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positions: east asia cultures critique 11.1 (2003) 91-133
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By juxtaposing Shanghai and savage, I want to call attention to a little-discussed disjuncture in the culture of Republican Shanghai (1911–1949). Alongside images of modern life in the print media were numerous representations of "the savage" both abroad and on China's frontiers. These included photographs purporting to represent "primitives" and "savages," as well as ethnographic texts circulating lurid tales of head-hunting, cannibalism, and slaughter. A 1927 article by Xu Weinan, purporting to discuss "The Artistic Culture of the Taiwanese Barbarians," represents this stereotypical discourse well. The first sentence reads, "The barbarians of Taiwan are just like other savage races, they usually fill people with terror—the terror of being slaughtered by them."1 This slaughter, Xu adds, takes the form of head-hunting. Xu's article goes on to suggest that head-hunting and the marking of the face with tattoos, which his text identifies as artistic or image-making practices, serve as the primary markers of the cultural [End Page 91] difference of the Taiwanese "barbarians." For Xu, such forms of violence and image-making mark a difference so extreme that the civilized and the savage are filled with utter hatred for each other, making them "fight to the death" should they encounter each other.2
Ling Changyan identified this fascination with "barbarous landscapes" of "primitive desire" in a 1934 text as a specifically urban phenomenon, claiming that "modern life's essential element is the return to primitive savagery."3 Yet perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the essential element of primitive savagery was its circulation within modern life. For many of these texts and images were produced abroad, and many others were produced all over China, but the Shanghai media during this period showed a strong interest in collecting, sometimes sponsoring, and publishing such representations. Under the epithets savage and primitive, such representations conflated not only the peoples of China's frontier regions, but also the peoples of Africa and the South Pacific. (In order to avoid a tedious overuse of scare quotes, I will assume the reader's awareness of the racist connotations of savage, primitive, and civilized, and that my attempt to read Republican Shanghai culture through their usage by no means marks my endorsement of them.) As in the imperial metropolises of the West, the savage and its images became demeaning ways of thinking, producing, and representing racial difference, and in particular, blackness. Yet the widespread presence of such material in the mass culture of Shanghai raises the question of how race and the savage were represented in the semicolonial metropolis. To ask this question of representation, however, is to ask questions of the place of savage images in Shanghai's own self-representation and self-understanding. Why, when China was so often on the receiving end of Western racialist discourses, was the savage such a common image in Shanghai mass culture? An exploration of this question must involve more than simply identifying a discourse of race in modern China, one comparable to such discourses in the West.4 Rather, one must seek to understand how racialist discourses of the savage both circulated globally and were produced out of global circulation, even as Shanghai's local mass and elite cultures appropriated them. Indeed, writings such as those of Xu and Ling suggest that this fascination with "barbarous landscapes" aimed to negotiate Shanghai's own uneasy temporal and spatial location within the landscape of Republican China, differentiating Shanghai [End Page 92] from China's own margins as a center of modernity, even as Shanghai itself was constituted as lying on the margins of global modernity. As I shall argue throughout this essay, questions of location, self-representation, and the savage in Shanghai were intertwined with questions of the relationships between the image of the savage and representation itself. That is, many visual and verbal images of the savage defined ethnic and cultural others in terms of their image-making practices. At the same time, the image of the savage...