Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 8, October 2002
Shu-mei Shih

The Lure of the Modern:
Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China 1917-1937

Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001,
427 pages, ISBN: 0-520-22063-3

review by Stephanie Hemelryk Donald

The desire to 'leap into the time of the modern' is the undercurrent that informs this book. Although focussing, with great scholarship and historically minute and insightful analysis, on the period of the subtitles; 1917-1937, this account achieves more than the sum of its parts. The Lure of the Modern is organised into three substantial theoretical investigations, each of which is explored in regard to those writers who structured the performance of modernism in their work. The first section discusses the concept of a time-bound modernity, a 'problematic' of recent Chinese literary and social history. Shih argues that, whilst modernity and modernisation are relatively acceptable as universal-yet- differentiated processes, modernism is vexed by suspicions of its supremely western orientations and categorical themes. However, Shih points out that the terms of modernism and its materialisation in cultural product are discursively constructed as occidental. Her argument infers that to bow to this paradigm and thereby support the hegemony of western influence is part of the process of working through postcolonial experience. Nonetheless, Western categories of description and judgment are not always necessary or productive for working out an historical evaluation of the modernist strategies deployed in Chinese literary works.

Although it is argued here that writers did tend towards a subjection to Western literary mores as the only quick passage through to modernity, Shih does not necessarily laud their attempt but nor does she therefore refuse the Chineseness of their (in Guo Moruo's case) 'wilfully utopian cosmopolitanism' (Shih, 109). Thus the experimentalism of Lu Xun is a wholly Chinese contribution to literature, albeit one that occurs within an international shift towards the anxiety of modernist sensibilities. Fei Ming's work is beautifully described in terms of its usage of Chinese literary tropes and linguistic possibilities. In Fei Ming's work, Shih argues, the self conscious elisions of Western modernism are skilfully invented anew as a development of Chinese poetic forms and of Taoist alignment with nature. Fei Ming's modernity is not a copy or derivative of European or American experimentation, but an internationally contextualised interrogation of his cultural subjectivity. Shih demonstrates that the narcissism of modernist invention can be explored through the elusive and elliptical poetics of Chinese traditional form. In Fei's narcissism, however, ellipsis is a shorthand for the non-sequitur, and the words finally speak only ' as a valorisation of obscurity and ambiguity' (200).

Narcissism is also at work in the gender play in May 4th literature. Shih argues that the May 4th doctrine of free love and feminine individuality was a trope of fetishisation for the male writers' ethic of self-regard, rather than a commitment to the political freedoms of young Chinese women. The argument is pursued through an analysis of the frustration apparent in two women writers, Lin Huiyin and Ling Shuhua, who found, as they grew older, that they were themselves using May 4th sensibilities as an explanation of female disappointment rather than a turning point in social mores.

The third section focuses on Shanghai and 'new sensationalism' (a genre or mood that is still pursued by some writers in Beijing at the present time). Sensationalism takes eroticism, horror and the grotesque as thematic routes through which to experience the cosmopolitan adventure that is, arguably, only available to the post-colonised (as opposed to the post coloniser who can never release him/herself from the expectation of control in other people's places). Cosmopolitanism is free floating, dangerous and quite often annihilating to the social self that has spawned the journey. However, Shih also demonstrates that historical conjunctions subverted the cosmopolitanism of the Shanghai sensationalists, when the actuality of war with Japan forced them to opt for national and patriotic priorities and abandon their 'heroic, righteous avant-gardism' (347). Shih makes an historical analogy with the root seeking of the contemporary intellectual cosmopolitan (the academic overseas), for whom there is a spectre of return built into responses to contingent events: 'Imminent political conflicts, real and imagined, can push the limits of cosmopolitanism to the point of annihilating it—this is what happened to the Japanese modernists' (347).

The Lure of the Modern is valuable as a work that uses fine literary analysis in combination with sound historical and biographical research, much of which was carried out in face to face interviews with the subjects. In the last respect I would have enjoyed some methodological discussion of the ways in which memories have travelled across the extraordinary intervening periods. That, however, is not a criticism, but rather a symptom of the engagement this book offers its subjects and its readers.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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