Historically, many battles have been fought over the body of the woman. So we knew that the images of Chinese women presented in the Shanghai exhibition would be a hot topic of discussion. Interestingly, the most passionate reactions expressed by the public have been focused on a group of images that have these two characteristics:
- The images were for commercial use, and
- The majority of them date to the 1920s and 1930s.
I am curious to understand why that is. So in this multipart series (I don’t even know how many blog postings I will need!), I will attempt to make connections that may have been missed or misread, using the artworks and the available texts in the exhibition, such as object labels, wall panels, and exhibition catalogue. But right off the bat, I must say, I am having fun with this topic and it is an incredible challenge!
Here is a sample spread of this controversial group of images:
What should we be seeing in all of these images? I’m guessing that what should be seen in these depictions of women is different from what some people are actually seeing. A wall panel in the exhibition offers this suggestion: “Chinese women appeared in Shanghai’s popular media in several guises…. Seen in the posters, magazines, and film clips presented in this gallery are various idealizations of the Chinese modern woman, such as homemaker, celebrity, and sex object.”
The key concept here is modernity. Beginning in the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, there existed a craze to modernize all aspects of Shanghai society. For example, in technology, as illustrated by the painting below, “Shanghai was the first Chinese city [in 1882] to have electric lighting installed on its streets.”
In commerce, as described in the exhibition catalogue, the Big Four department stores (pictured below) introduced new trends to the Chinese retail experience, such as “set[ting] fixed prices to prevent haggling, and … emphasiz[ing] individual and friendly customer service.”
Womanhood was no exception; it too felt the effects of the drive to modernize. This should not be surprising, since women’s rights were being advanced internationally at this time, such as suffrage for the American woman. In China, the first such attempt at reform came in 1898 with institutional support from the emperor and realized to an extent by men and women reformers in Shanghai. The results are impressive: the first Chinese girls’ school, the first women’s association in China, and the first Chinese women’s journal (for more see Qian Nanxiu’s article in Modern China 29, no.4 (October 2003): 399-454).
Do the visual materials of the time reflect these notions of women’s rights? In some ways, yes; in other ways, no. In the 1880s and 1890s, we begin to see the first publicized depictions of Chinese women in the form of photo-lithographed prints. What is meant by “publicized?” Well, the tradition of painting Chinese beauties is a long one in China, as exemplified by a group of album leaf paintings in the exhibition (below right).
Such paintings were traditionally viewed in a private setting, in someone’s studio or home garden. However, as discussed in the exhibition catalogue, a new option became available in Shanghai with the introduction of new printing technologies such as lithography. The same artist who created the private painting (above right), at the same time, painted the following public image of women:
This painting served as the original manuscript from which photo-lithographed prints were made, then bound together into periodical form and sold in local shops for readers to peruse at home or in a park, for example. In these ways, images of Chinese women became public material.
Several aspects of this image satisfied people’s cravings for the “modern.”
- The latest technology was employed to make its prints.
- The formerly exclusive tradition of painting Chinese beauties became more accessible to the larger public.
- Illustrated here is a local hotspot called the Zhang Garden, which the object label identifies as “the most famous of the new public gardens in Shanghai and was considered by contemporaries to be the city’s first modern amusement park [...].”
- The popular European game of billiards was offered in Shanghai.
- Chinese women are presented as having access to this new form of entertainment.
- Chinese women are presented out-and-about in a public space.
The last two aspects concern us here. In the 1880s and 1890s, while the social reformers had their visions of modern Chinese womanhood, entrepreneurs and publishers in Shanghai advertised their own visions: modernity for women meant having greater access to the public domain and being associated with the cult of the new. And what better place to find a modern woman and all things new than in the city of Shanghai! This is how I regard this group of illustrations, as the beginning of a marketing strategy linking the Chinese woman, to Shanghai, to modernity.
That strategy was seen everywhere by the time we encounter Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s, not only within the city limits but in Europe and the States. Hence, a good number of people all over the world are most familiar with commercial images such as this one:
What are we being sold here by presenting a fashionable woman lounging before a skyline of Nanjing Road at night? The object label offers that “it directly links the Chinese … woman with the city and the ideals of modernity.” In other words: Come to Shanghai to find a modern woman! So, what characterizes a “modern” woman?
Viewed as a group, the commercial posters in the exhibition indeed are selling an ideal of the modern woman in Shanghai: she was fashionable in appearance, she was a adept in the home and in social occasions, she projected confidence and composure. None of this should be new to us, however, for these ideals were also advertised in America. As is identified in the gallery’s wall panel, in the 1920s and 1930s, there appeared worldwide a controversial but popular icon known as the “modern girl” icon. The icon appeared in advertising in major metropolises such as Paris, Bombay, and New York. So of course such an icon would also have appeared in Shanghai, because everything that we’ve seen so far has beaten us over the head with this one message: during this time period, the residents of Shanghai saw themselves as no less than active participants in the global phenomenon of modernization.
At this point, the issue of sex is often raised. What about the semi-naked woman in the poster? And what about the courtesans and their bound feet seen earlier? Wasn’t Shanghai called the “Whore of the Orient?” How “modern” could any of this be? These issues will be explored in my next posting. So please come back!
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