Shidai manhua 時代漫畫 [Modern Sketch] was a Chinese magazine owned by Shanghai publisher Shao Xunmei 邵洵美, published monthly from January 1934 through June 1937. The magazine’s editor, Lu Shaofei鲁少飞,aimed to embrace China’s Republican period (1912-1949)—one marked by social upheavals and tantalizing new modes of consumption—through contributions that provided social and political commentary. Modern Sketchfocused primarily on current events and featured both political cartoons and text. The magazine’s Chinese name translates to ‘era cartoons;’ this focus on Shanghai’s Republican period as an era puts forth the notion that, to its publishers, Shanghai’s dizzying new vernacular spheres marked a distinct point in the city’s history, indeed a new era that was being embraced by the Shanghai urbanite.
Consider Chen Juanyin’s image, produced for the publication’s July 1934 issue. The image centers on a nude female subject, seemingly under the gaze of x-ray technologies. This technology scrutinizes the woman’s body, and literally frames her four states of undress—in a dress, in her underwear, naked, and skeletal—within a role of film. In one sense this image calls to mind “Blackout in Hollywood’s” use of the time lapse. In both, the eye advances in time by reading the images as a linear narrative. Chen’s image also embodies the technological scrutiny of the x-ray, which was a relatively new technology at the time that was looked to in the pages of Modern Sketch.
The image does not simply engage with new technologies, but points to the emerging practices of vernacular sociology and their influences on images of the female body. As Shanghai publications engaged with new social spheres that contributed to the formation of vernacular sociology in the press, images of the healthy female body were read alongside debates on national health. To conflate the two was to render images of women, such as Chen’s image, socio-political rather than simply pornographic. In this context, idealized images of female bodies became jianmei 健美 bodies—a hybrid term composed of jiankang 健康[ healthy] and meili 美丽[beauty] (Lei, 125-126). This healthy and beautiful body transcended its physical presence in Shanghai’s print media, becoming increasingly related to the health of the nation-state.
Chen’s image thus utilizes the x-ray to dissect the female body alongside its associations with medical health and beauty. The x-ray’s vision pierces not only through the woman’s clothing to reveal her naked body, but goes further to expose her skeletal system. The skeleton’s presence on the page medicalizes the image and asks us to consider the woman’s health as it is also aligned with her femininity. The jianmeibody thus emerges as a manifestation of vernacular sociology’s attempts at re-mapping the female subject and is a distinct site in which beauty, health, and national efforts meet in image form.
Lei, Jun. “Producing Norms, Defining Beauty: The Role of Science in the Regulation of the Female Body and Sexuality in Liangyou and Furen Huabao." In Liangyou: Kaleidoscopic Modernity and the Shanghai Global Metropolis, 1926-1945. Eds. Paul G. Pickowicz et al. Leiden: Brill, 2013.