Selected Modern Chinese Essays: Shanghai as I See It

◎ Wu Guanzhong

Whenever I passed through Shanghai, I would stay there for only three or four days, seldom more than a week. So the city, like a person who is more of a nodding acquaintance than a close friend of mine, is still rather unfamiliar to me. But its look and voice are unforgettable.

Shanghai is a mysterious place!When I was a child living in the countryside of Yixing, I used to elbow my way into a big crowd so as to listen to someone lately returned from Shanghai chatting about things he had seen and heard in the dazzling city. To me, their summer wear of dark-coloured xiangyunsha[1] was characteristic of a Shanghailander. Evidently, those who had been working in Shanghai enjoyed a much higher status than their fellow villagers. They seemed to be quite rich. The tins of biscuits and wall calendars with pinup girls on them they had brought home were the envy of all country folks. Later, I learned, however, that they had been earning money the hard way by becoming factory workers, old jobbers or housemaids. Like 99 percent of our fellow villagers, my parents had never been to Shanghai. Though living not remote from Shanghai, they had to regard it as an inaccessible paradise on earth. In recent years, often in the waiting room of Shanghai Northern Railway Station, I have overheard some travelers speaking with a pure accent of my native place. They are apparently elderly villagers from my home town who, thanks to their children working in local factories, universities or research institutes, can now well afford to visit the city on sight-seeing tours.

The Bund is a marked feature of Greater Shanghai. Shanghailanders used to describe to country folks with pride how Nanjing Road is lined with high-rises. Later, while I was in London for a summer vacation, I noticed the remarkable resemblance between some of the narrow streets there with their renaissance-style ancient buildings and Nanjing Road. But I would rather say that it is Nanjing Road that has been modelled after London. Well, let’s review the history of Shanghai!Nevertheless, Nanjing Road has a characteristic of its own, that is, street congestion. In this respect, it can vie with Wangfujing[2] of Beijing for championship, or world championship.

Some say Shanghailanders are shrewd, some say they are smart. I agree with the latter. The delicacies they cook and the sweets and pastries they make, as well as their light industry products and dress fashions, all speak well for their cleverness. Recently I was very much struck by the robust beauty of an acrylic blanket made in imitation of tiger skin, which was the product of a Shanghai Woolen Mill. It was a real work of art standing head and shoulders above other blankets with old-fashioned dull patterns and colours. I hope they will follow up with blankets patterned to perfection on leopard skin. Shanghai is not without its sly fellows or even rogues of course. And I used to presume that Shanghailanders as a whole are not used to hardship and toil. But I have come across a great many hardworking youth hailing from Shanghai in the Jinggang Mountains, on the rubber plantations of Xi-shuang-ban-na, or in Altai on the frontier of Xinjiang. It was not until they revealed their Shanghai accent that I knew where they were from.

In the thirties, Shanghai used to compare well with Hong Kong for skyscrapers and high-rises. But later, when it ceased to erect more, it began to lag behind Hong Kong and even Beijing. Most of my former teachers and schoolmates there are still living in the close quarters of lanes and alleys, experiencing the same environment that had produced literature of the thirties. In the latter part of last October, when I made a stopover in Shanghai, I happened to be caught by a heavy rain outside the railway station. I joined a long queue for taxis with luggage and umbrella in hand, but to no avail. I joined another long queue for pedicabs, but also to no avail. Then I tried to seek a shelter from the rain, but also to no avail. All travelers had to stand in the open totally exposed to the storm. “Damnable Shanghai!”they cursed. “Damnable Shanghai!”I echoed.

I’ve never come to know any wealthy guys in Shanghai except in the novel Midnight, the stage play Mayor Chen Yi, etc. , depicting moneyed capitalists and their families leading a lavish life. On my last trip to Shanghai, I happened to see many young men dressed in Western suits and leather shoes and women with perm and rouged lips, some sporting big red flowers on their chests, lining up in front of many luxury hotels to await the arrival of cars carrying distinguished guests. Wasn’t that a night scene of colour and bustle typical of a metropolis—a scene of children from rich families flaunting an ostentatious life-style?While I was utterly puzzled, people told me that I was too much of a country bumpkin to recognize a wedding ceremony. The guest-welcoming line extended all the way from the gate to the banquet hall. And several big hotels had already been booked up for wedding banquets till the end of 1983.

Ren Bonian[3] and Wu Changshuo[4] used to sell their paintings for a living in Shanghai. And Liu Haisu[5] established China’s first school of fine arts in the city. Today, many provinces and cities in China boast their own standardized art schools with the exception of Shanghai although it is home to a galaxy of painters. All art exhibitions, foreign or Chinese, were first held in Beijing and next in Shanghai. But the exhibition hall in Shanghai, like its railway station, doesn’t go well with the status of such a metropolis. It therefore holds little attraction for me as a painter. That probably accounts for the fact that every time in passing through the city, I usually stayed there for only three or four days!

[1] xiangyunsha—Silk fabric with a thin film of lacquer on the surface, manufactured in Guangdong and used as summer dress material.

[2] Wangfujing—the busiest downtown street in Beijing.

[3] Ren Bonian—1840-1896, born in Shaoxing, Zhejiang, a famous traditional Chinese painter.

[4] Wu Changshuo—1844-19927, born in Anji, Zhejiang, a famous traditional Chinese painter and seal cutter.

[5] Liu Haisu—1896-1994, born in Changzhou, Jiangsu, a famous art educator well versed in traditional Chinese painting, oil painting, calligraphy and poetry.