Urban Ethics: Modernity and the Morality of Everyday Life

  • Robin Visser


The moral philosopher Ross Poole introduces his book Morality and Modernity by categorizing the modern dilemma of ethical positioning: “The modern world calls into existence certain conceptions of morality, but also destroys the grounds for taking them seriously.”1 In contemporary China, ethical categories have particular salience, as the post-Mao era has seen China’s strong tradition of literature as moral discourse threatened by a market-driven popular culture often unmindful of moral mission. By exploring intersections of the narrative and the normative in literature, one can interrogate the shifting relations among text, ethics, and everyday life in late twentieth-century China, uncovering correlatives between fiction and the ethical issues that arise in conjunction with modern commercial life.


Amusement Park Modern Chinese Literature Belated Generation Narrative Ethic Thursday Afternoon 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 3.
    See Dai Jinhua, “Invisible writing: the politics of Chinese mass culture in the 1990s”, Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 1:1 (spring 1999), 43–14;Google Scholar
  2. and Luo Gang, “Shei zhi gonggong xing?” (Whose public characteristics?), Shanghai wenxue (Shanghai literature) 5 (1999), 76–78.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    See Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992).Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    The renwen jingshen debates were sparked by responses to a series of roundtable discussions sponsored by the journal Dushu (Reading). The minutes of these discussions are published in Dushu 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 (1993). Follow-up articles are collected in Wang Xiaoming, ed., Renwen jingshen xunsi lu (Thoughts on the Humanist Spirit) (Shanghai: Wenhui chubanshe, 1996). Wen Liping summarizes the discussions in “Guanyu renwen jingshen taolun zongshu” (A summary of the humanist spirit discussions), Wenyi lilun yu piping (Literary theory and criticism), 3 (1995), 119–134; 4 (1995), 123–138.Google Scholar
  5. Ben Xu, in turn, summarizes Wen’s article in “‘From modernity to Chineseness’: the rise of nativist cultural theory in post-1989 China”, positions east asia cultures critique 6:1 (1998), 203–223. See also “The making of the post-Tiananmen intellectual field: a critical overview”, in Whither China? Intellectual Politics in Contemporary China ed. Xudong Zhang (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), pp. 1–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 9.
    Chen Xiaoming, “Jianyao pingjie” (Brief commentary on He Dun’s “Life is not a crime”) in Zhongguo chengshi xiaoshuo jingxuan (Anthology of Chinese Urban Fiction), ed. Chen Xiaoming (Lanzhou: Gansu renmin chubanshe, 1994), p. 304; and “Wanshengdai yu jiushi niandai wenxue liuxiang” (The belated generation and the literary trends in the nineties), preface to He Dun, Shenghuo wuzui (Life is not a Crime) (Beijing: Huayi chubanshe, 1995), p. 6.Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    Some scholars consider the rejection of metaphors of the nation-state, the main literary strategy from the May Fourth period until the 1980s, to be one of the key distinctions of urban fiction of the 1990s. See Zhang Yiwu, “Hou xin shiqi wenxue: Xin de wenhua kongjian” (Post-new era literature: a new cultural space), Wenyi lilun (Literary theory) 1 (1993), 184.Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    Peter Taylor, Modernities: A Geohistorical Interpretation (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), p. 30.Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    Qiu Huadong, Yingyan (My Eyes) (Changchun: Changchun chubanshe, 1998), p. 2. Subsequent page references noted in the text.Google Scholar
  10. 14.
    Georg Simmel, The Philosophy of Money, trans. T. Bottomore and D. Frisby (London: Routledge, 1978), p. 474.Google Scholar
  11. 15.
    Zhang Ailing, “Fengsuo”, Zhang Ailing wenji (Hefei: Anhui wenyi chubanshe, 1992), vol. I, pp. 99–111.Google Scholar
  12. 18.
    Ben Xu, “Contesting memory for intellectual self-positioning: the 1990s new cultural conservatism in China”, Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 11:1 (spring 1999), 159.Google Scholar
  13. 19.
    Meng Fanhua, “Wenhua bengkui shidai de taowang yu guiyi—jiushi niandai wenhua de xinbaoshouzhuyi jingshen” (Escape and support in an age of cultural collapse: the neoconservative spirit of 1990s culture), Zhongguo wenhua (Chinese culture) 4 (1994), 53.Google Scholar
  14. 21.
    Textual references are to Zhu Wen, Shenme shi laji, shenme shi ai (What’s Trash, What’s Love?) (Nanjing: Jiangsu wenyi chubanshe, 1998).Google Scholar
  15. 25.
    Xiaobing Tang, “Decorating culture: notes on interior design, interiority, and interiorization”, Public Culture 10 (1998), 534.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 26.
    Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, trans. Charles Levin (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1981), p. 30, quoted in Xiaobing Tang, “Decorating culture”, p. 535.Google Scholar
  17. 27.
    Dai Jinhua, “Invisible writing: the politics of Chinese mass culture in the 1990s”, Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 11:1 (spring 1999), 44.Google Scholar
  18. 28.
    He Dun, Ximalaya Shan (The Himalayas) (Bianyuan wenzong. Nanjing: Jiangsu wenyi chubanshe, 1998), p. 358. Subsequent page references included in the text.Google Scholar
  19. 33.
    Aristotle, Poetics IX, in Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Charles A. Laughlin 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robin Visser

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations