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This section outlines the role that Chinese film & literature broadly and science fiction more specifically play in negotiating Chinese modernity. Again, I suggest it as background for instructors to use as necessary in class.
Chinese Film & Literature
The reform of Chinese literature, and in turn, the reform of Chinese people through enlightened literature, was one of the key projects of Chinese intellectuals in the late Qing and Republican periods. In 1902, the late Qing reformer Liang Qichao proclaimed: “If one intends to renovate the people of a nation, one must first renovate its fiction” (Liang 74). In 1917, four years before he co-founded the Chinese Communist Party, Chen Duxiu embraced literary revolution: “Since we now want to reform our politics, we cannot by necessity ignore the reformation of the literature that has a hold on the spiritual world of those wielding political power” (Chen 145). China’s most well-known author, Lu Xun, famously decided to abandon his medical studies in Japan and become a writer instead, undertaking a project to call a sleeping nation “to arms.”
Writers debated strategies and devoted their creative energies to produce a literary style adequate to represent Chinese reality as empires fell and new nations were established. Chinese literary figures experimented with romanticism, realism, modernism, and finally, a version of socialist realism adopted from the USSR. Chairman Mao himself extolled the value of literature to revolution, calling for the creation of a literature for and of the people in a famous speech given in Yan’an, the wartime seat of the communist government, in 1942. When the new People’s Republic was founded, communist leadership continued to debate the most appropriate literary forms, striving ultimately to encourage “literature that the people love.” Indeed, rather than espousing an entirely didactic tone, socialist period literature engaged with popular folk forms and was often surprisingly entertaining. Echoes of the popular pulpy literature of the pre-socialist era, full of intrigue and adventure, espionage and martial arts, can be heard in the revolutionary popular novels, comics, and films that entertained the socialist masses.
The social uses of Chinese cinema were likewise hotly debated. A vibrant film culture arose in Shanghai, China’s most international and cosmopolitan city. Left-wing politics mixed with entertainment genres. Cinema palaces showed foreign films and film journals mesmerized their readers with stories and images of Hollywood starts alongside those of homegrown celebrities. Many early Chinese films (pre-1949), as well informative video essays by Prof. Christopher Rea, can be found in translation on the Modern Chinese Cultural Studies YouTube page. Crows and Sparrows (1949), the story of a group of tenants in a Shanghai townhouse on the eve of liberation, is a particularly interesting “transitional” film that heralds the beginning of a new moment in Chinese history. At the end of the film, the Nationalist officer who had exerted his authority over the home flees the city (presumably to Taiwan) in anticipation of the communist forces’ arrival.
With the founding of the new nation in 1949, cultural authorities prioritized filmmaking and film exhibition, building a network of mobile film units to ensure that even those in rural China would watch properly revolutionary films. As with socialist period literature, socialist cinema, obviously quite propagandistic, likewise strove to engage audiences with compelling visuals and engaging stories. During the Cultural Revolution, cinematic production was greatly reduced and focused primarily on “model operas,” films based on stage performances of great revolutionary epics. By the reform era of the 1980s, however, the film industry began to prioritize entertainment cinema. Meanwhile, a group of avant garde directors known as the “Fifth Generation” produced a radically different art cinema that interrogated the mythology of the Chinese state and caught the attention of Western auteurs. In the 1990s, another group, loosely known as the “Sixth” or “Urban Generation” produced films independently of state-owned film studios and employed documentary realism to show life in China’s quickly growing postsocialist cities. The art films of the 1980s and 1990s are well known to film festival audiences but enjoy relatively less commercial success in China; they generally appeal more narrowly to cinephiles. While film censorship is also a Chinese reality, it is important not to overstate the power of the government to control all cultural consumption. The internet helps immensely in the circulation of sensitive material and many Chinese netizens are expert at navigating limitations, often devising ingenious solutions to government restrictions.
In theaters, domestic Chinese audiences enjoy a broad repertoire of films, including comedies, action movies, thrillers, romantic comedies, and historical epics made by private companies (often in collaboration with Hong Kong). Television production is likewise diverse; programs originating in provincial TV studios (as opposed to the China Central Television) are often quite edgy. Since the mid 2000s, China has also produced an increasing number of domestic theatrical blockbusters, including, of course, 2019’s The Wandering Earth. While some high-profile films are made explicitly as “main melody films,” that is propagandistic epics sponsored by the Chinese state, the “main melody” concept can apply more loosely to films produced by private film companies that embrace values of patriotism and government messaging. The Wandering Earth is one such film, not explicitly made at the directive of the Chinese Communist Party, but promoted by state media as China’s “first sci fi blockbuster” that represents Chinese values and technological prowess in a positive and responsible way. Indeed, the genre of science fiction in both film and literature has taken on an important role in the messaging of Chinese progress and China’s future role in the world.
Science Fiction & China in Space
The first wave of Chinese science fiction emerged with the crisis of modernity in the early 20th century. Authors concerned with the potential ruin of their nation used the genre to imagine new technologies and future utopias where China was no longer “behind” the West but at the forefront of technological innovation. A jump into the future allowed writers to work through anxieties about the present and imagine possibilities of national revival through the embrace of modern technologies and ideas. Many science fiction works bristled against colonialism and struggled to imagine ways out of the geopolitics of imperialism. In contrast to the Soviet Union, where the science fiction tradition was strongly associated with leftist politics, however, science fiction did not take center stage in Chinese socialist literature. Translations of science fiction from the USSR did make their way into China, regaling readers with fantastic stories of outer space in the 1950s. The next significant wave of Chinese science fiction literature happened in the early 1980s, a period during which the energies of reform suggested new futures and Chinese writers exercised the possibilities of science and technology to imagine what a future China might look like. One example of such early 80s futurology is Ye Yonglie’s Little Smarty Travels to the Future, a children’s book adapted as a popular comic (available in translation here).
The true renaissance of Chinese science fiction, however, is a more recent phenomenon. Liu Cixin, author of the novella on which The Wandering Earth is based, shot to international fame with his Three Body Trilogy, for which he received the Hugo Prize in 2015. While the development of 1980s science fiction was foreclosed due to government critique during a political campaign designed to curb “spiritual pollution” in 1983, the current wave of Chinese science fiction works somewhat in tandem with the state. Molly Silk explains: “the increased connection between science fiction creators and state organs gives rise to conditions in which new works are expected to promote elements of the regime’s official narrative on China’s technological developments and capabilities.” According to Silk, science fiction is a genre particularly useful in managing a perceived “China Threat,” i.e., the idea that China’s rise threatens the balance of power in the existing world order, a unipolar world helmed by the United States.
Given the relative decline of NASA’s Space Program, for example, China’s robust space development agenda suggests the Chinese may enjoy an advantage in space exploration and resource extraction (e.g., outer space rare earth mining). With the launch of the science and technology development program, Project 863 in the mid 1980s, in part as a response to Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, as well as the manned space flight Project 921 that began in 1992, the Chinese state has invested steadily in space technology. Science fiction in turn, portrays “space capabilities and the role of the Chinese astronauts in global affairs that are favoured by Chinese officials” (Silk). Unlike Liu Cixin’s original novella, whose depiction of “sinofuturity” (i.e., a Chinese future) is ambivalent at best, Silk argues that the film The Wandering Earth was particularly successful because its “sociopolitical imaginary” accords with a state technological developmental narrative that is likewise attractive to Chinese audiences. For more on the Chinese space program, see this timeline produced by the New York Times.
This film guide was developed by Julia Keblinska, The Ohio State University and is available online for classroom use worldwide. All the film guides can be accessed at EASC's Film Guide page.