Shadow Modernism

Lei Ping

William Schaefer’s book Shadow Modernism: Photography, Writing, and Space in Shanghai, 1925-1937 provides a rarely encountered scholarly research on how the logic of photographic medium pervaded the image and literary culture of early 20th-century Shanghai – the center of China’s media culture (p. 5). The book seeks to understand the intricacy and complexity of the intertwined relations between photographic, literary, artistic, and intellectual imaginations and representations of the question of Shanghai modernity in the Republican era. Schaefer argues that images and ideas about images formed an unstable, fraught, and contested ground of debate about culture, the past, and modern China’s place in the world and in Shanghai (p. 1). In this regard, according to Schaefer, the fluidity, intangibility, and instability of Shanghai modernity, or more precisely, of Shanghai modernism is defined by the early development of photography, literature, and the concept of urban space. What therefore becomes the crux of the issue is how to grapple with the multifold approaches to what Schaefer interestingly calls ‘shadow modernism’.

The first half of the book examines photography’s position in relation to modernist writing on photography in illustrated magazines such as The Young Companion (良友畫報). In Schaefer’s words, ‘materiality, spatiality, and mutability of images became persistent themes in the conceptualization and practice of modernist writing’ (p. 20). The rest of the chapters delve into the questions of landscapes of montage images and projected past. Montage in Shanghai, Schaefer delineates, ‘was not only a means of representing place; it was itself conceptualized pervasively as a spatial practice, a geographic aesthetic’ (p. 148). Landscape of Shanghai, in this case, was itself the making of images and literature, which was composed of the aesthetic of fragmentation and juxtaposition.

Photography serves as a primary medium in the book through which the author explores kaleidoscopic process of image making and modernity making. Fascinated by the writings of the eminent Shanghai modernist writer Shi Zhecun, Schaefer finds the profound meaning of photography – a photograph is rather something opaque, both a representation of a presence and a material trace of a presence that has now vanished (p. 120). This kind of opacity, presence and disappearance leads the author to link the sense of surrealism to the uncanny and fragmented composites of the Shanghai modern. In other words, the Shanghai modern derives from a type of ‘shadow’ that is deeply entangled with what he observes – a haunting specter of the past.

The coined term ‘shadow modernism’ seems to suggest that the way in which Shanghai modernity was experienced and perceived was preconditioned by its positionality vis-à-vis the West. That is to say, ‘shadow’ not only implies the photographic imageries produced by the blooming media culture in Shanghai, but also refers to Shanghai as a mirror image of the West. According to Schaefer, the Shanghai modern was only able to emerge and unfold itself mainly by means of the flourishing of print media in the context of colonial modernity. In other words, somewhat mysterious and derivative, Shanghai modernity along with the city of Shanghai, was a place without past. Drawing from this observation, Schaefer repeatedly mentions in his analysis of literary texts such as Shi Zhecun’s 1931 essay ‘Demon’s Way’ (魔道); ‘the image culture manifest in the print media in Shanghai articulates a sense that Shanghai is without a past, or that the past is present consists of circulating images, or that its past is always from somewhere else’ (p. 118). The sense of Shanghai as a ‘rootless place’ and ‘everywhere haunted by the absent past’s traces’ (p. 121) becomes a prevailing theme throughout the chapters. Quoting another modernist essayist Mu Shiying, Schaefer portrays Shanghai urban spaces as ‘built out of images both projected and circulated from other places’, ‘transplanted from Europe’ and ‘paved with shadows’ (p. 113).

Moreover, Schaefer regards the notion of ‘simultaneism’ as a definitive trait in the critical discourses of modernism in Shanghai. He points out that ‘for the Shanghai modernists, temporal and spatial simultaneity as a theme and formal principle became an essential means of constructing as well as representing Shanghai’s own location on the “margins” of modernity’ (p. 158). Schaefer continues to use concepts such as simultaneism, montage, fragmentation, and juxtaposition expressed through photographic and literary representations to characterize Shanghai modernity as something marginal and inauthentic. Hence, what he calls ‘modernist bricolage’ vividly becomes ‘a device for representing world space precisely from the world’s margins and semi-peripheries’ (p. 158). In other words, Schaefer forms a circulative context from which he misinterprets the dialectic of the universal and particular.

It is hence problematic to base the rest of the close readings of the photographs, paintings, cartoons, and other critical texts on the mechanical binary division between the past and present, East and West. To depict Shanghai with no past or a borrowed past is to dismiss the rich local historiography and significant roles that Shanghai and its environs played prior to the Opium War (1839–1842) – a historical event that is often mistakenly recognized as the beginning of Shanghai’s transformation from a fishing village to a modern city. What then deems as theoretically ambivalent is Schaefer’s effort in arguing that the early development of new image technologies undermined cultural essentialism and the East–West binarism. If Shanghai was a past-less place as what Schaefer concludes, then it is self-contradictory to assert that Shanghai’s colonial modernity was determined to overcome the presupposed colonizer–colonized dialectic and at the same time erase the pre-colonial history of Shanghai by labeling it as ‘cultural essentialist’.

In sum, the book contributes to the study of visual and literary culture in early 20th-century Shanghai. It provides a detailed account and nuanced analysis of seminal texts and understudied photographs. The scope of the book offers inspiration and possibility for further elaboration and continued research in the future. The theoretical approaches and arguments tend to appear polemic notwithstanding, the book is recommended for university undergraduate and graduate students as well as general readers who are interested in print media culture and Shanghai Studies.