Celestial Empire: The Emergence of Chinese Science Fiction

Celestial Empire: The Emergence of Chinese Science Fiction

by Nathaniel Isaacson


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Challenging assumptions about science fiction's Western origins, Nathaniel Isaacson traces the development of the genre in China, from the late Qing Dynasty through the New Culture Movement. Through careful examination of a wide range of visual and print media—including historical accounts of the institutionalization of science, pictorial representations of technological innovations, and a number of novels and short stories—Isaacson makes a case for understanding Chinese science fiction as a product of colonial modernity. By situating the genre's emergence in the transnational traffic of ideas and material culture engendered by the presence of colonial powers in China's economic and political centers, Celestial Empires explores the relationship between science fiction and Orientalist discourse. In doing so it offers an innovative approach to the study of both vernacular writing in twentieth-century China and science fiction in a global context.

Hardcover is un-jacketed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819576682
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 02/07/2017
Series: Early Classics of Science Fiction Series
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

NATHANIEL ISAACSON is an assistant professor of modern Chinese literature at North Carolina State University. A translator and author, his essays on Chinese SF have appeared in Science Fiction Studies, Oxford Handbook of Modern Chinese Literatures, and Simultaneous Worlds: Global Science Fiction Cinema.

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The following chapter presents a summary of recent trends in the field of SF studies and offers some initial observations on their germaneness to early Chinese SF. These observations are developed more thoroughly in the close readings and historical accounts that follow in chapters 2 through 6. I do not intend to force Chinese SFat the turn of the twentieth century into a universalizing theoretical framework, nor am I making an Orientalist argument positing the exceptionality of "SF with Chinese characteristics." Rather, what follows is meant to demonstrate that Chinese cultural studies and SF studies have much to offer each other. Though the readings of Chinese SF that emerge from these theoretical foundations often deviate from them in significant ways, I find these areas of disciplinary convergence and divergence to be useful points of departure both in coming to terms with the local emergence of Chinese SF and in contributing to the understanding of SF as a global phenomenon.

In the words of James Gunn, "The most important, and most divisive, issue in SF is definition" (Gunn and Candelaria, 5), an opinion reflected in a number of recent studies of the genre (Vint and Bould; Milner 2012; Latham 2014; Gunn, Barr, and Candelaria; Luckhurst). Darko Suvin's Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (1979) remains one of the most repeated and widely accepted definitions of the genre. Suvin's linear history of the genre and its constituent elements, and his definition of SF as "a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment" (Suvin, 7), have been fundamental in part because they served as the conceptual framework for the journal Science Fiction Studies, which he helped to cofound in 1973 (Luckhurst, 7). Andrew Milner notes that Suvin's work is the "core critical approach specific to the genre, against which almost everything else has been obliged to define itself," and that Suvin's work plays a significant role in theoretical interventions on the genre written by Carl Freedman (2000) and Fredric Jameson (2005) (Milner 2012, 1–2). John Rieder's history of the study of the genre, "On Defining SF, or Not: Genre Theory, SF and History," indicates this as well (Rieder 2010, 192).

Many Chinese-language studies of SF follow in making recourse to Suvin's definition, occasionally pointing to premodern utopias or fables of technology as local predecessors of the genre (Lin Jianqun; Rao Zhonghua; Wu Yan; Wang Jianyun and Chen Jieshi). In practical terms, if one were to ask a store clerk to point to the SF section in a bookstore in Shanghai, she would be likely to find herself in familiar but not entirely identical territory, owing to the contingencies of local historical and social conditions. SF works in China are often sandwiched in the children's section, and this is reflected in the ages of those browsing the shelves. Implicit in the suggestion that they are for children is that they are marginalia — horror, fantasy, and mystery are often nearby, but SF rarely finds its way onto "literature" (wenxue) shelves. Chinese SF marketing, like that of its Western counterpart, often emphasizes newness: one is unlikely to find a reprint of a Qing-era SF novel, save for commemorative editions. The SF shelves in a bookstore in China are also very likely to emphasize translated works. This is a reflection both of the perceived exoticism of the genre and of the market forces that push many forms of contemporary genre fiction off bookshelves and onto the Internet. The apparent familiarity of the above generalizations regarding critical trends and market forces influencing the study of Chinese SF makes it all the more important to be cognizant of what is at stake when — to mangle Damon Knight — we point to a work and say, "This is Chinese science fiction."

The Cultural Field

Recent reformulations of genre theory have turned to an understanding of SF as a historically and culturally contingent category: a "selective tradition" (Milner 2012, 202) characterized by shifting and contentious formulations resulting from various critical claims and modes. These studies have in various ways moved away from attempts to define a fixed object of study, in favor of framing SF as a mutable category acknowledging a wide range of media and practices of production and consumption (Vint and Bould; Gunn, Barr, and Candelaria; Milner 2012; Rieder 2010). These definitions draw particularly on Rick Altman's "A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre" (1984, 1999) and Raymond Williams's sociological analysis of cultural production (1979, 1980) in understanding SF as a historically situated and socially conditioned constellation of forces of production and consumption. Henry Jenkins's Convergence Culture (2006), which demonstrates how narrative content pollinates "across multiple media platforms," and Marc Steinberg's development of this concept as "media convergence," similarly contribute to an understanding of the ways in which narrative topoi function as the product of global networks of production and distribution. Reading literature in general and SF in particular as a conglomeration of socially embedded media, modes, and practices centered on a thematic core has two advantages. First, it strikes a balance between close and distant reading, allowing the critic to see specific texts in terms of their cultural milieu. Second, it allows critics to elucidate connections between narrative conventions that appear throughout a variety of media.

Veronica Hollinger historicizes the emergent understanding ofSF as a "mode" rather than a genre, offering that "mode implies not a kind but a method, a way of getting something done. In [the case of William Gibson], in a way of thinking and speaking about contemporary reality so that SF becomes integrated with other discourses about late-capitalist global-techno-culture" (Hollinger 2014, 140). Borrowing Raymond Williams's concept of a "structure of feeling" and analysis of the cultural apparatus, Andrew Milner argues that SF should be understood as (a) a form conditioned by relations between social modes, and (b) specifiable material practices within which those relations are enacted (Milner 2012). In a similar vein, John Rieder has argued that SF might be understood in terms of Wittgenstein's concept of "family resemblance" and Deleuze and Guattari's notion of the rhizomatic assemblage to describe genres in general and SF in particular as a gradually articulated, nebulous assemblage of texts that cannot be reduced to a single historical progenitor or formal type (Rieder 2010). This and other rubrics understand SF variously as a convergence of media, genres, forms, or modes, emphasizing its diffusion and diversity of the objects and modes of cultural production. These works span literary production, fan clubs and other practices of audience participation, film, radio, music, poetry, role-playing games, newspaper comic strips, comic books, and toys. These cultural apparatuses bleed over into political culture at the level of space programs and military defense, emerging religious practices (e.g., scientology), and practices of display evident in museums and world expos (Luckhurst, 10; Telotte, 162–182; Milner 2012, 7). Alongside the expansion of media practices included under the umbrella of SF is an expansion of the analytical frame beyond national borders in recognition of the intensification of global exchange in the culture industry.

Milner argues that SF can be visualized as a distribution of tropes across the media landscape using Bourdieu's notion of the field of literary and cultural production (Bourdieu 1993). Bourdieu maps literary production as a continuum of profitability vs. artistic license on its horizontal axis, high vs. low cultural status on its vertical axis, and diagonally in terms of its political conservatism. Milner suggests that SF in various media can be identified throughout the field. Having placed SF within the cultural field in general, Milner goes on to argue that a more or less isomorphic map may be used more specifically to illustrate the relationships between various mediated iterations of SF narratives and subgenres (e.g., cyberpunk fiction, art-house cinema, SF criticism) (2011, 394–396; 2012, 42–47).

Critics of modern Chinese literature (see edited collection, Hockx 1999) have shown how Bourdieu's cultural field can also be used productively in understanding modern Chinese literary production, leading Michel Hockx to suggest that a map of the Chinese field of cultural production include a third axis that accounts for the political capital of a work. Hockx also notes that a China-specific map of mutual relations between "institutions of material and symbolic production" would necessarily entail certain reconfigurations given the different cultural landscape and different historical trajectories (17–19). In like manner, Paola Iovene's Tales of Futures Past (2014) understands modern Chinese literature as an assemblage of texts, social practices, editorial strategies, and experiences of reading (13–14). In sum, recent reconfigurations of genre theory have led to an approach regarding SF as a selective tradition best understood as a mode of reading and interpretation. At the same time, scholars of modern Chinese culture have applied these same observations of cultural production and genre to understanding their area of research. Without attempting to completely reconfigure the above observations in service of constructing a "cultural SF field with Chinese characteristics," it should be noted that late Qing literature was in many ways distinguished by an increasingly central role for fiction (as opposed to poetry) and a contestation of whether the classical language or the modern vernacular best suited the mode. To borrow a scientific (or SF) metaphor, we might add to our three-dimensional figure — depicting symbolic, political, and economic capital — a fourth dimension, permitting us to see the ways that individual elements of the cultural field shifted over time.

Almost immediately after the first Sino-Japanese War, fiction came to be understood as a key battleground in the quest for reform (Huters 1988, 262). For a number of late Qing intellectuals, the vernacular novel was a new form that incorporated a wide variety of new ideas and narrative techniques, a form that could reach a broader audience and make that audience aware of the severity of the crisis China faced (Huters 2005, 100–120). SF was understood as one of a number of genres that, through the literary form of the new novel, could help to espouse lasting social change. This was in part a consequence of the wide range of issues that authors sought to address in their work. Characters travel both domestically and abroad, encounter natural, supernatural, and technological anomalies, have extended dialogues on political thought (that more closely resemble manifestos than fiction), meet great philosophers of Eastern and Western traditions, and often participate in any of the above activities in a dream. Fiction monthlies often included extended treatises on the history of civilization, or the rise of the Western world. Many instances of these works were loose translations of unattributed Western and Japanese works. The generic and epistemological pluralism seen in the pages of late Qing fiction is a reflection of the social and cultural hybridity of China's burgeoning urban, semicolonial centers, and of the multitudinous problems and solutions that late Qing intellectuals grappled with in their writings.

The turmoil engendered by the presence of foreign material and intellectual culture widened the cracks in the foundations of Chinese society through which new ideas flooded in. Culturally hybrid spaces such as Shanghai gave birth to a new worldview that attempted to reconcile radically different approaches to the pursuit of knowledge and government. Literature was no exception. The late Qing intellectual "atmosphere of crisis and utopian hope" (Huters 2005, 132) heralded the introduction of new literary forms and genres. The enthusiasm for the "new novel" represents a rare point of unity in the otherwise politically fractious intellectual atmosphere of early twentieth-century China. Probably the clearest justification for the new focus of the novel was the idea that the form could accommodate two urgent requirements: a larger audience for writing, and the potential to effectively represent to this larger audience the full dimensions of the crisis China faced (Huters 2005, 24–25; 1988, 261). This vision of literary purpose would be adopted by May Fourth literati, and its echoes continue to reverberate in the contemporary period.

Geographically, Milner also considers the applicability of world systems theory in understanding the development of SF, applying Franco Moretti's concept of core, periphery, and semi-periphery developed in "Conjectures on World Literature" and Atlas of the European Novel to the development of SF. Milner argues that "what is true for the novel in general is also true for SF. Conceived in England and France, at the core of the nineteenth-century world literary system (Shelley, Bulwer-Lytton and, above all, Verne and Wells), it continued in both countries throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries" (Milner 2012, 165). Milner describes a largely European semi-periphery, arguing that the United States and Japan transformed from semi-peripheral to core SF countries during the twentieth century. The global periphery of Milner's selective tradition consists of those countries that predominately translated works from core countries into their target languages, and which did not contribute to the global tradition. This parallels the emergence of Sinophone studies, a mode of analysis that understands Chinese-language cultural production as the product of core-periphery relationships betwixt and between a number of local and global empires (Shih 2007; Shih, Bernards, and Tsai 2013).

These approaches help demonstrate that SF is much more than any single Platonic prototype, neatly bound within the borders of a national literary tradition. All reflect a turn toward a historical approach to genre that understands the literary field as the product of global relations of economic and political power. John Rieder observes that "sf's identity is a differentially articulated position in an historical and mutable field of genres," and that furthermore SF fits into an "economy of genres." In other words, SF is a gradual accretion of texts that make use of, rather than belong to, a genre (Rieder 2010, 197–199). In this light, it is most useful to ask what SF was at a given historical moment and geographical location, and what critical, social, or political purposes it served, rather than to seek universalizing definitions.

Milner identifies imperialism as one of the constituent elements of SF but ultimately concludes that social transformations wrought by technological innovation and the dialectic of enlightenment and romanticism are the most salient topoi of SF as a global genre. However, in the case of late Qing China, I argue that Orientalism and imperialism were indeed the most conspicuous themes. For this reason, before we are able to move on to an examination of the ways in which China's semicolonial status shaped the emergence and thematic content of early Chinese SF, the various media and narrative modes that were particular to the emergence of the genre in China, and an analysis of the texts themselves, it is necessary to explicate the relationship between SF and imperialism.

Imperialism and SF

The historical conditions outlined in the introduction apply equally to the literary field of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Fictional depictions of exploration in the work of authors like H. Rider Haggard brought the imaginary horizons of imperial expansion home for readers, inspiring new generations of young imperial subjects to join in the effort (Katz, 1–3, 108–112). Romantic genres like adventure and SF were central to this self-reinforcing impetus to expansion, catalysts fueled by and that in turn helped to fuel the growing sphere of imperial influence. Dreams of material and intellectual rewards of conquest provided ample source material for authors of a number of genres. In turn, this imagination paved the way for and fueled the desire for continued efforts of exploration and conquest. The imaginary horizons of the twentieth century were heavily influenced by the exchanges between Europe and Asia. These exchanges were source material for early European SF, which in turn helped to broaden the literary and intellectual horizons of East Asian countries like China and Japan.


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Table of Contents

Introduction: Colonial Modernity and Chinese Science Fiction
Genre Trouble
Lu Xun, Science, Fiction
Wu Jianren and Late Qing SF
SF for the Nation
Making Room for Science
Lao She's City of Cats
Whither SF/Wither SF
Glossary of Chinese Terms

What People are Saying About This

Rachel Haywood Ferreira

“This fascinating study provides important insights into the roots of the Chinese science fiction tradition and its role in the creation of modern China. A major resource for China scholars and for scholars of science fiction studies, post-colonial studies, and the history of science.”

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay

“Nathaniel Isaacson’s theoretically sophisticated historical study of Chinese science fiction in the late Qing and Republic periods provides a vital, and long-awaited, link in the global history of the genre and its role in transnational modernization.”

From the Publisher

"Isaacson's book is a landmark in science fiction studies. It presents new interpretations on the emergence of Chinese science fiction in the context of colonial modernities, and reexamines some key cultural concepts such as empire, science, and fiction." —Mingwei Song, associate professor of modern Chinese literature at Wellesley College and author of Young China: National Rejuvenation and the Bildungsroman, 1900-1959

"This fascinating study provides important insights into the roots of the Chinese science fiction tradition and its role in the creation of modern China. A major resource for China scholars and for scholars of science fiction studies, post-colonial studies, and the history of science." —Rachel Haywood Ferreira,author ofThe Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction

"Nathaniel Isaacson's theoretically sophisticated historical study of Chinese science fiction in the late Qing and Republic periods provides a vital, and long-awaited, link in the global history of the genre and its role in transnational modernization."—Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, co-editor of Science Fiction Studies

Mingwei Song

“Isaacson’s book is a landmark in science fiction studies. It presents new interpretations on the emergence of Chinese science fiction in the context of colonial modernities, and reexamines some key cultural concepts such as empire, science, and fiction.”

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