The Modern Girl and the Modern Man of Shanghai, 1920s-30s

Madeleine Dong ( University of Washington )

    The figure of the Chinese modern girl presented a challenging new feminine image that was seen, variably, as sexual attraction, a threat to familial and social order, a symbol of modern, cosmopolitan urban life, or a figure that destabilizes the formation of Chinese national identity. This paper examines different attitudes toward the modern girl from three groups of artists and intellectuals whose work contributed significantly to the construction and interpretation of her image during the early twentieth century. A group of Shanghai-based cartoonists showed ambivalence toward the modern girl. In their work, the modern girl strongly attracts the urban men and stirs up their desires on the one hand, but leaves the feeling inadequate and threatened on the other. Most of these artists held a double role: they participated in the production of the modern girl's fetishized images in cigarettes and cosmetics advertisements and fashion drawings, but at the same time adopted a critical view of her in their caricatures. Different from the cartoonist, a number of modernist writers and artists, such as Guo Jianying and Liu Na'ou, adopted an accommodating attitude and even developed a symbiotic relationship with the figure of the modern girl. The modern girl became a central figure and inspiration for their artistic creation. The leftist intellectuals, in contrast, were highly critical of both the modern girl and the above mentioned two groups of men. Instead of viewing the modern girl's consumption of Western commodities and culture as a quality of being modern, the leftist intellectuals, such as Lu Xun, criticized consumerism and colonial cultural formation through the image of the modern girl and the modern boy. To them, the key problem with these men and women is the ambivalence in their national identity. The clashes among these three attitudes demonstrate that the Chinese modern girl played a central role in the construction of modern forms of femininity and masculinity, and that the configuration and interpretation of her image was a major site where colonial and national forces engaged one another.