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  • Embodied Modernities: Corporeality, Representation, and Chinese Cultures
  • Petrus Liu (bio)
Fran Martin and Larissa Heinrich. Embodied Modernities: Corporeality, Representation, and Chinese Cultures. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006. vi, 290 p. Hardcover $48.00, ISBN-100–8248–2963–8.

Fran Martin and Larissa Heinrich's edited volume Embodied Modernities: Corporeality, Representation, and Chinese Cultures brings together twelve highly original essays on modern Chinese body cultures. Collectively, the essays advance two key arguments: first, that modernity is neither singular nor Western, but multiple and interlocking; second, that modernities are embodied—lived, experienced, and performed by bodies in transit, in the interstices of everyday life. To insist that modernity has to be understood as bodies also logically implies that modernity is always sexed and gendered. Indeed, most of the essays focus on the sexually inscribed body (rather than, say, the laboring body, the collective socialist body, or the body as a field of structured dispositions). For the authors of Embodied Modernities, the analysis of how sexual and gender differences mark the body provides a particularly enabling perspective on how modernity has been invented in heterogeneous and unpredictable ways. The burden of the book is then to work out and defend the connection between the multiplicity of the body and the multiplicity of Chineseness. That is, the authors must show, through concrete historical analysis, how the familiar lesson from Foucault and Derrida can be pressed into service to deconstruct the myth of a unitary Chineseness.

While several essays are more ambitious than others in their theoretical claims, the volume is uniformly rigorous in historical scholarship, bringing to light a set of carefully researched, primary materials from late imperial China to dispersed sites of Chinese modernity at century's end—the PRC, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the worldwide Chinese diaspora. Some essays offer startlingly innovative readings of canonical examples of modern Chinese body cultures. Chris Berry's lucid article on Bruce Lee's body, for example, recontextualizes the much discussed star in a transnational frame and reveals the construction of Bruce Lee's body to be a hybridization of Chinese wu and American masculinity predicated on a symbolical differentiation from the effeminate queer men in his films. New interpretations of male prostitution in China, foot-binding, Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, Mei Lanfang, and the original text of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon radically alter our understandings of seemingly familiar topics. Other contributions are forays into uncharted territory that make cultural material of paramount importance available to the English-language community for the first time. Teri Silvio's article on Taiwanese Digital Video Puppetry ("po-te-hi," or budaixi) is the first scholarly discussion [End Page 516] in English, to the best of my knowledge, of an important cultural phenomenon in Taiwan, while Larissa Heinrich's richly textured analysis of "souvenirs of the organ trade" in the works of several Chinese experimental artists (Zhu Yu, Sun Yuan, and Peng Yu) traces the impact of new biotechnology—organ transplantation, cloning, stem-cell research, surrogacy—on creative artistic expressions in China, which she then usefully contrasts with a parallel development in the fictions of Yu Hua.

Because one of the chief claims of the volume is that modernity is multiply constituted, constantly changing, and context dependent, many of the essays are internally comparative. They effectively use two similar instances of body representations to map the temporal fissures of modernity. In "Rewriting Sexual Ideals in Yesou puyan," for instance, Maram Epstein compares the 1929 redaction of Yesou puyan (A rustic's words of exposure) and the eighteenth-century original to show that sex is not a static, transhistorically stable concept. Rather, the meaning of sex has undergone radical reconceptualizations, shifting from a moral order grounded in "yin-yang correlative thinking" to "bodily practices of male domination and pleasure" (p. 75). Epstein cautions critics against reading the modern crisis in masculinity as merely an allegory of the modern nation and skirting the need to examine the historical roots of the discourse of masculinity. In contrast, her cross-historical approach emphasizes both change and linkages. Tze-lan Sang's "Transgender Body in Wang Dulu's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" offers a corrective to...