Academic journal article MELUS

Premodern Orientalist Science Fictions

Academic journal article MELUS

Premodern Orientalist Science Fictions

Article excerpt

Where and how does "the Orient" figure in Western imaginations of the future? In a 2005 Foreign Policy article titled "The Once and Future China: What of China's Past Could Be a Harbinger For Its Future?," China scholar Jonathan D. Spence writes: "the prospect of China's rise has become a source of endless speculation and debate. To speak of China's 'rise' is to suggest its reemergence. It can also imply a recovery from some kind of slump or period of quietude. But 'rise' can also mean that a change is being made at someone else's expense" (4). Spence's implication is clear: China's "rise" poses a serious challenge to the dominance of the West, or, more specifically, the dominance of the United States. Such a prospect has stoked much American apprehension and fear in recent years, the expressions of which can be heard regularly on programs such as CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight. This current strain of "Sinophobia," of course, is more familiar than most realize: it is an updated version of not only the rampant Japanophobia that plagued the US in the 1980s when Japan became a formidable competitor on the US and global economic stages, but also the periodic waves of anti-Chinese sentiments that held sway in the US over the last century. Pervasive expressions of what David Morley and Kevin Robins call "Japan Panic" through the eighties consolidated around that favored techno-orientalist trope--the robot. Toshiya Ueno cites the miming of android-like gestures of Japanese businessmen by German techno-pop group Kraftwerk in concert performances as an indicator of the pervasiveness and recognizability of this techno-orientalist figuration (par. 10).

Yet figurations of robot-like Chinese began much earlier, long before the creation of robots and before Karel Capek's coining of the term in 1921. In an 1881 Congressional debate about the status and fate of the Chinese in the US, California Senator John Miller, invoking evolutionary theories in circulation at that time, described Chinese as "inhabitants of another planet," and went on to describe them as "machine-like.... Of obtuse nerve, but little affected by heat or cold, wiry, sinewy, with muscles of iron; they are automatic engines of flesh and blood; they are patient, stolid, unemotional ... [and] herd together like beasts" (qtd. in Chang 130). Arguing that Americans and Chinese, "like 'oil and water,' would never mix," Miller proposed a twenty-year ban on Chinese immigration. Yet, despite legislative efforts to control the population growth of the Chinese, throughout the twentieth century the US continued to rely on this labor force for its expansionist policies. To both contain the "horde" and to make use of it for its own economic interests, the West constructs Chinese as instruments for national and global (i.e., Western) progress--a construction that renders them at once exploitable, containable, and inhuman. Today, the robot has been recoded as Chinese; striking photographs of rows upon rows of uniformed Chinese factory workers that depict them as mechanized cogs in a mass production machine have been burnished into the Western public consciousness. (1) These images of a technologized Chinese workforce are the latest iteration of the West's enduring ambivalence toward "Orientals" as both necessary instruments for and impediments to progress.

As a genre preoccupied with speculations of the future, American science fiction has been engaged in a parallel discourse about the roles Asia and Asians will play in Western conceptions of the future, and has long entertained this question in explicit and implicit ways through orientalist figurations. The early "oriental" figures in pulp science fiction that function as foils for Western heroes--Ming the Merciless and Khan of the Star Trek universe, among others--along with techno-orientalist tropes in contemporary pop and cybercultures are clear expressions of the West's envy of and contempt for the East as it witnesses Asia's "rise. …

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