- Mediasphere Shanghai: The Aesthetics of Cultural Production
Alexander Des Forges’s Mediasphere Shanghai offers a dense and highly engaging study of cultural production from and about Shanghai of the late Qing dynasty and the Republican period. Des Forges concerns himself with the question of how Shanghai came to be associated with the multitude of images that the name of the city has evoked, and still evokes, in China and abroad. Drawing on a variety of textual and visual sources, Des Forges focuses in particular on the genre of Shanghai installment fiction from the 1890s to the 1930s. Central to Des Forges’s inquiry into the various cultural products through which Shanghai has come to manifest itself and which simultaneously have shaped the way the city is perceived is the idea of the mediasphere, a complex interplay of various social, cultural, and industrial agents that forms the conceptual framework against which the seven chapters of his study are arranged.
His concept of mediasphere, the theoretical framework of which Des Forges borrows from the work of Régis Debray, is first presented in the introduction, where Des Forges defines it as a form of cultural production that is characterized by limitless expansion, the simultaneous appearance of a multitude of cultural products, and the inter-referentiality of different genres and medias (p. 16). However, a more concrete understanding of the nature of Shanghai’s mediasphere only emerges after delving into the seven chapters of his study. The first five focus on late Qing installment fiction about Shanghai’s courtesan culture, in particular Han Banqing’s novel Lives of Shanghai Flowers (Haishang liezhuan, also known as The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai through Eileen Chang and Eva Hung’s English translation), Sun Yusheng’s Dreams of Shanghai Splendor (Haishang fanhua meng), and Li Boyuan’s A Shanghai Swan’s Traces in the Snow (Haitian hong xueji). Chapter 6 attempts to establish a textual continuity between late Qing installment fiction and realist and modernist works from Shanghai of the 1930s, while chapter 7 explores recent literary and cinematic adaptations of the original late Qing works. An epilogue, which doubles as conclusion, further attempts to align the idea of mediasphere to contemporary developments in Shanghai’s urban culture.
In chapter 1, “Rhetoric of Territory, Mixture, and Displacement,” Des Forges describes how certain textual and stylistic elements central to late Qing courtesan fiction from Shanghai fed into the formation of identities that were increasingly linked to the city of Shanghai. Drawing in particular on Han Banqing’s novel Lives of Shanghai Flowers and Sun Yusheng’s Dreams of Shanghai Splendor, Des Forges shows how the use of an abstracted Wu dialect in the former against a northern, [End Page 338] more standardized mode of speech and writing in the latter led to a demarcation of north-south identities. As a result, Shanghai, came increasingly to be associated with the cultural sophistication of the southern Jiangnan area that had once been dominated by Suzhou’s literati and print culture. Similarly, these novels constantly reminded readers that Shanghai was also the meeting place of China and the foreign world. While concrete boundaries between the foreign concessions and the Chinese parts of the city became increasingly fluid for its inhabitants, fiction maintained these boundaries by creating rhetorical distinctions between the concessions and the Chinese city. These binaries at times resembled the yinyang dichotomy, which engrained a perception of “a striking contrast between technological and ritual control in the concessions on the one hand and moralhistorical force of the ‘walled city’ on the other” (p. 47), between the “strange” and the “familiar.”
Des Forges continues his discussion of the importance of space to the structure of Shanghai installment fiction in chapters 2 and 3, “From Street Names to Brand Names: The Grid of Reference” and “Synchronized Reading: Installment Aesthetics and the Formation of the Mediasphere,” respectively. In the former, he shows how accurate references to specific spaces such as intersections, certain alleys, teahouses, or theaters formed a...