- The Distorting Mirror: Visual Modernity in China
A postcard dating to the late Qing dynasty (1644–1911) shows a man steadying a portable kinetoscope on a bamboo stand, while a young boy in heavy cotton robes crouches to peer into it. The picture contains a series of nested visual interactions: The boy looks through a peephole at the magical rotating images inside the box, and the owner of this marvelous technology looks directly into the camera lens of the photographer documenting the scene. Over a hundred years later, we take the position of the photographer looking at this scene of seeing, the postcard having traveled from China and through time to take its place in the twenty-first century on the dustcover of Laikwan Pang’s book.
Much remains obdurately invisible about this postcard: the place in which the figures are standing, their identity, the pictures inside the kinetoscope, the photographer’s intent, and the names of the person who mailed the postcard and the person to whom it was sent. What is clear is that the photographer thought there was something worth looking at within the picture frame—the costume, or possibly the rope-like queue cascading down the boy’s back. Beyond an unsurprising declaration that this, too, was the Orient, the photographer also may have sensed that a Chinese person on the street engaging with a Western technology of vision was culturally remarkable. (If so, it is ironic that the kinetoscope should be shown elevated on bamboo, that most identifiable of all Chinese plants.) The postcard poses the question of why seeing matters in China at the turn of the century and what the identity stakes are of seeing in peculiarly modern ways. Laikwan Pang’s book on sites of visual modernity in China from roughly 1880 to 1930 is an ambitious, thoughtful, and thought-provoking response to those questions.
In the book’s introduction, Pang is at pains to point out that her study takes as its center a Chinese subject, looking out, or sometimes looking back, at the West. Her terms are useful in laying out a politics of vision in which China and the West “mutually implicate each other” (p. 4), undermining the notion of a culturally hegemonic and stable self, autonomous and inflexible. That postcard, then, with its embedded hierarchies of vision (indicating who gets to look and how they do it), does not quite have it right. For this reason, Pang turns to mirrors as the metaphor for the modern Chinese visual experience. Mirrors reflect, and in China in the form of the distorting mirror (the haha jing), they provide a ready analog for the public experience of pleasure and terror, alienation and recognition, the surrender to illusory reflections and the active play with them, as people looked at themselves through this and other new technologies of vision. Pang writes, “This [End Page 367] book focuses on the details of the daily new visual experiences of Chinese urbanites that, I think, most fascinatingly reveal the multiplicity, fluidity, and internal alterity of Chinese modernity” (p. 10). She offers a qualification: Visual experience was one of possession, a consumption of newness in everyday life, which she finds to be richly complicated and messy, elitist and popular, political, sensual, commercial, and intellectual at the same time.
The book is structured to address print culture in the first three chapters (lithographic pictorials, photography, and print advertisements) and in the last three, theatrical/performative culture (Peking Opera, early cinema, and magic). This structure has the benefit of allowing Pang to pursue privatization of modern pictures as well as visual modernity’s most obvious public aspects. Several of the chapters have been published previously as journal articles. In the book, these are expanded or edited to read more fluidly as parts of the larger project, with greater overall emphasis on the conceptual problems of realism and spectacle.
The first chapter explores a “realist desire,” “the desire...