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Shanghai Modern

March 20, 2010

Leo Ou-fan Lee. Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930-1945. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Matthew Johnson (2003)

This work is conceived as a “book about the city of Shanghai in the 1930s as a cultural matrix of Chinese modernity.” Through close readings of print culture, architecture, public space, and biography, Leo Ou-fan Lee proposes an ‘insider’s’ reconstruction of the meaning of 1930s Shanghai. The book’s twin subjects, modernity and urbanity, are thus literally embodied by texts, forms and figures. Yet its powerful descriptive density is, in the end, largely confined to the experiences and sensibilities of the literati who dominate Lee’s account. By focusing on the lives and works of a small number of individuals, Lee addresses the characteristics of Shanghai’s modern (modeng) decade between Chiang Kai-shek’s 1927 suppression of open Communist activity and the 1937 outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war.

In the four chapters comprising Shanghai Modern’s first section, “The Background of Urban Culture,” Lee employs readings of educational publications, movies, and literary books and journals of the day to describe the context in which 1930s Shanghai can and was understood as a modern, urban environment. Following Benedict Anderson, Lee argues that the mentalities represented by these media are ‘modern’ insofar as they express reflection and concerns centering on the unfolding of a new culture, and insofar as this culture unites an ‘imagined community’ of national subjects. The possibility of multiple modernities is addressed briefly, as Lee admits that May Fourth-inspired social radicals and writers of popular vernacular fiction (for example individuals associated with the loosely-defined ‘mandarin ducks and butterflies’ literary industry) often failed to share complimentary subjectivities concerning the nature of this profound social transformation. From his readings of numerous advertisements, movies, and publications, however, Lee is led to conclude that the ‘cultural imaginary’ of Shanghai mirrors a singular and emerging reality of gendered objectification, fashion, nostalgia, and an “urban bourgeois life” with consumption at its center. In other words, it displays a shared “semiotics of material culture” (65) that irreducibly structures the modern nature of Shanghai’s urban spaces during the ‘short’ decade of the thirties.

Addressing the impact of this stable modernity on Shanghai’s vibrant literary scene leads Lee to define Chinese ‘cultural’ modernity as a textual engagement with Western culture, and that culture’s presence and impact within the broader nexus of social life. Shanghai literati, he claims, self-consciously cultivated influences with were of both the cultural modernity of the West (as exemplified by Baudelaire, Huysmans, Joyce, Hollywood film etc.) and the ‘material’ or ‘bourgeois’ modernity of consumption that had already gained copious visibility within Shanghai itself. In the book’s second section, “The Modern Literary Imagination: Writers and Texts,” Lee further discusses the complex world of biography, influence, and social context from which this constellation of literary figures emerged (chapters are devoted to the authors Shi Zhecun, Liu Na’ou and Mu Shiyang, Shao Xunmei and Ye Lingfeng, and Eileen Chang respectively). Lee compares the modernist perspectives of these authors with that of the Baudelarian figure of the Parisian flâneur, or ‘urban stroller’, whose subjectivity is articulated through a detached or apathetic gaze. Pointing out that this apathy runs counter to the engaged posture of the Shanghai scene, Lee establishes proof of a modernity unique to Shanghai by emphasizing this anti-Baudelarian tendency toward activity and response.

In the final section, “Reflections,” Lee invokes the posture of ‘cosmopolitanism’, best exemplified by writer Eileen Chang, to speculate on Shanghai’s history as a cultural crossroads. Through representations taken from Chang’s work and from contemporary Hong Kong culture, Lee describes another ‘Shanghai modern’ of semi-colonial anxiety, whose ambiguities gained unity of meaning for those able to subordinate its disjunctions to the “unquestioned Chineseness of their own positions” (312). ‘Shanghai modern’ thus includes the emergence of new social realities built upon a cultural and material crossroads past which pursuit of the modern – or the new – had become (for those who could afford to indulge in such longings) the desired mode of experience.

A sense of nostalgia permeates the work, as author and reader are drawn into the privileged, stable, and irrevocably past world of Lee’s literati subjects. One reviewer’s description of Shanghai Modern as a “memento of a long-cherished romance between a scholar and a city” (Journal of Asian Studies, 59,1:158) catches this tone, along with Lee’s implication that such times and places are now irrevocably lost. Shanghai Modern serves to ensure that such a loss will, from the perspective of literary and cultural history, remain incomplete.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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