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.

It is important to note that, in China today, various artistic, literary, and theoretical styles under the rubric of postmodernism often emerged specifically in reaction against the cultural-intellectual mainstream of the 1980s, the so-called modernist-humanist paradigm of the New Era. While high modernism had become an intellectual and formal institution in the Chinese metropolis before the Tiananmen affair, it has been thoroughly dismantled in the 1990s by the conjoint forces of the market and the ideological apparatus of the state, as well as by a rising populism and nationalism, and, above all, by the thoroughgoing commodification of culture. The emblem of post-Mao Chinese intellectual discourse, namely its jargon à la Heidegger or Walter Benjamin, and its metaphysical vision, is now replaced either by a journalistic genre designed for quick media exposure and consumer gratification, or by a professionalist turn to the normality and standardization of academic production and promotion. Even those who carry on their uncompromisingly modernist or avant-garde style unabated—writers such as Ge Fei come readily in mind—are bound to be read in a different light, that is, in the context of the cultural market, in terms of a particular flavour or brand, of a uniquely marketable quality. This is not to say, however, that the brief moment of Chinese high modernism as a whole has already been subjected to academic canonization and has entirely lost its shock value and quality of subversiveness vis-à-vis the dominant taste and ideology of the reading public and officialdom.footnote1

If we focus on the deconstruction of the moral, philosophical, and political systems of the Enlightenment and modernity, long seen as the core values and secret weapons of the modern imperial and colonial powers, and contemplate its effect on areas that are on the margins of an unevenly developed world system, then the modernism-postmodernism turn in China offers the possibility for a new discursive and ideological framework through which to continue the search for an alternative to the classical blue-print of modernity, namely, the free market and liberal democracy. To this extent, postmodernism, in the event, may carry a revolutionary message. Thus, the intellectual decolonization process of liberating oneself from the ideology of modernization contains an inherent choice: given the Chinese experience of socialist modernity, the ‘postmodern’ inevitably points to a horizon beyond socialism as we know it. In the meantime, however, the obsessive reunion between pre-revolutionary China—or the so-called ‘repressed modernity’ of the 1930s and earlier—and the post-communist world order has become the norm of the history which the ‘postmodern’ seeks to transcend, often by reviving the socialist alternative in the new configuration of traditions, memories, social values and infrastructures which are at variance with capitalism. To this extent, there is an elective affinity, under Chinese circumstances, between (post)socialism and postmodernism, to which we will turn later.