Professor Explores Impact of Sci-Fi Literature on China’s Nation-Building Efforts

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Dr. Isaacson attending a talk during the Science Fiction Workshop last June at Fudan University in Shanghai, China. Photo courtesy of Jia Liyuan.

Not all students arrive at college knowing the distinct educational route, let alone professional, they intend to take. Most of us can attest that uncertainty has a tendency not to discriminate. Thankfully your time at college is all about discovering what ignites your fervor to learn. For instance, NC State Modern Chinese Literature and Cultural Studies professor, Dr. Nathaniel Isaacson, initially intended to enter the business world before understanding that his calling was not there but in studying Chinese language and culture.

Cover of Dr. Isaacson’s book on Chinese science-fiction.

After a study abroad trip to Mexico as a University of Arizona undergraduate, Isaacson realized he loved the fulfilling experience of meeting new people outside of his circle of life, which later influenced his career-changing decision to learn Chinese. A passion for the language prompted his year at the Beijing Second Foreign Language Institute in China where he further developed his linguistic talents. After completing his masters at the University of Arizona, sheer fascination for the Chinese culture guided him back to China in order to teach English for a year. Isaacson later returned to the United States to attain a PhD in Chinese Literature from the University of California, Los Angeles.

In Isaacson’s six years at NC State, he has undoubtedly explored the realms of his interests in Chinese science fiction, cinema, and popular culture. Through analyzing the relationship between Chinese sci-fi and imperialism, he discovered a hidden theme in sci-fi: a desire to expand the empire. He notes, “British and American sci-fi become really prominent when the respective empires are really expanding. And Chinese authors saw this happening and wanted to adopt sci-fi to resist the empire.” The United States and Great Britain didn’t appear to be aware of how prevalent these imperial subcontexts were.

Sci-fi has proved instrumental in Chinese educational efforts as well. It was utilized as a teaching tool for science lessons and even nation-building efforts of civic renewal. Isaacson’s research monograph released February 2017 entitled Celestial Empire the Emergence of Chinese Science Fiction reflects these notions. Celestial discusses sources with translations of science fiction and how they were acculturated and made palpable to a Chinese audience, while also considering what these changes indicated.

Isaacson’s avant-garde research on Chinese sci-fi fits hand in hand with NC State’s motto “Think and Do.” Last fall he presented a paper in Beijing that covers sci-fi crosstalk, a subset of comic dialogues. Isaacson argues these are the beginning of a number of Chinese political campaigns in the 1950s. Many have disregarded these dialogues, yet Isaacson has recognized the real world impact they have had.

Of course, the first step to interpreting literature or film of this sort is to understand not only the language, but also the culture. “[language] is a window to another culture and I think the best way to expand your thinking—critical and creative—and to be able to understand other people and how others think,” said Isaacson.

At the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures we take pride in having faculty who are dedicated to boundless learning and discovery whilst bringing a diverse and unique worldview to our educational environment. Dr. Nathaniel Isaacson is just another good example of why.

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