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Shanghai Shows Other Side
Famed Chinese writer Wang Anyi has told many Shanghai stories in literary life.

Among the 48-year-old's acclaimed Shanghai novels is the nostalgic Changhen Ge (Song of Everlasting Sorrow), published in 1996 and winner of the prestigious Mao Dun Literature Award.

It's a beautifully written historical epic tracing the trials and tribulations of a former Shanghai beauty pageant winner from the 1940s to the present.

In her more recent works, however, Wang seems to have shunned a similar style or story.

What she tries to portray is a whole new version of a Shanghai story, such as her work Fuping, published in September 2000.

New angle

The story takes place in the 1950s, a period when Shanghai was undergoing the great change from a semi-colonized metropolis to a socialist city after the founding of New China.

The protagonist Fuping is not entirely a new face in Wang's novels -- the title character is a young woman from rural Yangzhou in eastern China's Jiangsu Province who makes a living in Shanghai.

Before Fuping goes to the city, she is asked to agree to an arranged marriage that could help her support her family. But she turns it down and decides to seek a better future in Shanghai.

Fuping first seeks help from a housemaid working in a celebrity's family living in Huaihai Street in the city center. She gets to know a variety of people in this upper-class community, which is also frequently portrayed in Wang's works.

Later, the protagonist moves to an area of suburban Shanghai beside the Suzhou River. She lives with her boatman uncle and quickly gets involved with life there.

But then the story develops in a surprising way.

The protagonist bids farewell to her uncle and goes to the Meijia Bridge area of slums built over a rubbish dump.

Residents there live humble lives and used to make a living by collecting rubbish.

Fuping later gets to know a family -- a disabled son and his mother living in a damp outhouse.

Never has such a place appeared in Wang's other Shanghai stories.

The people here are fairly friendly to Fuping. They have a "modest and courteous attitude toward any newcomers." Despite their filthy appearance, they are "hardworking, honest, healthy and with self-esteem," which impresses the heroine so much that she decides to stay.

The disabled son and mother eventually regard her as a new member of the family and Fuping makes a living working in a local factory.

Obviously, the author is unwilling to tell the story in the same way as in Song of Everlasting Sorrow.

Instead of leading readers into luxurious apartments, ballrooms and Western-style houses, Wang throws the spotlight on the struggle of the lower-class.

The city of Shanghai takes on a new face in the novel. The booming city center gives way to the shabby community along the Suzhou River and the slums near the rubbish dump.

Even when describing the apartment buildings in the city's busy area, the author hardly cares about the residents playing the piano in the sitting room. Rather, she cares about the housemaids busy in the kitchen, who come and go through the back door.

The language of the novel is as expressive as ever. But the style has changed.

Wang's Shanghai stories, such as Song of Everlasting Sorrow, feature extravagant and scholarly language, like a melancholy poem sighing at the unforgettable past.

But Wang adopts a different style in the novel Fuping. The language is much simpler and the sentences are short and read like spoken language, matching the heroine's background very well.

Author of insight

With her rare insight and great descriptive powers, Wang is among the most widely read and anthologized writers in today's China.

She was born in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu Province. In 1955, she moved with her family to Shanghai, the native city of her mother Ru Zhijuan, also a noted writer.

During the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), Wang was sent to the countryside in nearby Anhui Province as a member of the "Urban Youth" generation, who were supposed to learn from the peasants. She returned to Shanghai in 1978 to work for the magazine Childhood.

Wang began writing short stories in the mid-1970s and has continued to publish prolifically to the present day.

Most of Wang's early writings are largely based on her personal experiences during the 1960s and 1970s.

In many of her works, she likes to focus on the intricate feelings of common people in what is effectively her native city -- Shanghai.

The tangible change in the novel Fuping is meaningful and thought-provoking.

It is not only a turning point in Wang's writing but also an alternative sound in the dominant rhythm of novels nostalgic for Shanghai.

With the rapid development of Pudong District, nostalgia for the old districts began to sweep across the city in the 1990s.

The most prosperous period for old Shanghai -- the 1920s and 30s -- naturally became the most popular setting in works of literature. The frenzy swept the whole country.

Nowadays, when stepping into a bookshop, readers can easily find a number of books on similar topics -- whether novels or non-fiction -- in the most eye-catching location.

Though a decade has since passed, nostalgia among the Shanghainese is just as strong as before.

But Shanghai's history has been greatly simplified and shown in a lopsided way in these nostalgic works.

Most of the attention focuses on cafes, ancient buildings and ballrooms in the upper-class community. Little is told about the other side of the story -- a past that most Shanghainese are trying to forget, such as the lower-class living in the back alleys and struggling on the verge of poverty.

As a sensitive and observant writer, Wang has maintained a clear mind and been quite concerned about the problems that have been hidden amid the booming literary scene.

In the spring of 1999, Wang explicitly expressed her worries and confusion in her essay "Seeking Shanghai."

"In the delicately printed Shanghai stories, what I see is the 'fashion' but not the 'real Shanghai'," she wrote.

Wang expresses a different voice in her work Fuping and in many of her recent works.

Her short story Small Restaurant portrays everyday life in a back alley in central Shanghai.

"Wedding Banquet" tells the story of an ordinary teacher in the city's outer suburbs. The characters and settings are vividly portrayed.

Though the stories are different, they have one thing in common- - the author throws the spotlights on the everyday life of the lower-class.

(The author teaches at the Literature School of Shanghai University. This article is an excerpt from his thesis published in the latest issue of the Chinese-language Literary Review bimonthly.)

(China Daily July 15, 2002)

Writers Tell Stories of Literary Life
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