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Shanghai through Chen Danyan's Eyes

Which epithet most accurately defines Shanghai? Ostentatious, modern, refined, philistine or shrewd? We have learned about Shanghai of the 1930's from Zhang Ailing's works. Sixty years on, who is there now to help us scrutinize and comprehend this city?

It could be Chen Danyan. This young female writer has, in recent years, written and had published, Shanghai Romance, Shanghai Fine Lady and Story of a Lost Shanghai Beauty -- all best sellers. The Shanghai of which she writes goes beyond all adjectives, having been etched by time and matured in melancholy. Chen excavates hidden treasure in this old city ─ tapping seams steeped in the ethos of the ordinary and extraordinary people who personify the pride of the Shanghainese.

Chen Danyan's wander through Shanghai begins with its buildings, alleys, bars and cafes. In her Shanghai Romance, she evinces, in the manner of a tourist rather than a local resident, her curiosity about the old European-style buildings of the concession era, and expresses her impressions through stories about their former occupants, both well-known (such as Zhang Ailing and Zhang Xueliang) and obscure. Some historical sites have vanished from the streets of Shanghai, while other old styles have been restored. The Shanghai youth are big on nostalgia: old pictures grace the walls of trendy cafes, and 1930 style calendars are everywhere. Foreigners' affections for this city are the legacy of their predecessors, the gold-diggers who came at the beginning of last century, and local Shanghai girls are passionate about Europe and the United States, since Shanghai was once the Paris and New York of the East.

With the curiosity and sensibility of a tourist, Chen catches glimpses of a Shanghai that is missed by local residents. When these are disclosed to the reader, even Shanghainese are surprised to discover how tantalizing their home city appears as described by a stranger. In the last chapters of this book, Chen delineates a few legendary figures: Zhang Ke, a woman who, despite adversity, sustains her peace of mind and free spirit; and Guo Wanying, a lady who is beautiful and elegant throughout her life. Both of them are born and raised in Shanghai. Is there any link between their intrinsic qualities and those of this city? It is only at the beginning of Shanghai Fine Lady that Chen addresses this question.

Shanghai Fine Lady is about the life and times of Guo Wanying (Daisy). Born to a wealthy family in old Shanghai, Guo has a Western education. As a young lady, she is blessed with everything a woman could desire: beauty, wealth, a caring family, the love of men, and the friendship of other girls. Later she marries a man of her own choice, and bears him a son and a daughter. Despite his not being a faithful husband, the family is nevertheless stable and affluent. After China's liberation, Guo remains in Shanghai with her husband, and this is the start of her misfortunes. Her husband goes to prison, she loses her job, and is sent to a farm where she is forced to do unaccustomed work such as feeding the pigs, mixing cement, and fetching and carrying frozen Chinese cabbages in winter. Later her husband dies in prison, and she loses all their possessions. In the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976) she suffers even more. However, despite suffering such trials, tribulations and deprivations, Guo does not complain or bewail her fate, instead maintaining her innate optimism and grace. Even at times of abject poverty, she does not relinquish her refined lifestyle: she makes Petersburg cakes on a coal stove, in an aluminum pot, using locally-milled flour. It is impossible for any reader of her story not to be moved by this fine lady, and to admire her to the extent of wishing to emulate her. It may never be possible to be as attractive, elegant or noble as she is, but, from her self-esteem, optimism and courage can be learned.

As to Daisy, the writer deliberates on the source of her virtue and fine breeding. "It is quite possible that this quality of purity and persistence has been nurtured by an affluent and illuminated life, rather than by poverty and suffering," ventures Chen. This is quite at odds with what the Chinese have been led to believe for centuries.

Story of A Lost Shanghai Beauty is more disturbing. Yao Yao's tragedy mirrors a dark era and a bleak period of history.

Yao Yao is the daughter of Shangguan Yunzhu, a celebrated film siren, and Yao Ke, author of The Secret History of the Qing Dynasty. Despite having famous parents, Yao Yao has always lived as an ordinary woman would, but fails to achieve the peaceful, stable life others take for granted. Her parents divorce when she is two, and she is raised by her stern mother, who teaches her to keep her feelings to herself, and to show only smiles to other people. Yao Yao learns music and the piano as a child, but does not become a pianist or singer. During the "Cultural revolution" her mother Shangguan Yunzhu is persecuted and eventually commits suicide. Because of her mother, Yao Yao suffers discrimination and is alienated by revolutionary groups. A young man to whom she is devoted also commits suicide. Then at the age of 27, Yao Yao falls madly in love with a 17-year-old boy, and becomes pregnant with his child. This is regarded as the ultimate scandal by society, and she is utterly rejected by everyone she knows. She tried to run a blockade, but fails. After her son is born, she sends him to an adoptive family. With no home or proper job, Yao Yao leads a dismal life. Yet despite all her sorrow, Yao Yao never loses her smile or her pure heart. She refuses to marry merely as a means to a secure life. Finally, just as her nightmare seems to be reaching its end, and she has the chance to join a song and dance troupe, she is killed in a traffic accident. A 31-year-old life and all its beaming smiles are thus snuffed out.

Today nobody would give a second thought to a spirited, passionate, sociable, and slightly vain girl like Yao Yao, but 30 years ago such a girl was deemed abnormal and immoral. Challenging as she does the prevailing political, social and moral ethics of that time, it is no surprise that she is disdained, mistreated and eventually completely rejected by the main stream of the society in which she lives.

Although Yao Yao is quite different from Daisy, they nevertheless have something in common: Daisy preserves her fine manners, and maintains her free spirit despite adversity; and Yao Yao keeps smiling, and persists in her faith in love, and love for life throughout all her vicissitudes. This doggedness may not be endemic to Shanghai, but it is a fact that Shanghainese are more stubborn when there is something in their life that they love. To the writer, it is important for one to be steadfast, even over something ostensibly insignificant.

This is Shanghai and its culture through Chen Danyan's eyes. From the externals of this city to the people who constitute its back-bone, Chen Danyan depicts the nature of Shanghai through her accounts of its characters and their fate. She merges into the utmost recesses of this city.

(Chinatoday 04/11/2001)

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