Chinese Science Fiction
during the Post-Mao Cultural Thaw

By Hua Li

Reviewed by Yingying Huang

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright November, 2021)

Hua Li, Chinese Science Fiction during the Post-Mao Cultural Thaw Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2021. x + 234 pp. ISBN: 9781487508234 (cloth)

The recent history of Chinese science fiction has unfolded in staccato rhythm, punctuated by abrupt suspensions. The incorporation and popularization of science in PRC creative literature, begun in the 1950s and 1960s, was first interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. It then resumed with a brief boom from the late 1970s through the early 1980s, during the cultural thaw of the early reform era, then again came to a halt in 1983 with the launch of the short-lived Campaign to Eliminate Spiritual Pollution (清除精神污染运动). It did not experience robust revival until the 1990s, the beginning of what Mingwei Song calls “New Wave Chinese SF” that continues to the present.[1] During this most recent wave, both the subjects and style of the genre have been utterly transformed, displaying a new degree of complexity that is often attributed more to the influence of translated works than seen as an outgrowth of domestic developments.

Hua Li’s new book, Chinese Science Fiction during the Post-Mao Cultural Thaw, restores those domestic connections to the literary history of the genre. In this first book-length study in English on the transitional period of Chinese science fiction, Li traces how SF of the post-Mao cultural thaw outgrew its Mao-era frameworks of “literature and art about science” (科学文艺) and children’s literature to become the popular fictional genre that laid the groundwork for the New Wave (5). Treating the period from 1976 to 1983 as a bridge, Li researches the lives and works of prominent writers as well as the mixing of genres and convergence of media, presenting an intriguing cultural history of this brief but pivotal period. Li convincingly demonstrates, for example, how the debate about science fiction’s mission and proper style (1979 to 1983) helped to free Chinese SF from the utilitarian and didactic shackles of “literature and art about science,” through the efforts of writers like Ye Yonglie 叶永烈 and Tong Enzheng 童恩正, who contributed both creative writing and essays defending the status and literariness of SF. She also traces the roots of SF’s metamorphosis from being associated with juvenile literature to one that largely appealed to adults, chronicling a rise in the average age of science fiction readers that attests to the contemporary popularity of the genre. Li finds these and other factors to be the direct antecedents of twenty-first-century Chinese SF, whose impact still reverberates in today’s discussions about twenty-first-century Chinese SF’s literary quality, technological innovations, national characteristics, humanist and environmental concerns, and so on.

Instructors and students of Chinese SF courses will find the richly informative first chapter, “The Field of Chinese Science Fiction, 1976-1983,” particularly helpful in clearing the ground for approaching SF as a cultural product. As Li carefully delineates the political environment and fan culture of SF, she also puts forward her methodology—the “quasi-academic or para-academic reading” proposed by Ken Gelder—which considers the production, distribution, and consumption of Chinese SF (4). As the following chapters demonstrate in their charting of a comprehensive and dynamic post-Mao literary landscape, this is a fruitful approach. Li’s adoption of this quasi-/para-academic reading method perhaps also explains the minimal textual analysis throughout the book, as well as the absence of any extended quotations that might accompany close readings. While this somewhat “distant” reading serves the purpose of drawing a larger picture, one cannot help feeling that a closer engagement with the linguistic and artistic details of some works, such as Tong Enzheng’s later novels, which are praised in a later chapter for their “limpid prose style” and sophisticated characterization (95), is essential for showcasing the “improved literary quality” of the genre. Toward the end of this chapter, while identifying causes underlying the rise of the average age of readers, Li identifies three major historical-contextual factors enabling the genre’s development during the post-Mao cultural thaw: SF’s officially endorsed role as an important tool for promoting the Four Modernizations; its improved literary quality; and the growth of a well-educated readership (28). The eight chapters of the book examine these factors from diverse angles to provide a vivid picture of the rise and fall of SF in the transitional period.

Bourdieu’s theories of cultural production constitute another layer of the book’s methodology, undergirding an account of SF’s competition for cultural capital as it unfolded in the lives and works of the writers, with four chapters each devoted to a prominent SF writer of the cultural thaw period. Li documents developments in the genre such as the transformations in Zheng Wenguang’s 郑文光 Mars series towards a more humanist outlook (chapter 2), Ye Yonglie’s genre-crossing experiments with his SF thrillers (chapter 3), Tong Enzheng’s essays on SF’s literariness and fiction about alien encounters (chapter 4), and Xiao Jianheng’s 萧建亨evolving interest in the posthuman condition (chapter 5). Li’s inclusion of less-researched works and the political and cultural climate surrounding their production and consumption allows her to demonstrate how these major writers contributed to SF’s elevated status through works that reflect a complex relationship with the Mao years. For example, both Zheng and Tong wrote SF during and after the Cultural Revolution, but their ruminations during the post-Mao thaw on then-recent Cultural Revolution history invariably shaped their later writing to give voice to their revised humanist, environmental, and economic concerns. Li’s reading of Zheng’s Descendant of Mars (战神的后裔, 1983) as a “terraforming text,” in particular, makes a strong case by accentuating the novel’s political implications and ethical messages. Li presents Ye Yonglie (a household name celebrated for his Little Smarty stories who passed away in May 2020, shortly before Hua Li’s book was released) as an innovator who “single-handedly originated and promoted” the subgenre of SF thriller in the PRC (56). Xiao Jianheng is described as having advanced SF’s grappling with complex issues involving robots and cyborgs. Recounting these innovations, Li not only shows how SF and its writers gained cultural importance in the post-Mao thaw, she also offers a refreshing profile of that period by highlighting the less-discussed stories and events that were nevertheless key to the flourishing of SF.

Chapter 6, “Tech-SF and the Four Modernizations,” documents SF’s transformation into an adult literature with a sweeping survey of the body of writings dubbed tech-SF, which Li argues helped lay the groundwork for the hard SF during the New Wave. Although Li sees them as without much literary merit, she credits these overlooked texts for their complicated scientific messages targeting a well-educated readership and summarizes an extensive list of stories that “echo[ed] the party-state’s reaffirmation of the important role of science and technology in achieving the country’s Four Modernizations” (115). Overall, this chapter’s content is more descriptive than analytical, but it broaches some interesting features of tech-SF, such as the obliviousness to ethical concerns in many narratives’ obsession with technology and the subgenre’s preference for near-future and mid-future temporal settings.

Chapter 7, “Fledgling Media Convergence: PRC SF from Print to Electronic Media,” studies SF’s “transmedia” (跨媒体) storytelling in the late 1970’s that “increased the visibility of the genre, promoted the consumption of SF artefacts, and extended the genre to a much broader audience than it had ever previously enjoyed in China” (135). Li instructively points out that these different media, from cartoons to radios and animated films, remained isolated from one another instead of collaborating, ergo her assertion that this was “at most a fledgling and largely undeveloped level of media convergence” (163). She also introduces the work of Henry Jenkins and Marc Steinberg to compare Chinese transmedia practice with American and post-war Japanese media practices, respectively.

Throughout the book, Hua Li is an informed and attentive literary historian of the cosmopolitan elements of Chinese SF. Her comparative scope is best showcased by another outstanding feature of her study: drawing analogies between PRC and Soviet science fiction. Parallels have often been drawn in the study of other literary genres shared across the two cultures, but Li is the first to pursue the similarities in SF to such depth and scope, and the frequent reference to Russian and Soviet SF writers and works as well as scholars on those subjects is a powerful reminder of the shared urge across cultures to rethink and redeem science writings when coping with traumatic national histories.

The final chapter, as its title clearly states, studies the “Blooming, Contending, and Boundary-Breaking Even in a Genre of Government-Backed Literature.” By calling SF a “government-backed literature,” Li invokes (and rejects) the term “lobby literature” proposed by Rudolf Wagner (“lobby” as in “to influence” officials). Wagner hypothesized that SF authors in the thaw era wrote with two groups of “intended readers” in mind: on the one hand, their works sought to cater to and reproduce the “collective phantasy or demands” of the “actual and potential scientific community” and. on the other, they  appealed to “the authorities to whom these texts would be presented publicly in printing, as the collective demand and offer of compromise from the science community.”[2] Li, by contrast, does not characterize SF writers as partnering with any other group to negotiate with the authorities; in fact, she largely erases the distance between the writers and the authorities, arguing that the former were “working more as in-house advocates of a key component of the central government’s Four Modernizations agenda than as lobbyists or a group attempting to extract concessions from the government” (173). This revision is certainly illuminating where our understanding of works by major writers like Ye Yonglie is concerned, but it leaves unexplained whether or not the same hat fits the more ephemeral stories written by minor authors, or why an ostensibly collaborative “in-house” genre suffered such fierce attacks during the Campaign against Spiritual Pollution. Paola Iovene’s summation of Wagner’s proposition, that “it perhaps assumes too much unity of intent between writers and scientists,”[3] can here be usefully paraphrased: the proposition to see SF writers as the government’s “in-house advocates” perhaps assumes too much unity of intent between writers and policy makers.

Chinese Science Fiction during the Post-Mao Cultural Thaw should be commended for its innovative approach to China’s literary and cultural history and the great diversity of material Hua Li has made relevant to our understanding and future discussions of SF in the post-Mao thaw and beyond. Scholars and students of SF apart, anyone interested in modern China’s politics and culture, science history, and media studies will find the book a rich source of insights and inspiration.

Yingying Huang
Lafayette College


[1] Song, Mingwei, “After 1989: The New Wave of Chinese Science Fiction,” China Perspectives no. 1 (2015), 7–13.

[2] Rudolf G. Wagner, “Lobby Literature: The Archeology and Present Functions of Science Fiction in China,” in Jeffrey C. Kinkley, ed., After Mao: Chinese Literature and Society: 1978–1981 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 44. Wagner specifies that his “lobby literature” has no “derogatory connotations” (45).

[3] Paola Iovene, Tales of Futures Past: Anticipation and the Ends of Literature in Contemporary China (Stanford University Press, 2014), 34.