Found in Translation

China’s First Sci-Fi Movie Called Out Mao’s Cultural Revolution

After banning the genre for a decade, China’s sci-fi revolution finally began in 1980.

Originally Published: 
Death Ray on Coral Island
Lais Borges/Inverse; Shanghai Film Studio
Found in Translation

Imagine a world where scientists are banned from and even persecuted for practicing their research in technological advancement. This was the reality in China during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. Fueled by a desire to remove all forms of capitalism from their society, Mao’s followers destroyed laboratories and burned any literature related to science — including science fiction.

Science fiction author Enzheng Tong wrote Death Ray on Coral Island in 1964 but hid it for fear of being persecuted due to the belief that the genre was created by the West to corrupt the people of China. It wasn’t until 1978, under Xiaoping Deng’s reign, that science and technology became a national priority for the country and Tong published his short story. In 1980, director Hongmei Zhang took this opportunity to adapt Tong’s story into a film — keeping the original’s sense of nationalistic pride while taking other liberties to address the scientific failure of Mao’s rule.

Poster art for the movie.

Shanghai Film Studio

Set during the Cultural Revolution, amid high tensions between the government and scientists, the film delves into the lives of Zhao (Zhihao Ling) and Chen (Zhen Qiao), two of many scientists who were forced to conduct research abroad in America. Believing that they’re working for the greater good, these scientists collaborate with the nonprofit foundation Venus Corporation, led by Chinese businessman Mr. Blancis (Qiu Yuefeng), and successfully create an atomic battery. However, they quickly learn that the corporation (and Blancis) are a front for evil Western and Soviet foreigners who plan to use the battery for nefarious reasons. Zhao and Chen decide the invention would best serve to help China advance in scientific technology. In one scene, Zhao reflects on the importance of science and its painful absence in China, telling his daughter Meng Na (Ma Junqin) and Chen, “There is still more to do for science, humanity, and for our country.”

Later that night, Meng and Chen find Zhao dying after being attacked by a mysterious gunman, but not before he implores Chen to bring the battery back to China. Tasked with Zhao’s final wishes, Chen boards a plane for his homeland, but the craft is later shot down over the ocean by a laser from a foreign submarine employed by Blancis. Chen survives and ends up on a deserted island where not everything is what it appears to be. The island is inhabited by a reclusive Chinese scientist, Dr. Matthew (Qiao Qi), and his loyal mute assistant. The doctor’s facility is filled with advanced technology, including moveable walls and wireless speaker communication.

Coral Island is portrayed as a utopia for scientists.

Shanghai Film Studio

This island, portrayed as a utopia for scientists to create whatever invention they desire, serves as a metaphor for the isolation Chinese scientists felt from their homeland. Though director Hongmei Zhang never mentioned taking inspiration from other media, one can’t help but notice the similarities to Star Trek: The Original Series and Doctor Who with regard to special effects and metal costume design. The production aesthetics also give an early- to mid-’70s feel with the bright retro-campy tone. This was intentional, as Zhang wanted to set the time during Mao’s decade of power when time stopped for the scientific community.

Chen eventually learns that Matthew is actually Zhao’s former mentor, Dr. Hu, who everyone believed was dead. Matthew explains that he was wrongfully sent to a mental institution, but Blancis “rescued” him by bringing him to the island to create inventions for the Venus Corporation, including the death ray. He realizes he’s been tricked by Blancis for the past 10 years and kept as a prisoner on the island, while his inventions are used by vile foreign powers.

It’s no coincidence that Matthew had been trapped on the island for 10 years — the same amount of time as the Cultural Revolution. Despite Death Ray on Coral Island having the scientists maintain a sense of loyalty to the motherland, the film calls out China’s dark period of turning away scientists, leaving them susceptible to Western influence. Even Matthew’s forced name change from “Hu” showcases foreign power as they attempt to claim China’s scientific leaders as their own.

The movie takes a harsh view of Western imperialists.

Shanghai Film Studio

Although the West offered sanctuary for Chinese scientists during the Cultural Revolution, America and its allies become the villains of this story, symbolizing corruption and capital gain. Zhang pokes fun at white foreigners, depicting them as brutes with heavy white-face makeup and prosthetics as they attempt to steal the atomic battery. Even ethnically Chinese businessman Blancis, who is seen as a traitor to the Chinese people, looks to be more Westernized by whitening his features, symbolizing his yearning to be like them.

Blancis and his foreign associates visit Matthew with the knowledge that he has the atomic battery in his possession. They take the battery and all of Matthew’s project documents and leave via submarine. This event triggers Matthew to have a heart attack. As his final act before dying, he uses his “death ray” to destroy the submarine — killing the antagonists and destroying all the inventions, including the designs for the laser beam and battery. Chen is rescued by Mona just in time as the island explodes due to a bomb planted by Blancis earlier. As they speed off into the sunset, a pink mushroom cloud of smoke forms over the destruction. Chen says in a voiceover as he speeds back to his homeland of China that the justice and ideals of scientists will never be forgotten, leaving a level of optimism for the future.

Death Ray on Coral Island predicted both the rise of Chinese sci-fi and real-life technological advancements in China in the years that followed.

Shanghai Film Studio

Though the story ends on a hopeful note for scientific advancement in China, the genre faced another backlash during the short-lived Anti-Spiritual Pollution period when conservatives in the Communist Party blamed science fiction for spreading pseudoscience and promoting decadent capitalist elements. Tong, who wrote the original short story that inspired Death Ray on Coral Island, ended up fleeing China to the United States after the crackdown on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Nevertheless, the story remains a staple in China’s film history. The core message that science will eventually bring a promising future seems almost prophetic, as the country became a world power in scientific technology once it began to embrace sci-fi. Years later, Cixin Liu’s Hugo Award-winning novel (and soon-to-be television series) The Three-Body Problem took a similar approach in its depiction of the effects of the Cultural Revolution on scientific discovery — and that’s just one example of Death Ray on Coral Island’s influence on Chinese sci-fi.

Despite its campy look and cheesy special effects, Death Ray on Coral Island’s legacy as the first Chinese science fiction film remains, serving as a window through a time period between the Cultural Revolution and the golden age of science fiction that followed.

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