Science fiction fantasies of Shanghai


This is the second installment of a two part essay by Jeffrey Wasserstrom, author of Global Shanghai, 1850–2010.

The first part of the essay was published earlier on Danwei: A brief history of Shanghai’s future.

Sci-Fi Fantasies from Late Qing Times to the Diamond Age

by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Pudong’s special economic zone [is] highlighted by the multi-scintillating Jetsons-style Oriental Pearl TV tower…

Pepe Esobar, “Shanghai Rocks!” AsiaTimes Online, October 29, 2003

Where Las Vegas Meets Blade Runner

Headline to a story about Shanghai architecture, The Guardian, November 8, 2004

To call the city science fictional is correct but too general…the landscape offers a full spectrum of sci-fi echoes and allusions…

Mark Kingwell, The City of Tomorrow, Harper’s Magazine, February 2005

Shanghai’s ties to science fiction, the most future-oriented of genres, are many and varied. Consider these links to film and other visual arts alone:

As my opening quotes suggest, the contemporary cityscape routinely inspires people to site parallels to televisions shows and films set in either futuristic versions of real cities (Blade Runner’s action unfolds in the L.A. of 2019) or completely made-up places (the Jetsons call Orbit City home).

The Pearl of the Orient Tower and other space-age structures located in today’s Pudong sometimes pop up in works of entertainment set in a Shanghai of the future—as is the case with Code 46, a cloning film directed by Michael Winterbottom.

Stylized versions of Pudong’s future skyline are featured in Wong Kar-wai’s sci-fi inflected film 2046, as well as in “Five Centuries of Progress, 1974-2474,” a World’s Fair-themed posted by fantasy artist Steve Thomas blogged about and shown recently at Shanghaiist.

Turning from the visual arts to literature, we again find plenty of diverse Shanghai connections. Here are three relating to Western sci-fi luminaries whose literary careers began between the mid-1800s and mid-1900s:

Jules Verne mentions Shanghai in passing in his 1873 novel Around the World in Eighty Days and used the city as the main setting for his lesser-known 1879 novel Tribulations of a Chinese Gentleman.

Aldous Huxley—not just a sci-fi writer, of course, but the author of Brave New World, a classic in the genre—included a description of the city in his 1926 book Jesting Pilate, using phrasing that still gets quoted in some Shanghai guidebooks.

J.G. Ballard was born in Shanghai in 1930, and the action in one of his best-known books, 1984’s Empire of the Sun, takes place in and just outside of the metropolis.

I should note before proceeding that these three figures, all of whom are known in part for their futuristic takes on other settings, only described Shanghai as it was when they were writing (in Verne and Huxley’s cases) or had been in the past (in Ballard’s). This means they can only be of marginal interest in an essay on the city and the future.

The situation is quite different, however, with a different trio of major sci-fi authors: Neuromancer author William Gibson, Islands in the Net author Bruce Sterliing, and Snow Crash author Neal Stephenson. Here is what links these leading lights in the sci-fi subgenres of cyberpunk and steam punk to the history of Shanghai’s future:

Gibson contributed a “Foreword” to Greg Girard’s 2007 photography book Phantom Shanghai, in which he said he had never been to the city, but felt from these images that it was a place where features of the urban futures conjured up in sci-fi came to life.

Sterling has not yet written about Shanghai (as far as I know), but he has signed on to serve as an adviser to the BH & L Group, which hopes to play a role in a Shanghai event tied to the future. This Group (for which I am also an adviser) is trying to secure the right to create the American pavilion for the 2010 Shanghai Expo.

Stephenson, last but far from least, set his Hugo Award-winning 1995 novel The Diamond Age in Shanghai. He also—as blogger and self-confessed Stephenson fan Andrew Leonard recently pointed out to me—included some Shanghai scenes in a later book, Cryptonomicon. It is The Diamond Age, though, that matters most to us here, since it takes readers forward to a Shanghai of the future where the main form of entertainment is interactive super-high-tech virtual reality performances (called “ractives” for short), while Cryptonomicon, like Empire of the Sun, time travels readers back to the city as it was during World War II.

In light of this quick synopsis, the logical starting point for a discussion of Shanghai and sci-fi visions of the future might seem to be the year 1995. That was when the Pearl of the Orient Tower (the first Pudong structure to be dubbed futuristic) was completed. It was also when The Diamond Age (the first novel by a canonical sci-fi author to be set in a Shanghai of days to come) was published.

To go back no further than 1995, though, would be a Western-centric move. There is, after all, a whole different set of texts to take into account: Chinese language forays into sci-fi. And with these—as we learn from recent books on late Qing fiction by scholars such as Jing Tsu, David Der-Wei Wang, Theodore Huters, and Alexander des Forges—the key decade was the one that opened, not closed the twentieth century.

For example, Yueqiu zhimindi xiaoshuo [Tales of Moon Colonization], often called China’s first sci-fi novel, was published in Shanghai in 1904. And two years earlier Xin Zhongguo weilai ji [The Future of New China] appeared—a 1902 work that some might not call sci-fi, yet fits the bill for me, since it is set in the Shanghai of the then far-off year of 1962.

The Future of New China is a novel or story fragment (critics can’t decide which to call it) that has been analyzed in detail in a fascinating Thesis Eleven article by John Fitzgerald titled “The Unfinished History of China’s Future” (1999). And it is one well worth lingering on here for two main reasons.

The first is that its author was none other than Liang Qichao (1873-1929), a leading intellectual figure of the late Qing era (1644-1912) and the early part of the Republican period (1912-1949). A major influence at different points on everyone from the great writer Lu Xun to a young revolutionary-to-be named Mao Zedong, Liang is often remembered now as a political thinker and a proponent of radical reform.

He was also, however, many other things—including a champion of the educational value of fiction in general and, for a time, Western sci-fi in particular. This helps explain why the first major writing project undertaken by Lu Xun was a translation of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon.

Liang’s interest in Western sci-fi also helps explain why The Future of New China borrows a narrative device from a major nineteenth-century work in the genre, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887. In his text, Liang is clearly more interested in philosophizing than in the kind of technologic speculation often associated with science fiction, but his tale is framed, like Bellamy’s, as a reflection on varied issues from the perspective of a point in the future.

The second thing that makes The Future of New China worth close consideration is that some points in it are intriguing to contemplate just now, with the Beijing Games behind us and the Shanghai Expo on the horizon. For example, the Shanghai of the future that Liang describes is one that is playing host to an international gathering that brings dignitaries from around the world to the city—something that local leaders hope the mega-event scheduled for 2010 will accomplish.

The gathering that Liang describes is not quite like the Expo being planned. It is presented as a large-scale conference focusing on the exchange of ideas about religion and politics, not a series of displays of the latest technologies combined with entertaining spectacles and pavilions representing showcasing different nations and cultures.

Still, both Liang’s imagined event and the real one set to take place in 2010 are part of the same lineage that stretches back to early World’s Fairs. The Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, for example. That event, which is often cited as providing a precedent for the 2010 Expo, did not just witness the debut of the Ferris Wheel and feature high-tech displays. It also incorporated, as an affiliated event, a “World’s Parliament of Religions”—an influential and widely publicized gathering that included representatives of Asian as well as Western faiths. That 1893 event was very likely one thing Liang had in mind when he was writing The Future of New China.

What brings the just-past Olympics rather than upcoming Expo to mind, by contrast, is what Liang presents as a highpoint of the 1962 event he conjures up: a speech by a descendent of Confucius who claimed that the ideas of the sage had continuing relevance. We don’t know yet how centrally Confucian themes will figure in the Shanghai Expo. But we do know that on August 8, 2008, dignitaries from around the world were exposed to an Opening Ceremony in Beijing that began with a quote from The Analects and the appearance of 3000 actors dressed to represent the sage’s disciples.

Going back to the future, so to speak, is there any common thread that connects Liang’s story (as well as other late Qing and Republican era Chinese tales set in a Shanghai of the future) to much more recent works such as The Diamond Age, the film Code 46, and the Steve Thomas poster that looks ahead to the 25th century? I think there is at least one: the centrality of the international.

Cities that attract unusual amounts of attention from the creators of science fiction works tend to be those that look in some way futuristic, as Shanghai of the early 1900s with its neon lights and macadamized roads did to many Chinese, and as Shanghai of the present with its giant video displays and Magnetic levitation trains now does to people of many nationalities. But one distinctive thing about most—perhaps even all—works set in a Shanghai of times to come has been that, whether or not these imagined cities are filled with futuristic technologies it may be, traces of the cosmopolitanism of the local past are carried forward into them as well.

This shows through in Liang’s choice of an international gathering as a plot device and in the focus on World’s Fairs in the Thomas poster. The Diamond Age is filled with references to Shanghai as a past and present meeting point of cultures and peoples. And the Shanghai of Code 46 is one in which both forms of speech and modes of entertainment are decidedly hybrid and cosmopolitan.

This means that there is an eerie correspondence between the Shanghai of sci-fi and the Shanghai of 2008—which goes far beyond the now clichéd nods to buildings and freeways that bring to mind Blade Runner. After all, the Shanghais of sci-fi have always tended to be places that feel to readers and viewers both futuristic and as international as can be. And isn’t that one way of defining how the real Shanghai is supposed to feel to visitors when the countdown clocks in the city finally reach zero on May Day of 2010 and China’s first World’s Fair begins?

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