Nathaniel Isaacson, Celestial Empire: the Emergence of Chinese Science Fiction

Nathaniel Isaacson, Celestial Empire: the Emergence of Chinese Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2017) 240 pp. $19.99 EPUB, $80.00 Hb. $24.95 Pb. ISBN: 9780819576682

Celestial Empire: The Emergence of Chinese Science Fiction, in its simultaneous engagement with global science fiction studies and early twentieth-century Chinese intellectual and cultural history, offers a novel approach to Chinese literature. In exploring the complex relationship between science, empire, and literary fiction in early twentieth-century China, this study necessarily expands the geographical scope of science fiction studies, providing a fundamental revision to the discipline’s western-centric traditions. Focusing on the late-Qing period through to the decade following the end of the New Culture Movement, Nathaniel Isaacson roots early examples of Chinese science fiction in the context of China’s semi-colonial subjugation, or what he terms ‘colonial modernity’ (17). Furthermore, Celestial Empire sets out to re-evaluate the complex relationship between Orientalist discourse and modern Chinese literature; Isaacson elucidates how Chinese science fiction appropriates Orientalist motifs as a means of expressing the tension between Western modernity and Chinese tradition.

Combined, the Introduction, Chapter One and Chapter Two provide a non-expert reader with a thorough introduction to the colonial context in which science fiction emerged in China, as well as the key literary debates concerning the definition of the genre. These early chapters also introduce Isaacson’s most central arguments. Firstly, Chapter One illustrates the inextricable relationship between science fiction (both Western and Chinese) and imperialism, by which Isaacson makes a convincing case for the redefinition of science fiction as a genre ‘intimately concerned with the ideologies and discourses of empire’ (22). Secondly, Chapter Two introduces the renowned works of writer Lu Xun (1881-1936), the texts which Isaacson deems to have brought about the crystallisation of a set of key literary tropes concerning anxieties about China’s future as a nation. The most notorious of these is the ‘iron house’ metaphor that ‘describes the Chinese people as unaware of their confinement to a prison from which there is no escape’ (56). Celestial Empire shows that Lu Xun’s metaphors provide an interesting analytical framework through which to discuss the common features of Chinese science fiction.

The ‘iron house’ recurs in Wu Jianren’s (1866-1910) The New Story of the Stone (1905), the subject of Chapter Three. Following the previous 60 pages of introductory context, Isaacson now demonstrates his literary expertise and, hence, it is at this point that the interdisciplinary genius of Celestial Empire can begin to be appreciated. Although Wu Jianren’s novel is typically disregarded from discussions of this genre, Isaacson convincingly finds this text to be in many ways emblematic of late-Qing science fiction. Most significantly, this original interpretation illustrates that The New Story of the Stone is reflective of late-Qing anxieties about cultural loss and indigenous moral decay. This is evidenced in the ominous scene at the Realm of Civilization in which Lao Shaonian deems the majority of the population ‘completely uncivilized’ (71). In fact, this text includes many key tropes of the Chinese science fiction genre, including themes of confrontation with an alien other; an inability to come to terms with the differences between Chinese and Western civilisation; a yearning for utopia; and the claim that new technology had indigenous Chinese origins. The following chapter turns its attention to the first officially recognised example of Chinese science fiction, Huangjiang Diaosou’s (b.?) Tales of the Moon Colony (1904-1905). Again, this chapter centres on the metaphors usually associated with Lu Xun, in this instance looking at motifs of national and bodily sickness and cannibalism. In this compelling discussion, Isaacson also demonstrates the limitations of Occidentalism as a framework in regard to modern Chinese literature. Huangjiang Diaosou does not challenge or reverse the Orientalist dichotomy of colony and metropole, but in fact repeats Orientalist discourse in his re-imagining of imperial geopolitics as a series of concentric circles of colonial domination that extends throughout the universe.

The following two chapters continue in a similar vein. Chapter Five, looking at Xu Nianci’s (1875-1908) ‘New Tales of Mr. Braggadocio’ (1904), discusses late-Qing ambivalence ‘about the question of whether Orientalism could be turned against itself in any of its incarnations’ (111). Here, Isaacson again recognises how concerns about China’s national plight were manifested through the motif of ‘the sick man of Asia’ (118), exploring the relationship between capitalism and modernisation and the related anxieties surrounding the universality of scientific knowledge. These themes are best epitomised in Mr. Braggadocio’s suggestion that ‘he would like to cause a holocaust in East Asia’ (117). Chapter Six skips forward in time, shifting its focus to Lao She’s (1899-1966) Cat Country (1932-1933), which is contextualised as a ‘brief resuscitation of SF after two decades of near total silence in the genre’ (125). Paying significant attention to biographical details here, Isaacson explores Lao She’s use of science fiction as a medium through which to critique Chinese culture, again commenting upon the recurring motifs of civilisational collapse, social Darwinism and cannibalism which are evident in the decaying society of Cat Country, which Isaacson interprets as an allegory for China on Mars. Isaacson also reiterates the genre’s tendency to mimic Orientalist discourse, pointing to the narrator’s colonial attitude toward the cat civilisation as evidence.

The final chapter accounts for the aforementioned absence of science fiction in China in the years 1910 to 1949. This discussion turns its attention to various other literary and pictorial sources, offering an analysis of the relationship between early Chinese science fiction and traditional pre-twentieth century Chinese prose forms. Refuting the idea that science fiction’s apparent disappearance for two decades is evidence of its lack of cultural importance, this chapter illustrates that science fiction became integrated into a new set of genres: namely, popular pictorial journalism and essays known as kexue xiaopin, which were concerned with popularising scientific knowledge.

In summary, Isaacson’s postcolonial analysis shows that the ‘political reality of Orientalism’ (3) is an essential framework through which to discuss early Chinese science fiction texts. Moreover, this study exemplifies the usefulness of Chinese science fiction as a historical source, offering historians a nuanced but nonetheless informative insight into various different aspects of twentieth-century Chinese history. All in all, therefore, Celestial Empire provides an original contribution to modern Chinese literary studies, and will certainly act as an interesting point of reference for scholars from a variety of different fields.

Carissa Chew, University of Edinburgh

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