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The Distorting Mirror

Visual Modernity in China

Laikwan Pang

Publication Year: 2007

The Distorting Mirror analyzes the multiple and complex ways in which urban Chinese subjects saw themselves interacting with the new visual culture that emerged during the turbulent period between the 1880s and the 1930s. The media and visual forms examined include lithography, photography, advertising, film, and theatrical performances. Urbanites actively engaged with and enjoyed this visual culture, which was largely driven by the subjective desire for the empty promises of modernity—promises comprised of such abstract and fleeting concepts as new, exciting, and fashionable. Detailing and analyzing the trajectories of development of various visual representations, Laikwan Pang emphasizes their interactions. In doing so, she demonstrates that visual modernity was not only a combination of independent cultural phenomena, but also a partially coherent sociocultural discourse whose influences were seen in different and collective parts of the culture. The work begins with an overall historical account and theorization of a new lithographic pictorial culture developing at the end of the nineteenth century and an examination of modernity’s obsession with the investigation of the real. Subsequent chapters treat the fascination with the image of the female body in the new visual culture; entertainment venues in which this culture unfolded and was performed; how urbanites came to terms with and interacted with the new reality; and the production and reception of images, the dynamics between these two being a theme explored throughout the book. Modernity, as the author shows, can be seen as spectacle. At the same time, she demonstrates that, although the excessiveness of this spectacle captivated the modern subject, it did not completely overwhelm or immobilize those who engaged with it. After all, she argues, they participated in and performed with this ephemeral visual culture in an attempt to come to terms with their own new, modern self.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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Contents / Acknowledgements

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pp. v-viii

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pp. 1-29

Let us look at an ordinary newspaper advertisement printed in a 1933 edition of Shenbao (Shanghai daily), the most popular newspaper in China at that time (fig. Intro.1): Latest Scientific and Entertainment Discovery Distorting Mirror with...

Part I: The Pictorial

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Chapter One: The Pictorial Turn and the Realist Desire

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pp. 33-68

In the last years of the Qing dynasty, people saw the drastic cultural discontinuity engendered by Western imperialism, and the increasing mobility of capital, commodity, and population fueled and intensified one other. The Qing government had little control over imperialist aggression and rapidly transforming values and social norms, which reinforced...

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Chapter Two: Photography, Performance, and the Making of Female Images

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pp. 69-101

As mentioned briefly in the previous chapter, the value of lithography as a mass visual medium was wiped out quickly by the invention of photography, a phenomenon seen in China and in most other countries.1 With people’s new realist sensibility and the mass pictorial culture introduced by lithography, the Chinese people were ready to greet photography as an emblematic medium...

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Chapter Three: Advertising and the Visual Display of Women

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pp. 102-130

Given the unquestionable fact that images of women were more frequently seen in this new visual culture than those of men, the meaning of female representation is a key area of exploration in this book. I am interested in analyzing not only the form and content of selected visual representations, but also what they imply about the people’s experience and affect in the advent of cultural modernity. A methodological...

Part II: The Theatrical

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Chapter Four: Peking Opera, from Listening to Watching

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pp. 133-163

The previous three chapters focus on the print media and the relatively private and personal experience of producing, reading, and using these print images. My analysis both highlights and questions the level of control producers and viewers held over the images as new commodities. Specific to these pictorial forms is the temporal and spatial detachment between production and reception, giving the artist or photographer...

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Chapter Five: Walking into and out of China’s Early Film Scene

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pp. 164-183

If there is one area that no study of visual modernity of any culture can afford to ignore, it undisputedly is cinema. The recent surge of academic interest in the relationship between visual culture and modernity is to a great extent fueled by the lively scholarship on early cinema published in the past two decades, which demonstrates how substantially...

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Chapter Six: Magic and Modernity

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pp. 184-208

The following is an advertisement soliciting investors that appeared in a 1915 issue of the magazine Yuxing (After-hours entertainment): We in China try to reform everything of ours along the lines of foreign models; only the coffin has remained unchanged for generations. Is this because there is no way of making better coffins, or could this not be due to a lack of financial motivations? I have been...

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Epilogue: Modernity as an Unfinished Project

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pp. 209-216

Informed by modernity discourses, my previous studies have focused on the dynamic interactions between the visual representations (artifacts/ performances) and the visually embodied experience, that is, exchanges between the seen object and the seeing subject, as well as interactions among the collective viewers. The affiliation between modeng (modern) and moshu (magic) in urban China at the turn of the twentieth...


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pp. 217-240


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pp. 241-245


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pp. 247-272

Index / About the Author

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pp. 273-281

E-ISBN-13: 9780824864675
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824830939

Publication Year: 2007

OCLC Number: 259711755
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Distorting Mirror

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Arts, Chinese -- 19th century.
  • Arts, Chinese -- 20th century.
  • Modernism (Aesthetics) -- China.
  • Identity (Psychology) -- China.
  • Arts and society -- China.
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