Tales of Futures Past: Anticipation and the Ends of Literature in Contemporary China

Tales of Futures Past: Anticipation and the Ends of Literature in Contemporary China

Tales of Futures Past: Anticipation and the Ends of Literature in Contemporary China

Tales of Futures Past: Anticipation and the Ends of Literature in Contemporary China


Most studies of Chinese literature conflate the category of the future with notions of progress and nation building, and with the utopian visions broadcast by the Maoist and post-Mao developmental state. The future is thus understood as a preconceived endpoint that is propagated, at times even imposed, by a center of power. By contrast, Tales of Futures Past introduces "anticipation"-the expectations that permeate life as it unfolds-as a lens through which to reexamine the textual, institutional, and experiential aspects of Chinese literary culture from the 1950s to 2011. In doing so, Paola Iovene connects the emergence of new literary genres with changing visions of the future in contemporary China.

This book provides a nuanced and dynamic account of the relationship between state discourses, market pressures, and individual writers and texts. It stresses authors' and editors' efforts to redefine what constitutes literature under changing political and economic circumstances. Engaging with questions of translation, temporality, formation of genres, and stylistic change, Iovene mines Chinese science fiction and popular science, puts forward a new interpretation of familiar Chinese avant-garde fiction, and offers close readings of texts that have not yet received any attention in English-language scholarship. Far-ranging in its chronological scope and impressive in its interdisciplinary approach, this book rethinks the legacies of socialism in postsocialist Chinese literary modernity.


It is easy to gather a kind of energy from the rapid disintegration of an
old, destructive and frustrating order. But these negative energies can
be quickly checked by a sobering second stage, in which what we want
to become, rather than what we do not now want to be, remains a so
largely unanswered question…. This is of course much easier to project
than to do, but it is in fact far from easy, under current pressures and
limits, even to project it. Yet one immediately available way of creating
some conditions for its projection, and perhaps for its performance, is
now … to push past the fixed forms in the only way that is possible, by
trying to understand their intricate and diverse formations, and then to
see, through and beyond them, the elements of new dynamic formations.

Raymond Williams, Afterword to Modern Tragedy

YE YONCLIE’S Little Smarty Travels to the Future (1978) was as much a jump forward in imagination as it was a resumption of aspirations of the past. The first science fiction book for children published after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Little Smarty recounts the adventures of a young journalist on his tour to Future City, where cars fly across the clear sky and an artificial moon brightens the nights. In this fantasyland of technologically induced happiness, giant vegetables and synthetic rice have solved all food shortage problems, and manual labor is performed by robots. Let us imagine a child reading about these wonders some place in China at the turn of the 1980s: a nine-year-old squatting on the edge of a dusty alley, leafing through a tiny booklet bought for a few pennies at a nearby kiosk or borrowed from a relative or friend. How did those water-drop-shaped plastic cars intermingle with the powerful hands of revolutionary heroes and the dignified protagonists of old vernacular novels that also crowded the illustrated booklets so popular at the time?

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