Fictional History and Post Mao Zhishifenzi: Visions of the Past and Future

Richard Lee

Asia Institute, University of Melbourne

It is a commonly-held view that Chinese civilization is vitally concerned with history. For much of the imperial period, intellectuals in China often looked to the Western Zhou dynasty for exemplary models of statecraft and social relations, while in more recent times the party-state has been active in the production of legitimizing historical narratives. In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping’s policy of replacing the principle of class struggle with leadership by experts created a class of post-Mao zhishifenzi who, after the class was disestablished after 1989, began to produce narratives within literature and film which located recent history as the origin of a contemporary moral crisis.  These fictional histories convey a class view of the emphatic lessons of history unavailable elsewhere. In this presentation, I observe that fictional history identifies a perennial tendency in Chinese culture towards categorization and exclusion which only superficially differs in its objects and scope from time to time. I argue that in identifying this tendency, post-Mao zhishifenzi express a profound pessimism towards prospects for the future success of the state’s program of social harmony and unity.


Richard Lee is an assistant lecturer and tutor in the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne. He has recently completed a doctoral dissertation entitled An Inconsolable Cry: Yu Hua, Fictional History and China’s post-Mao zhishifenzi.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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