Images of Alternative Chinese Futures: Critical Reflections on the “China Dream” in Chen Qiufan’s “The Flower of Shazui”

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)

Images of Alternative Chinese Futures: Critical Reflections on the “China Dream” in Chen Qiufan’s “The Flower of Shazui”

Frederike Schneider-Vielsäcker
Freie Universität Berlin / Germany

Since the late Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Chinese science fiction (SF) literature has been a reflection of intellectuals’ expectations, dreams and, lately, also fears of the Chinese future. Contemporary Chinese SF authors not only explore the complex reality of twenty-first century China, but also critically comment on official visions and policy guidelines such as the “China Dream” (Zhongguo meng 中国梦). Consequently, they have taken the genre to the next level which is, according to Song Mingwei, “more sophisticated, reflective, and subversive in terms of mixed representations of hope and despair, utopianism and its dystopian reflection, and nationalism and cosmopolitanism” (“After 1989” 8). David Der-wei Wang describes this hybrid form of narration as “heterotopia,” thus adapting Foucault’s concept to Chinese SF (“Utopia”). Based on the literary quality and narrative techniques of contemporary Chinese SF authors which, in a way, resemble the Anglo-American SF tradition of the 1960s, Song has termed this new generation of SF writers the Chinese “new wave” (8).

This paper discusses the short story “The Flower of Shazui” (Shazui zhi hua 沙嘴之花, 2012) by Chen Qiufan (陈楸帆, b. 1981) which can be linked to president Xi Jinping’s (习近平, b. 1953) political program and his vision of realizing the “China Dream.” I argue that, in consequence of a recent increase in domestic and international readership as well as large-scale media attention, SF literature extensively circulates challenging alternative images of the Chinese future that are demystifying the state’s grand narrative of a flourishing China.

Since his inauguration in 2012, president Xi Jinping has defined the “China Dream” as the generic national dream. His great vision includes every Chinese individual, since he regards it as “the shared hope and expectation of every Chinese” (Lin)1—thus making it a collective dream. Xi further emphasized that the “China Dream” is to “achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and has given assurances that a more just distribution of wealth could be achieved by 2021, the 100th anniversary of the CCP (Lin). In so doing, he has employed a powerful political metaphor for China’s future as a global superpower that had already been on people’s minds since at least the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which campaigned under the slogan, “One World One Dream” (Tong yige shijie tong yige mengxiang 同一个世界同一个梦想) (Barmé 7–8). The nation-wide propagation of the “China Dream” has generated a controversial public dialogue among Chinese netizens calling for political reform and media freedom (Barmé 9–12; Bandurski).

Contemporary Chinese SF authors are expanding this discussion of the dream’s potential risks. For example, Chen Qiufan states that “[b]etween the feeling of individual failure and the conspicuous display of national prosperity lies an unbridgeable chasm” (“The Torn” 373). Most of his narrations are set in the near future and focus on China in an era of economic and social transition. For illustrating everyday life in a realistic way and getting to the bottom of people’s complex innermost being, his writing style is regarded as “Science Fiction Realism” (Kehuan xianshi zhuyi 科幻现实主义) (He). By criticizing global capitalism and social issues (e.g. income inequalities), Chen’s images of alternative Chinese futures send out a warning to his readers. His unique and sophisticated aesthetics satirically visualize China’s rapid modernization as something that is already leaving irreversible marks on the bodies and souls of the Chinese people—the metaphor of body modifications is used to address society’s corruption caused by increasing commercialization. Hence, Chen’s works are characteristic of the Chinese “new wave” writers.

Recent scholarship highlights the fact that contemporary Chinese SF stories reveal a hidden reality and can be interpreted in the context of the “China Dream” (Conn; Rojas, 39; Song, “Representations” 560; Schneider-Vielsäcker 59–60). In addition, scholars have emphasized the cultural and political implications of contemporary Chinese SF (Healey; Li; Luo; Song, “After 1989”, “Variations”; Y. Wang). Building on this research, I seek to answer how Chen’s SF writings assess the “China Dream” and what kinds of alternative images they provide. By reading his short story “The Flower of Shazui” (2012) in comparison to the state’s official vision, I demonstrate the existing tensions between the grand narrative of the “China Dream” and Chen’s alternative.

Living in an Illusion of Social Happiness

The downsides of China’s large-scale urbanization are disclosed in the short story “The Flower of Shazui” (Shazui zhi hua 沙嘴之花, 2012)2 by Chen Qiufan. This story critically reflects urban life in the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) of Shenzhen and the gap between rich and poor that is omnipresent in post-reform Chinese society. Focusing on low-income earners, Chen gives a voice to those unheard by the official narrative. The main characters are mostly ordinary people living in Shazui, a former village which today is part of Shenzhen’s urban area. The unnamed first person narrator is a former engineer with a secret past who sells the latest technology. We become acquainted with his landlady Miss Shen (沈) who, like many people in Shazui, depends on working multiple jobs to be able to afford the basic standard of living. Finally, we are also introduced to the narrator’s neighbor and love interest, Snow Lotus (Xuelian 雪莲), who is a sex worker.

This near-future story portrays the real development of Shenzhen since the 1980s. However, it is enriched with fictional elements to create an image showing the negative developments that reality could possibly lead to. In the wake of economic reforms and the opening up of China, the SEZ of Shenzhen was established in 1980 (Yuan et al. 55). Urbanization brought construction sites everywhere, thus the former fishing village expanded to one of the fastest growing global cities in China and functioned as its first “open door” to the international market (Morssink). Over the years, Shenzhen has developed into a hub for China’s high-tech industries (Yuan et al. 62). This transformation attracted many migrant workers. In order to relieve border controls between Hong Kong and mainland China, a 2.8 meter high fence was built and divided the city into two worlds: “the inside” (guannei 关内, i.e. the SEZ) and “the outside” (guanwai 关外). The latter is described by the protagonist as “wilderness” (manhuang 蛮荒)—a part of Shenzhen that is not only characterized by its low-income population but also by criminals who rule the streets (Chen, “Shazui” 29). The fictional fence can be understood as a literary trope for the gap between rich and poor in Chinese society.

A negative perception of urbanization is expressed by employing the trope of cancer cells and by means of exaggeration. Living within the enclosed area himself, the narrator describes the rapid development from his point of view: “I imagine these buildings growing as fast as cancer cells into the form they have today” (25). The skyscrapers leave so little space in between that neighbors are able to shake hands (25). Moreover, the real estate market grows rapidly, leading to a daily rent increase of even small and dark apartments (26). The negative effects of urbanization are strongly emphasized by comparing urbanization processes with invasive cancer, where the malignant tumor rapidly spreads into neighboring healthy tissues, which eventually could cause death. Since cancer is a disease (involving the abnormal growth of endogenous cells) that destroys the body from the inside, the trope implies that it is a home-grown problem that can be traced back to the period of “reform and opening-up” (gaige kaifang 改革开放), and that China’s continuous striving for economic development will eventually have fatal consequences.

As the location of Shenzhen is a symbol of China’s rise, the strongest trope in this story is that of the “Shenzhen Dream,” which is “high-tech, high salary, high-resolution, high life, high Shenzhen” (25). The “Shenzhen Dream” can be directly linked to the “China Dream,” providing an example where this dream is already lived. Everywhere in the city, the protagonist sees an “illusory sense of satisfaction” on people’s faces and calls it the “Shenzhen expression“—even politicians appearing on TV have it (28). In the story, society experiences the dream through everything money can buy: high-end luxury goods such as Louis Vuitton bags, sex with beautiful women, consumption of aphrodisiacs, or seeing the fortune-teller. In addition, the metaphor of body modifications is used to visualize society’s moral degeneration caused by the increasing commercialization. The residents of Shenzhen all aspire to earn a lot of money, and the display of social status has become street culture. Using the latest technology of “body films” applied to their skin, the wearers are able to show off their personality, daring, and sex appeal to others (26). The protagonist was once just like them, but the disenchantment of reality made him wake up from the dream, leaving him with a feeling of emptiness: “my heart is like a dead pool of water“ (32). This metaphor suggests that Xi Jinping’s maxim is nothing but a hollow promise to legitimize the country’s communist leadership and that in the long run there will be no decisive changes towards social equality. Like the “China Dream,” the “Shenzhen Dream” is supposed to give people satisfaction, but in fact, Chen’s narrative reveals it to be a mere distraction from the dark truth. The dream—be it the “Shenzhen Dream” or the “China Dream”—turns out to be a placebo effect as both the city’s residents and Chinese politicians all live in an illusion of happiness: “In this city, everyone needs some placebo” (28).

Ultimately, the story gives an example of what might happen when Chinese people wake from the “China Dream” and, upon realizing that the leadership only uses empty rhetoric, feel a sense of deep sadness. Death is presented as the only option to escape “reality’s battlefield,” since the ostensible joy of living the dream actually fades after a short while (26). This manifests in Snow Lotus’ bitter fate. The protagonist’s neighbor is afraid to tell her husband that she is pregnant because he might beat her like he did in the past. However, after being encouraged by both Miss Shen and the narrator, she tells him anyway (32). Not believing that the child is his, he threatens her with a knife. As a result of lifelong unhappiness, Snow Lotus eventually kills her furious husband in an act of despair and attempts suicide. According to Luo Xiaoming, descriptions of the city in contemporary Chinese SF, in this case Shenzhen, “bring to light harbored feelings of helplessness, cynicism and even self-justification upon realization that their ideas and/or opinions cannot be realized and that, ultimately, they cannot change the status-quo” (595). “Death is the best placebo,” the narrator concludes sarcastically, while the police are arresting Snow Lotus, regretting that he was not able to help her (35). By associating the “China Dream” with death—as “China Dream” equals placebo and placebo equals death—the text highlights the potential risks of the CCP’s political tool.

In summary, this story depicts the losers of China’s rapid development and the alternative image shows how these individuals struggle at the margins of society in Shenzhen. In contrast to the state’s grand narratives, “The Flower of Shazui” does not present a typical success story as dreams turn out to be dangerous illusions.

Coda: From State Utopia to Nightmarish Alternatives

Contrary to the determined future that is controlled by the government, “The Flower of Shazui” provides an alternative look into a possible Chinese future. The story points out the negative consequences of China’s rapid urbanization on society and highlights the helplessness of ordinary Chinese individuals as the main characters are permeated with unhappiness. The central motifs of the story are the gap between rich and poor and death as a consequence of China’s rapid urbanization or as an escape out of reality’s misery. According to an interview, Chen draws his inspiration from his own experiences and environment (Liu). When observing the people from his generation, he senses “a feeling of exhaustion about life and anxiety for success” (“The Torn” 373). Instead of a “shared hope” for the future propagated by the “China Dream,” Chen perceives that “the burdens on their shoulders grow heavier year after year and their dreams and hopes are fading” (373).

My analysis suggests that, in the shadow of the optimistic “China Dream” narrative, a social discourse nurtured by critical voices, one that includes Chen Qiufan, exists. “The Flower of Shazui” challenges the state’s grand narrative by deconstructing the collective dreamscape. The story further dismantles the myth around economic growth which is, according to Song (“Variations” 91), a characteristic of contemporary Chinese SF. Through Chen’s narrative, representations of Chinese dreams are transformed from official utopian visions to nightmarish alternatives. The alerting message is further highlighted by employing a cynical language, giving his narrator an angry voice, and by using powerful literary tropes that convey its political implications—the located dream as Shenzhen, the trope of death, and the dream as a placebo for social happiness. The story can therefore be read as a satire of Xi Jinping’s maxim. Positive notions of the official “China Dream” narrative such as the hope of an ever-bright Chinese future are clearly undermined by the alternative images Chen creates. Like malignant cancer cells, China’s unbalanced model of economic growth equals a death sentence for many people. In the meantime, they are sedated with a placebo to sustain the harmonious society.


1. All translations of Chinese primary texts are my own. When translating the cited passages from “The Flower of Shazui,” the English translation of Ken Liu has been considered. I honor his literary translations; however, I decided to do my own translation. Please note that my aim is rather to analyze the original texts and therefore to provide a literal translation instead of a literary translation.

2. Ken Liu’s English translation first appeared in Interzone in 2012 and was later included in his anthology Invisible Planets (2016), see Chen (“The Flower”). A bilingual reprint was issued online in Strange Horizons (2017).


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Chinese Science Fiction: A Genre of Adversity

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)

Chinese Science Fiction: A Genre of Adversity

Yen Ooi
Royal Holloway, University of London / UK

Most, if not all Chinese science fiction scholars will agree on two things; that the current form of science fiction from China can be traced back to a starting point in 1989 that “signaled the arrival of a new wave in Chinese science fiction” (Song 8); and that the science fiction genre is originally a Western genre,1 in that “Science, technology, and modernization are not characteristic of Chinese culture” (Han 20). In accepting these two points, we can start to recognise that Chinese science fiction is a genre that was born in crisis and continues to grow through hardship—it is a genre of adversity.

In China, science fiction isn’t a mainstream genre, but is growing, and getting recognition in part due to the international limelight that it has received over the last few years. The relationship between the Western genre and its Chinese writers have inadvertently brought science fiction from China together with science fiction by Chinese diaspora writers, led by Asian-American writers.

The culmination of Chinese science fiction by writers from China and diaspora writers created a genre that highlights a duality, of “Chinese-ness” and the (Western) science fiction genre itself. All writers who delve into this form of cultural literature must navigate both, and both come with their own baggage. 

Chinese science fiction started to receive notable attention in the West, especially in the United Kingdom and America, when Liu Cixin, “The most prominent and popular SF writer of the recent renaissance” (Han 17) won the Hugo Award in 2015 for The Three-Body Problem. It was the first translated novel to do so, and it is crucial to note that the translator was the Chinese-American writer Ken Liu, who, a few years before, had earned his own Hugo Award (2012) and a Nebula Award (2011) for his short story, “The Paper Menagerie.” Ken Liu’s achievements are important to note here because with them, he rallied his fans in China by being “the second Chinese-American after Ted Chiang to win major SF awards in the United States” (Han 15). Both these writers created a desire for more Chinese science fiction in China, Europe and America. They had set the stage for their colleagues to follow.

This new wave in Chinese science fiction as described by Professor Song, “is more sophisticated, reflective, and subversive in terms of mixed representation of hope and despair, utopianism and its dystopian reflection, and nationalism and cosmopolitanism” (8) making the genre the “cultural currency of contemporary Chinese literature as the most accurate lens through which to view and truly understand China” (Chau 113).

However, despite this cultural currency, Chinese science fiction isn’t a natural development in Chinese literature. Han Song sees the values of science fiction (which he characterises as: science, technology, and modernization) to be alien entities to writers from China. “If we [writers from China] buy into them, we turn ourselves into monsters, and that is the only way we can get along with Western notions of progress” (Han 20). He also suggests that “science fiction is perceived as inconsequential [in China] because it is unable to solve real-life problems. And the government can step in if it seems that the genre has gone too far conceptually” (Han 21). This means that science fiction writers in China are outsiders to the genre, dabbling in a Western concept only so far as it is not seen as a threat by their own government.

This duality that writers in China have to work with isn’t new to Chinese diaspora writers internationally. They have been writing with this duality, by choosing to include their personal cultural experiences in stories that still fit the expectations of the science fiction genre. Whether the works are written in English, or translated from Chinese to English, writers and translators alike are aware of the cultural imbalance global literature presents, where “Educated Chinese readers are expected not only to know about all the Chinese references—history, language, culture, all this stuff—but to be well-versed in Western references as well. A Chinese reader can decode an American work with far greater facility than an American reader can decode a Chinese work, on average” (Pandell).

Han Song’s comment above came from a paper published in 2013, since when “in 2016, China’s State Council announced a four-year plan for promoting scientific literacy among its citizens, including a step-by-step process for popularizing science through the production of SF.” Writers in China are encouraged to inspire teenagers with their quality writing, and “to popularize scientific learning and to contribute to China’s status as a world technology power” (Chau 115). This doesn’t remove the problem that Han Song had noted. However, it constituted an official endorsement of the need for China to participate in the production of science fiction, of ‘Western progress.’ Looking back, the four-year plan can probably be deemed successful, as Chinese science fiction (notably through works by Liu Cixin and Ken Liu) began to attract new and more influential readers internationally, not least Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg both of whom endorsed Liu Cixin’s trilogy in 2017 (Frank). This coincided with a time when China started to be more active in cultural exportation (Sun). According to some critics, genre fiction (including science fiction), finds itself at a considerable advantage in reshaping cultural mediascape after all. (Chau 123)

This exportation of Chinese science fiction, a modern genre reflecting China’s growing role in the world economy, is best viewed in conjunction with a broader process of cultural commodification, or as modern Chinese literature scholar Angie Chau sees it, a process of cultural deterioration (113) in Chinese literature, where “the Chinese had suddenly discovered that books, even literary works, could be treated as commodities to be mass produced, advertised, and sold for profit” (Kong 4). As the world started to get to know China more through Chinese science fiction, China started to experience a change in their own cultural production, as literary journals—a crucial cog to the publishing industry in China in the past—moved from being socialist state-sponsored institutions to market-oriented cultural enterprises. As the older journals learn to grapple with the market economy (locally and then internationally), they also meet new competition from popular and genre fiction journals, triggering the contention between high and low art in Chinese literature production. And typically, science fiction—as genre fiction—is considered a popular, low art.

The drastic turns in Chinese literature reflect what writer Chen Qiufan calls the “drastic transformation and fracture between different social forms.” Chen explains that in a hundred years, China’s progression rate outmatched any of the progress from the West that took over centuries to complete. “From the late Qing dynasty to the Republic of China, to the founding of the People’s Republic of China, to learning from the Soviet Union, to the reform and opening up, every stage lasted only about a few decades” (Sun).

The West, with American media at its forefront responded to this whirlwind progress by presenting their anxieties through “techno-Orientalism”: “the phenomenon of imagining Asia and Asians in hypo- or hyper-technological terms in cultural productions and political discourse” —of “an ‘Orient’ undergoing rapid economic and cultural transformations” (Roh et al. 2 & 3). As Chinese writers, from mainland China and internationally, continue to grapple with the duality of writing Chinese-ness with (Western) science fiction, they’re also, unknowingly, having to tackle concepts of techno-Orientalism in their own writing, a “danger that Asian and Asian American creators might internalize techno-Orientalist patterns and uncritically replicate the same dehumanizing model” (Roh et al. 7).

Chen Qiufan has also argued that “There is something very science fictional and fantastic about this very drastic social transformation. At the foundation, the soil of rural China is still there, not thoroughly washed away. This has led to the co-existence of many different layers of society, which science fiction is best suited to present” (Sun). Though the larger situation in which China finds itself can be reflected within Chinese science fiction, it remains the case (as with Han Song’s comment about Western progress and concepts, noted above), the lens in which we look at China and Chinese science fiction, is unfortunately, Western-tinted. This creates the inevitable encounter with techno-Orientalist aesthetics.

Though this will not be discussed in detail in this paper, it can be noted that this discourse is problematic in itself, for it assumes that concepts of science, technology, and modernization belongs wholly to the West, and that any contact it has with East Asia are Orientalist in nature (whether Orientalist, post-Orientalist, or techno-Orientalist). Here, the techno-Orientalist discourse falls into the same postcolonial rhetoric from which it declares itself attempting to break out, by assuming that because Chinese is the ethnic culture in the equation, that when it comes in contact with the West, it loses its nativism, while the Western body gains in knowledge. Rey Chow describes this post-colonialist attribute as one where “the values involved are hierarchically determined and tend to work in one direction only: the original, so to speak, exists as the sole, primary standard by which the copy is judged, but not vice versa; the white man, and the white man alone, is authentic” (Chow 104).

However, going back to the opening statement of this paper: since most Chinese science fiction writers and scholars agree with the fact that science fiction, at least, is a Western genre, it can be argued that Chinese science fiction, in struggling with techno-Orientalist developments in the (Western) science fiction genre, begins to develop techno-Occidentalist tendencies to compensate. In this scenario techno-Occidentalism becomes Chinese science fiction’s strategy to decolonise its use of the Western genre and concepts. While techno-Orientalism “serve to both express and assuage Western anxieties about Asia’s growing cultural influence and economic dominance” (Roh et al. Summary), techno-Occidentalism is Asia’s response to these anxieties through demonstrating a rich diversity in its membership.

Liu Cixin and Ken Liu, as writers, prefer to project a non-political image. While they are invested in promoting the genre of SF, they have been known to attempt to dissuade readers from the notion that there is something inherently ‘Chinese’ about their writing (Chau 127). Liu Cixin says he prefers “Anglophone science fiction fans to read his books ‘because it’s science fiction, not because it’s ‘Chinese’ science fiction’” (Chau 126), and in the introduction in his 2016 anthology, Invisible Planets, Ken Liu questions what kind of meaningful purpose the label of ‘Chinese science fiction’ can serve, given the incredible diversity of the works and their authors” (Liu 16). This precisely emphasizes the fact that Chinese science fiction’s image is a problem when other writers, like Han Song, are happy to affirm Chinese science fiction’s position, noting that “Present-day sf authors have touched on a wide variety of subjects and added noticeable Chinese colors to the genre” (Han 17). Ken Liu’s anthology also includes a paper by Xia Jia entitled “What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?” a curious book-end to his opening remark that draws readers’ attention to the issue of ‘China and Chinese-ness’ in Chinese science fiction.

Interestingly, what Ken Liu, Liu Cixin, Han Song, Xia Jia, and other Chinese science fiction writers are trying to grasp in their tug-of-war on the term Chinese is precisely the impossible notion that Chinese-ness can be understood on its own, or that China can be represented clearly as a nation apolitically and without involving its diaspora. The word ‘Chinese’ has too many meanings—nationality, culture, language, ethnicity, even food. And when we consider that “retention of Chinese cultural heritage is important” (Wei 177) to life in the diaspora, we start to see how problematic this question of ‘Chinese-ness’ can become. If we consider as well that the duality Chinese science fiction writers have to manage is similar to that of the diaspora, are they then trying to simply justify their own fixations of Chinese culture, whatever that may be?

This assertion of culture is the techno-Occidentalist impulse that Xia Jia describes, where: “the Chinese had to wake up from their five-thousand-year-old dream of being an ancient civilization and start to dream of becoming a democratic, independent, prosperous modern nation-state” (Xia 378). It is the realisation that the shape of what ‘Chinese’ means is different today, despite an unbroken history of five millennia, and requires advocacy.

In Chen Qiufan’s novel, The Waste Tide (originally published 2013; published in English, in Ken Liu’s translation, in 2019), the monster, Mimi, and the book itself, were both born in and of China. They both reveal characteristics of techno-Orientalism, where the country—China, and Mimi are seen as inventions of information capitalism. Except, this is no longer just in imagination and is actually reflective of China’s current position. As the consumption of information technology increases in the world, the constantly-ignored process of e-waste management gets delegated to East Asia. And as China itself replaces America as the largest producer of e-waste (Chen), China’s struggle to stay ahead in the world of information capitalism, sees itself exploiting its own people through cheap labour, now not only in production, but also in waste management. This is the techno-Occidentalist drive that is China’s response to the rapid economic and cultural transformations that Chen calls ‘condensed urbanisation’ of the last four decades.

Techno-Occidentalist elements do not only manifest through nationalist or ecopolitical writing and can be experienced through more basic storytelling components like character development too. In Maggie Shen-King, another Asian-American writer’s debut novel, An Excess Male (2017), the consequences of China’s introduction and management of the one-child policy provides the backdrop through the entire premise of the book that is set in a near-future Beijing. The people are managed by the government as commodities that need to be controlled, where the one-child policy has created a community of ‘leftover men’ who can now find love and marriage as a third husband, the maximum required by law. This commodification of people is part of the discourse of techno-Orientalism, with the State—the government—being the main protagonist that sees its people made of “Asian body as a form of expendable technology” (Roh et al. 11). However, in Shen-King’s attempt to develop a more diverse perspective of the story, two of her main characters are from backgrounds that would usually be ostracized—a gay man, and an autistic man. In giving them vital roles to the story, Shen-King humanises them to counter the techno-Orientalist discourse through techno-Occidentalism.

In Chinese science fiction, from the stories that negotiate “between verisimilitude and universality” (Chau 124) to those that reimagine the past, like Silk Punk—“a blend of science fiction and fantasy…[that] draws inspiration from classical East Asian antiquity” (Misra)—they are just trying to glean some sort of position in which to operate in an extremely fecund and chaotic space, where, “The failure of Communism as an alternative for overcoming the crises of capitalism means that the crises of capitalist culture, accompanied by the process of globalization, are manifesting in the daily lives of the Chinese people…[While] China, after a series of traumas from the economic reforms and paying a heavy price for development, has managed to take off economically and resurge globally” (Xia 381).

Chinese science fiction writers internationally find themselves working at a moment of contradiction, of failure (in politics) and success (in economy) through the literature they produce, that tries to commentate on extremely polarised events through cultural grounding (Chinese-ness) and repurposing a genre (science fiction) that has had its own rich history. This constant negotiation roots Chinese science fiction in a position of adversity. Some writers predict that this prosperous phase of Chinese science fiction’s popularity will wither away, while others continue to invest in its growth, as an instrument to promote diversity in science fiction (Xia & Chen).

Whatever the outcome, Chinese science fiction writers will continue to demand their positions in this Western genre by asserting their culture and developing new techno-Occidentalist ways to decolonise.


1. References to the Western genre of science fiction generally concerns British, American, French, and Soviet science fiction.


Chau, Angie. “Nobel to Hugo.” Chinese Literature as World Literature, special issue of Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 30, no. 1, Spring 2018, pp. 110-135.

Chen, Qiufan. “Waste is Changing our Society and Living.” Domus, 17 May 2019,

Chow, Rey. The Protestant Ethnic & The Spirit of Capitalism. Columbia University Press, 2002. 

Frank, J. E. “When Obama and Zuckerberg are your Fan Boys: On Cixin Liu’s ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past’ Trilogy.”, 22 June 2018,: Accessed 21 June 2020.

Han, Song. “A Response to Modernization.” Chinese Science Fiction, special issue of Science Fiction Studies, vol. 40, no. 1, March 2013, pp. 15-21.

Kong, Shuyu. Consuming Literature: Best Sellers and the Commercialization of Literary Production in Contemporary China. Stanford University Press, 2005.

Misra, Ria. “Author Ken Liu Explains ‘Silkpunk’ to Us.” io9 Gizmodo, 14 July 2015.

Liu, Ken. “Introduction: China Dreams.” Invisible Planets. Head of Zeus, 2016, pp. 13-18.

Pandell, Lexi. “WIRED Book Club: Is Three-Body Problem’s Translation Better than the Original?” Wired, 6 October 2016.

Roh, David S., Huang, Betsy, and Niu, Greta A. Techno-Orientalism Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media. Rutgers University Press, 2015.

Song, Mingwei. “After 1989: The New Wave of Chinese Science Fiction.” China Perspectives, no. 1, 2015, pp. 7-14.

Sun, Mengtian. “China and Chinese SF: Interview with Chen Qiufan.” MCLC Resource Center Publication, April 2017.

Wei, Djao, Being Chinese: Voices from the Diaspora. The University of Arizona Press, 2001.

Xia, Jia. “What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?” Invisible Planets. Head of Zeus, 2016, pp. 377-383.

Xia, Jia, and Chen Qiufan. Personal discussion. Manchester, 12 October 2019.

The Wandering Earth: A Device for the Propagation of the Chinese Regime’s Desired Space Narratives?

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)

The Wandering Earth: A Device for the Propagation of the Chinese Regime’s Desired Space Narratives?

Molly Silk
University of Manchester / UK


The anticipated film adaptation of Liu Cixin’s short story The Wandering Earth [流浪地球] was released in Chinese and American cinemas at the beginning of last year, and quickly became one of China’s highest grossing movies of all time. In order to allow for a smoother adaptation to the big screen, the plotline and characters of the film greatly differ from those in Liu’s original story. Additionally, the Earth’s political state is only lightly touched upon in Liu’s story, whereas a more detailed account of international relations and cooperation is weaved into the film. Recognising the “soft power” potential of Chinese science fiction as it grows in popularity around the world, the Chinese government have encouraged authors of the genre to include elements that assist in propagandizing the rejuvenation of the Chinese state as a global power. The acquisition of soft power, or the ability to achieve foreign policy goals through attractive and persuasive means, was adopted under the leadership of Hu Jintao as a long-term national strategy. Tools used to gain soft power traditionally include attractive cultural products and the construction of compelling and credible narratives that present the nation in a positive light (The Soft Power 30). Science fiction, acting as both a cultural product and a vehicle for the proliferation of constructed narratives, presents itself as ideal device for assisting in the achievement of national soft power objectives.

This paper argues that the world constructed for China’s science fiction hit The Wandering Earth was greatly influenced by the regime’s call for science fiction to benefit the country’s rejuvenation aims, particularly to portray the Chinese space programme as a peaceful and cooperative venture that has the potential to benefit all of humanity. Through an examination of the production choices made during the creation of the film, this paper shows that The Wandering Earth’s promotion of transnational cooperation in space works as a device aiming to create a positive international perception of its space capacities. This in turn has made the science fiction adaptation favourable with the Chinese government and exemplary of what the regime seeks to find in China’s science fiction creations.

This paper shall first outline the issues that China faces in regard to the reputation of its space endeavours, and how the state is seeking to replace the prevalent threat narrative around its space programme with a more positive one. Based on these contextual foundations, this paper shall discuss elements of The Wandering Earth film in relation to China’s political aims surrounding the perception of its space programme.

Conflicting Narratives: The Chinese Space Threat vs. A Tool for Humankind

The focus placed on national rejuvenation and economic development by the government since the start of the century has proven sufficient in generating support for the Chinese Communist Party at home. However, many people and governments of the world believe that the China’s unceasing growth should be feared by all who seek to uphold the values of the world’s longstanding political superpower: the United States (Chen and Garcia; Halper). The China Threat narrative maintains that the nation’s authoritarian regime of antihumanitarian policies and expansionist ambitions cannot peacefully co-exist with the democratic ideals purported by the United States government (Broomfield). The narrative is primarily propagated by the US and its allies, who state that China’s re-emergence represents a threat to both US security and to the survival of democracy worldwide. In recent years, the China Threat criticism has extended to one of the country’s most treasured projects: its national space programme.

The significance of China’s latest outer space achievements cannot be understated. Yet since its conception, observers and critics of China’s political regime have suspected that the Chinese space programme may endanger the freedom of the US and allied nations to operate in outer space. Concerns have ranged from China’s potential militarization of space, to the assertion of resource nationalism over celestial objects, to the fear that China could overtake the US as the world’s dominant space force (Johnson-Freese; Vasani; Erwin; Goswami; Thompson).

The US government asserts that China’s activities in space pose a very real threat to its national security. Less than a year before the Eastern giant landed its rover on the far side of the Moon at the beginning of 2019, President Trump declared that the US would not allow itself to be surpassed by China as the world’s dominant space force (“Trump Vows”). A few month later, Vice President Pence named China’s space activities as one of the main threats to US security (“Pence Unveils Plans”). The China space threat narrative has been used by Trump’s administration to justify the creation of the US Space Force, and due to fears of espionage, China remains the only country with whom NASA is not permitted to collaborate.

The proliferation of such a narrative may lead to its widespread acceptance, which in turn may cause damage to China’s aims of repositioning itself as a global leader. Should the international community accept the narrative that China’s space programme is a threat to the status quo, there will be less support for it. Instead of financing space-based projects in partnership with China, countries will instead side with nations that they perceive to be more accountable, transparent, and reliable technological powers (Flagg). Furthermore, should China’s space aims continue to be portrayed as a tool for enhancing the regime’s grip on the world stage, feelings of distrust for China’s technological development may hinder transnational relations.

Recognising these challenges, China’s central government have made attempts to demonstrate that its space programme is not a threat to those values shared by the US and its allies, nor is the programme an attempt to grab power in the space arena away from the US. To counter fears that China’s technological rise will threaten the autonomy and interests of other nations, the Chinese government are actively attempting to change the prevalent threat narrative to one that asserts its space programme as a tool for the benefit of humankind.

In the face of criticism, China’s chief administrative authorities continue to maintain that it is opposed to the weaponization of outer space, and that its space programme is for the benefit of the international community (“China’s Military Strategy”). Every five years, China’s State Council releases a White Paper outlining the nation’s space activities in order “to enable the world community to better understand China’s space industry” (“Full Text of White Paper”). A large part of the Paper is dedicated to summarizing China’s transnational space cooperation, and continuously states that the purpose of the programme is “to utilize space for peaceful purposes” and to “benefit the whole of mankind” (“China’s Military Strategy”). China is an active member of the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs, asserting the nation’s adherence and dedication to the peaceful uses of outer space as outlined by the various treaties adopted by the General Assembly. China has also extended an invitation to all UN member states to use its forthcoming space station for the purposes of scientific experimentation, demonstrating that Chinese diplomacy in space extends further than that of the US, who do not allow China to participate in the ISS project.

While the Chinese government have taken great efforts to sponsor and coordinate space research and technical programmes with multiple international institutions, such diplomacy only affects government officials and researchers working in the area of space technology. Where China’s space science diplomacy has been lacking is in its access to international populations at large, whose trust often remains in the China threat narratives purported by their own governments and national media (Sun).

The rising popularity of Chinese science fiction worldwide was soon recognised by the government as a potential ideological mouthpiece. As a genre that strongly showcases the imaginative visions of the future of Chinese technologies, government agencies devoted to promoting China’s image sought to utilise science fiction as a vehicle to more artfully promote its own desired narratives and ideologies to the international public. Should creators insert into their stories representations of China’s technological endeavours that are in line with the state’s narrative aims, these notions would be propagated to a wider international audience that the state has been less successful in reaching through direct government publications and higher level dialogues.

The Wandering Earth as an Incorporation of State Space Narratives

According to Gwennaël Gaffric and Will Peyton, Chinese science fiction literature and film has been “placed at the forefront of a nationalist project both inside and outside China,” where Party members have encouraged science fiction authors to inspire the nation’s youth through their stories to fulfil the Chinese dream of renewed global leadership. China’s state media has continued to hail the international success of Chinese science fiction as representative of “the rebirth of a great nation,” and has already taken steps to establish science fiction authors as representative and supportive of China’ scientific developments (Gaffric and Peyton). For instance, following the increasing international popularity of Liu Cixin’s work, particularly his science fiction epic The Three-Body Problem [三体], the author was invited to act as a consultant for the China National Space Programme (Liu), as well as an official ambassador of China’s Mars exploration programme (Gaffric and Peyton). Liu has also been invited to be involved in a number of high-profile national space events, including giving a speech at the unveiling of the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST).

However, 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. China’s publishing industry has been recognised as a tool that will allow the political regime to appropriate the science fiction genre (Gaffric and Peyton). This means that government agencies have an important role to play in the in selecting narratives that align with China’s foreign policy agenda. Sociotechnical imaginaries, or visions of society centred on the realisation of certain technological developments, that do not fit with the government’s technological development narrative may therefore be discounted or suppressed by these agencies. However, those imaginaries that fit with the regime’s political narrative may also be promoted and held up as exemplary sinofuturistic stories and models.

The argument presented here is that the success of The Wandering Earth and its promotion by state organs can be considered to comprise elements that are representative of the narrative that the regime seeks to propagate. Specifically, it is those elements surrounding the portrayal of its space capabilities and the role of the Chinese astronauts in global affairs that are favoured by Chinese officials.

The worldbuilding choices in The Wandering Earth film incorporate the government’s own purported narrative that its space endeavours are based on ideals of international cooperation and the enrichment of humankind.

While a Coalition government is mentioned in Liu’s original short story, details of the internationality of the Earth’s new government or its space forces do not feature heavily in the story. However, within the context of the film, while individual nations and nationalities are still recognised, there are no national space forces. Instead, all nations of the world have combined their space technological expertise under a United Earth Government for the purpose of saving the planet.

According to director Guo Fan, political aspects of the film were strongly considered, and the choice was made to incorporate a peaceful coalition government with a unified space force into the story (Li). Within the production notes for the film, one of the foundational ideologies of the world in which the film is set is that humanity exists as “one big family” and the astronauts of Earth’s various nations work together as a team for the good of humanity (Shuo). The global society shown in the film was not an arbitrary choice, but a carefully considered and purposeful decision on the part of the production team, which allowed for the portrayal of China as an important actor within a global community.

Equally, the decision to ensure that the Earth is eventually saved from the clutches of Jupiter thanks to the sacrifices ultimately made by Chinese protagonists further demonstrates that the power of the Chinese people is not self-interested. Instead, it tells the audience that the Chinese people see themselves as part of a collective humankind, that its capabilities will be used to protect this collective, not to challenge or compete with it for survival.

While it is ultimately Chinese characters who save the world, as Song explains, The Wandering Earth did not separate China from the rest of the world, but allowed China to be representative of humanity (Song). The heroism displayed by the Chinese protagonists was not led by nationalist interests, but by the widely supported value of protecting humankind. While such principles are represented here in a fictional future, they are the principles that the Chinese regime desire to be associated with their space programme in reality. Given the real political context in which the film was created, such key production choices were likely included in the film in order to align with state purported narratives that would show the Chinese nation in a positive light.

In addition to these narrative additions, the audience is consistently reminded of China’s role as a valued member of the united coalition through aesthetic choices. The space suits that are worn in the film were meticulously designed, involving over 1,000 separate parts (Li 2019). The decision to include the logo of the new coalition’s space force, designed to appear very similar to the UN’s well-known emblem, was again unlikely to have been an arbitrary choice. Placed on both the arms and the fronts of the suits and clothes worn by the characters, the symbol is frequently shown on screen, including during the important ending scene where a Chinese character sacrifices himself to protect the Earth. The presence of the symbol next to China’s national flag on the suits of the characters is also symbolic of China’s first space flight, when taikonaut Yang Liwei held up the flag of the UN alongside the Chinese flag to represent mutual aims and values for space exploration. The presence of the symbol in the film acts as a permanent reminder to the audience that while the main characters are of Chinese origin, the work they do is ultimately for the benefit of humanity.

While the film does not explicitly condemn any nation as the antagonist of the story, the underlying ideology of the film is favourable towards the purported Chinese values of space exploration, and hints at a rejection of common US values associated with space exploration. According to Guo, Western science fiction portrays a sense of longing to escape Earth in favour of worlds beyond our own. While the American notion of space is one of an ‘endless frontier’ waiting to be explored, the Chinese mindset conversely does not desire to leave the home that it has identified with for thousands of years. According to Guo, the US mindset is that if Earth is experiencing a crisis, it is possible to run away from it. The Chinese mindset differs from this as exemplified in The Wandering Earth (Li). Instead of running from Earth in the face of crisis, Chinese science fiction demonstrates a different ideal of remaining with and protecting the planet. While not explicitly stating so in the film, the underlying narrative of wandering with the Earth instead of from it suggests that Chinese philosophies offer a leadership style that seeks to defend the planet and the heritages of its people. Chinese do not run from crises, but will remain and help where it can. This key theme in the movie suggests that China’s technological development can only serve to further its capacities to help, and had the state not pursued the aim of advancing its space programme, the Earth’s collective space capacities would have remained underdeveloped. In turn, the world would not likely have been able to save itself from the crises presented in the film.

The film adaptation of The Wandering Earth has already proven to be a production favoured by the central government. The film has been recommended by the Ministry of Education to be shown to school students throughout China (“Sci-Fi Blockbuster”), and its financial success and award wins have been covered extensively by Party mouthpieces such as Xinhua and People’s Daily. The film has also been continuously dubbed by the state media as “China’s first homemade sci-fi blockbuster” (“First China-Made Sci-Fi Blockbuster”). The decision of the state media to promote The Wandering Earth as the nation’s “first domestic sci-fi epic” is one that does not recognize China’s history of science fiction film productions, ignoring films such as Deformity Sci-Fi [残废科幻] (2013), Reset [逆时营救] (2017), or The Secret of Immortal Code [伊阿索密码] (2018), to name only a few. Death Ray on a Coral Island [珊瑚岛上的死光] (1980) is widely considered to be China’s “first science fiction film” (Zhang), but is again overlooked by the state in favor of presenting The Wandering Earth as China’s first.

The key feature that differentiates film adaptation of The Wandering Earth from its science fiction predecessors is that it actively promotes the government-purported narrative that China’s technical capabilities are for the benefit of humanity as a whole. While Death Ray on a Coral Island sets China and Westerners as rivals, The Wandering Earth presents a more peaceful and diplomatic relationship between China and the world. Showcasing Chinese imaginaries of the nation’s space capabilities as beneficial to the international community, the film conforms to the desired narrative that the state seeks to purport.

The regime recognises that The Wandering Earth portrays “a community of a shared future for mankind,” a key quality it seeks to promote of its space ambitions (Chung). Most notably, the Wang Xiaohui, who acts as both the Executive Deputy Head of the Publicity Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the Director of the Film Bureau of National Radio and Television Administration, reportedly praised the film for its portrayal of “the Chinese people’s non-utilitarian, cosmopolitan and cooperative spirit” (“China’s Film Authority”).

Seeking to put its best foot forward on the international stage, the marketing of The Wandering Earth as China’s first science fiction film intends to send the message that the nation’s technological development has always been with the welfare of the international community in mind.


In the face of criticism by the US, the film adaptation of The Wandering Earth presents China as a technologically responsible, cooperative, supportive, and reliable actor in space that seeks to benefit of all of humanity. While the US has adopted more neoisolationist policies over the last few years, coupled with its assertion of dominance in space through the creation of the US Space Force, the film purports a more peaceful and cooperative narrative of China’s space activities that fall in line with official state narratives. It is likely that these narrative additions to Liu’s original short story were made with consideration given to the state’s call for science fiction creators to incorporate and reinforce the government’s real-life policy narratives.

In turn, the Chinese regime adopted the film as a state favourite, promoting it through a variety of methods and asserting it as representative of Chinese thought on the nation’s technological development. However, with the global popularity of Chinese science fiction still its infancy, it remains to be seen how effective these incorporated state-approved narratives are at swaying the opinion of the international public on China’s space affairs.


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Wondering about the Futures of the Wandering Earth: A Comparative Analysis of Liu Cixin’s “The Wandering Earth” and Frant Gwo’s Film Adaptation

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)

Wondering about the Futures of the Wandering Earth: A Comparative Analysis of Liu Cixin’s “The Wandering Earth” and Frant Gwo’s Film Adaptation

Mitchell van Vuren
Leiden University / Netherlands

Frant Gwo’s big-budget film “The Wandering Earth” (2019) hit Chinese cinemas big as the acclaimed first science fiction blockbuster from Chinese soil (Kuo) and has become one of China’s highest-grossing films of all time (“The Wandering Earth”). The blockbuster also gained global visibility through its international distribution on Netflix, presenting an apocalyptic future scenario to the world through Chinese eyes. The film directly builds upon the universe conjured by the science fiction author Liu Cixin in his short story “The Wandering Earth”. Liu has been lauded for his imaginative mixture of philosophical and scientific contemplations, earning him multiple national Galaxy Awards for best science fiction work and even the international Hugo Award once for best science fiction work (“Liu Cixin”). However, the short story and the film differ radically on several aspects and portray very different visions on the way humanity needs to change its ways to reach a happy ending at the end of their stories, including the required transformation of humanity to meet the demands of a dystopian future.

In this paper, I will clarify these differences through a comparative analysis between film and short story to abstract the different visions on the required changes humanity is in need of to save itself from extinction. Before doing so, I will briefly discuss the various genres the two works position themselves in and the process of adaptation. Then, I will describe the representation of the future world in the works and the ethical dilemmas posed by these narratives. After having clarified the main subtextual differences between the two works, I will reflect on the implied and different ways whereby humanity needs to transform itself to be able to survive the same fictional apocalypse.

Liu Cixin himself names as the source and most prominent element of science fiction the beauty of science itself. He says: “Science-fiction novels are thus bridges to this beauty, freeing it from formulas and displaying it for all to see” (“Beyond Narcissism” 23). This love for science expresses itself profoundly in his works, and not the least in “The Wandering Earth”. The narrative reveals the life of the protagonist as a small part of a detailed macro-history: the gargantuan project of maneuvering the entire Earth to Proxima Centauri. The subjugation of the character development to the scientific macro-details is characteristic of Liu’s variant of science fiction, but these descriptive macro-details are in the film replaced by visual spectacle and dramatic turns.

From the considerable historical period Liu describes from initiation of the project to the abandonment of the solar system, the film only takes place during a small part halfway-through Liu’s story when the Earth passes Jupiter. In the high budget film, the tale of the Earth’s journey with its scientific specificities is substituted by an accessible disaster narrative that borrows many masculine and upbeat genre conventions from the action film. The distillation and popularization of the story comes to no surprise when the intended broad target audience of the film is juxtaposed with the niche sci-fi audience, but, in Liu’s intended sense, the film’s narrative is only part of a sci-fi tradition through the world it finds itself in and not specifically through narrative genre conventions.

At this point, we come to the issue of adaptation. Commonly, film adaptations are conceived as inferior to the books they are derived from. However, it is not my intention to approach these two works in a hierarchized relation of lineage. I will rather conceptualize them as two stories in a transmedial storyworld (as theorized by Marie-Laure Ryan and Jan-Noël Thon), where audiences can enter this universe through multiple platforms and narratives that do not always find coherence. Although issues such as medium specificity or fidelity to a source text are conventional topics of discussion in Adaptation Studies, the implications of the stories’ subtextual elements are of most importance to my analysis to come to a conclusion about the differing morals of these stories and the suggested transformations of which the world is in need. To abstract these differing subtextual elements, I will focus in my textual comparison on ethical questions posed to humanity and the following decisions, with special attention to China as the focalizer of humanity in these narrated, apocalyptic futures.

Liu’s story starts when the Earth stops rotating. The birth of the protagonist coincides with this first step of controlling the planet and transforming it into humanity’s vehicle, and alongside the character’s coming of age, the Earth changes more and more on its millennia-long journey. During a school trip around the world, the protagonist and his classmates witness the colossal Earth Engines that serve as the Earth’s motor, the catastrophic effects of the project on Earth’s ecology, and their first splendid sunrise after years on the dark side of the Earth. The supranatural, technological achievements of humankind are constantly brought into ambivalent juxtapositions with the terrifying splendor of nature in Liu’ descriptions. An example of this can be found in the protagonist’s first thought when seeing an Earth Engine for the first time (“The Wandering Earth” 6). While marveling at the immense scale of the blue plasma beam, he is reminded of a riddle about an infinitely tall and broad wall.

What is the wall?


Here, the conventional technocratic faith in technology to relieve humanity of the burdens of nature, and particularly of death, is lost when the power of technology becomes synonymous with the sublimity of death. During the following years, the expenses of technology to fuel the Earth’s journey leave their mutilating traces on the Earth, slowly transforming it into an unrecognizable and lifeless place.

The contrasting of the horrors of technology and nature serve a higher purpose than solely description in the story, which is expressed most clearly when the children see the Sun for the first time. The Sun, normally the source of life, has now turned into the Earth’s doom due to its predicted violent explosion in the near future, called a helium flash. When the children see the celestial body for the first time, they are struck with terror when they encounter humanity’s biggest threat. But, when the children and their teacher gaze at the starlit sky later on, hopeful tears well up in their eyes when the teacher points out Proxima Centauri, “their new home!” Among the stars, “[o]nly one star held steady; it was the beam of a distant lighthouse over dark and stormy seas. . . . That star had taken the place of the Sun in our hearts. It was the only pillar of hope for one hundred future generations as they navigated a sea of trouble” (13). Already from a young age onward, the children are taught to direct their hopes at the promises of technology and to abandon the symbols of life from the past.

The global process of accelerating the Earth to gain enough speed to leave the solar system also incorporates the people of Earth in its self-transformation. Genetic engineering (16) and birth control (26) have enabled humankind to regulate and evolve its members to unknown standards to meet the harsh conditions of the millennia-long project, but this has happened at a cost. For current generations, it is unimaginable how people in the past could have attached so many emotions to matters unrelated to planetary survival, including adultery (18). What is needed in the new world are reliable and docile persons, who can function optimally inside the world-encompassing Earth apparatus. Inessential subjects for this global cause, such as art and philosophy, are removed from school curricula (16), which leads to the solving of ethical dilemmas based on statistics in the name of the greater good. For example, when the underground hometown of the protagonist is hours away from being engulfed by magma, the rescue of young people is unquestionably prioritized regarding their higher beneficence to the global cause. Thus, it becomes too late to save the elderly, including the protagonist’s mother, following a naturalized social Darwinist logic. Every form of individual agency or reflection disappears in the collective because of their shared burden of saving humanity, while they gradually lose their own humanity along the way.

When the Earth passes the hellish “behemoth” (34) of Jupiter in Liu’s story, the film’s primary storyline begins. The gravitational pull of Jupiter leads to the malfunctioning and destruction of many Earth Engines and raises the danger of planetary collision. Liu Qi, the protagonist of the film, travels through China and beyond its borders to help reactivate the Engines. At the same time, his father Liu Peiqiang tries in the International Space Station (ISS) to avert hopelessness by the United Earth Government (UEG). Liu Qi shares many similarities with the protagonist of the short story, such as a father in space and an uncle from Shanghai, but his character arc and the events in the film differ to such an extent that inconsistencies arise between story and film. The differing plots also have a profound effect on the overall morale of the works. While Liu’s sci-fi shows the fragility and possible futility of humanity’s project, the film portrays several hardheaded characters that refuse to lose hope and keep on striving to survive.

This ultimate impossibility of defeat despite hardships, which is the norm in the disaster film and the action film with few exceptions, comes to the fore the most when the film poses an ethical dilemma to Liu Peiqiang. The UEG has decided at the perceived point of no return in the wake of collision to activate the Helios Project: the launch of the ISS as an arc, containing numerous samples of animal and human life, towards Proxima Centauri to act as the last means for humanity to survive. But, in a final attempt to avert collision, Liu Qi and his companions have, against the UEG’s orders, called for the help of many national rescue teams on Earth. They have the plan to shoot a plasma beam from an Earth Engine towards Jupiter to ignite its atmosphere and blast the Earth away (in full accordance with the action film genre).

Liu Peiqiang in the ISS stands before the choice to subjugate himself to the plan of the UEG and to watch the Earth be destroyed below him, or to fly the ISS into Liu Qi’s plasma beam that is just a few miles short of igniting Jupiter and to hope that the plan of the newly formed coalition of national rescue teams, under the leadership of the Chinese, will save the Earth. Liu Peiqiang chooses the latter and rebels against the UEG in a final attempt to save the world. In an emotional last dialogue between father and son, they forget their preceding conflicts and are reconciled as a family, just before the ISS explodes and Liu Peiqiang sacrifices himself for the greater good, ultimately saving his son and the world. The plan of the newly proposed world governance succeeds and Liu Qi survives, continuing to serve the purpose of The Wandering Earth with firm belief and in good spirits.

In Liu’s story, the Earth bypasses Jupiter without technical complications, but not without social unrest. A conspiracy theory maintains that the Sun is not dying at all and that the entire journey is a hoax. A rebellion against the Coalition, the current world government, starts to take shape and divides the world into two groups: the ones who have held hope in the project and those who have lost it and desire to return to the earlier state of heliocentric orbit. The protagonist sides with the Coalition, motivated by his family’s history in the military and not by his own conviction per se, but starts to slowly believe in the hoax as well after a long and violent period of war injuries and alcoholism. He deserts with other militaries on a hospital ward and helps to overthrow the last stronghold of the Coalition.

The rebels celebrate their victory and punish the remaining leading figures of the Coalition cruelly. During their last walk of shame, the remnants of the Coalition are spat upon and humiliated by all layers of society, including a little girl with “the wild rage in her eyes searing through her mask” (42). Then, the nuclear batteries from the prisoners’ thermal suits are confiscated, and they are left to freeze to death on the ice-cold surface of the Earth, with the people of the rebellion watching. Every standard of moral order seems to have been forgotten. During the painfully slow submission to the cold by the last figures of the Coalition, the rebels start to sing ‘My Sun’ to praise their giver of life in the sky. Faith in the Sun and in the natural course of life seems to be restored, until suddenly the helium flash occurs. Then, “[a] red dim sphere had replaced the Sun. From our vantage point, it slowly swelled until it reached the size of the Sun of old, a strange memory from Earth’s original orbit… But, it was no longer our Sun” (44). The rebellion shows itself to be built on an illusion. Their hope of return is shattered and their future is uncertain. The Sun has died, but “[f]ortunately, we still lived” (44).

In the last chapter of the story, half a century has passed and the protagonist has grown old. The Earth’s journey has been continued towards the dark emptiness of space beyond Pluto. However, the protagonist is not overcome by despair or pessimism and sees before his mind’s eye visions from life in Proxima Centauri. “I see my great-grandchildren, one hundred generations removed, playing and laughing on green grass”. While faith in the original Sun has faded and the errors of technology have been discovered, he directs his beliefs at “the three golden suns of Proxima Centauri” (46). Hope has not been lost, although humanity has been forced to transcend its earlier moral and technological boundaries and a long and tough road is still ahead for many generations to come.

Despite both texts’ happy endings, the morals of the two narratives give a very different estimation of the new status of humanity after the hardships of the project. In the case of Liu’s story, humanity’s morale is busted and battered, but a shimmer of hope remains in the envisioning of a very distant and utopian future. The demise of the faith in technology and the following failed rebellion show that humanity is in dire need of self-transformation to find a new form that is fit for the conditions of the technological world of the future. Liu Cixin argues that humanity has to move beyond an anthropocentric narcissism in the far reaches of space, in which we are nothing but “a cosmic speck of dust” (“Beyond Narcissism” 22). Science fiction shows itself to be a genre well fit to challenge this central self-conception and to rethink the position of the human in relation to the ungraspable immensity of the universe and to the unthinkable potential of technology.

The film, however, has fewer moral bumps in the road to Proxima Centauri. Following the three-act model of Hollywood blockbusters, several obstacles are defined in the generic plot that need to be overcome to guarantee a happy ending. The plot-driven story designates the natural environment of Jupiter as the antagonist (at a certain point, a character even decides to futilely shoot a machine gun at it while cursing the gas giant), against which the Earth is in need of defense. Frictions between different characters and nations obstruct productive collaboration, which is only achieved when a shared goal is found and the previous form of world governance is overthrown under the new Chinese leadership. Humanity has not undergone a moral transformation but has only experienced a changing of the guards in its global governance.

In conclusion, Liu Cixin writes in accordance with his own principles concerning sci-fi by addressing the moral status quo of humanity as it is focalized by China. Through allegorically positioning characters and nations, he tells a tale of the world and envisions how humanity can change her own self-conception in relation to science to be ready for the challenges of ecological disasters and other sci-fi scenarios in the maybe not-so-distant future. Frant Gwo’s film does not question the core of humanity but rather the position of China in the world. The film utilizes the rebellion in its narrative to indicate the fallacies of the current world governance, and imagines how humanity can only be saved, and its utopian future far away can only be reached when China’s methods are followed. Although the film has international allure through representing the territories and populations of many nations, it ultimately tells a story of China as the world through its claimed monopoly to guide the world towards survival. The film’s moral, just like its narrative, seems to remain stuck halfway through Liu’s story, where the wavering of hope has not set in just yet. Hopefully, the announced sequel of the film will divert from just making a political statement and will correspond more with Liu’s sci-fi storyworld through engagement with the moral dimensions of the near future and the ensuing challenges in it for all of humanity, instead of merely redrawing national borders.


Kuo, Lily. “China Challenges Hollywood with Own Sci-Fi Blockbuster.” The Guardian, 11 February 2019,

Liu, Cixin. “Beyond Narcissism: What Science Fiction Can Offer Literature.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 40, no. 1, 2013, pp. 22-32.

Liu, Cixin. “The Wandering Earth.” The Wandering Earth, translated by Holger Nahm, Head of Zeus Ltd., 2017, pp. 3-47.

“Liu Cixin.” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, October 4 2019.

Ryan, Marie-Laure and Jan-Noël Thon. Storyworlds across Media: Toward a Media-Conscious Narratology. University of Nebraska Press, 2014.

“The Wandering Earth.” Box Office Mojo, n.d.,

The Wandering Earth (流浪地球; Liulang diqiu). Directed by Frant Gwo, China Film Group Corporation, 2019.

A Diagnosis of Sinofuturism from the Urban-Rural Fringe

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 2-3

Special Issue: Alternative Sinofuturisms (中华未来主义)

A Diagnosis of Sinofuturism from the Urban-Rural Fringe1

Dino Ge Zhang
Zhejiang University / China

Sinofuturism, in its emergence as exemplified by a series of essays (Goodman, 1998; Land, 2014), books (Greenspan, 2014; Hui, 2016), and videos (Lek, 2016), is still predominantly a discourse of the Anglosphere. Through a reading of Land’s past essays on the Shanghai Expo and Greenspan’s perspectives on Shanghai urbanism (2014, 2020), I would argue that sinofuturism in its current English articulation is perhaps more of a reaction towards the impotence and expiry of the declinist West than an incisive provocation of Chinese futures concretely rooted in the Chinese condition. The disheartened Anglo intellectual looks beyond “the death-grip of an embittered and self-mortifying anti-modernism” (Land, 2011) of the apologetic old world and for “zones of experimentation” (Greenspan, 2020) in the new world. It starts with an astute critique and an exasperating divorce from baizuo or the ‘White Left’ but then it falls short in responding to the disparity between planned ideals of futurity and their manifestations in a (un)managed disorder in China

Shanghai is presented as the model city by the sinofuturists: a spectacular retro-futurist revival, propelled by the 2010 World Expo itself, towards the status of World Capital. The crucial argument is that this revival has its own texture of futurity: not linear, not cyclical, but a spiral temporality. “Forward to the past” of the Golden Age 1920s: “neomodernity is at once more than modernity and modernity again” (Greenspan, 2014, p.12). Unlike Land’s optimism, Yuk Hui’s assessment of sinofuturism is a pathological “modernisation without modernity”: there is nothing new about sinofuturism as “ultimately, it is only an acceleration of the European modern project” ( Hui 2016, p.297); a lack of moral cosmotechnics in contemporary China, despite the economic and sociotechnical achievements, can potentially lead to disastrous consequences. In both diagnoses, the singular sinofuture derives from the official vision of modernity, whether in Land’s twist of a spiral temporality or Yuk Hui’s critique of an accelerating society that lacks a moral cosmology. To various degrees, both remain ungrounded in already fermenting visions of immiscible futurities elsewhere.

While also remaining vigilant for “zones of experimentation”, this essay chooses not to focus on the first-tier cities, Pudong skyline, special economic zones, massive factories, drones, automation, surveillance, and techno-nationalism. I am not interested in searching for the “authentic” China as much as the immiscible condition of a sinofuture itself—I will give one example of the quarantined temporality of the chengxiangjiehubu (literally “urban-rural fringe”).2 The urban-rural fringe is not necessarily the side of China that the official propaganda of futurity prevents one from seeing, nor should it be seen as somehow more authentic or naturalistic than the city. This is not to say that the fringe is invisible, but it is certainly undesirable, as its clear definition is often obscured. These intermediate contact zones are to be differentiated from chenzhongcun, or “urban villages,” which were transient, dense, urban overgrowth in/around the city centres to accommodate migrants during the early phase of (re)modernisation from 1990s onwards. They were hastily demolished as junk space in the 2010s to pave way for erections of new urban architectures.3 In contrast, the urban-rural fringe constitutes semi-permanent settlements that serve an indispensable role between cities and the countryside as “a point of transit and transformation” (Gong 2012).

The urban-rural fringe is a “filthy disorder” (Gong 2012) of various settlements: small-to-medium scale factories/workshops that are mostly outcast by the city administrators, garbage recycle stations, the bastardized residential architecture that arbitrarily and incongruously mixes influences (i.e. stereotypes) from all over the world, main roads as the large trucks pass through with (often unfinished) subsidiary roads connecting the villages, unsanitary restaurants with trashy décor, dodgy home clinics (especially those specializing in illegal abortions), pink neon light hair salons (as brothels are further purged from the cities), internet cafes filled with underage dropouts who are bored stiff, and wet markets of fresh produce and various exotic meats which are chiefly blamed as “sources of hedonistic-cum-pathogenic peril” (Lynteris 121).

The urban-rural fringe processes the trash and various material and affective excess for the cities. It also accommodates the “humiliated people, the peasants [who have] lost their land yet been rejected by the city, the trash collectors” (Gong 2012). The term piao, or float, was used to accentuate migrant precarity in the first-tier cities.4 However, people don’t “float” here at the fringe; instead, people are mostly rejects being sedimented without future hope. It is not sedentariness in the sense of full modernisation as if the society will finally be rid of its “premodern” and transitory deformities. The fringe zone is not a temporary construct; even though some areas gentrify as the mega city expands, they will continue to exist on the new fringe as their existence is marginal but indispensable. It is not an alterity that transcends modernity nor an alienated “dead time” that was fiercely attacked by Situationism but being sedentary in the “never-ending everyday” (Thouny 114). Lawrence Lek summarizes it well in his video essay: “sinofuturism does not care about a dramatically better future as long as it survives.” Survival is the true fundamental “hard-lined principle.” People rather put faith in a tiny profit margin than uncertain futures; there is no morality or “values” where there is no time. Gong (2012) considers the stray dogs omnipresent in the fringe zone and their society formed around human waste “presents a portent of our future,” much like the “waste people” on Silicon Isle as described in Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide: it is a futurity arrested in multilayered dissolution and reconfiguration of pollutants and temporality.

Urban-rural fringe produces a no-futurity that symbolizes the “quotidianized apocalypse” (Thouny): “there is no departure, no aim to reach or home to return to” (Thouny 116). As a contemporary example, my current self-quarantine eerily resonates with the idea of a quotidianized apocalypse of the fringe. Wuhan, the original epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak, was often disparagingly given the nickname chaoji da xiancheng or “supersized county town” for the city’s infamous image of being “unhygienic, disorderly, and dreadful” (zhang luan cha).5 Wuhan’s spatial texture, unlike the fulfilling aspirations of Shanghai, was accelerating and decelerating at an entirely different pace. To a large degree, despite being an immense city in size, Wuhan glorified the aesthetics of the urban-rural fringe as captured in the recent crime thriller Wild Goose Lake (2019). In an attempt to elevate itself from the stigma of “supersized county town,” the city hosted international events like the World Military Games 2019, through which the city centre was “rejuvenated” and its colonial past (the European concessions much like Shanghai) was refurbished and modernized. The expectation was high, much like Shanghai’s World Expo. However, the city only succeeded in garnering international attention due to the current pandemic situation.

During the lockdown, time itself is quarantined in a state of continuous waiting. Cai Bo (2020) writes on his experience during the lockdown, “time itself is a burning anxiety; my mum used to tell me, days seem to be long but short when they are lived; she complains recently, whatever is plenty, nothing is more plentiful than days.”6 Linear time, or calendar time, becomes irrelevant, and cyclical time also malfunctions as I sleep and wake up during arbitrary hours. A week in, time was spent in between spasms of violent emotions provoked by the videos circulated on WeChat: terror, anxiety, and fury. The quarantine time is “severed forwards” (Cai 2020) as it is torn between stacks of temporalities: the viral acceleration choked, quite literally, the health care system; desperate and panic-stricken patients waiting eight hours in long queues outside the hospital and risking another round of nosocomial infection; waking up day after day filtering fake news and dubious WeChat screenshots only to find out the official Hope is plastic and melts instantly with the flaming anxiety; staying up until midnight to order groceries online before they’re instantly sold out; even the most politically unmotivated realize that poetics of heroism and stories of machinic efficiency (of tracking the infected) merely covers the unknown number of bodies that went into the furnace without any rituals and countless others who live in unresolved temporal anxiety. The imagery of the pandemic is thus “a cyclical plot of meaningless endlessness… [it is] a poetics not of death and resurrection but hollowed out of hope and inhabited by omens and signs of an ‘end indefinitely postponed” (Gomen cited in Lynteris 127).

The “viral alarm” caused by the untimely death of Dr Li Wen-Liang did not last long as rage was quickly soaked and dissipated in idleness and lethargy. Zizek (2020) had hoped for the “unintended consequence” of “dead time” self-reflection: being stuck in quarantine at home briefly forced people to realize the sedentariness and precarity in “look toward money” that replaced the official slogan “look to the future” (Cockain 2). However, the miserable populace never cared about progress nor regression, as it had been already waiting for an “apocalypse that never ceases to come, and pass” (Thouny 2009, p.126). The urban-rural fringe should not be seen as the disintegration behind the glorious façade of Shanghai but rather one of the sinofuturisms we can all, but are too reluctant to, viscerally experience. My hope is that the already fermenting immiscible condition of sinofuturity won’t be entirely eclipsed by ungrounded theoretical speculation.


1. This essay is written on the quarantined grounds of Wuhan amidst a provincial lockdown.

2. It would be naïve to juxtapose the urban and rural but it’s largely true that until quite recently, rural villages were largely left alone in the developmental discourse as the major cities absorbed the most capable—village life was sapped of its vitality; migration to the city via cheap labour or university entrance exam was the only upward mobility possible. Gong Jian and Li Jinghu’s art project Urban Rural Fringe Group (2012) is a great source of inspiration for this essay. For another example, the animation film Have a Nice Day (2017) by Liu Jia also captures the aesthetics of the urban-rural fringe very well (Da).

3. In some recent cases, Chinese city planning has learnt to build upon and gentrify these sites that are supposed to be outmoded by continuous modernisation itself instead of outright demolition.

4. Anna Greenspan has described Cara Wallis’s Technomobility as a relevant ethnographic account of this sociotechnical precariousness of “the floating population.”

5. Xiancheng is a different geographical concept from urban-rural fringe but the two concepts are almost identical in their imageries of aesthetics and sociality.

6. Chinese translation is my own.


Cai, Bo. “Wuhan Time is Torn Forward by Seconds” (originally in Chinese). ARTDBL, 27 Feb. 2020,

Cockain, Alex. “Regarding Mr. Wu, a Dragon and Conversations in Traffic: Social Acceleration, Deceleration and Re-acceleration in Shanghai.” Time and Society, vol. 27 no. 3, 2018, pp. 363–383.

Da, Mengna. “A Darkly Comic Animated Film Set on China’s Urban-Rural Fringe.” Hyperallergic, 26 Jan. 2018.

Gong, Jian and Li Jinghu. “What is the Urban-Rural Fringe, and why is it the Urban-Rural fringe?” Urban Rural Fringe Group, 2012.

Goodman, Steve. “Fei Ch’ien Rinse Out: Sino-Futurist Under-Currency.” Pli, vol. 7, 1998, pp. 155–172.

Greenspan, Anna. Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Greenspan, Anna and Mikkel Bindslev. “Zones of Experimentation.” ŠUM: Journal for Contemporary Art Criticism and Theory, vol. 13, 2020, pp. 1873–1884.

Hui, Yuk. The Question Concerning Technology in China. Urbanomic Media, 2016.

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Land, Nick. “Re-Animator.” 2011.

Lek, Lawrence. “Sinofuturism (1839–2046 AD).”, 2016.

Liu, Jia. Have a Nice Day. Produced by Nezha Bros. Pictures and Le-joy Animation Studio. 17 Feb. 2017.

Lynteris, Christos. “The Prophetic Faculty of Epidemic Photography: Chinese Wet Markets and the Imagination of the Next Pandemic.” Visual Anthropology, vol. 29, no. 2, 2016, pp. 118–132.

Thouny, Christophe. “Waiting for the Messiah: The Becoming-Myth of Evangelion and Densha otoko.” Mechademia, vol. 4, no. 1, 2009, pp. 111–129.