From Shanghai Modern to Shanghai Postmodern: A Cosmopolitan View of China’s Modernization

Ning Wang’s “From Shanghai Modern to Shanghai Postmodern: A Cosmopolitan View of China’s Modernization” appears in Telos 180 (Fall 2017), a special issue on Cosmopolitanism and China. Read the full article at the Telos Online website, or purchase a print copy of the issue in our online store. Individual subscriptions to Telos are now available in both print and online formats.

To discuss the issue of cosmopolitanism in the Chinese context is, as in the Western context, no longer new to China’s humanities intellectuals, for this issue once did attract Chinese intellectuals in the 1920s when nationalism dominated Chinese academia and intellectual circles. Furthermore, it indeed had some parallel elements in ancient Chinese philosophy. It is therefore quite natural that cosmopolitanism was not so attractive when China, according to Dr. Sun Yat-sen, was not qualified enough to talk about cosmopolitanism as it was still poor and backward at the time. In the current era of globalization, along with the increasingly important role played by China and its leaders, more and more scholars have been paying considerable attention to this issue with regard to global culture and world literature.

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The Carceral Experience, 1957

As has been observed about Russian and Japanese modernisms, Chinese modernism was initiated with a sense of lack: the contact with an Other civilization (e.g., that of the West) more capable of controlling reality, one more materially powerful. If revolution is a rupture with the past, the Chinese revolution constituted a rupture with a relationship to space that flowed through the subjective experience of poetry, and its replacement with an ongoing process of rationalization, mapping, understanding—one often initiated by colonizers, whether the Westerners in the treaty ports, or the Japanese in the North. In other words, a subject trained to interact with an environment on the basis of a tradition of poetry, painting, and landscape architecture, in which the self was holistically internalized into a larger built environment, was forced to confront an environment in the process of transformation: mountains became mines, forests became timber, and of course, humans became factory workers.[3]

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From Shanghai, Facing North

In this series of entries, Jacob Dreyer investigates the spatial forms of modernity in China, notably that of the Metropolis (e.g., Shanghai) and the Wasteland (e.g., Heilongjiang). In his last piece, he read the two regions through Schmitt’s dialectic of land and sea; here, he reads Shanghai through Dostoyevsky’s vision of the Crystal Palace; the next piece will subject the exterior, the “Great Northern Wasteland,” to a similar analysis.

If the goal of the project of modernity in China is ultimately the integration of the entire territory of PRC China into an urbanized “interior,” with no useless or wild zones, of universalizing the social practices of the metropolis, then an investigation into the unique spatial forms that did not emerge until modernity—and their shadow in consciousness, visible in the work of philosophers, writers, and architects—is necessary. As discussed in my previous post, Chinese literati have been exploring the territory since the beginning of civilization in Asia. In fact, it would not be inaccurate to say that the beginning of civilization is created by the initial architectural division between “inside” and “outside,”[1] created by architecture—physical edifices, no doubt, but also the structures of thought and language which tend to divide the world into two zones, interior and exterior.

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Of 土 and 海

The shadow of geography in modern Chinese thought is profound, for the understanding of a modern China above all relies on the interpretation of what China is. A population? A geography? A continental form of knowledge, modulated as cultural system? The interrogation of China’s two modern cities—Harbin and Shanghai[1]—reveals certain disparities in the approach toward geography and landscape, and the resultant subject position. Shanghai, whose name literally means “up against the sea,” and the soil of which is nearly entirely all the eroded dust from the banks of the Yangtze in the Chinese interior,[2] is the heir to the watery tradition of Jiangnan, the Yangtze region of water towns; Harbin, the frozen Siberian capital, was founded as an outpost in the middle of the “Great Northern Wasteland,” which has been tamed by the successive generations of labor fanning out from the transportation network of which Harbin is the center. Shanghai, then, has never been sufficiently solid or stable to be a capital; it errs on the avant-garde of flow, a slippery Atlantis. Harbin, with its gruff dialect, with its ripe and aged neighborhoods, with the earnest and clean faces glimpsed on the boulevards, is a city in which the earth has come to life.

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