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  • Found in Translation: “New People” in Twentieth-Century Chinese Science Fiction by Jing Jiang
  • Yingying Huang
Jing Jiang. Found in Translation: “New People” in Twentieth-Century Chinese Science Fiction.
New York: Columbia University Press, 2021. 144 pp. Paperback, ISBN 9780924304941.

One of the Association of Asian Studies’ Asia Shorts series, Jing Jiang’s monograph is a delightful 130-page read including notes and a bibliography. It contributes new and cross-cultural perspectives to the Chinese SF scholarship that has recently been invigorated by a plethora of translations into English, animated discussions at conference panels and themed lectures, and book-length studies such as Nathaniel Isaacson’s Celestial Empire: The Emergence of Chinese Science Fiction (2017), which focuses on China’s early twentieth century, and Hua Li’s Chinese Science Fiction during the Post-Mao Cultural Thaw (2021), which deals with works published between 1978 and 1981, to name just a couple. Jiang’s book covers both periods and the time in between with a purpose to investigate “how Chinese science fiction participates and intervenes in Chinese conceptualizations of the modern at critical junctures over the last century” (1), which Jiang achieves through comparative readings of texts brought into dialogue via translation. A shared theme of the texts studied is, as the book title suggests, the creation of a “new people,” either through edification or high-tech means such as bioengineering. Therefore, the interventions by science fiction that this study is concerned with are chiefly in debates about modern citizenry, subjectivity, and humanity in China’s twentieth century, when science fiction enjoyed its first two “booms.”

This book has an introduction, four chapters, and an epilogue. The introduction offers a brief history of Chinese science fiction and announces the author’s intention to “situate Chinese science fiction within a dynamic model of world literature” (2). Jiang makes two crucial points: first, Chinese science fiction is a product of translation and transculturation, which [End Page 591] requires an intertextual and comparative study; second, contrary to its designation as a popular genre in the West, science fiction in China has been a form of elite literature and even a part of statist thinking. While this introduction may seem a bit long for a short book with “conciseness” as one of its marketing guidelines—the account of Lu Xun’s early life and turn to literature, for example, may be a little too elaborate for its purpose (10–12)—it lays a solid foundation for discussions about science fiction’s translingual dimensions and role in China’s nation-building discourse to develop through the chapters.

The expansive first chapter, “Medicine for the Mind, Panacea for the Nation: How Did the Stories of Science and Fiction Become One?” is yet another historical survey, occasionally repeating points from the introduction, but this time of the background, genesis, and early growth of science fiction in China from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century (i.e., the late Qing dynasty [1644–1911] and early Republican era [1912–49]). Jiang gives a detailed account of occurrences deemed important to the rise and confluence of fiction and science within China’s nation-building discourse, including literati intellectuals’ promotion of “new fiction” and the dissemination of scientific knowledge, highlighting the roles played by central figures like Liang Qichao, Lu Xun, and John Fryer. Jiang makes the illuminating observation that Fryer’s stipulation of a “new novel” for a fiction contest he organized in Shanghai in 1895 foreshadowed China’s literary realism and the vernacular movement (30), and her remarks about translation, Chinese science fiction’s inherent hybridity, and its mission to cure the nation well echo the book’s central argument about the genre’s interventions.

A shorter chapter follows, entitled “Scientifically Formed or Reformed: Bioengineering and Other Fantasies about a New Species of National Subjects,” which examines early science fiction stories about manufacturing humanity and argues that these texts “gave rise to a literary vision that believed literally in the malleability or programmability of the soul” (39). During the first boom of Chinese science fiction in the 1900s, translations of and sequels to Western stories showcase the debate about science’s power of shaping the soul...