Postimperial Fantasies and Chinese Science Fiction

13 04 2010

I gave a talk last week about the politics of Chinese science fiction; one of the major themes was, as I mentioned before, the ways in which China, as a country that first received “scientific modernization” from the West, deals with this in its coverage of science and science fiction. There’s a well-known pair of theories in China studies called the Century of Humiliation/Sinocentric Worldview, which essentially states that the history of the Opium Wars and Western/Japanese occupation, combined with dreams of an imperial past, have an immense influence on Chinese politics.

That isn’t always the case, but there’s a particular flavor of Chinese science fiction that seems to fit that description. I’m not sure how big it is, but both the major-budget science fiction stories I found from the last couple of years–one a movie, the other a video game–seemed to convey the message that China is modernizing, and will soon overtake the West, but will continue to struggle with some inescapable Westernness in science.

The first is Metallic Attraction: Kungfu Cyborg, which I might talk about more later on. The movie itself is an extremely silly cross between Transformers and a romantic comedy; I actually kind of enjoyed it, and it’s clear the movie isn’t taking itself seriously. The trailer, however, is another matter:

“In a world where the East has ascended,” the trailer begins, “and a time when its technology has no peer.” Later, the trailer bills the movie as “technology versus tradition,” suggesting that there remains a disconnect between a “traditional” Chinese society and high technology, despite the presence of “Asian robot police.”

The second is both weirder and more triumphalist. It’s a video game produced by Giant Interactive, one of the first MMO designers in China. Giant Online, launched in 2008, puts the player in a future world where China is a global superpower still struggling with a history of oppression. The premise:

In the year 2060, China is the world’s most powerful nation with the most advanced technology. Looking back upon China’s history, Chinese scientists feel tormented by the tragedies and the national treasures lost during the Opium Wars 200 years ago. In order to recover the national treasures, 14 young and talented specialists dedicate the next 10 years to developing a time machine capable of going back in time. When the invention is completed, the specialists step in and travel back to the year 1855, in between the first and second Opium Wars. Due to the Qing Dynasty’s weakness and corruption, China was in disarray with no central leadership at the time. On the brink of another invasion by the Western Powers, the 14 specialists and the futuristic weapons they brought back from 2060 are the only things that can change the course of history.

This is pretty much the textbook example of the Century of Humiliation/Sinocentric paradox in play. I doubt this is ever resolved in the game, but it’s an interesting testament to the feelings of at least some Chinese over China’s technological ascent.

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