Zhao on Ma, 'The Stone and the Wireless: Mediating China, 1861-1906'

Shaoling Ma
Yue Zhao

Shaoling Ma. The Stone and the Wireless: Mediating China, 1861-1906. Durham: Duke University Press, 2021. xi + 296 pp. $27.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4780-1305-1; $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-1147-7.

Reviewed by Yue Zhao (Cornell University) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (October, 2022) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57943

The classic “Needham Question” in the history of science asks why China did not develop modern science and technology as in the West.[1] In a sense, Shaoling Ma’s The Stone and the Wireless: Mediating China, 1861-1906 provides an alternative take on the Needham Question by examining the history of Chinese media in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Did China have media technologies? In the book, Ma challenges the Western monopoly over the history of “media”—a supposedly “modern” and “Western” invention—by providing a distinctive Chinese narrative in global media history. The book examines how, during the late Qing period, various historical actors—diplomats, rebels, feminists, and intellectuals—developed their distinctive imaginations of media, despite the fact that Chinese usage of the term “media” (meiti) did not emerge until the early twentieth century. Combining multiple sources including science fiction novels, diaries, photographs, poetry, and newspaper articles, Ma traces the dreams, anxieties, and desires of late Qing Chinese literati and social activists amid drastic social and cultural changes at the turn of the twentieth century.

As the title of the book suggests, the book juxtaposes various media artifacts that participated in the production of what science and technology studies (STS) scholars may call the “sociotechnical imaginaries” of late Qing people.[2] These media were either old or new, fictional or real, ranging from telegraphs and phonographs to the legendary stone in the New Story of the Stone (1905), and from the concrete communication networks that were destroyed in the Boxer Rebellion to the fantasized brain electricity technology in Xu Nianci's science fiction story “New Tales of Mr. Braggadocio” (Xin faluo xiansheng tan [1904-5]).

Nonetheless, what the author tries to achieve through the book is much more than curating a collection of forgotten media objects in China—the book is also a theoretical exploration of what “media” and “mediation” mean and do.[3] Drawing inspiration from media theorists such as Alex Galloway, Lev Manovich, and Friedrich Kittler, the book discusses how mediation constitutes not only a linguistic and textual process but also one entangled with shifting material conditions and social relations. By looking at the material outcomes of the new and old media, the book thus attempts to bring the issue of materiality back to the analysis of literary texts and communication technologies. It introduces an enduring topic within the field of STS to media studies and literature analysis: Do media and technological artifacts have sociocultural significance? If so, how?[4] As Ma shows in the book, the media artifacts represented in literary texts were tools for historical actors in late Qing China, who fashioned and negotiated the meanings of technologies to generate their own imagined futures, politics, and identities.

For Ma, what characterizes the concept of “media” is its translatory capacities, which, according to her, challenge the binaries between China and the West, technology and sociocultural context, and concepts and realities. The author uses three keywords to structure the book: recordings (ji 記), transmissions (chuan and zhuan 傳), and interconnectivity (tong 通), each representing a mode of mediation that problematized those boundaries and analytical categories.

The first part of the book, “Recording,” deals with the ways in which new and old inscriptive devices, such as phonographs, channeled the cultural contact between the East and West. Chapter 1 compares the diplomatic reports and diaries (shixi ji) written by three male diplomats named Guo Songtao, Liu Xihong, and Zhang Deyi, in which they documented and reflected on their technological experiences in the diplomatic mission to the West appointed by the Qing Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Ma discusses how the three envoys, despite their different political attitudes toward science and technology, unintentionally imagined alternative communicative processes and devices that went beyond Western definitions. The ways that Chinese diplomats produced their own interpretations and imaginations of inscriptive machines thus challenged the “unidirectional model of technological transfer” between China and the West (p. 45). Chapter 2 goes on to focus on the medium of the stone, examining its multiple manifestations and meanings in science fiction (Wu Jianren, New Story of the Stone [1905-6]), pictorial magazines (Dianshizhai Pictorial [1884]), and classic mythology (the stone of the goddess Nüwa). With its flexibility to represent and document various media, Ma compares the stone to a kind of “metamedial,” referring to the stone’s “ultimate inscriptive role in recording other media and their messages” (p. 82).

The second section of the book, “Transmission,” engages with the issue of gender and affect in poems and life story writings. In chapter 3, Ma examines women's relationship with media through two examples. The first case is Huang Zunxian’s poem “Modern Parting” (jin bieli, 1899). In a gendered tone, the poem expresses the male author’s feelings and experience with new and old technologies through a rhetorical female figure, who complains about the ephemerality and speed of new communication technologies in delivering messages to her lover. Ma compares Huang’s poem to the self-portrait of the female author Qiu Jin, who constructed her identity as a modern Chinese woman actively expressing feelings toward national and political discourses. The case of Qiu Jin thus reveals alternative possibilities of women’s relationship with media and technology, which existed outside of the nation-state and male narratives.

While previous chapters examine individual devices and objects, the third section, “Interconnectivity,” shifts the focus to larger infrastructures, particularly the movement and blockage of information networks. Combining news reports, letters, illustrations, and photographs, chapter 4 examines the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, a popular movement against increasing Western influence on China. By looking at the visual representation of ruined transportation and telegraph networks, Ma argues that the infrastructural breakdown illustrated the “uncanniness” of connectivity in the clash between Boxers, Qing officials, and foreign states (p. 173). Chapter 5 further extends the discussion to the dream of total connection between bodies and the nation-state. Through the science fiction fantasy of brain electricity depicted in Xu Nianci’s short story “New Tales of Mr. Braggadocio,” Ma reflects on the tensions between mind and body, and between labor and machines under burgeoning industrial capitalism in late Qing society.

Connecting history, theory, and area studies, The Stone and the Wireless makes contributions to many fields, including media studies, literary criticism, and cultural studies. It introduces new sources to the study of media history and science fiction history in China. It also provides valuable insights and fresh materials to the global history of technology by investigating the circulation of technical knowledge between new areas and regions. STS scholars will be interested in the discussions around the politics of media technologies, the relations between infrastructure and labor, and the tension between new and old technologies. However, readers who are not familiar with German media theory may not find the monograph to be an easy read, as it draws heavily upon the lexicons and expressions commonly used in these traditions, such as the relationships between form and content, and between media and message. This reveals a common methodological conundrum when scholars write about the histories of non-Western societies within the academic tradition of Western disciplines, but instead of separating the categories of “Western theory” and “Chinese reality,” the book provides a middle ground where they meet and become entangled through the story of media and mediation in the late Qing.


[1]. Joseph Needham, The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969).

[2]. Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim, eds., Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[3]. For the politics of mediation in Chinese media history, see also Xiao Liu, Information Fantasies: Precarious Mediation in Postsocialist China (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019).

[4]. Langdon Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Daedalus 109, no. 1 (1980): 121–36; Bruno Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987).

Citation: Yue Zhao. Review of Ma, Shaoling, The Stone and the Wireless: Mediating China, 1861-1906. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. October, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57943

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