Blush from Novella to Film: The Possibility of
Critical Art in Commodity Culture

By Jian Xu

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 12, no. 1, pp.115-163

This article explores the situation of critical art in a time of cultural marketization in the early 1990s in China. It is a study of how some of China’s celebrated avant-garde writers and Fifth Generation filmmakers “recycle” the mechanisms of popular culture in terms of narrative closure and visual pleasure as a strategy of staking a claim in the marketplace. The central question the article tries to answer is this: how these writers and filmmakers negotiate their survival in between aesthetic form or stylistic innovation, on the one hand, and the marketization of culture, on the other; or put in a more specific way, how they meet the challenge their strategy of “recycling” incurs in the politics and problematics of gender representation in literature and film. The texts being analyzed are Su Tong’s “Blush” and Li Shaohong’s film Blush. Through a study of the “postrevolutionary” representation of the suffering bodies of the prostitutes under the Communist reform program instituted in the 1950s, the article highlights the fusion of a high modernist sense of form and the traditional forms of narrative in the representational practices of the 1990s. This fusion signals a profound paradigmatic intellectual and ideological shift in response to the global commodification of culture. The article also examines the ideological content of the “hybrid” form from the perspectives of reading and viewing, which shows again that the cultural production of meaning results from a negotiated process of reception rather than from being fixed by the form. The article thus problematizes the rigid opposition between “high” culture and “low” culture and attempts a re-evaluation of the possibility of critical art in contemporary China.