The Rediscovery of Cathay: Chinese Elements in Cordwainer Smith's Science Fiction (2004, 2007) -- Afterword: The Glory of Humanity (6/7)

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Afterword: The Glory of Humanity

Chinese people have a fable about several blind men feeling an elephant. The first one hugged the elephant's leg and claimed that it was like a pillar; the second held the trunk and said that it was like a python or hosepipe; another grabbed the ear and insisted that it was like a fan; yet another touched the belly and asserted it was similar to a wall. Of course they are all wrong, because each of them just knew only a part of the elephant's body. This tale is an allegory which reminds people to keep their objectivity while observing and making a judgment, or they will be blinded and come to an improper conclusion. It is certainly inappropriate to claim that Cordwainer Smith's science fiction is totally influenced by Chinese elements just because of his personal intimacy with China. As a matter of fact, the complexity in Smith's work has shown the multiple inspirations. Even in 'The Dead Lady of Clown Town', which is generally acknowledged as a retelling of Joan of Arc, there are still features, such as the narrating structure, coming from other sources; not to mention other more complicated instances like Norstrilia are never inspired from single origin.

Besides, these ideas are often implicit and ambiguous. Being a successful writer, Cordwainer Smith must have understood and absorbed various kinds of knowledge, mixed them up, and written into the stories with his own words. What I have done in this dissertation is locating the Chinese elements among them. My intention is not to say how enormously these ideas have affected Cordwainer Smith, and assert that he would not compose such beautiful stories without them; on the contrary, I am willing to and have to provide the evidences that Smith still owns the originalities of the ideas in his sf work even though he has referred a certain Chinese materials. For the generally recognised 'Chinese narrative structure', he did not completely copy the narrative methods of 'Hua Ben' but thoroughly understood the spirit of these methods and then adapted them in a way more suitable in western writing and easier for the readers to accept. Norstrilia and The Journey to the West are completely different novels in spite of the resemblances in the journey plot and several main characters; both aspects could be omitted by those who just want to enjoy Smith's story. As for the case of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, even though Smith himself revealed in public that 'The Ballad of Lost C'mell' was triggered by a certain scenes in this novel, it is just no more than an inspiration; most parts of the story are still his own ideas. The connection between the tales in Quest of the Three Worlds and the Chinese novel is even looser. Those settings which have a solid background adapted from Chinese knowledge or literary sources, they just enrich the stories with a more exotic and intriguing feeling. And out of my expectation, traditional Chinese fantastic writing does have something to do with Smith's intelligent beings, but the influence is in fact limited, and other factors may play an important role as well.

What interests me most is his writing about the Chinese people and the possibility that the idea of Instrumentality and underpeople can be in metaphor to the Chinese people, the political structure, and the society which Paul M. A. Linebarger had not only witnessed but also experienced from the early to the mid twentieth century. It certainly needs further examination, but I have the confidence that if I can access the archive of Linebarger-related personal papers, I will come to more concrete evidences. As scholars like Karen L. Hellekson have pointed out, Cordwainer Smith's stories are retellings of tales of humanity:
His romances of the plunging future simply retell the romances of today. He creates little new in his universe; the human condition, Smith believes, unifies history.[1]
To me, these tales do glorify the humanity, and what is more, they illustrate the universality of humanity among all sorts of beings in any time and any space. Smith did not merely sit down and tell tales but also stood up taking actions. Linebarger considered his persuading Chinese soldiers to honourably surrender by yelling the word combination of 'love', 'duty', 'humanity' and 'virtue', as the most worthwhile thing he had done in the life.[2] And the same 'love', 'duty', 'humanity' and 'virtue' are omnipresent in his stories. Just like he himself said in the epilogue of Space Lords, 'Shayol may have told you that Hell Itself is not much to fear, if the people in it are good to each other'[3]; beings with humanity can conquer the Hell, then they can conquer all.

[1] Hellekson, Karen L., The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, p. 101.
[2] See Pierce, John J., 'Cordwainer Smith: the Shaper of Myths' in Smith, The Best of Cordwainer Smith, p. xvi. I think the four Chinese characters are 愛 (Ai, for Love), 責 (Ze, for Duty), 仁 (Ren, for Humanity) and 德 (De, for Virtue); however, since I cannot find out any first-hand evidence, this is just my guess.

[3] Smith, Cordwainer, 'Epilogue' in Space Lords, p. 206.

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