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  • Postsocialist Modernity: Chinese Cinema, Literature, and Criticism in the Market Age
  • Yilin Liao (bio)
Jason McGrath . Postsocialist Modernity: Chinese Cinema, Literature, and Criticism in the Market Age. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008. xi, 300 pp. Hardcover $60.00, ISBN 0-8047-5874-3.

In his new book, Postsocialist Modernity: Chinese Cinema, Literature, and Criticism in the Market Age, Jason McGrath draws on a breadth of cleverly selected sources to examine how Chinese society and culture have been transformed in the era of marketization. He defines this phase as the "postsocialist period." By the early 1990s, the period of 1978 to 1989 had been designated a new era in Chinese history, and the period following a post-new era. The author suggests that since 1990, the cultural life of China started to enter a period of postmodernity. Life in China has swung away from the expectations of modernity associated with the Maoist revolution. In his first chapter, McGrath argues that the impact of marketization not only affects Chinese society and culture, but also it is an inseparable part of the globalization in "postsocialist modernity" (p. 2). Therefore, this era in China has to be read in the context of the wider "history of the global capitalist system" (p. 2), as China is reshaped by the system and vice versa. However, in the last chapter, McGrath paradoxically asserts that the promises of a luxurious modern life will remain unfulfilled for most of the population.

In his second chapter, McGrath reviews the debate about the human spirit raised in the early 1990s. After over a decade's practice, the policy of reform and opening (改革开放政策) had inevitably challenged intellectuals. Their familiar consensus and stability was destroyed by a force beyond their control. The enlightenment movement prevalent in the 1980s had gradually given way to the "vulgar culture" (as the intellectuals called it) of the early 1990s. Intellectuals thought that this vulgar culture was an ominous sign for both cultural life and the state. The most prominent targets were Wang Shuo in literature and the Fifth Generation director Zhang Yimou in film. As the author notes, the debate over the human spirit is worthy of attention not only because of its significance in Chinese intellectual life, but also because it marks a transformation in the terms of the debate itself. By admitting the new central status of markets in Chinese cultural life, humanist critics actually attempted to master the traits of postsocialist modernity in order to forge a new cultural foundation in China. The term "human spirit" was invoked by reactionary intellectuals to counter the crisis they perceived in literature, the humanities, and Chinese culture. The author regards reactionary tendencies a part of the tradition that can be traced back to the early twentieth century when Liang Qichao articulated his vision of a modern China sustained by fiction. Later, Hu Shi initiated the May Fourth Movement as a means of modernizing Chinese culture. [End Page 246]

Despite the long history of combining literature with the modern national spirit, McGrath also suggests that the defenders of the humanist spirit fail to define the term. Sometimes, they even contradict themselves, making their arguments vague and subject to sharp criticism. Their defense of terms associated with the humanist spirit, including "ultimate concern" and "ultimate value," prove unsuccessful and unconvincing.

The opposing voices in the controversy see the swollen cultural free market and concomitant diversity as hallmark achievements of the policy of reform and opening. They also point out that there is no contradiction between producing quality products and making profits. Instead, they assert that the reason humanist intellectuals are against the marketization of literature, culture, and the arts is because they fear the shrinkage of their authority. Invoking the notion of humanist spirit restores their influence in the cultural life of the country.

In the heated debate between humanist intellectuals and their opposition, McGrath argues that the supporters of free market reforms echo the triumph of global capitalism in the post-Cold War era. The postsocialist condition in China today has already been labeled market populism by leftists in the United States.

In the concluding section of this chapter, the author suggests that the debate...


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pp. 246-249
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