restricted access Introduction: China, Uneven Development, and Global Modernity
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1 Introduction China, Uneven Development, and Global Modernity This project is concerned with literature, film, critical discourses, and intellectual formation in contemporary China. It investigates the cultural problematics of unevenness in China’s pursuit of modernity in the postsocialist period.1 I look at literary and cinematic practices in contemporary China from the paradigm of uneven modernity, and examine unevenness and its effects on literature and film from a dialectical perspective: on the one hand, the uneven social, economic, and cultural developments in contemporary China generate intellectual and existential problems for writers and directors; on the other hand, they also offer essential opportunities for their cultural interventions. Rather than attempting to map out a way in which this paradox can be resolved, I will be examining the relationships between the various social and cultural forces that shape the current cultural scene, and investigating the dynamics and problematics involved in the paradoxical unevenness that characterizes the postsocialist situation. The next section explores uneven modernity and situates postsocialist China in the global condition. This investigation will be followed by several case studies that specifically address some of the key questions involved. The Problem of Uneven Modernity in Contemporary China The first questions that need to be asked are, Why is it important to examine the cultural political condition in contemporary China through the framework of uneven modernity, and How can we find a useful description of the uneven modernity so common in yet so rarely specified by current critical discourses? For many years, concern for the question of unevenness has been one of the most prominent features in Chinese thought. From Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of uneven developmentalism during the era of Reform and Opening-up, to President Hu Jintao’s recent proposal to build up a Harmonious Society as a corrective to 2 Introduction the prevalent social inequality, contemporary Chinese political discourse is largely dominated by this theme.2 Seen from a global perspective, unevenness is also a major theme largely defining the whole course of the development of capitalism. The continuous criticisms of capitalism by early European proponents of socialism, by Marxists, and by contemporary leftists and post-Marxists around the world attest to this fact. Moreover, globalization today does not ease the trend of uneven development either on the national or on the transnational level; on the contrary, it makes the unevenness between different geographical parts, business sectors, and classes even more manifest. As China becomes increasingly involved in globalization, this unevenness affects China ever more powerfully. But despite the centrality of this issue, its use as a critical framework for the study of contemporary Chinese culture remains largely unexplored. In the West, the paradigm of uneven modernity is, from a theoretical perspective, decidedly thin. Rather than addressing unevenness as a specifically modern problematic, critics tend to treat it, more simply, as a sociopolitical problem that happens to accompany modernity and thus as one that awaits a certain due resolution.3 In the handful of studies that directly address uneven modernity, the term is still not used to indicate an intrinsic feature of modernity. Instead, uneven modernity is more often than not referred to as a somewhat significant but, nonetheless, a more-or-less accidental by-product of modernity.4 One problem in such a formulation of uneven modernity is that it takes unevenness simply as a descriptive rather than as a definitive factor of modernity. At least in the case of contemporary China, unevenness is not simply an adjunctive and dispensable dimension. Rather, it defines, to various degrees and in disparate forms, almost every aspect of people’s modern lives. Theorizing unevenness as an external feature of modernity may conceal some of the most important aspects of Chinese culture, and may render critics susceptible to a methodological binarism. Accordingly, my approach to uneven modernity is to investigate contemporary Chinese culture by examining how uneven development structurally models modernity in China, and to view unevenness as a dynamic problematic rather than as a dismissible problem. In other words, I seek to examine unevenness not as a mere accidental feature, but rather as a necessary, if painful, condition for modernity; I seek to show how the condition of unevenness shapes contemporary Chinese culture. Before coming to the specific investigation of uneven modernity in China, I will briefly examine the discourse of uneven development, which is a key to the issue in question. Uneven development by itself involves a huge body of scholarship in the discourse of modernity.5 The term...