Shanghai's modernity in the Western eye.
The idealized exoticism of Shanghai is removed from the real political conflicts and crises of the interwar period; at the same time it holds the romantic image of a doomed society, destined to be invaded by Japan and representing a last gasp of capitalist hedonism before Communism took over. For Western audiences of its popular culture image, the details and issues of Chinese nationalism and domestic politics often remain irrelevant or vague background detail to these romanticized re-imaginings of the city. At the same time, for scholars of Chinese history today, Shanghai has a particular attraction and is a major focus for Sinologists in the West (Mitter 529).
The resurgence of economic interest in China during the last decades of the twentieth century along with the business boom centered on Shanghai seem to have led to a rise in retrospective interest in the pre-Communist city. As contemporary art from China has again become fashionable, there is new focus on the moment of European interest in modern Chinese art between the wars--a moment after Chinoiserie and Japonisme, when gallery viewers looked at art from China as "new" rather than offering timeless traditional motifs.
This new interest has produced a flurry of books about Shanghai focusing on different social groups, approaching the city as a centre of modernist aesthetics, and offering studies of the city as a whole. Two books by the title of Shanghai Modern have been published in recent years. One looks at the social history of the city as a modern destination and the other focuses on the aesthetics of art from Shanghai; together they demonstrate the two main foci of Western interest in Shanghai. These interests project an idea of the city that, while divergent from historical reality, demonstrates a preferred image in the cultural memory of Western observers. As Robert Bickers has suggested, "[though] Shanghai was and is the subject of a great deal of retrospective eroticizing, it was actually a pedestrian community, with pedestrian lifestyles and values" (Bickers 194). However true this is, Shanghai was exotic to those who saw it as such in the interwar period--including most visitors and commentators--and this perception is echoed by historians.
Shanghai is often cast in these histories as the "antique modern" and presents a multiplicity of past/present/future. Nostalgia for the city in what was--to the West, at least--its heyday, permeates much of these works. This was a "Golden Age" of pre-post-modernity. Shanghai was a free port which attracted emigres fleeing first the Russian revolution and then the persecution of Nazi Germany. In this way, it was a "world city" offering cosmopolitanism in the Far East, and it is the memory of this, which was lost with the arrival of Communism, that is reflected. "In Shanghai's prime, no city in the Orient, or the world for that matter, could compare with it" (Tcherepnine 3). The lauding of Shanghai by foreigners was in a sense self-congratulatory, as it was based on the belief that modern Shanghai was a Western creation. However, "Shanghai was the leading commercial center of China long before the coming of the foreigner" (Orchard 3).
In China too there is nostalgia for the Shanghai of this period, though for different reasons that nevertheless sometimes overlap with Western interest. Through the surge in films set (or partially set) in Shanghai, we can see continuing, or rather revived, interest in this period. These include Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Empire of the Sun (1989), The White Countess (2005), The Painted Veil (2006), The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008), and Shanghai (2009). Although the English-language productions focus on the activities of Westerners in Shanghai, Chinese productions have also had crossover success. Both the Stephen Chow comedy Kung Fu Hustle (2004)--set in Shanghai but made in Hong Kong--and Lust, Caution (??) (2007), based on Eileen Chang's novella and directed by Ang Lee, were released successfully worldwide (and appealed to very different audiences). There have not been so many film productions set in Shanghai of the 1920s to 40s since the 1940s.
To Western observers, Shanghai, as foreign and Other, managed to be seen (unlike the rest of China) as progressive at a time when cultural modernism valued change and difference. Its rapid growth and development meant it was a canvas onto which modern ideas could be projected, both in the abstract by writers, and in reality with new technological advances which were swiftly put into use. My aim here is not to analyze Shanghai's role in the modernist developments of Chinese literature and art (which was significant), but to consider the city's role in the cultural imagination of the West, as the modernized Other. Shanghai's modernity represented multiple modernities as the site of May Fourth politics and as a projected site of Western modernity. With a large foreign presence, it was a multi-ethnic site. By the mid-1930s, there were more than 60 radio stations broadcasting in multiple languages and providing different kinds of music (Jones 22), and the city itself demonstrated the atomization that defined modern urban experience.
How reflective this was however of Chinese culture at large has been questioned by E. Perry Link, who argues that "as seen from inland towns and cities, the foreign concessions were themselves a half-step into the curious outside world, almost as extraterrestrial as extraterritorial" (Link 132). For Chinese people, Shanghai offered a vision of hypermodernity: as cities everywhere offered the modern experience detached from presumed traditions in rural life, Shanghai offered not just the urban experience but a Westernized urbanism, a further step again from rural Chinese life.
The interest in and romanticization of Shanghai constructs the pre-World War II city as the ultimate exotic-yet-modern destination. A rediscovery of the city has also taken place in popular culture. It is the setting for recent fiction--most notably When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro (who also scripted the Merchant Ivory film The White Countess). Columbia University Press's release of a revised edition of the Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai (first published in 1894) is part of this momentum. This book got a rave review from the New Yorker:
This huge novel about life in the brothels of fin-de-siecle Shanghai, published in 1894, is considered one of the great works of Chinese literature, although few Chinese, it seems, have actually read it. (It may be China's "Ulysses.") This is partly because much of the book was written in the regional Wu dialect rather than in the dominant Mandarin; one suspects that the English version, coming after a Mandarin translation, arrives as a shadow of a shadow of the original. Still, the whiff of decadence is strong. Despite occasional bouts of drama--an attempted murder-suicide, adulterers caught in flagrante--the story is essentially static: a never-ending round of parties, where men grown rich from foreign trade play drinking games all night and courtesans stoke their opium pipes. (Anonymous)
For a re-released novel to be reviewed at all is unusual, particularly when the work is not a classic in the canon of literature in English; the review is yet another reflection of this resurgent interest in "modern" Shanghai. The general interest in Shanghai, while focused in the interwar period, extends back to the beginning of the twentieth century, so that in the cultural imagination, Shanghai from 1900 to 1937 was a glittering world of modernized debauchery. The prewar city is often characterized as a center of consumer modernity:
In the first half of the twentieth century, this was the most voracious centre of consumption of everything from opium to fashion. May Fourth literature, the popular press, the Communist Party, industrialization, the modern woman, and virtually everything else associated with the history of Chinese modernity, right down to the oxymoronic example of the Gang of Four, have been traced to Shanghai. The wildly futuristic architecture of Pudong, over the river from the now historic Bund, symbolizes the city's iconic standing in the geography of China modern. (Finnane 399)
From a historical perspective, Shanghai of this period is of interest for students of intellectual and military history. However, recent social and cultural histories have also explored the visual and musical atmosphere that was the background to these intellectual changes (Jones). These descriptions complement the works on Shanghai that detail political, social, and economic development of the city, and demonstrate a fascination with the entire cityscape or urban world that was Shanghai--or Shanghai as the West remembers it. How can we explain this interest? Is it that in the cultural imagination Shanghai is frozen in amber, in 1930? Shanghai ceased to be accessible to Westerners after the Communist Party came to power, so it lingered for decades in cultural memory as it had been. With today's Shanghai once again a destination for travel and business, this fixed memory helps to explain interest in the city's past.
Opportunities for recreational travel grew in the first decades of the twentieth century, and luxury round-the-world cruises put Shanghai firmly on the tourist map in the 1920s (Dong 223). Noel Coward wrote Private Lives while staying at the Cathay Hotel, the last word in luxury when it was built. In terms of facilities and infrastructure, by the 1930s, Shanghai was on a par with the major cities of the world (Lee 7). This city offered for visitors an oasis of the "West" in the desert of the Far East. As far as Coward's play is concerned, Shanghai could have as easily been the French Riviera or Palm Beach, a destination for middle-class English protagonists to spend their honeymoons.
Shanghai-mania was present in accounts during the 1930s, as in this example from 1935:
The Shanghai Bund, like the Thames Embankment, is known to seafaring men the world over. An international crowd of sailors, tourists, businessmen of all nations, mingles with a preponderant mass of Chinese, dressed in the national blue coat and wide trousers; hurrying in all directions, people are pushing one another, paying little or no attention to constant collisions. In the middle of the wide street, a long bearded cheik-policeman, representative of the English way of governing colonies or concessions, regulates the traffic, consisting of automobiles, rickshas, vehicles of all kinds--from an old-fashioned cab to the latest model of electric "trolley" running without rails. Bewildered, you eventually sink into an overstuff ed armchair in a luxurious room of one of the large American-built skyscraper hotels. (Tcherepnine 292)
The Western visitor has a prescribed experience of Shanghai as a bustling urban site, a zone of cosmopolitan exchange, as well as being offered the sanitized exotic--Sikh (Sikh policemen, in the employ of the British, keeping things "regulated" to Western needs. The Bund in particular was part of the experience. As Jeremy Taylor argues,
the bund is more than just a streetscape--it is the single most important spatial reminder of an entire social system and lifestyle that came to East Asia in the wake of British success over China in the first Opium War, and the arrival of Admiral Perry's gunboats in Japanese waters shortly afterwards. (Taylor 125)
It sent a message of familiar security to Western visitors. Maps produced for foreigners claimed to represent "Shanghai" as a whole, but in fact they only covered the foreign areas. The Chinese municipality was presented as "blank spots devoid of roads and places of interest," literally marginalized, shoved to the edge of the page (Wasserstrom 205).
Shanghai's British community was unusual and cannot be easily bundled with other settler societies for analysis. These Shanghai-landers "governed themselves," (Bickers 168) without the Vice-regal or colonial administrative structures that kept unofficial British communities under control in India. Shanghai also had the Shanghai Municipal Council, which gave British (and other Western) community members much greater control over the city's administration than they would have anywhere else that was not directly under their country's rule.
The "third culture," as defined by the Useems and Donoghue in their research on Americans in India, depended on cooperation among different groups working together (R. Useem J. Useem, and Donoghue 169-179). Shanghai in a sense embodied this "third culture" as a Westernized city in China that was to Europeans still an Asian site. Despite the geographical boundaries of the international settlements, there was cross-boundary socializing and business dealings. Such cross-culturally negotiated spaces represent this "third culture" as well as the modernism inherent in both the existence of a multicultural landscape and the transgression of presumed ethnic and cultural boundaries.
It has been argued that in fact the cosmopolitanism of Shanghai was more rhetorical than actual, with members of different nationalities living side by side but not mixing except at the elite level (Bickers 170). Furnivall's idea of the plural society in the colonial tropics--"As individuals they meet, but only in the market-place, buying and selling" (Furnivall 304)--is also relevant for semi-colonial Shanghai, about which similar assumptions were made. Regardless, the Shanghai of hedonistic boundary-crossing remains the image fixed in Western cultural memory. Robert Park claimed that in the metropolis, "every individual finds somewhere among the varied manifestations of city life the sort of environment in which he expands and feels at ease; finds, in short, the moral climate in which his peculiar nature obtains the stimulations that bring his innate dispositions to full and free expression" (Park 126). Shanghai fulfilled this image both for Chinese and foreigners. It offered the "escape" of the exotic with the security of modernity.
Leo Ou-Fan Lee's influential Shanghai Modern looks at the society and the modernity of this city. By 1930, Shanghai was the "Paris of Asia" and the fifth largest city in the world (Lee 3). It was not Shanghai's size that made it the focus of such attention, however. Paris, even now, is dwarfed by many cities but retains a mystique that other metropolises cannot claim. Lee offers a detailed tour of Shanghai with its marvelous new department stores, cafes of the French concession, and trams to take you there.
Lee also looks at the discourse of modernity in Shanghai and print culture. Cosmopolitan Shanghai bred ideologies (anarchism, socialism, anti-imperialism, nationalism, liberalism) that competed to "impart intelligibility and symbolism to the sprawling cityscape and beyond" (Tang 99). While Shanghai may have been the "Paris of the Orient" for the "multinational colonialist establishment," for radicalized Chinese youth it was the "Moscow of the Orient" (Tang 99). Shanghai simply meant China or "mysterious East" in the first half of the twentieth century for Westerners; but for the Chinese, Shanghai meant "Western" (Wasserstrom 196). "The English word 'modern' and the French moderne received its first Chinese transliteration in Shanghai itself: the Chinese word modeng in popular parlance has the meaning of 'novel and/or fashionable,"' (Lee 5) according to the dictionary Cihai. Vanity Fair magazine in particular was immensely popular among Shanghai writers and other English-speaking Chinese, and the magazine lent itself to the construction of a modeng fantasy (Lee 11).
The second book of recent years titled Shanghai Modern, which was published to accompany an exhibition of the same name at the Museum Villa Stuck in Munich, contains various essays on the artists involved and on the theme of modernity in Shanghai in general. Note that the title is Shanghai Modern, not Modern Shanghai. The idea is not to depict the modern city, but a type of modernity created by and in Shanghai. Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker's contribution, "Shanghai Modern" is the first. She claims: "In this urban utopia/dystopia with its irreconcilable contradictions . . . intellectuals, writers, painters, printmakers, photographers and film makers engage in intense and, at times, virulent debates about the future direction of Chinese culture" (Danzker, Lum, and Zheng 18). This is presented as the rare occurrence of a city becoming separated from its country and recreating itself in new ways.
The idea of a fast-paced social whirl continues: "Art societies and loosely-organized groups are formed and quickly disbanded. Former friends and colleagues-in-arms become bitter foes" (18). This hyperbole is typical of books on Shanghai, which suggest the city in the interwar period was frenetic and pulsing; these historians are like Nick Carraway breathlessly observing Gatsby's world. Such accounts are often rhythmanalytic, emphasizing the speed of technology (trams, elevators, and so forth) and the speed of pedestrians in large crowds. This seems to be more emphasized in Shanghai because of its contrast with (the perceived) slow, traditional, rural life in the rest of China. The popularity of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth demonstrates the acceptance of this view among Western audiences, and it indicates the background assumptions against which the modernity of Shanghai stood.
However, the idea that the West maintained a static view of the East (as opposed to the idea that the East itself was static, or stagnant, which may or may not be part of this view) implies that the West too was static, with no shifts in culture or attitude. Attitudes that saw Asia as backward or which fetishized the exotic competed, particularly in material culture, wiThenthusiasm for Asian goods which were becoming common commodities, and with "oriental" themes in art and design that were becoming part of the European visual landscape.
Pearl Buck felt uniquely placed to act as a cultural intermediary between China and the West. She wrote in 1933 that "fifty years ago," interest in China was "sentimental or curious" (Buck 118). Over the previous twenty-five years, the view had changed, she believed, so that China was "no longer ... a place merely of queer customs, pretty bric-a-brac and ubiquitous laundrymen" (Buck 118). Her use of the term "merely" suggest that China was indeed a land of "queer customs" and laundrymen, but that these were not all there was to know of the nation. Her comment about bric-a-brac reflects the fact that most Americans experienced China through domestic material goods and saw porcelain and ornaments as artifacts of a mysterious land (Buck 118). This belief that Americans had a simplified view of China also over-simplifies Western approaches to Asia.
These changing views were also part of a longer-term evolution of attitudes towards China and the perception of modernity. David Porter has argued that events in Europe had shaped the views of generations of European visitors to China. Earlier generations, coming from "tumultuous" events at home, saw the "sense of changelessness, of historical inertia and social stability that had appeared the enviable touchstone of China's enduring cultural truth" (Porter 192). Whereas for Matteo Ricci, China's cultural antiquity and resistance to change defined its legitimacy, nineteenth and twentieth century European thinkers believed legitimacy came through change and dynamism (Porter 192). For new arrivals in Shanghai, the Bund and other Western architecture would have served the role of the "colonial uncanny"; or as Swati Chattopadhyay described Calcutta, it was the familiar in an unexpected place (23). This disconcerting translocation of the familiar added to the sense of disjunction associated with the urban experience.The reception of Chinese art in pre-war Europe is especially interesting. German hosts of a Chinese art exhibition in the 1930s wanted to see "pure Chinese works and indeed especially those which express that which is characteristic of Chinese painting (Danzker, Lum and Zheng 44)." Military and economic ties between China and Germany ended with the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937, and there ended the brief romance between German consumers and the art of Shanghai. The art was popular, if unfamiliar: between 1933 and 1935, at least 17 exhibitions of Chinese art were staged in Europe, in 14 cities in 8 different countries (118). Shanghai was particularly identified as the source of Chinese modern art.
In terms of technology and entertainment, Shanghai was in the vanguard of world modernity. The first film screening in Shanghai was in 1896, less than one year after the Lumiere brothers' first film was shown in Paris (300). In 1908, the first cinema was opened, in the Hongku district (300). Recent interest in the pre-war film industry in Shanghai, such as the work of the Shaw brothers, can be seen in other publications as well (cf Cui, Zhang). Shanghai's role in cinematic production made it the Hollywood of China. This added to its allure as a destination of glamour and make-believe, made it the site of recreation of Western images from the screen, and heightened its air of artificiality.
The combination of Western and Chinese architectural idioms, street signage, visual cues of modernity (trams, cars) as well as the androgyny and cross-cultural influences in dress of the 1920s and 30s all contributed to the phantasmagoria of the Shanghai experience. This experience is recycled and represented to us in film and fiction. Shanghai demonstrated this phenomenon, which Steve Pile has characterized as a crisis of urban modernity:
Though they can speak their wishes, the moderns have no way to make them real. The modern world becomes a never-ending cycle of dream-like figures--a phantasmagoria--none of which ever fulfils its promise. Fashions come and go: ever more rapidly, in ever more absurd forms. Buildings are put up and torn down, its facades become make-up in a clown's parade of architectural forms. (Pile 55)
A counterpoint to this view of glamour and sin is offered by Hanchao Lu's Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century. Looking past the foreign concessions and the prostitution, Hanchao Lu has drawn on census data and other statistics on income and occupation and sources of migrants to paint a demographic picture of the city. He refers to "modern women (or flappers) who found in this city the freedom they sought," (43) implying that the modern women came from elsewhere--rather than being created in and by the city.
Shanghai as a city of immigrants is a main focus of his work, which details native town loyalties and immigrant return rates. Laid-off employees often received travel costs on the assumption they would return "home" (50). Specific merchant trades and occupations were linked to geographical origin, with those from particular provinces tending to dominate particular lines of work. Shanghai's role as a destination city for economic, political, and cultural migrants added to its allure as a site of the "modern," lacking a past. Like the popular imagining of New York, nobody is fr om the city; it is where people move to from elsewhere (or nowhere, with identities being created in the city).
Three things must be distinguished: industrial modernity, philosophical modernity (not necessarily an urban phenomenon, but often manifesting itself in urban social dislocation), and modernism in art, as the expression of the modern experience. "The problem faced by a social theory of modernity in this context is that modernity itself becomes subsumed either under modernization or modernism or it disappears altogether as a subject of investigation" (Frisby 12). Baudelaire created the concept of modernite as "le transitoire, le fugitif, le contingent" (2). Frisby has argued, after Simmel:
Modernity is thus a particular mode of lived existence within modern society, one that is reduced not merely to our inner responses to it but also to its incorporation in our inner life. The external world becomes part of our inner world. In turn, the substantive element of the external world is reduced to a ceaseless flux and its fleeting fragmentary and contradictory moments are all incorporated into our inner life. (46)
This is countered by the view that Shanghai's modernization is "best viewed not as 'similar to' Western modernization but as part of the single global process which happened to begin in England" (Link 55).
S. N. Eisenstadt has suggested that "Western patterns of modernity are not the only 'authentic' modernities, though they enjoy historical precedence and continue to be a basic reference point for others" (3). For some in China and Japan, the woman--or rather her emancipation, education, and role in society--became the marker of "modernity" or social progress, particularly in comparison with other nations. In this way the Modern Woman was a Western concept to which other cultures could aspire.
According to Wendy Larson, in modernizing nations everywhere, women's education and culture came to stand for the health and strength of the nation, while simultaneously traditional literature was attacked by demands of "art for art's sake and the rejection of previous contexts of morality or religion" (1). Larson also refers to Gregory Jusdanis' theory of "belatedness" and applies this to China. It states that within the "desire to catch up with advanced countries, people must both modernize and protect their ethnic culture from a modernization so deep that a sense of nationality disappears" (Larson 18). Nobody regards themselves or their time as "backward." However, perhaps this modernity with reference to Asia was the point at which precisely such a self-conscious "backwardness" set in. For example, when Sophia Chen Zen referred in 1929 to Chinese women in "the olden days," she meant those in the fairly recent past (8).
Even in studies of Asia, Europe is regarded as the "scene of the birth of the modern," (Chakrabarty 2) and Asia in the first half of the twentieth century was certainly seen as "backward" by Western observers. Carl Crow noted in 1941 that the structure of society in China contributed to this perception on the part of Western travellers. He contended that in Europe, people were isolated from the "less fortunate," whereas in China, "no matter where one lives he is surrounded by a sea of poverty and human misery." Westerners
... lack the mental background of the Chinese who for so many centuries have adjusted themselves to their surroundings instead of attempting isolation. Thus many foreigners who go to China come into intimate contact for the first time with poverty, filth and cruelty. During their lives at home they have only read about these things in the papers (Crow 223).
This approach, which made China simultaneously backwards and timeless, is considered by Johannes Fabian in his ideas on the "denial of coevalness" on the part of anthropological observers. The observed, in this case China, is placed in a time other than the present of the observer (Fabian 31). The motives for distancing from the observed are clear if not always conscious: the observer can remain just that--an observer reporting on a moving tableau rather than participating in the host society (whom the observer may consider beneath his or her interaction).
The image of the woman in the street is a primary element of imaginings of Shanghai's modernity. In cinema, this female figure, who represents social liberalism and cultural hybridity (Chinese dress often in the form of qipao, short hair, lipstick, high heels), is part of the modernist aesthetic of Shanghai. The short hair that was a badge of modernity in the West, was a marker of Western and modern for the Chinese. For some historians, Shanghai is seen as the acme of this cultural hybrid modernity, and this hybridity did not begin in the interwar period; even during the late Qing, the adoption of Western motifs in dress and cultural cross-dressing was a fashion associated with Shanghai (Zamperini 301-330).
Janet Wolff has pointed out that writers on modernity (Baudelaire, Simmel, Benjamin, et al) equate "modern" with "public" and thus fail to describe women's experience of modernity (37). As she points out, "the central figure of the flaneur in the literature of modernity can only be male" (37). Wolff , in common with other theorists of modernity, links it to the city. To the extent that women have been excluded from these spheres, they have been excluded from such analyses of modernity.
The figure of the flaneur as the emblem of modernity and the possibility of his having a female counterpart is also an ongoing debate. Kakie Urch has suggested that the necessities for flaneuserie are the ability to gaze, observe, to be "part of the crowded spectacle without being the object of desire or the desirer" (Urch 24). Janet Wolff has argued that Benjamin's flaneur has no female counterpart: "there is no question of inventing the flaneuse: the essential point is that such a character was rendered impossible by the sexual divisions of the nineteenth century" (Wolff 45). Priscilla Pankhurst Ferguson has also said that a woman cannot be a flaneur, as her gender makes her part of the urban drama being observed (Ferguson 28). If "a woman idling on the street is to be 'consumed' and 'enjoyed' along with the rest of the sights that the city affords" (28), she is the object, not the subject, of modernity.
Insofar as the Modern Woman fulfilled--and was indeed defined to some degree--by an aesthetic, the other relevant sources are magazine and book illustrations, which bothfollowed and led ideas of how the modern woman looked and behaved. Francesca Dal Lago has explored this idea in her study of the posture of women in Chinese posters, with the assertion that posing with crossed legs was a symbol of modernity (103-144). Lesley Johnson has drawn on this to argue that the use of a female figure to represent the Other of modernity is typical in modernist writings (27). For the Western (male) observer, the Shanghai woman was a double Other, the object rather than the subject of modernity; but in this paper I will discuss how Chinese women came to articulate and experience modernity in the city, and how their participation became part of the city's modern experience.
The idea that Chinese women were participants in a global modernization is reflected in the standardization of dress and hairstyles around the world, propelled by the availability of images from overseas in magazines and cinema. However, while the "modern girl" was presented in the fashion of the West, this fashion was still a contested issue in many parts of the world, so that outraged traditionalists in China had more in common with their counterparts elsewhere than perhaps they realized (Roberts 657-684).
In the early 1920s, urban women wore a "Western-style skirt with a tight-waisted, fitted coat, buttoned on the right" (Danzker, Lum and Zheng 318). This was the "civilized new garment" (318). Modern women acted as their own fashion designers, using their traditional handwork skills and the new sewing machine (320). Chinese culture, like many others, traditionally valued women expressing themselves through needlework, and fashion design could be seen as a modern manifestation of this traditional value. Bao Mingxin suggests that "It took modern women a lot of time and energy to keep themselves in fashion, yet they never tired of it" (323). Elizabeth Wilson has argued the importance of fashion in the creation of urban culture: "Identity becomes a special kind of problem in 'modernity.' Fashion speaks of a tension between the crowd and the individual at every stage in the development of the nineteenth and twentieth century metropolis" (Wilson 1985, 12). Women were demonstrating their participation in urban modernity by dressing unlike their mothers and particularly in a Westernized style. If men symbolically "join" modernity by adopting Western dress and women do not, women are being implicitly excluded from modernity (14). However, in Shanghai, it is the figure of the woman in Western dress or "hybrid" dress (the tight qipao, slit high on the thigh), rather than the Chinese man in a European style suit, who represented urban modernity to Western observers.
Prostitution (and the prostitute as the visible urban female) has become a theme in historical studies of pre-war Shanghai, and the exotic Shanghai prostitute is a key figure in many Western imaginings of the city. In reality of course, the society of prostitutes was more stratified and nuanced than it would first appear in popular culture renditions of "the most pleasure-mad, rapacious, corrupt, strife-ridden, licentious, squalid, and decadent city in the world" (Dong 3). Christian Henriot has pointed out that "courtesans" (high class call girls) had nothing to do with the prostitutes in brothels and opium dens (134).
In 1930, prostitutes were well represented in Shanghai's population--in Berlin one person in 580 was a prostitute, in Paris one in 481, in Tokyo one in 250, and in Shanghai one in 130 (Dong 45). Whether such statistics included shuyu (the "sing-song girls" of Shanghai) or geisha (for the Tokyo population) as prostitutes is unclear. Nonetheless, it does demonstrate the significance of the role of women entertaining men in Chinese (and Japanese) society. Shanghai of course had the distorting factor of being a treaty port, and the number of businessmen, sailors, and others would have increased custom and demand. Shanghai also had a reputation for prostitution on a greater scale than other Treaty Ports, and this drew both potential customers and women looking for work.
Henriot outlines the change in the culture of prostitution beginning in the late nineteenth century, when shuyu or courtesans (Henriot's term), historically akin to geisha, became more like high-class prostitutes. This transition was completed by the 1920s (138). This shows a progress to social liberalization (as there were more potential patrons with money than among the old elites) and commercialization. He asserts that "Chinese courtesans belonged to a cultural tradition and a social structure that could not survive the onslaught of modernity" (156). A group of women devoted to the entertainment of male elites--who were able to also have wives and concubines--can exist only in a society with a rigid separation of the sexes and a "severely restrictive definition of the role of women" (156). Henriot makes parallels to "modern Japan" and Ancient Greece, "whereas in the west such a social structure disappeared centuries earlier." He notes that this demonstrates the "process of standardization inherent in modernity" (158)
It could be argued equally that female emancipation is as much an inherent characteristic of modernity as standardization. With regard to women shaped by and shaping modernity, Shanghai was the venue for those in the vanguard of the arrival of the Modern Woman in China. Whether prostitution in this context is seen as victimization or economic empowerment for women remains problematic.
Gail Hershatter's Dangerous Pleasures, a study of prostitution in Shanghai, manages to add to the city's identity as a destination for sin, while she also delves into what life was actually like for the women involved. Shanghai as China's "fallen woman" who "slept with the West" has become a standard image. Intellectuals of Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s "employed women in general and prostitutes in particular as metaphors for their own oppression in a warlord society and China's sufferings in a hierarchical world order" (28). The streetwalker, or visible urban woman, has become part of the iconography of Shanghai nostalgia, too.
As much as the Modern Girl was part of the visual marking of modernity, Shanghai was also the center of the production of fiction by, for, and about the new woman. The coincidence of industrialism and sentimental fiction has been noted: the novels of Samuel Richardson appeared in 18th century England; if this work is the "original example of bourgeois sentimentalism" gaining popularity during the Industrial Revolution, then Shanghai's fiction in the early twentieth century provides the closest resemblance in China to this prototype (Link 55). This explains the rise of the Mandarin Duck and Butterfly novels, but it was exactly this mould that was being broken by new literature by and for the modern woman.
The writing of Ding Ling is a prime example. As a writer of the May Fourth period, she was hailed for her modernist style and social critiques. Some of her works were translated into English and published in radical magazines in the U.S.A. during the 1930s; she was rediscovered during the 1980s (after her rehabilitation by the Communist party), and her work has been published in English and become the focus of studies by Western scholars. Her early works tended to focus on a young female protagonist in the urban environment, living what could be termed a bohemian lifestyle. The figure of urban female modernity, the flaneuse, represents the freedom to travel and observe, which many of her characters embody.
"Day," a short story published in 1929, discusses the dislocation of modernity by depicting life in Shanghai. The modern style of the narrative has an absence of clear plot progression, offering instead a detailed impression of daily life for the main character, Yisai. Tracing the events of one day, in which nothing happens, the story is intended to represent the tedium of Yisai's life, focusing on one day not because it is eventful but because it is not: it is "any day." This "slice of life" style of short stories is a modernist literary form in which there is no clear narrative arc; rather the story just offers a glimpse of life, a scene without clear beginning or end. This relates to the urban experience of flaneurie, as Elizabeth Wilson has observed: "we observe bits of the 'stories' men and women carry with them, but never learn their conclusions; life ceases to form itself into epic or narrative, becoming instead a short story, dreamlike, insubstantial or ambiguous" (Wilson 1992, 108).
Yisai serves as an everywoman in this description of Shanghai as the "bustling metropolis, a semicolony" (Ding Ling 1998b 267). She shows familiarity with modern (Western) art, and assumes the same of her readers, when she describes "tapered roofs set off against the blue-and-white horizon like in a cubist painting" (267). This assumption may have been valid. In "Waves Lashed the Bund from the West: Shanghai's Art Scene in the 1930s," Zheng Shengtian comments on the remarkable popularity and range of art magazines in Shanghai, and the market that existed for up-to-date news of the art world from Europe, including articles translated from French magazines (Danzker, Lum, and Zheng 178).
Ding Ling describes the debauched treaty port life that takes place in "each of those square houses," where
... fine sherry glasses and cigarette ashes of a drunken party clutter elegant table-tops. Cushions from plush chairs are strewn about in all directions; the people, exhausted, have stretched out their delicate limbs on soft satiny comforters made from raw material from the East and with labour from the West. These comforters crisscrossed the seas and passed through the hands of people of different colours before coming to furnish this room; all for the enjoyment of a few fat-bellied Asians, hat-sporting Caucasians, drunken soldiers from distant lands, and heavily made-up ladies. (Ding Ling 1998b 268)
This is a portrait of dissolute life in the city, in which the narrator is not a participant but an omniscient observer. She includes social critique in her comments on "hundreds of factories built by Caucasians and Asian capitalists, including some of our very own greedy Chinese" (268). Her portrait of the city is in many ways grim:
Who here can admire the splendour of the morning sun and the drifting clouds, when shadows stretch down from the chimneys and thick black smoke races along the ground and colourful patterns float on the putrid canal as it catches the light of the sun? (268)
The rhythm of the city, which runs counter to a "natural" lifestyle, also comes through in her depiction of daily life:
... this is a metropolis: there are no golden-feathered roosters to announce the break of day here. You can't see any simple peasants coming out of their thatched huts to prepare their farm tools, nor can you see ruddy-faced maidens herding their sheep. You can't hear the endearing clamour of farm animals or any of those lovely little birds that chirp happily to welcome the light of the dawning day. (269)
This is a strikingly European image, of "ruddy-faced" female shepherds, relating to the literature from Europe of the 18th and nineteenth centuries, glorifying rural life in the face of the growth of cities and factories in the industrial revolution. This image is reminiscent of a Gainsborough painting, and given the earlier reference to cubist art, it is possible that Ding Ling was making conscious allusions in her writing to images that would have been familiar to readers withknowledge of Western art.
In itself this demonstrates hybrid modernity, in that Ding Ling relates experiences of "the city" to the city in general, rather than just to Shanghai--the city is a transnational concept. Further, she assumes a cosmopolitan understanding on the part of her readers, that they are familiar with this. It also suggests that it was to Western sources, ideas, and images that a Chinese writer had to turn to describe the urban experience of modernity, given that China did not have the same heritage of artists and writers who interpreted (and critiqued) modern city life.
Her description of Yisai as living counter to "natural" rhythms continues: "She has not been roused from her dreams by the sun shining down upon the earth or by the lovely clear morning, nor have her eyes been opened by the dawn breeze carrying in the scent of damp grass" (269). Yisai is disturbed by the noises of her neighbors, "the child crying next door or the mah-jongg tiles being slapped on the table a little too heavily in the room across the hall--all minor noises that wouldn't bother an average person--are enough to disturb her" (269). Daily urban existence means an inability to escape such annoyances: "Each morning, Yisai is startled awake by the sound of chamber pots being emptied and cleaned, and every morning it irritates her" (269).
Although urban life is commonly conceived as being regulated, with standardized time and scheduled activities (offices and shops opening at specific hours, in contrast with the more flexible time structures of the pre-modern and rural), Ding Ling shows its other side, an the urban ennui of no fixed times and the life of the flaneur.
In another of Ding Ling's stories, "A House in Qingyun Lane" the author puts herself in the role of a prostitute, writing the story in the first person. The story itself does not glorify prostitution, nor does it offer titillation in the plot. It is the story of Ah Yin, a young prostitute who loves a farmer, Chen Laosan, from her home town. However, she is ambivalent towards marriage: "I can't decide which is better, getting married or working?" (Ding Ling 1998a, 108).
She goes so far as to say: "You could say she lacked a husband but she never had to spend a night alone, and it was far more interesting that way" (112). This rather frank discussion of a woman's choices to some degree reflected the choices available to women in the broader society. With the banning of concubinage, single women became an element in Chinese society, and the idea that this was a choice, not just for prostitutes but also for many women, was a new and distressing concept to the traditional model of Chinese womanhood expressed in popular culture. The idea that even prostitutes may have chosen their situation (although this was probably not true of many) and saw it as preferable to marriage also challenged traditional ideas of chastity and the role of women in society. The prostitute in Ding Ling's story is not a victim but an active agent in her own fate.
Catherine Vance Yeh has pointed out that the prostitutes in early twentieth century Shanghai settlements were businesswomen, in a contractual relationship with the madam of the house, if not owners of the business themselves. Although it offered the financial empowerment and independence of a profession, the world's oldest was not necessarily seen as an ideal. Nonetheless Ah Yin is a Modern Girl and her image is one that relates to this urban ideal--and perhaps to the experiences of young girls who arrive in the city and find prostitution a viable career option.
For such young women the liberation of the city was illusory, just as the financial rewards of the city were illusory for many hopeful emigrants from rural China. Ding Ling's focus in her writing shifted at this time (the early 1930s) to concerns for the working class. The story "Rushing" (1933) shows the stark realities faced by those who believed the streets of Shanghai were paved with gold. However, her depiction of these peasants, while drawing attention to social injustices, does not present them as particularly sympathetic individuals. Narrated in the third person, the peasants are figures of the grotesque at worst, and fools at best.
It begins with a small group of people in a rural town boarding the train at dawn to Shanghai, seeking work. One character, Zhang, tells another "Shanghai's a big place, not like where we come from. Lots of people with plenty of money. It'll be easy making a living there" (Ding Ling 1985 191). The narrator refers to them as "bumpkins" (193). Once they arrive in Shanghai they are faced with the chaos of a bustling city. "At the sight of the rickshaws rushing towards them they turned back to make way. A woman in a cheongsam was just behind them. 'Damn you!' she said in a biting voice through her blood-red lips" (193). This interesting juxtaposition between the type of woman Ding Ling often wrote about and these peasant characters shows two sides of Shanghai society in contact.
At first the city is full of promise for the newcomers. "Never in their lives had they seen some of the splendid things in the department stores, which they kept going to look at" (194). Zhang hopes his brother-in-law will be able to get him a job--he apparently earns a good dozen dollars a month(195). The others have various distant relatives in the city, who they hope will be able to help arrange employment.
Unfortunately, when they arrive at Zhang's sister's house, things are not as they expected. His brother-in-law, Li Yongfa, is very different from when Zhang last saw him, "His strong, reddish peasant's chest had now fallen in, and his sunken face was so changed that Zhang could not recognize him" (196). Li Yongfa has been working fourteen hours a day, with machines that "squeeze all the life out of you" (198) and wishes to return to the land. As the small band of new arrivals traverse the city, they overhear conversations among disgruntled workers about bosses who have shot troublemakers and a worker crippled by a factory accident (201-2020). "His wife had nothing to eat, so she had to find herself fancy men." In one tea house they see morphine addicts, injecting themselves to be able to work (205). The situation is clear: poor people are trapped between rapacious landlords in the country who take their crops and capitalists in the city.
As Bruno Lasker found in 1941, "Shanghai, though one of the richest ports of the East and world-famous for the luxury of its night life, [is] also an apt illustration of unrelieved suffering and degradation in modern society" (323). This offers the view that the cosmopolitan modernity of the city was a veneer over the harshness of industrial modernization. Ding Ling thus presents urban modernity and the capitalism that has created it as destructive social forces. Even to the wealthy and educated, modern life in the city is hollow.
To Western observers, China's foreignness made it more modern, in that the sounds of the street and the alienating effects of mechanical noise included the alienating sounds of languages not understood by the listener. A rhythmanalytic approach as taken here shows how the Chinese were credited with creating a particular soundscape in the city.
Then you will notice that, wherever work is going on, it is done in a distinct rhythm: the shoemaker will hammer nails into a shoe- sole at a regular beat; the carpenter will work according to a certain "pulse"; likewise the mason, the dish-washer, and everyone else. When a job offers no opportunity to produce rhythmic sound, the worker will mutter a sort of song, or rather of rhythmic recitation, reminding you of your first acquaintances, the coolies who carried your trunk.
In attracting your attention by sound, the ingenuity of the Chinese knows no limit: each motor-man of the street cars proudly clings to his own rhythm for the sounding of his gong, to warn you of coming danger; there are hardly two Chinese chauffeurs who would use the same rhythmic phrase for the blowing of their horns; the street vendors tax your imagination by the variety of their rhythms and by the percussion instruments they use in order to produce those rhythms. You soon discover that rhythm is fundamentally related to the life and work of the Chinese people. (Tcherepnine 392)
The role of women is relevant here in terms of their participation in the auditory landscape. As well as female voices being heard on radio, they were audible in the street, and this demonstrated their role in shaping the urban experience. As in other cultures in which the female zone was confined to the domestic arena, the audibility of female voices in the street was a major change in the urban landscape. According to Miyako Inoue, women became participants in auditory urban streetscapes in Japan, and this made them modern agents, in that their voices were heard outside the home (156-193). Shanghai's perceived modernity hinged not only on technological sophistication, and being an early adopter of new developments, but on its "hybridity." That the city represented the best of Western developments with Asian elements meant that to foreigners it could transcend the limitation of European cities, precisely because the limitations in society that existed in Shanghai didn't apply to foreigners. Likewise, for Chinese people, Shanghai offered an escape route from "traditional" life and an opportunity to pursue different roles.
For foreign observers, past and present, this cultural comingling was derived from cultural borrowing, that is, Chinese "borrowing" of Western cultural elements. Nonetheless, the fascination with China led to borrowing in the other direction as well, and this was part of modernist art and literature movements in the West. Cultural borrowing as a badge of modernity (and modernism), has been identified by Richard Serrano (2002) and seen, for instance, in the works of Ezra Pound. Pearl Buck's use of Chinese literary forms could be seen as another (although differently motivated) example.
Jeffrey Wassterstrom has suggested that Old Shanghai's "life as a historical city," ran from the Opium War to WWII, for roughly a century (194). But my interest is focused largely on the 1920-1945 period. Shanghai has become a site of fascination for foreign observers precisely because the pre-war city is long gone. It exists solely in the abstract and in old films and photographs, and thus it is an easy site for the projection of nostalgia for modernity in a postmodern world.
Mark Elvin has claimed that "Europocentric" historians struggle to define modernity, whereas those looking at non-European history find the "term can be given a fairly clear and definite sense, even if ... hazy at the edges" (209). This is perhaps too simple. "Its chief characteristic consisted in its contrast with other epochs in European history in that it constituted itself in the form of self-foundation or self-determination without recourse to preceding traditions" (Lichtblau 5). An introduced modernity, which seemed to have no link to previous Chinese culture, is in this sense a more authentic modernity than that of the West. The broader discussion of where and when to situate Asian modernity has grown in recent scholarship. Alexander Woodside's Lost Modernities, for example, examines the role of government by Mandarinacy and the meritocracy of civil service examinations to illustrate that ideas associated with social modernity were operating in East Asia before industrialization, and before they were in the West (Woodside 2006).
It is precisely due to Shanghai's position at a cultural crossroads, demonstrating an idealized cross-cultural modernity, that the city of the interwar period retains a fascination for Western historians. The city--in retrospective imaginings--demonstrates the fantasy of the West in the East, the urbanized "third world," and the familiar exotic. The city's recurring role in the Western cultural landscape demonstrates its position as an imaginative escape from the tensions of post-modernity and the tragedies of the twentieth century.
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