- A Modern Miscellany: Shanghai Cartoon Artists, Shao Xunmei’s Circle, and the Travels of Jack Chen, 1926–1938 by Paul Bevan
Although it focuses on a small group of Chinese cartoonists in interwar Shanghai and the foreigners who influenced them, this volume is a major contribution to modern Chinese studies in general. That is because it traces the ideological development of Shanghai artists and writers, who were the avant-garde of the whole country, from the aestheticism of Shao Xunmei to the leftist activism of Lu Xun. In this respect, Shanghai’s literati, unusual though they were, might be seen as a microcosm of Chinese society at the time. Furthermore, the book is relevant to current cross-cultural studies, since it is mainly about how Chinese artists adapted European sources to their own needs and styles at a time when China was trying to forge a modern identity. Finally, anyone interested in the place and time will appreciate Bevan’s reconstruction of its art scene and the interrelations of the characters in it.
Throughout his study, Bevan demonstrates how decisively Shanghai artists were inspired by Western models. To begin with, he documents how copies of magazines like Punch, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker were eagerly consumed from the bookstore Kelly and Walsh on Nanjing Road, and French magazines and books from Libraire de l’Extreme-Orient, Shanghai’s French literary outlet, also on Nanjing Road (pp. 20–21, 26). Indeed, French models were much in vogue among young Chinese intellectuals then, a fact Bevan documents with quotes from books by Marc Chadourne and Paul Morand (pp. 20–25). The main conduit of Western art and literature into Shanghai was, however, Vanity Fair (pp. 25–27), which Shao Xunmei regularly read (p. 28). This and other Western models of the avant-garde, fashion, style, and luxury were adopted by the artists of Shanghai manhua, which launched in the 1920s.
Bevan argues from the beginning that Shanghai manhua was the real originator of Chinese cartoons, rather than the Storm Society as previous scholars have held (pp. 17–18). Indeed, his entire study is a sort of vindication of it and similar publications that fell into disrepute because they were not politically engaged, or because their cartoons were not regarded as worthy of serious academic attention. Shanghai manhua ran into trouble during its existence, too, being charged with obscenity in 1928 for publishing photos comparing the bodies of naked women from various countries (pp. 30–31). The fact that Lu Xun did not like it hurt further. While it existed, however, Shanghai manhua was strongly influenced by Shao Xunmei, a wealthy Western-influenced aesthete who had studied at Cambridge (p. 34). Chapter 2 is therefore devoted to Shao and his associates, since Shao himself launched many pictorial magazines and patronized many cartoonists. [End Page 101] Bevan’s chapter on Shao’s role in Shanghai’s entre-guerre art scene is an invaluable contribution to scholarship on this little-known figure, on whom very little has been published until recently.
Besides being a poet, essayist, and socialite, Shao Xunmei was deeply involved with magazine publishing through his Modern Publications Ltd. and Number One Publishing Company. Although he was upper class and mainly wrote for highbrow audiences, Shao’s reading of foreign magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar convinced him of the power of images among the masses, so he advocated more native Chinese visual art with a proletarian appeal (pp. 57–59). Bevan’s rundown of Shao’s circle makes it clear, however, that he considered the Chinese elite just as indifferent to culture as the masses (p. 62), so his entire career can be seen as an effort to cultivate his society at all levels. In this, his main inspiration was the Arts and Crafts movement and the Aesthetic movement in general (p. 84). It was precisely his championing of the “art for art...