Chinese Science Fiction & Colonial Modernities

A review of Colonial Modernities and Chinese Science Fiction, by Nathaniel Isaacson.

Nathaniel Isaacson’s study of Chinese science-related literature and popular culture from 1903 to 1934 asserts the centrality of science fiction to efforts at cultural renewal in the early twentieth century and beyond. The main claim of the dissertation is that science, fiction, and science fiction played a crucial role in facilitating empire building, and that Chinese sf writers were deeply anxious about co-opting Western means for their pedagogical goals. Based on the premise that in the West the genre is inspired by the imagination of the colonial Other, the dissertation investigates how imagination and knowledge of the Other shapes Chinese sf. Hence, it argues that orientalism, and more broadly, the material and ideological consequences of the encounter with the West, are the most salient elements defining Chinese sf.

The dissertation comprises six chapters, a conclusion, and an appendix; it also includes several illustrations drawn from early twentieth-century publications. The introduction lays out three key issues: the problem of genre, the genealogy of sf in China, and the anxieties of sf writers in adopting a genre inherently associated with colonialism. Considerable space is devoted to the concept of “colonial modernities,” inspired by Tani Barlow but inflected in the plural to emphasize the multiplicity of responses to the “stimulus” provided by European military hegemony. The six chapters that follow investigate how orientalism and social Darwinism shaped diverse media devoted to the popularization of science, at the same time showing how late-Qing sf anticipates crucial tropes of twentieth-century Chinese literature. In this respect, the project follows in the tracks laid down by such scholars as Milena Doleželová-Velingerová, David Der-wei Wang, Theodore Huters, and Andrew Jones in exploring the modern traits of late-Qing fiction.

Chapter 1 offers a sustained engagement with several theories of the genre, arguing that plot features and narrative devices are not sufficient to define it. Drawing on Patricia Kerslake, John Rieder and Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., it advances a “functional definition” that links sf to the ideologies of empire. The chapter proposes the abbreviation “sf” as a way to accommodate local practices that, however diverse, share common ground in the interpretive attitudes they demand from readers. It thus lays a theoretical foundation to examine how Chinese sf endorses, unmasks, or even subverts orientalism “from the other side of the looking glass” (p. 53). Chapter 2 explores how Western science and technology were represented in various Chinese texts and media at the turn of the twentieth century. Encompassing a fascinating array of written and visual sources, it is roughly divided into four sections: the first traces shifts in the understanding of the term “kexue” 科學 in intellectual debates; the second examines the circulation of new material goods; section three deals with the global emergence of institutions such as the museum and the world’s fair; and the fourth discusses science-related articles and illustrations in the Dianshizhai huabao 點石齋畫報, the supplement of Shenbao 申報. Expanding on the work of Chen Pingyuan 陳平原 and Rudolf G. Wagner, the chapter highlights the affinities between the Dianshizhai and the realm of science fiction: the magazine attempted to mediate between Western and Chinese knowledge by blurring the line between fact and fiction, mostly depicting “fictional science;” it often featured creatures from China’s mythical past, and it foregrounded issues of national strength largely shaped by the discourses of social Darwinism.

Chapter 3, which focuses on Lu Xun’s early writings on science and evolution, contends that his ambivalence toward the possibility of science and literature solving China’s ills pervades not only early Chinese sf but all twentieth-century Chinese literature. The chapter offers a detailed reading of Lu Xun’s preface to his translation of Jules Verne’s De la Terre à la Lune 月界旅行辯言 (1903), calling attention to its peculiar form, language, and tropes, and claiming that it anticipates the metaphor of the iron house in his preface to Call to Arms 呐喊. What Lu Xun translated was actually Inoue Tsutomu’s  井上勤 Japanese rendition, which was “relatively faithful to the format of the original,” (p. 128) even though it was translated not from the French but from an English version. Lu Xun’s “reinterpretation,” however, is much shorter than the Japanese text and includes poems in classical Chinese at the end of each chapter, which Isaacson reads as an instance of “translingual practice in action” (p. 129). Finally, the chapter discusses Lu Xun’s essays “The History of Man 人之歷史,” translated in the Appendix, and “Lessons of the History of Science 科學史教篇” (both 1907), defining them as “evolutionary epics” in which the developmental trajectory of the content appears contradicted by the employment of an extremely obscure register of classical Chinese. Chapter 4 offers a rich discussion of Wu Jianren’s 吳趼人 (1866-1910) New Story of the Stone 新石頭記 (1905-08), which the author reads as a “crystallization of the anxieties that faced late-Qing intellectuals.” (p. 146) Following the protagonist of the Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢 as he first visits late nineteenth-century Shanghai and then travels in a utopian “Realm of Civilization,” the chapter argues that the sense of estrangement characterizing the novel marks it as a work of sf. Two prominent themes are featured throughout the narrative: the inability to imagine lasting solutions to China’s semicolonial dependence, and a confrontation with China’s tradition in which it emerges as an Other to be tamed. Isaacson points out that the tropes featured in New Story of the Stone prefigure many of those found in Lu Xun.

Chapter 5 focuses on the ways in which late-Qing sf authors approach the problem of colonial incursion. It argues that Chinese sf is essentially pessimistic and anti-utopian, further demonstrating that it shares important themes with canonical works of modern Chinese literature. Various instances of mental and physical illness in Huangjiang Diaosou’s 荒江釣叟 Tales of the Moon Colony 月球殖民地小說 (1902), for instance, will be picked up by Lu Xun and other New Youth 新青年 authors. The chapter also examines Xu Nianci’s 徐念慈 (1874-1908 ) New Tales of Mr. Bragadoccio 新法螺先生譚 (1904), in which it detects a crucial narrative contrast: the narrator resists the adoption of Western science but readily appropriates the tenets of capitalist accumulation. The archaic Zhuangzi-like style of the work, the author suggests, positions utopia in the past rather than in the future, in contradiction of Darwinian theories of evolution. Finally, Chapter 6 examines how left-wing intellectuals in the 1920s and early 1930s reassessed the goals of science-related writing; they disentangled science from empire and turned to everyday social issues, generally privileging the social sciences over other aspects of scientific knowledge. The chapter contrasts the optimistic tone of non-fiction popular science, particularly in the genre of the kexue xiaopin 科學小品 (science sketch), with the bleak tenor of Lao She’s 老舍 (1899-1966)  City of Cats 貓城記 (1932), which Isaacson reads as a condemnation of both traditional Chinese culture as well as any attempts to incorporate the foreign. Whereas late-Qing sf writings generally presented deficient or unsustainable utopias, Lao She’s City of Cats is thoroughly dystopian.

Isaacson’s dissertation furthers our understanding of the interactions of science and literature in the early twentieth century, making a convincing case for the affinities between late-Qing sf and the canon of twentieth-century Chinese literature. It also demonstrates the historical importance of sf writings, which imaginatively depicted museums and other science-related institutions before any were actually established in China. By connecting Chinese sf to ideologies of empire and orientalism, Isaacson’s dissertation lays the conceptual groundwork for new studies of the genre in twentieth and twenty-first century China.

Paola Iovene
Assistant Professor
Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations
The University of Chicago

Primary Sources

Dianshizhai Huabao
Yueyue xiaoshuo

Huangjiang Diaosou, Yueqiu zhimindi xiaoshuo, in Zhongguo jindai xiaoshuo daxi. Wang Xuquan et al (eds.). Jiangxi Renmin chubanshe, 1989, pp. 1-218.
Lao She, Mao cheng ji. Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 2008.
Lu Xun,“Kexue shi jiao pian,”  in Lu Xun yu ziran kexue luncong: jinian Lu Xun dansheng yi bai zhounian. Gong Dun (ed.). Guangdong keji chubanshe, 1981, pp. 18-51.
Lu Xun, “Yue jie luxing bian yan,” in Lu Xun yu ziran kexue luncong: jinian Lu Xun dansheng yi bai zhounian. Gong Dun (ed.). Guangdong keji chubanshe, 1981, pp. 193-198.
Lu Xun, “Ren zhi lishi,” Lu Xun quanji 鲁迅全集 [Complete works of Lu Xun], vol. I (Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 2005) pp. 1-24.
Wu Jianren, Xin shitou ji. Wang Liyan (ed.) Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe, 1986.
Wu Jianren, Xin shitou ji, in Wofoshanren wenji. vol. 4. Guangzhou: Huacheng chubanshe, 1988-1989.
Xu Nianci, “Xin faluo xiansheng tan,” Xiaoshuo lin 6, 1906, pp. 1-39, reprinted in Zhongguo jindai wenxue daxi 1840-1919: xiaoshuo ji. Wu Zuxiang (ed.) Vol. 6. Shanghai: Shanghai shudian, pp. 323-343.

Dissertation Information

University of California, Los Angeles. 2011. 316 pp. Primary Advisor: Theodore Huters.


Image: From Wu Youru et. al. Dianshizhai huabao: da ketang ban. Shanghai: Shanghai huabao chubanshe, 2001, Vol. 14 Image #75.


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