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The pictorial turn: realism, modernity and China's print culture in the late nineteenth century

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This paper examines the popularity of lithography in late 19th century China and relates the cultural significance of this new mass medium to the construction of modernity within China's semi-colonial experience. In contrast to woodblock illustrations, which had been widely circulated in China for more than a millennium, lithography fundamentally changed the way images are understood; they now emphasized and visualized change, the novel and the particular. The paper also analyses some pictures selected from the famous lithographic journal Dianshizhai to demonstrate a prominent realist desire. While Chinese readers desired to comprehend the basic forms and patterns of the new world objectively through these pictures, they also subjectively identified with the acts of seeing portrayed in these lithographs, desiring to see and be seen. I argue that while the oscillation between the desire for objective details and subjective identification gives lithography an extremely rich hermeneutic space, this new form of visual representation also helped stabilize the uncertainty and threat of modernity.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: April 1, 2005

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