Shanghai Splendor: Economic Sentiments and the Making of Modern China, 1843-1949/mediasphere Shanghai:The Aesthetics of Cultural Production

By Lau, Sin Wen | The China Journal, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Shanghai Splendor: Economic Sentiments and the Making of Modern China, 1843-1949/mediasphere Shanghai:The Aesthetics of Cultural Production


Lau, Sin Wen, The China Journal


Shanghai Splendor: Economic Sentiments and the Making of Modern China, 1843-1949, by Wen-hsin Yeh. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. xiv + 305 pp. US$39.95/£23.95 (hardcover).

Mediasphere Shanghai:The Aesthetics of Cultural Production, by Alexander Des Forges. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007. xii + 278 pp. US$55.00 (hardcover).

The two books under review complement each other. Both focus on the production of Shanghai modernity in the early 20th century, concurring that efforts to position Shanghai as an international city today should be grounded in its past. Both break away from established discourses that see Shanghai as a colonial product, firmly locating their discussions instead within the distinct time-space that is Shanghai. To this end, both examine the quotidian, delving into the lives of the petty urbanites (xiao shimin) and exploring parallel themes of space, time, hybridity and modernity. Yet the two books are also different. Yeh's book approaches the central question from an economic perspective, while Des Forges' is essentially a literary critique of Chinese fiction. In many ways, the material that Yeh discusses forms the wider context in which Des Forges constructs his thesis. In economic terms, while Yeh offers a macro view of the historical production of Shanghai modernity, Des Forges provides us with a micro inspection of the same process through cultural products consumed by the petty urbanites of the city.

Yeh's book is an historical study of the rise of an economic culture in modern China. It focuses on the "aspirations and frustrations" (p. ix) of Shanghai's middle class within the frame of economism, what Yeh refers to as a "discursive arena" (p. 2) in which critical socio-political transformations were negotiated. The book demonstrates how this new economic culture was constructed through the cultivation of an ethic of hard work and the promise of material comforts, offering the nuclear family as an alternative to patrilines and emphasizing patriotism to the nation. It then traces how these middle-class values were revised in the chaos of the 1930s to accommodate a paternalistic state in anticipation of the 1949 Communist takeover. More importantly, she demonstrates how the construction and everyday practice of specific forms of economic sentiment created the ideological conditions that shaped pre- 1949 Shanghai as a unique cultural place.

Arranged chronologically, there are seven chapters in the book, including an Introduction and an Epilogue. The empirical evidence presented is broad-ranging, and draws material from the city's banking sector, accounting practices, department stores and publishing industry. Chapters 1 and 2 examine the construction of a middle-class respectability by an emerging economic élite in cooperation with the state. Chapter 3 shifts to a discussion about a visual culture fueled by commercial wealth, that emphasized display, visibility and an inherent tension between the foreign and the domestic. Chapters 4 and 5 investigate how economism is etched into the everyday lives of the salaried urbanites as they are disciplined in the rules of modernity through pedagogical devices like the implementation of measured time in everyday work lives and the structuring of residences into company compounds (Chapter 4), as well as through business journals (Chapter 5). Chapter 6 studies how left-wing journals revised the culture of commercialism while Chapter 7 focuses on employee activism on the eve of the Communist takeover. The Epilogue concludes with a discussion of how history is revised to justify the state's new goals of development in the 1990s.

Although Yeh's discussion is captivating in its detail and the breadth of the topic, it is disconcerting to read.

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