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  • From the Technique for Creating Humans to the Art of Reprogramming HeartsScientists, Writers, and the Genesis of China’s Modern Literary Vision
  • Jing Jiang (bio)

In an essay published in 1972, Susan Sontag described China as “the country of science fiction, where everyone speaks with the same voice. Maotsetungized” (270). By the use of this term, she was referring to the way Mao Tse-tung had held captive the minds of so many Chinese people with his political vision, inciting them into a unified uproar. At the time, China was in the middle of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), a movement that seems to be forever frozen in an image of revolutionary fervor, mass subjectivity, and the cult of Mao: a green sea of Red Guards, all wearing military-style uniforms, and all waving their pocketsize “red book” and collectively shouting out political slogans. In the eyes of an American writer watching from outside in, this was not an image of freedom, but, rather, this new form of mass subjectivity had an eerily mechanized feel to it. Hence the naming of China as the country of science fiction, a genre where the mechanized and human often merge.

While Sontag uses science fiction only as a metaphor for Maoist China, in this essay I will turn literally to early Chinese science fiction. The body of science-fiction texts constitutes an important, though understudied, discursive site where notions of “Chineseness,” modernity, and human nature were first articulated, expanded, and subsequently consolidated into a vision of modern China. This vision is at once literary and sociopolitical, sentimental and scientistic, universal and national.

Despite the exclusion of science fiction from the canon of modern Chinese literature and the sporadic scholarly attention it has received, science fiction enjoyed a privileged role in the project of mass [End Page 131] enlightenment at the behest of modern Chinese intellectuals in the late Qing and early Republican years. The translation into Chinese of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days in 1900 introduced science fiction to China on a large scale, catapulting the reading, translating, and writing of science fiction stories and novels. The cultural luminaries who earnestly promoted or practiced the genre include Liang Qichao (1873–1929), the foremost intellectual leader of China in the first two decades of the twentieth century, and Lu Xun (1881–1936), the most celebrated writer of the modern period.1 Following his predecessors’ footsteps, Lu Xun in 1903 translated two more of Verne’s works, From the Earth to the Moon and A Journey to the Center of the Earth, from the Japanese translations. In the preface to the first work, Lu Xun gives what would in retrospect amount to a Chinese science-fiction manifesto, in which he attributes the ignorance of the masses to the paucity of science fiction in the Chinese literary tradition. He claims that the development of science fiction will guide the Chinese people out of their dark ignorance, and even goes so far as to link the rise of science fiction directly with the renaissance of the yellow race in the near future (Lu 1981, 151–52).

In this preface, Lu Xun uses the term kexue xiaoshuo (science fiction) to name the new literary genre now imagined to be a potent tool for mass enlightenment, national strengthening, and racial rejuvenation. It is important to distinguish between this term and a later term, kexue huanxiang xiaoshuo (science-fantasy fiction), commonly abbreviated as kehuan xiaoshuo, which is the standard Chinese translation today for “sciencefiction.”2 This term did not appear until the 1950s, when science fiction texts from the Soviet Union were translated and introduced to Chinese readers on a massive scale, and it did not become widely used until after the end of the Cultural Revolution (Xiao, 20). For the first half of the twentieth century at least, the default Chinese term for “science fiction” had been kexue xiaoshuo, though kexue huanxiang xiaoshuo was also used sporadically. Aside from the occasional use of these other terms, between the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the understanding of the mission and function...


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