Advertising and the Shanghai Modern Girl in the 1920s and 1930s

Tani Barlow (University of Washington)

     By the 1920s in Shanghai an urban bourgeois culture had “materialized” around the use of industrial and commercial commodities. The modern girl, an ambiguous yet pervasive figure in contemporary advertising and urban culture, played a role in this event. In the 1920s the educated, Chinese, urban consumer class created a means of self expression I call vernacular sociology. It conveyed their novel experiences of body, mind, emotion, eros, and social life as mediated through new wave culture. The iconic modern girl who appears repeatedly in transnational corporate advertising copy was the “natural woman” vernacular sociologists described in their popular theories, the female of the human species, a product of natural evolution, open to social evolutionary restructuring. This social scientific ideology of “natural womanhood” (and “natural manhood”) pervaded elite social opinion in the interwar years. My paper suggests how vernacular sociology took material shape in Shanghai in the fantastic world of commodity advertising. A powerful overlap among endlessly reproducible visual image, advertising industry techniques, sociological platitude and the biological female star system in cinema, handed modern girls a small power to define social needs. The paper closes with a look at the ambiguous role of nationality in the construction of the modern girl image. If a central political drama for the Chinese new bourgeoisie was nationalism and specifically the question of the commodity’s nationality, and what defined the modern girl was her use of “foreign imports,” it appears that she also stands in an important relation to the problem of desiring commodities. The one you wanted, it turned out, was frequently not the one you were supposed to buy into.