Culture & Media in Post-Socialist China


A review of Information Fantasies: Culture and Media in the Post-Mao “New Era,” by Xiao Liu.

The transition from socialism to post-socialism is undoubtedly pivotal to the understanding of contemporary Chinese society and its cultural politics. Though sharply divided due to the radical ideological reversal in the wake of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), these two historical periods were still grounded in seemingly shared ideological underpinnings, such as the state’s developmental impulse, the propaganda of scientific popularization, the techno-utopian imagination of society, the social members’ devotion to work, the human-machine conjunction, as well as the negotiation of the boundary between mental and manual labor. Liu’s discussion of the difference between the ideologies of these two historical periods is always concomitant with her strong awareness of the historical connectedness. Xiao Liu’s dissertation explores how the rising ideology of “information society” exerted profound impact upon and engaged in an active interaction with fiction and film produced in the post-Mao period. Liu’s central concern — “information fantasies” — aims to show that literature and film in the post-Mao period “have to be reexamined in terms of the conflictually charged reconfiguration between the body and media, affect and control that takes place with the rise of a cybernetic society” (p. 52).

In this impressive and ambitious study, Liu’s perceptive reading of the literary and cinematic texts is combined with theoretical rigor and sophistication. She beautifully weaves together scientific observations, technological innovations, intellectual discourses, popular cultural phenomena, aesthetic features, official ideology, and concrete expressions in film and fiction. Broadly drawing upon scientific, communication, media, and cultural theories, Liu creatively juxtaposes various types of materials which work together to generate a renewed understanding of post-Mao cultural politics, and in this way she leads readers to experience the adventurous journey of the “information society.”

Liu’s dissertation comprises five chapters. In the introductory chapter, the author lays out the central notion of “information society” by giving theoretical definitions of information, the interface of humans and machines, and affective labor in relation to the social context of the 1980s that favored scientism and modernization. The phenomenon of “information fantasies” resulted from the historical transition from the socialist industrialization of agriculture and manufacture to the imagination of a coming age of information technology. Or, in the words of Alvin Toffler, it was a revolutionary change from the standardized, concentrated, centralized, and mass-scale industrial production (“second wave”) to a more diversified, flexible, and small-scale production and service (“third wave”) (p. 3). To Liu, such information fantasies were symptomatic of, responded to, complicated, and offered imaginary solutions to the urgent social tasks facing the post-Mao period — the self-conscious negotiation with the intractable history of the Cultural Revolution and the strong desire for self-renewal. Highlighting her central concern with “information body,” Liu explores the way in which humans and machines were connected to, negotiated, and ultimately redefined each other. This process was accompanied by a radical redefinition of knowledge in which “the social and material dimensions of knowledge production and circulation were (at least imaginatively) displaced by an information transmission mode of communication” (p. 7). Liu’s dissertation is constantly in dialogue with American futurologist Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave and American sociologist Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. On the one hand, Liu draws from the works of Toffler and Bell, highlighting the dematerialization of information/knowledge and its removal from the realm of the social (which is distinct from the Marxist industrial labor); on the other hand, Liu challenges Bell’s assertion of information society as knowledge-based economy.

Beginning with a news report on the phenomenon of “extrasensory powers” (teyi gongneng 特异功能) and the rise of the “somatological science” (renti kexue 人体科学, a term coined by Qian Xuecen 钱学森), Chapter 2 discusses how the renewed notion of human body as a complicated system of information circuits resonated with the developmental state’s goal to cultivate educated labor. Foregrounding the liberating power of the somatological science that would release the potential of the human body, Liu distinguishes the post-Mao human body from the revolutionary human body: the former was conceived of as an information processing machine, whereas the latter mainly relied upon human will to overcome difficulties and increase production. In her detailed analysis of the qigong fever that emerged in the early 1980s, Liu links the traditional notion of qi with the wave of information, and therefore demonstrates not only the connection between human beings and devices, but also how qigong performs in a way close to the flow of information within and among different systems. Departing from the prevailing discourses favoring science and rationality of the post-Mao era, Liu convincingly argues that the linkage in fact reveals the perennial intertwining and conflicts between enlightenment and enchantment. Situating the above conflictual social forces and sentiments within the publication boom of science fiction, Liu uses a story entitled “A Snow Girl” (in which electronic devices and magical powers are associated) as an example to illustrate the blurred boundaries between science and pseudoscience, between reality and fantasy. In Liu’s detailed analysis of a story “A Lost Dream” in relation to its gender depiction and the use of free-indirect speech, she not only questions the neutral nature of information and science which were conceived as powerful universal language, but also reveals the difficulty/impossibility of maintaining an autonomous interiority eagerly desired by Chinese intellectuals in the post-Mao period.

Chapter 3 takes up a comparative reading of Wei Yahua’s characterization of a robot doctor in “A Curious Case” (1981) and Shen Rong’s representation of a human doctor Lu Wenti who is known for her superb medical expertise in “A Middle Age” (人到中年). Liu situates the growing cult of expert system, professionalism, as well as scientific rationality in the 1980s within the transition from the socialist political fervor to professional “coolness” in the post-Mao period. This process was concomitant with the unsettled, incompatible relationship between manual labor and mental labor, and the devaluation and increasing invisibility of manual labor in post-Mao China. The shared similarity between human and machine, Liu further argues, on the one hand, reveals an increasingly specialized intelligentsia with instrumentalized labor, but on the other hand, shows the subsequent social anxiety that had to be coped with through incorporating a depoliticized form of affective labor into the expert system. The combination of professional “coolness” and emotional “warmness,” professional authority and gentleness, embodied in the character of Lu Wenting, demonstrates how the “interface” in the human-machine-communication worked to redefine the fluid notion of human.

Chapter 4 turns to the discussion of system theory and cybernetics within 1980s Chinese intelligentsia. Both system theory and cybernetics are represented by the scientific notion of the “ultra-stable system” raised in Jin Guantao [金观涛] and Liu Qingfen [刘青峰]’s Prosperity and Crisis: on the Ultra-stable Structure of Feudal Society in China (1983), as well as in the new aesthetics experimented by Fifth Generation filmmakers such as Chen Kaigai in his much acclaimed film Yellow Earth. Liu aims to show how the perennial concern with the stagnancy of Chinese culture since the turn of the twentieth century was represented in new forms of art and aesthetic features. Liu examines the “deep cultural structure of this ancient land” (p. 87) in relation to the new cinematic language such as long shots of immobile images and the slow rhythm in Yellow Earth. In her following discussion of Huang Jianxin’s film Black Cannon Incident, Liu adopts Douglas R. Hofstadter’s aesthetics of “strange loop” — the symbols of the cause-and-effect circularity — to characterize the relationship between a human agent and his environment, between observer and system, and between the intellectuals and the culture around them. This new aesthetic form worked as a political critique of the anxiety toward an impeded modernization.

Chapter 5 goes on to discuss the new understanding of cinema as an emancipatory power that constituted the central concern of both intellectual discourses and aesthetic experiments. This tendency is characterized by the homology between cinematic images and psychological flux — a reorientation of our understanding of cinema towards its dynamics with the audience. The transition from the ossified form of socialist realism to the post-Mao’s reinvention of cinema as a plastic media is characterized as a transformation from representation bound by the rectangular screen to an experience of sensuality and sentiment on the audience’s part. The linkage with the human’s innermost feelings such as “oneiric impulse” (p. 109) empowered cinema with unprecedented mobility and created a media-saturated society that integrated media space with living space. The permeation between technology and sensuality, as Liu explains, shows that “this mobility of cinema and media could not be separated from the fantasy of freedom generated by the post –Mao Opening and Reform era” (p. 109). Liu then further argues that the sensorial turn was “supported by a new understanding of human perception and consciousness informed by information science” (p. 112). Nonetheless, Liu also reveals that the fantasy of freedom was soon shadowed by the crisis of the domestic film industry resulting from factors such as the rise of TV series and the market-oriented film distribution — a crisis that reveals how enlightenment intellectuals were confronting the new threat from the market economy.

Liu constructs a splendid culture of “information fantasies” constituted by new forms of literary and media practices. Readers will be amazed by Liu’s highly creative and innovative approach, breaking down the boundary that separates two seemingly disparate fields: scientific practice and aesthetic expression. In this way, Liu returns to the nature of aesthetics which was originally conceived as the science of the sensual experiences (see Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten). In doing so, Liu adroitly locates the sensual within the rational, the affective within the professional, the humane within the mechanical, and finally, the authoritative within the fantasy of freedom. In addition, 1980s culture has often been conceived as a resumption of the once broken May Fourth tradition about enlightenment, science, and democracy, as if another round of historical cycle restarted. Liu’s discussion of these perennial issues (which have dominated the minds of modern Chinese intelligentsia) highlights new forms and the combinations of new elements with which these issues reappeared in their most intriguing and uncanny manner.

Yu Zhang
Ph.D. Candidate
Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures
Stanford University

Primary Sources

Chen Kaige 陈凯歌,Yellow Earth  黃土地  (1984)
Huang Jianxin 黄建新 dir. Black Cannon Incident 黑炮事件 (1985)
Jin Guangtao 金观涛 and Liu Qingfeng 刘青峰. Xinsheng yu weiji: lun zhongguo fengjian shehui de chaowending jiegou 兴盛与危机:论中国封建社会的超稳定结构 [Prosperity and Crisis: On the Ultrastable Structure of the Chinese Feudal Society], Changsha: Hunan renmin chubanshe, 1984.
Wang Weiyi 王为一 dir. Flight of Fantasies 异想天开  (1986)
Wei Yahua. “Diushi de meng 丢失的梦 [A Lost Dream].” Xiaoshuo Lin [Forest of Fiction] 3 (1983): 31-48.
—— Qiyi de Anjian 奇异的案件 [A Curious Case]. Xi’an: Shangxi renmin chubanshe, 1981.
Shen Rong 谌容. “At Middle Age” [人到中年].

Dissertation Information

University of California, Berkeley. 2013. 151 pp. Primary Advisor: Andrew F. Jones.

Image: Still Frame from Yellow Earth. Wikipedia.