- Chinese Modernity and the Individual Psyche ed. by Andrew Kipnis
Chinese Modernity and the Individual Psyche is an ambitious edited volume that aims to rethink the relationship between modernity and individualism in contemporary Chinese society. The culmination of a conference called “China Inside Out,” the volume argues that the assumed linear relationship between the rise of modernity and the liberation of the individual is not necessarily applicable in the case of China. Instead, as Andrew Kipnis states in the introduction to the volume, “The liberation of the individual is simultaneously her or his enslavement to wider [End Page 106] social forces; differentiation is often accompanied by conformity, and estrangement or alienation by freedom” (p. 7). The nine chapters following the introduction add depth to this statement. By breaking down the ways in which Chinese modernity diverges from a theorized Western modernity, the volume seeks to understand the specific mechanisms by which individuals in China undergo processes of socialization and market-driven conformism.
The volume is divided into three parts, each composed of three essays. The first, “Creative Expression and Senses of Self,” examines the tensions inherent in artistic production in China today. Ling-Yun Tang’s essay on post-1970s artists explores how these painters and sculptors reconcile the demand for aesthetic innovation with the market-driven demand for branding. While Western theorists have posited that the role of the artist is to provide a critical perspective on society—and to therefore operate outside of a money economy—Tang conversely concludes that “the pressures of living and working for material rewards have continued to make the concept of a truly autonomous art world more of an ideal than a reality” (p. 36). Emily Wilcox’s exploration into the world of dance in post-Mao China comes to a similar conclusion. Through interviews and observations of professional dancers in Beijing, Wilcox makes the argument that the ideal dancer is viewed as “socially embedded,” and that too much individualistic distinction is often interpreted as “selling out” or contrary to the goal of meaningful artistic production (p. 60). Finally, Wanning Sun’s essay on migrant workers’ poetry shows how the articulation of social alienation through writing can act as a form of collective resistance to a market-driven modernity. The essays in this section convincingly expand upon the arguments Kipnis raises in the introduction. While the professional artists who are expected to operate outside of a market economy are often entangled within it, migrant workers who are very much embedded within the capitalist system often employ art in order to resist values of conformity and complacence.
The essays in part 2, “Female Gender and the Relational Psyche,” consider the contradictory standards that women are expected to uphold in contemporary China. Vanessa Fong et al.’s study of female toddlers in Nanjing shows how mothers across the economic spectrum almost uniformly wish for their daughters to excel, but simultaneously worry that excellence—a characteristic that is not always considered appropriate for women—could be detrimental to their daughters’ happiness in the long term. The appeal of individuality and independence is thus tempered by the knowledge that independence among women is not always seen as a prized characteristic in Chinese society. Harriet Evans adopts a different approach to analyzing the conflicting expectations of women in contemporary China. In her essay, she argues that the growing emphasis on individual emotional expression in modern China can be understood as a “newly gendered form of discipline and normalization” (p. 138). In other words, although women are encouraged to explore and articulate their individual emotions, gendered [End Page 107] assumptions about the naturalness of female intimacy can often force women to subscribe to a single standard of feminization. The last essay in this section looks at gendered trends in Chinese suicide rates. Here, Hyeon Jung Lee takes on Durkheim’s assertion that modern suicide is largely urban, male, and caused by social alienation (anomie). Lee conversely shows that the majority of suicides in contemporary China are carried out...