Chinese literature has an extensive history of conflating illness and national infirmity, beginning with the “Sick Man of Asia” stereotype promulgated by the West after the country’s forced opening and internalized by Chinese authors and individuals in the following decades. Waging a war against germs, the rural-based CCP portrayed itself as wielder of modern scientific knowledge capable of combatting disease carriers and conquering all of China. Adequately portraying the role of illness and death in the future were integral to the projection of an ideal society, and addressing even the existence of infirmity within the body politic could be a potentially dangerous pastime for authors.
The SF novelette “Corrosion” by Ye Yonglie subtly engages with the conflation of illness and moral character so as to support the socialist realist project. “Corrosion” follows a scientist who is ideal in every way—physically, mentally, in terms of his work ethic and patriotism—as he attempts to find a cure for a corrosive extraterrestrial virus. His rival in these endeavors is depicted as his opposite in terms of appearance, yet over the course of the story, it is revealed that it is the swarthy, uneducated-appearing rival whose heart is actually pure, and the narrator who, despite his outward appearance, has a soul eaten away by greed. In their pursuit of scientific truth, the body becomes a site where external pathologies and moral failings are mapped onto anatomical systems, so that “greed” and “corruption” are made visible. In doing so, the very idea of a surface becomes porous, wherein the internal disease/degradation is seen as indicative of something fundamentally rotten and merely hidden by an obscuring surface.
This paper will underline the difficulty of normative national inclusion for non-normative bodies and the challenges this posed for a literature attempting to create a model world, one where even acknowledging bodily infirmity or the potential for illness was subject to censure.
About the speaker
Virginia L. Conn is a comparative literature PhD candidate at Rutgers University whose work occurs at the intersection of comparative languages and literatures (Sinophone, Anglophone, Francophone, Germanophone, and Russophone literatures) and science and technology studies, particularly those aspects of STS that investigate circulations of knowledge and biopolitics. Her dissertation focuses on posthumanism and science fiction within a socialist context.