Such restrictions have led military fantasy writers to publish their work online, where censorship is less strict. Blood and Iron Reading, the largest web platform for military literature, provides roughly 2,500 free military novels to download, and boasts an average of 30 million unique visitors per month. It is named after a famous speech delivered by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1862, about the unification of German territories. "Bismarck is a popular figure among Chinese military aficionados," explains Jiang Lei, the website's founder, in a 2012 interview with the Chinese magazine People Weekly.
China has a long tradition of fantasy writing, from the 16th century novel Journey to the West, about a monkey who fights demons, to the 18th-century ghost story collection Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. But the utopia/dystopian tradition prevalent in Western science fiction is shorter in China -- the first major work to explore it was the 1902 book The Future of New China. Written by prominent early 20th-century scholar Liang Qichao, the book imagines China in 1962, when it has achieved constitutional democracy. Liang's writings on the need for radical change in China had a big influence on Mao Zedong, who bought into the idea of constructing a future mortgaged on the present. (The chairman was less interested in constitutional democracy, however.)
After the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, science fiction and fantasy novels became heavily guided by communist ideology. The goal of these literature works became describing "the future of communist society, free from class struggle and committed to the reconciliation of humanity and nature," wrote Wu, the Chinese sci-fi scholar, in an essay titled "Great Wall Planet: Introducing Chinese Science Fiction." In an interview, he cited the story "A Fantasia of Communism," set in 2000 and written in 1958, during the Great Leap Forward. In it, a worker visits Beijing to report on his progress and meets a 107-year-old Chairman Mao amid "abundant vegetable gardens" and "automated factories that produce hundreds of thousands of tons of steel every day."
The novels have always been linked to China's exploration of its national identity. "Chinese science fiction writers have been dreaming the Chinese dream since the end of the Qing dynasty," wrote Han Song, one of China's best-known sci-fi writers, in a blog post in April. "Now, we have the responsibility of dreaming a better dream," echoing Xi's slogan, which he described as "the great renewal of the Chinese nation" -- often interpreted as a return to 18th- or 8th-century China, when the country dominated world affairs.
Many military fantasy novels use history as a mirror for self-examination. A large number portray the Chinese as valiant and fierce warriors unflinching in the face of foreign troops and weapons -- very different from how they feel about themselves. "The so-called modern Chinese are in fact the post-Qing Chinese, castrated of their martial spirit," Li wrote in an April blog post. Often, beneath a veneer of national pride flows an undercurrent of self-examination and criticism. Han's novel 2066: Red Star Over America, portrays the United States in the throes of a Cultural Revolution, where bands of marauding U.S. students fight battles in the country's ravaged countryside. China is the world's top superpower, and an earthquake has sunk Japan, erasing it from the map. The protagonist, a Chinese Go player and diplomatic envoy, tries to return civilization to a crumbling United States. On the surface, the novel portrays a powerful future China and a decaying America -- but another way to read it is as a subtle rebuke of the Chinese regime's weakness and xenophobia during its own Cultural Revolution.
Another common theme running through the books is China -- sometimes violently -- forcing the world to become more harmonious. The motif is present in Liang's The Future of New China, set at an international conference in Shanghai, in which countries from all over the world come to pay tribute to China, as well as in recent works such as Being with You, about a seven-man group that leads humans to resist the invasion of aliens. "Chinese science fiction writers are often preoccupied with the feeling that the world should be united," Wu says. "But they still seem to feel China is marginalized, not included in the world order." Throughout history, Li observes, China has often evoked suspicion and hostility abroad: "China's biggest strength lies in its giant population, which is a major historical reason why it became known as the Yellow Peril."