JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Lu examines the “globalization of the Hong Kong action heroine,” with a special focus on Anita Mui,...

... Michelle Yeoh...

... and Maggie Cheung.

Ermo is a film about a peasant woman who works and schemes to get a large TV set. Lu sees this story as a metaphor for China’s entry into a global economy and for television’s mediating desire on an international scale.

 

China, broadly conceived

Review of Sheldon H. Lu, China, Transnational Visuality, Global Postmodernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. 321pp.

by David Leiwei Li

Sheldon Lu’s is an elegant and succinct book that charts the cultural production of contemporary China in the closing decade of the last millennium. It enters the dynamic scholarly discourse on “China,” broadly conceived, with its own distinctive voice. One thinks immediately of a host of recent volumes with which Lu’s contribution will inevitably be associated. Xiaobing Tang’s Chinese Modern: the Heroic and the Quotidian (Duke University Press, 2000) zeroes in on canonical Chinese literary texts of the twentieth century with excursions to urban culture and interior design. Yingjin Zhang’s Screening China (University of Michigan, 2002) intertwines the various Sino-cinemas for scrutiny and intervenes in the formation of a transnational imaginary. Dai Jinhua’s Cinema and Desire (edited and translated from Chinese by Jing Wang and Tani Barlow et al, Verso, 2002. See review in Jump Cut 46 by Gina Marchetti) engages the Fifth and Sixth generations of mainland filmmakers and television production of the 1990s. Besides sharing the thematic preoccupations of these works, China, Transnational Visuality, Global Postmodernity is a singular authorial effort that attempts to “reimagine,” to borrow the title of the editorial project led by Rey Chow, Modern Chinese Literary and Cultural Studies in the Age of Theory (Duke University Press, 2000).

Appropriately, the book is structured in the form of a quartet, four parts and eleven chapters with specific generic emphases—from cinema to television, soap opera to pop novel, museum display to earth art—all framed by an overarching concern with the role of cultural theory and the agency of Chinese intellectuals in mind. The objective is to capture not so much “the global position of China in political and economic terms,” but its “much more nebulous and intangible” “cultural dimensions” (1). To put it in a slightly different fashion, Lu seems to have made his case that the contemporary importance of China in the world is not apparent unless we see it mediated in visual culture.

In fact, the book’s primary attention to the production of visuality and its relative neglect of literary texts bespeak an intriguing shift. On the one hand, the decline in significance of the literary betrays the waning centrality both of the word in print and the Confucian scholar/poet that sustained China from antiquity to modernity. On the other hand, the enthusiastic participation in technologies of simulation, perhaps more than its imminent admission into the WTO, marks China’s undeniable entry in the global circuit of image production, the hallmark of postmodernity as is commonly known.

To tackle this shift, amid China’s disjunctive “socialist politics and capitalist economics” (4), Lu takes up the ambitious task of periodization while sorting out the claims of “postmodernity” on the different sides of the Pacific Rim (4-11):

One cannot periodize historical processes neatly in the Chinese case, and there is no clear temporal pattern for the successive states of the ancient world, modernity, and postmodernity, as in the West. Contemporary China consists of multiple temporalities superimposed on one another; the pre-modern, the modern, and the postmodern coexist in the same space and at the same moment. Paradoxically, postmodernism in China is even more “spatial” and more “postmodern” than its original Western model. Spatial co-extension, rather than temporal succession, defines non-Western postmodernity. Hybridity, unevenness, nonsynchronicity, and pastiche are the main features of Chinese postmodern culture. (13)

Having located the mixed mode of Chinese cultural production, its temporal warping and spatial unevenness exemplary of many developing or third world nation-states in our time, Lu launches an extensive discussion of the various competing discourses behind China’s global visibility.

Part I, “Theory, Criticism, Intellectual History,” consists of three interrelated chapters that at once trace the discursive cacophony of the 1980s and 1990s and lay ground for an analyses and appreciation of the actual creative products that the rest of the book deals with. Lu’s examination of the period’s cultural dialogue is multiple and meticulous. For the sake of synopsis, we can see it as a threefold engagement, of Euro-American theory of postmodernity and postcoloniality, of myriad mainland Chinese negotiation of the “post-isms,” and of a trans-Pacific diasporic production of “Chineseness.”

Although mainland China remains the focus of his study, Lu has made it clear that China is no longer a closed space of cultural sovereignty and its representation and self-articulation are ineluctably embedded in the global and local traffic of meaning. Lu differentiates Chinese postmodernisms of the 1980s and 1990s, between the former “as a philosophy and a style of thought” uncorroborated by socioeconomic conditions and the latter as a “cultural force” behind the heels of a “full-fledged [Chinese] reality” of consumer capitalism (65-66). He faults postcolonial theory’s omission of the Chinese historical distinction, and follows Aihwa Ong’s suggestion to envision a “post postcolonial era in a post-cold war order of flexible capital” (61, 63). And he expresses ambivalence about the revival of neo-Confucianism as an Asian agency resistant to Eurocentrism and as an undesirable form of Sinocentrism (69).

Continued


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