Gong, Haomin. Uneven Modernity: Literature, Film, and Intellectual Discourse in Postsocialist China. Honolulu: U of Hawai’i P, 2012. 192 pp.
Gong’s Uneven Modernity is an interesting work on the contemporary culture of China. With economic inequality seen as a structural determinant of life in contemporary China, this book is concerned with “how cultural productions are modeled by and respond to this unevenness” (4). In particular, Gong proposes that the investigation into the literary and cinematic practices in post-socialist China’s uneven condition should be undertaken from a dialectic perspective: “on one hand, the uneven social, economic, and cultural developments in contemporary China generate intellectual and existential problems for writers and directors; on the other hand, they also offer essential opportunities for their cultural interventions” (1). The dialectical relationship between culture and inequality is explored through a reading of four archives of literature and film: Yu Qiuyu Phenomenon, Chi Li’s neorealist novels, Feng Xiaogang’s commercial films and Wang Xiaoshuai’s arts films. What needs to be added is that unevenness, as Gong defines it, refers not just to circumstances within China, but also to the uneven condition between China and the West. As a result of examining this global state of unevenness, Gong’s text offers a broad perspective on matters that extend beyond China’s borders.
The book is divided into five chapters. The first chapter builds the critical framework of uneven modernity that serves as the theoretical foundation of the whole investigation. Gong justifies his use of the paradigm of unevenness by arguing that inequality is an omnipresent and fundamental characteristic of life in contemporary China due to the uneven developmentalism that has been fashioned within the country since the end of the 1970s. Unevenness in China is also registered as part of the uneven development that occurs at a global level. Thus, unevenness offers an effective structural perspective from which it is possible to investigate cultural production in China's postsocialist period. The author makes it clear that this uneven modernity functions dialectically: while it is one of the main sources of vitality and dynamism of China’s development, it simultaneously produces all the social problems associated with inequality.
The following chapters consist of four case studies that together “show how different aspects of dialectics of unevenness are unfolded, mediated, and reflected in different contexts and in different fashions” (9). The first two cases address the literature while the other two focus on cinema. Chapter Two addresses highbrow literature through a study of Yu Qiuyu Phenomenon, focusing on a cultural scholar cum writer whose prose on traditional culture gained remarkable popularity in the 1990s. Here, Gong looks at how Yu successfully negotiates his way in uneven condition where culture is under assault from an overwhelming process of commercialization. Gong argues that Yu’s popularity can be attributed to many intertwining factors: the historical and cultural rupture in the early 1990s; Yu’s careful self-positioning as a midway point between authorities and dissidents in a new post-socialist condition; Yu’s exposure to and involvement in public media; and Yu’s construction of cultural prose into a genre which offers a kind of “ethno-authenticity” that resonates with strong cultural nationalism. Chapter Three discusses a rise of neorealism through the popular fiction of Chi Li, a Wuhan-based writer. Chi Li’s writing in neorealist style especially foregrounds petty urbanities and mundanity in Wuhan and defies all grand causes and discourses. Gong argues that this neorealism should be understood as a product of the ideological reconsolidation in postsocialist China and a timely strategy for survival in the market economy. Thus, it is reflective of the uneven condition in the postsocialist China.
The other two case studies focus on cinematic practices. Chapter Four investigates the relationship between commercial filmmaking and unevenness by examining the work of the most commercially successful director in China today, Feng Xiaogang. Gong primarily concentrates on the internal problems of Feng’s films: their representation of social space, focus on common people’s everyday lives, and Feng’s humor, which is the most powerful weapon of his cultural intervention. Through this analysis, Gong argues that Feng’s films strategically embed a director’s cultural intervention into a commercial form in the uneven condition of contemporary China. Chapter Five moves on to the art films of Wang Xiaoshuai, a representative of the Sixth Generation of Chinese directors. Through a reading of Wang’s films in the context of international geopolitics, Gong puts more emphasis on effects of uneven conditions between China and the West on Chinese art film productions. He points out two characteristics of Wang’s films that are not often studied by critics: sentimentalism and a claim to universal values. Gong argues that in the context of Western interventions in China, the universal claim in Wang’s films should be understood as a counterforce to the political interpretation of the films, while the sentimentality of Wang’s films should be read as a marketing strategy.
In general, Uneven Modernity is a valuable enrichment of the study of contemporary Chinese culture and society. The critical paradigm of uneven modernity offers a refreshing perspective, which is seemingly broad enough to take into account the various social and cultural forces that shape contemporary cultural productions in modern China. The notion of uneven modernity enables a broad contextual analysis to complement a textual analysis, permitting a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of Chinese culture. However, at times the efficacy of this critical paradigm seems questionable. Insofar as it treats literature and film as the products of political and economical power, Uneven Modernity often overlooks writers’ and artists’ agency. In addition, an important factor that plays an important role in Chinese cultural productions—censorship—is not discussed to a reasonable extent in the book. Actually, this issue is only briefly addressed in the study of Feng Xiaogang's films, by mentioning that film companies need to carefully balance between commercial profit making and cooperation with ideological authorities. With respect to the case studies, the rationale for the author’s choices of archives can be seen: they cover the major cultural genres - the highbrow literature, popular fiction, commercial films, and art films. Yet, it would be better if more genres like poetry or media discourse were included in the investigation.
Guangfeng Chen is currently a PhD candidate in French applied linguistics in the department of Modern Languages & Cultural studies at University of Alberta, Canada. Her research is dedicated to Critical Discourse Analysis, Media studies, and Intercultural Communication. She is currently working on her thesis, which is concerned with Media's representation of China in France.