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Literary journeys through time reflect contemporary values

By Yang Zao | 2016-05-06 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Journey through time


Cartoon by Gou Ben; Poem by Long Yuan


A literary journey through time
Is a trip many find quite sublime.
But time travel fiction
Is not recent invention.
Qing utopian writers paved the way
For the time travel fiction we know today.
Tales of sojourns to the past and to the future
Speak to the differences of Eastern and Western cultures,
But the rush to publish
Leads to cliché creations.
Authors must rekindle the fires
Of their imaginations.


Though time travel fiction is becoming increasingly popular online, it has yet to be recognized as a separate genre of Internet literature. Usually, it is categorized according to some other aspects of the story. For example, if the protagonist is a man, then the novel will often be considered a work of historical or military fiction, while stories about time-traveling women tend to be classified as romance.
According to Baidu Baike, the Chinese equivalent of Wikipedia, the main characters in time travel fiction transcend time and space to arrive in a different era. Time travel fiction blends three staples of Internet literature—fantasy, history and romance.


Utopian fiction
Time travel fiction is not a modern invention, however. Some critics trace its origins to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The Japanese cartoon Daughter of the Nile and Travelling Back to the Qin Dynasty by Huang Yi from Hong Kong have also greatly influenced Internet literature
. But in my opinion, time travel fiction first took shape in the literary revolution that occurred in the last days of the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911).

David Der-Wei Wang, a Taiwanese-born American scholar of Chinese literature, said that utopian novels were popular in the late Qing Dynasty. Wang defined the concept thusly: “Science fiction writers built and destroyed utopias to escape, reform or criticize the real world by experimenting with various measures.” Wang said that the most complete and insightful late Qing utopian novel is the New Story of the Stone by Wu Jianren, a fantasy sequel to the late 18th Century Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber. Looking back on his career as an author, Wu said the story was more than science fiction because it also refers to idealism, society and politics.

Using today’s literary classifications, most late Qing utopian novels—like time travel fiction—would fall within the realm of speculative fiction. In these types of stories, the characters exist in an imaginary world that is often detached from a real historical background. In the first 20 chapters of the New Story of the Stone, the protagonist Jia Baoyu is in the 18th Century, but later in the story, he enters a fantasy world in the future. Jia Baoyu is also the main character of Dream of the Red Chamber, which is sometimes translated as the Story of the Stone.

The first half of the New Story of the Stone concentrates on Jia’s attempt to use pragmatism to confront the realities facing his nation, while the latter half focuses on idealism and science. In the future, perfect institutions and fantastic technologies, such as hearing aids, flying car and submarines, demonstrate to Jia Baoyu that China has become a world power, fulfilling his dream.

In fact, the New Story of the Stone has the basic features of time travel novels because it transcends time and space, thus creating alternative histories. Wu established Jia Baoyu as an observer rather than a participant in history. The enduring commercial popularity of time travel or utopian works is evidence of  their ability to capture the common values of an era.


Few of today’s time travel stories send their protagonists into the future. A distinctive feature of Chinese time travel literature is a return to a bygone era. There are mainly three changes made by time travelers: foresights, advanced technology and new values. Female time travelers simply aim to win love from powerful men rather than change the historical process. In addition, the female protagonists tend to apply values of later ages, such as gender equality to male-female relationships.


As for destinations, male travelers usually travel to a specific turn in the course of history, like the dying days of dynasties such as the Three Kingdoms (220-265), or the Song, Ming and Qing dynasties. If the backdrop is the middle period of dynasties, fiction writers tend to choose chaotic times, such as the reign of Emperor Wu of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). In these settings, individuals have a greater opportunity to turn the tide of history. These situations offer chances for the protagonist to dominate the kingdom on their own in a short amount of time, which appeals to a common fantasy of writers and readers.

In terms of technology, modern time travel stories and late Qing utopian novels both emphasize military affairs. Meanwhile, time travelers adopt all means they can to make a quick fortune, such as the introduction of potatoes and corn from foreign countries on the production of gourmet powder and canned foods.

When it comes to values, writers of today’s time travel fiction have  many more issues to consider, such as how to make the country and army stronger, how to tackle the relationships among different social classes, how to conquer imperial and gentry power as well as how to tackle crises created when time travelers become so successful that they become a threat to their masters. In this way, time travel stories of today are much more complex than those in late Qing Dynasty in terms of ideology, politics, ethics and other aspects.

But fiction writers in any era face the common challenge of engaging the readers and keeping them interested. In The History of Chinese Fiction in the 20th Century, Chen Pingyuan argues that though “one update on publications every day” changed to “two or three updates on the Internet each day,” writers still “cannot be too cautious because works might fall out of favor for any flaw.”

Compared to novels in the late Qing Dynasty, literature today faces numerous competitors, such as films, TV series and video games, so authors must innovate to keep readers’ attention. In such an atmosphere, successful Internet fiction writers are all experts in “feeding” their readers updates each day or two, and they never forget to put a suspenseful narrative hook at the end of every chapter. The constant demand in turn affects the concept and writing of fiction. This is a characteristic of Internet literature that in some ways is also an obstacle to its development.


As time goes by, once-successful narratives that rely on clichés start to bore educated readers and become the butt of jokes among today’s writers. Therefore, emerging writers strive to break set patterns through innovating writing styles, techniques and forms.

Innovations can be as simple as an increase in the number of time travellers to two or a group or even an entire city. In addition, some writers adopt new structures, forms and values.

Among the most innovative works of fiction, the constantly updated story Travelling to Lingao in the Ming Dynasty profoundly overturns the set pattern of time travel fiction. Its text is much more complex than the online introduction, which merely states that it has a group of time travelers. The more striking thing is that many people provide input, while an author dubbed “The Boaster” does the actual writing. Group writing is not unprecedented, but it is still refreshing in the history of world literature, that hundreds of people collectively create a fiction of several million Chinese characters. With different values, knowledge and capacities, hundreds of people get involved through the Internet. At the same time, it raises questions that only time can tell, such as the limitations of group writing or whether group writing can evolve into a regular writing style.

Unlike novels in the late Qing Dynasty, modern time travel fiction does not originate from the “explosive” number of translated books, so it doesn’t follow the classification of the Western literary system. Update frequency, reading habits and stable consumption drive the creation of most Internet fiction. High expectations that talented writers have for themselves and the demand for customization fuel innovation and the authorship of excellent Internet fiction.

From the late Qing Dynasty to the May Fourth Movement, literature has made its own path according the demands of the times. It also drives overall development of mass literature, thus basically reconstructing the literary system. In the future reconstruction, emerging literature may draw lessons from traditional literature, but its motivation lies right in the continuous creativities within itself.


Yang Zao is from the Institute of Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.