Mu Shiying: China’s Lost Modernist—
New Translations and an Appreciation

Edited and translated by Andrew David Field


Reviewed by Frederik H. Green
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August 2014)


Cover for Mu Shiying

Andrew David Field, ed. Mu Shiying: China’s Lost Modernist. New Translations and an Appreciation. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2014. 188 pp. ISBN ISBN 9789888208142 (paper).

“There will be a day,” predicts the protagonist in Mu Shying’s short story “Black Peony” as he reflects on his hedonistic pursuit of pleasure in the dance halls of 1930s Shanghai “when we faint from exhaustion halfway down the road.” Readers of Andrew Field’s thrilling little volume of translations of short stories by Mu Shiying (穆時英, 1912-1940), one of the most talented writers of pre-war Shanghai and among the main representatives of a literary group known as the “Neo-Sensationists” (新感覺派), are unlikely to suffer the fate predicted by the protagonist, but reading through these fast-paced stories that brim with the sounds and smells and colors of 1930s Shanghai and that take the reader on a tour through the dance clubs and cabarets of Shanghai’s Foreign Concessions invariably will leave the reader exhausted and out of breath, testifying both to Mu’s literary talent as well as Field and his co-translator Hong Yu’s skill at rendering these delightful vignettes and short stories into highly readable English. Mu Shiying, along with Shi Zhecun and Liu Na’ou, the other two key Neo-Sensationists, as well as a number of other Shanghai modernists, such as Ye Lingfeng or Xu Xu, have received much scholarly attention in English since the publication of Yingjin Zhang’s (1996) and Leo Ou-fan Lee’s (1999) groundbreaking monographs on urban culture in inter-war Shanghai, yet translations of the works of these modernist writers have been far less numerous. In this regard alone, Field’s volume will be welcomed by all who are interested in the period’s literature and who teach survey courses in English on the literature and culture of semi-colonial Shanghai.

Yet Field’s Mu Shiying: China’s Lost Modernist is much more than a collection of elegant translations. In an extensive forty-page introductory essay, Field situates Mu and his oeuvre within the literary, historical, and socio-political environment of Republican-era China. While some of the information will be familiar to those who have knowledge of modern China, it constitutes a very useful introduction for general readers and undergraduate students. Field also provides an extensive list of secondary literature in English and Chinese for those who wish to dig deeper or who wish to compare the various editions of Mu’s work. In addition, Field brings Mu and the period to life for his readers by including a number of photographs and illustrations throughout the introduction and the main body of the book, a welcome addition for which we probably need to thank both the author and the editors of the monograph series (RAS China in Shanghai). The introduction is at its best when Field places Mu’s work within the context of Shanghai’s vibrant cabaret culture, a subject the author is intimately familiar with—it is the topic of his monograph Shanghai’s Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919-1954. Arguing that Mu’s literary project is in many ways inseparable from the vibrant entertainment culture of semi-colonial Shanghai, Field illustrates how Mu Shiying consciously set out to be a chronicler of the city’s “world of dance” (舞國) (xxxii). Within this context, it is particularly the figure of the dance hostess that exerted considerable allure over Mu and other male urbanites for “with her ambiguous position in the urban schema—not quite actress, not quite prostitute, not quite society girl—the dance hostess created enormous thrills and great anxieties for men who wished to pin down her identity” (xl).

Yet Field is quick to stress that the true value of Mu’s fiction far exceeds that of simple socio-historic testimony to a certain period and locality in modern Chinese history and needs to be read above all as a highly original aesthetic project that attempted to capture the thrills and anxieties of urban modernity. His writing was influenced by many media, such as film, dance, and visual arts, but it was especially Mu’s exposure to the literature of foreign modernists that shaped his style, above all the works of the Yokomitsu Riichi (横光 利一, 1898 – 1947), the Japanese modernist who is credited with first formulating the theory of Neo-Sensationism (xin kankaku in Japanese) and whose fiction and theory had been brought to Chinese readers through the various publication ventures of Liu Na’ou, Mu’s friend and fellow Neo-Sensationist (xxiii). Intended to strip away ideology and modern historical consciousness from art and achieve immediate apprehension of reality through the senses, Dennis Washburn (2001: 222-3) writes in his postscript to his translation of Yokomitsu’s Neo-Sensationist masterpiece Shanghai, Neo-Sensationism for Yokomitsu was a broad marker that expressed the desire for synthesis of such diverse modern art forms as Futurism, Three-dimensionalism, Expressionism, Structuralism, and Surrealism. Mu, who has sometimes been referred to as “the Chinese Yokomitsu” similarly strove to capture the allure and menace of urban living in an increasingly Westernized and anti-traditional environment through a style that fused cinematic montage technique, stream-of-consciousness, inclusion of foreign words, and fragmentary pastiche of visions and sensations. While Mu’s fiction is predominantly centered on Shanghai’s bustling nightlife and its manifold participants, it is not, Field reminds us, entirely bereft of social consciousness (xxiv). Instead, the desperation of ruined bankers or the disillusionment of the modern dandy is as much a part of his fiction as the plight of workers and destitute prostitutes, without, however, being infused with the moral didacticism often found in Chinese social realism.

Field and Yu chose to include six of Mu’s short stories in their collection, all of which are taken from Mu’s 1933 anthology Public Cemetery (公墓), the introduction to which has already been made available to readers through Kirk Denton’s Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945 and which is only quoted in part in the present volume. Another previously published translation, namely Randolph Trumbull’s version of Mu’s famous “Five in a Nightclub” (夜總會裡的五個人), is included in its entirety. All stories are prefaced by a short introduction by Field, and for the most part are complemented by illustrations. The first story in the collection, “The Man Who Was Treated as a Plaything” (被當作消遣品的男子), for example, is accompanied by a 1928 caricature of a modern Chinese women dressed in a qipao and smoking a cigarette as she gazes at a pleading man kneeling in the palm of her hand, as well as advertisements from Shanghai newspapers for Swiss chocolates and Tangee lipstick, all of which help to situate the story within the urban milieu of pre-war Shanghai. The story chronicles the self-destructive infatuation of the narrator Alexy, a Chinese university student whose name appears in English in the original, with Rongzi, a female fellow student who freely roams the nightclubs of Shanghai where she is courted by countless men. Resembling the “modern girl” Naomi, the protagonist of the well-known novel of the same name by Tanizaki Jun’ichiro, another famous Japanese Neo-Sensationist who was well-received in Republican-period Shanghai, Rongzi is described as a “dangerous animal” who was made up of “Jazz, machines, speed, urban culture, American flavor, contemporary beauty” and who “lived on stimulation and speed” and resembled the women on Hollywood film posters (14).[1] Alexy, an aspiring young author tormented by jealousy yet unable to free himself of her allure, clearly is no match for the confident and calculating Rongzi, and he admits to himself that because of his infatuation with her “I’ve long since gone crazy” (29).

“Craven A” is another story describing a romantic relationship forged in the dance halls of Shanghai, this time between the narrator, a well-to-do Shanghai lawyer and the dance hostess Yu Huixian whom he calls Craven A, after her cigarette brand of choice. While Yu Huixian, like Rongzi, also possesses traits of a femme fatale, her precarious position as a female entertainment worker in a male-centered pleasure industry is highlighted by the narrator’s description of Yu’s body through the metaphor of a map that outlined a country that “was not at all a safe place” yet whose national defense was weak and “if one launched a surprise attack . . . one could occupy the fertile plains and scenic regions” (71). In “Night” (夜), the shortest of the six stories, a romantic liaison is forged between a lonely sailor and a weary dancer united in their anguish and solitude: “She sighed quietly. ‘We are all homeless people’” (98). In “Black Peony” (黑牡丹), a similarly weary male narrator finds solace in the female dancer he meets one night; he sees in her “a person who has been weighed down by life just like me” (124). Yet while the male narrator is unable to extract himself from lure of Shanghai’s cabarets, the girl he calls Black Peony is rescued by a stroke of good fortune and finds a new home amid the bucolic beauty of the countryside. The theme of alienation and fatigue in the face of urban modernity is further explored in Mu’s famous pastiche “Five in a Nightclub.” While five strangers seek to numb their respective sorrow during a night out in the Empress Nightclub amidst wailing trumpets and flickering neon lights, they collectively experience a moment of existentialist angst as they find themselves “in the clutches of a strange blend of fear and loneliness: the feeling experienced by a man in the woods late at night who is suddenly deprived of the warmth of fire and friend” (55). “Shanghai Foxtrot” (上海的狐步舞), finally, seems to bring together in one panoramic sketch all the different characters and themes of night-time Shanghai. Mu had intended to turn this sketch into a full-length novel, a Neo-Sensationist chronicle of the age, yet even in its collage form it presents, in Field’s words, his most accomplished work, mirroring “the fast-paced life of the modern city” (103) or, in Mu’s own words, “a heaven built upon a hell” (118).

Field is a careful translator who clearly strives for a compromise among readability, faithfulness, and completeness. His occasional use of contemporary colloquialisms to convey the freshness and unconventionality of Mu’s language (“I lost my soul dancing until 11p.m., when I saw her enter, dressed to the max” [21]) is convincing and his occasional endnotes are useful without being distractive. Terms that appear in English in the original are for the most part printed in bold font, a useful way of highlighting Mu’s linguistic borrowing and experimentalism, but some terms have been missed and this practice for some reason was not applied to “Shanghai Foxtrot.” The selection of stories is varied and seems to reflect Field’s own interest in Shanghai’s entertainment culture, but it is somewhat regrettable that some important stories were left out. Inclusion of “Poles-Apart,” an ideologically charged early story that depicts the transformation of a country bumpkin into a streetwise urbanite and that Field discusses extensively in the introduction, would have, for example, provided an even broader picture of Mu’s multifaceted oeuvre. Nevertheless, Field’s volume is a most welcome contribution to the canon of Republican-era literature in translation. It will not only heighten our appreciation of Mu Shiying, but add new layers of complexity to this intriguing literary figure of Shanghai’s golden age who, after a short exile in Hong Kong, chose to return to Shanghai in 1939 to work as a journalist under Wang Jingwei’s collaborationist government. Field concludes his introduction by quoting Mu’s obituary from July 1, 1940 that appeared in the Guomin ribao, the paper for which Mu had worked since his return to Shanghai. In the end, Mu did not faint from exhaustion caused by excessive exposure to Shanghai’s nightlife, as the protagonist in “Black Peony” fears he himself might, but died from an assassin’s bullet. Mu Shiying’s death foretold the end of Shanghai’s entertainment culture amidst the flames of war and later the fire of revolution that would sweep over the city so masterfully chronicled in his fiction.

Frederik H. Green
San Francisco State University

Bibliography:

Denton, Kirk, ed. Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945. Stanford: Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Field, Andrew D. Shanghai’s Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919-1954. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2010.

Lee, Leo. Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930-1945. Cambridge, Harvard University Press: 1999.

Peng Hsiao-yen. Dandyism and Transcultural Modernity: The Dandy, the Flâneur, and the Translator in 1930s Shanghai, Tokyo, and Paris. London: Routledge, 2010.

Yokomitsu Riichi. Shanghai: A Novel. Tr. Dennis Washburn. Ann Arbor, MI: The Center for Japanese Studies, 2001.

Zhang, Yingjin. The City in Modern Chinese Literature and Film: Configurations of Space, Time, and Gender. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Notes:

[1] Peng Xiao-yen (2010: 165) suggests that Mu’s choice of name for the female character, Rongzi’s (蓉子), might have been intended to mimic a Japanese name (Yōko), giving her resemblance to a Japanese “moga” or modern girl.