Enthusiasts for Chinese postmodernism are nowadays put on the defensive by those who dismiss the issue as a Chinese problematic, or resist postmodernism in general.footnote However, it is often neglected that, at a pedestrian, journalistic level, it has never been too difficult to identify and inventory postmodern(ist) works in arts or theoretical discourse in China today by mechanically using the standards established in Western critical and theoretical discourses. Nor has it been hard to describe radical paradigmatic shifts and profound socio-cultural ruptures in the past two decades, as sweeping changes in post-Mao China are virtually the norm. To avoid the unproductive effort of qualification and justification, I would like to begin by making a simple distinction between ‘postmodernism in China’ and ‘Chinese postmodernism‘. The conceptual separation between the two interrelated and sometimes confused categories may highlight the gap between an international cultural and discursive fashion and the Chinese reality; it can also reveal the theoretical hinge between a nameless reality and the system of naming which connects uneven and often discontinuous historical times and spaces.

By ‘postmodernism in China‘, I mean the global discourse of postmodernism and postmodernity, whose entry into China is via the intellectuals who seek theoretical inspiration from, and discursive synchronization with, the West, and is largely limited to small circles of literary and art criticism. The discourse, in this sense, is a continuation of the modernist trend in the 1980s. Its currency in the 1990s indicates the rapid growth of a consumer-oriented economy and the relentless process of globalization. Its content, however, is strictly foreign and technical, corresponding to the gleaming enclaves of international economic and cultural capital amidst the extremely uneven Chinese reality. Its aesthetic and political excitement comes mainly from its vision—and to an increasingly degree, its daily experience—of China as an integral part of the global market.

Contrary to this clearly defined category, it is ‘Chinese postmodernism’ ‘a far more nebulous yet productive discourse—which is at the centre of this article. ‘Chinese postmodernism’ pertains to the Chinese everyday life as a producer of a culture of the postmodern. However, ‘postmodernism’ as a theoretical discourse, in this context, seems vacuous except as a deliberate signifier—or an ad hoc stand-in—for an unsettled, postponed, living, and reconfigured collective experience of revolution, modernity, statehood, and the masses. To this extent, the ‘post’ in Chinese postmodernism refers not so much to a sense that something is over, but that something is finally ready to begin along with the breaking of all kinds of rigid epistemological paradigms, aesthetic canons, historical periodizations, geographical hierarchies, and institutional reifications. The initial economic success of post-Mao Chinese society, the multicentredness of global capital and production, and the survival of the Chinese socialist state allow ordinary Chinese to feel that one does not have to become a Westerner to enjoy a good life. This, to be sure, has profound implications for a whole range of quotidian, social, cultural, and political choices and aspirations. Like nationalism, postmodernism functions in China today as an empty net of ‘universal high culture’ which often ends up with bountiful catches from beneath the water. Instead of projecting the Chinese reality onto the timeless now, the notion of Chinese postmodernism, through its irreverent nostalgia and its struggle to break free from the high modernism of the New Era (1979–89), is haunting the Chinese consumer masses with the past which has never been put to rest. Moreover, Chinese postmodernism reveals the conditions of possibility for a lifeworld which has so far escaped analytical description. As the cultural form of the new market and of the consumer masses nurtured by the state, Chinese postmodernism becomes not only an important component of the mainstream ideology of Chinese society in the 1990s, but also a utopian space for reconfigurations of social and class relations, for the imagination of community, nation, and democracy.

One is tempted to admit that, in the Chinese context, it is sometimes more interesting to study the resistance to and dismissal of postmodernism than to catalogue its aesthetic achievements; that the more productive discussions of the formal innovations of Chinese postmodernism will sooner or later end up in the realm of the political. For those who oppose even the appearance of the term postmodernism in China, Chinese postmodernism, by borrowing or (re)producing those—Western-originated—simulacra, threatens to obscure the urgent Chinese social, economic, and political imperatives grouped under the label of modernity. Based on their respective notions of the modern, opponents of postmodernism go on to press often contradictory charges, accusing Chinese postmodernism of being subversive (undermining the value system of the socialist state), complacent (legitimizing the state by affirming and celebrating the commercialized everyday culture under the former’s ideological control), too Westernized (whoring after the academic fashions of the Western theory), too Chinese (harbouring haughty nativism and nationalism), too leftist (criticizing capitalism and undermining the universal truth of modernity), too rightist (celebrating desire and commodities), and so forth. The strong, often bitter objections to the idea of Chinese postmodernism must be considered a constitutive part of it as a discourse, for its ideological-political contestedness provides a clue as to its place in history.

To give the issue of Chinese postmodernism any historical and theoretical sense, one has to start with the widely held view—or rather, conviction—that, in China at least, the modern is far from over, or, as some still sincerely believe, has not yet begun. To those who entertain the idea of Chinese postmodernism and its complex, far-reaching implications, a meaningful notion of Chinese postmodernism must be in-itself and for-itself a historical reckoning with Chinese modernity as an explicitly unfinished project, whose legitimacy, validity, and universal claims have already, for better or worse, come under fire. The perception, experience, and anxiety that modernity as an organizing principle, as an all-encompassing, meaning-bestowing vision, is losing its grip on Chinese daily life lies at the heart of the Chinese discourse of postmodernism.