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  • Shanghai BiopolitansWartime Colonial Cosmopolis in Eileen Chang's Love in a Fallen City and J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun
  • Belinda Kong (bio)

The idea of cosmopolis evokes an excess of geography. The classical world first understood it to mean a harmonious conjunction of human society with the natural cosmos (Toulmin 67–68), but in more modern contexts, the term implies something larger than the nation, a place where multitudes move across the provincial boundaries of national life. We may thus be tempted to see in the cosmopolis a utopian conjunction of local and global, the ideal incarnation of a multicultural and transnational space beyond the nation-state. Shanghai, however, presents a complication. Within twentieth-century Chinese contexts, it has been uniquely marked by a cosmopolitan reputation, yet its status as a modern metropolis (literally a "mother city," replete with imperial overtones) originated precisely at the historical moment of its colonization, when it was forcibly opened to Western trade and settlement after China's defeat in the first Opium War (1839–42). Shanghai therefore offers us the potentially liberating model of a city that brings together location and globality but simultaneously reminds us that a world city may emerge, not from civilizational self-development or democratic consent, but from military and imperial conquest. For the colonial cosmopolis, a ready fracture runs through its communal imaginings: what is for the self-fashioned world citizen a symbolic home [End Page 280] of riches and refuge, multiplicity and mobility, often connotes for the nationalist or cultural purist an exemplary site of self-dislocation and disempowerment.

Beyond this dichotomy, I would propose that a third theoretical position is suggested by Shanghai nativism. It is a perspective put forth by some (though certainly not all) writers, whether Chinese or Western, who are born into the city's condition of semicolonial cosmopolitanism and whose primary identification is with neither empire nor nation, worldliness nor Chineseness, but Shanghai itself as the biopolitical tension between those forces. I will focus on an unlikely coupling of two fictional texts of wartime Shanghai (1937–45), Eileen Chang's Love in a Fallen City (1943) and J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun (1984). Although Ballard (1930–2009) belonged to the class of British imperial entrepreneurs while Chang (1920–1995) has posthumously claimed a secure place in the Chinese literary canon, they shared a common identification with Shanghai nativism. This, I would argue, led them to produce narratives that lay bare the function of the city as what may be called a biopolis. Michel Foucault first theorized "biopower" as the modern nation-state's defining mode of population governance—via technologies of regulation and control whereby power, "for the first time in history," comes to exercise itself by seizing biological life as its object (142–43). Subsequently, a biopolis is not just the passive space where biopower exerts its hold with maximal concentration but also the active community where life works to organize and govern itself within the biopolitical schema. We may further invoke here Michel de Certeau's distinction between strategies and tactics and say that the cosmopolitan biopolis is a space of the life strategies of nationalism and imperialism, on the one hand, and of the life tactics of their subjects on the other. While both Chang's and Ballard's texts start in Shanghai as the narrative origin of their protagonists' experience of the polis at war, both move on to other cities or city spaces to reveal a spectrum of wartime biopolitics. A comparative reading of Chang and Ballard, from their linked vantage points of superimposed imperialisms and lapsed colonial cosmopolises, can help us articulate the city's opposing biopolitical limits: at once the space of atomized lives' marginality and oppression and the space of life's ordered sustenance through infinite self-atomizing. Such conceptual efforts are particularly important today, as globalization compels us to envisage models of cosmopolitanism that do not simply celebrate [End Page 281] cultural hybridity but can outline ethical forms of world being. In this contemporary moment, the case of wartime Shanghai resurfaces as a prescient archetype.

Felicities of a Fallen City

Since the 1990s, there has been a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9248
Print ISSN
1549-0815
Pages
pp. 280-304
Launched on MUSE
2010-01-01
Open Access
No
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