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Treaty Ports and Shanghai

Before the war many Chinese cities, especially major treaty ports such as Shanghai and Tianjin, furnished a unique economic and social milieu within which myriad popular culture forms, including spoken dramas, newspapers, and cartoons, flourished.

The emergence of modern cities in China has been well studied.[2] By the early twentieth century China's treaty ports had developed into major commercial, industrial, and trade centers with a virtual monopoly on foreign trade.[3] Foreigners—British, French, and Japanese in particular—played a dominant role in shaping these cities' economic and political futures, largely as a result of certain privileges, such as low tariffs, special residential enclaves, and rights of extraterritoriality, accorded them in numerous treaties and agreements signed since the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. On the eve of the Sino-Japanese War, the major treaty ports were characterized by their enormous population, social complexity, economic dominance, and cultural cosmopolitanism. In 1936, for example, Shanghai had 3.7 million inhabitants (of whom 57,000 were foreigners), while Tianjin had a population of 1.2 million (of whom 13,000 were foreigners).[4] Because of their role as trade and industrial centers, treaty ports drew scores of bankers, merchants, and entrepreneurs, native and foreign alike; they also attracted newcomers from China's countryside seeking a better life in a new environment. The cities thus hosted an ethnically diverse population, one often marked by deep intergroup antagonisms and re-


gional biases.[5] In the cities, too, foreigners not only were a conspicuous presence because of their different appearance, language, and life-style, but with their new ideas they also created sharp cultural tensions.

Urbanization and industrialization quickened changes, precipitated anxieties, and bred social problems such as crimes and labor strikes. At the same time, material progress gave rise to a curious, acquisitive middle class that hankered for novelty and entertainment. Social life in the city was colorful and had a special hold on imagination. It was against this backdrop that a wealth of new urban culture forms emerged.

Perry Link has shown that cultural dilemmas and anxieties caused by a rapidly modernizing society, coupled with technological change (such as new methods of printing), the lower cost of such media as books and films, and rising literacy rates, all contributed to the rise of popular fiction in early-twentieth-century cities.[6] The emergence and popularity of spoken dramas, newspapers, and cartoon magazines in the cities can be attributed to these same reasons. But other factors came into play as well: a desire for novelty and sensationalism, cosmopolitanism, avant-garde attitudes, commercialism, professionalism, and decadence—all characteristics of modern urban society. Among major treaty ports, Shanghai set the agenda for these urban culture forms and decided their priorities.

Shanghai in the 1930s, with a population of over 3 million, was a place brimming with artistic achievement and a newfound sophistication. But it was also a city of sharp contradictions and contrasts, an oasis of modernity in a vast land of emerald rice fields and sleepy villages. With its foreign-ruled enclaves (the International Settlement and the French Concession), its booming commerce, its thriving film industry, and its numerous "street cars, neon signs, electric lights, and jazzy dances," as a New York Times reporter described it in 1931,[7] Shanghai was a city of opportunities and allure, an ideal world for young moderns to travel on the fast track and for businessmen to seal a lucrative deal. Shanghai drew artists, merchants, and dreamers like a magnet. Although Shanghainese might find little of interest in government intrigues, they could be easily aroused by the suicide of a movie star.[8] To many, Shanghai was the "Paris of the East."[9]

But Shanghai was not without its detractors. For some, the presence of so many unruly foreigners was a bitter reminder of China's humiliating past; in the eyes of many, moreover, the city's manifold temptations bred only greed and corruption. For the majority of residents, in


fact, Shanghai was a world of Hobbesian brutes where mercilessness reigned supreme. The city was "like a monstrous hell … and a vassal state of foreign countries," bemoaned the well-known actress Wang Ying (1915–1974). "People dream of nothing else except gobbling up others all the time."[10]

Shanghai's contemptible process of cultural "commodification" provoked the wrath of traditional elites, especially the Beijingese. To the Beijingese, Shanghai was a metropolis of decadence and vice. Beijingese derided their southern cousins as nothing more than nouveaux riches—vulgar, profit-seeking people consumed by materialism and vanity—rootless and confused because of the influx of depraved Western ideas. The Shanghainese retorted that the Beijingese were simply out of touch with the times. Their old, genteel style belonged to a bygone era; they loved to savor vanished glory but refused to embrace necessary changes brought about by the advancement of civilization. Beijing (changed to "Beiping" by the Nationalists in 1928; the Communists reverted to its old name in 1949) might be the seat of power, they said, but Shanghai was the financial capital of the nation and the city of the future. It was here where the newest tastes were being shaped and opinions formed. The rivalry between the "Beijing style" (Jing pai) and the "Shanghai style" (Hai pai) was actually more than a difference in style. Similar to the rivalry between Moscow (the ideological home of the Slavophiles and the city linked to the past) and St. Petersburg (the modern city so loved by Westernizers) in nineteenth-century Russia,[11] it was also a confrontation between two opposing values—traditionalism and modernity—and a debate between two cultures—high and popular.[12]

In the 1930s, Shanghai had become the heart of China's intellectual avant-garde and the spawning ground for new ideas. The port city had nearly monopolized the country's learning and publishing, to an even greater extent than did Paris in France.[13] Predictably, there was no dearth of magazines and novelettes, which, like penny periodicals in Victorian England, thrived on themes of sex, crime, and thwarted love.[14] Yet Shanghai was also dotted with excellent bookstores and elegant theaters, in addition to its celebrated cafés and restaurants. The famous Fourth Road (Sima lu, officially known as Fuzhou Road)—the "Cultural Street" (Wenhua jie), as it was commonly called[15] —was the home of many nationally known bookstores, including Kaiming Bookstore, Beixin Bookstore, and World Bookstore (Shijie shuju), and vying for readers just around the corner were the


legendary Commercial Press and Zhonghua Bookstore.[16] All this cultural activity encouraged scores of would-be writers and artists, not wishing to live a life of destitution and obscurity in the provinces, to come or send their works to this port city in search of money and fame. Shanghai might devour people, but to these aspiring artists it offered opportunities and held the promise of a better life. Consider the earlier success story of Wu Woyao (1866–1910), a Cantonese who came to the city in the late nineteenth century to work in newspapers and find a new life. He eventually made his name as a novelist by producing many highly acclaimed works, including Strange Events Seen in the Past Twenty Years (Ershi nian mudu zhi guai xianzhuang). In the mid-1930s, another Cantonese followed in his footsteps, though in a slightly different fashion. The cartoonist Liao Bingxiong (1915-) sent his works from Guangzhou to the well-known magazine Modern Cartoons (Shidai manhua) in Shanghai for publication. As a result of these opportunities Liao quickly established himself as one of the best talents in the field.[17]

Shanghai became a pacesetter of modern popular culture. This was particularly evident in the proliferation of drama clubs, cartoon magazines, and newspapers in the city, all urban culture forms with their own unique history.

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1— The Rise of Modern Popular Culture
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