- Mediasphere Shanghai: The Aesthetics of Cultural Production
A rapidly expanding scholarship treats the cultural history of late Qing and Republican Shanghai from a variety of angles. To name but a few studies that have a direct bearing on the volume to be discussed here, there are works by Frederic Wakeman and Wen-hsin Yeh, Sherman Cochran, Zhang Yingjin, Gail Hershatter, Christian Henriot, Leo Oufan Lee, and Lu Hanchao.1 More recently, Natascha Vittinghoff, Xiaoqing [End Page 478] Ye, Denise Gimpel, Michel Hockx, Andrea Janku, Barbara Mittler, Elisabeth Kaske, and Rudolf Wagner2 have offered research on the Shanghai print media, while Ted Huters, Christopher Reed, Catherine Yeh, Yue Meng, and Wen-hsin Yeh3 each looks at the city from a different empirical base, thus forming ever-new epistemological trajectories in representing the city of Shanghai.
In all of these works, Shanghai appears as the most prominent example of Chinese modernity which captured and fascinated the imaginations not just of an international, but, first and foremost, of a national (reading) public. Accordingly, Alexander Des Forges’s Mediasphere Shanghai: The Aesthetics of Cultural Production begins by describing the habitual reactions of real and literary travelers from all over China (and the world) who would “arrive in the city with some variation of the words ‘So this is Shanghai!’ on their lips.” Yet, immediately, in the same sentence, Des Forges offers his bold rereading of the trope: to him, the words “indicate not discovery but rather recognition” (p. 1). He then sets out to observe how “Shanghai” acquired the power to be “recognized” as much more than perhaps it ever was: a uniquely [End Page 479] hybrid, open, and modern city. In his reading, Shanghai’s media industry was so dominant, and the discourse of Shanghai’s uniqueness consequently so powerful, that the city was able to manufacture a “Shanghai myth.”
In order to demonstrate this point, Des Forges discusses some of the products of what he calls Shanghai’s “mediasphere,” which was responsible for more than 86 percent of all books published between the 1880s and 1937 in China (p. 17). He deals, in particular, with the Shanghai installment novel, a hitherto neglected but distinctive genre that flourished in Shanghai’s news media from the 1890s to the 1930s. By the 1910s, the genre, which has often been considered by contemporary as well as later critics to be “traditional” in both form and content, constituted a distinct type of long vernacular fiction. Known as “the Shanghai novel” (Haishang xiaoshuo 海上小說), it established Shanghai as the standard for urban sophistication against which all other cities would be judged.
To Des Forges, Shanghai novels, which emerged in the mid-1890s and quickly became popular with contemporary readers, were pivotal to the construction of the “Shanghai myth.” Shanghai was “written into existence” through Shanghai installment fiction; Shanghai novels were “participants in a symbolic economy” that “taught” their “readers to desire an ‘experience’” of “Shanghai modern” (p. 7). The texts were an important constituent, then, in the social process of creating this Shanghai. They illustrate the crucial role that Shanghai fiction played in defining the city from the late Qing period onward (p. 8). In one of the boldest statements of his book, Des Forges writes: “While they did not represent a sheer majority of volumes printed in Shanghai, they were significantly more popular than scholars have previously realized, and their crucial importance in the imagination of Shanghai as a trendsetting media center and the selling of other media products meant that they commanded a significance in the leisure publishing market far beyond what their numbers alone might have suggested” (p. 109).
Des Forges distinguishes four narrative tropes in Shanghai novels that he considers characteristic: simultaneity, interruption, mediation, and excess. These tropes provided a frame for understanding and perceiving the city, a template for experiencing the city—be it through fiction or in reality (pp. 1–2). Throughout the book, Des Forges argues convincingly that these four tropes became pervasive in Shanghai discourse: [End Page 480] he finds this...