How Shanghai Became a City of Literary Experimentation
Dr. Jin Li on the Effects of Social and Economic Upheaval
Shanghai was opened to the world as a commercial port after the end of the First Opium War in 1843. As a result of the war, British, American and French “concessions” (or enclaves) were set up successively in 1845-46. Despite the shadow cast by the humiliating surrender of China’s sovereignty over these districts, the colonists residing in them introduced many opportunities for the rest of the city, opportunities that saw Shanghai grow from a small town at the mouth of the Yangtze River to the largest metropolis in the so-called “Far East.” The influences of a recently industrialised West mingled, interacted and cross-pollinated with the traditions of a culture that had developed over many centuries. As a contact point between East and West, with its unique location, Shanghai paved the way, acting as a testing site where various ideological and cultural ideas were welcomed, accommodated and re-imagined. Among these ingredients was a complex and diverse literary tradition that established Shanghai as, arguably, the literary capital of China.
Shi Zhecun, a short story writer, editor, and key figure in Shanghai’s literary scene in the 1930s, once wrote:
This so-called modern life comes with a variety of unique features: harbours heaving with enormous ships bustling to and fro, factories reverberating with cacophonous sounds, mines burrowing deep underground, ballrooms bouncing to the sounds of jazz, department stores climbing up and up into skyscrapers, wars fought in the air by planes, racetracks taking up acres of space… Even the countryside is different now to what previous generations must have enjoyed. Can the emotions stimulated by this life in the hearts of our poets be the same as those stirred by the lives of their predecessors? (Shi Zhecun: ‘More on the Poems in this Magazine,’ Modern Times, vol. 4, no. 1, 1933.)
This passage captures the rupture writers felt had taken place between the pre-industrial, pre-Westernized past, and the present. The modern, urban landscape brought about by economic and social upheaval and a lifestyle dictated by capitalism was well and truly here to stay. This shift towards materialism triggered new changes in the city’s literature. Modern literature broke with its past in all aspects: in language, turning away from the use of classical Chinese towards vernacular Chinese; in content, turning its back on Confucianism towards the more pragmatic concerns of everyday life; and in structure, moving away from episodic epics and towards more topic-centered narratives.
Whatever we think of the profligacy and materialism of this period, it’s important to remember these changes were accompanied by breathtaking economic growth. This simultaneous coexistence of prosperity and decadence—which can be tentatively called the “modern tradition”—can first be seen in the late 19th century with works like Han Bangqing’s novel The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai. It was to become perhaps the defining feature of the avant-garde Haipai, or “Shanghai school,” during what is now regarded as the city’s “golden age” (the late 20s and 30s). This coexistence of contrasts is captured most succinctly in the opening and closing lines of Mu Shiying’s short story, “Shanghai Foxtrot”: “Shanghai. A heaven built upon a hell.” Along with other writers of this era, like Liu Na’ou, Mu Shiying was seen as belonging to a subset of the Shanghai scene called the ‘The New Sensation school’, a group of left-wing writers frequently offering bleak, present-day dystopias of sin, corruption and debauchery.
However, the works of many modernist short story writers of this era, from Yu Dafu to Ding Ling, Jiang Guangci to Ba Jin, were in a slightly different vein. For example, the protagonists in their stories are not only beneficiaries and consumers of this new materialism, but also open critics of modernity generally, striving to offset or eradicate corruption and wrong-doing in Shanghai life wherever possible. This brings us perhaps to the second tradition in Shanghai school, which could be tentatively called the “critical tradition,” famous for its left-wing cultural standpoint and humanitarianism (see Sihe Chen, Two traditions of Shanghai School of Literature).
Political events in the mid-1920s, which saw Nationalist, Communist, and warlord forces clashing frequently, initiated a shift to the left in Chinese writing, culminating in 1930 with the founding of the Zuoyi Zuojia Lianmeng (“League of Left-Wing Writers”) led by Lu Xun, who had moved from Beijing to Shanghai in 1927, famous for satirical essays (or zawen). Another typical example of this school of writers was the realist Mao Dun, whose best-known work, Ziye (Midnight, 1933) depicts the metropolitan milieu of Shanghai in all the financial and social chaos of the post-Depression era.
The thirties were the best of times and the worst of times for the city; much of the city’s growth (becoming the world’s 5th largest city by 1932) was due to the arrival of 70,000 foreigners (including 20,000 White Russians, and 30,000 European Jews); but in January 1932, Japanese forces invaded the city, occupying all quarters except the International Settlement (American and British concessions now combined) and the French concession, and making the lives of ordinary Chinese citizens miserable. Come December 1941, these foreign concessions also fell to Japanese rule and remained occupied until Japan’s surrender in 1945.Shanghai’s openness as a city has also mirrored its position as a fountainhead of formal experimentation.
The final liberation of Shanghai didn’t come until 1949, following the People’s Liberation Army’s victory in the Shanghai Campaign—one of the final stages of the Civil War between the US-backed Nationalists, or “Kuomintang,” and the communists. This liberation opened a new chapter in Chinese history, which saw literature develop in an altogether new direction, following Chairman Mao Zedong’s call for a truly proletarian literature—written by and for workers, peasants, and soldiers—and the arrival of Socialist Realism, a method of composition borrowed from the Soviet Union, according to which society is described as it should be, not necessarily as it is. Important writers from this period include Ru Zhijuan, who resisted the emphasis on grand narratives, and preferred to deal with the more immediate or local concerns, and stories of ordinary people. A typical example of Ru Zhijuan’s work is ‘Lilies’, the story of a newly-married wife living in the countryside, who refuses to lend her new quilt to a shy Liberation Army soldier but, by the end of the story, is placing it over the same soldier’s dead body in honour of his devotion to others.
In 1978, the Chinese government announced new reforms, including the Open Door Policy, allowing foreign businesses to set up in China, and marking a complete break from the ideology of Culture Revolution. At this point, Shanghai entered a new period of “opening up” to the outside world, reforming its economy almost beyond recognition. Shanghai became the largest economic centre in China, as well as a major financial and trading hub, which currently boasts the title of busiest port in the world. Its literature has mirrored and matched these changes. Following the Cultural Revolution, a new movement known as “scar literature” emerged, an accusatory form of literary catharsis, followed in turn by a more professional and daring type of writing, as exemplified in the stories and plays of Bai Hua (who spent much of his life in Shanghai), known for their sharp political criticism of the previous 20 years. Writers who had been lost to earlier generations, like the essayist and screenwriter Zhang Ailing (aka Eileen Chang, who left mainland China in the mid-40s), were also rediscovered.
Come the early 1980s, China’s writers were reaching huge audiences, through a wide variety of literary magazines that ran to over a million copies every issue. By the end of the decade the size of these readerships, and thus the influence of literature on society, was beginning to decline. Nonetheless, the overall scale of literary production in China remained formidable.
As this anthology demonstrates, for all its fluctuations, Shanghai writing continues to preserve certain literary traditions in the face of modernity, often with women writers at the forefront. Among these is Wang Anyi, daughter of the aforementioned Ru Zhijuan, who perseveres the critical humanitarianism of the “Shanghai School” in novellas like Lapse in Time, and whose work “does not stint in describing the brutalizing density, the rude jostling, the interminable and often futile waiting in line that accompany life in the big Chinese city” (to quote Jeffery Kinkley). Chen Danyan is known for her romantic depictions of old Shanghai from a modern perspective, often through young, female eyes. A subset of these modern literary concerns is a focus on crises of identity brought about by rapid changes in lifestyle and generational disconnects, a theme which coincidentally also loomed large in The New Sensational School of the 1930s. Contemporary writers such as Xiao Bai and Cai Jun maintain and technologically update many of that School’s concerns.
Shanghai is a typical immigrant city. Most of the early, domestic immigrants arrived from Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces. But its allure to international migrants is still one linked to its glamorous-decadent past; an allure summed up by the title of a popular travel book published in 1937 (and still in print in Chinese): Shanghai: The Paradise for Adventurers. According to the census in 2018, there are 24.18 million permanent residents in Shanghai, of which 40% are immigrants. Gu Lingzhou, the protagonist in Fu Yuehui’s story “The Lost,” is a typical young “Shanghai rover” (an immigrant from the provinces, struggling to make it in Shanghai). Generally speaking, identity depends on a continuity of human experience. It doesn’t stand up well to violent and repeated severances or restarts. However, in the context of China’s vast and on-going urbanization, the nature of identity learns to evolve from something substantial and stable to a more selective and mobile condition. Fu Yuehui explores this condition through the metaphor of losing a vital piece of modern technology, the mobile phone.
Shanghai’s openness as a city has also mirrored its position as a fountainhead of formal experimentation. From the modernism of novelists like Shi Zhecun or poets like Dai Wangshu in the 1930s, to the new avant-garde of 80s writers like novelist Sun Ganlu or critic Wu Liang, the city’s writers have always devoted themselves to the innovation of form. Literary experimentation, of course, goes hand-in-hand with groundbreaking subject matter, and the exploration of new and different possibilities for human existence. Chen Qiufan (“State of Trance”) and Shen Dacheng (“The Novelist in the Attic”) continue this literary tradition respectively, one in science fiction, the other in thriller writing.A literary map must reveal the joys and sorrows lurking in every crevice of Shanghai life.
When visiting Shanghai, people often go straight to the International Architecture Exhibition (the Bund), or to view the skyscrapers in the Lujiazui Financial District, along both sides of Huangpu River (this is also the part of the city most often seen in blockbusters films: Skyfall, Mission: Impossible III, Transformers II, etc.). The universal popularity of these sites among tourists reminds us of the homogeneity of globalisation. Airports, luxurious hotels, shopping malls, financial centers—these may be what most metropolises around the world have in common, what we expect to find, what we think we’re coming to look at, but what’s really unique about any destination is the particular outlooks of the citizens living there, the intricate, varied and often hidden historical traditions each one carries with them. Even in the same city, the economic possibilities, lifestyles and living conditions of different groups of residents are multiple, complex and widely disparate.
In the war-torn Shanghai of the 40s, Eileen Chang’s novels brilliantly explored the life of ordinary citizens, rather than the more commercial tendency at the time to focus on Europeanization and the city’s elites. Similarly today, writers like Teng Xiaolan (“Woman Dancing under Stars”), Xia Shang (“Bengal Tiger”) and Wang Zhanhei (“The Story of Ah Ming”) all strive to present close-up studies of the many varied tensions that make up urban life and the individuals navigating them. Despite being the youngest writer here (born in 1991), Wang Zhanhei refuses to take her cues from the latest consumer trends or the lifestyle fads of the city’s ultra-rich xin gui (“new nobles”) in mapping out what Shanghai is. Instead she focuses on retired workers, run-down streets, abandoned buildings, breakfast stalls at the entrance of the alleys waiting to be cleaned up. Her work brings out the inherent vitality and richness of these neglected areas and people.
After all, if we are to offer a literary map of the city, it has to be a comprehensive one. A true map cannot simply mark out the landmarks, and the most popular tourist sites, it must be able to guide readers through the city’s lesser-known corners, its dimly-lit nooks and rarely-frequented crannies. That is to say, a literary map must reveal the joys and sorrows lurking in every crevice of Shanghai life.