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

By Shu-Mei Shih | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
Modernism and Urban Shanghai

I think modernism in the 1930s was not local or national but international. It was a general tendency in literature. In each country there was a small minority of writers [who wrote in the modernist style] … and all of these writers from different countries together formed a trend. Modernism was not [merely] a Euro-American phenomenon … it was a simultaneously shared literary trend. Modernism in the West was influenced by Eastern culture. Obvious examples include Amy Lowell and Ezra Pound, but the influence was felt in different writers…. I always suspected that Emily Dickinson was also influenced by Chinese poetry, because there was no American predecessor to the kind of poetry she wrote…. To say that I “Easternized” modernism is wrong. It is Western modernism that is Easternized, and my modernism Westernized.

SHI ZHECUN, INTERVIEW (1990)

There is no need to analyze the ways in which [ foreigners'] contempt [towards the Chinese] is shown: non-admission of Chinese even as guests to foreign clubs, extreme limitation of social intercourse (to this there are exceptions, of course), prohibition of Chinese enjoyment of parks and embankments for the upkeep of which they help to pay. It is impossible to talk to educated Chinese without becoming aware that this is a matter of which they are most bitterly conscious.

ARTHUR RANSOME, THE CHINESE PUZZLE (1927)

In the opposition between the two quotations above is a pronounced tension that I have explicated in terms of the strategy of bifurcation many self-styled cosmopolitan writers and intellectuals deployed: constructing metropolitan Western and Japanese culture as the object of desire to incorporate or become contemporaneous with, while repudiating the humiliating presence of Western and Japanese colonial culture. The two were rarely made to confront each other, and since the valorization of metropolitan culture necessitated the displacement of colonial culture, nationalism was often muted in the writings of self-styled moderns and cosmopolitans. As I have illustrated, in the cosmopolitan imaginary of the May Fourth period, to confront the closely intertwined relationship between the metropolitan and the colonial West/Japan

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