AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 120

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Session 120: Mr. Science at the Writing Desk: Science Fiction, Adventure, and Utopia in Modern Chinese Literature

Organizer: Nathaniel K. Isaacson , North Carolina State University, USA

Chair: John C. Hamm, University of Washington, USA

Discussant: Yan Wu, Beijing Normal University, China

At the turn of the twentieth century, seminal authors like Lu Xun, Liang Qichao and Wu Jianren saw popular genres as a mechanism for the promotion of empiricism, national consciousness and social critique; their vision is reflected in contemporary authors like Tong Enzheng and Alai. Previously denied serious academic consideration, non-realist genres including science fiction, adventure, martial arts, utopian narratives and popular science writing have begun to gain attention as scholars of modern Chinese literature have started to address their relation to colonial/imperial discourses and political critique. The papers in this panel employ varied but interrelated texts to address several key questions concerning the promotion, circulation, and reception of fictional sub-genres in twentieth-century China. How did ‘science’ come to replace the Neo-Confucian ‘investigation of things and extension of knowledge’? When western forms cross-pollinated with anecdotes, martial arts fiction and stories of the strange, what hybrids were born? Can a cooptation of the adventure tale turn the discursive knives of empire upon their wielder, and if so what issues arise? Is there “Utopia with Chinese characteristics?” How are mental and manual labor distinguished, and what becomes of humanity when labor – both productive and reproductive – is performed by machines? Such questions offer avenues of comparison that pose meaningful challenges to canonical literary history and help develop a more nuanced understanding of the place of Mr. Science in China. Note: Presentations will be limited to ten minutes; interested parties should contact Nathaniel Isaacson (nki@ucla.edu) in order to read the full-length papers prior to the conference.

Chinese Science Fiction in the Global Context
Guangyi Li, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

Science fiction is generally taken as a western genre. With Japanese science fiction as a major exception, little light has been shed on non-western and non-English science fiction. Focusing on Chinese science fiction, a vibrantly growing branch of this arguably cosmopolitan genre, this paper suggests a new field of science fiction studies. Beginning with a brief history of Chinese science fiction, this paper traces the long tradition of Chinese fantastic literature and culture, in the garden of which science fiction transplants well and blossom into new flowers. From its inception at the turn of century, Chinese science fiction joins western and worldwide science fiction in exploring some vital topics of modern world. First of all, this paper discusses two kinds of modernity involved in Chinese science fiction. National crisis of late Qing China calls for industrical modernization. Science fiction, for its assumed value of spreading science, is thus introduced to China. In effect, however, the significance of Chinese science fiction has more to do with its imagination of modern nation-states in the milieu of colonial modernity. That said, China is not simply a (semi)colony on the margin of the world system. Therefore, the paper’s second point is to address the clashes between Chinese empire and its western opponents within the specific genre of science fiction. Last but not least, this paper also discusses the utopian dimension of Chinese science fiction, which provides a new perspective to review China’s twentith-century revolution.

Why I Divorced my Robot Wife: Humans and Machines in Kehuan Xiaoshuo, 1979-1987
Paola Iovene, University of Chicago, USA

Along with other literary forms mobilized for the popularization of science, science fiction (kehuan xiaoshuo) was widely published in literary journals and popular science magazines of the 1980s. Leafing through these periodicals one finds remarkable continuities between literary genres dealing with science—fiction, xiaopin essays, film scripts, poetry, and even comic dialogues (xiangsheng)—and non-literary writings such as the “scientific news” that provided the core for many creative re-elaborations. But just as the borders between news and literature were fuzzy, so was the notion of science, which often served as a pretext to explore weird events and unconventional scenarios, expanding the scope of non-realist writing while promoting the dispositions that were deemed conducive to the current program of the Four Modernizations. Science fiction of the 1980s was an important popular genre that provided new ways of understanding the relationship between humans and machines, on the one hand, and between physical and intellectual labor, on the other. This paper focuses on the science romances by Wei Yahua, in which the distinction between manual and mental laborers is much more important than that between humans and robots. These stories present a world in which physical labor is exclusively associated with animals or machines. They thus transform the working human body from the essential element that defined humanity to one of the obstacles to its future development—the sub-human residual of an old technological regime that was about to be overcome.

A Difference of Worlds: Progress and Technology in in Wu Jianren’s New Story of the Stone (1905-6) and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).
Shaoling Ma , Pennsylvania State University, USA

Instead of seeing turn-of-the-century American and Chinese utopian fiction as a reflection of the two countries’ politico-historical incommensurability, my paper shows that the literary utopianism of the period inverts the phrase “world of differences,” and underscores a difference of worlds for the American and Chinese consciousness. I argue that a comparative project that focuses on differences of worlds, instead of on worlds of differences, takes changing global relations as a condition upon which national differences appear as self-evident, as well as a flexible space where American and Chinese utopian writers play out their imaginations of the world. Wu’s New Story of the Stone and Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee both rely on a mythical past in order to depict a more ideal reality: while Wu projects Cai Xueqin’s Stone myth to an alternative futurity, with its protagonist Jia Baoyu miring the boundaries between narrative time and historical time, dream and reality, Twain constructs the prototypical “Yankee” in Hank Morgan and sends him back to the time of King Arthur’s court where the New and Old World ultimately collides. In both novels, the achievement of utopia is deeply ambiguous. Jia Baoyu is in the end left out of the new future of China and hence unable to fulfill the destiny of “mending Heaven,” and Hank Morgan’s use of destructive technology against King Arthur’s court leaves behind a trail of dystopian catastrophe. I argue that Wu and Twain’s utopian ambivalence must be understood in terms of a growing sense of internationalism as an alternative way of sociality or collectivity. Twain’s reconstruction of feudal, medieval England becomes the social imaginary folded into Wu’s “Barbarous World” of late nineteenth century China, where the tension between Chinese semi-colonialism and the West’s free-trade imperialism is most heightened.

A Failed Fiction of Empire: Early Twentieth Century Chinese Adventure Fiction (Maoxian xiaoshuo)
John C. Hamm, University of Washington, USA

One of the hallmarks of the late Qing “Revolution in Fiction” was a new perception of the importance of fictional genres. Among the thematic (sub-)genres advocated by Liang Qichao and his contemporaries was “adventure fiction” (maoxian xiaoshuo); the label, associated with such Western works as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and the novels of H. Rider Haggard, connoted patriotic tales of derring-do and civilizational progress in exotic lands. Adventure fiction never achieved the popularity of such forward-looking, expressly “Western” genres as science fiction and detective fiction, nor that of the more nativist martial arts fiction (wuxia xiaoshuo). While reasons for this lack of purchase are impossible to pin down, examination of the genre’s history provides insight into the shifting ecology of late Qing and early Republican genre fiction, and reveals the tensions inherent in the adoption of an “imperialist” fictional genre by the literature of a “semi-colonized” nation. This paper examines two key moments in the stunted career of early twentieth century Chinese adventure fiction: its initial promotion by the late Qing literary reformers, and the attempt to resuscitate it in the pages of World Book Company’s periodical Detective World (1923-1924).

The Impossibility of Occidentalism
Nathaniel K. Isaacson , North Carolina State University, USA

Chinese SF emerged as a product of two converging factors during the late Qing and early Republican periods: first, the crisis of epistemological consciousness brought about by China’s semi-colonial subjugation to European powers and second, by the imperialist imagination of global exchanges and conquest that led to the emergence of the genre in the West and its translation into Chinese via Japan. This paper draws upon critical analysis of the connections between SF, empire and Orientalist discourse developed by Patricia Kerslake (2007) and John Rieder (2008) in the context of Chinese SF as a means of exploring Chinese articulations of these concerns. I argue that Chinese SF is marked by a profound anxiety regarding imperialism and colonial expansion. As one of the others in the lens of western science fiction, Chinese authors sought to overturn orientalist discourse. However, a simple reversal of Orientalism – Occidentalism – did not emerge as a counter-discourse. Advocates of science fiction in early 20th century China sought to adopt the genre as an instrument of national strengthening, scientific popularization and political vitalization. Through close readings of a selection of late Qing translations, critical essays, original fictions and visual imagery, this paper gives a short explanation of the social conditions that marked the introduction of science and SF to China in the late 19th and early 20th century. I go on to explore the anxieties associated with utopianism, nationalism and Occidentalism that reveal themselves in early Chinese SF.