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The Distorting Mirror: Visual Modernity in China
296pp. October 2007
The Distorting Mirror: Visual Modernity in China
Author: Pang, Laikwan;
"This book presents a careful historicization of the ‘visual.’ Rather than take the act of seeing as natural, Pang brilliantly argues that the visual is a modern phenomenon, linked to but extending and transforming indigenous cultural forms of seeing and looking. Equally meticulous in its theoretical and empirical coordinates, this book is eminently readable and consistently insightful. A wonderful look at how modern Chinese came to see." —Rebecca E. Karl, New York University

"Professor Pang has tackled one of the most exciting areas in modern Chinese studies, the dynamics of visuality. Through the kaleidoscopic prism of the Chinese encounter with modern visual apparatuses, she covers a wide range of issues, from the discourse of novelty to the technology of media and reproduction and beyond, in the politics of spectacle. The Distorting Mirror is a fascinating study of how Chinese were watching and being watched, at a crucial moment in modern history." —David Der-wei Wang, Harvard University

The Distorting Mirror analyzes the multiple and complex ways in which urban Chinese subjects saw themselves interacting with the new visual culture that emerged during the turbulent period between the 1880s and the 1930s. The media and visual forms examined include lithography, photography, advertising, film, and theatrical performances. Urbanites actively engaged with and enjoyed this visual culture, which was largely driven by the subjective desire for the empty promises of modernity—promises comprised of such abstract and fleeting concepts as new, exciting, and fashionable.

Detailing and analyzing the trajectories of development of various visual representations, Laikwan Pang emphasizes their interactions. In doing so, she demonstrates that visual modernity was not only a combination of independent cultural phenomena, but also a partially coherent sociocultural discourse whose influences were seen in different and collective parts of the culture. The work begins with an overall historical account and theorization of a new lithographic pictorial culture developing at the end of the nineteenth century and an examination of modernity’s obsession with the investigation of the real. Subsequent chapters treat the fascination with the image of the female body in the new visual culture; entertainment venues in which this culture unfolded and was performed; how urbanites came to terms with and interacted with the new reality; and the production and reception of images, the dynamics between these two being a theme explored throughout the book.

Modernity, as the author shows, can be seen as spectacle. At the same time, she demonstrates that, although the excessiveness of this spectacle captivated the modern subject, it did not completely overwhelm or immobilize those who engaged with it. After all, she argues, they participated in and performed with this ephemeral visual culture in an attempt to come to terms with their own new, modern self.

60 illus.

“[Pang’s] careful attention to what pictures and sites of spectacle asked of their beholders and how they mattered to modern China is invaluable in coming to terms with the confusion surrounding contemporary Chinese urbanites.” —China Review International (16:3, 2009)
Author: Pang, Laikwan;
Laikwan Pang is associate professor in the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Read the introduction (PDF).

Part 1: The Pictorial

1. The Pictorial Turn and the Realist Desire

2. Photography, Performance, and the Making of Female Images

3. Advertising and the Visual Display of Women

Part 2: The Theatrical

4. Peking Opera, from Listening to Watching

5. Walking into and out of China’s Early Film Scene

6. Magic and Modernity