Information Fantasies:
Precarious Mediation in Postsocialist China

By Xiao Liu

Reviewed by Rui Kunze

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright October, 2021)

Xiao Liu, Information Fantasies: Precarious Mediation in Postsocialist China Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019. 318 pp. ISBN 978-1-5179-0274-2 (paper);
ISBN 978-1-5179-0273-5 (cloth).

With its changes and unrealized possibilities, 1980s China has lasting appeal to scholars. Pioneering works such as High Culture Fever: Politics, Aesthetics, and Ideology in Deng’s China (1996) by Wang Jing and Chinese Modernism in the Era of Reforms: Cultural Fever, Avant-Garde Fiction, and the New Chinese Cinema (1996) by Zhang Xudong have critically examined the aesthetics and intellectual history of this decade vis-à-vis political and social transformations. Among the growing scholarship that continues to explore the problems and potentials of this transitional decade, Xiao Liu’s Information Fantasies: Precarious Mediation in Postsocialist China is one of the most ambitious works in methodology and scope. Combining the methods of media studies and cultural studies, this book charts “a landscape in which the high-end scientific studies in the areas of information and AI research interacted and intersected with the dissemination of scientific knowledge through popular science journals and with popular imaginations in fiction and films that reflected on the social consequences of new technologies” (32). Taking into account the multiplicity of epistemologies, technologies, intellectual ideas, and aesthetic practices in this decade of transformation, Liu’s book excavates abundant heretofore unexamined source materials and probes their connections, contradictions, and contentions, as well as implications for China’s later integration into global capitalism and its information systems.

Consisting of five chapters arranged chronologically, the study sheds new light on the classic problem of the human-machine relationship by situating it in the historical context of China’s transformation to postsocialism. The interaction between the human body/senses and media technologies is investigated in view of the dynamics among the book’s titular key issues of information, fantasies, mediation and its precariousness. A “magic, chameleon-like buzzword” (23) in 1980s China, “information” was not just defined by the scientific discourse generated by leading scientists, but also appropriated actively by laymen (e.g. qigong practitioners, advertisers). It was a notion fueling the fantasies of “all-inclusive mediation that integrates human beings into seamless, real-time information circuits” (22), which anticipated the digital era. As for “mediation,” Liu proposes to go beyond “the narrow sense of communication that is dependent upon technical media” to understand it as addressing “broader scopes of contacts, conflicts, negotiations between different realms, and agents and objects” (13). Her emphasis on the precariousness of mediation in 1980s China “highlights the indispensable processes of mediation amid the information fantasies in negotiating the uncertainties on the eve of China’s entry into the global capitalist system, as well as the reshuffled social relations and powers and destabilized human agency and identities” (23, italics mine). Precarious mediation was thus produced by contending forces, among them emerging information technology, various ideas of knowledge and history, changing power structures and social values as well as human identities and subjectivities.

The first chapter, “Extrasensory Powers, Magic Waves, and Information Explosion: Imagining the Digital,” examines the emergence of the discourse of (waveform) “information” in the early 1980s at the intersection of extrasensory powers, media technologies infrastructures (e.g. wireless radio broadcasts and television broadcasts), and contemporary science fiction stories. Instead of adopting the more commonly used “extraordinary powers” to translate teyi gongneng 特异功能,[1] Liu opts for “extrasensory powers” (39) and, in doing so, foregrounds the human body and its senses in the discursive construction of “information.” The author inquires into the exploration of extrasensory powers as waveform information by professional scientists—such as Qian Xuesen 钱学森 (1911-2009)—and their academic institutes. The scientific, or scientizing (kexuehua 科学化), discourse of extrasensory powers was readily picked up by qigong practitioners for their own use. In these processes, “information” had acquired its discursive connotations as scientific and liberal as well as neutral and utilitarian. Liu draws a parallel between extrasensory powers and new media technologies through their popular conception as waveform information and their shared “cybernetic logic of incorporating humans into real-time information circuits” (40). Viewing science fiction as “an intricate part” of such information fantasies—less for its predictions of the future than for its registration of “structures of feelings” (33), Liu chooses three science fiction stories thematizing “waves” to exemplify various imaginations of information and mediation. Whereas Xiao Jianheng’s 萧建亨 (1930-) “Dream” (梦) and “The Sleepless Son-in-Law” (不睡觉的女婿, 1979) portray waves as a medium of knowledge transmission, Wei Yahua’s 魏雅华 (1949-) “A Lost Dream” (丢失的梦, 1983) betrays discontent with the instrumentalization of the human body “abstracted as a node for universal information exchange” (74). Zheng Wenguang’s 郑文光 (1929-2003) “Destiny Club” (命运夜总会, 1981), which tells a story about ultrasonic waves in a night club acting randomly on people and causing suicides, treats the issues of uncontrollable new devices, suicidal consumption of stimuli, and the violence of the Cultural Revolution. For researchers of Chinese science fiction, this text certainly complicates Zheng Wenguang’s literary biography as a writer of “hard” science fiction.

Science fiction occupies an even more prominent position in the second chapter “The Curious Case of a Robot Doctor: Rethinking Labor, Expert Systems, and the Interface,” in which Liu explores the politics of the human-machine interface by moving back and forth between a comparative reading of a robot doctor and a human doctor in literary works and a historical study of expert systems, a type of AI system that was intended to “provide professional consultation and services even in the absence of a human expert” (84). Seeing the interface “in terms of practices of mediation rather than simply as media objects or substrates” (84, original italics), Liu points out one major problem of the human-machine interface shown in the bizarre behaviors of the robot doctor in Wei Yahua’s 1981 science fiction story “A Curious Case” (奇异的案件) and existing in expert systems in the real world: they do not have “common sense.” She cites Hubert Dreyfus to attribute this lack of common sense to AI scientists’ assumption of “disembodied reason” (detaching human reason from the human body) (115). If the debate over the agency/responsibility of the robot doctor in “A Curious Case” raises the issue of human identity and reveals “the indispensable human labor in any AI project” (114), then Lu Wenting, the human doctor in the novella “At Middle Age” (人到中年, 1980) not only embodies the professional knowledge of expert systems but also possesses the common sense that allows her to perform (gendered) affective labor, which “mediates between the layperson patients and the cold apparatus and systems in the hospital” (103). A literary work of the post-Mao era, this novella presents Lu’s scientific knowledge as ideologically neutral and offers a Marxist humanist critique of the Mao era by affirming Lu’s human needs, emotions, and social relations. By highlighting how the robot doctor and the human doctor in these two stories explicitly or implicitly tackle the politics of the human-machine interface, Liu suggests that these fictional figures resonate with scientists’ rethinking of “intelligence” to include “image-thinking (xingxiang siwei 形象思维), intuition, and the source of inspiration” in addition to logical thinking (116). The issue of the human-machine interface resurfaces in the era of digital media and networked society, where crowdsourcing and intelligent machines again blur the distinction between human and machine.

In the third chapter, “The ‘Ultrastable System’ and the New Cinema,” Liu grapples with the politics of depoliticization in intellectual history and the aesthetic techniques of the new cinema of the 1980s. More specifically, she examines the cultural discussion of the “ultrastable system” (超稳定结构) and its aesthetic manifestations in the cinematic works Yellow Earth (黄土地, 1984) and Black Cannon Incident (黑炮事件, 1985). Theorized by Jin Guantao 金观涛 (1947-), a leading scholar of philosophy and cultural theory with a background in natural science, the “ultrastable system” refers to “a system in which chronic disruptions of history, such as peasants’ rebellions, only led to an even more stable and viable feudal society” (120). Liu argues that the “ultrastable system” is a culturalist thesis of history that draws on modernization theory of postwar America, especially sociologist Talcott Parsons’s (1902-1979) theory of social systems. Citing He Guimei, Liu points to the fact that “the 1980 Chinese translation” of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was based on Parsons’s English translation (125)[2] and contends that Chinese readers absorbed Parsons’s modernization theory through the mediation of Weber’s work on culture and the rise of capitalism. This cultural approach to modernization demonstrated a strong depoliticizing urge in 1980s China, for it was perceived “as a counteraction to Marx’s economy-based social analysis” (126). The “ultrastable system” thesis, furthermore, was made credible by its association with “the new authority of scientific rationality” (122) stemming from “the general intellectual efforts at this time to seek ‘scientific solutions’ to social problems” (126). This in turn led to the development of “a ‘scientific’ understanding of film” focusing on the technology and techniques of filmmaking (136). Both product and agent of these developments, Yellow Earth constructs a visual narrative affirming the “ultrastable system” thesis of history and society, whereas Black Cannon Incident turns out to be an ambivalent example of applying the “ultrastable system” thesis to criticizing Chinese society: it uses self-references and recursive structures to explore “the deep structure of Chinese culture” as a hindrance to China’s modernization (145), but it also reveals an anxiety in face of “a new environment fast transformed by marketization and the Open-up” (149). Criticizing the “ultrastable system” thesis for de-historicizing Chinese history, society, and modernization, Liu interrogates the depoliticization agenda in the intellectuals’ and filmmakers’ ideas of modernization and modernism in post-Mao China, asking whether they were caught in “the ‘strange loops’ of geopolitics and the global networks of knowledge production” (122).

The fourth chapter, “Affective Form: Advertising, Information Aesthetics, and Experimental Writing in the Market Economy,” returns to the discourse of “information.” Analyzing examples of advertising studies and the experimental literary work of Wang Meng 王蒙 (1934-), this chapter investigates how “information” served as “an affective medium for the marketization of commodities” (164) in the mid and late 1980s. Aiming at “optimizing communicative effects” (164), information aesthetics emerged in Chinese advertising studies—amidst “both popular and academic interest in information theory, systems theory, and cybernetics” (184)—as a scientific means of determining how to carry out persuasion most effectively. Considered a type of applied aesthetics, information aesthetics shifted the discussion of “aesthetics” from the nature or quality of “beauty” in the early 1980s to how to quantitatively measure “beauty.” In doing so, it also turned the aesthetic notion of “originality” into a quantifiable indicator of the affective power to elicit behavior changes. Wang Meng’s experimental writing, especially its language and form, is discussed in view of this changing idea of “aesthetics” and as a response to a transformed media environment filled with new technologies (radio, television, and telephone) and their products. Both advertising and Wang’s writing, furthermore, demonstrate precarious mediation as the result of “different social forces” negotiating with and confronting each other (165). For example, the mouthpieces of the Party—newspapers, radio programs, China Central Television (CCTV), etc.—were all players in the advertising sector of the bourgeoning market economy; and avant-garde writers found themselves in the ironic position of undertaking literary experimentation to debunk socialist realism while at the same time enjoying the stable income, welfare, and privileged channels of publication provided by the very socialist system they were reproving.

The last chapter, “Liminal Mediation and the Cinema Redefined,” examines how cinema was reinvented “as modes of mediation of liminality” in the late 1980s by “the contradictive, overlapping, and contending forces” (197) in changing political regulation, social values, intellectual debates, and technological development. Standing in the center of this transforming media environment is the transformation of audience into consumer. On the one hand, new media technologies, such as television, were competing with cinema for viewers; on the other hand, film critics tried to argue against cinema as a politicized medium of socialist realist representation by emphasizing the agency of the (ideal) spectator. The (theorized) spectator in these critics’ characterization interprets images, responds emotionally and bodily to the stimuli in films, and brings to bear on his/her active spectatorship “cultural memories and social conventions” (197). By making sense of films in this way, the spectator frees moving images from “overarching concepts” (201). Flights of Fantasy (异想天开, 1986), a film that Liu argues foregrounds itself as a constructed artifact, posits such a (postmodern) spectator who possesses enough pre-knowledge to participate effectively in the interpretation of the film. This film’s re-mediation (or play) of other media forms and genre conventions suggests cinema’s interaction with other media “in an era of expanding information networks” (216). Liu’s excellent reading of the horror film The Lonely Spirit in a Dark Building (黑楼孤魂, 1989) exemplifies the liminality of precarious mediation in several senses: as the first film made with private funding and one of the first movies evaluated as “unfit for children” by a rudimentary rating system in post-Mao China, this film stood at the threshold of the marketization of cultural production and consumption; its story about ghost spirits and extrasensory powers brings to light coexisting yet competing epistemologies, realities, and modes of justice. Last but not least, The Lonely Spirit in a Dark Building is a film about filmmaking, whose self-reference to the film as a medium can be considered “a practice to theorize the liminality of mediation”(245), which raises interesting questions as to what can be communicated through media technologies, in whose language, how the same message may be received in different ways, etc.

With a reading of the online fantasy story “Youth, Chinese-style” (中国式青春, 2006) in the epilogue, Liu brings the reader back to the “future” of the twenty-first century, where “information” loses its magic power as we live our daily lives in a media environment formed by the Internet and digital devices. Liu attributes the dehistoricized resistance in the story to “the postsocialist politics of depoliticization” (261).

Although the author does not mention the term, this study seems to have drawn much inspiration from the emerging field of “media archaeology.” This is especially apparent in Liu’s impressive excavation of hitherto ignored source materials, which inform her analyses of the ways in which information fantasies, mediation and/as the human body, and “structures of feeling” in 1980s China anticipated the digital media environment today.[3] In almost every chapter, the author’s productive synthesis of the history of professional scientific research with popular imaginations of media technologies and mediation yields fresh interpretations of cultural products. This book exemplifies a new way to study 1980s China by looking at the porousness and interactions between the intellectual and the popular, the scientific, the technological, and the fantastic, and how they led to changes at various levels. One especially notable example is Liu’s historically specific profiling of Qian Xuesen’s writings and academic activities in the 1980s—ranging from his promotion of somatic science to his involvement in the fields of systems engineering and development of AI.

Given the scope of the book, the author cannot delve into the complex academic debates surrounding every topic explored; for example, science dissemination in the Mao and post-Mao eras (chapter 2) and Mao-style writing (chapter 4) are mentioned somewhat superficially, although they would appear to be central to the book’s arguments. Addressing intellectuals’ efforts to move away from “orthodox Marxism-Leninism toward Scientism,” the author asserts that “this faith in scientism cannot be divorced from post-Mao politics” (127). While citing Sigrid Schmalzer and Fa-ti Fan on the need to take Mao’s mass science seriously and to reevaluate it with principles other than those of “the Western institutionalization of science in modern times” (107), Liu nonetheless views the scientism in post-Mao China as part of the depoliticizing process and therefore proof of a rupture with the Mao era. Mao’s mass science was indeed highly politicized and therefore different from professional science in the post-Mao era where actors, evaluative principles, and authorities are concerned, but it championed the same cultural authority of (natural) science and its essential role in realizing national modernization. In other words, scientism should be understood as a continuity rather than a rupture from the Mao era.

This brings us to the question of how to examine postsocialism as a dynamic term. Liu identifies the (problematic) politics of depoliticization in post-Mao China and makes a strong case for the dominance of discontinuities in the transition from the Mao era to post-Mao, postsocialist China. Yet as scholars in contemporary Chinese literature and culture have shown, one must give equal amount of attention to the continuities.[4] Many cultural symbols in 1980s China, from “yellow earth” to the Little Radish Head mentioned in the book, are deeply rooted in Mao-era “red” mass culture, not to mention the Mao-style writing that has been ingrained in the culture of the People’s Republic of China. When discussing information aesthetics in advertising (chapter 4), it might have been worthwhile to probe what kinds of signs (symbols, texts, etc.) were used to appeal to audiences[5] and how socialist cultural institutions such as newspapers and CCTV took advantage of their institutional resources and cultural authority to make profits. This would enrich the book’s argument of precarious mediation, which resulted also from “the crises of a postsocialist society in which historical memories and social values were fragmented, effaced, and reshuffled” (198).

This book should be recommended to teachers and graduate students interested in cultural studies, media studies, literary studies, intellectual history, and the history of science in contemporary China. It might make for fruitful reading when considered alongside other recent relevant works, such as Chinese Science Fiction during the Post-Mao Cultural Thaw by Hua Li (2021), or Shaoling Ma’s archaeology of the history of Chinese mediality, The Stone and the Wireless: Mediating China, 1861-1906 (2021).

Rui Kunze
University of Erlangen-Nuremberg


[1] For example, David A. Palmer, Qigong Fever: Body, Science, and Utopia in China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

[2] There is a factual error of date here: the Chinese translation of Max Weber’s work did not appear in 1980. He Guimei cites in her book the Chinese version 新教伦理与资本主义精神, translated by Yu Xiao 于晓, Chen Weigang 陈维刚, et. al. (Beijing: Sanlian shudian, 1987) (258). An earlier version of Chinese translation appeared in 1986, by Huang Xiaojing 黄晓京 and Peng Qiang 彭强 (Chengdu: Sichuan renmin, 1986). Both were translated from Talcott Parsons’s English translation of Weber (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958).

[3] Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, eds. Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

[4] See, among others, Zhang Xudong, Postsocialism and Cultural Politics: China in the Last Decade of the Twentieth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Chris Berry, “Getting Real: Chinese Documentary, Chinese Postsocialism,“ Zhen Zhang, ed. The Urban Generation:Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 115-134; Michel Hockx, Internet Literature in China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

[5] Cf. Geremie R. Barmé, “CCPTM and ADCULT PRC ,” The China Journal 41 (1999): 1-23.