The Provocative Art of Modern Sketch, the Magazine That Captured the Cultural Explosion of 1930s Shanghai

“With its news­pa­pers in every lan­guage and scores of radio sta­tions, Shang­hai was a media city before its time, cel­e­brat­ed as the Paris of the Ori­ent and ‘the wickedest city in the world.’ ” So British writer J.G. Bal­lard remem­bers the Chi­nese metrop­o­lis in which he grew up in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy Mir­a­cles of Life. “Shang­hai struck me as a mag­i­cal place, a self-gen­er­at­ing fan­ta­sy that left my own lit­tle mind far behind.” Born in 1930, Bal­lard caught Shang­hai at a par­tic­u­lar­ly stim­u­lat­ing time: “Devel­oped on the basis of ‘unequal treaties’ suc­ces­sive­ly insti­tut­ed after the First Opi­um War in 1842,” writes MIT’s John A. Crespi, Chi­nese port cities like Shang­hai “expe­ri­enced a wel­ter of tech­no­log­i­cal and demo­graph­ic changes,” includ­ing auto­mo­biles, sky­scrap­ers, rolled cig­a­rettes, movie the­aters cof­fee­hous­es, and much else besides.

Such heady days also gave rise to media that reflect­ed and cri­tiqued them, and 1930s Shang­hai pro­duced no more com­pelling an exam­ple of such a pub­li­ca­tion than Mod­ern Sketch (时代漫画, Shídài Màn­huà).

Among its points of inter­est, writes Crespi, “one can point to Mod­ern Sketch’s longevi­ty, the qual­i­ty of its print­ing, the remark­able eclec­ti­cism of its con­tent, and its inclu­sion of work by young artists who went on to become lead­ers in China’s 20th-cen­tu­ry cul­tur­al estab­lish­ment. But from today’s per­spec­tive, most intrigu­ing is the sheer imag­is­tic force with which this mag­a­zine cap­tures the crises and con­tra­dic­tions that have defined China’s 20th cen­tu­ry as a quin­tes­sen­tial­ly mod­ern era.”

Pub­lished month­ly from Jan­u­ary 1934 through June 1937, the mag­a­zine first appeared on news­stands just over two decades after the col­lapse of China’s dynas­tic sys­tem.  The mod­ern­iza­tion-mind­ed May Fourth Move­ment, nation­al­ist North­ern Expe­di­tion, and purge of com­mu­nists by “Gen­er­alis­si­mo” Chi­ang Kai-shek were even more recent mem­o­ries.

But the rel­a­tive sta­bil­i­ty of the “Nan­jing Decade” had begun in 1927, and its zeit­geist turned out to be rich soil for a wild cul­tur­al flow­er­ing in Chi­na’s coastal cities, none wilder than in Shang­hai. To the read­ing pub­lic of this time Mod­ern Sketch offered treat­ments of mate­r­i­al like “eroti­cized women, for­eign aggres­sion — par­tic­u­lar­ly the rise of fas­cism in Europe and mil­i­ta­rized Japan — domes­tic pol­i­tics and exploita­tion, and moder­ni­ty-at-large,” writes Crespi.

The mag­a­zine’s atti­tude “could be inci­sive, bit­ter, shock­ing, and cyn­i­cal. At the very same time it could be ele­gant, sala­cious, and pre­pos­ter­ous. Its mes­sages might be as sim­ple as child’s play, or cryp­ti­cal­ly encod­ed for cul­tur­al sophis­ti­cates.”

Some­times it did­n’t encode its mes­sages cryp­ti­cal­ly enough: as a result of one unflat­ter­ing depic­tion of Xu Shiy­ing, Chi­na’s ambas­sador to Japan, the author­i­ties sus­pend­ed pub­li­ca­tion and detained edi­tor Lu Shaofei. Not that Lu did­n’t know what he was get­ting into with Mod­ern Sketch: “On all sides a tense era sur­rounds us,” he wrote in the mag­a­zine’s inau­gur­al issue. “As it is for the indi­vid­ual, so it is for our coun­try and the world.”

As for an answer to the ques­tion of whether the strange and tense but enor­mous­ly fruit­ful cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal moment in which Lu and his col­lab­o­ra­tors found them­selves wold last, “the more one fails to find it, the more that desire grows. Our stance, our sin­gle respon­si­bil­i­ty, then, is to strive!”

You can read more about what project entailed, and see in greater detail its tex­tu­al and visu­al results, in Crespi’s his­to­ry of this mag­a­zine that strove to cap­ture the every­day real­i­ty of life on dis­play in 1930s Shang­hai — “though I some­times won­der,” Bal­lard writes, “if every­day real­i­ty was the one ele­ment miss­ing from the city.”

via 50 Watts

Relat­ed con­tent:

China’s New Lumi­nous White Library: A Strik­ing Visu­al Intro­duc­tion

Vin­tage 1930s Japan­ese Posters Artis­ti­cal­ly Mar­ket the Won­ders of Trav­el

A Curat­ed Col­lec­tion of Vin­tage Japan­ese Mag­a­zine Cov­ers (1913–46)

Exten­sive Archive of Avant-Garde & Mod­ernist Mag­a­zines (1890–1939) Now Avail­able Online

Free Chi­nese Lessons

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.