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  • Postsocialist Modernity: Chinese Cinema, Literature, and Criticism in the Market Age
  • Michael Berry (bio)
Postsocialist Modernity: Chinese Cinema, Literature, and Criticism in the Market Age by Jason McGrath. Stanford University Press 2008. $60.00 hardcover. 320 pages

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As China emerged from the shadows of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), the socialist ideals of yesterday seemed to creep into the distance as the nation ventured into a new era dominated by key words such as "reform," "the open door," and "the four modernizations." It was the beginning of an exciting time that gave rise to new cultural trends such as the Stars Painting Collective, "misty poetry," experimental theater, "search-for-roots literature," and the early films of the Fifth Generation. The tensions between new cultural, economic, and larger societal trends and the historic mission of the Chinese Communist Party called for a new terminology that could help reconcile the internal contradictions at play. Deng Xiaoping's new pragmatic vision was termed "socialism with Chinese characteristics," a moniker that has lingered for the past thirty years and become code for the mutant political and economic system that has overseen one of the most incredible capitalist transformations in human history.

Books such as Jianying Zha's China Pop, Jing Wang's High Culture Fever, Geremie Barmé's In the Red, and Xudong Zhang's Chinese Modernism in the Era of Reforms have previously documented the cultural impact and response of these social, political, and economic shifts during the 1980s and 1990s, and collectively explore the transition [End Page 155] from the "culture fever" of the 1980s to the "economic fever" of the 1990s.1 Published on the eve of the People's Republic of China's much celebrated thirtieth Anniversary of the Reform Era, Jason McGrath's Postsocialist Modernity: Chinese Cinema, Literature, and Criticism in the Market Age not only provides a thoughtful extension of this body of critical literature, but also expands our understanding of cultural production and critical discourse in contemporary China. With an emphasis on the 1990s and 2000s, McGrath's insightful study engages not just film, but also television, literature, cultural criticism, and even contemporary art. While each chapter focuses on a separate medium, there is a complementary thematic arc that ties them all together, and collectively the book offers a wide-ranging yet cohesive overview of several of the most fascinating cultural events in contemporary China.

Beginning with a well-conceived and theoretically adept introductory chapter, "World in Fragments: Culture and the Market Under Postsocialist Modernity," McGrath lays the groundwork for his project by delineating the central cultural trends since the 1990s alongside the concepts driving them. For McGrath, the key changes during this period can be tied to the often mutually intertwined processes of marketization, pluralization, individualization, and division/differentiation/disaggregation. These are the processes that collectively help define the state of "postsocialist modernity," as opposed to postmodernism, a term that has often been used to describe this new era. McGrath instead prefers "postsocialist modernity," which is here viewed as a global condition appearing in the wake of the "collapse of the 'alternative modernity' of communism," which is "in the final analysis, synonymous with capitalism."2 The chapter is notable not only for its theoretical insights, but also for the narrative's seamless shifts between theory and descriptions of practical changes playing out in the infrastructure of the publishing and film industries during this period. McGrath persuasively displays the transformation of the cultural industries—from the practice of "book number trading" and "cooperative publishing" to new public-private arrangements with film studios and the new phenomenon of quota films (produced only to fill government quotas so studios can reap larger profits from imports)—and does so within a framework that really peels back the layers of meaning behind such changes as state interests renegotiate their relationship with private interests.

As Postsocialist Modernity continues, McGrath delves into a series of case studies, which provide further contextualization for the myriad ways in which "culture" and the "market" have renegotiated their traditional roles since the 1990s. Chapter 2, "Ideologies of Popular Culture: The 'Humanist Spirit' Debate," focuses upon a public intellectual...


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pp. 155-158
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