By Lorraine Wong
Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 30, no.2 (Fall 2018), pp. 216-266
Huang Guliu’s The Story of Shrimp-ball has long been read as a local Cantonese story about 1940s Hong Kong. This essay offers an alternative reading by placing it within the context of “threshold nationhood.” This historical period straddles the time when the War of Resistance against Japan (1937-45) was drawing to a close and civil war was imminent, and when the disintegrating Nationalist Party was yielding to the would-be government of the Chinese Communist Party. In order to clarify the unsettled linguistic and historical context of this “threshold nationhood,” this essay explores two language movements that were contemporaneous with Shrimp-ball: the Chinese Latinization Movement and the Topolect Literature Movement.
As this essay will show, the Latinization Movement—which sought to Latinize Cantonese along with other non-Mandarin topolects—would potentially contribute to the Topolect Literature Movement in Hong Kong. Central to the practice of Latinization is the creation of alphabetized words. On one hand, topolect literature writers would have contributed to exploring the grammatical standing of these newly created alphabetized words if they had tried to use Cantonese Latinization in literary production. On the other hand, Cantonese Latinization would have contributed to codifying the ways of writing Cantonese so that topolect literature writers would not have to use different Chinese characters to write the same Cantonese expressions. The Latinization of Cantonese and the development of a Cantonese literary language had the potential to be mutually beneficial.
Even though both the Chinese Latinization Movement and the Topolect Literature Movement supported the communist causes of mass literacy, mass enlightenment, and mass literature, these two movements remained unaligned. This essay argues that this misalignment articulates the fundamental challenge that China faced in its transformation into a modern nation. How can mass literacy, mass enlightenment, and mass literature be organized around the language of a nation divided by class, geography, and language? After examining the Latinization Movement and the Topolect Literature Movement, this essay will analyze how Shrimp-ball offers a contingent and provisory solution to the fundamental challenge that China faced.