Qing era (1644 – 1912) science fiction was the first sci fi to explode onto the Chinese literary scene. Growing out of mutated mistranslations of Jules Verne, mostly translated into Chinese from the Japanese taken from the original French, it’s surprisingly interchangeable in its big ideas with turn of the century Western sci fi: people visit future utopias or police states, take steam-powered or electro-current rides to the moon, wander future cities and have tediously detailed conversations with passersby about Amazing Labor Saving Future Devices. But it also served a moral purpose. Witness Lu Xun’s cry, “Leading the Chinese people forward begins with science fiction!”
Wu Jianren‘s New Story of the Stone (1905) is generally regarded as the first sustained piece of Chinese science fiction writing. It resurrects the hero of China’s classic Story of the Stone (aka Dream of the Red Chamber) and sends him into the future. He rejects the Barbarian Realm (a degenerate China) and the Falsely Civilized States (everywhere else) and passes through a memorial arch (after being vetted by Customs) into The Civilized Realm. Like Dante in Hell, he gets a Virgil, the oxymoronically named Old Youth, who is basically a human version of an iPhone that answers all his questions and tells him exactly where he is at all times.
The first marvel he encounters is in the customs hut when he’s ushered into the Human Nature Inspection Room and subjected to the Human Nature Inspection Lens which can tell if he’s civilized or barbaric by looking inside his body to see his essence. If it’s clear and bright, he’s civilized. If it’s dark and smoky, he’s a barbarian. If it’s all black and tarry then he’s unimprovable. It reminds me of the four classifications of pubic hair in the 1991 Donnie Yen horror film Holy Virgin vs. the Evil Dead: curly (African), wavy (Caucasian), straight (Asian), and screwy (sex maniac).
But if you thought that was the only lens the Civilized Realm had you’d be a barbarian yourself. These guys have lens fever! Their hospitals have the Blood Inspection Lens, the Bone Inspection Lens, and the Marrow Inspection Lens. And it’s not just about lenses. They even have subways (the public transportation system, not the fast food chain). Their Navy comes equipped with submarines that use wireless communication devices and a silent electric canon, and their army uses the “benevolent special art” which is a chemical that causes their enemies to fall asleep (in contrast to the Falsely Civilized States which use chlorine gas canons).
Not only are the clocks better than Western clocks (they speak the time, and when Baoyu points out that they sound like Western phonographs, Old Youth replies, “Far better than a phonograph — there is no scratching.”), but while the Civilized Realm mines coal it’s far too dirty for them to use and they ship it all to the West. The drink of choice is No-Drunk Nectar. Liquor is only used to reveal one’s true nature and test one’s moral state, so it’s basically an anti-Barbarian beverage. Clearly, the Admiral says while enjoying a frosty mug of No-Drunk Nectar at the Navy Academy, the true nature of the people of barbarian countries is revealed when they drink:
“They pretend to be decent all the time, claiming that they are ‘civilized.’ However, after they are drunk, they make trouble shamelessly, without any restraint. In such a state, they either refuse to pay the fare for their rickshaw or break into other people’s houses, even going so far as to steal things along the street. After all this craziness, they fall down on the street to sleep. Do not these behaviors reveal their barbaric nature?”
Well, when you put it like that… The narrator can’t help but reflect:
“This is true. I had been living in Shanghai for a while, and had seen the criminal cases reported on newspapers. There is not a single account of the trouble made by a Chinese drunkard.”
There you go!
The Civilized Realm has a powder that makes intelligent people more intelligent while rendering stupid people even stupider, and their aerial cars are the best in the world because they’re always on call. There are no prostitutes or actors, and no religion (all moral instruction is on the Confucian virtues).
Even the aerial cars are more on time.
The ruler of the Civilized Realm is Dongfang Qiang (literally “strength of the east”), the benevolent monarch of this totalitarian state. His kids each rule over a different district, Mercy (慈), Filiality (孝), Loyalty (忠), Benevolence (仁), and Trustworthiness (信). Once Dongfang Qiang realizes that his realm has become totally perfect and no longer needs to be ruled, he retires to his awesome house in Benevolence.
Wu Jianren defends his account of the Civilized Realm as being 100% true, so true it’s engraved on a stone associated with Baoyu, the well-known hero of Dreams of the Red Chamber. There’s only one twist: only true Chinese patriots can see it, those who toady to foreigners will see a mean English-language poem instead.
“Let us go to the Civilized Realm, no barbarians allowed.”