By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The English pop group T’Pau have some interesting links with science fiction. Not only did the band take their name from a Vulcan elder who featured in the sci-fi series Star Trek, but their most famous song, ‘China in Your Hand’, was inspired by a book that’s arguably the first ever science-fiction novel.
Let’s take a closer look at the curious meaning, and origin, of ‘China in Your Hand’ – a 1980s power ballad more powerful, and more lyrically intense, than most.
‘China in Your Hand’: summary
The first verse of the song alludes to the song’s inspiration: Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein. Regarded by many critics as the first science-fiction novel, Frankenstein is also an example of the Gothic novel. It sees the scientist and student Victor Frankenstein creating a ‘monster’ or ‘creature’ out of various body parts, and then bringing the creature to life using scientific methods.
However, Frankenstein is horrified by the creature he has brought to life, and shuns him, leaving the Creature to become brooding and resentful at being abandoned and rejected by his creator, and by all of humankind. He goes on a killing spree before getting in a boat and rowing towards the North Pole to die, shortly after his creator, Victor Frankenstein, has died.
This novel lies behind the lyrics of ‘China in Your Hand’ and their meaning. The ‘theme’ that Mary Shelley had came about because of a ‘scheme’ devised by Lord Byron, the Romantic poet and friend of Mary Shelley and her husband Percy Shelley (also a famous Romantic poet). While trapped at Byron’s villa in Switzerland during the year without a summer, to keep themselves entertained Byron suggested a ghost-story competition.
This competition, by the way, inspired not only Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s precocious effort (she was still a teenager at the time), but the first vampire novel, whose protagonist was modelled on Byron himself.
This is why the theme was told in a foreign land: Mary Shelley devised the tale of Frankenstein while in Switzerland.
The man is in control of this new type of birth: bringing a new life into the world not through natural childbirth, the province of women, but through a male scientist using his laboratory experiments to breathe life into a mishmash of dead body parts.
The song’s origin in the story of Frankenstein are also apparent in the second verse of the song: the Creature wasn’t born in the traditional way, so he didn’t come from the male seed, as new human lives normally do. The Creature resembled a (rather gruesome) fully-grown man, but he had the mind of a child, because he had only just been ‘born’ when Frankenstein abandoned him. And there is something naively childlike about the Creature in Shelley’s book.
‘China in Your Hand’: meaning
Of course, the meaning of ‘China in Your Hand’ is found not just in its verses, but in that chorus which furnishes the song with its memorable title. China is famously delicate and easily broken: it’s a fragile material, used to make porcelain vases and cups, among other things. If you hold something made from (China) porcelain in your hand, you’d better be careful with it.
But what does it mean to advise against pushing too far, and what does it mean to describe one’s dreams as ‘China in your hand’?
Well, the song’s meaning can perhaps be most concisely boiled down to the sentiment ‘be careful what you wish for’. Or, as Oscar Wilde put it in Lady Windermere’s Fan: ‘In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.’
In other words, what makes our dreams so special is often the fact that they are just that: dreams, fantasies, aspirations of things which have not been realised or achieved yet. Once we achieve them, they lose their lustre: they are destroyed, like that titular China in the hand. But they also run away from us, taking on a life of their own, and we lose control of our destiny.
In the case of Victor Frankenstein, his ‘dream’ was to create life: to make man into a mother-figure, or even a godlike one.
But this doesn’t work out the way he hoped it would. His dream, when realised, is a monstrosity. He is physically repulsed by the Creature, and flees. And his actions will lead to murder as the Creature exacts his terrible revenge on the man who has created him only to reject him.
In an interview, Carol Decker, who wrote the lyrics to ‘China in Your Hand’, confirmed that the song was inspired by Frankenstein. The longer version of the song, included on the band’s album Bridge of Spies, made more explicit references to the source material, mentioning not only the monster but also the electric storm which is so important in the novel.