The Stone and the Wireless:
Mediating China, 1861-1906

By Shaoling Ma

Reviewed by Xuenan Cao

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright October, 2021)

Shaoling Ma, The Stone and the Wireless: Mediating China, 1861-1906 Durham: Duke University Press, 2021. ix+312 pp. ISBN: 978-1-4780-1147-7 (paper) / 978-1-4780-1046-3 (cloth).

The Stone and the Wireless is a convincing critique of the notion that China lacked communication networks before the advent of Western technoscience. The book undermines any simplistic answer to the Needham Question (a.k.a., “the ‘Needham paradigm’ postulating the supposed absence of modern science in China,” 10), instead tracing a complex web of media technologies in the late Qing period (1861-1906). Ma documents the variety of strategies Qing diplomats, writers, poets, and other media practitioners employed in their efforts to make sense of the era by tinkering with existing technologies through the practical use of technoscience. Ma sheds light on imaginary strategies as well—unrealized media scenarios that nonetheless helped shape the narrative of communication in the late Qing, as found in (gendered) Techno-utopian visions of the future.

The book covers the period from 1861, when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was established, to 1906, when the Ministry of Posts and Communications centralized all “transmissions.” This unconventional periodization of the late Qing marks the object of study: mediation. Although “media” as a term in Chinese did not exist in the second half of the nineteenth century, devices and technologies weighed heavily on the minds of those who did not have the vocabulary to describe their experience in a time of transition. Ma proposes to synthesize devices, sciences, and sensitivities, defining “mediation” as “the dynamic interactions between the material and technical process or device, and its discursive significations in texts and images” (5). Mediation enacts a “cleaving and bridging of technics and signification,” which Ma describes, citing Xiao Liu, as a “‘worlding’ process” of “temporal and spatial reorganization” and “generates new relations, conflicts, and negotiations” (5).

Ma includes tone, composition, and narrative voices under aesthetic “forms of media” (3), in contrast to more the tangible properties of technology. The book’s focus on these aesthetic forms distinguishes it from other publications based primarily on “physical properties of communicative devices and their mechanical processes” (3). The book introduces into media studies a question central to literary criticism: how do we untangle the communicative devices that enable our languages from the languages that engender such devices? Ma opens media objects up to recycling and appropriation by interpretive practices. She reminds readers that “[n]o media device, not even one recognized as such, mediates on its own. Mediation happens where communicative processes (the bodily functions of hearing and speech, writing, translation, and print) overlap and interact with historical contexts and social relations” (2). This theoretical postulation is animated through the lively scenes Ma paints of late Qing diplomats, novelists, poets, and inventors, who enthusiastically documented and theorized real and imagined communicative devices, ranging from the phonograph, the telephone, the telegraph, and photography, to human-stele hybrids and brain electricity. Ma makes unexpected but meaningful connections between communicators (diplomats, novelists, poets) and literary devices. Communicators can act, she shows, not merely through the reception of media technologies from the West, but via their creative interpretations and representations.

Readers will be engaged and drawn into the author’s passionately-propounded interventionist narrative. This is an account that reverses the standard view of a Western monopoly over media theory, which is to say that the book does not apply established theoretical categories to Chinese historical contexts to produce a preexisting “reality” already defined in Western theoretical discourse. Rather, extant media—tangible and intangible—are shown to serve as a kind of conduit for Chinese theories. Ma demonstrates how late Qing reformers developed suitable local adaptation strategies to modify Western-originating practices. Readers accustomed to the still-dominant instrumental approach in media studies and who are anticipating a Chinese counterpart to existing historical accounts of media and technology might easily overlook the subversive nature of Ma’s narrative.

The book is structured according to three principle communication-related Chinese concepts: the stone (记/記ji, or recording), women’s biographies (传/傳chuan/zhuan, or transmitting), and the wireless (通tong, or interconnectivity). The clarity of this narrative framework is further augmented by the book’s distribution of these concepts across three parts: Part I on durable storage media such as stone inscriptions; Part II on women’s writings that carve out a negative space of ineffective communications; and Part III on the interconnectivity of body, machine, and nation through the wireless.

Ma’s historicizing of communication practices in the late Qing begins in chapter 1, “Guo Songtao’s Phonograph: The Politics and Aesthetics of Real and Imagined Media.” Conventional wisdom about this period suggests that China lacked originality in technology and science—that is, the Chinese didn’t invent or innovate, they just recorded and copied. Ma corrects this belittling story through a close reading of diaries by three Chinese travelers: Guo Songtao 郭嵩燾, Liu Xihong 劉錫鴻, and Zhang Deyi 張德彜. For these travelers on diplomatic missions, communication technologies were still tied to a perceived Western superiority and the humiliation the Qing suffered at the hands of Western imperialism. These diplomats, however, felt compelled to forge alternative narratives: they associated the creative practices of writing (i.e., 文wen) and the copying of natural “patterns” (also 文 wen), thereby linking heliography and electromagnetic waves. In the late Qing period, wen, which would later denote literary techniques, was also used to describe sound vibrations and electronic signals. The analysis gives rise to questions about mimetic capacities, because inscriptive technologies are not just a way of copying but a distinct way of channeling texts through their contexts, a topic Ma takes up in chapter 2.

In chapter 2, “Stone, Copy, Medium: ‘Tidbits of Writing’ and ‘Official Documents’ in New Story of the Stone (1905-1906),” Ma’s reading of Wu Jianren’s 吳趼人 novel illustrates how lithography (writings on stone) endures through time and transforms the social contexts around it. Ma describes the technical process of lithography in modern workshops that was organized around manual labor but also around the intellectual labor of observing, embodying, and changing the media environment. In Ma’s example of New Story of the Stone (新石頭記), this inscriptive technology reincarnates in the human body (the body of Jia Baoyu 賈寶玉, the novel’s protagonist), a human mediator who observes the changing media environment. This inscriptive man-machine operates as a sphere of influence rather than as a concrete instrument, emphasizing again the central theme: mediation is a creative process, not merely a collection of mimetic devices for copying and recording. Ma’s innovative reading blurs the distinction of pre-modern, modern, and postmodern.

Chapter 3, “Lyrical Media, Technology, Sentimentality, and Bad Models of the Feeling Woman,” reveals an intriguing connection between feminine lyricism, the telegraph, and photography. Traditional feminine lyrical poetry in China has been described as essentially a masculine construction. However, in Ma’s close reading of Huang Zunxian’s 黃遵憲 “Modern Parting” (今別離,1899), she reveals an innovative type of lyricism. The female persona is frustrated about the slow speed at which her lover’s messages arrive through the telegraph. In Ma’s reading, new media infrastructures provide novel “mechanisms of feeling” (125) that bear the woman’s discontent. This “female medium” interrupts the male-dominated historical discourse of techno utopianism and nationalism. Through interpretative tools and close readings of women’s writing, Ma argues for the continued importance of literature in the increasingly quantitative and instrumental approach to media studies.

This intermediary chapter discusses what we can learn from the sensitivities of women’s media; it also mediates between Part I on the solid and transformative stone and Part III on the all-encompassing wireless. There is no way to summarize the argument without oversimplifying the elusiveness of Ma’s subject. In the poems analyzed, the female speaker senses the media change that is altering the role of women in the male-dominated discourse on nationalism. “Media mediates” is a challenging conceptualization to put forth in a polemical feminist historical revision, but Ma succeeds by articulating an understanding of women as the sensing medium.

Chapter 4, “1900: Infrastructural Emergencies of Telegraphic Proportions,” discusses the transnational engagements among Taiwan, Singapore, and the late Qing in creating a telegraphic connection or “Sinophone” consciousness among overseas Chinese. At this time, the Chinese language, which was “incorporating new foreign media into its vocabulary,” began to describe disruptions in terse and direct style, a style that was, in Ma’s words, “effectively telegraphic” (150). The textual-linguistic articulation of connectivity, augmented by visual representations, developed alongside communication failures. When communications broke down and got written into inscriptive media, such failures were mediated through local practices. For example, the “wiring” of telegraph and telephone was believed to disrupt the natural wiring of fengshui and cause unexpected illness and bad fortune. In another example, key historical events such as the Boxer Rebellion generated telegraphic images and texts about the destruction of telegraph and railroad lines. Such mediated events “aided the making of transnational media history” (158), “because of and not despite the breakdown in transportation and communication networks” (159). In one of Ma’s visual examples, telegraphed images fail to disambiguate the nature of the event—were the rebels building or destroying the railroad networks? Tension arises between the graphic depictions and textual reports about the event. Incoherent documentation reveals the nature of telegraphic communications, drawing attention to the flimsiness underlying the promise of interconnectivity.

Chapter 5, “A Medium to End All Media: ‘New Tales of Mr. Braggadocio’ and the Social Brain of Industry and Intellect,” moves from the disrupted and disruptive technological infrastructures of the preceding chapter to the “biologic or bio-medium” of the physical body (182). In place of wires, late Qing reformers postulated that the wireless can connect brain electricity with energies from natural forces in building a new nation.

Scholars and graduate students interested in global media cultures and media theory will find The Stone and the Wireless a valuable addition to the North American and Western European canon of media theory. This book not only challenges the predominant emphasis on forms and objects, but also constructs a complex web of mediation through its narrative. Chinese notions, texts, and historical contexts serve as the subjects of discussion, not the backdrop. For scholars of world literature, comparative literature, and science fiction, the book offers close readings of untranslated and understudied sources. Ma’s expansive conceptualization of media, with limited contextualization within media theory, however, might make it difficult for students in media and cultural studies to understand the book’s underlying critique of the formalism, positivism, and instrumentalism in current media studies.

The fields of Chinese literature and media studies are still removed from one another. Although Ma is to be applauded for bringing the two fields into dialogue via her generous readings of media theorists such as Friedrich Kittler, Marshall McLuhan, Mark Hansen, Katherine Hayles, Alexander Galloway, Mathew Fuller, and many others, the dialogue inevitably unfolds in an unequal way: Western media theories continue to be the primary mediators of the discussion. “Regional” and “Chinese” concepts are consequently necessarily subsumed into the established theoretical canon. The author’s aspiration to revise Western theory using Chinese materials, though laudable, occasionally comes across as merely performative. Recent studies on non-Western media theories emphasize historicism and close reading; The Stone and the Wireless carries on this tradition and broadens its scope. Shaoling Ma re-conceptualizes established classifications of communication technologies—“telegraph” becoming “mechanisms of feeling,” for example—compelling readers to reconsider the discourses we employ to understand and interpret media histories.

Xuenan Cao
Postdoctoral Associate and Lecturer, Yale University