicity conducted jointly by publishers, translation teams, and marketing agencies also earned extensive global attention and recognition for the trilogy.

Fourth, online platforms bolstered The Three-Body Problem to truly “go global.” New media platforms, such as online forums, strengthened the interactivity of communication, enabling readers to communicate with the author across international networks through functions like comments. Digital technology has played an immense role in the overseas dissemination of literature. New media has brought derivatives of the series, such as graphic novels and films. The combination of arts and technology informs the overseas market of quick changes in the content, manifestation forms, and communication models of Chinese literary works.

Contributions to world literature

The success of The Three-Body Problem has drawn the attention of global readers to other Chinese sci-fi novels, prompting Chinese sci-fi literature to make positive contributions to the diverse development of world literature.

Chinese sci-fi literature was once marginalized in world literature. With the rise of the Chinese economy and technological progress, Chinese sci-fi writers’ works have gradually increased their global presence. Through translation and distribution, their works broke linguistic and cultural limitations, drawing wide global attention. Through translation and publication, these works have demonstrated to international readers how creative Chinese writers are in science fiction and added diversity to world literature.

Famed German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “world literature” paradigm emphasizes the global dissemination and sharing of literary works, which echoes Chinese sci-fi literature’s rise in the international arena in recent years. This kind of cross-cultural communication and global transmission of works have brought new elements and perspectives to world literature. As Goethe argued in the 19th century, literature should cross borders and become cultural wealth for the world to share. His paradigm is even more important in the contemporary era. The global dissemination of literary works has fueled communication and integration between different cultures, bringing new possibilities to literary creation and cross-cultural understanding.

The relationship between Chinese sci-fi literature and world literature becomes more prominent in this process. Chinese sci-fi literature is no longer a literary genre confined to a certain country or a region. Through cross-cultural communication and global transmission, it is increasingly connected to world literature. Chinese writers’ works are engaging a growing global readership and injecting new elements into world literature.

Chinese sci-fi literature becomes a part of world literature first because of cross-cultural communication and influence. As Chinese sci-fi literature rises and becomes more developed, unique Chinese cultural elements and ideas have been introduced to new places around the world through sci-fi works. This cross-cultural communication is not only about the translation and spread of works themselves, but also involves communication and understanding of culture, history, and philosophy. By reading Chinese sci-fi works, global readers can deepen their perception into Chinese culture and concepts, promoting mutual understanding and communication between different cultures.

Second, sci-fi literature generally touches upon common issues facing humanity, such as sci-tech development, future societies, and ethics. Chinese sci-fi works are also exploring these global topics, contributing new thinking and imagination to world literature from their own perspectives.

Third, Chinese sci-fi writers usually integrate their distinctive cultural backgrounds and thinking patterns, creating works with both traditional Chinese elements and a global vision. This kind of innovative integration has brought a novel literary style to world sci-fi literature, enhanced its diversity, and enriched its connotations.

Fourth, as mentioned above, the development of Chinese sci-fi literature diversifies world literature. The fusion of writers and works from different cultures and backgrounds has contributed rich literary experience to global readers. At the same time, world literature also provides broader space for creation, inspiring Chinese sci-fi writers.

Chinese sci-fi literature is approaching the world stage. Excellent works like The Three-Body Problem have contributed positively to the diverse development and dissemination of world literature. They not only epitomize Chinese literature but are also a vital component of world literature’s diversity, displaying a new landscape of global literature featuring interaction and integration. Against the backdrop of globalization, literary creations from all countries around the world are learning from and conversing with each other, jointly constructing an open, diverse literary world and presenting more possibilities to human cultural communication and integration.


Huang Liping is an associate professor from the School of Foreign Languages at the Fuzhou University of International Studies and Trade.

Editor:Yu Hui

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