Magazine article Chinese Literature Today

Body-Writing: Shanghai Baby's Love Affair with Transnational Capitalism

Magazine article Chinese Literature Today

Body-Writing: Shanghai Baby's Love Affair with Transnational Capitalism

Article excerpt

When Shanghai Baby was published in September 1999 in China, the impact of the book was so powerful that its author Wei Hui became famous overnight.1 The book was reportedly recalled and banned from the market by the government, due to both the book's perceived threat to cultural integrity and the government's uneasiness with the widespread influence brought about by such market success. Yet the ban further popularized Shanghai Baby, turning the various underground editions available at private book markets and online into bestsellers. All of this made the government's move little more than a token gesture. The simultaneous attention of the market and ban by the government is indicative of the contemporary dynamics of power swing: while some parts of the power structure seek profits from the market, other parts vainly attempt to maintain ideological and cultural control. 2 The apparent conflict of interest as a result of the division of power marks the social contradiction of the moment and provides the social foundation for the so-called body-writing phenomenon (shenti xiezuo xianxiang) to be born.

Two major critical paradigms have developed around this style of writing. The political dissent paradigm argues that since Wei Hui's body-writing has provoked intervention, government censorship indicates the relationship between sexuality and political dissent. This paradigm promotes body-writing works to the overseas market, and is best represented by Western media coverage on the phenomenon, such as the May 11, 2000, New York Times article on Wei Hui: "Sex, Lust, Drugs: Her Novel's Too Much for China." The moralist paradigm dismisses Wei Hui's body-writing as shameless commercial erotica and titillating spectacle that caters to a voyeuristic mass market interested in sexual consumerism, and as such it is an indicator of contemporary moral degradation. This governmental view dominates official media, popular Chinese websites, and domestic popular opinion. The Chinese state banned Wei Hui's novel on the charges of being "decadent, debauched, and a slave of foreign culture."3

Both paradigms express partial truths, although their focus on the ideological and ethical aspects of the phenomenon ignores its intricate social and cultural implications. While the political dissent paradigm ignores the important roles played by economic factors, the moralist paradigm intertwines conservative views of sexuality-especially female sexuality-with anxieties about moral decline. In a society where female sexuality has historically been linked with social mores and ideological concerns, it is not unproblematic to make one-dimensional denunciations. The misogynistic view that women pursuing sexual desires has a catastrophic effect on family and society has long played a part in Chinese popular thinking. Female sexuality has been used as a code and historically been viewed as "a touchstone of the temper of the age."4

It is important for us to comprehend what the body-writing phenomenon truly signifies within the context of drastic social and economic changes and also within its contradictory relations with the market and the government. Can such contradictions provide us new means of describing the tumultuous cultural, social, and economic changes that Chinese public and private life underwent at the turn of the twenty-first century? Through deciphering such a politically, culturally, and socially entangled phenomenon, can we understand the intricacies and contradictions of the historical swing? What does body-writing tell us about the young post-Mao generation's confrontation with the forces of modernity and globalization?

In post-socialist China, "commercialization and commodification have loosened the control of the state, on the one hand, but have also put cultural workers at the mercy of another equally merciless factor- capital-on the other hand."5 The consumerist market is sensitive to profitable popular impulses. Economic reform in China has put a price on everything; once-tabooed items have become valuable and hip commodities. …

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