America. The Land of Opportunity. A car in every garage, a chicken in every pot, and a zombie novel in every backpack. We can have it all, including imaginative works of world’s end writing. But across the Pacific, Chinese apocalyptic fiction hardly qualifies as a genre.
“The American canon is rich in apocalyptic literature,” writes Isaac Stone Fisch for Foreign Policy. “But while the Chinese have on occasion written apocalyptic fiction, with few exceptions its authors can never bear—or dare—to destroy their country.”
The lack of Chinese apocalyptic fiction is perplexing, considering the conditions are perfect for its abundance. Fisch continues on the contrast with America:
The irony is stark. The United States is a stable, raucous democracy, whose only real flirtation with chaos was the bloody American Civil War. China’s 5,000 years of history, on the other hand, are lousy with apocalypses: cycles of destruction and rebirth, plateaus of peace and prosperity punctured by eras of stagnation and disease, of natural and man-made disasters robbing the rulers of the Mandate of Heaven and catalyzing wrenching dynastic changes.
Fisch suggests a few reasons for the dearth. Lack of a rapture-ready Judeo-Christian tradition in the Middle Kingdom is a big one. Chinese religions tend to have a rosier, utopian outlook on the progress of civilization. Additionally, Chinese culture reveres nature. Withdrawing into its peacefulness to reflect on issues is chosen over solving disputes via divine vengeance. More recently, the censorious rule of Communism has made all writers of Chinese apocalyptic fiction disappear (as if raptured). But even the origin of Chinese Communism rings apocalyptic. “Mao believed he could create an ideal new China,” explains Fisch, “by destroying the current one.”
Despite the odds, a few works of Chinese apocalyptic fiction and creative writing have survived. Together they offer a glimpse into a very different end times cosmology than what we’re used to in the United States. The article details a handful, from the 4th-Century Taoist Divine Incantations Scripture to Wang Lixiong’s Tiananmen Square Massacre-inspired Yellow Peril to Liu Cixin’s brand new Three-Body trilogy. It seems the writing has a function in China.
As Sheng Yun, contributing editor of the Shanghai Review of Books, told Fisch: “Most apocalyptic themes have a sense of reckoning, which is a human need.”