What follows is a translation of Wang Anyi’s essay from the late 1990s called “’Shanghai Style’ and ‘Beijing Style’”. I found this essay in a collection called Searching for Shanghai and, because I am fascinated by the endless comparisons between these two cities, I translated it here. To my knowledge, it’s the first time it has ever been translated. In a separate post I’ll write more about what I actually think about the points she raises.
“Shanghai Style” and “Beijing Style”
First I want to clear up a few points about the term “style.” Then I want to relay my thoughts on what constitutes “Shanghai style” and “Beijing style”. Finally I want to talk about how and why certain writers have successfully (or not so successfully) expressed Shanghai style or Beijing style in their works. I hope this will help avoid any misunderstandings.
We don’t need to dwell much on the first question. Here, “style” implies more than those peculiarities of local dialect which are all familiar to us. Nor does it mean contrasting old ladies tottering around Beijing’s hutongs with aunties from Ningbo gabbing in Shanghai’s shikumen. It’s a much more encompassing and existential term touching on attitude toward life, system of values and ideals. Basically you can call it culture. So that’s the term I’ll use.
Now we can begin to address the second question.
Shanghai and Beijing are China’s two largest cities, but at heart they are very different. Beijing is one of the great capitals in world history. It was consciously divided into two distinct parts—one for normal people, the other reserved for officials and aristocracy. All authority—including cultural authority—resided with the officials and the aristocracy.
This culture has a lot of facets, but first and foremost is Confucian orthodoxy, passed along without fail for thousands of years. In the capital, the grand rites and ancient ceremonies faithfully carried out year after year created a magnificent and imposing Imperial culture. At the same time, the Manchu royalty of the Qing dynasty brought into Beijing the trappings of foreign culture. While the High Councilors devised conquest of the world, the Manchu royalty snacked on grain extracted from the people, day and night fostering Beijing culture. As Lao She wrote,
“In the last decades of the Qing dynasty, it was as if all their time was spent in the cultivation of the arts. Aside from eating food and spending wealth provided by their Han subjects, that’s all they did. From the noblest duke to the lowest soldier, they could all sing songs, play instruments, beat drums and carry a tune. They raised fish, dogs, birds and crickets. They cultivated flowers. Some of them were even quite skilled writers, painters and poets. The most inept among them were at least decent raconteurs. Their petty diversions became the art of life itself.”
As it happened, revolution came along and liberated society from its feudal bonds. The passing of Beijing’s aristocracy merely added a mournful sheen of nostalgia to its already ancient culture. Over the course of centuries, this kind of politically powerful hegemonic culture turned into an ideal, one to which everyone aspired. In the process, Beijing became a city of beauty. Just as Lao She wrote,
“Peaceful Beiping, situated at the heart of a peace-loving land, brought to us lakes and hills, palaces and alters, temples and mansions, crenellated fortresses and particolored dragon walls all formed of the blood and wisdom of passing centuries. It brought us ancient cypress and elegant willow. It brought us quaint bridges of snow–white jade framed by the flowers and leaves of passing seasons. It brought us its mellifluous language, warm hospitality and friendships which stand the test of time. It brought us pleasant long walks and the sweet sounds of opera…”
So what about Shanghai? Four hundred years ago it was a swamp, a small fishing village that threw up the white flag as soon as the first shots of the Opium War were sounded. When the first few foreign devils, rucksacks in hand, stepped on its shore—what would someday be its mighty Bund—they found only a marshy mess. They soughing of the wind slipped into their reed shelters. The songs of the boatmen accompanied the turnings of the heavens. Later on a new group of people came—wanderers—those who had left everything for the sake of finding land or who had forsaken their land in the hope of finding everything. They came here with the wild idea to open a new frontier.
These were not what you would call good, kind, decent folk who had been raised with thousands of years of culture and comportment. No, these people had nothing. They were vagabonds who came here to try their luck. They arrived in a land of scoundrels, wheeler-dealers, factory owners, and cops on the beat in the foreign concessions. You couldn’t take a step without encountering a blackguard or one sort or another. They all needed protection and for that they entered “mutual help associations,” in other words—gangs.
Gangs like the Green Gang and Red Gang ruled the roost and not just in a district or two, but the entire city. Huang Jinrong’s secretary recalls that everyone knelt at his boss’s feet to pay respect—boss of the XX Stage, the Shit King of the French Concession, the boss of the gambling den at the Intercontinental Hotel, the boss of the Cangzhou Hotel, boss of the Xinhua Underwear factory, head of the fisherman’s guild, head of the Xinhua movie studio, and on and on.
Funny thing is the Huang Jinrong himself was never formally a member of any organization. As his secretary recalled: “In accordance with the rules of the association, he would have been considered a ‘cipher’, forbidden from opening a shop or taking an employee. Huang Jinrong didn’t care a whit about that. He was on a level with the guys who started the Green Gang. He liked to say, “If Green Gang has a boss, then I’m god.” When he took employees, he didn’t put on any elaborate ceremony. He just had them write a simple note. At the top was “Teacher Huang” and at the bottom was “So-and-so pays his deepest respects.” For Huang it was all about cold hard cash. All you needed to do was bring him a pile of cash, call him teacher and you were set. All told, he had something like two or three thousand disciples.
We see from historical records that this world was without status. Before the likes of Huang and Du Yuesheng came on the scene, people like this had no real social position to speak of. Du Yuesheng’s mentor, for example, though he cut a popular figure, in reality he ran a little game at the Tianhougong carnival where people tossed rings onto chopsticks for prizes. Aside from hustling kids out their candy money, they organized the neighborhood committees for marriage and bereavement so they could get a free meal now and then. But when Du Yuesheng and his generation came of age, they became big shots. It was still a kind of “play”, but while in Beijing they would dabble in art, in Shanghai they would take over everything.
Many people, especially Shanghai people, think of Shanghai as a city of refined tastes. The foreign-style mansions and shady lines of the French Concession, the classic eminence of the Bund, the jumping jazz joints frequented by sailors, the foreign airs put on by waiters in the coffee shops—these have all bequeathed to Shanghai a well-defined style. Regardless of whether or not it’s mere superfice, seen through the ancient eyes of Beijing people, it’s barbarism through and through. It’s like that old philosopher from Beiping Li Yutang wrote about in his book “Jinghua Yanyun”. An old philosopher goes to see his first foreign movie. He leaps up suddenly from his seat and waggles a finger at the audience and says, “Look at these shameless foreign girls! The upper parts of their bodies are big enough, how can they possibly cover them up? The lower parts of the bodies are all empty, why do they cover them up? No shirts up top, no pants down below!”
In the same book there is another old fellow who says something to the effect, “Foreigners make really marvelous devices, but that only means they are good craftsmen. A craftsman is one rank lower than a farmer and two ranks lower than a scholar. They are only better than the businessman, and only by one rank at that. You cannot say these people have any kind of culture. You cannot say these people have any kind of true spiritual civilization.”
Shanghai people on the other hand, rootless by nature, were very “modern”. They didn’t reject new things coming from abroad. In fact, quite the opposite—they embraced them as a source of pride. In the eyes of Beijing people—like those of Lin Yutang’s book—modern Shanghainese were much like how he describes the Shanghainese girl from the Christian family: “When she sat, she sat exactly like a boy, fidgeting with her legs. In the school, there were no musical instruments. But whenever she was in the dormitory and she chanced upon a few bars of Peking opera, she tapped the rhythm with her fingernails on her knees and hummed along with the music…”
European ways took root amidst this cultural swamp making for some very interesting results, manifest in many aspects of Shanghai culture. In the Shanghai dialect, for example, you can find many examples of foreign influence. Moreover, these examples are all a kind of argot, like the words “face” and “color” and “chance” which have all been transliterated directly into Shanghainese with very specific meanings. “Chance,” for example, is composed of the characters 抢司, which means, of course, to “take a chance” or “grab your chance” and is still used even today.
And that says a lot about Shanghai, because Shanghai is a city of chance. In one night a rich man could become poor and a beggar could become a lord. There is a Shanghai legend of one Shen Wansan, from Suzhou, who got himself a whole load of precious stones and in a flash became a rich man. And then there was the petty merchant who came to Shanghai ahead of the war and became wealthy. He did it by renting a couple dozen apartments and the subletting them to other people also fleeing various disasters. These people, he quickly made out, didn’t plan to stay long, and, moreover, all of them had a little bit of money. But they were all afraid of robbery so he convinced them to invest in commodities like precious metals or dyes. Within a year he was rolling in dough. But there were also plenty of crashes. Foreign companies—little more than words on paper—would do a stock issue. It would go up for a while, then the bottom would drop out. No one knows how many families were ruined.
Beijing inspires people to think of “love”, as in—“I love Beijing.” Shanghai on the other hand makes people think of opportunity. The term “love” is simply not applicable. Beijing’s bluebloods have the past reflect on. Shanghai people have only what is in front of them. The struggle for existence is intense, the desire for gain waxes and wanes. Shanghai has nothing left over with which to play sentimental games. Beijing is a place for thinkers, Shanghai for doers.
In utilitarian Shanghai, the honest immigrants and the black-hearted scoundrels mixed together creating that singular entity Beijing people would also look down on: the businessman. It’s like Lao She wrote in his book “The Two Ma’s”: “The way to wealth is to become an official. To spend your blood sweat and tears to make a buck? There’s no profit in that! It’s not honorable–it’s base.” And the situation wasn’t much better for craftsmen who flocked together in Shanghai. Again, it’s as Lao She wrote in his book “Under the Red Banner”: “Don’t tell her grandmother that Fuhai was apprenticed to a painter.” To make a living with your hands was a shameful thing!
But in Shanghai, if you had no skill you had no business and you had nothing to eat. Because of this, Shanghai’s utilitarianism created a little culture for science and technology. Unfortunately, because Shanghai was immersed in fuedel society, that little bit of science and technology was never able to be fully developed. And that’s the great tragedy of Shanghai: it was never allowed to fully realize its potential.
Shanghai people have a dream—to get rich. Beijing people also have a dream—to become officials. Within a few decades after Liberation, when private property had been largely extinguished and the means of production turned over to the state, the Shanghai dream of making money had turned into what I would call “being comfortable.” Meanwhile in Beijing this dream of becoming an official was also gradually extinguished under the influence “public morality” education. In its place arose the romantic idealism of “everything for the common good.”
During the early years of the Cultural Revolution, the object of deepest hatred in Beijing were the petty bureaucrats, while in Shanghai it was directed towards anyone with even a modicum of wealth. Politics didn’t matter at all, nor did it didn’t matter where that wealth came from. It didn’t matter if you were a petty entrepreneur, owner of a private practice, or someone who had just saved a little nest egg through years of hard work and thrift. All were equally hated and their wealth was expropriated without exception. And even though these two essentially attitudes implied very different outlooks on life, at bottom they contained the exact same sense of disappointment.
And now let’s turn to the third question.
Beijing writers are much more fortunate than Shanghai writers. They have an inexhaustible source of inspiration right at their fingertips. Moreover, their occupation has already been anointed as culturally significant. Their words are recognized as being both tool and weapon. Shanghai writers, on the other hand, are impoverished.
Here it is necessary to explain something very important.
Because of quirks of fate, at one time Shanghai attracted to it many writers and artists. In fact, you could say that it became an essential building block for the New Literature. Shanghai was at that time a city in efflorescence. There were protective zones to be found in the foreign concessions. And because of capitalism, it was easy to make a living. It was a relatively free place, developing rapidly without much of a plan. But just because it once brought together some good writers, don’t for one second think of Shanghai as a cultured place.
First, let’s talk about stories. A trendy story is never as powerful or as meaningful as a story imbricated with the past. Beijing has 2,000 years worth of stories. Shanghai’s one hundred years are a mere blip in comparison. Stuff here all flits in front of your eyes—there’s no time to invest it with any meaning. Bai Xianyong wrote a lot of Shanghai stories. Most of them were wrapped around a deep sense of nostalgia about his hometown far away, like a bankrupt old slavetrader harkening back to the fields and streams of the village where he was born. Zhang Ailing’s Shanghai was overflowing with the desolation and regrets of women eclipsed by time.
Loss and disappointment are eternal themes. The setting sun always makes for a beautiful backdrop. But in the cutthroat marketplace that is Shanghai, the new stories about new things and new people appear coarse and amateurish—too superficial, lacking in humanity, providing no food for thought.
Then there’s language. The banter of Beijing’s hutongs is much more amenable to making literature. Lao She eulogized it as “that most melodious of speech, that most darling of politesse.” But Shanghainese will never be suitable for high literature. Aside from the fact that northern Mandarin already constitutes the vernacular of literature, there are more important reasons owing to the language itself. Shanghainese is not a pure language that has benefitted from years of refinement. It’s rude and coarse—a pastiche. Some of it originated from the myriad corners of the city, some of it was borrowed from con-artists and crooks, some of it came from the foreigners in the flush of the new Hai Pai style.
Aside from the above examples of language imported from abroad or slangified from the bottom up
For example, to describe the external appearance of a thing or a person, we’d say “maixiang,” which immediately suggests a commodity. Or “waikuai” (extra income)—it has an opportunistic ring to it. To make friends we say “ga pengyou”. If something is interesting or possible we say “jue tou”. This kind of metaphorical language often carries with it very clear, but dishonorable signals of profit and loss. It’s very interesting to study, though not very aesthetically pleasing. It’s not satisfying to use, but it would be a shame to discard it—a tough situation really.
I’m sure Shanghai writers from previous generations also faced this problem and did their best to overcome it. Zhang Ailing has given us a good enough role model here. The language of her writing is extremely literary, completely literary. It’s so literary, in fact, it scrubs out all peculiarities and character of place. Depicted through this kind of groundless language, her characters really come alive to readers, as barriers to identification are removed.
You can see it manifest through a comparison of two poems—one from Beijing and one from Shanghai. The Shanghai one is so purely an ode to new Shanghai, to new citizens, full of the self-satisfied shallowness and coarse exuberance of a new-found people. The Beijing one on the other hand shines through with simple human truths accumulated through the ages. It’s amply evident not only in the simple wording, but also from the content itself.
But there’s something else of even greater importance at work here: China’s literati. To a man, they were all produced by the same Confucian tradition and all worked to uphold it, no matter they were writers, readers or critics. So it’s only natural that when confronted with a choice, we choose the normative, orthodox, recognizable tradition of Beijing. It’s what we are used to. It already possesses the critical authority as keeper of the standard. And when faced with the rough-hewn new energy emanating from a boom town like Shanghai, naturally it resists.
What do you do with a place defined by lack of history and possessing a culture of culturelessness? We’re helpless before it, without any clear standards to evaluate what we encounter and no time to build a new critical edifice. Moreover, Liberation further muddied the waters as public morality eclipsed capitalism in importance, rendering Shanghai’s dream of “comfortable living” impotent before Beijing’s “common good”. The dream of a bourgeoisie life was stripped of its artistic aspiration, while Beijing’s commonweal was invested with the power of fate and the allure of romanticism. Shanghai was exiled to the margin.
The boatman’s songs of the Huangpu have long been replaced by the shrill whistles of steamers. The foreign riffraff have gone home with their loot. The wanderers and vagabonds have settled down to homes and professions. The bums and scoundrels have put on suits and leather shoes and gone straight. The grubby migrants in straw sandels with a couple strings of cash in hand have morphed into law abiding citizens. We are unlucky to have been born amongst these commonplace people. The hot blood of our forebears has already frozen in our veins. Shanghai’s hundred years seem a dream now, leaving behind the fading imprint of monsters and fantasies. All the while, behind it, the waters of the river flow ever east.