On the restless night of June 3, 1989, a young engineer visiting Beijing for a trade conference had a nightmare. He dreamt of a battalion of children fighting in a whiteout blizzard under the penetrating light of a supernova—that is, the sun was about to go out. The next morning, tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square to clear the thousands of protesters who had occupied it for months demanding more openness and democracy in China. The nightmare in the dreams of June 3rd and the nightmare in the reality of June 4th inspired Liu Cixin to write his first novel, The Supernova Era, though it would not be published for more than 10 years. Liu Cixin is easily the most prominent science fiction author in China today, and his Three Body Problem trilogy made waves when its first volume won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015. But his writing career, and by association the flourishing of Chinese science fiction in the wake of Three Body’s success, began with a dream.
With the protestors in Tiananmen Square died the hope that China could be anything other than a closed, authoritarian state, at least for the foreseeable future. Xi Jinping’s rise to power and subsequent crackdowns on free expression, including most notably the complete dismantling of democratic civil society in Hong Kong, seem to have only reaffirmed that totalitarian control of Chinese society is complete and enduring. When the Chinese government gets to set the agenda and define the narrative of what it means to be Chinese today, the result is a society where at times, speaking in public is less about meaning what you say and more about performing your political allegiance. In a society structured around the complete authority of the central government, language can become a tool for controlling people as much as it is a window into another’s mind. The content of what one says can be overwhelmed by the politics of why one says it, and far too many attempts to communicate become sophisticated—but empty—shells that don’t refer to anything in the real world. The artist Xu Bing captures this atmosphere quite nicely in his room-sized installations filled with books written in made-up Chinese characters: words that appear to say something meaningful, but don’t.
But sometimes there’s a slip—a glitch in the propaganda matrix that offers a glimpse of truth. And whenever this happens, art and literature exploit the gap relentlessly. Take the idea of the Chinese Dream. Xi Jinping began using the phrase in 2012 to refer to what state sources usually call “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Since then, the Chinese Dream has been a staple of patriotic rhetoric. Xi’s version of the Chinese Dream may or may not have been inspired by the American Dream, but the American Dream is a useful entry point for thinking about what Xi means. Both share the hope that every member of the nation will be able to have their basic needs met and to enjoy a fulfilling life by virtue of a booming national economy and extended period of peace. The phrase “Chinese Dream” dates back almost 2,000 years and has been used in many different ways since then. This article gives a good overview, though the author relies on the oversimplification that American culture (and the American Dream) are individualistic while their Chinese counterparts are collectivist. Xi’s version of the Chinese Dream condenses the many meanings of the Chinese Dream and erases their diversity in order to create the perception that what Chinese people want is to contribute to the country’s growing scientific, military, and economic development at all costs. This begins to make more sense when put in some basic context of Chinese history. For thousands of years, China thought of itself as the most advanced, powerful, and cultured place in the known world. But in the 19th century, increased contact with industrialized, imperialist powers in Europe, the US, and Japan shattered this worldview. China lost war after war to the Western powers and Japan. The Chinese Dream expresses a longing to reestablish China in that central position by accumulating wealth and power.
By some metrics, that dream has been achieved—it’s no secret that China’s extraordinary period of economic growth since the 1980s has propelled the country to the status of global superpower and raised the standard of living for hundreds of millions. Here’s where science fiction comes in. In Chinese science fiction, dreams mean anything and everything but empty praises for the country’s rise. When we sleep and dream, we are transported to impossible places that create their own logic. Science fiction does this too. Unanchored by the political obligation to pretend to talk about the real world, science fiction in China takes advantage of the genre’s dreamlike qualities to say what cannot be said directly and create a new diversity of possible answers to the question, “What dreams does China have for its future?”. Freud thought that dreams were unconscious expressions of truths our conscious minds refuse to accept. I can’t say whether Freud was right as a matter of scientific accuracy, but science fiction is like Freud’s theory of dreams in that it shows the truths that its authors and the societies in which they live might be less than keen on discussing. Chinese science fiction is worth reading because it shows us that the reality of China is infinitely more complicated than any narrative prejudiced by its politics, no matter whether pro- or anti-government, and that a country that appears to be closed and tightly controlled is in fact full of possibilities.
Speaking Through Science Fiction
Let’s start by returning to Liu Cixin. Liu’s Three Body Problem trilogy has drawn praise from the Chinese government because it depicts China as a major world power in the near future and, in a minor way, has helped further that goal by gaining popularity and accolades overseas. As long as he and other science fiction writers remain loyal, their work will be promoted by the government as examples of China’s growing cultural influence worldwide. When the Chinese government promotes science fiction, it is appropriating it in order to propagate a desired image of itself worldwide. Such treatment comes with strings. Liu publicly echoes the Chinese Communist Party line on subjects such as the genocide of the Uyghur people in China’s Xinjiang province, leading to a wave of criticism not only from science fiction writers and readers, but also from quarters as diverse anti-genocide activists and the US Congress. But Liu says these things because he has no choice, and they cannot be taken as truthful expressions of what he believes: say the wrong thing, and he will be branded as unpatriotic. His livelihood, his daughter’s opportunity to receive an education or get a job, and even the physical safety of him and his family could be at risk. The Chinese government frequently arrests artists and writers deemed to be critics of the government or forces them into exile. For those of us who live in liberal democracies that guarantee freedom of speech, it can be hard to imagine facing this type of retaliation. But for any writer living in mainland China, the threat of repression is never too far below the surface. This risk is heightened for someone like Liu whose writing is treated as an exemplar of the CCP’s authoritarian vision of the future, whether Liu wishes his writing to be seen that way or not. Liu Cixin knows that he is a public figure, and everything he says in public is carefully coordinated to protect himself.
One of the key plot points of The Dark Forest, the second entry in the Three Body trilogy, involves an attempt to avoid espionage by an advanced alien civilization intent on invading Earth by entrusting the planet’s defense to four people sworn to silence: they must never tell anyone what their plan to save Earth is, because doing so would also reveal it to the alien invaders. Liu has written hundreds of pages about how paranoia and secrecy are the only effective responses to surveillance by a more powerful entity. This is not only a comment on the fictional aliens in Three Body, but also on his own political situation. If Liu practices what he preaches, then he can never say what he really believes—at least not directly.
But in dreams, the truth always emerges, and that’s why it is so revealing that the premise of The Supernova Era quite literally came to Liu Cixin in a dream. A closer look at this earlier example of Liu’s work shows that his politics are not reducible to uncritical repetitions of Party dogma, and that when the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpieces praise Liu, they are misappropriating his work to further their own ends. In The Supernova Era, intense radiation from the explosion of a nearby star kills every human being older than 13, leaving children to run the world. For these children, the purpose of living is to have fun, and the world is their playground. In one memorable scene, the children of China build a life-size replica of a city entirely out of candy. But through a combination of greed and newfound freedom from adult supervision, the children’s quest for a “fun world” gets out of hand. The desire for increasingly extreme entertainment culminates when the children’s governments of China and the US stage a war in Antarctica for entertainment, a sort of bloody Olympics. The nukes come out, and the planet is once again under threat from its inhabitants.
In Chinese literature, children have long functioned as symbols of revolutionary fervor and the desire to reinvent a troubled nation, but The Supernova Era leads to some eyebrow-raising questions when read in the context of the Tiananmen Square Massacre that inspired it. Do the Chinese children in Liu’s dream and novel correspond to the protesters, who were largely college-aged? If that’s the case, does The Supernova Era imply that yielding to the protestors’ childish demands by democratizing China would lead to ruin? And what revolutionary change, exactly of the sort that Tiananmen Square showed to be impossible, would lift the children to power? Or do the children correspond to the Chinese government, both of whom resort too quickly to violent tantrums? Could an author believe both of these things at once?
None of these questions have clear answers. When western audiences engage with artists and writers from authoritarian countries, it often becomes an expectation that “good” art is dissident art. We heap praise on creatives because their skills are directed toward criticizing the governments of their home countries. The exiled Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and the Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot are good examples of this. Liu Cixin is not, but that doesn’t mean we can rightly condemn him or his work for being insufficiently subversive. Instead, we can become more attuned to the many shades of gray in his worldview, because those shades speak volumes in their Chinese context.
The Chinese Dream Gone Wrong
One function of Chinese science fiction is to imagine futures where China’s rise is complete and the Chinese Dream has been fulfilled. Visions of a hyper-technologized future in Chinese science fiction have to be understood in contrast to the reality that for the entire twentieth century, China was behind the West in terms of technology. But another function of Chinese science fiction is to question whether China’s rise has gone as smoothly as the narrative of the Chinese Dream would have it. The best Chinese science fiction is triumphalist and critical in the same breath; to live in China in this moment of massive growth and transformation is like living in a dream—or a nightmare.
The writer Han Song runs afoul of Xi Jinping’s articulation of the Chinese Dream in his most provocative story, “My Motherland Does Not Dream.” In that story, a mysterious “Darkness Committee” develops a medication that claims to be a sleep aid for overworked, stressed-out professionals and laborers. In fact, it is part of a coverup: the Darkness Committee has turned cell phone networks into an instrument for mind control, broadcasting brainwaves that make Chinese workers sleepwalk and take on second jobs at night. The “sleep aid” is in fact a mild stimulant, designed to keep people from discovering that they are sleepwalking by compensating for the fatigue it causes. Economic productivity skyrockets and the Chinese Dream seems to be a reality, but nobody in China dreams anymore. Underlying this story is the widespread sentiment that working hours in China are brutal, and the government’s relentless pursuit of economic growth structures every aspect of daily life.
When I was last in China, I saw a massive propaganda banner hung in the Beijing Railway Station that simply said “Do not forget the mission,” as if everybody already knows what that mission is. What they are supposed to remember is that you never get a break from the national mission, even on the train. Han Song’s story deals with one aspect of that “mission” that many Chinese people know all too well. Working hard brings economic growth; economic growth makes China a more powerful country. But if the Chinese Dream comes at the cost of dreams, then what was the point of the Chinese Dream in the first place? Dreaming, for Han Song, epitomizes authentic individual experience and is a prerequisite for enjoying one’s life. Han Song raises the question of what China’s rise means to Chinese people, not in terms of a 150-year historical narrative, but in the down to earth experience of personal life. What is economic growth for if nobody knows how to enjoy it? What is the glory of the nation to someone who cannot even sleep?
The dreams and nightmares contained in contemporary Chinese science fiction do not correspond to utopia and dystopia, and political critique is rarely as direct as in “My Motherland Does Not Dream,” which has never been published in mainland China. The reality of political pressures and even censorship force authors to phrase their critiques in much subtler ways. Because he is willing to push the boundaries of political acceptability, a good portion of Han Song’s otherwise prolific output is banned in China, and as a result he has never been able to develop the same widespread readership that Liu Cixin enjoys. The genre norm is much closer to Liu Cixin’s way of publicly parroting the party line while writing science fiction in a way that, when read carefully, questions some of the assumptions of that party line. This is because the regimented language of the daytime world of politics and economics is ever more disconnected from the real world; the dreams of science fiction hold the truth.
Michael O’Krent is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Harvard University. He specializes in modern Chinese literature and global science fiction. When he needs a break from that, he works on literature about environmental crises and the literary criticism of videogames. When he needs a break from his break, he can often be found hiking, camping, or cooking with friends. He lives with his partner in Cambridge, Massachusetts.