Fables of Romantic Science: Robinson Crusoe’s Naval Career

Lydia H Liu, Wun Tsun Tam Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University

A China Studies Centre Distinguished Speaker lecture co-presented with the Romantic Studies Association of Australasia

3 July

The Romantic refashioning of Robinson Crusoe was decisive in the rise of science fiction, children’s pedagogical literature, colonial travelogue, and several other genres. This process has transformed Defoe’s rambling three volumes into a single-volume book in which Robinson’s profitable “global” travels to the East Indies and China are progressively omitted so as to allow the Englishman’s miraculous survival on a West Indies island to emerge as the only story. Among Robinson’s adventures that have been suppressed are, for instance, his chance discovery of a “porcelain house” in China and his visit to the Great Wall in volume 2, which may throw fascinating light on his solitary invention of earthenware pots on the Caribbean island in an earlier episode. Furthermore, Lin Shu’s translation of the first two volumes of Robinson Crusoe into Chinese opens up an interpretive space in which the history of Defoe’s work and Sino-British relations can be reinterpreted. In my study, I focus on the 1815 Naval Chronicle edition of Robinson Crusoe to raise some questions about the political economy of the novel which, I argue, is not so much about economic individualism as it is about the fabulation of homo economicus as a global man of science.

Prof Lydia Liu

Lydia H. Liu is Wun Tsun Tam Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. She is the founding director of the Center for Translingual and Transcultural Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing. She has published widely across literary theory, translation studies, digital media, psychoanalysis, and empire. Her books in English include Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity (1995), The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making (2004), The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious (2010). Among her edited books are Tokens of Exchange: The Problem of Translation in Global Circulations (1999) and a recent collaboration in the translation and study of early radical Chinese feminist texts with Rebecca Karl and Dorothy Ko called The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory (2013).