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A hybrid and highly contested pictorial

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The pictorial Liangyou (1926-1945) has become closely associated with the study of Shanghai since Leo Ou-fan Lee’s groundbreaking monograph Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930-1945 (Harvard University Press, 1999). Lee presents how printing culture, including Liangyou and other popular magazines, helped shape the splendid Shanghai urban culture before the war. After Lee’s introduction, another volume Visual Culture in Shanghai, 1850s-1930s (New Academia Pub., 2007) makes further comments on the pictorial. However, the significant role that Liangyou plays as a visual material has not been fully explained yet. This latest collection Liangyou: Kaleidoscopic Modernity and the Shanghai Global Metropolis, 1926-1945, with its fresh survey and delicate print, continues the exclusive discussion on Liangyou, and develops the topic into a new realm: the multiple dimensional views of China’s modernity. Providing a model of interdisciplinary approach, this is also the first book offering insightful readings, analysis and critiques centering on Liangyou, probably “the most cosmopolitan and comprehensive periodical in the first half of the twentieth century” (p. 1).

After a theoretically sophisticated introduction that gives an overview of Liangyou within the cultural context of the emerging popular media in the cosmopolitan Shanghai, the main body of the volume contains ten research articles, categorized into four broad ranges, or “thematic clusters” as the editors call them. Part I “Designing Modernity” explores the dynamics between the artistic techniques of Liangyou, including photomontages and the photography of ordinary things, and their potential power to transform the society. Part II “Embodying the Modern” deepens our understandings about details in modern life, other than the well-studied images of modern girls. The three chapters in this part extend our visions to western medicine, female athletes, and imported scientific discourses that intellectuals borrowed to shape towards a new type of gender relations.

To further elaborate the theme of gender, Part III, titled “negotiating genders”, spends another three chapters focusing on Liangyou’s various representations of modern men and women, such as the first generation of China’s pilots, the images of modern masculinity, and the depictions of modern wives. According to the authors, to a large extent these portraits did not break away from the old rules, but reinforced the existed gender hierarchy. They also show that all gender-related issues published by Liangyou ultimately served the goal to (re)build a strong, unified, and modern nation. Part IV, “Modernizing Tradition”, returns to a related artistic concern: at the age of rising modern arts, how should traditional Chinese artists be presented? The two articles examine women and male painters respectively, and notice Liangyou’s differential treatments. The authors indicate that the magazine tends to downplay successful career of women painters by highlighting their other modern identities, such as women and/or Chinese citizens; while for male peers of traditional guohua landscape painting, Liangyou glorifies them as representatives of Chinese values and merits. Still, the discourses on Chinese painters match along with the rising cultural nationalism and commercialism in Republican China.   

The appendix contributes to the marketing and distributing strategies of Liangyou, namely wholesale, subscription, as well as retail and mail order. The discussion on the magazine’s circulation translates into contemporary terms of popular media at its early modern stage in Shanghai, and further helps to understand the magazine as both a cultural and a commercial product in urban Shanghai.

What distinguishes this volume is its challenge and amendment to the previous simplified views of modernity in China. Earlier studies of China’s modernity tend to focus primarily on the positive side, displaying the striking contrast between Western modernity and Chinese traditions. However, the notion of modernity in the volume is considered a highly contested concept with fluidity, or “kaleidoscopic” as suggested in the title. Different from the belief that modern Chinese intellectuals who made great effort to draw a clear line keeping tradition in the past, the volume argues that the representations of the modern China in Liangyou are non-partisan, and strike a balance between modern and traditional lifestyles, philosophies, etc. Meanwhile, Liangyou did not hesitate when exposing the decadent tastes in the cosmopolitan city, such as corruption, crime and poverty. In other words, the modernity depicted by the pictorial is hybrid and highly contested with multiple views, in which the bright and the dark, the traditional and the western are put side by side with little discrimination. In addition, the comparison between Liangyou and other popular magazines published in Japan and Korea, including Asahi Graph, Gendai Shogyo Bijutsu Zenshu (Chapter 1), Samcheolli (Chapter 8) and so on, reveals that each region may develop its own characteristic features in the modernizing process. Other articles juxtapose connected activities, such as photo exhibition (Chapter 1), drug administration (Chapter 3) and the promotion of modern wives (Chapter 8) in China and in the West. The interpreted commonalities in the volume prove that modernity is a universal and co-produced value in the global world. Thus the volume truly challenges the conventional thought of an East/West dichotomy, and corrects the essentialist pictures of a superior West and an inferior Asia in modern history.

This volume reveals the significant role that editors played in shaping the pictorial. As a popular magazine, Liangyou has been known for its entertaining function for its audience of upper-middle class. The images no doubt celebrated consumerism and indulged the audience’s growing interests in (re)imagining a modern lifestyle in a global community. However, the volume argues that the pictorial is significant in building national identity and rejuvenating national culture. Educated in both Chinese and Western ways, Liangyou’s ambitious editors attempted to illustrate a “modern urbanite with not only physical beauty and health, but aesthetical and spiritual cultivation” (p. 235). Their editorial preference for photoframing techniques (Chapters 1 & 2) and women artists’ portraits indicate an acute sense of ongoing art trends in cultural modernization. More than embracing the ties between individuals and family, the editors had a clear nation-focused mentality. The discussions on portraying aviation heroes (Chapter 6), masculinity (Chapter 7), and male landscape painters (Chapter 10) all indicate an agenda to create a reading community within the grand project of a strong and unified China.

This collection clearly demonstrates that methodologies of using gender as a critical category will enrich our understandings of both texts and visual images. The volume argues that Liangyou promoted a type of female modernity that “sits comfortably between the traditional and the new” (p. 222). On the one hand, the gender hierarchy is largely kept unchanged. For the most part, the images of modern girls still satisfied the male gaze, provoked fear and anxiety about women’s body (Chapter 5), or built the vulnerability of women’s bodies (Chapter 7). This attempt to control female body/sexuality shows that “modernity” itself does not always mean a reform of the old power. Even within the modern context, men could still treat women as mere objects of desire. On the other, female painters who struggled for recognition of professionalism in their own credits show women’s active engagement in changing the patriarchal rules and preserving their own voice (Chapter 9).   

This innovative volume makes an important contribution to exploring the network of modern media in Shanghai and the new design aesthetics. Several articles discuss the connections between Liangyou and other popular magazines in Shanghai, such as Dianshizhai (Introduction, Chapters 1&7), Dongfang zazhi (Chapter 5), Funü zazhi (Chapters 5 & 9) Furen Huabao (Introduction, Chapters 4 & 7), and Linglong (Chapter 7). As a magazine of visual arts, Liangyou also opens new perceptions of space and time to our understandings of modernity in China. Rather than picking up grand topics, the volume pays particular attention to the modern - sometimes even trivial - visual sensibilities among the burgeoning urban cultures of Shanghai, where art and beauty were treated as commodities ready for mass consumption (Chapters 3&8), and potentially subversive aesthetic sensibilities are celebrated among the merging middle class (Chapters 2, 4 & 5).This volume manifests how visual arts in Liangyou (re)presented and (re)shaped notions of history, gender, nationalism and aesthetic in urban Shanghai.

Embodying the city, negotiating gender relations, and modernizing traditions, this volume not only introduces new subjects such as women athletes, masculinity under gaze, aviation heroes, etc., but also brings more critical analysis on familiar topics. This is a highly valuable and inspiring volume, and will certainly appeal to a wide readership, including those interested in the magazine itself, print culture, visual arts, Shanghai studies, as well as the diverse representations of modernity in the global world.


Yu Zhang, Loyola University Maryland (

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