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Low Culture Fever: Pulp Science in Chinese Comics After Mao



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Stember, Nicholas 


This study presents an interlinked close reading of six science popularization picture stories (kexue puji lianhuanhua) from the late 1970s and early 1980s, contending that, in taking children and the less educated as their primary audience, these understudied texts represent a doubly abject form of transmedia storytelling. In contrast with adaptations of works of revolutionary romanticism and realism, these fantastic narratives were evaluated in terms of moral messages, literary craft, and illustrative skill. Employing a mix of literary, media, and cultural studies to draw out hidden subtexts and formal innovations, Low Culture Fever places science popularization picture stories within the context of their reception by censors and readers, as presented in first-person accounts. This multi-pronged approach brings to light the influence of the much longer legacy of “pulp science” (wei kexue) in sensational and fantastic romance and adventure fiction, otherwise obscured by the revolutionary fiction of the preceding decades. Providing far more than mere “escapism,” however, the popularity of science popularization comic books is shown to derive from their unique willingness to directly address the distinction between science and superstition; between socialism and capitalism; and between dystopia and utopia. Highlighting the heterogenous origins of science popularization comic books in the “science fables” (kexue tonghua) of the early to mid-1970s, meanwhile, supports a critical reassessment of the official launch of Reform and Opening Up (gaige kaifang) in December 1978, suggesting that this change in official policy can be more properly understood as a response to a social transformation that had already been set in motion more than a decade earlier. The lead up to the Anti-Spiritual Pollution (jingshen wuran) campaign in the fall of 1983, finally, is shown to have generated an awareness of the “otherness” of a new subculture: science fantasy fiction (kexue huanxiang xiaoshuo), drawing on the traditions of socialist “mass culture” while at the same time incorporating innovations from “Western” technothrillers and space operas.





Inwood, Heather


Chinese literature, comic books, Four Modernizations, lianhuanhua, popular science, reader response, Reform and Opening Up, science fiction


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge