Shanghai Literary Imaginings:
A City in Transformation

By Lena Scheen

Reviewed by Andrew David Field
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright November, 2018)

Lena Scheen, Shanghai Literary Imaginings: A City in Transformation Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, Asian Cities Series, 2015. 284 pp. ISBN: 9789089645876 (Hardcover), E-ISBN: 978904852223 1 (PDF).

There are innumerable Shanghais, an infinity of them perhaps, as Lena Scheen ponders at the end of her interdisciplinary book Shanghai Literary Imaginings: A City in Transformation, which probes the city’s transformation in the era of postsocialism and marketization through an original and insightful juxtaposition of literary texts, maps, and observations. And yet, what defines Shanghai as a city? We can ask historians this question and get many different answers: Shanghai is a city of sojourners; a hotbed of criminality; a honeycomb of opium dens; a cauldron of revolution; a sad city full of “fallen women.” The list goes on. Of course, these are definitions that fit better with the “old Shanghai” of our collective imagination, which existed or may have existed in the early twentieth century, rather than the realities of the city today.

What happened in between this imagined “golden age” and the present day? Historians have few answers. In fact, very little has been written about the Mao years or even the high reform period of the 1980s-1990s, compared to the voluminous production of historical writing on the Republican Era. There is also the era that came before: the late Qing period, full of courtesan houses and quaint images of Chinese people first learning western ways, preserved in the Dianshizhai Pictorial  (点石斋画报), the foremost illustrated journal of its day. And the Shanghai of the Ming and Qing dynasties prior to the treaty port era? Almost completely forgotten, lost, and neglected by most depictions of the city, and buried in the city’s rapid modernization drive. Other Shanghais emerge—temporal, physical, geographical. In 2006, workers excavating to build a subway line discovered a Ming dynasty coffin with a mummified corpse. Ancient China rears its dragon head in the detritus and refuse that lies under the Whangpoo (Huangpu 黄埔) mud. The city of today, which was built on muddy flats by driving piles of Oregon timber deep into the mud and floating rafts of concrete upon them, supports the edifices of modernity: the elegant, stately hotels, banks, and insurance firms that line the Bund, or the old 1920s French Club magically metamorphosed into the modern Okura Garden Hotel in the city’s new building spree of the 1990s. Meanwhile, in the cabarets and nightclubs of the 1990s and beyond, as Scheen explores through references to authors Wei Hui 卫慧, Mian Mian 棉棉, and James Farrer, foreigners dance and flirt with Chinese in an endless chain of mutual seductions and conquests.

How do we capture the myriad ways, the times, moods, spaces and places that Shanghai has come to represent to people over the past century? This is a question that Scheen must have faced as she assembled the materials for her Masters and later her PhD thesis at Leiden, which became this her first book. In order to tackle this question, she chooses to focus primarily on literary works of the late twentieth century. These works have all been produced by Chinese who either grew up in the city—Shanghairen 上海人in other words—or who have lived there for a long time and have come to identify with the city and its lifeways; they have taken on the task of representing city life with their works. Some have taken on the even more ambitious task of becoming global representatives of the city and its image.

Chief among them is the notorious “bad girl” author Wei Hui, whose book Shanghai Baobei 上海宝贝, or Shanghai Babe, has been translated into multiple languages since it was first published around the year 2000. The rapid transformation of the city in the 1990s from a dreary postsocialist landscape into a glittery international playground provides the backdrop for her novel about a young Chinese woman’s sexual and spiritual awakening. Another contender, though perhaps not as well known, is Mian Mian, Shanghai’s clubbing queen from the same period, whose novel Candy (糖, 2000) is set in the same era and covers much of the same ground including the dive bars and underground dance clubs of the city, though in a somewhat more cynical, jaded, and world-weary way.

Many studies of Shanghai or of contemporary Chinese literature that mention these authors place them in direct comparison, as if the two were speaking to each other through their novels, or at least trying to out-compete each other in the quest for personal, sexual, literary, and spiritual freedom. This was an age when young people were once again rebelling from their parents and other authority figures, not by raiding houses and smashing old things in the name of Chairman Mao, but by consuming exotic liquor and drugs, reading western literature and philosophy, and having sex with foreigners in the toilets of underground disco clubs like D.D’s and Y.Y.

Instead, Scheen deftly places these two “bad girl” authors in dialogue with two male writers of the age. In a chapter called “Seduction,” she twines the stories of Wei Hui together with those of male author Ge Hongbing 葛红兵, even using passages from their books to construct an imaginary conversation between the two. In Scheen’s final chapter, “Escape,” Mian Mian and Jin Haishu 金海曙 are similarly brought together for comparison. These older male/younger female pairings give us insights that juxtaposing the two bad girls in the same chapter might not allow. Nevertheless, these sorts of comparisons can sometimes bring to mind the poetic observation by Su Dongpo that reading the works of lesser poets is like eating baby crabs—there’s meat in there somewhere, but it sure is hard to get to! In other words, do we really need to know that both Mian Mian and Jin Haishu are both obsessed with bathtubs, and that bathtub scenes appear in the novels of Wei Hui and other Shanghai writers? Surely this isn’t particular to Shanghai. Doesn’t everyone love a good soak now and then?

Loneliness, alienation, boredom, distraction, despair—the familiar themes of the modern metropolitan life—come through in these stories, and Scheen reminds us that these themes are well-trodden ground for literary historians and sociologists stretching back to Simmel. There are ample quotes from these sociologists and scholars of literature strewn throughout the book like glowing pebbles guiding us through a magical forest. Yet one wonders if the author might have worked to integrate these ideas more seamlessly into the book itself. Taking them out of context and plopping them into the chapters like a kid in the park tossing stones into a fountain gives the text a blocky, chunky feel. This is true as well with the passages from the examples she chooses from modern and contemporary Shanghai literature, though in the latter case Scheen has a valid reason for including some of these passages in long quotation form: without her translations, many readers would not have access to most of this literature because it has not been translated into English. Such is the field of Chinese studies, in which we must serve simultaneously as translators, interpreters, and synthesizers of linguistic and cultural materials that slip and slide through one’s fingers like soapy water in Mian Mian’s tub.

Nostalgia is another major theme that Scheen uses to package her study of the Shanghai imaginary. This nostalgia harkens mainly back to the 1930s, which has been the subject of countless depictions of the city since the 1990s. Unlike Woody Allen’s deft move in the fantasy comedy Midnight in Paris (2011) in which one of the characters, who has magically ventured back in time to the mythical era of the 1920s, goes even further back into the 1890s, very few nostalgic portrayals of the city pass the great divide between the Republican era and Qing dynasty. Nor do many historians make the attempt to bridge that gap, let alone the gap between the Republican and Mao eras.

One of the leaders in the field of nostalgic writing about the city is Wang Anyi 王安忆. As any genuine Shanghairen will hasten to tell you, she is not a Shanghairen herself but rather from Nanjing originally. Nevertheless she is the author of one of the most influential works of fiction about Shanghai: Chang hen ge 长恨歌, usually translated as Song of Everlasting Sorrow. This title comes from a famous poem by Tang poet and statesman Bai Juyi 白居易 about the feckless femme fatale Yang Guifei 杨贵妃 and her unfortunate demise at the hands of her lover the emperor Xuanzong 玄宗. In Wang Anyi’s novel, the Yang Guifei of the modern era is an aging Shanghai beauty queen who first blossomed in the 1940s and who spends much of the rest of her life reminiscing about that bygone era while playing mahjong with her friends. (If you are not at this point rushing out to buy this exciting novel, I’m not sure what is wrong with you.) The novel is full of literary flights, starting with a pigeon’s-eye view of the old longtang 弄堂 in a lovingly crafted paean to these lane-house neighborhoods which made up the bulk of housing for the Shanghai masses for over a century. Scheen argues that the central character of the story is in fact the longtang itself, and if that is indeed the case, this novel falls squarely into a long litany of literary and filmic depictions of life from the vantage point of the longtang of Shanghai stretching back to the 1920s.

Another leading figure in the production of literary nostalgia for “old Shanghai” is Chen Danyan 陈丹燕, whose books may be found in the Shanghai section of any bookstore in the city. Alongside this female author’s breezy, eloquent reminiscences of a bygone age of glamor and sophistication and down-to-earth Shanghaineseness—since we are always reminded that despite their sophisticated veneers, the real Shanghairen were the earthy longtang dwellers whose lives were not so unlike those of the small towns and villages from whence they once came—may be found dozens if not hundreds of other works of literature and history that attempt to capture the life of the metropolis in its Republican era heyday. Once again, the Mao years cast a large black shadow over the city’s nostalgia. What happened then? Perhaps the city and country are not yet ready to confront the painful memories of that era, and perhaps they never will. Better to move on, let bygones be bygones, let your children buy you an apartment in a new high rise, sing some revolutionary songs in the park now and then, and make some money on the stock market if you can!

“Mappings,” the chapter that begins her study, is perhaps the most intriguing of the four big themes covered in Scheen’s book. One of the most valuable contributions of this book is the map and chart on pages 70-71 showing the locations of stories published in the literary journal Shanghai Literature (上海文学) in the 1990s as part of a series called “City Maps.” Scheen maps out the different neighborhoods and sites where these stories take place, noting a particular clustering of stories in the “upper corner” (上只角) of the Xuhui 徐汇 district that was once the heart of the old French Concession—a site for the continual production of nostalgia for “old Shanghai”—and another clustering in the “lower corner” (下只角) of the Hongkou 虹口 district north of the Bund, with a scattering of other “lower corner” sites in Yangpu 杨浦 and Zhabei 闸北. Constructing these maps allows us to locate the experience—lived, literary/imagined, and otherwise—of Shanghai within the mental mappings of the Shanghainese people and the continual class lines that divided people in their imaginations if not in reality. If the people who lived in “upper corner” and “lower corner” were of a similar socioeconomic status by the 1980s, there was still a belief that the “upper corner” was more cultured and posh—even though Lu Xun 鲁迅, China’s modern literary giant, chose the “lower corner” of Hongkou for his final dwelling place and is still buried there today.

All in all, Shanghai Literary Imaginings: A City in Transformation is an admirable feat of organization, analysis, translation, and interpretation, bringing to light a large body of work that would otherwise lie buried, at least in the western world of Chinese studies. Not unlike the excavation of the Ming dynasty mummies unearthed accidentally while building the subway line, Scheen’s intentional digging into the treasure trove of recent and contemporary Shanghai literature reveals many gems that would otherwise be submerged in the depths of the city’s recent historical passage from Mao to Deng and beyond. These include many other works by Wei Hui, Wang Anyi, Mian Mian and others that have not yet seen the light of day in English. While some of the key works she analyzes, always with an eye for a fresh point of view, are well-known, most are not. The next step would be to create an anthology of English translations of these authors so that scholars without Scheen’s prodigious Chinese reading and translation skills can produce their own analyses of this uniquely rapid and bewildering period of change and growth in the city’s history.

Andrew David Field
Director of Study Abroad and Outreach
Duke Kunshan University