[Review] 贾立元《“现代”与“未知”:晚清科幻小说研究》(Jia Liyuan: The “Modern” and the “Unknown”. A Study on Late Qing Science Fiction)

Jia Liyuan 贾立元, “Xiandai” yu “weizhi”: Wan Qing kehuan xiaoshuo yanjiu《“现代”与“未知”:晚清科幻小说研究》(The “Modern” and the “Unknown”: A Study on Late Qing Science Fiction). Beijing: Beijing Daxue Chubanshe 北京大学出版社, 2021. ISBN 978-7-301-32379-3, 316 pages, 59 RMB.

Reviewed by Sabine Weber (Universität Bonn)

Since the English translation and the subsequent international success of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem (Santi 三体) in 2014, Chinese science fiction has experienced a “new wave” in production and consumption, causing an equivalent rise in scholarly attention. Previously, the genre had been marginalized ‒ disregarded as “juvenile” at best, forbidden as “counter-revolutionary” or “escapist” at worst.

Given the genre’s unsteady history, the rudimentary coverage in literary criticism and studies is to be expected. While this changed over the course of the 2010s, a scholarly backlog still haunts more specific branches of the field, including the genre’s early history. The first monographic study on early Chinese science fiction was defended as a PhD thesis in Comparative Poetics only in 2012.[1] Such was the state of the field when Jia Liyuan (贾立元, *1983), himself an acclaimed author of science fiction under the pseudonym Fei Dao 飞氘, wrote his thesis about the beginnings of science fiction literature in China. This thesis, defended successfully in 2015, is the basis for the book under review here and is one of the first monographs specifically on early modern Chinese science fiction.

Jia’s study focuses on how self-conscious modern Chinese science fiction emerged as an ambiguous body of works and discourses in the context of the socio-political and cultural reform movement of the last two decades of the Qing dynasty (1644‒1912). As such, Jia argues, the form is defined by its relation to the political. The “scientific novel” (kexue xiaoshuo 科學小說), the “social novel” (shehui xiaoshuo 社會小說) and the “future novel” (weilai xiaoshuo 未來小說) were meant to promote “modern” positivist knowledge and a scientific worldview to tackle the contemporary national crisis of the looming imperialist threat. How exactly this “reformed” society of “modernity” was meant to look remained up for debate. What was the role of tradition and history if the state was to become a modern nation? How could the new and foreign knowledge be incorporated without losing (too much of) oneself? What role could Chinese culture and history play in a society that was to be different? The early modern science fiction literature is therefore also defined by its inner tensions between tradition and modernity, self and other, the past and the future. It is in this conscious discourse of a “modern” (xiandai 现代) perspective on “unknown” (weizhi 未知) developments – both hopeful and fearful – that Jia sees the structural basis for “Late Qing Science Fiction.”

The tension between these two terms, “modern” and “unknown,” also poses the basis for the scope of his study. The book is structured in four chapters preceded by an introductory foreword which includes discussions of methodology and historical context.      The first two chapters after the foreword focus on the perceptions and representation of the “modern” as well as the resulting speculations of the “unknown” in the works of two distinctive authors, while the last two chapters approach the mode of science fiction in relation to three specific topics: the dimension of time, the dimension of space and the dimension of the mind. Jia closes his study with an elaborate outlook into subsequent literary developments in the 20th century.

In the first chapter, Jia discusses the role of Liang Qichao (梁啓超, 1873–1929) in the history of Chinese science fiction. Being the publisher of the literary magazine The New Novel (Xin xiaoshuo 新小說, 1902‒1906), Liang was not only the originator of the term kexue xiaoshuo – the first conscious equivalent to contemporary European scientific fiction literature – and an advocate of its value for social reform, but also a utopian writer himself. Focussing on the aspect of time, Jia discusses Liang as China’s first science fiction author due to Liang’s “modern” concept of time as visible in the depiction of a progressive future. While other scholars have already provided comparable discussions,[2] Jia delivers some new insights in his study of Liang’s The Future of New China (Xin Zhongguo weilai ji 新中國未來記, 1902) and translation of Camille Flammarion’s (1842–1925) The Last Days of the World (La Fin du Monde, 1894). Jia argues that the former reveals a unique temporal discourse due to its combination of three time layers in one narration and discusses the latter’s cosmological perspective from Liang’s philosophical ideas concerning Darwinist evolution and Buddhist reincarnation. However, it seems that Jia did not directly compare Liang’s strongly abbreviated Chinese text with the French (or English) original. There is no mention of the fact that Liang’s Shijie mori ji 世界末日記 (1902) is a translation only of Flammarion’s epilogue, which would have provided helpful information for Jia. In the epilogue, Flammarion himself speculates about the future of the cosmos after the death of the universe, painting a picture of a new cosmological rebirth – which likely posed the basis for Liang Qichao’s Buddhist reading.

The second chapter deals with the work of the influential author Wu Jianren (吳趼人, 1866–1910). While also tackling individual questions concerning time and space, Jia is mainly concerned with Wu’s perspective on the question of the Chinese self and the foreign other. Like Liang, Wu promoted new knowledge and reform but was highly worried about the role of Chinese culture and tradition. Jia therefore convincingly argues that Wu Jianren is among the first authors to intrinsically combine modes of classical Chinese fiction and aesthetics with the demands of the modern, a mode that is best illustrated in his New Story of the Stone (Xin Shitou ji 新石頭記, 1905). While again strongly relying on previous studies, Jia provides a rich analysis of Wu’s viewpoint, which accommodates Chinese culture and history in a critical approach toward the foreign “unknown.” This becomes especially visible in his analysis of the image of the bird peng 鵬 in the novel. Wu’s killing and final exhibition of the mythological bird from China’s ancient past by the means of the utopian society of wenming 文明 (lit.: “civilisation, civilized”; in social Darwinist opposition to “barbaric” or “backward”) incorporates all of the author’s main convictions. Knowledge from China’s past is validated and then accommodated into the framework of the new society, where it serves as a subject of study inside new knowledge systems. However, the bird’s death also reveals the transformation of the Chinese cultural heritage via this reform process: it is denied its vivid continuation. As such, Jia argues that Wu points to the unavoidable failure of his intentions to preserve Chinese heritage, as it becomes too distorted by the transformation process.

The reader wonders why Jia Liyuan never talks about the implications of epistemological change by itself. As intrinsically tied to the traditional “broad learning” (bowu 博物) -understanding of natural knowledge, an image of a giant bird able to transform into a fish cannot survive the transfer into a worldview based on post-Baconian industrial science. It is, therefore, not only the clash between the self and the other that preoccupies Wu Jianren’s mind, but the very question of how to unite two mutually exclusive thought systems and thus follows the question of whether the necessary reform will ultimately demand the eradication of Chinese cultural heritage and identity. This is one of the cases where Jia’s use of vague terms like the “traditional”, the “modern”, or the “new” prevents the abstraction of the concrete discourses of the individual novel on an overreaching level. In this case, on the contemporary political and social crisis of the Late Qing.

The third chapter is dedicated to discussions about the dimensions of time and space in different novels. While works like Moon Colony (Yueqiu zhimindi xiaoshuo 月球殖民地小說, 1904/5) are already the subject of many studies, Jia also discusses understudied novels like The Electric World (Dian shijie 电世界, 1909) or New Talks of a Rustic Elder (Xin Yesou puyan 新野叟曝言, 1909) and shows that far away yet seemingly accessible places like distant planets, exotic islands or the future become recurrent projection screens of personal wish-fulfilment and national salvation. In his comparisons, Jia observes that the question of colonialization – both from the perspective of being threatened or threatening others – permeates the perception of space in all the discussed novels. As such, this section expounds on the detailed study of Nathaniel Isaacson (Celestial Empire: The Emergence of Chinese Science Fiction, 2017), which exclusively deals with the influence of imperialism on the emergence of early Chinese science fiction.

Concerning the question of the dimension of time, Jia’s discussion of A New Era (Xin jiyuan 新紀元, 1908) is especially noteworthy. This novel of future war tells the story of how China acquires international supremacy by winning a world war sparked by a dispute over global implementation of a unified calendar. A comparable debate was held among Late Qing Chinese literati and political thinkers, asking whether China should adopt a foreign calendar or proceed with its traditional system. Jia convincingly shows how not only time but history and historiography itself become markers of political ideology and how the future – and thus China’s fate and contemporary situation ‒ is literally rewritten in the narrational landscape of China’s early modern science fiction.

The fourth and final chapter deals with the mind as a dimension of reform and the unknown. As contemporary political reformers were aware that purely technical modernisation would not suffice to save China from foreign occupation, the mind of the individual and the people became part of the reformist discourse. This concerned questions of morality and ideology on one side, but also the very nature of the mind on the other. Focusing on the scientific context, Jia shows how, via the translations and understandings of scholars like Yan Fu (嚴復, 1853–1921) or Tan Sitong (譚嗣同, 1865–1898), cognitive action and competence came to be discussed in natural and material terms. If the “power” of the mind was able to physically affect the body – as was argued in contemporary medical studies – was thought then another kind of natural force, and therefore eternal and able to interact with (other) forces? If the body was animated and moved by electric or magnetic energy, was thought then equal to this energy, and could it therefore be controlled and manipulated by specialists like hypnotists or physicians?

This positivist reading of the mind (xin 心) not only separated the term from its formerly intrinsic qualities of morality and virtue, but also gave reason to speculate about the “healing” of the mind of the people by scientific means. While this chapter mostly focuses on social and scholarly discussions, Jia’s main literary example in this case is New Tales of Mr. Windbag (Xin Faluo xiansheng tan 新法螺先生譚, 1905) by Xu Nianci (徐念慈, 1875–1908). Associating his mind with electromagnetic energy, the protagonist leaves his body behind and travels to different planets, where he encounters a technologically advanced society. This society has developed a medical “brain fluid” (naozhi 腦汁) which after surgical induction heals the patient from all ill thoughts, ideas and convictions. After leaving, the protagonist intends to bring this technology back to earth and open an “enterprise for the improvement of brains” (gailiang nao de gongsi 改良腦的公司). Jia provides here a deeper analysis of the social and scholarly discussions of hypnotism and animal magnetism in China, as well as an emphasis on the naturalist consequences for the perception of the mind as a reformist dimension.

Jia’s book succeeds in providing the most comprehensive introduction to the new field of early modern Chinese science fiction to date. Roughly covering the timeframe of 1895 to 1911, his selection of discussed novels reaches from the most influential works into the understudied periphery, and thus allows him to present representative discussions of their leading themes and topics. In addition, Jia heavily draws on Chinese as well as international studies, meaning that his study not only completely represents the current level of scholarship but also provides an exhaustive bibliography for the interested researcher.

However, this pioneering study regrettably suffers from its lack of focus, owing to Jia’s decision to rely on unspecified terms and concepts as combining threads. In omitting a discussion on epistemological change, he never concretely defines “modernity” or “the unknown”. This lack of definition or a concrete research question results in an anthological structure, at times including peripheral information. While claiming to focus on the discussed body of literature, the study also includes sections on a school for the blind in Russia and on the history of hypnotism in China. While these tangents provide interesting background information, they sometimes clash with Jia’s own research intentions. In his foreword, he explains that he consciously refrains from relying on any specific theory or definition of science fiction, as he aims at an unbiased view of the aspects and modes of the novels themselves. He nevertheless includes a whole subsection on Liang Qichao’s relation to Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, an image that played no major role in the early development of science fiction in China – only in Europe.

It remains unclear why Jia made this decision. In his unpublished PhD thesis, he drew upon Darko Suvin’s theory and the concept of the “novum”,[3] but also criticized it as being too limited and bound to its specific context. While not relying on this approach in the published book makes sense, Jia’s analysis from the perspective of a rationalizing view on the ahistorical and social discourse of reform actually proves the respective novels’ comparability to European science fiction. Already in 1909, the French writer Maurice Renard (1875–1939) discussed the roman scientifique and the scientific romance in terms of the “logical-marvellous”, which deals with the concepts of “what we know” and “what we suspect” in times of “progress”,[4] and in 2002, acclaimed science fiction scholar James Gunn defined modern science fiction as “literature of change”.[5] By deciding against a comparatist correlation, Jia’s “Late Qing Science Fiction” remains isolated, meaning that he leaves the question of how novels from Chinese literature relate to the international mode of science fiction open for later research.

In the end, this approach leaves the reader with an equally vague understanding of Jia’s “Late Qing Science Fiction”. Jia does succeed in showing the new epistemological discourses that inform the speculative expressions of hope and fear in the selected novels and therefore makes a strong argument in his reading of the scientifically oriented reform novels as modern science fiction. But in his lack of a structural connection to a mode of science fiction, he relies on the identification of shared topics and phenomena as uniting characteristics. These traits however ultimately overlap with the characteristics of the reform novels as a whole. He only discusses novels written as a conscious part of the reform agenda. Here, a correlation with Thomas Marling’s study,[6] which discusses science fictional literary discourses in China outside this specific context, would have helped Jia to define early modern Chinese science fiction more specifically in terms of a concrete body of a shared new epistemological basis, social-political themes, and ideas. These few points aside, Jia’s study is an invaluable source in the research of Chinese science fiction and early modern literature.

[1] Liu Jun 刘军, Wan Qing kexue huanxiang xiaoshuo yu zhishixing zhuanbian 晚清科学幻想小说与知识型转变 [The Science Fiction of Late Qing and the Transformation of the Episteme]. PhD thesis (unpublished), Beijing: Peking University, 2012.

[2] Wang Dewei, FindeSiècle Splendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction, 18481911. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1977. Isaacson, Nathaniel, Celestial Empire: The Emergence of Chinese Science Fiction. Middleton: Wesleyan University Press, 2017.

[3] Suvin, Darko, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction – On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Bern: Peter Lang, 2016.

[4] Renard, Maurice, “On the Scientific-Marvellous Novel and Its Influence on the Understanding of Progress.” In: Science Fiction Studies, 3/1994, pp. 397–405.

[5] Gunn, James, The Road to Science Fiction: From Gilgamesh to Wells. Oxford: Scarecrow Press, 2002.

[6] Marling, Thomas, The Magician of Reason, the Plaything of Enlightenment: Grotesque Fantasy and Tabloid Speculative Fiction, 19001911. PhD thesis, Hong Kong Baptist University: HKBU Institutional Repository Open Access Theses and Dissertations, 2017.




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