Steampunk, Zombie Apocalypse, and Homoerotic Romance:
Re-writing Revolution-Plus-Love in Contemporary China

By Zhange Ni

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 32, no.2  (Fall 2020), pp. 179-229

This essay reads two online novels—Priest’s Shapolang (Stars of Chaos, 2015) and Feitian Yexiang’s Erlingyisan/Mori shuguang (Twenty Thirteen, or Dawn of the World, 2011)—to examine the reemergence and transfiguration of the literary trope of revolution-plus-love in the twenty-first century. The two novels are scifi-danmei crossovers. They are danmei novels, homoerotic romance featuring love affairs between male characters primarily but not exclusively for the entertainment of young women. However, unlike typical danmei fiction, both novels portray their protagonists as more than romantic lovers in that they must fight side by side for national salvation on the global stage. Stars of Chaos is a steampunk novel that reimagines China’s encounter with the Western colonial powers in the nineteenth century; while Dawn of the World tells a story of zombie apocalypse in which China and the entire world struggle against a deadly virus.

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the popular genre of danmei developed exponentially. However, the ever-increasing formal and thematic sophistication of the genre was entangled with the ever-escalating commercialization and the ever-tightening state censorship. Under the dual pressure of the monetary extraction of media capital and the state’s moral censorship, authors represented by Priest and Feitian Yexiang have hybridized danmei with other popular genres, including those newly imported into China, such as steampunk and zombie apocalypse. These sci-fi genres may seem worlds apart, but they both endeavor to examine and refigure the social order. It is the nonrealist genre of sci-fi that helps to build a connection between homoerotic romance, deemed “illegitimate” by the government, and narratives of national salvation, arguably the central theme of modern Chinese literature.

When sci-fi and danmei join forces, they create a platform on which Chinese youth, or, more specifically, danmei authors and readers, tackle contemporary issues—that is, the rise of China and the rise of the individual, both inseparable from marketization and the strengthening of state power. The two novels under discussion strive for a broader configuration of the collective than can be found in the national community by retrieving the Confucian vision of tianxia (all under heaven). The ideal individual that both novels propose is neither marked by competition with the other nor disconnected from various collectives at the familial, local, national, and planetary levels. Revolution-plus-love has been rewritten, with the goal of revolution shifting from a sociocentric progress to a sustainable future for human and nonhuman peoples, while the center of love is no longer individual autonomy but the self’s ethical obligation to the other. Although the alternative imaginaries of these novels are not able to break away completely from the dominant discourses of state nationalism and neoliberal individualism, their radical visions are worthy of being excavated and pushed forward.