Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Truth in fiction November 16, 2015 by Michele Corriel • Published 11/16/15

A virtual e-brain trust, an invisibility suit or a desperate escape from aliens may seem like entertaining science fiction, but in China stories like these have more profound implications, masking deep critiques of cultural, social and political reality.

While literature can act as a vehicle for exposing societal ills, in China it may have harsh consequences, according to Hua Li, associate professor of Chinese in Montana State University’s Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, who has turned her analytical eye to researching the subject.

“In many repressive societies across the world, science fiction has often been utilized for socio-political commentary, such as in the former Soviet Union and in today’s post-socialist China,” she said. “While appearing to point towards the future, these science fiction narratives actually provide a fresh look at the present.”

Li started the Chinese program at MSU in 2009, combining innovative teaching methods and a deep interest in modern and contemporary Chinese literature. In addition to her current research in Chinese science fiction and Chinese cinema, she has also authored several journal articles on the fiction of Yu Hua and Su Tong. Her first book about the authors, Contemporary Chinese Fiction by Su Tong and Yu Hua: Coming of Age in Troubled Times, was published by Brill in 2011. The work explores coming-of-age experiences of Chinese youth during the Cultural Revolution as reflected in contemporary literature. By looking at political cultural issues through literature, Li said she helps students to understand China through a different perspective.

Making the leap from contemporary literature to science fiction isn’t hard for Li, who grew up in Beijing in the 1980s, when socialist China experienced one of its most literary times. A great deal of literature became available then, and Li was exposed to the power of the written word.

“I was lucky to have read extensively during my teenage years,” she said. “Various literary magazines came out and reading was one of the most popular pastimes for many ordinary Chinese people. This motivated me to become a literature student and, later, a professor of Chinese literature.”

Li moved from Beijing to Vancouver, Canada, in 1999 to study at the University of British Columbia. By 2007, she had both her master’s degree and a doctorate from the University of British Columbia. After teaching at the University of Manitoba, she came to MSU in 2009. She said she could not pass up an opportunity to create a Chinese language program from the ground up, based on her experience teaching Chinese language and culture at other universities.

“I had to adjust my approach to fit the demographic of Montana students,” Li recalled. “I was pleased with the support of colleagues and enthusiasm of the students after I arrived in Montana.”

She said Bozeman and MSU have come to suit her.

“By nature, I have come to prefer life in a small city like Bozeman—a quiet, liberal-minded and culturally diverse town—as compared to (a) big metropolis like Vancouver or Beijing.”

One of her methods for building her program at MSU has been working with the Office of International Programs to take MSU students to China.

“These study abroad summer programs in China not only strengthen what the students have learned from the Chinese classes but also greatly improve their speaking Chinese skills,” Li said. “It also enhances their mastery and understanding of the language in real linguistic and cultural context.”

Li said MSU’s Chinese classes and cultural programs offer Montanans an opportunity to know and understand one of the world’s most influential civilizations.

“With over a billion speakers, Chinese is one of the top languages of international commerce and intercultural communication,” Li said. “(Being able to speak Chinese) is a valuable skill for students in many professions and the key to unlocking one of the world’s earliest and most influential civilizations. Montana students should have the opportunity to learn Chinese language and culture.”

Jeanine Schoessler, a part-time student and full-time Web programmer at MSU who went with Li to Shanghai, said examples of Li’s innovative teaching techniques include teaching students to use online tools to record themselves speaking Chinese. Li also makes her classes enjoyable by serving tea and Chinese food at the end of the semester. Li has sponsored the MSU Chinese Club since her arrival and annually helps put on MSU’s Chinese New Year celebration.

“She’s very passionate about her students and uses unique teaching tools,” Schoessler said.
Nicol Rae, dean of MSU’s College of Letters and Science, is another big admirer of Li’s.

“Hua Li was hired to build the Chinese program from scratch, and she’s done a terrific job,” he said. “She’s gone above and beyond the call of duty creating classes as well as a host of extra-curricular activities that revolve around the program.”

Rae added that the Board of Regents recently approved MSU’s offering a bachelor’s degree in Asian studies, with options in both Chinese and Japanese, thanks, in part, to Li’s work.

“She’s an outstanding faculty member in the college,” he said. “And she’s doing some interesting research. Having Hua here is a great bonus.”

Although Li isn’t presently teaching Chinese science fiction as part of her courses, she retains an active interest in researching the topic. She has published a journal article and book chapter on the work of Chinese science fiction writers Liu Cixin and Xu Nianci. Her article “Political Imagination in Chinese Critical Utopian SF China 2185: Gerontocracy, Universal Suffrage and Cyberspace,” is to be published in the fall issue of Science Fiction Studies, a prestigious academic journal on science fiction. She is currently working on her second book project with a focus on Chinese science fiction during the post-Mao thaw.

Because Chinese sci-fi has always been a sub-genre of juvenile literature in China, it has been understudied as a source of historical perspective, Li said. For a while, under the administration of the Bureau of Science and Technology, science fiction was used to encourage people to pursue science and technology. The Chinese government then banned science fiction from 1982 until 1985. It didn’t really come back until the late 1990s, when the Internet became widely accessible, Li said.

Li said the medium still offers rare insights to scholars and observers of Chinese culture and history.

“Teaching Chinese literature or, specifically, science fiction can reveal to students that Chinese literature is part of world literature and show the interaction between literary genre and individual Chinese literary works,” Li said. “More importantly, Chinese literature provides a unique lens to understand Chinese tradition, politics and culture.” ■