Welcome to the strange -- and terrifying -- underground world of Chinese military fantasy novels.
- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He is on sabbatical from Foreign Policy Magazine., Helen GaoA Beijing native, Helen Gao is a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy and an MA candidate in East Asian Studies at Harvard.
It is the year 2049. China’s economic development has so disturbed the world’s other major powers that the United States, Japan, and Russia form an alliance and invade China. Fierce battles break out on the plains of northeast China, where Japanese troops and U.S. fighter jets besiege Chinese infantry. Caught by surprise, China’s army nonetheless stages a glorious counterattack by deploying levitating tanks, and employing a strategy based on lessons learned from the Anti-Japanese War and the Resist America War (better known in the West as WWII and the Korean War, respectively).
Such is the plot of The Last Counterattack, a serial novel published on Blood and Iron Reading, a Chinese military literature website. In one of the latest installments, published on May 2, U.S. government-sponsored hackers have infiltrated the Chinese military’s network and accidently launched a Chinese nuclear missile directed at the United States. The anonymous author’s online profile says he is a former colonel in the People’s Liberation Army and currently a staff officer in charge of operations and reconnaissance in the 12th Armored Division at China’s 21st Army Group. Going by the online pseudonym "the Old Staff Officer," he told FP in an interview conducted over the Chinese messaging service QQ that he "enjoys the feeling of letting [his] imagination fly." But Li, as I’ll call him, believes that what he’s writing may actually come to pass. In an April blog post, he explained his thinking for the book: "The world besieges China and attacks it from all sides. Is this possible? Yes!"
There are thousands of Chinese war fantasy novels on the Internet — too sensitive to be published in book form, they circulate on blogs, and websites like Blood and Iron Reading. Most languish, but the more popular ones get read millions of times. As a rising China struggles to define its military aspirations, and as the country’s vast propaganda apparatus encourages citizens to define their version of President Xi Jinping’s vague slogan "Chinese Dream," these military fantasy novels provide insight into what Chinese people’s war dreams look like.
The novels follow one of two distinctive patterns. Most take place in the past, often during periods when China suffered a series of traumatic invasions. "In China, science fiction demonstrates people’s hope to transcend reality, and the reality is that China often loses," says Wu Yan, an education professor at Beijing Normal University and a scholar of Chinese science fiction. (Military fantasy novels fit into this genre, though compared with other science fiction, tend to focus more on international relations and less on technology.) Some of the novels feature modern characters that travel back in time to defend China from humiliation. In 1894: China Rises, an unsuccessful businessman finds himself hurled back to 1883, the beginning of the Sino-French War, where he becomes an army general and defeats the invading French forces. Another novel, Resist Japan and Expel the Japanese Pirates, tells of an army major who returns to the Anti-Japanese War, and, armed with today’s technology, drives the Japanese forces out of Manchuria. Other novels, like The Last Counterattack, project into the near future, when China’s growth in economic and military strength prompts other major world powers to contain it through warfare. China always vanquishes these threats, however, through ingenious military strategies and advanced weaponry, and eventually gains the respect and prestige it deserves on the world stage.
Li declined to go into further detail about his thought process, saying he "doesn’t need fame," but he did mention his admiration for Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of defense, and his book The Next War. Published in 1997, it imagines a series of regional conflicts arising out of the United States’ "very deep cuts" in military capability, including one in which a nuclear war breaks on the Korean Peninsula and China seizes the opportunity to conquer Taiwan. "Anybody who studies war should remember Weinberger," Li says.
Military fantasies are only a subset of a broader, thriving market in military books. Unlike in the United States, where Tom Clancy can imagine a scenario where Washington attacks Beijing, Chinese censorship precludes their publishing in book form. "I was told by publishers that any novel that describes wars among different countries are strictly off-limits," says Zheng Jun, a Chongqing-based science fiction writer and an independent sci-fi literary agent who helps publishes close to 100 science fiction books each year. China "can only fight aliens or a fictional country," he says. The Golden Bullet Series, the last major Chinese military fantasy novels allowed to be published in book form, in 2003, accordingly focuses on conflicts between human beings and aliens or unidentified terrorists.
Such restrictions have led military fantasy writers to publish their work online, where censorship is less strict. Blood and Iron Reading, the largest web platform for military literature, provides roughly 2,500 free military novels to download, and boasts an average of 30 million unique visitors per month. It is named after a famous speech delivered by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1862, about the unification of German territories. "Bismarck is a popular figure among Chinese military aficionados," explains Jiang Lei, the website’s founder, in a 2012 interview with the Chinese magazine People Weekly.
China has a long tradition of fantasy writing, from the 16th century novel Journey to the West, about a monkey who fights demons, to the 18th-century ghost story collection Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. But the utopia/dystopian tradition prevalent in Western science fiction is shorter in China — the first major work to explore it was the 1902 book The Future of New China. Written by prominent early 20th-century scholar Liang Qichao, the book imagines China in 1962, when it has achieved constitutional democracy. Liang’s writings on the need for radical change in China had a big influence on Mao Zedong, who bought into the idea of constructing a future mortgaged on the present. (The chairman was less interested in constitutional democracy, however.)
After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, science fiction and fantasy novels became heavily guided by communist ideology. The goal of these literature works became describing "the future of communist society, free from class struggle and committed to the reconciliation of humanity and nature," wrote Wu, the Chinese sci-fi scholar, in an essay titled "Great Wall Planet: Introducing Chinese Science Fiction." In an interview, he cited the story "A Fantasia of Communism," set in 2000 and written in 1958, during the Great Leap Forward. In it, a worker visits Beijing to report on his progress and meets a 107-year-old Chairman Mao amid "abundant vegetable gardens" and "automated factories that produce hundreds of thousands of tons of steel every day."
The novels have always been linked to China’s exploration of its national identity. "Chinese science fiction writers have been dreaming the Chinese dream since the end of the Qing dynasty," wrote Han Song, one of China’s best-known sci-fi writers,
in a blog post in April. "Now, we have the responsibility of dreaming a better dream," echoing Xi’s slogan, which he described as "the great renewal of the Chinese nation" — often interpreted as a return to 18th- or 8th-century China, when the country dominated world affairs.
Many military fantasy novels use history as a mirror for self-examination. A large number portray the Chinese as valiant and fierce warriors unflinching in the face of foreign troops and weapons — very different from how they feel about themselves. "The so-called modern Chinese are in fact the post-Qing Chinese, castrated of their martial spirit," Li wrote in an April blog post. Often, beneath a veneer of national pride flows an undercurrent of self-examination and criticism. Han’s novel 2066: Red Star Over America, portrays the United States in the throes of a Cultural Revolution, where bands of marauding U.S. students fight battles in the country’s ravaged countryside. China is the world’s top superpower, and an earthquake has sunk Japan, erasing it from the map. The protagonist, a Chinese Go player and diplomatic envoy, tries to return civilization to a crumbling United States. On the surface, the novel portrays a powerful future China and a decaying America — but another way to read it is as a subtle rebuke of the Chinese regime’s weakness and xenophobia during its own Cultural Revolution.
Another common theme running through the books is China — sometimes violently — forcing the world to become more harmonious. The motif is present in Liang’s The Future of New China, set at an international conference in Shanghai, in which countries from all over the world come to pay tribute to China, as well as in recent works such as Being with You, about a seven-man group that leads humans to resist the invasion of aliens. "Chinese science fiction writers are often preoccupied with the feeling that the world should be united," Wu says. "But they still seem to feel China is marginalized, not included in the world order." Throughout history, Li observes, China has often evoked suspicion and hostility abroad: "China’s biggest strength lies in its giant population, which is a major historical reason why it became known as the Yellow Peril."
In the United States, the term Yellow Peril originated in the late 19th century and referred to the supposed dangers posed by Chinese immigrants working in Western countries. In China, the term is broader, referring to the prejudice and suppression Chinese experienced in the hands of Western imperial powers. The best-known recent use of the term is as the title of a 1991 dystopian novel by Beijing-based dissident writer Wang Lixiong, which is also probably the best-selling Chinese military fantasy novel (though mostly from international sales — it was banned in China). Yellow Peril imagines a civil war breaking out in China after the June 4, 1989, massacre in Tiananmen Square, unleashing hundreds of millions of Chinese refugees who cause international political mayhem by their sheer numbers.
Like Han’s 2066, many Chinese military fantasy novels feature the destruction of Japan. The most popular novel on Blood and Iron Reading is entitled Sino-Japanese War-The Prologue to World War 3, which has attracted more than 140 million pageviews. Gao Yan, a young woman who grew up near a military camp, started it in 2005 under the pen name "The Last Defender of Principles." The book envisions a full-scale Sino-Japanese War in the first decade of the 21st century, ignited by a naval clash between Japan and Taiwan near the disputed Diaoyu Islands, which the Japanese call the Senkakus. "The beginning of the novel is strong and realistic," one reader wrote in a book review. "There has always been little trust and communication between us and those guys on that archipelago [Japan]. It’s never hard to imagine the hatred between the two peoples." In the preface to the novel, Gao writes that she thinks a war between China and Japan is inevitable: "China will only become a superpower after it has pushed Japan — the obstacle — aside."
Nearly half of Chinese TV dramas made in 2012 showcase that same animosity: They take place during World War II, with cartoonish levels of violence against Japanese: Chinese soldiers hurl grenades that bring down Japanese fighter jets and tear Japanese in half with their hands (picture Inglorious Bastards shot without any sense of irony, and with Japanese in the place of Nazis, and you get the idea).
Frustration with the Chinese military is another common theme. When FP mentions the fast development of Chinese weaponry and military to Li, he says, "Yes, but we never use it." During the anti-Japanese protests in August 2012, another military fantasy writer who goes by the name "Smoking Coffee" vented a similar feeling on his Weibo account. "The Chinese anger over the Diaoyu Islands dispute is not enough to start a war, and is still being suppressed by the state," he wrote. "I want to ask, how much longer is it going to be suppressed?"
In his April blog post, Li describes the time when China was attacked by allied forces at the end of the Qing Dynasty, and draws sharp parallels to today. "In a word," he writes, "thinking of a war in which China is attacked by all sides is extremely necessary."