Cities Surround the Countryside: Urban Aesthetics in Postsocialist China

Robin Visser,
Cities Surround the Countryside: Urban Aesthetics in Postsocialist China.
Durham: Duke University Press, 2010
ISBN: 978 0 8223 4728 6
(Review copy supplied by Duke University Press)

An unpronounced keyword in Robin Visser’s Cities Surround the Countryside is “intersubjectivity,” not so much as in how human beings interact and interfere with each other, but how space, place, and humans of contesting social positions all exercise their agencies in the making of each other. In the book, Visser invites us to think in Peter Taylor’s term “place-space tension” between the “producers … and the makers of place” (pp. 20, 28).[1] With the post-Mao economic boom, the local governments of Beijing and Shanghai have been actively destroying historical sites and landscapes, and replacing them with buildings and public landmarks designed with little concern with the daily lives, social practices, and historical sensibilities of the inhabitants (long-term or migrant) who make and sustain these places (pp. 27-84; 287-294). Visser therefore examines this tension by reading the postsocialist cities in production on the one hand, and art, cinema, and fiction in making on the other.

With this in mind, Visser unfolds this tension in three steps, from a reading and critique of the city’s surface as a text (Part One: Conceiving the Postsocialist City), to an allegorical reading of individual subjects as embodiments of the city in art, film, and literature (Part Two: The City as Subject), and finally, to a post-traumatic study of the melancholic subject who fails to make, and thus makes through such failure, the city in which she/he dwells (Part Three: The Subject in the City).

In Cities, Visser is interested in individual films as active performances that contribute to the process of city-making. For example, in the third chapter, “Performing the Postsocialist City: Beijing Identity in Art, Film, and Fiction,” Visser discusses Wang Xiaoshuai’s Jidu hanleng (Frozen, 1997), a self-reflexive film about a performance artist Qi Lei (Jia Hongsheng), who stages a suicide at each of the four seasonal events, and eventually feigns death after the final staged suicide. It turns out that these staged suicides are masterminded by Lao Lin, who wishes to observe the effects of Qi Lei’s death on his friends/spectators. In the end, a voiceover announces that Qi Lei is found dead in the country with a slit wrist, thus leaving us wonder whether this is part of the performance, or if the “real” Qi Lei has committed suicide under the surveillance of Lao Lin.

Visser posits this film within the context of a “Beijing” that has gradually disappeared (Ackbar Abbas), through State-supervised city destruction and reconstruction, as a global sign image.[2] In this sense, the city’s use value and exchange value are both dependent upon its sign value in the global market, and is only available, like a painting, as a commodity that is framed and beheld from the outside, thus alienating the very inhabitants who try to regenerate the city from within. In this light, the film opens and ends with a long shot of Beijing seen from the country, and Qi Lei’s “real” death eventually takes place in the countryside. Meanwhile, the film consciously blurs the boundaries between performances and “lives”, the observers and the observed, the force of surveillance and the force of resistance (pp. 154-158). In the following chapter on Shanghai, Visser uses a similar strategy to interpret the images and narrative structure of Lou Ye’s Suzhou he (Suzhou River, 2000; pp. 192-205), a film about a man who insistently looks for the “real” love of his life, a woman who is constantly fragmented into multiple characters and images.

In her discussion, Visser misses the opportunity to point out that both of these films were made with distribution packages in Europe and Hong Kong signed prior to, or during, production. Hence, they respond not only to the Beijing and Shanghai local sensibilities and struggles that Visser discusses, but also to the global stylistic and market expectations on how young “Chinese” filmmakers perceive their own local or regional questions. In addition, by putting her discussion on these film texts in the allegorical section of the book, Visser limits her analysis on the image and textual surfaces, corroborated by Baudrillard’s notion of the surface.[3] In comparison, in her final section on individual subjectivity, Visser turns solely to literary texts. The structure of the book therefore implicitly discredits the potential of cinema and visual arts at large to open up the mise-en-abîme of her question at hand.

As Visser points out in the conclusion, the book is an act of introspection and retrospection. In this light, we may ask a question for the future: Is Visser’s model of the inside-outside divide between the city and the country, so intricately linked to both the historical and economic conditions of China, i.e. in the past and in the present, still an effective model to rethink Chinese urban living, and the cinema and media that are actively in the process of both producing and making our intra-regional consciousness?

Victor Fan,
Yale University, USA.


[1] Peter J. Taylor, “Havens and Cages: Reinventing States and Households in the Modern World-System,” in World-Systems Research 6.2 (Summer-Fall 2000), 548.
[2] Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
[3] Jean Baudrillard, The Evil Demon of Images (Sydney: Power Institute of Fine Arts, 1987), 29.

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Created on: Thursday, 4 November 2010

About the Author

Victor Fan

About the Author

Victor Fan

Victor Fan is a PhD candidate at Yale University, Film Studies and Comparative Literature, specialising in Chinese and British Cinemas, Contemporary Hollywood, New Media, and Film Theory. He is also a working filmmaker (with an MFA at USC) and composer (with a BM at Eastman). His works were published at Screen and CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, and his dissertation (completed) is titled “Football and Opium: Political Violence and the (Re)-Inventions of Cinema.”View all posts by Victor Fan →