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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Storytelling of the Personal and the Historical: Modern Sinophone Cultural Production
3: Aging into Posthumans
Thursday, March 25, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
University of Pennsylvania, United States
Population aging has been considered one of the most threatening global pandemics, as suggested by the metaphor “silver tsunami” in popular media. Despite being a relatively younger country, China’s large population base makes the prognosis of an aging society particularly alarming. As the birth rate slackens while life expectancy trends upward, it would enter what Jacob Jewusiak calls the “gerontocene,” in which the older demographic is imagined to be the major player affecting socioeconomic functioning. This essay explores the literary imagination of the gerontocene in contemporary Chinese science fiction. Central to my discussion is how the texts in question depict the older in the gerontocene as posthumans. By surveying the genealogy of sci-fi writing in light of longevity and immortality, I show that portraying elders as posthumans bespeaks a deep-seated anxiety about the otherness of the older and the threat they pose to economic sustainability and equitable social redistribution. While some sci-fi works caution us against the apocalypse of the gerontocene, I argue that the posthuman imagination at the same time offers up an alternative foundation to redefine aging and later life, which in turn contributes to rebuilding the ethics of eldercare in contemporary Chinese society. By close reading Liu Cixin’s “Supporting the Gods” (Shanyang shangdi, 2005), I suggest that the posthuman framing in sci-fi rebuilds the vulnerability in seniors’ lived experience as a universal condition for contemporary human existence. It is based on this shared post-humanity that we can reimagine intergenerational empathy and mutual aid.