Chinese Science Fiction Literature: An Aftermath of Historical Traumas

Vous trouverez ci-dessous le texte de ma communication donnée lors de la 11th International Convention of Asia Scholars à Leyde (Pays-Bas).


As Michael Berry pointed out in A History of Pain:

Twentieth-century China represents a time and a place marred by the unrelenting vicissitudes of history and the repeated trauma of violence. Struggling to redefine its position in the world after the harrowing Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century and a devastating defeat at the hands of Japan during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, China entered the twentieth century only to face the collapse of its last dynastic empire in 1911. Since then, from May Fourth’s violent negation of the past (1919) to the War of Resistance against Japan (1937-45), from the Civil War (1945-49) to the ‘great leap’ into mass famine (1958-60), and from the engineered violence of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) to the televised bloodbath of Tiananmen (1989), modern China’s trajectory has been one of discontinuity, displacement, social unrest, and historical trauma.1

Science fiction literature has thus been one of the by-products of historical traumas this century.

Late-Qing Science Fiction

The intellectual life of the late Qing dynasty was closely connected to political history. Born in a setting of humiliation and fear provoked by Western domination over the Chinese territory and its political power during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, science fiction turned out to be a major ideological and political tool for Chinese authors. First introduced through numerous translations of Western and Japanese works, science fiction was adopted and adapted by Chinese authors, who turned the genre into the incarnation of the intelligentsia’s ideals. These ideals involve history, hopes for a brighter future, and a rejection of age-old traditions. Science has been viewed as the only way for China to regain its dignity and to enable its people, who were hammered by the Darwinian theories of evolution, to avoid the outright extinction of their “race.” The science fiction of the late Qing dynasty intends to point out the worries of Chinese people, as well as the resulting unease among the Chinese population during that period.

Considering that during the late Qing period China was subject to significant troubles and political changes, science fiction literature of this time mirrors real historical perspectives, and describes the feeling of an existential crisis felt by the Chinese. It allows us to understand the social psychology, as well as the Zeitgeist of this unusual historical period. Thus, the study of the themes raised by late Qing science fiction clearly highlights the prevalence of some specific themes. Besides the call for the “salvation of the country through science” which became the tenet of the entire period, the awakening of national consciousness, the prospect of political reforms, the beginning of feminist thought, as well as the criticism of superstitions of the past were also highly visible. These works expose the two main particularities of this period: the first one is the curiosity about science and the boundless admiration for it; the second one is the great hope that Western knowledge may contribute to the country’s prosperity and power. These science fiction novels provide us with a real-time testimony and denunciation of foreign invasions, and as Lorenzo Andolfatto pointed out in one of his articles:

Science fiction mediated via the language of fiction the traumatic experience of radical otherness that the encounter with the colonizing “West” brought forward.2

New China Science Fiction

1949 marked the establishment and the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China. The genre then took center stage, following the traumas provoked by the numerous internal conflicts, such as the Sino-Japanese war (and the resulting Nanjing Massacre) and the civil war between Nationalists and Communists. The establishment of the PRC led to the importation of several theories and the replication of the Soviet model throughout this period of reference. As the late Qing science fiction was guided by the “dream of a powerful nation,” science fiction of Mao’s era flourished, driven by the hope of the “construction of a powerful and modernized socialist nation.” Science fiction was, once again, given a mission that exceeded its literary limits, which was to undertake the rational awakening of the masses and to promote socialism and communism, together with the modernization, independence and power of socialist China. In order to achieve this, it had to start with the nation’s offspring, who were the political symbol of China’s future: the children and teenagers. It moved from children’s literature based on the Western model to the Soviet model.

When the science fiction of the Maoist era imagined the prospects of a future society, not only did numerous factories appear, but as did a large number of modern metropolises which had the industrial production at their center. These newly built cities were either erected in the deserts with vast steeps, or on small artificial sea islands. Humanity is no longer powerless when facing nature unlike in the past, and rather, humans have begun to demonstrate great strength and unprecedented power. As a result of the popularization of industrialization, the future society has led to the appearance of numerous modernized metropolises that extend to every part of China. From all indications, therefore, comfort (which is brought about by high-tech transportation and household appliances, and free medical care), abundance and industrial yield encapsulate the quality of life in these cities. In fact, all of these metropolises are indeed modern cities with a high production rate and excellent living conditions. The authors are, in point of fact, truly enthusiastic when they describe the prospects of a modernized socialist China; the results are a strong idealistic tone, a deep socialist, political and patriotic spirit, along with endless praises of science and technology. Obviously, we cannot forget that the political climate at that time didn’t give them much choice, especially through the establishment of the Writer’s Associations that undertake the ideological control of the literary production.

This period was also marked by many events, such as the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the Great Leap Forward and the consequent Great Chinese Famine. Of course, there was also the Cultural Revolution that put an end to almost the entire literary creation in Mainland China.

New Period Science Fiction

Less than two years after the death of Mao Zedong and the end of the Cultural Revolution marked by the detention of the “Gang of Four”, the genre was called upon again through the National Congress of Science that was held in March 1978. It was a program organized by the Central Committee and the State Council, in which it was emphatically affirmed that the “spring of science had come.” As a result, a greater enthusiasm for science, and at the same time, for science fiction, was aroused. Nevertheless, due to the launching of the “Reforms and opening to the outside world” policy, science fiction later became, in spite of itself, the advocate of the “Four Modernizations” that were launched in December 1978. At the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, a large number of foreign science fiction works were introduced in China. These translations allowed Chinese readers and authors to become accustomed to new literary trends that prevailed at that time in the rest of the world. After the Cultural Revolution, the authors rather emphasized on the patriotic spirit of the scientists than on the depiction of modernized metropolises. Nonetheless, some works still perpetuate the same pattern as the Maoist era’s.

Regarding the themes raised by science fiction literature of this period, they are fairly similar to that of the Maoist period, since the main ones are the depiction of a modern future, the revival of the country and of the Chinese nation, as well as the spiritual victory of the socialist ideology over the capitalist one. Indeed, the dangerousness of science depends above all on whether the scientists are Chinese or not. While Chinese scientists pursue the well-being of all humanity, Western scientists rather want to use science and technology for their own evil interests.

New Wave Science Fiction

This revival of science fiction literature lost its momentum due to the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign that was launched in 1983, which has labelled science fiction as a spiritual pollution. This difficult period lasted until the beginning of the 1990s, when China started to establish a market economy system and began to promote freer writing. Henceforth, numerous young authors started to create texts, and the renewal of science fiction began. Since the Tian’anmen Massacre in 1989 that puts an end to the hopes insufflated by the libertarian movements of the 1980s, drastic changes occurred in the Chinese political and ideological landscape. These rallies originally reinforced the hard line of the government, but in less than two years, the Party started to focus on the economic growth of the country rather than on the ideological control, thus promoting China’s position on the global economic system, according to Deng Xiaoping’s policies. This also played a part in the renewal of Chinese science fiction. The prosperity of Chinese science fiction in the 1990s went along with the recrudescence of the translation of Western science fiction works. It is also in this period that a large number of “grownup” foreign science fiction works were introduced in China, which was very rare before the 1990s.

Some issues China is facing nowadays are very common in new Chinese science fiction, such as the issue of overpopulation in gigantic cities, the problem of pollution that China is facing in both urban areas and in the countryside, China’s unbridled race to modernization, the omnipresence and permanent control exerted on the population by the State, as well as the pressure upheld by society itself, which seems to disallow the idea of dreams and imagination. The hopes of previous science fiction works seem to have vanished, and has left the door open for the pessimism and concerns of the 2000s and 2010s.


The main concern of several Chinese leaders who have succeeded each other over the past century was to find a way to make China catch up with the rest of the world, and to allow the country to become as rich and powerful as the late-Qing reformers wanted. That was the case of Mao Zedong, for example, whose policies intended to achieve the same development that Europe achieved in three centuries, but in only fifty years. This led to the death of thirty million Chinese during the Great Famine and plunged the country into chaos and quasi-civil war.

Chinese science fiction literature, throughout its history, has always been a “post-traumatic” literary genre. Indeed, the genre was promoted several times through modernization movements which were launched after traumas sustained by the country.

It is also remarkable to see that the themes of science fiction have always been an inverted mirror of the country’s reality. Indeed, during the late Qing period and the beginning of the Republic era, while China was subjected to colonial powers in reality, the nation was described as the world’s leading power in science fiction stories. During the New China period, while Chinese people suffered the fiasco of the productivist logic of the Great Leap Forward and the resulting Great Famine, science fiction rather described a country where “abundance” and “overproduction” were the key words of the period. Then, while China was trying to recover from the Cultural Revolution fiasco, science fiction depicted China, a country with the highest of moral values that used science for the well-being of humanity, as a country where scientists finally gained the recognition they deserved. We could therefore say that science fiction acted as a means of catharsis; as a way for release, and thereby provided relief from the strong and repressed feelings caused by the several historical traumas sustained by the Chinese. While it followed the intelligentsia’s and the government’s political line until the end of the 1980s, it rather emancipates itself and truly tackles the most pressing issues China’s contemporary society is facing nowadays. It therefore seems that, like the author Han Song, people don’t take to the streets to voice their discontent anymore, but rather use literature to express their concerns and grievances.

  1. Berry, Michael, A History of Pain. Trauma in Modern Chinese Literature and Film. New York : Columbia University Press, 2008, 420 p. []
  2. Andolfatto, Lorenzo, « Discourses of Science Fictional Futuribility in Late Qing Fiction », Monde Chinois Nouvelle Asie, n°51-52, 2017, p. 20. []

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