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  • The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China, 1917–1937
  • Gang Gary Xu
The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China, 1917–1937. By Shu-mei Shih. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2001.

Modernity has always been a hot topic among scholars in the field of modern Chinese literary studies; most monographs devoted to the study of the modern, however, were published in the past five years. These works include David D. W. Wang’s Fin-de-Siècle Splendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction, 1849–1911 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), Leo Ou-fan Lee’s Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930–1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), and Xiaobing Tang’s Chinese Modern: The Heroic and the Quotidian (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000). That these works all have “modern” in their titles is not a coincidence. Reflecting, at the turn of the millennium, upon China’s turbulent late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these scholars all feel the necessity to critically re-examine the concept of modernity; the conventional and convenient divide between the premodern and the modern around the May Fourth Movement has been deemed too laden with historical determinism and Communist ideology based on (r)evolutionary linearity to yield productive thinking on the diversity and creativity of Chinese literature in the twentieth century. Wang, for example, contends that the “modern” is actually what “repressed” Chinese literary modernities initiated by China’s encounter with the West in the mid-nineteenth century. According to Wang, Chinese writers’ sense of national crisis in the late Qing did not result in a break with the past, but rather stimulated responses that are much more ingenious and diversified than May Fourth intellectuals’ all-out iconoclasm and anti-traditionalism.

Shu-mei Shih’s book The Lure of the Modern, equally critical of May Fourth modernity, has a different focus from Wang’s, Lee’s, or Tang’s. Although Shih too pays close attention to texts of fictional narrative, her main interest is the discourse of the modern as reflected and manifested in Chinese modernist fiction. Paradoxically, this emphasis becomes both the strength and the weakness of Shih’s book. On one hand, her delineation of the historical construction of the Chinese modern undoubtedly deepens our understanding of the ways in which the interaction between global capitalism/colonialism and China’s local conditions shaped Chinese modernist writings. On the other hand, she tends to tailor her readings of the fictional narratives to fit into her critical diagram based on the interaction between the local and the global. As a result, nuances of these writings are sometimes missed; diversity and creativity of modern Chinese literature that Shih ventures out to seek are simplified, so much so that one has the impression that modern Chinese literature is all about the writing of the “national allegory” despite Shih’s explicit rejection of Jameson’s generalization (74).

Shih’s critical diagram focuses on semicolonialism, a term she uses to “describe the cultural and political condition in modern China to foreground the multiple, layered, intensified, as well as incomplete and fragmentary nature of China’s colonial structure” (34). According to Shih, the uneven colonial rule in China resulted in Chinese intellectuals’ strategies of bifurcation that divide the West into the cosmopolitan and the colonial. Compared to countries that were fully colonized, such as India, where intellectuals sought in traditional Indian culture weapons of resistance against colonialism, China was allowed to preserve its own language and most of its cultural traditions; it was Chinese intellectuals, not the colonizers, that attempted to eradicate Chinese traditions under the influence of Western cosmopolitanism while being aware of the danger of colonialism. To support her theoretical arguments, Shih discusses modernist fiction by three groups of writers: the May Fourth generation in the late teens and early twenties, the “jingpai” (Beijing school) writers in the late twenties and early thirties, and Shanghai’s “new sensationalists” in the mid thirties. May Fourth writers (“Occidentalists,” in Shih’s terminology), led by Lu Xun, are said to be subsumed by the symbolic content based an integration of evolutionalism, Nietzschean individualism, and humanism. The jingpai...

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