China’s Pluralistic Studies of English Science Fiction: Doctoral Dissertations as Examples

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 2

Symposium: Sinofuturisms

China’s Pluralistic Studies of English Science Fiction: Doctoral Dissertations as Examples

Chan Li

In globalized sf culture, sf in English has been dominant ever since the birth of modern sf in the 19th century. As a popular genre, sf development relies heavily and inevitably upon the marketplace, where academic studies would help explore and establish the values obscured by commercial shrouds. In the field of English-language sf study, Chinese scholars have published numerous significant papers, many of which are extracted or extended from their doctoral dissertations, which have got or would be published in book form, constituting in turn the major part of the book publishing in this field. And in terms of academic strength, in China Master’s theses are incomparable to doctoral dissertations, due to their different program requirements. The brief review of this paper thus focuses on doctoral dissertations, together with relevant academic books, as they stand out not only as crystallization of existing relevant research interests, but representing the most comprehensive and highest level of standards.

Searching science fiction or sf as the keyword in the ChinaInfo (万方) thesis database, the results are 293 Master’s theses, 12 doctoral dissertations and 1 post-doctoral report from 2001 to 2019. The results of the same word as the subject in the CNKI (中国国家知识基础设施) thesis database show that, from 1992 to 2019 there are 641 Master’s theses and 45 doctoral dissertations. The results combining these two major academic engines are by no means complete, as studies in Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan are not included, and even in the mainland some dissertations choose non-disclosure for up to 5 years upon submission, which means they could only be accessed via university internal libraries. For these inadequacies  in statistics, the survey tries to compensate with the author’s knowledge. Generally, studies of English sf in China involve scholars not only of English literature, but also of Chinese, art, and history, presenting an overall picture of interdisciplinary study, and highlighting the increasingly widened academic attention to the genre.

Studies on SF Translation

Among the search results, many have low or no relevance to the subject. For example, the earliest result of doctoral dissertations is the one by Wang Hongqi (王宏起) in 2002, which is a study of Mikhail Bulgakov’s writing, just mentioning there is influence from H. G. Wells’ books. The earliest dissertation with high relevance appears in 2006, details as below: [1]

This debut is not overdue, as the first doctoral dissertation on Chinese sf by Wang Weiying (王卫英) is completed in the same year. And translation study is a proper beginning, as sf appears in China first as Western import in the early 20th century. The dissertation takes a descriptive mode of translation studies, the main part including an introduction of the genre and its developmental phases in China, the case study of the translation of five sf stories, three being English, and their impact on the selection and translation of sf, and subsequently upon Chinese sf writing. The analysis centers on the socio-cultural, literary, and translation norms of different historical periods, confirming  the turn from linguistic to cultural approach in China’s translation studies since the late 1990s. During that period, some scholars have turned to the translation of Western popular fictions since the late Qing Dynasty and focused on the working of translation in the target culture, including Kong Huiyi (孔慧怡) from Hong Kong Chinese University, Yang Chengshu (杨承淑) from Fu Jen Catholic University, and Guo Jianzhong (郭建中) who has co-edited with James Gunn the Chinese six-volume The Road to Science Fiction (1997-1999) and published the monograph Translation of Popular Science Works and Science Fiction: Theory, Technique and Practice (2004). Guo is Jiang’s MA supervisor and one advisor of her Ph. D. dissertation.

Studies with Focus on SF Utopianism

As utopia, dystopia and anti-utopia are significant classic achievements in intellectual and literary history, quite a few dissertations have taken these angles to cut in sf studies, as listed below:

As Sargent identifies the three broad directions of utopianism as “utopian thought or philosophy, utopian literature, and the communitarian movements”(222), a lot of dissertations with the keyword utopia are theoretical studies of utopian philosophy, and even the literary study of Utopian Thought in Some British and American Fiction (2008) by Niu Hongying (牛红英) is actually a study of utopian thought in some classical non-sf writers, and thus they are not included in Table 2. Mai Jinghong’s dissertation, though included in the table, has weak relevancy to sf, as it interprets Morris’s work as a daily artistic theory.

Li Xiaoqing’s dissertation was completed several months earlier than Jiang Qian’s, but its focus is on establishing and sorting the British tradition of utopian literature, with no awareness of the overlapping and converging of sf and utopia. It mainly outlines the development and variation of this tradition, tracing its origin back to the ballad The Land of Cokeygne in the 14th century, and including not only many proto- and modern sf works, but many classical works like William Black’s poetry, Philip Sidney’s pastoral romance, and William Shakespeare’s drama into the tradition. For the representative works of eutopia, dystopia, critical utopia, and female utopia, it offers brief interpretations mainly in terms of their historical contexts.  

Ou Xiangying’s dissertation takes the feminist utopian sf in Europe and America between 1950s and 1990s as its subject, and its method is an integration of literary criticism and cultural studies with a focus on political critique aided by content and form analysis. After expounding how the second wave of feminism influenced utopian writing, and how feminist utopias reformed sf tradition, it goes to a systematic account of significant feminist utopias in terms of single-sex worlds, two-sex worlds, and feminist dystopias, and then sums up the views of science and ethics, political design, and female subjectivity in those feminist utopias. 

Gu Shaoyang discusses some utopian and anti-utopian literature, but the differences are simply relegated to the abstract opposites of ideal and reality, freedom and bondage, good and evil. Tan Yanhong studies the environmental narratives of Oryx and Crake, The Year of Flood, The Hunger Games and Uglies, all published in the 21st century in the US and Canada, and her approach is more a literary criticism than Ou’s with one focus upon the point-of-view narratives in those “dystopias.” Tan generally regards dystopian fiction as a subgenre of sf, but she equals dystopia to anti-utopia. About the notoriously controversial disagreement over the uses of utopia, dystopia and anti-utopia, etc., under the umbrella term utopianism, Yu Yunling and especially Wang Yiping have made detailed clarifications based on discussions of some prominent utopia scholars like Lyman Sargent, Darko Suvin, and Krishan Kumar, which makes their argumentation more solid and forceful. They both follow the specific definitions of the several textual forms of the literary utopia made by Sargent in his famous “The Three Faces of Utopianism Revisited” (1994), and hold that literary anti-utopia is a parody of utopia, depicting a nightmare world with utopian agenda put into practice, while dystopia is not necessarily a negative extension of the previous utopia. Accordingly, Wang regards Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as a dystopia, the same as Yu does, while classifying her Oryx and Crake, which Tan labels a dystopia, as an anti-utopia in the tradition set by Brave New World.

Wang Yiping’s dissertation aims to study anti-utopian literature as an independent tradition as she deems that in the 20th century it has become the mainstream imagination of the future, replacing utopia with its alerting attitude to “social progress.” In order to establish such a tradition, she first expounds the transition from utopia to anti-utopia, and defines the responses to the scientific and high-tech world state by H. G. Wells as tide-turning, then goes on to explore the multi-development of the basic themes established in the early 20th century. For literary studies as a whole, doctoral dissertations in China are usually combinations of historical, theoretical, and textual studies to different degrees, and the latter two approaches are foregrounded respectively by Wang’s and Yu Yunling’s dissertations. Wang finds that the anti-utopian writings are congruent with modern anti-utopian thought, and she draws upon the anti-utopian philosophy, political science and sociology of Karl Popper, F. A. Hayek, Isaiah Berlin, and J. L. Talmon for her fiction analysis. Yu Yunling focuses on the devices intended to achieve textual stability including allegories, authoritative text, monolithic text and patriarchal text, and the counteraction in the process of interpretation which ultimately leads to textual instability. Whilst Tan Yanhong makes use of narrative strategies in her textual analysis, Yu intends to explore some general narrative principles underlying utopian and dystopian writings, which is more narratology oriented. It is not accidental as Yu’s supervisor Qiao Guoqiang (乔国强) is a renowned scholar of narratology in China. 

Yu Yunling’s study represents one tendency in contemporary narratology studies, scholars in this field being increasingly interested in sf especially when addressing issues of postmodern narratives, world building, possible worlds, unnatural narratives and narratology itself. One example is David Wittenberg’s Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of the Narrative (2012), which argues that time travel fiction can be viewed as “a narratological laboratory,” literalizing many of the basic theoretical questions of storytelling (2). Among many reviews of this book, the renowned sf scholar Adam Roberts made several harsh but pertinent criticisms, one of which is that “Whilst Wittenberg engages with a good spread of primary texts, his knowledge of the secondary criticism of science fiction is thin,” since he positions Bellamy’s Looking Backward as the first time travel fiction, born of Darwinistic prognostication of utopian romances, but his Darwinian thesis “relates less to the ‘utopian’ and rather more to the ‘scientific romance’ mode of the late century” (732-733). Insufficiency in comprehensive knowledge of sf and its criticism, if I might say so not without prejudice, is not uncommon in some narrative studies of sf, as most of their concerns fall ultimately on narrative norms or theories, which likely results in using SF texts as simple exemplifications for their argumentation as well. [2] But still, such studies would benefit sf studies by offering different perspectives. 

Studies with Focus on Science and Technology Narratives in SF

The third type of English SF studies highlights science and technology narratives, as the following table shows:

Mu Yunqiu’s dissertation holds that sf could be regarded as a part of scientific activities because of extraterrestrial exploration constantly involving interstellar fictions, some astronomers having authored sf works, and some astronomical theories containing imaginary content from the 17th to the early 20th century. The underlying position of re-establishing a new history of science based on cultural narratives, is expanded in her postdoctoral report The Study of Science Fiction in the Perspective of the History of Science (2012), which focuses on the narratives about Mars and the Moon, and sf works on the journal Nature. Mu’s cultural perspective of science comes from her supervisor Jiang Xiaoyuan (江晓原), who has published Are We Ready: Science in Fantasies and Reality (2007) and co-authored with Mu A New History of Science: A Study of Science Fiction (2016). In terms of sf study, they explore major themes through the lens of scientific discourse construction.

Yu Zemei’s dissertation argues that cyberpunk fiction is the convergence of SF writing in a postmodernist context and a theoretical turn to body concern. Its five chapters deal with two major issues, the postmodernist characteristics of cyberpunk fiction, and the ideological change of human subjectivity and selfhood brought about by the hybrid fusion of body and technology. Its merit and demerit are equally noticeable. It is a hard-edged study with an extensive literature review of the academic scholarship on cyberpunk. In 2012, Fang Fan (方凡) of Zhejiang University also published a literary study on cyberpunk titled American Postmodern Science Fiction, which is relatively weak in its theoretical grounding compared with Yu’s dissertation. But alongside Yu’s acute observations, there exist some mistakes of negligence. For example, she makes the inaccurate statements “Science Fiction is the genre of technological impact,” and “Body starts occupying increasingly important status in SF since the 1950s” without supportive argument or notes (2-3). 

Guo Wen’s dissertation is quite lucid in language and thinking. She has noticed science and technology has changed the traditional definition of the human, but unlikeYu Zemei focusing on posthumanism and cyborgism, she is mainly concerned with the ethical reflections of technological alienation and human materialization in 16 sf works on cloning from Europe, America and Asia, including Never Let Me Go, Cloud Atlas, Brave New World, etc.. After elucidating the relationship and influence between the development of biotechnology, genetic engineering, and sf writing, her dissertation addresses three ethical situations: individual clones’  copy-of-the-origin status, group of human cloning with individual clones reduced to simulacra and signs, and the failure of utopias of human cloning to solve technological and ecological crises. Her main methodology is “ethical literary criticism”, a paradigm of literary criticism grounded in Western ethical criticism and Chinese moral criticism, first proposed by her doctoral supervisor Nie Zhenzhao (聂珍钊) in 2004. Recently Liu Xiaohua (刘晓华) of Cangzhou Normal University, has published Science and Technology Ethics in Anglo-American Science Fiction (2019), which discusses ethical problems in sf depictions of life intervention, cloning, cyberspace, robots, cyborgs, and the environment, on a much broader scale. 

Studies on Individual SF Writers

The fourth type of studies is on sf writings of individual writers. Among the search results, quite a few studies on George Orwell, William Golding, Kurt Vonnegut, Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood are not relevant to their sf writings. The below table shows the studies of high relevance to sf:

Studies on individual sf writers start with Ursula K. Le Guin, who has contributed admirably to the genre development, and who, far from denying connection to sf by some writers of similar literary prestige like Vonnegut and Atwood, had a deep sense of identification with the genre. In 1981, “The Dairy of the Rose” (1976) is translated in the namesake collection of sf short stories, and in 1982, an sf introductory anthology translated from the 1978 Japanese original includes introductions to the Earthsea trilogy and The Left Hand of Darkness. [3] During the 1990s, translations of her short stories and novel excerpts appear in the magazine Science Fiction World (《科幻世界》). The first full-length translations of her novels are in mainland China the Earthsea stories in Jan. 2004, and in Taiwan The Left Hand of Darkness Dec. 2004. Le Guin starts to attract academic attention in the late 1990s. Ye Dong’s doctoral supervisor Yang Renjing (杨仁敬) includes sf into classic literary history in A History of Twentieth-Century American Literature (1999), and offers a special part on Le Guin in the co-authored A Concise History of American Literature (2008) (Ye 16-17) .

Ye Dong and Liu Jing both take some sf and fantasy stories of Le Guin as their subjects, though Liu’s title calls it sf inaccurately. Both hold the basic claim that Taoism constitutes one constant influence on Le Guin’s thought and writing, and she is unique in using distinctly Western art forms to communicate primary tenets of Taoism, such as Non-action (无为),Mutual Generation (相生), Balance (均衡), Yin and Yang(阴阳). Liu discusses representations of Taoist influence from man-nature relation, political ideology, and individual life value, whilst Ye from gender relation, social collective relation, and human-nature relationship. Two out of three their discussions roughly overlap in terms of perspectives, but Ye Dong argues with more clarity and force, in that she consciously discusses Taoist influence in interaction with feminist sf, utopianism, and ecocriticism. And to further fortify her proposal, she adds a chapter on Le Guin’s translation of Tao Te Ching (《道德经》) against the background of the Western understanding of Taoism. 

Wang Shouren (王守仁), Cheng Jing’s doctoral supervisor, devotes a chapter to elucidate the contemporary development of popular literature such as western fiction, crime fiction, sf, and high-tech thriller in The New History of American Literature Vol. 4 (2002), where he mentions that Le Guin is one representative of the  New Wave Movement. This might be one reason for Cheng Jing to choose the subject, since research subjects usually have to be permitted or supported by supervisors. Compared with Ye Dong and Liu Jing, Cheng Jing limits her study to Le Guin’s sf writings, and proposes that Le Guin opposes techno-determinism, technophobia or misuse of technology and advocates for a Taoist deference to the natural development of technology. 

Doris Lessing is introduced and translated in China as early as in the 1950s, with full translations of Hunger (1953), The Grass is Singing (1950) and A Home for the Highland Cattle (1953) published respectively in 1955, 1956 and 1958, and academic study mainly starts in the early 1980s (Wang 172). There are 20 doctoral dissertations or so on her writings since 2005. 

All three in Table 4 focus on Lessing’s five space fictions. Tao Shuqin thinks, somewhat simplistically, that Lessing claims colonization as the real drive of and path to civilization, and the genre “Space Fiction” itself is also a failure, since historical narrative, critical realism, and science fiction are contradictory to one another. Zhang Qi also takes postcolonialism as her major approach, and interprets Lessing’s depiction of the colonial, the female and the diasporic Other as profound revealing of identity crises, which are influenced by her traumatic family experience, life in Africa and identification with Marxism. As she discovers, Lessing’s attention to S&T, her reading of sf works, and conscious adapting sf for social criticism, would explain why she writes those space fictions (180-181).

Generally, Zhang Qi reads those space stories mainly as reflections of power operation in politics, military affairs and culture in the 20th century, and this implicit interpretation strategy is clarified and defined by Yin Bei as allegorical metaphors, a position foregrounding and also conforming  the thought-experiment features of Lessing’s space fictions especially compared with her earlier writings. Yin Bei focuses on Lessing’s innovative use of sf for cultural and philosophical pondering over the historical interaction of language, cognition and reality, and accordingly she draws on the conceptual metaphor theories proposed by George Lakoff and others. Yin Bei goes deep to explore Lessing’s sophisticated thought-experiments. For example, after examining the two metaphoric paradigms on morality of “The Strict Father Model” and “The Nurturant Parent Model” in Chapter Three, she goes on in Chapter Four to analyze two overlapping but different rationalist ethical views derived from the first paradigm, namely, the Lamarckian Evolutionary Metaphor and the Social Darwinistic Evolution Metaphor. And she concludes that Lessing has revealed  some metaphoric paradigms once derived from concrete life experiences have become entrenched in subconsciousness and cultural norms.

Graduating together with Yin Bei, Li Chan mainly studies H. G. Wells’s sf  against the contemporary culture and the sf tradition. Her dissertation is built up on the basis of Wellsian studies, Western Marxist sf criticism, and literature and science studies, with the main body addressing the evolutionary imaginations in Wells’s sf, the historical isomorphic imaginations of anthropology and Wells’s sf, the two-dimensional depiction of the machines as the symbol of technology and that of mechanism, and the cultural development of Well’s dynamic utopia and its failure. One merit of her dissertation is that the textual analysis is embedded in the discussion of (pseudo-)scientific and cultural construction of evolution discourses and their transmutation into a diachronic model of progress.

Theoretical Studies of Sf

The fifth type is theoretical studies of or related to sf, with two dissertations as listed below:

Ran Dan’s research is a philosophical study, and it is included here as it could help to  understand  the broad context of related discussions. Ran thinks cyborgism has become one of the most influential cultural thoughts in Western academic circles, and it enters the field of posthumanism with its breaking of dualism and challenging of the ontological purity of human subject. The main body discusses the theories of Andrew Pickering, Donna Haraway, and N. Catherine Hayles with an attempt to establish an internal logical connection among them. He Xinye focuses solely on the sf poetics of Darko Suvin, as she finds Suvin is widely referred to but in China there is no in-depth and systematic expounding of his theories. Actually the first chapter of Li Chan’s dissertation interpretes three key concepts of Western Marxist SF study, namely, utopia, estrangement, and cognition, for which Suvin is the cardinal representative. Li’s discussion doesn’t enter He’s investigation, because, as explained earlier, the author chooses non-disclosure. One chapter might be sufficient for the study of Suvin’s theories in relation to sf writing, but it needs a full dissertation to establish its position in the related theoretical history. For example, one section of He’s dissertation is on Suvin’s continuation and development of the classical Marxist concept of cognition, truth and practice. 

In the aspect of theoretical study, Wu Yan (吴岩) has made significant contributions in spite of the fact that  his major concern is Chinese sf. Under his national research project, he has organized the translation of sf theories by Suvin, Brian Aldiss, and Isaac Asimov, and published Literary Theories and Discipline Construction of Science Fiction (2008) and An Outline Study of Science Fiction (2011). The first book offers a comprehensive review of basic theories, critical perspectives and practices, teaching methods and resources of sf study, and the second studies major sf groups of different identities and argues the genre’s legitimacy arises from its cultural marginality.

In this brief survey of doctoral dissertations and related books on English sf in China, we can find the overall research evolves with increasing force. With profound and innovative studies along with some mistakes and limits, what could be strengthened, in the author’s view, is first studies of more significant sf writers. The present studies all engage in those writers canonized in mainstream literary history, but it will take time to expand the scope. Secondly, sf narratives of S&T could be further explored based on more pertinent  theoretical study. For in the contemporary techno-scientific world, S&T is no longer restricted to laboratories or factories, but in Bruce Sterling’s words, pervasive and utterly intimate (xiii), and sf is almost the only genre of abiding interest in S&T embedded in value-loaded social life. Besides, with such studies, the academic stereotype of sf as minor and idiosyncratic might get dispelled.

Academic study is never independent of its institutionalization, as shown here by how Jiang Qian, Yu Yunling, Mu Yunqiu, Guo Wen, Ye Dong and Cheng Jing were guided or inspired by their supervisors in their writing. Most of the doctors discussed in the paper have gained the positions of associate professor or professor at universities, and are supervising graduate students now. With years of intensive research on sf for their dissertations, they have laid a sound foundation in the field and most probably developed genuine devotion to the genre. With these advantages, a promising future of study might be reasonably expected.


[1] For the dissertations and books discussed, I follow their original English titles or translate the Chinese when there are no English ones.

[2] Another typical example is Jan Alber’s Unnatural Narrative: Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama (2016). According to Alber, the unnatural narrative in sf becomes “a bona fide concern,” different from the postmodernist “illusion-breaking” unnatural narrative, and the conventionalized sf impossibilities could be explained “through technological progress or simply by associating them with a potential future.” See Jan Alber. Unnatural Narrative: Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama. University of Nebraska Press, 2016, pp. 42-43, p. 107.

[3] See Shao Bo (邵柏) and Fu Shen (符申) eds. Meigui Riji 玫瑰日记 [The Diary of Rose]. Chongqing Branch of Science and Technology Literature Press, 1981, pp.1-30; Takashi Ishikawa, Norio Ito eds. Shijie zhuming kexue huanxiang xiaoshuo xuanjie 世界著名科学幻想小说选介 [An Introductory Anthology of World’s Science Fantasy Masterpieces]. Trans. Gao Qiming (高启明), Pan Liben (潘力本), Wang Lian’an (王连安), Shan Yang (山杨), Su Zhengxu (苏正绪), Jilin People’s Press, 1982, pp. 204-208, pp.341-345. This information is gained from Wang Wen (王文), a big sf fan, who is currently building a comprehensive Chinese sf database.


Roberts, Adam. “Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of the Narrative.” Textual Practice, vol. 28, no. 4, 2014, pp. 730-734.

Sargent, Lyman Tower. “The Three Faces of Utopianism.” Minnesota Review, vol.7, no. 4, 1967, pp. 222-230.

Sterling, Bruce. “Preface.” Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, edited by Bruce Sterling, Ace Books, 1986. 

Wang, Jiaqi (王嘉琦). Duolisi laixin zuopin de fanyi ji yanjiu zongshu多丽丝·莱辛作品的翻译及研究综述 [“A Brief Review of Translation and Research of Doris Lessing”]. Heilongjiang shizhi [《黑龙江史志》], no. 21, 2013, pp. 172-173.

Wittenberg, David. Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of the Narrative. Fordham University Press, 2012.

Ye, Dong. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Quest for Tao in Her Science Fiction and Fantasy World. Xiamen University Press, 2017.

Yu, Zemei (余泽梅). Saibopengke kehuan wenhua yanjiu—yi shenti wei shijiao 赛博朋克科幻文化研究——以身体为视角 [“The Culture of Cyberpunk Science Fiction—A Study from the Perspective of Body”]. Diss., Sichuan University, 2011.

Zhang, Qi (张琪). Lun duolisi laixin taikong xiaoshuo zhong de wenhua shenfen tanxun论多丽丝·莱辛太空小说中的文化身份探寻 [“On Cultural Identity in Doris Lessing’s Space Fictions”]. Diss., Xiangtan University, 2014.

Li, Chan, Ph. D. of English language and literature, associate professor at College of Foreign Languages and Cultures of Sichuan University, China. Her research interests include modern and contemporary literature, literary theories and sf study. She has published “The Utopian Vision of the Marxist Science Fiction Criticism” (2013), “On the Characteristics of the Unnatural Narrative in Science Fiction” (2018), Estranged Cognition: A Study of H. G. Wells’s Science Fiction (2019), and “The Rise of Techno-culture Criticism in SF Theories” (2021). 

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