Little Smarty Travels to the Future:
Introduction to the Text and Notes on the Translation

By Lena Henningsen[1]

Translation of Little Smarty Travels to the Future

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September 2020)

Ye Yonglie with Little Smarty. Source: Weibo

Little Smarty Travels to the Future (小灵通漫游未来) is an early post-Mao science fiction (SF) story, adapted into a comic book (lianhuanhua 连环画). Originally composed in the early 1960s, Ye Yonglie 叶永烈 (1940–2020) was not able to publish the short novel until 1978. (For a partial English translation of the novel by Nick Stember, see here.) The comic book adaptation that is the basis for our translation followed two years later and enjoyed tremendous success with at least 3 million copies printed. Paola Iovene rightly describes the story as “as much a jump forward in imagination as it was a resumption of aspirations of the past” (Iovene 2014: 1). At the same time, the story is firmly grounded in the early post-Mao years and in Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernizations, which legitimated political and economic change and ushered in China’s dramatic economic growth. In this introduction, I position this text in this specific historical moment in the development of Chinese SF. I sketch the development and status of Chinese SF and of comic books within the Chinese literary field and point out to what extent Little Smarty Travels to the Future may be seen as an illustration or vision of the implementation of the Four Modernizations.

Science Fiction in China

Chinese SF used to be a marginalized genre, both in terms of scholarly research and in terms of its status within the literary field. Recent years, however, have seen an increase in attention to the genre both among academics and the general readership, not least thanks to the commitment of translator Ken Liu. He has been crucial for bringing Chinese SF to the attention of English readers and for introducing Chinese authors into the global SF award circuit, which culminated with Liu Cixin 刘慈欣 winning the prestigious Hugo award in 2015 (Chau 2018). Today, the global circulation of Chinese SF even impacts perceptions of China.

As with all other literary genres, SF in mainland China has been closely tied to the political, social, and cultural conditions of its production, circulation, and reception. SF first appeared in the late Qing (1895-1911), both in the form of translations (Jiang 2013) by figures like Lu Xun 鲁迅 and in original works by the likes of Liang Qichao 梁启超 (Wu 1989), when it was interwoven with modern discourses of science and changing attitudes toward fiction. Nathaniel Isaacson (2017) sees the emergent Chinese SF as a product of colonial modernity based on indigenous literary traditions and translations of foreign works. Lao She’s 老舍 Cat Country (猫城记, 1933) is commonly referred to as the first Chinese SF novel.

After 1949, three waves of SF production can be mapped out, each with its distinct characteristics tied to its respective historical and political conditions and to its respective foreign literary influences. The first wave appeared in the 1950s. These texts were inspired by translations of SF from Soviet Russia (Volland 2015, 2017). During this first wave, SF targeted young readers; it aimed at popularizing scientific knowledge and at inspiring its audience to pursue scientific endeavors themselves. At the same time, the genre “filled a gap left by the banning of both Chinese and Western pulp fiction after 1949” (Volland 2017: 97). It projected visions of a prosperous future under socialism: the stories focus on space travel or on the efficient breeding of pigs the size of elephants, and are thus a product of and feed into the hyperbolic policies of the Great Leap Forward. Because of the tense political climate of the 1960s and 1970s, SF publications came to a standstill. Even in the unofficial handwritten literature that circulated clandestinely at that time, no SF stories, to my knowledge, were written. These handwritten texts contain only a few references to advanced technology, such as a mysterious time bomb or a rare micro recorder produced in West Germany that is used for hunting down spies (Anonymous 1974).

A second wave of SF publications appeared after the end of the Mao years. These texts mostly have adult readers as their intended audience. They have been seen as “lobby literature,” calling for recognition for scientists after the persecution they experienced during the Cultural Revolution (Wagner 1985). Some texts explicitly treat the harm done to scientists and intellectuals in a fashion similar to the genre of “scar literature” (伤痕文学), which confronted the traumas suffered during the Cultural Revolution, but remained within the limits set by the official discourse. The stories shift the blame for the suffering of the people to the Gang of Four and end on a positive note with the protagonists moving into a happy future with the support of the Four Modernizations, a pattern employed in SF stories such as Zheng Wenguang’s 郑文光 “Star Camp” (星星营, 1981). Other texts focus on creating positive images of scientists as patriotic heroes willing to sacrifice their lives for the well-being of the nation. Examples for this type of “lobby literature” are Tong Enzheng’s 童恩正 “Death Ray on a Coral Island” (珊瑚岛上的死光,1978) or Xiao Jianheng’s 肖建亨 “The Secret of the ‘Venus People’” (‘金星人’之谜, 1979). The texts are mostly optimistic in their vision of the future and portray how scientific enquiry and technological change will bring about a better, more prosperous future for the people and the nation. Most of these stories have China as their primary point of reference, but intertextual references to classic authors of Western SF—such as Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke—situate the stories within a world literary genre, though they are at the same time planted in the literary universe of socialist cosmopolitanism. The texts of this second wave brought Western notions of SF into Chinese understandings and practices of the genre.[2]

The campaign against spiritual pollution in 1983 once again put a halt to the production of SF. Very little was published before the onset of the third wave—the current new wave of SF that began around 2000 and that has been studied by numerous scholars.[3] Whether or not they take place in China, many of these stories can be read as critical enquiries into current problems both of Chinese society and of the global community, including social and gender inequalities, urbanization and overpopulation, or the destruction of the environment. The popularity of the genre seems to be increasing, but it still seems marginal enough to be allowed the leeway to include veiled criticism of current domestic and international affairs. The circulation of Chinese SF has reached a global scale, with many contemporary novels and short stories now available in translation. Some of these translations are produced by academics interested in the topic, but Ken Liu, who is himself a SF writer, is largely responsible for bringing Chinese SF to the broad reading public by catering to the tastes of global SF readers. Global interest in the genre has to do with China’s “rise” and “threat” and with the expectation that (science) fiction may provide Western readers with a better understanding of the distant country. In addition, there is also an interest in Chinese SF not for its Chineseness, but for its literary value, exemplified, for example, by Barack Obama’s well-publicized praise for Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem (Chau 2018).

Historical Context: The ‘Four Modernizations’ as a Vision of the Future

Little Smarty Travels to the Future is part of the second wave of SF in the PRC. It is, as mentioned at the outset of this essay, rooted in the history of the early post-Mao years. It is also a projection of the future and a return to “aspirations of the past.” The comic book presents a vision of a bright Future City: modern infrastructure, abundant food, high-tech clothing, space travel, and all of it man-made, or, rather, invented by humans—physical labor, as Paola Iovene has observed, is conspicuously absent. Agricultural production is efficient and to a large degree automated; plants have increased massively in size, and food is artificially produced. Rain and sunshine are not predicted, but calculated and controlled in order to meet the needs of human society and of agricultural production. Tableware is covered with a stain-resistant coating and made from unbreakable material. People wear bright-colored clothes with a special water-repellent coating; they drive self-floating vehicles and live happily in a city built predominantly from shiny plastic. From a twenty-first century perspective, we may be tempted to focus on the dystopian consequences—the waste and pollution—of such manipulations of the environment, but these are not to be found in the comic’s essentially post-Mao utopian vision of a future that can be realized within a generation or two.

Little Smarty, a young reporter setting off from contemporary China (i.e. from the China of the immediate post-Mao years), accidently ends up in the future where he meets and befriends two children—Little Tiger and his sister Little Swallow—as well as most members of their five-generation household. In Future City, he pursues his profession and gathers as much information as possible to inform his young readers back home about the future. He takes part in the technology-rich everyday life of his new friends and visits a cinema, an artificial grain factory, and an agricultural plant. At the end of his three-day-visit, a rocket brings him back home, and he instantly writes down his adventures and new insights into life in the future.

The didactic tone and the brightness of the future described root the text in earlier practices of SF writing. Chinese SF has a distinct tradition of utopianism, be it late Qing stories or those from the late 1950s. Chi Shuchang’s 迟叔唱 story “Elephants with Their Trunks Removed” (割掉鼻子的大象, 1958), for example, celebrates the successful breeding of pigs that quickly grow as large as elephants on relatively little food. The future achievements in food production described in Little Smarty Travels to the Future point to a similar vision of abundance in the near future. Given that the story was first written in the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward, it may be seen as a bridge between the earlier utopian visions of future life in China and those promised by the Four Modernization. Little Smarty Travels to the Future thus represents a post-Mao vision of the future that at the same time resumes utopian aspirations of the Mao era. At the same time, this future vision celebrates the successful implementation of the policy of the Four Modernizations, which ended the Mao era centrally-planned economy and sought to modernize agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology. While the main body of the comic illustrates this vision without naming the Four Modernizations, the summary of the book that precedes it, spells this out explicitly:

This is a SF comic book (科学幻想连环画). Through a reporter’s—Little Smarty’s—travel to Future City, [this comic book] vividly unfolds before [our] eyes future high developments in science and technology and the splendid prospect of limitless magnificence in people’s lives. It also tells its young readers: Only if [we] painstakingly study and only if [we] are bold in climbing scientific heights during the advance of the Four Modernizations, can [we] build our motherland to become as thriving and prosperous as Future City.

The paratext thus calls on its readers to devote themselves to science to achieve a splendid future for the nation, such as that related in the story. The main text itself is subtler in illustrating its vision of what the Four Modernizations will achieve: Science and technology are the driving forces for increasing agricultural output and for the industrialization of the nation, while the third modernization—national defense—is bracketed out. With its projection of a happy future, the story is thus firmly rooted both in post-Mao modernization policies and in China’s SF’s past, with its distinct didacticism targeting young readers. In line with the conventions of socialist realism, which dominated artistic production during the Mao era, the brief introduction lends the comic book a distinct tone of certitude: Adhering to the model established in the story will inevitably bring about the happy future described. As in literature from the Maoist period, the fictional story thus becomes a blueprint for human agency. Whereas Maoist literary texts establish brave communist heroes as models to be emulated by readers, here the text suggests that following the path of scientific enquiry will ensure China becomes “thriving and prosperous.”

Little Smarty as Comic Adaptation

A second adaptation of Little Smarty (Ye Yonglie 1980b). Source:Lianmeng

Of course, Little Smarty Travels to the Future also needs to be considered as a lianhuanhua. (Indeed, another, slightly shorter, comic book adaptation [Ye Yonglie 1980b] appeared almost simultaneous to the version we translated). This Chinese comic book genre is typically published in palm-sized booklets. Each page contains one panel, with the narrative text and speech below or at the side of the illustration; speech bubbles or words and sounds integrated into the illustration are rare. Similar to Western comics, lianhuanhua target a young audience, and they enjoyed popularity throughout the twentieth century (Mittler 2012; Seifert 2008; see also Nick Stember’s blog). After 1949, the lianhuanhua genre was also used as a tool to promote knowledge or inculcate ideology among young readers; in this respect, comic books and SF of the first wave have a distinct overlap. However, as the comic book adaptation of Little Smarty Travels to the Future demonstrates, this limited view obscures the fact that lianhuanhua have their own distinct artistic and aesthetic merits. In their oftentimes realistic depiction of (everyday) life, they can be read as illustrations of reality or as illustrations of imagined realities—in the case of Little Smarty Travels to the Future, this is a future vision of a distinctly Chinese reality, albeit an imagined one.

Cover of the 1978 novel

Overall, the lianhuanhua adaptation remains faithful to the original short novel published two years before it (Ye 1978). The plot line is identical, albeit slightly shortened, with some details elided or modified in the comic book version. For example, in the novel, Little Swallow wants to read lianhuanhua about fighting or about catching spies; in the adaptation, the latter is changed to fairy tales (Ye 1978: 105). In many panels, information is transferred from the narrative into the drawings. The visual element may be seen as yet another common element among the two versions: as a children’s book, the 1978 version was also illustrated, by one of the illustrators of the later comic book adaptation. As in other lianhuanhua adaptations of literary texts, dialogues are mostly straight from the original.

Four differences between the two versions are noteworthy and center on the following issues: the emphasis on China as the geographical location of the narrative present; the logic behind the disappearance of Little Smarty’s digital wristwatch; the absence of an introductory chapter and the editor character (who, interestingly, is not removed from the plot in the other comic adaptation), who is slightly senior to Little Smarty; and a number of reflections on the nature of science, literature, and art.

First, both versions visually locate the narrative present in early post-Mao China. In the novel, this is reinforced by remarks about the quality of porcelain invented in “our China” (Ye 1978: 49). Both versions emphasize in their discussions of the History of Future City, a book Little Smarty comes across in a library during his visit, how Chinese agency was central to the development of the city over the past thousand years. However, China’s rise as a future space power is elaborated on in the novel, but not in the lianhuanhua: In the former, Little Tiger relates how in their class on “moon geography” they learned about a region on the moon called the “Chinese Sea” that contains no water but is visible as a large hollow; next to it, are Li Shizhen Mountain 李时珍山 and Lu Xun City 鲁讯市, which is covered by glass on account of the low oxygen levels on the moon (Ye 1978: 70). Although the text is silent as to who built the city, that the mountain and city are named after famous Chinese intellectuals suggests Chinese agency or at least recognition of China’s cultural greatness (more on this in a moment).

Second, the disappearance of the wristwatch is an example of a minor change: Early in the novel, Little Swallow gives one of her digital wristwatches as a present to Little Smarty. In the adaptation, on his return to the present, Little Smarty is wearing the watch, but it is invisible under the long sleeves of his shirt. In the novel, however, the watch disappears; returning to the guesthouse, Little Smarty wants to check the time and realizes that the watch has vanished from his wrist (Ye 1978: 117-118). The disappearance of the watch—a material token from Future City—suggests to the reader that Little Smarty may have dreamed the entire trip (he had also forgotten to bring his camera with him to Future City, and during his travel there and back, he falls asleep). He then recalls that he had taken off the watch as he put on his space-suit, put it into the pocket of the suit and forgotten to take it out when he left the suit in the space rocket. Luckily, his notebook is not lost, so he can sit down and write about his experiences. His writing thus remains his only memento of the trip, attesting to the great importance attributed to writing and authorship as forms of empowerment.

The first two changes have in common a connection to (literary) authorship. The geographical locations on the moon are named after two important Chinese writers: Li Shizhen 李时珍 (1518-1593), the author of an early and influential medical and pharmaceutical encyclopaedia, the Bencao Gangmu 本草纲目; and Lu Xun 鲁讯 (1881-1936), no one less than the founding father of modern literature in China. The disappearance of the wristwatch culminates in the assertion of Little Smarty’s authorship.

The remaining two differences between the two texts are even more straightforward in terms of examining the role of the writer. While the comic book adaptation starts with Little Smarty’s greeting to his readers, the novel begins with a chapter—“Opening Words” 开头的话—centering on a first-person narrator who works as an editor and who describes himself as young (“your age plus your younger brother’s age” [Ye 1978: 1]). Addressing them directly, he tells his readers about the large number of letters he receives, in many of which readers enquire about what life will be like in the future—about the lives that they might lead when they are a hundred years old. About a month earlier, he had talked about this with his friend, the newspaper’s young reporter Little Smarty. Soon after, the editor received Little Smarty’s manuscript Little Smarty Travels to the Future. This points to Little Smarty’s sense of duty as a reporter and writer that is emphasized throughout the plot (Ye 1978: 102-103). In the evenings in Future City, he sits down to take notes of his most recent adventures, reminding himself of his duty toward his readers. (Sometimes these efforts are thwarted because his friends in Future City take him along on even more adventures). There is thus, in the 1978 novel, a stronger emphasis on Little Smarty as a writer than in the comic book version.

Panel 78

In the novel’s chapter about school in Future City, Little Tiger and Little Smarty have a long conversation about science and literature (Ye 1978: 63-73). Little Tiger is interested in many subjects, in particular chemistry and biology. He and his sister even tend a small experimental plot of land, pointing to the didactic function of the text to inspire children to engage in scientific experimentation themselves. He has an entirely positive vision of science: There is no waste in chemistry, because chemistry is only about modifying and changing existing matter. Also, thanks to scientific progress and an artificial sun installed at the South Pole, the ice there has melted entirely, providing ample opportunity for breeding animals on the grasslands there. (This latter point is not elaborated on in the text of the comic book, but one of the images that Little Tiger shows to his friend has sheep grazing in front of what looks like igloos, see panel 78 above) Little Tiger not only is a prospective scientist, but also learns languages and is good at drawing. Little Smarty therefore wonders about potential prospective collaboration: “If in the future I write reports, novels, travel books, or essays, you can draw the illustrations and design the cover—wouldn’t that be great?” (Ye 1978: 65). This adds a small layer of “lobby literature” to the story: It emphasizes the broad interests of Little Tiger, the scientist, and of Little Smarty, the author, their prospective collaboration, and their impeccable work ethic.

Biography of Ye Yonglie

Photograph of an older Ye Yonglie. Source: Huanqiu renwu

Little Smarty Travels to the Future is one of Ye Yonglie’s most famous works. Born in Wenzhou in 1940, Ye started to publish literary texts at an early age and graduated with a degree in chemistry from Peking University in 1963. He was a prolific writer across a wide spectrum of fictional and non-fictional genres: SF, detective fiction, semi-fictional biographies of prominent CCP members, travel books, texts about SF—and, in his later years, a blog. At young age, he became a key contributor to the periodical A Hundred Thousand Whys (十万个为什么), which aimed at popularizing science among young readers (The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction 2020). He had already written a first version of the Little Smarty story in the early 1960s but could not get it published at the time—Joe Ye, the author’s son, indicates that the time was not ripe yet in China for such a future vision of advanced technology.

Together with Tong Enzheng 童恩正 (1935-1997) and Zheng Wenguang 郑文光 (1929-2003), Ye Yonglie is one the three prominent SF authors born before the founding of the PRC, but making their first successful steps on the Chinese literary and SF scene during the early PRC and continuing their efforts at popularizing science and writing SF in the early post-Mao era. During the second wave of PRC SF, Ye Yonglie produced an impressive output of works, thus exemplifying the close link at the time between SF and science popularization that is also clearly visible in Little Smarty Travels to the Future. Some of his other SF works target adult readers and can be seen as critical explorations of technological progress. One of the few Chinese SF stories of the era to take place outside of China, “Reap as You Have Sown” (自食其果, 1981), for example, explores the moral dimensions of the technology of human cloning. “Corrosion” (腐蚀, 1981) covers the heroic efforts of a group of Chinese scientists to contain, understand, and put to productive use a type of highly corrosive extra-terrestrial bacteria. The story follows a bildungsroman pattern, tracing how the protagonist sublimates his striving for fame and for the Nobel Prize and turns into a hero willing to sacrifice his life. At the same time, it can be read as a piece of “lobby literature” calling for a positive re-evaluation of Chinese academics and intellectuals, celebrating their patriotism and self-sacrifice. In addition to authoring SF stories, Ye Yonglie also edited volumes of Chinese SF both in Chinese and for foreign audiences (Ye/Dunsing 1984).

Notes on the translation

This translation is the outcome of a joint project as part of a “Science Fiction in China” seminar taught in the summer of 2020 at Freiburg University. Learning the sad news of his death as we were reading the text in class, we decided to produce the translation to keep Ye Yonglie’s memory alive.

Our aim in this translation was to remain as faithful as possible to the Chinese original while at the same time producing a text that conveys the voice of the protagonist and narrator, the young reporter Little Smarty. To allow for an undisturbed reading experience, we decided against the use of footnotes, though a few items may call for explanation.

First of all, we have decided not to transliterate but to translate the names given to the children: Little Tiger, Little Swallow, and Little Smarty (小灵通). While many sources translate his name as “Little Genius” or as “Little Know-it-All,” and Nick Stember refers to him as “Smarty Pants,” we use the translation proposed by Paola Iovene. To us, Little Smarty is a clever, curious, and courageous young boy, interested in learning about the world and good at writing down his experiences, but not a genius—in the 1978 version, Little Smarty is described this way by his editor friend: “Little Smarty’s news are smart, because he sees things clearly, listens carefully, and acts speedily and diligently” (Ye 1978: 4).

Panel 42

Little Tiger’s and Little Swallow’s great-grandmother and great-great-grandparents are absent from the plot because they are on holiday on the moon (see panel 42 above). The moon (月球) is described as Moon Palace (广寒宫) with the latter term referring to a legendary palace located on the moon. The Moon Palace, according to Chinese mythology, is the celestial palace inhabited by the goddess of the moon, Chang’e 嫦娥. Her myth is still popular in contemporary China. The most common versions narrate that Chang’e was the wife of Hou Yi 后羿, a skilled archer who shot down nine of the ten suns around which the Earth orbited, saving mankind. To reward him for his heroic deeds, Queen Goddess of the West 西王母 presents him with an elixir of immortality. However, she gave him enough elixir for just one person, and since he did not want to live forever without his wife by his side, Hou Yi decided to remain mortal. Instead, Chang’e drank the elixir in his place and began to float to the sky, crying and pleading for help. Her husband saw her from below, so he grabbed his bow and tried to shoot Chang’e down, but each attempt went awry. Eventually, Chang’e arrived on the moon where she built a palace, becoming the spirit of the moon (Yang 2008: 89-90).

Panel 44

Showing Little Smarty around the house, Little Swallow refers to a painting of her brother in panel 44 (above): “Wu Song fights a tiger.” Little Tiger had taken the painting down from the wall because he felt uncomfortable with Wu Song fighting the animal he himself was named after, i.e. fighting himself. This is at the same time a reference to one of the classical novels of premodern Chinese literature: the fourteenth-century novel Water Margin (also known as Outlaws of the Marsh 水浒传), attributed to Shi Nai’an 施耐庵 (1296-1370). Wu Song 武松 is one of its main characters. He is a martial arts student and is usually depicted fighting with a staff or a pair of broadswords. In one of his many adventures, he fights with a tiger. Passing by a small village in Yanggu County, he sees a sign on the village tavern warning travelers of the strength of the liquor served: “After three bowls, do not cross the hill” (三碗不过岗). Yet, Wu Song ends up drinking eighteen bowls before continuing his way to the forest. The innkeeper tries to stop him, warning him that a fierce tiger had run away, but in vain. After a while, Wu Song feels tired… Just as he falls asleep, however, he is awakened by the roar of the tiger. This sobers him up instantly. He sprints, jumps on the tiger, and kills it with his bare hands. News of his heroic gesture spread quickly, and Wu Song is offered a government post in Yanggu County (Bordahl 2013: 359-365). Given the popularity of the adventures of Water Margin, this intertextual remark underlines the adventurous nature of Little Smarty’s trip to Future City—and the tiger, of course, also refers back to the tiger in his dream earlier in the plot.

Panel 102

During his tour through Future City, Little Smarty is taken to the city’s huge farm. Arriving at the gate (panel 102 above), he remarks that the sign “Future City Agricultural Plant” has a mistake: “Isn’t the word ‘plant’ wrong? It should be the word ‘plantation’!” Our translation does not fully capture the pun in the Chinese original that plays on the words 农厂 and 农场. Both are pronounced identically as nongchang. The latter is the standard word for farm, the chang in the former refers to a factory. 农厂 is a word created by merging 农场 and 工厂 (gongchang, factory), which is made explicit in the original novel (Ye 1978: 88; 100-101). At the end of the visit to the farm, Little Smarty then confirms to his hosts that they correctly called the site an “agricultural plant,” thus expressing his admiration for the industrialization of farming technologies achieved in Future City.

Panel 121

Lastly, readers may be unfamiliar with pak choi referred to in panel 121 which is sometimes also translated as “Chinese cabbage.” In Chinese cuisine, this vegetable is often used for pickles in the northeast of the country or as a filling for dumplings. Alternatively, pak choi is stir-fried with a bit of garlic and sometimes with a few mushrooms into a simple but tasty dish. Other than in Future City, early twenty-first century pak choi does not grow into leaves as large as bed sheets, but is similar in size to lettuce.


[1] This essay was written under the auspices of “The Politics of Reading in the People’s Republic of China” project (READCHINA, Grant agreement No. 757365/SH5: 2018-2023). I thank Eve Y. Lin, Damian Mandzunowski, Henrike Rudolph, Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker, and Lara Y. Yang for comments on an earlier version. Many thanks to Mingwei Song for helping me establish contact with Joe Ye, and to Joe Ye and his family for granting permission to publish our translation of Little Smarty Travels to the Future.

[2] For an overview of the developments of Chinese SF in this period, see Wu 1989.

[3] See Cara Healey (2017), Liyuan Jia (2013), Hua Li (2016), Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker (2017) and Mingwei Song (2013, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019).


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