Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Exploration and Cataloging - Wondrous News from Overseas 海外奇談

    A common fascination of late Qing culture and approaches to western science was the knowledge industry: institutional efforts to identify, catalog, and organize knowledge, often in service of imperial power. This included museums, textbooks, scientific periodicals, expositions like the Paris Exposition Universelle, and other means of organizing and displaying knowledge of the world. This also included rich descriptions of the process of identifying and categorizing new territories, species and phenomena in the name of demonstrating national scientific acumen. The image below echoes descriptions in late Qing science fiction (which in turn are modeled on translations of authors like Jules Verne) of missions to identify and categorize flora and fauna in far-flung reaches of the globe.      

The text reads:

Westerner’s learning in science is comprehensive and detailed. They stand upon its summit, producing its greatest achievements. But westerners also contemplate its artistry, making progress day after day and attaining great achievements in unlocking the mysteries of heaven and earth’s transformations. They have invented the steamship for travel on water, the train for travel on land, and the hot air balloon for ascending the skies. Chinese regard braving high summits; and riding the winds as oddities, but westerners don’t think much of it. So it came to pass that on top of these three, they confabulated the notion of a train that could explore the sea, saying: that the heavens can be ascended yet the sea is impenetrable – we have yet to exhaust the wonders of humanity and nature. Thereupon, adopting the form of a train and the craft of steamship production, they made a train that can be driven into water without flooding and wander freely. Passengers would enter another world as if riding on solid ground. On the day they tested it, many curious onlookers gathered to wait for the train to speed off through wind and waves. All watched in anticipation. After ten days, the train returned and the passengers returned unscathed. All recounted the birds, beasts, grasses and trees they had seen on their journey all of which resembled those of their country. The theory that there is another planet beyond this one is not balderdash after all, and so we have imagined it in painting in order to facilitate conversation. 

The Chinese text reads: 
西人格致之學精矣,備矣,登其峰造其極矣.而西人備思其藝日新月異.進而益上有務洩天地之奇窮造化之變者.輪船之行於水也,火車之行於陸也,氣球之升於天也. 涉險登高,風馳電掣,華人視之固已奇矣,而西人視之猶不甚奇. 乃於三者之外思製一遊海之車, 謂天可升而海不可入不足以窮人官物曲之變也. 於是仿火車之式參用輪船之製窮工極巧造成一車能使入海不濡遊行自在.諸客乘之為履平地別有闊天.當試行之日果有好奇之士聯袂偕來迨車既開行破浪乘風瞬息千里. 見者皆為之穿心. 越旬日而車復駛回. 客皆無恙丑歷述沿途所見禽獸草木一此(?) 國中然. 則地球之外復有地球之說果未蓋(?) 虛誣欺. 姡錄之以資談助.
Again, there is a clear tension between the image, which presents the apparent apprehension of the passengers, who appear to be throwing their arms up in panic, flailing in the open windows of their train as it jumps its tracks and plunges into the sea, and the text, which assures readers that the passengers all returned unscathed. A further tension exists between the idea of science as an exploratory endeavor that westerners are quite happy to engage in, and the Chinese mindset, which would counsel against such folly. Upon their return, we learn that the purpose of the journey was to catalog new, and apparently not-so-wondrous creatures that were seen on the marine journey. 

Explore some other news from Dianzhizhai huabao: 

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