Science Fiction Studies

#119 = Volume 40, Part 1 = March 2013

SPECIAL ISSUE ON CHINESE SCIENCE FICTION (Edited by Yan Wu and Veronica Hollinger)

Shaoling Ma

“A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio”:  Narrative Subjectivity and Brain Electricity in Late Qing Science Fiction

Introduction. Xu Nianci’s “Xin faluoxiansheng tan” [A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio, 1905] is a curious combination of foreign sources and literary traditions, classical Chinese traditions of the zhiguai (tales of the strange and supernatural) and chuanqi (fantastic tales and romances), and modern scientific and pseudo-scientific theories, written in the classical wenyan form. To categorize this short story as one of the first Chinese science-fiction narratives does not simply underscore the complex hybridity of late Qing literary developments; it should also alert us to the cultural homogeneity often assumed by the “Western” genre of science fiction in the first place. The use of classical language in “A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio” to address the distinctly modern concerns of subjectivity, nationalism, and political economy marks its contribution to an alternative, late Qing literary modernity that has previously been overshadowed by May Fourth modernist discourses which privileged realism, Western modes of writing, and the vernacular baihua form.1 The story’s experiment with first-person narrative subjectivity and the narrator’s invention of brain electricity pose radical questions about the relations between the individual self and society, as well as the divide between labor and capital that lies at the heart of Marx’s insight into the social relations of production. Specifically, brain electricity re-imagines the distinction between humans and machines and re-examines the means and relations of production; in so doing, it provides a study of political economy rare in late Qing Chinese fiction.

Xu was a prolific writer and editor of the late Qing journal Xiaoshuo lin [Forest of Fiction, 1905-1908], in which he published “A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio” under the pseudonym Donghai Juewo (Self-awareness of the Eastern Sea). In the preface, Xu explains how he was inspired to write the story after reading Bao Tianxiao’s Chinese translation of the Japanese Meiji writer Iwaya Sazanami’s work, Hora Sensei [Mr. Absurdity, 1895], which was in turn translated and adapted from the eighteenth-century German burlesque and Volksbuch (popular book) The Wonderful Travels of Baron Münchhausen (1786) by Gottfried August Bürger (Xu 1; Luan Weiping 46).2 Unlike the German original or its Japanese adaptation, which focus on caricature and exaggeration, “A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio” is concerned with issues of nation-building that draw from technological progress and scientific rationalism on the one hand, and theories of spiritual transcendence, hypnosis, and psychic communication on the other. Xu, like many late Qing intellectuals, responded to a waning dynasty incapable of coping with rebellions, economic unrest, and the encroachment of foreign hegemony through the two Opium Wars, the Sino-Japanese War, and the Boxer Rebellion by turning to literature to mobilize nationalistic sentiments.3 Yet while most late Qing fiction focuses on the predominantly political questions of nation-building, “A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio” is unique in delving into the less discussed problems of China’s increasing industrialization and economic inequalities; in a few years this would become the focal point for the rise of socialism and communism in the country.

To the best of my knowledge, Xu was not acquainted with Marx’s works. It is possible, however, to detect Marxist themes in Xu’s writings on the aesthetics of science fiction. According to Géraldine Fiss, in his critical essay, “Xiaoshuo lin yuanqi” [On the Origins of the Forest of Fiction, 1905], Xu singles out aesthetic pleasure as the ultimate artistic goal (20).4 The value of entertainment is understandable: late Qing writers have to capture readers through emotional and entertaining materials in order to draw their attention to the cause of nation-building and scientific progress (20). Thus it is not surprising that two years before the publication of “A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio,” Xu observed that “there are many in the world who dislike reading about science, but none who dislikes reading science fiction [kexue xiaoshuo]” (qtd. in Wutian 446).5 Yet science fiction does more than provide aesthetic pleasure: “Stories about the moon, travels around, to the end, and center of the world, and to the depths of the ocean ... are increasingly innovative and varied. Such stories depict scientific ideals that transcend what is natural in order to encourage progress” (Xu, “Xiaoshuo lin yuanqi” 237).6

For Xu, realism is not the only domain for evoking what he lauds as the “concrete substance” and the “original nature” of art; fantastic literature and science-fictional writings are equally capable of producing a process he calls idealization (lixianghua), whereby “elements that are useless and superfluous ... are removed in order to stimulate concrete substance (shiti) so that [the work’s] original nature (benxing) may be developed” (Xu, “Xiaoshuo lin yuanqi” 237). In Xu’s account, neither the unreal nor the unnatural is useless or superfluous; scientific ideals, when the end goal is to encourage progress, are the highest forms of idealization (237). Science fiction combines the elements of concrete ideals and metaphorical or figurative ideals for the higher purpose of challenging readers to exceed the limits of the natural.7 In the case of “A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio,” the narrative is set in motion by his epic quest for “non-knowledge” outside the domain of empirical science, a quest that culminates in an inexplicable splitting between his spiritual and physical selves (1). Through the figure of its divided narrator, the story questions the contradiction between science and non-science and explores the power of literature to mobilize both scientific and non-scientific ideals in the name of progress. What the story gives us is a complex and self-conscious view of the function of science fiction in society. 

Moreover, the story’s attention to socio-economic issues makes it possible to read it as a utopian text, following Darko Suvin’s definition of utopian fiction as a socio-economic sub-genre of science fiction (61). The story strays from conventional utopian narratives in that it is not about the construction of ideal societies but of multiple, ideal selves, which alone determines the possible-but-not-yet-actual elsewhere. I hope to show how the question of the self in “A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio” is not simply a theoretical-philosophical one but is also a practical question of society and, specifically, the Chinese state. Toward the end of the story with New Mr. Braggadocio’s invention of brain electricity, the self ceases to be an abstract, metaphysical problem. Instead it enters the social world of economic production as the “general productive forces of the social brain” in Marx’s analysis (Grundrisse 694). Whether it evokes the metaphysical or the material self, “A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio” underscores the tension between self and society. In the words of Ernst Bloch, “The question about the self is the only problem, the resultant of every world-problem, and to formulate this Self- and We-problem in everything, the opening, reverberating through the world, of the gates of homecoming, is the ultimate basic principle of utopian philosophy” (206).

For there to be a multiplicity of ideal selves, the “Self- and We-problem” as examined in Bloch’s utopian philosophy must allow for differences and otherness. This is where Frederic Jameson’s development of Bloch’s distinction between the to-be-realized Utopian program and the more obscure Utopian impulse, which spills over from the sum of individual texts to everything future-oriented, is helpful in underscoring the utopian dimension of Xu’s story. While the Utopian program involves a commitment to closure and totality in the name of autonomy and self-sufficiency, Jameson interprets the Utopian impulse and its hermeneutics as a four-level allegory consisting of Bloch’s tripartite body-time-collectivity that can be found even in political and social theory (6-7). These levels of Utopian allegory do not lead to a conscious Utopian program and its realization, and for this reason, the anagogical level that Jameson employs to denote the collective does not work toward the sense of totality characteristic of the Utopian program (607). Yet this does not mean that totality—what Bloch calls the “Self- and We- problem”—is structurally absent in utopias in general. It is with this attention to difference and otherness within the systematic nature of social totality that “A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio,” through its unique narrative voice as well as through the narrator’s invention of brain electricity, explores the relation between self and society.

The Third-Person “I.” Despite its brevity, “A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio” is densely plotted. At the beginning of the story, New Mr. Braggadocio introduces himself as someone who, in his youth, believed in heaven, hell, and all that was possible in the world as prescribed by religious thought (1). As he becomes acquainted with the scientific knowledge of “mineral, plant, and animal worlds,” the narrator learns that all things can be explained by observation and proof (1). Yet he remains perplexed by what does not count as knowledge because it lies outside of science and so cannot be tested and proven but continues to be “invented” (faming) (1). For two years, he pursues this question without success. In anguish, he climbs to the top of a mountain, loses consciousness in an infinite gravitational pool, and wakes up to find that he has split into—“for lack of better names”—what religions refer to as the “soul” (linghun) and the “physical shell” (quke) (2). The rest of the story follows two journeys: the narrator’s soul or spirit travels from the Himalayas to Mercury and Venus, and his physical body travels to the center of the earth, where it meets the ancestor of the Chinese race. Finally, after the reunification of his spirit and physical body, New Mr. Braggadocio is rescued in an indeterminate future by an advanced naval fleet of patriots intent on reforming the Chinese state (17).

The above adventures of New Mr. Braggadocio’s split selves are an elaborate build-up to his dramatic discovery, near the end of his narration, of an energy source called brain electricity. Back in China, the narrator attends a hypnosis conference where he is inspired by the “enigma and unfathomability” of animal magnetism as well as the incredible changes his brain has experienced since the unification of his body and spirit (18). New Mr. Braggadocio’s subsequent invention of brain electricity emits light that replaces manmade light, sound that surpasses the need for telegraph and telephone companies, heat that makes redundant the need for heating, and telepathic conduits that compete with traditional transportation networks (19-20). Ultimately, the wondrous powers of brain electricity, instead of bettering society, end up causing massive unemployment worldwide and the story concludes with the narrator having to go into hiding (20).

This section of my article focuses on how, after finding himself split into his physical and spiritual selves, New Mr. Braggadocio’s first-person narrative voice takes on the role of an external commentator who navigates between two parts of his disintegrated self. Here is how his two selves are described. His spirit takes the form of a one-inch gaseous sphere that, without eyes, ears, nose, or tongue, has extraordinary sensory perception. Without hands or feet it can move without inhibition. It can survive without circulatory, respiratory, digestive, and central nervous systems and yet still carry out their functions (2). His physical body has all the abovementioned organs and systems that his spirit lacks; curiously, everything seems to be in place except for his brain (3). The deliberate absence of his brain from either his spirit or physical self, however incredible, is a narrative sleight-of-hand that must be taken seriously. For where can the brain be except in the narrative perspective of the first-person “I,” who cannot be positioned either within his spiritual or physical self because it speaks interchangeably and at times simultaneously for both of them, as the center for all biological functionality? We are led to believe that it is this speaking “I” who is capable of both affect and rationalism. After realizing that his physical self lacks a brain, New Mr. Braggadocio fears that even with a central nervous system he will be “non-thinking,” “non-functioning,” and “no different from a dead person” (3). Comically, he spends the next twenty-four hours weeping over such misfortune before realizing that if he is truly dead, he cannot possibly be crying (3). Then New Mr. Braggadocio has a revelation: “Now that I [yu] clearly have two bodies, one spiritual, and the other physical, I [yu] shall make the best use of them to study everything and invent everything: though I [yu] am of one person, my capabilities reach far beyond those of a singular person” (3).8

Hence it is with such enhanced capabilities that the speaking “I” addresses his spiritual and physical bodies in the third-person plural “they.” New Mr. Braggadocio’s new powers reach far beyond those of a single individual because he is, quite literally, more than one person. What is more fantastical than his out-of-body and out-of-spirit experience is the first-person narration that is simultaneously a third-person reference to his “selves,” an “I” as a third-person to himself. Delighted by this discovery of his increased powers, New Mr. Braggadocio proceeds to laugh hysterically for another twenty-four hours (3). From affect to rationalization and back to affect, it is the speaking “I” who takes account of his disparate selves. In my reading, the splitting of New Mr. Braggadocio posits another self over and above the Cartesian duality of mind and body. Even as he goes on to explain that he is able to combine his physical body and spiritual self into one or split them at will into various permutations (3), the grammatical imposition of the “I” who continues to address his physical and spiritual halves in the third person prevents any clear unification of the subject. Instead, the grammatical disjuncture between the speaking “I” and the “they” whose experiences “I” narrates raises questions about the cognizant subject who exists outside of any reliable notions of the self.

Here Fiss’s analysis of the story’s treatment of the self serves as an interesting counterpoint to my analysis. According to Fiss, while the narrator’s “initial self-fragmentation mirrors the deeply unsettling sense of disunity, disorientation, and disruption many late Qing intellectuals were experiencing on a subjective level,” the subsequent realization of his increased capabilities signifies an “epistemological enlightenment through self-renewal” (44). In my examination of New Mr. Braggadocio’s subjectivity, I argue that the complexity of the third-person “I” in “A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio,” through which the first-person narration simultaneously acts as a third-person narrator, only enhances the sense of disunity and disorientation of the late Qing malaise. As a result, the story up to this point denies itself “epistemological enlightenment through self-renewal.” Instead of viewing such a fragmented subjectivity as a failure, my reading suggests that it shows a more subtle understanding of the ambivalent and incomplete nature of personhood and identity.   

Another episode later in the story, where we learn of New Mr. Braggadocio’s visit to the planet Venus, further augments the complexity of New Mr. Braggadocio’s multiple subjectivity. Venus is described as a utopian landscape despite, or perhaps because of, its lack of human life. The planet is covered in gold, jade, emeralds, and other gems in various shapes and sizes (12). Upon further exploring his surroundings, New Mr. Braggadocio discovers a mollusk-like organism in a piece of jade and a crystal-like moth-shaped mineral that emits extreme heat (13). He then concludes that, since the dissipation of heat contributes to the development of life on Earth, life on Venus must be at its prehistoric, pre-vertebrate stage (13). The insertion of this knowledge of evolution into such an improbable setting further shores up the story’s paradoxical combination of science and fantasy.

Adding to the science fantasy is New Mr. Braggadocio’s egoistic desire to be the progenitor of a new land and a new race of people: “If I reside here permanently, I will indeed be the ancestor of Venus humans!” (13). This, however, is where his subjective identity is further called into question. In the next passage, New Mr. Braggadocio comes across the lost diary that records his hot-air balloon expedition to the North Pole five years ago. He has never been to Venus before and so it is impossible to explain how his diary could have made its way there. The full significance of his diary as self-writing simply perpetuates the fantasy of origins that he expresses earlier (13). Since the diary that records his adventure predates the current narrative, it is also antecedent to New Mr. Braggadocio’s fantasy about his role as the origin of a new human species on Venus.9 The folding of New Mr. Braggadocio’s old diary into his larger autobiographical account raises the question of the origin of his first-person narration. Eventually, New Mr. Braggadocio decides that he will leave his mysterious diary there for future archaeologists to discover (13). Since the narrator gets caught in a gravitational whirlpool and returns to Earth, the diary becomes the stand-in for his desire to be the ancestor of Venusian humans: an arche-fossil not unlike the mollusk, the heat-emitting minerals, and other organisms.

The absurdity of this account notwithstanding, the mysterious reappearance of his old diary must be seen in light of the larger problem of the story’s first-person narration of disparate selves. Who or what begins the narration that we are presently following? Does the lost diary imply that one can make sense of the beginning of life only in the presence of a living observer and human records? Is it at all possible to think of the existence of prehistoric life before human consciousness? Is the found object—namely, New Mr. Braggadocio’s old diary—not already the trace of an earlier narrating subject? These are questions that not only further unsettle New Mr. Braggadocio’s first-person narration, but also underlie many of the epistemological and ontological premises of philosophical inquiries in general. Empirical science has so far been able to calculate the age of the universe prior to the existence of human beings. But Xu’s fantastic insertion of the narrator’s diary into a discussion about the origins of life also means that scientific objectivity needs to be supplemented with the question of narrative perspectives and subjective points-of-view.10

In “Narrative Modes in Late Qing Novels,” Milena Dolezelova-Velingerova argues that the study of narrative structures and modes are “necessary steps to the resolution of some essential problems of Chinese fiction and its history” (57). Even when late Qing fiction has received “long-overdue theoretical attention,” the indifference to narrative mode persists, perhaps due to the fact that the distinction between first- and third-person narration “is less conspicuous in Chinese than in any Western language” (57). Chinese verbs have no indication of person and traditionally the language tends to leave out sentence subjects and pronouns altogether (57). All the same, first-person narrations are well established in Chinese classical language (wenyan); Wu Woyan’s (Wu Jianren) Strange Events (serialized between 1903 and 1905) was the first attempt at first-person narrative in the vernacular (baihua) language (66). Dolezelova-Velingerova correctly points out that while earlier classical first-person narratives such as Shen Fu’s Fou sheng liu ji [Six Chapters of a Floating Life, 1808] is a confessional work that focuses on the narrator’s private life, marriage, and emotional experience, the first-person narration of vernacular (baihua) literature, which Wu pioneers, emphasizes the narrator’s observation of the society around him and relegates his personal life, including his feelings and emotions, to the background (66). Unlike Shen’s Six Chapters of a Floating Life, Wu’s Strange Events engages with political and social issues unique to China. Given the lack of deeper psychological introspection, the former cannot be said to have copied from the Western first-person novel or the modern Japanese autobiographical novel (66). According to Dolezelova-Velingerova, “the basic question ‘Who am I?,’ prevalent in Western fiction, is in China overshadowed by the query ‘Who am I in my society?’” (72).

One might object to Dolezelova-Velingerova’s over-generalization of “Western” and “Chinese” first-person narratives. Nonetheless, her argument that “Who am I in society?” is the predominant question posed by Chinese writers is significant for my purposes. “A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio” is written in classical wenyan language and yet, as we shall see, New Mr. Braggadocio’s first-person narration also departs from the wenyan form in that he is precisely concerned with political and socio-economic issues having to do with the future of the Chinese nation. At the same time, the narrator does not fail to convey his emotional and psychological insights, as is evident from the outpouring of affect earlier discussed. As a result, “A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio” both conforms to and departs from the wenyan and baihua traditions, and in doing so rethinks the relationship between self and society.

The Man-Machine of the Social Brain. New Mr. Braggadocio proclaims near the beginning of the story his decision to “study and invent everything” with his increased powers. The first task he accomplishes is to transform his spiritual body into an incredible light source that can illuminate the whole world (3-4). He first shines his light onto Europe and America, sending Western scientists rushing to investigate the strange phenomenon using the telescope, the photometer, and the camera (4). When they fail to identify the light source, New Mr. Braggadocio scoffs at the backwardness of so-called scientific nations and turns his light on his homeland in the hopes of discovering a more civilized world there (5). But in China, where it is past noon, everyone is still in deep slumber and lost in their dreams (5). The small fraction of the population who are awake remain in their bedchambers, embracing their foot-bound wives while completely ignoring the intense light shining on them (5). New Mr. Braggadocio becomes so enraged with what he sees that he wants to set himself on fire and raze his country to the ground so that it may start again as a new land awaiting the discovery of a future Columbus (5).

New Mr. Braggadocio’s failure to enlighten his countrymen is an allegory typical of the ways in which late Qing intellectuals and writers expressed their frustrations with Chinese society’s incapacity to confront foreign imperialist aggressions. Another instance occurs when New Mr. Braggadocio’s physical self journeys to the center of the earth and meets the ancestor of the Chinese race, who checks on his descendents’ well-being by a daily projection of the “essence” of their “characters” onto a screen (9). On the day of New Mr. Braggadocio’s visit, the screen projects a heavy cloud of black smoke, which, as the ancestor explains, indicates the state of “poison” among his people (9). The host proceeds to show his guest the display of color-coded human characters bottled in various solid, liquid, and gaseous forms (9). A transparent liquid indicates that the person is upright, independent, and at the same time communalistic; at the opposite end of the spectrum, liquid morphine indicates a most poisonous character, causing one to be demoralized, unhealthy, superstitious, and stupid (10). The old man laments that the latter condition seems to pervade Chinese society (10). When asked by New Mr. Braggadocio if there are ways to save them, he replies, invoking the earlier allegory of a entire country both somnolent and mindless, that he wishes he had a voice loud enough to waken the populace from its deep slumber (10).  

The concern with making visible through advanced technology otherwise invisible personal characteristics and traits can be explained by the late Qing preoccupation with the idea of psychic or mind power that—with proper diagnosis and control—might be turned into a strong and healthy foundation for a renewed national spirit. In turn, the idea of psychic or mind power can be traced back to the American “mind cure” movement, New Thought, and to the influential subcurrents of animal magnetism and mesmerism which found their way across the Pacific Ocean in the early years of the twentieth century.

A discussion of the culture of psychic powers in China is indispensable for understanding the significance of New Mr. Braggadocio’s invention of brain electricity. In 1896, John Fryer, eminent missionary and translator of Western works into Chinese, published his translation of Henry Wood’s Zhixin mianbingfa [A Method for the Avoidance of Illness by Controlling the Mind] (Liu 248). Wood was an advocate of the open-mindedness and inclusive practices of the American New Thought movement (Caplan 80). His book, originally titled Ideal Suggestion through Mental Photography, outlines the operations of mental healing by employing the metaphor of the photograph, emphasizing the role of the receiver of images, namely the patient, in the healing process (Caplan 81). While these laws lie beyond intellectual comprehension, Wood underscores their orderliness and “scientific adaptability” to the century’s fascination with ether and electricity (Wood 7). In China, Fryer’s translation of Ideal Suggestion through Mental Photography directs mental healing to the cause of China’s problems. According to Joyce C. H. Liu, Fryer began his translation after China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese war in 1895, and showed his attentiveness to the political and social climate of the late Qing period by inserting into Wood’s preface his own comments on “opium houses, crimes, wars, disasters and famine” (249). Fryer was also particularly interested in the power of ether which, just as it fills the space through which sound and electricity can be transmitted, explains the power of thought that can be shared between people (Liu 249-50).

That the power of mental healing, which works like ether in its penetrability between people, is believed to be a cure for a country’s weakness speaks to the larger intellectual trend of xin li, or psychic power, that was gaining traction in late Qing China. Liu locates the first occurrence of xin li or psychic force in Fryer’s Zhixin mianbingfa (248). Precisely because other intellectuals vary in their interpretations of xin li, it remains a flexible concept that can be adapted and remolded to fit different nation-building purposes. According to Liu, Liang Qichao uses the term xin li to encourage the cultivation, cure, and regulation of the psyche. Like electricity, xin li is believed to be able to rejuvenate a sick and static old China (248). Tan Sitong—Liang’s contemporary and one of the martyrs of the failed “100 days of reform” (1898) whose work I will discuss below—similarly refers to the powers of psychic force in his philosophical writings.

What made the culture of xin li so attractive to late Qing intellectuals was its dual focus on turn-of-the-century interests in spiritual rejuvenations and on new scientific technologies such as the electromagnetic telegraph, both of which were seen to provide new paths for Chinese society. Like New Mr. Braggadocio’s wish to awaken his afflicted countrymen from apathy and lethargy, Liang, Tan, and others believed that human forms are not revealed only through external physical forms; with the right kind of mental suggestion, manifestations of human forms can alter the “deeper or trans-conscious mind” (Liu 248). This notion of the malleability of human thought returns in “A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio” when the narrator chances upon the rather nightmarish technology of “human manufacturing” on Mercury that entails the replacing of existing brain fluid with a pristine white substance. New Mr. Braggadocio attests to the success of such a technology when he witnesses the transformation of an aged man into a healthy young person (11-12). This method appears to the narrator both remarkable and highly efficient, for “all elements of human thought and activities are dependent upon the brain” (12). He remarks to himself that when he returns home, he will “amass capital” and set up a “brain improvement” company in Shanghai, which would then rejuvenate the weak Chinese masses (12).

Toward the end of the story, he comes up with a more profound and less gruesome method of “brain improvement.” Upon his return to Shanghai, he attends a hypnosis symposium and learns about the curious powers of animal magnetism (18). He realizes that his brain has undergone an “incredible transformation” since the reunification of his spiritual and physical bodies (12). “Every time I think of [the] uses [of brain electricity], I know [they] will present a huge obstacle to industries” (12). New Mr. Braggadocio’s revelatory discovery is in line with the absurd tone of the whole tale, but unlike his preceding adventures to the center of the earth and to outer space and back, he is now foregrounding its practical, industrial effects. His discovery of brain electricity is, I argue, nothing short of a rediscovery of political economy. But before elaborating on this last point, we should pay attention to how New Mr. Braggadocio describes his latest invention:

Reflecting on my invention of brain electricity, I compare it to the smooth workings of the telegraph and wireless technology, effects of which will surely please society. Yet I feel that such technologies are mechanical and not natural. The use of natural energy is none other than the improved and widespread use of the brain, which everyone has. Being a natural communicative mechanism between people, once the brain receives a thought, depending on the magnitude, it is bound to undergo changes. (18)

New Mr. Braggadocio goes on to explain that even though the brain naturally receives and sends thoughts, an unregulated traffic of multiple thought processes with various recipients or senders can be too chaotic (18). Brain electricity, on the other hand, trains our brains to recognize faces and to categorize information according to the receiver’s or sender’s information (18). Moreover, it ensures a balance between sending and receiving so that the energy-depleting process of sending and the energy-adding process of receiving balance each other, so that the entire process does not damage one’s mental resources (18).

The narrator does not “invent” brain electricity in the strict sense of bringing forth something that did not previously exist; rather, he enhances what Xu and his contemporaries believed to be innate psychic or telepathic powers. A Shanghai newspaper, Dalu bao, reported on a lecture on hypnosis organized in 1905, the year in which Xu published “The Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio” (Luan 49). Xu was a member of the Chinese Education Society, with which the conference was associated, and it is very likely that he attended the hypnosis lecture and drew on its proceedings (49). New Mr. Braggadocio is fascinated with the animal magnetism that constitutes a fundamental principle of hypnotic theories, positing that the universe is made up of moving particles from the ether that serve as a medium between persons (Luan 49-50). Animal magnetism thus requires both material and spiritual or psychic forces for its communicative channels (49-50). Hence to see “A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio” as solely metaphysical and non-scientific would be to neglect the role that these pseudo-scientific intellectual currents played for Chinese writers of the period. As Luan Weiping points out, Xu’s story not only shows an understanding of contemporary science but it also reveals, on a deeper level, an interest in the soul and psychic powers (50). The two strands are almost inseparable. Other science-fictional works of the period, such as Chen Hongbi’s translation of an English short story, “Electric Crown” [Dianguan, 1908 (original author and publication date unknown)], Zudai’s “Mimishi” [Secret Chamber, 1912], and Qiushan’s “Xiaomieqi” (Exterminator, 1916), all foreground the brain as the spiritual or mental counterpart to the imaging processes of new technologies (Luan 50-51). 

Xu’s evocation of brain electricity also draws from Chinese philosophical traditions. A case in point is Tan Sitong’s philosophical work, Renxue, published posthumously between 1898-1901. Xu was also influenced by Fryer’s translation of Wood’s Ideal Suggestion Through Mental Photography; at the same time, he also compared mental healing to the Hinayana Buddhist notion of personal salvation and the Confucian ethic of “sincerity” (cheng) (Kwong 146). In Tan’s explication of ren’s twenty-four principles or characteristics, the first principle is tong or thoroughness, the ever-changing and ever-lasting rule of life (47). The “tools” for such an ever-changing interconnectedness are ether, electricity, and psychic power (47). Tan explains that “the brain is electricity materialized and electricity is brain-without-form” (60). Elsewhere, Tan also professes his belief that “a world community and a new international order could come into existence” through the power of the mind alone (Kwong 146). Luke S.K. Kwong captures the utopian-internationalist or universalist thrust of Renxue succinctly: neither Chinese nor Western and yet both Chinese and Western, “the dialectical potential of such an outlook flowered into a universalist perspective that went beyond the China-West polarity and other forms of cultural parochialism” (163). All in all, Xu’s and Tan’s uses of brain electricity in “A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio” and Renxue are remarkably similar (Luan 52). Both emphasize the duality of matter and spirit in the projection of thought through various media such as animal magnetism and ether (52).

It is necessary to provide the above historical-intellectual genealogy in order to understand Xu’s interest in brain electricity. New Mr. Braggadocio’s invention goes further, however, than the late Qing interest in psychic energies as a source for the renewal of the nation. For what is intriguing about Xu’s adaptation of brain electricity is his attention to its practical effects on industry. Looking back from the novel’s conclusion, I maintain that the narrator’s entire journey that begins with the fragmentation of his cognizant self culminates in the technological development of this alternative energy source. To recall, New Mr. Braggadocio is inspired to develop brain electricity not only because of his learning about animal magnetism during the hypnosis conference but also from the experiences of his mind-body split, which result in a transformation of his brain (18). Since his brain resides in the speaking “I” who refers to his spiritual and physical halves in the third person, New Mr. Braggadocio’s discovery of brain electricity is simultaneously a rediscovery and a reunification of his cognizant self. It is also at this point in the story, with the joining of the practical functions of brain electricity to the narrative capabilities of the “I,” that Xu appears to come close to the sense of “epistemological enlightenment through self-renewal” described by Fiss (44).

With the reclamation of his singular, whole, and ideal subjectivity, however, New Mr. Braggadocio leaves the cloistered world of the self and enters the social world of economic production. For brain electricity is in fact an entrepreneurial commodity. New Mr. Braggadocio’s establishment of schools to teach brain electricity funds a global educational conglomerate whose classes and students extend across the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco, across the South Pacific and Indian Ocean to Africa, and all the way through the Mediterranean to Europe (19). These schools are so popular that satellite campuses have to be set up in Tianjin, Yantai, Ningbo, Fuzhou, Guangzhou, Hankou, and Chengdu (19). In half a year, the student population grows to two hundred million. New Mr. Braggadocio is not slow to boast of such accomplishments as he thinks of himself as the only self-made educator in “all of man’s history” (19). Others scoff at his hubris and predict that his inventions will not bring him any good (19). And little does the narrator foresee that the production and commercialization of this universal energy source will replace companies that produce candles, gas, electrical lamps, electricity, telecommunications, shipping, and railroads, resulting in severe worldwide unemployment (19-20). Brain electricity, which replaces both labor and machines such as telephones and trains, evokes the global reach of capitalism that Marx was writing about in the nineteenth century, which strives to tear down every spatial barrier (Capital I 559). Unlike many science-fictional and utopian narratives that foreground the uneven distribution of wealth, mass unemployment, and mass strikes as the driving forces for the reimagination of societies, Xu’s short story accounts for the same economic disturbances by reversing the cause-and-effect of utopian change. By ending instead of beginning with mass unemployment brought about by a change in the ownership of the means of production and the relation between these two phenomena, Xu’s work blurs the line between utopia and dystopia and forcibly introduces the question of labor and capital into a story that on the surface appears to be nothing more than an strange fantasy.

As a form of capital accumulation, brain electricity induces unemployment in order to create an “industrial reserve army” of unemployed workers (Harvey 141). David Harvey’s study of this process of “accumulation by dispossession” highlights how capitalism constantly produces its own “other,” which in the case of “A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio” is the making-use of the sector of education within capitalism to expand production of a communicative system that runs on “natural” energy, and which then dispossesses the older form of production that includes both manual labor and traditional machinery (141).

For what makes brain electricity different from traditional machinery such as telephones and telegraphs is that it is both natural—New Mr. Braggadocio describes it as “none other than the improved and widespread use of the brain” (18)—and mechanical. Allow me to better explore this human-machine relation through Marx’s distinction between fixed and circulating capital. Following Antonio Negri and Amy E. Wendling, I refer to the section in Grundrisse that discusses machinery as “The Fragment on Machines” (Wendling 100). There, Marx defines fixed capital, that is, raw materials and machinery, as that which is fixed in the production process and is consumed within it, whereas circulating capital is the reproduction of the relations of capital that make up the worker’s consumption and maintenance of himself as living labor capacity (676-78). Although fixed capital does circulate, it does so only in order to be consumed in production—hence Marx’s distinction of fixed capital as “means of production” and of living labor capacity as the relations of production (678-679). It is important to note that this distinction is based on fixed value’s use in the production process and not by some inalienable “mode of ... being” (681). Therefore, while “matières instrumentales” (French in the original) such as coal, wood, grease, and oil have use values for the process of the production process, the same materials also have a use value outside of production and can be consumed non-commercially (680). Marx is here only concerned with the machine’s “durability, or its greater or less perishability” determined by the amount of time during which it can continue to perform its function, whereby its use-value becomes a “form-determining moment, i.e., a determinant for capital as regards its form, not as regards its matter” (685). The differentiation between form and matter is thus crucial for the distinction between fixed and circulating capital in Grundrisse, for “things in themselves” are neither fixed nor circulating (687). Since nothing is “natural” or “mechanical” in and of itself, but only in its use-value in the production process, we are now in a better position to see how brain electricity is a natural energy source that becomes mechanical in its use.

The crossing over of fixed and circulating capital describes the process in which machines, under capitalism, take over and absorb living human labor. Under capitalist modes of production, machines “act upon workers like an alien power” (Grundrisse 692-693). “Labor appears, rather, merely as a conscious organ, scattered among the individual living workers at numerous points of the mechanical system” (693). Human beings are subsumed under the “total process of the machinery itself” and the “living (active) machine” confronts the individual worker’s “insignificant doings as a mighty organism” (693). Here, machines, not humans, become the real “organism.” Because the distinction between fixed and circulating capital is blurred under capitalist modes of production, inherent in Marx’s analysis is the machine’s alienation of the individual from his labor:

The accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labor, and hence appears as an attribute of capital, and more specifically of fixed capital, in so far as it enters into the production process as a means of production proper. (Grundrisse 694; my emphasis)

New Mr. Braggadocio’s invention of brain electricity is literally speaking the accumulation of knowledge and skill into the “social brain” of a new Chinese capital. While primitive accumulation in Marx’s original study entails the privatization of traditional assets such as land, New Mr. Braggadocio’s educational conglomerate foresees the future postindustrial or information society in which the technological knowledge of brain electricity creates surpluses of both capital and labor, which can then be seized upon for profitable use in the future (Harvey 149). It is not difficult to see the ultimately destructive force of New Mr. Braggadocio’s invention. The revolution in communication systems makes obsolete the very bodies in which brain electricity is stored: the latter, as fixed capital, is thus absorbed into the “social brain” while labor, as circulating capital, is cast aside as a result. “The Fragment on Machines” helps explain how brain electricity is a form of accumulation by dispossession that congeals social labor into labor-power. Brain electricity causes worldwide unemployment because, while it has radically replaced the previous means of production—that is, the machinery that enables both manual labor and the generation of electricity used in cable lines, it has not transferred the relations of production from the capitalists to the working masses. In the words of Tessa Morris-Suzuki, “the physical coming together of worker and machine is sundered” and we are left with brain electricity that follows the instruction of selected workers who are physically removed from the production process on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the channeling of living labor into the process of designing and improving the workings of brain electricity (18). The “social brain” of New Mr. Braggadocio’s world has to keep on creating surplus value by dispossessing manual labor and redirecting it to the design of information and machinery, which in turn amplifies inequalities of wealth, since innovative economies rely on strongly hierarchical social structures and strong state systems.

The problem, as we know, does not lie with this new mechanical potential of brain electricity. As Marx explains, “it does not at all follow that therefore subsumption under the social relation of capital is the most appropriate and ultimate social relation of production for the application of machinery” (Grundrisse 699-700). Marx’s speculation on the role of machinery in the socialist future thus strikes a very different note than the one he ascribes to the role of machinery under the capitalist mode of production. Under socialism, machines will free the worker for his or her development as a “social individual” (705). Since machines help reduce the necessary labor of society to a minimum, they ensure the development of the artistic and scientific potential of the individual under socialism (706). The measure of wealth is then not labor time but disposable time. The product is no longer produced by isolated direct labor but by the combination of social activities (709). Simply put, since workers are now in direct control of the process of social production, the saving of labor time through technology “reacts back upon the productive power of labor as itself the greatest productive power” (711-12). As a result, the distinction between fixed and flexible or circulating capital, which is never stable to begin with, finally ceases to hold. “As regards the human being ... in whose head exists the accumulated knowledge of society,” she is a machine (712), because she also qualifies as fixed capital or the means of production itself. Under socialism, the “general productive forces of the social brain” will be absorbed into labor instead of capital (694). In the case of New Mr. Braggadocio, brain electricity, which began as an individual and then a corporate asset, will finally be social. The distinctions between human labor power and machine power and between circulating and fixed capital are thus blurred under the social relations of production hinted at by both Marx and Xu Nianci, albeit in very different contexts and for very different purposes.

Conclusion. Should the state of unemployment at the end of Xu’s story lead to mass strikes and to some form of socialist revolution—as a reductive view of Marxist historiography might suggest—brain electricity will re-absorb the “productive forces of the social brain” into labor instead of capital (Grundrisse 694). Unfortunately, at the end of “A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio,” the narrator is ridiculed, castigated, and scoffed at for the destructive effects of his otherwise ingenious invention and is forced to leave the country (20). Regardless of what will happen to brain electricity, New Mr. Braggadocio does fulfill his quest, stated at the beginning of the story, to obtain the so-called “non-knowledge” that lies outside the boundary of empirical science. This non-knowledge refers neither to the splitting of his body into two halves nor to his ensuing adventures in outer space and in the center of the earth. It is not even the ability to refer to his fragmented selves in the third person, which I examined above. If he has indeed found such a “non-knowledge” worthy of its name, I find no better way to describe it than with a comment from Marx’s Capital: “Mr. Money-bags must be in a situation where he can find in the market a peculiar commodity whose use value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value” (186). And this commodity is brain electricity. Unbeknownst to its critics, “A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio” launches a daring commentary on political economy through science fiction.

Because of the failure of brain electricity to realize New Mr. Braggadocio’s dream of interpersonal communication, Xu’s utopian impulse ends on a dystopian note that sounds the ultimate breakdown between individual and society via the fission between human and machine. To the question “Who am I in society?” which Dolezelova-Velingerova frames as the predominant question for Chinese writers, I contend that “A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio” responds by including machines in the self-society relation or, to evoke Bloch’s phrase once more, the “Self- and We-problem” (206). Brain electricity, which ultimately drives a wedge between human and machine, wastes the opportunity to inaugurate a set of radical anti-capitalist relations of production; it thus plays the role of radical otherness or difference that destabilizes the narrator’s utopian fantasy of a universal or international communicability. For this reason, brain electricity, instead of becoming the natural communicative energy between people as its inventor has intended (18), functions more like the narrating “brain” of the third-person “I” examined above. Just as the “I” addresses New Mr. Braggadocio’s physical and spiritual halves in the third-person, brain electricity confronts the individual worker’s “insignificant doings as a mighty organism” from the outside (Grundrisse 693). Whether it is with its recreation of the narrative voice or the man-machine relation, “A Tale of New Mr. Braggadocio” encapsulates the sense of self-fragmentation and disorientation of the late Qing. It also demonstrates the relevance of Marxist critique as a way of understanding early twentieth-century Chinese science fiction.

1. Scholarship that proposes a revision of Chinese modernist literary history includes Chen’s Zhongguo xiaoshuo xushi moshi de zhuanbian [Changes in the Narrative modes of Chinese Fiction]; Dolezelova-Velingerova and Kral, eds., The Appropriation of Cultural Capital: China’s May Fourth; Huters, “A New Way of Writing”; and Wang Der-Wei, Fin-de-Siècle Splendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction, 1849-1911. More specifically, according to Wang, the neglect of late Qing science fiction is largely due to the May Fourth literati’s dismissal of the genre as inappropriate for the model of “literary science” that they were trying to institute (253). Late Qing science fiction was regarded as being too fantasy-like and not scientific or modern enough for realism and naturalism, the two European literary forms that inspired the May Fourth writers (254-55). It should also be noted that Xu’s choice to write a modern science-fictional text in the classical wenyan form is not a common one. The earliest science fiction, Huangjiang Diaosou’s Yueqio zhimindi xiaoshuo [Moon Colony, 1904] and Wu Jianren’s Xin shitouji [New Story of the Stone, 1905-06], for example, are written in vernacular language.

2. The prefacing of a novel or short story with an exposition from the author is a tradition of classical Chinese fiction.

3. Liang Qichao famously championed the practical function of literature for the new Chinese citizenry and nation in his essay “Lun xiaoshuo yu qunzhi zhi guanxi” [On the Relationship between Fiction and the Government of the People, 1902].

4. I am grateful to Géraldine Fiss for her rich insights into Xu’s aesthetic theory and for allowing me to consult and cite her unpublished manuscript.

5. The term “science fiction” (kexue xiaoshuo) first appeared in Liang Qichao’s literary journal, Xin xiaoshuo in 1902 as part of a larger category of “philosophical-science fiction” (zheli xiaoshuo). The latter became more popularly referred to as “science fiction” and became a popular genre featured in many late Qing literary journals (Zhang 70). Xu was no doubt familiar with this term at the time. According to Zhang, the transition from “philosophical-scientific fiction” to “science fiction” reflected a general sense of confusion over literary genres as well as the need to distinguish between scientific and political-societal ideals (70). 

6. All translations of non-English primary and secondary sources are mine.

7. This process of idealization speaks to Jameson’s examination of the notion of world-reduction in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). According to Jameson, world reduction functions as a utopian exclusion of empirical reality whereby reality is deliberately “thinned and weeded out through an operation of radical abstraction and simplification” (271).

8. “Yu” is one of the earliest Chinese first-person pronouns that now include the default first-person pronoun “wo.” To the best of my knowledge, there has not been an agreed-upon distinction between “yu” and “wo.”

9. Without going into the details of his diary entry, I should point out that the narrator’s previous expedition in a hot-air balloon falls within the more traditional genre of travel-adventure narratives popular in the late Qing period. Not only does his earlier adventure contrast with his ongoing out-of-body-and-spirit metaphysical journeys, but also the mysterious way in which this diary made its way to Venus to be found among among the planet’s primordial life-forms further deepens the extent of the narrator’s disorientation.

10. The question of the arche-fossil, and the ancestrality of reality anterior to human life-forms, is posed elegantly by Quentin Meillassoux in After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Meillassoux argues that the philosophy of speculative realism makes it possible to rethink the absence of giveness in the ancestral, for “the problem of the arche-fossil is not the empirical problem of the birth of living organisms, but the ontological problem of the coming into being of giveness as such” (21). The “absence of giveness as such” is in Meillassoux’s terms part of the larger problem of grasping the object “in-and-of-itself.” The critical relevance of Meillassoux’s philosophy for literary criticism is something to examine in a later project. For now, it suffices to ask if it is possible to rethink the absence of giveness when the narrator, first- or third-person, weighs so heavily in most literary traditions.

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