Celestial Empire: The Emergence of Chinese Science Fiction by Nathaniel Isaacson

Reviewed by Andy Sawyer. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

A few years ago, when I wanted some examples of new Chinese science fiction, I had to ask a contact in China to send me some and I was reliant on various websites for summaries. Now, Liu Cixin (one of the writers I was pointed to) has won a Hugo. While for the general reader it has some of the drawbacks of being a revision for book publication of his phd thesis, and it only covers the beginnings of modern Chinese sf, it’s essential reading for anyone curious about the cultural background to the current scene.

The first chapter deals with definition and context, especially sf’s relationship with imperialism. This is discussed frequently throughout, but it’s something that cannot be left out of the relationship between China (and Japan, which nation seems to have served as a kind of mid-point in some of the developments here) and the West, especially Britain. As such, it’s occasionally dense, but frequently rewarding. China’s vast store of marvel-tales and utopias is rather skimmed over here because the focus is upon how a modern sf tradition grew out of Chinese intellectuals’ and writers’ engagements with clashes of culture. It’s interesting that science fiction (kexue xiaoshuo) was used as a term in China earlier than in the West (p. 7), and “science” is linked here with the question of modernisation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We are told that Chinese sf can deal as much with the question of the country’s own indigenous traditions as it does with confronting foreign powers or alien invasions, but that often “[t]he alien other than Chinese sf confronts is China itself” (p.45).

Lu Xun was one of the most significant Chinese writers of the 20th  century, who translated Jules Verne into Chinese in 1903. In chapter 2, Isaacson discusses the debates about science in Lu Xun’s essays and his adaptation and reinterpretation of From The Earth to the Moon. Two more chapters look at two early Chinese sf works. The first is the utopian New Story of the Stone (1905) by Wu Jianren, a “sequel” to a classic novel which, in this version, takes its hero into a technologically “advanced” future inhabited by mythical creatures. The next is the first work actually labelled as science fiction in China, Huangjiang Diaosou’s Tales of the Moon Colony, serialised (though never completed) 1904-5. Both works can be seen as exploring Chinese anxieties over whether, and how far, it is possible to emulate the technologies and internationalism (read “colonial aspirations”) of the West and what can be gained and lost by this. (The latter, which largely takes place outside China, seems particularly interesting.)

 “New Tales of Mr Braggadocio”, a kind of sequel to a Japanese story which, it has been suggested was a loose translation of Rudolf Erich Raspe’s Baron Munchausen, is the focus of chapter 5. The next chapter describes Cat Country serialized 1932-1933 by Lao She, one of the great figures of modern Chinese literature, and, like Lu Xun a fierce critic of Chinese culture. Partly inspired by World’s First Men in the Moon, Cat Country is a dystopia on Mars which the narrator quickly realises is doomed to collapse. The description is enhanced by translated extracts. The satirical flavour is given by a piece that tells how Martian “concubines” are titillated by the idea of foot-binding (which the narrator explains has been abolished though replaced by the wearing of high-heeled shoes which has equally grotesque effects). Other descriptions uncannily foreshadow the ideological battles of the Cultural revolution, during which the author was driven to suicide. The final chapter is a general exploration of how other forms such as the pictorial newspaper supplement and the science essay tackled the themes and anxieties that were highlighted in science fiction. 

As a phd thesis, Celestial Empire is a genuine and welcome contribution to scholarship but written with a specific need to look to current scholarship, and in the first instance for those with some sense of the historical context. For instance, Isaacson draws upon recent work on sf and “Empire” by John Rieder and on locating sf in a world context by Andrew Milner. While it is eventually clear what the issues of the New Culture Movement and its “political” version the May Fourth movement were, Isaacson doesn’t hold our hands by starting with a reader-friendly summary. A “Glossary of Chinese terms” is concerned with presenting the Chinese characters rather than explaining their meaning. The ignorant reader (myself) who wants to know more about the literary conventions and context may struggle. Part of the problem of these early forays into thinking anew about the world, we’re told, is how to express it and what kind of literary Chinese is suitable for these speculations.  Some of the discussion, such as that on the complex (in genre terms) “New Tales of Mr Braggadocio” focuses upon the vocabulary, diction, syntax and other literary features of the text in terms which see them as deliberately blurring a number of lines between aspects of Chinese culture and  also between Chinese and Western culture. 

Do we then get a full understanding of how writers like Liu Cixin are now part of the sf mainstream? Because Isaacson is focussed on the period up to around 1934, by which time there was a “long draught “ during which “very few works of original SF were published in China, and publication remained anemic after 1949” (179), the answer has to be no. Still, anyone interested in the background to the recent successes of Chinese sf will find it extremely helpful.

Copyright Andy Sawyer. All rights reserved.

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