Subversive texts: illness and disability in Chinese contemporary science fiction

haihong li


This paper shall focus on works of Chinese contemporary sci-fi to show their strategic use of themes of illness and disability for social commentaries.  As many sci-fi works in the West celebrate the great potential and power of technology in relation to illness and disability, their depictions of illness and disability suggest the opposite.   Chinese sci-fi authors under discussion here show more interest in depicting individuals as victims instead of beneficiaries of technological advancement.  These concerns of illness and disability not only challenge the hegemonic narrative of harmony, healthiness, and happiness propagated by the authorities, but also engage with serious social criticism, as opposed to claims made by critics such as Yang Xiao which argue that Chinese sci-fi is mainly dominated by “hard science fiction” without “social problem” science fiction (Yang, p.121).  The stories I shall discuss here focus on the poor living conditions of the marginalized, the weak, and the powerless by presenting their struggles against the invisible yet omnipresent controlling power.  As sci-fi always mirrors the present, such stories reflect the deep-seated anxiety and even fear in today’s China as machines and technology increasingly empower and strengthen not the people but the ruling class.  In the following discussion, I shall focus on the themes of disability and illness in the works from the latest generation of Chinese science fiction writers, who were born between the late 1970s and 1980s.  These writers include Liu Cixin, Chan Koonchung, Hao Jinfang, Xia Jia, and Ma Boyong, most of whose works have been made accessible to Anglophone readers thanks to the excellent translations by Chinese American author and translator Ken Liu.

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