Remembrance of China’s Past: A Review of The Three-Body Problem

August 25, 2017
Schwarzman Scholars worked together to create an academic journal, reflecting their ability to think critically about the Middle Kingdom and the implications of its rise. These collections of thoughts come together to form “Xinmin Pinglun,” our Journal dedicated to the publication of the informative and analytical essays of our scholars. As the application deadline for the class of 2019 is approaching and the arrival of the incoming class is on its way, we are sharing pieces from the second issue of Ximin Pinglun to give insight into the critical thinking and scholarship taking place at Schwarzman College. Here, Noah Elbot, (Class of 2017) reviews the Chinese science fiction trilogy “Remembrance of Earth’s Past,” more commonly known as “The Three Body Problem.” 

Good science fiction is almost always a commentary on our present values and principles. Liu Cixin’s epic science fiction trilogy, Remembrance of Earth’s Past (地球往事), more commonly known as The Three Body Problem (三体), has sold more than a million copies globally. The series has been credited with bringing Chinese science fiction onto the world stage; the novels even featured on President Obama’s and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s reading lists for 2015. Although The Three Body Problem begins in a counter-historical version of the Cultural Revolution and extends millennia into the future, the book communicates much about China’s emerging role in the global world order and how leaders might act in the face of geopolitical uncertainty.

The book begins with Chinese scientists struggling to progress in 1970s China under Mao, and the series follows humanity’s first contact with alien civilizations and its gradual discovery that not only is the universe full of life, but that it is a ruthless battlefield. As Earth strives to cope and catch up with an unfriendly cosmos, the blue planet bears resemblance to 19th century China, a vulnerable kingdom dealing with the incursive bullying of aggressive international powers. In the novel, the first century of panic after the discovery of alien invaders is defined by political and economic weakness and worldwide infighting, the so-called “Crisis Period.” Humanity’s internal turmoil in the novels resonates with themes from China’s “Century of Humiliation,” which unfolded under the Qing. China’s self-imposed isolationism was forcibly ended with a rude awakening into a global system defined by competition between the Western great powers. Even as the external threat grew, it was internal divisions that drove the deepest rifts in Chinese society in the form of the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions.

The Three Body Problem puts forward a realist view of “inter-planetary relations” called the Dark Forest Theory – due to civilizations’ urge for constant expansion to capture limited resources, the only universal values are self-preservation and elimination of potential rivals. Any communication between civilizations is bound to break down in mistrust and inevitable conflict; alliances are vulnerability and mendacity is a weapon. Omnipresent suspicion in the anarchic universe leads planetary civilizations to take one of two strategies: either attempt to annihilate any potential rival, or intentional isolationism and even the retarding of development to remain invisible to more powerful actors. After discovering earth is not alone, humanity quickly realizes the universe is a Dark Forest filled with frightened hunters; any sound or flicker of light is a potential threat, so one must either attack or hide.

China’s long history is remarkable for its insularism and is shaped by infighting and attempted consolidation of power. Although more recent scholarship notes the internationalism of the Tang Dynasty and other regional influences such as Buddhism, the primary historical narrative revolves around vacillations between a unified Chinese civilization (Qin, Ming) and periods of internal political diffusion (Three Kingdoms Era, Warlord Period). Foreign influence is usually recognized as an exogenous force acting upon China, more often than not to foment political destabilization, rather than the two-way system of interaction that defines Western great power international relations. When faced with external threat or competition, China has tended towards defensive rather than offensive development. Chinese historical narratives stress the importance of the government’s ability to secure itself from foreign incursion, rather than land it successfully conquered. The building of the Great Wall under the Qin and its expansion under the Ming embody this narrative.

In The Three Body Problem, Li Cixin leaves hope that competition for limited resources might give way to collaboration, rather than mutual destruction, although nothing is resolute. First codified in 1954, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence principles were agreed upon between China, Myanmar, and India to serve as norms for international relationships. The initial five principles are mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. Through the agreement of principles, the nascent Asian powers were outlining criteria for coexistence in post-colonial Asia based on common benefit, rather than the Dark Forest competition adopted by the Great Powers in World War II.

In President Xi Jinping’s 2014 address titled, “Carry Forward the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence To Build a Better World Through Win-Win Cooperation,” he reiterates the original five principles and adds an additional six updates. Xi’s additional six principles are sovereign equality, common security, common development, win-win cooperation, inclusiveness and mutual learning, and fairness and justice. These additional principles adapt the system of norms towards a multipolar, integrated world. While the initial five stress mutual respect of independent growth, the new six emphasize shared effort and collaboration. Numerous wars and conflicts have been fought since that document was first agreed upon, but nonetheless it remains an idealized hope for what Great Power geopolitics might look like in Asia and the world in the 21st century.

The question that looms throughout The Three Body Problem is the same as that raised by the Five Principles: can different civilizations actually work together, or does nature tend towards conflict and destruction? The answer remains elusive both in science fiction and reality. Any civilization in the novels that seeks coexistence must also prepare for betrayal. Chinese leaders have often been accused by Western power of ambiguous communications and unclear intent. In the anarchic realist universe of Liu Cixin’s novels, the only way a civilization can survive is by masking their location and ambitions. In a similar vein, as China increases its military buildup and regional presence in areas like the South China Sea, it is not necessarily antithetical to its vision of Peaceful Coexistence. It might just be an acknowledgment of a lesson China learned the hard way: our world can be a harsh Dark Forest.

Humanity’s internal turmoil in the novels resonates with themes from China’s “Century of Humiliation.”

In The Three Body Problem, moments of interplanetary peace give way to treachery, anarchy, and warfare. Humanity likewise divides itself and unites in oscillating cycles. The plans that work best are the ones that factor in the fickle nature of competition and collaboration under existential threat. Modern China likewise hedges its bets with its international worldview. If the emerging 21st century world order results in a return to the “Dark Forest” reality of anarchic international competition, China is well-versed in walling itself off from foreign threats. If, however, principled norms can guide a multi-polar world system, China is well placed to be a leader in peaceful coexistence.

地球往事:对科幻小说《三体》的评论 (艾诺亚)


Noah Elbot (Class of 2017) is from the United States of America, and graduated from Brown University.