Shenghuo de luoji: Chengshi richang shijie zhong de Minguo zhishiren, 1927-1937.
Despite the disputed scholarly evaluation of Chiang Kai-shek's Nanjing regime, there has been a general consensus among historians on China that the Nanjing Decade from 1927 to 1937 marked one of the most stable and prosperous periods of the Republic of China. Along with political stability and notable economic advances, the decade witnessed the significant evolution of a vibrant urban culture, in particular in megacities such as Shanghai and Beijing. In his new book Shenghuo de luoji: Chengshi richang shijie zhong de Minguo zhishiren, 1927-1937, Hu Yuehan delves into the daily lives of intellectuals in Republic Shanghai and Beijing to examine how this unique period shaped their ways of life and their social and cultural identities. Instead of describing the details of the actual lives of intellectuals, Hu focuses on the ways in which the rapidly changing urban environment influenced their modes of life and how their levels of income and interconnections led to the inner stratification of this particular group of people in the Nanjing Decade.
Bracketed by an introduction and a conclusion, the core of the book is divided into five chapters, appended by a review of Joseph W. Esherick's Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey through Chinese History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011) and an epilogue that briefly recounts the author's own pursuit of the logic of life in his study and research. Chapter 1 depicts the cultural images of Shanghai and Beijing in the narratives of nation-state, a concept that was introduced to China only in the early twentieth century. Noting the differences in the cultural characteristics of the two cities, Hu cogently labels Shanghai as the representation of "culture" (wenhua) and Beijing as that of "civilization" (wenming). As the first cosmopolitan city of modern China, Shanghai's urban cultural realm is closely linked to the civilization characterized by Western modernity. Beijing, in contrast, has the profound cultural position of former capital of imperial China. Although the transfer of China's political center to the south "discouraged the economic development and urban order" in Beijing, the city benefited from this change to reestablish its new status as China's "cultural center," which was "tightly related to the city's past and the national history of China" (pp. 44-45). By comparing themselves to their counterparts in the other city as the "others" (tazhe), the intellectuals in Shanghai and Beijing consciously constructed their understanding of urban life and their own identities.
Chapter 2 explores the social stratification among the intellectuals in Shanghai through an analysis of their careers, living conditions, and consumption behaviors. Despite the relative well-being of the intellectuals as a whole in Republic Shanghai, in terms of their career and income they formed three strata: renowned writers and freelancers, university professors and employees of high positions in the publishing sector, and lectors of private universities and Leftist writers. The differences in their careers exerted remarkable impact on their income, thus greatly shaping their living conditions and patterns of consumption.
Focusing on private and public space, Chapter 3 examines the types and features of the intellectuals' social lives, which unfolded in residential spheres, tea houses, bars, and coffee shops. Hu argues that the correspondence, saloon gatherings, and familial time together facilitated both their public and private lives. In particular, the public space began to dominate the social network of intellectuals; and such "collective space," as "place of gatherings of specific sub-groups," acquired special "symbolic meaning of interconnections within a certain group" (p. 200). In addition, the exchange of gifts played an important role in establishing and maintaining the social network.
Chapter 4 turns to investigate another set of private and public space: study rooms on the one hand, and libraries and bookstores on the other. Comparing how intellectuals of different social strata viewed and used these facilities, Hu considers the reasons for their different habits and tastes in reading and writing, and in the consumption of books. While study rooms were "spiritual space showcasing the owners' characters" (p. 213), and thus represented their respective "cultural capital" (p. 208), libraries stood as "ideal public reading space" (p. 229), where readers with like interests could meet and share their reading experiences. The division of social status is also reflected in the bookstores, as those selling relatively refined and expensive books and those for traditional and second-hand books were located different parts of the city, and their customers also had different background of income and taste.
Most readers will probably find the final chapter the most provocative and intriguing one. Here Hu ponders how intellectuals in Shanghai constructed their particular ways of life and built up their identities, both as a whole and as divided sub-groups of different social status. Focusing on dress taste and body conception, attitudes to illness and pain, and leisure activities, Hu convincingly argues that intellectuals "developed diversified ... styles" and "exhibited varied subject consciousness" (p. 353). Despite the differences among them, however, the intellectuals in general shared "serious and pure living habits and aesthetic tastes" that differed considerably from the "extravagance and ostentation" of the nouveau riche (p. 357). This difference, according to Hu, resulted from the distinct emphases they put on economic and cultural capital.
What emerges from Hu's well-researched and eloquently written book is a vivid picture of the world of the Chinese intellectuals in the Nanjing Decade, which was brought about by economic development and the resulting expansion of material desire and liberation of personal libido. Because of the advances in capital and Westernized culture, the traditional ethics and tastes shaped by Confucianism and agriculture now transformed into one that was characterized by urban environment and Western modernity. Particularly appealing is Hu's incisive observation that, although the intellectuals of the time shared many universal habits and aesthetics, there was also significant divergence of views and values among groups separated by level of income and cultural capital. All of these contributed to differences in social status and recognition of identity of individuals. To some extent, this picture also mirrors the overall picture of the period, which was marked by both progress and frustration.
In his effort to present the life aspects and identity-building process of the intellectuals in the Republic of China, Hu has made use of a wide array of materials, ranging from diaries, memoirs, correspondence, newspapers, and magazines, to investigation reports compiled by various government organs. This deserves special applause, given that these materials are not only voluminous but also scattered and fragmentary. His choice of Shanghai and Beijing as main locations for observation is also deserving of great praise, since, although both were metropolitan cities of the period, they presented different geographical and cultural characteristics. However, critical readers may expect more elaboration on Beijing, as the overwhelming majority of Hu's narrative is devoted to Shanghai, while the coverage of Beijing is often only partial and limited.
This minor quibble aside, Shenghuo de luoji is a compelling book to read, deserving critical acclaim for its insightful contribution to the discussion of cultural life, the urban world, and identity-building in the Republic of China. Many chapters will become useful references for scholars on the Republic of China and will surely inspire future studies. Certainly, it will also appeal to readers generally interested in Chinese studies and cultural history.
REVIEWED BY HANG LIN, Hangzhou Normal University
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|Publication:||Journal of East Asian Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2019|
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