copyright 2004, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
No. 47

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).

What is salient in this medley of debates is the basic tension that Lu has excavated. If the pre-modern, the modern, and the postmodern coexist in contemporary China, this mixed mode of production is most evident in the ideological contradiction of the Chinese intellectuals as a collectivity. There is a yearning of modernity, as pronounced in the Enlightenment ideals yet devoid of its historical negativity. Advocates of this school would argue for the development of rationality and democracy to ward off a return to pre-modern tradition (58-59). On the other end of the spectrum, however, is the contrary yearning of postmodernity, of the “possibilities of difference, alterity, multiplicity and heterogeneity” (68).

This set of contradictory yearnings is most recently played out, as Lu has made us aware, in the rivalry between “liberalism” and the “New Left” (81-83). But liberalism’s not so secret alliance with possessive individualism and the emerging Chinese middle class and the New Left’s critique of it in favor of Marxist class analyses are caught in the same trap. Neither can realistically access the relative autonomy of social collectivities, be it family, class, or nation-states. Late capital has altered the nature of the nation-state, be it state communism or state capitalism, and it has altered the state of human solidarity with the promise of endless individual mobility. This is indeed the challenge of globalization, the challenge of imagining the social when the social as we know historically is almost in ruins. Although capital undermines the totalitarian authority of the Chinese state, the state’s collusion with capital clearly undermines the possibility of democracy. This is as much a Chinese problem as it is a worldwide phenomenon.[1] The contradiction Lu has followed with much rigor finally reveals an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy for Chinese intellectuals, who are forced to renegotiate their role “under combined pressures from the market, the state, and TNCs” (85, 84).

In many ways, China, Transnational Visuality, Global Postmodernity is a diasporic Chinese intellectual’s conscientious mediation of China’s cultural production in the 1990s, unleashed by the dynamic force of capital. It intends to “analyze closely how processes of large-scale globalization” “are mediated, reflected, or resisted in actual texts of art through both the traditional medium (avant-garde art and writing) and the mass media (film and TV)” (26). Part II, “Cinema,” begins with an allegorical reading of a fifth generation Chinese director’s film, Ermo [originally published in Jump Cut 42, 1998, co-author Anne T. Ciecko]. The story of a peasant woman acquiring the biggest TV in her county has become a metaphor both for China’s arrival at the “global village” and for the release of a “libidinal economy” (89, 94). Televisuality thus mediates desire beyond the confines of the local just as films consciously traversing territorial boundaries intimate “a process of decontextualization and recontextualization of citizenship, nationality, and residence” (108).

In an intriguing reading of a host of Hong Kong films—from Peter Chan (Chan Ho San)’s Comrades, Almost a Love Story, Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, to Clara Law’s Farewell China and Stanley Kwan’s Full Moon in New York—Lu teases out Ong’s notion of “flexible citizenship,” and the limits and liberty of multiple belongings. This look of Hong Kong as the nodal point of migration is followed by “the globalization of the Hong Kong action heroine,” a chapter that examines the trio of Anita Mui, Maggie Cheung and Michelle Yeoh in the transnational nexus of film production, exhibition, distribution and reception (122-38).

If we concur with Fredric Jameson that global postmodernity is “the becoming cultural of the economic, and the becoming economic of the cultural,” Lu has shown the complex negotiations of the cultural and economic in the import and export business of Chinese visuality.[2] The coupling of the economic and the cultural is true of Chinese art cinema in international film festivals, as is Chinese pop-icon’s incorporation into Hollywood. Indeed, one cannot imagine the survival of Chinese experimental art, if not for the financial backings of overseas museums and markets. The relation between indigenous art production and transnational funding therefore constitutes the critical core of Part III “Avant-Guard Art.” Lu asks, “what is at stake, then, for the artist when art itself is a commodity, like a ‘high-quality good’ or a ‘fast food’”(142)? Here, he seems to favor certain genres over others: “installation art,” for example, is privileged over “political Pop” because the former is “uncollectable, uncommercial, and nonlucrative” (158).

While one may agree in principle that the dismantling of “art-as-precious-objects” represents possibilities of resistance, the production of “ephemeral situations” is also consistent with the built-in obsolescence of postmodern commodity culture (159). Whether or not artistic production is able to retain its radical potential when it is part of the transnational commerce in spectacles is at the heart of the discussion. In a chapter called “the uses of China,” Lu scrutinizes the various strategies of staging “Chineseness”—harking back to the theoretical debate and cinematic construction of “Cultural China”—that range from the deployment of hyperbole and parody to the deliberate erasure of stylistic distinction.

The book concludes in Part IV with extensive analyses of popular cultural media, of soap opera, rock and roll, and TV serials, of pop-novels, and serious literary endeavors with apparent pop appeal. Lu writes perceptively of the rise of the pop and its important impact, among them, the dwindling influence of the state, the diminishing significance of intellectuals as figures of “cultural autocracy,” the liberation of mass sentiment and the subversion of official ideologies (206). The phenomenon of “China Pop,” not accidentally, coincides with the introduction of market economy in China and a new Chinese awareness of the global cultural market. Lu offers a very informative account of the influence of the West, the infusion of Hong Kong and Taiwan cultural forms, and mainland China’s negotiation of its own centrality.

Globalization and localization happen simultaneously as the competition in the capital market is mirrored in the rivalry of libidinal economy. Lu’s take of “the transnational politics of sexuality and masculinity in the Chinese media” is full of serious criticism as well as a wry sense of humor. Against a prevailing Euro-American reading of those TV texts as mere expressions of resurgent “nationalism,” Lu situates the question of Chinese masculinity in the complex exchange of indigenous and foreign women and treats it as a complex exploration of “national identity” in an increasingly “transnational, deterritorialized global economy” (238).

Such attention to the multidimensionality of cultural production, everywhere evident in China, Transnational Visuality, Global Postmodernity, has made it a particularly engaging piece of scholarship. Comprehensive in his mapping, erudite in his assessment, rigorous in his method, Lu has offered an intellectual forum in the international context where the plethora of images and ideas about China across the Pacific Rim has gained its rightful visibility.[3] The book is a valuable and insightful contribution not only to Chinese or Asian studies under the old national signifier or area grid but also to a new understanding of cultural studies in an era of globalization.


1. For related discussion, see David Leiwei Li’s critical edition, Globalization and the Humanities (Hong Kong University Press, 2003).

2. See Fredric Jameson, “Notes on Globalization as a Philosophical Issue” in Fredric Jameson and Masao Miyoshi eds. The Cultures of Globalization (Duke University Press, 1998): 60.

3. The only element escaping Lu’s otherwise encyclopedic coverage of Chinese postmodernity is the development of the Internet, which is a topic taken up by Liu Kang in the edition of Globalization and the Humanities (see note 1 for bibliographical details).

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