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The Distorting Mirror

The Distorting Mirror: Visual Modernity in China

Laikwan Pang
Copyright Date: 2007
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  • Book Info
    The Distorting Mirror
    Book Description:

    The Distorting Mirror analyzes the multiple and complex ways in which urban Chinese subjects saw themselves interacting with the new visual culture that emerged during the turbulent period between the 1880s and the 1930s. The media and visual forms examined include lithography, photography, advertising, film, and theatrical performances. Urbanites actively engaged with and enjoyed this visual culture, which was largely driven by the subjective desire for the empty promises of modernity—promises comprised of such abstract and fleeting concepts as new, exciting, and fashionable. Detailing and analyzing the trajectories of development of various visual representations, Laikwan Pang emphasizes their interactions. In doing so, she demonstrates that visual modernity was not only a combination of independent cultural phenomena, but also a partially coherent sociocultural discourse whose influences were seen in different and collective parts of the culture. The work begins with an overall historical account and theorization of a new lithographic pictorial culture developing at the end of the nineteenth century and an examination of modernity’s obsession with the investigation of the real. Subsequent chapters treat the fascination with the image of the female body in the new visual culture; entertainment venues in which this culture unfolded and was performed; how urbanites came to terms with and interacted with the new reality; and the production and reception of images, the dynamics between these two being a theme explored throughout the book. Modernity, as the author shows, can be seen as spectacle. At the same time, she demonstrates that, although the excessiveness of this spectacle captivated the modern subject, it did not completely overwhelm or immobilize those who engaged with it. After all, she argues, they participated in and performed with this ephemeral visual culture in an attempt to come to terms with their own new, modern self.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6467-5
    Subjects: Psychology, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
    (pp. 1-30)

    Let us look at an ordinary newspaper advertisement printed in a 1933 edition ofShenbao(Shanghai daily), the most popular newspaper in China at that time (fig. Intro.1):

    Latest Scientific and Entertainment Discovery

    Distorting Mirror with Six Functions

    One dollar and twenty cents

    It Contains Six Monsters:

    1. Chinese Moving Pictures

    2. Foreign Films

    3. X-ray Slides

    4. Microscope

    5. Ghost Reflection Mirror

    6. Telescope

    Spectacular, a Must Buy¹

    We in the twenty-first century may be quick to dismiss this advertisement as a ridiculous reflection of the ignorance of the general Chinese readership of the early twentieth century. In fact, early Chinese newspaper advertising was known...

  4. PART I The Pictorial

    • CHAPTER ONE The Pictorial Turn and the Realist Desire
      (pp. 33-68)

      In the last years of the Qing dynasty, people saw the drastic cultural discontinuity engendered by Western imperialism, and the increasing mobility of capital, commodity, and population fueled and intensified one other. The Qing government had little control over imperialist aggression and rapidly transforming values and social norms, which reinforced people’s feelings of vulnerability and insecurity in the face of continual change. Cultural beliefs that had been taken for granted were questioned, and people were forced to confront a new and complex set of concepts of time, space, and body, through which a new worldview and epistemology were crystallized.


    • CHAPTER TWO Photography, Performance, and the Making of Female Images
      (pp. 69-101)

      As mentioned briefly in the previous chapter, the value of lithography as a mass visual medium was wiped out quickly by the invention of photography, a phenomenon seen in China and in most other countries.¹ With people’s new realist sensibility and the mass pictorial culture introduced by lithography, the Chinese people were ready to greet photography as an emblematic medium of modernity. In this chapter I investigate how parts of the realist desire cultivated in late nineteenth-century lithographic culture were turned into a desire for performance, thanks to photography’s even more realistic and democratic nature. This performative dimension of photography...

    • CHAPTER THREE Advertising and the Visual Display of Women
      (pp. 102-130)

      Given the unquestionable fact that images of women were more frequently seen in this new visual culture than those of men, the meaning of female representation is a key area of exploration in this book. I am interested in analyzing not only the form and content of selected visual representations, but also what they imply about the people’s experience and affect in the advent of cultural modernity. A methodological predicament lies in the relationship between representation and reality. There is far from enough historical information to provide us with a more elaborate picture of the production and reception of these...

  5. PART II The Theatrical

    • CHAPTER FOUR Peking Opera, from Listening to Watching
      (pp. 133-163)

      The previous three chapters focus on the print media and the relatively private and personal experience of producing, reading, and using these print images. My analysis both highlights and questions the level of control producers and viewers held over the images as new commodities. Specific to these pictorial forms is the temporal and spatial detachment between production and reception, giving the artist or photographer more freedom to design and execute the image. The receiving viewer can also read the piece in the context of his or her own time and space, thus the viewing experience can be relatively autonomous from...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Walking into and out of China’s Early Film Scene
      (pp. 164-183)

      If there is one area that no study of visual modernity of any culture can afford to ignore, it undisputedly is cinema. The recent surge of academic interest in the relationship between visual culture and modernity is to a great extent fueled by the lively scholarship on early cinema published in the past two decades, which demonstrates how substantially the introduction of cinema changed cultural life at the turn of the twentieth century.¹ A completely new experience of seeing was introduced by film, which added the dimension of temporal progression to photographic realism to allow the visual “reproduction” of reality....

    • CHAPTER SIX Magic and Modernity
      (pp. 184-208)

      The following is an advertisement soliciting investors that appeared in a 1915 issue of the magazineYuxing(After-hours entertainment):

      We in China try to reform everything of ours along the lines of foreign models; only the coffin has remained unchanged for generations. Is this because there is no way of making better coffins, or could this not be due to a lack of financial motivations? I have been following new research for many years, and my knowledge of product reform is considerable. We can make coffins that follow the logic of canning. This new coffin will be made of aluminum,...

  6. EPILOGUE Modernity as an Unfinished Project
    (pp. 209-216)

    Informed by modernity discourses, my previous studies have focused on the dynamic interactions between the visual representations (artifacts/performances) and the visually embodied experience, that is, exchanges between the seen object and the seeing subject, as well as interactions among the collective viewers. The affiliation betweenmodeng(modern) andmoshu(magic) in urban China at the turn of the twentieth century, for example, resides not only in actual modern magic performances but also in its embodiments of people’s very material experience. I hope I have demonstrated in these chapters that China’s cultural modernity is driven by a specific configuration of representation...

  7. NOTES
    (pp. 217-240)
    (pp. 241-246)
    (pp. 247-272)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 273-280)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 281-286)