Observations on China’s literary market #2: “Back in time” fiction


Time travel is a popular theme in literature, not only in science fiction and fantasy, but also in other popular genres such as romance, mystery and/or detective, crime, and even horror. According to Wikipedia, The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells and published in 1895, was “instrumental in moving the concept of time travel to the forefront of the public imagination”. Today, as demonstrated by BBC’s Doctor Who, the “longest-running science fiction television show in the world”, time travel still plays an important role in shaping people’s ideas of time, history, home, redemption, and righting wrongs.

With time travel, one can go forward to the future or back to the past, or both. In terms of “back in time” fiction, many readers would remember Marlys Millhiser’s The Mirror, which is defined by Wikipedia as a horror novel. Perhaps you, too, have cried over Richard Matheson’s Bid Time Return, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, and even Audrey Niffenegger’s Time Traveler’s Wife. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Stephen King’s 11/22/63 may have also grabbed your attention.

In China, in terms of time travel, a considerable number of authors and readers are into “back in time” fiction. Perhaps the first famous “back in time” novel published in the Chinese world is by Taiwanese author Xi Juan, whose 1993 book Cross-Time Love depicts how, having died in a car accident, a young woman was sent to the past to marry a cold-hearted man in exchange of a new life. Such a theme of “back in time” was so refreshing and tasty back then that the book is described as a representative piece of “ice cream literature”.

By the time Cross-Time Love was introduced to China in 2009, “back in time” fiction had long become a literary fashion among of the country’s huge population, particularly among young readers. Starting from the early 21st century, “back in time” fiction boomed in China and slowly developed two significant branches — “male-oriented fantasy” and “female-oriented romance”.

In many of the “back in time” novels popular among male readers, the male protagonists travel back to the “turning points” of Chinese history. Examples include the “Warring States” period (475BC-221BC) and the “Three Kingdoms” period (220-280) when various warlords fought for dominance, the end of the Southern Song Dynasty in the 13th century when China was taken over by the Mongols, and the end of the Qing Dynasty in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the country was humiliated and further invaded by various foreign powers. Shouldering the responsibility of saving their country and fellow people, the protagonists use their superior (read: modern) knowledge, talents and skills — and sometimes martial arts techniques — to help solving all sorts of problems. They employ a sense of mission and explore the possibility of developing alternative histories and civilizations.

In contrast, in most “back in time” novels popular among female readers, the female protagonists travel to the past to encounter fascinating men, such as emperors and princes, rich, successful and handsome businessmen, or poor scholars with good looks and talents. The protagonists invariably employ their superior (read: modern) knowledge, talents and skills to win the hearts of these men and establish leading careers. Even when their stories are tragic, these women’s lives in the past are full of glorious moments.

Other observations can be made on China’s “back in time” novels. For example, there are four different “styles” of traveling to the past. Firstly, the protagonist may be physically back in time. Secondly, the protagonist may be alive or dead, and his or her spirit may go back in time and occupy the body of someone already dead or still alive; or he or she may return to their previous life. Thirdly, the protagonist may simply become someone in the past. Finally — and perhaps most interestingly — the protagonist may experience time in a different speed, fall into a parallel universe, or become trapped in a disrupted junction of time and space.

In terms of “how” to travel to the past, it can be done through a medium (such as antiques or old jewelry), a special person (such as a deity, an immortal, an alien or even a monster), an accident (such as a car accident, a drowning or an electric shock), a prophecy (such as a dream, an omen, a telling of fortune or a family legend), a suicide (which needs no explanation), a decision (by someone who already has the power to travel in time), or for no reason at all (such as a rest on the bed, a walk down the street, or even a simple sneeze). Needless to say, the protagonist of a “back in time” novel can be back to a real moment in Chinese history, or a time that is completely fabricated. The former requires the author’s familiarity with “real” Chinese history, while the latter involves his or her ability to construct a comprehensive and coherent world.

In 2006, three famous “back in time” novels featured female protagonists traveling to Qing Dynasty and therefore marked the beginning of the “back to Qing” trend. Starting in 1644 when the Manchus conquered China and ending in 1912 with the establishment of the Republic of China, Qing Dynasty reached its height in the second half of the 18th century to rule lands far and near, from today’s China proper to Xinjiang, Tibet and Afghanistan to the West, to India, Nepal, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam to the South, to Inner Mongolia, Outer Mongolia and Manchuria to the north, and to Japan and Korea to the east. More importantly, the dynasty’s 13 rulers and their numerous wives, concubines, children, relatives, friends, enemies, officials, warlords, eunuchs and other servants provide ample topics for today’s “back to Qing” novels.

In 2007, various major “back in time” novels began to move from the Internet to brick-and-mortar bookstores across China. Many of them were also adapted into television series, attracting millions of Chinese viewers who may or may not consider them as alternative history teaching and learning materials. Inevitably, there are critics, teachers and parents who accuse these novels as misleading and shallow interpretations of “real” history that will misguide and even disrupt the minds of Chinese young people. Others, including both authors and readers, argue that many of these novels are not only entertaining but also informative. As long as people are curious about time and history, about their own past, present and future, “back in time” novels will, and should, continue to exist.

Finally, it may be helpful to point out the existence of various Chinese “back in time” novels featuring foreign lands and cultures, such as ancient Egypt, Japan, Europe of the Middle Ages, ancient India and even the famed city of Babylon. Perhaps the most entertaining (to the Chinese readers) is The Eagle of America, which currently contains nearly 800,000 Chinese characters online and boasts approximately 136,000 page views per month. The novel features a Chinese man who becomes a Caucasian American on the eve of the Pacific War. He joins the War against Japan and later becomes General Douglas MacArthur’s deputy, using his power to not only shape the destiny of modern Japan but also stop China’s civil war, creating friendship between the country’s nationalists and communists. Later, the guy establishes America’s largest arms trading company, helps American forces to win the Vietnam War, prevents President John F. Kennedy from being assassinated, and eventually becomes an American president himself. Even a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is named after him…

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