Author situates himself halfway between Mao Zedong and Ronald McDonald. The movement to create a self-consciously “modern” literature. On People’s East Road. With vernacular Chinese as its medium. November 13, 2006. Is commonly known as the Literary Revolution. It is exactly 11:00 am. Though tendencies towards modernization. According to the clock on the China Mobile Building. Had already been apparent for several decades. There are very few places to sit down. It is generally agreed that the movement began in 1917. Author has found a stone bench on a narrow sidewalk-plaza next to Cartier. With an article by Hu Shi titled. In pale blue, from a cream-stuccoed building front, rises a commercial tower. “A Humble Proposal for Literary Reform.” Time marches on: 11:13. In it he advocated the following: Traffic:
Your words must have substance. Pedestrians.
Don’t imitate the ancients. Pedicabs.
You must be careful about grammar. Bicycles.
Don’t “moan and groan without being ill.” City buses.
You must get rid of clichés. Cars:
Don’t use allusions. Old models.
Don’t aim at parallelism. And new models.
Don’t avoid colloquial words and expressions. Pass on sidewalk and street.
These ideas. Chairman Mao, heroically proportioned in white stone, salutes the future with an outstretched right arm and open palm. Like the title of the article itself. As an old woman with a gnarled wooden cane walks by in the opposite direction. Were far from revolutionary. Speaking Sichuan dialect to her aged companion. In stressing that one should have something to say. A pale green “Chengdu Bus,” its name in white English letters, turns into People’s East Road and also continues past Mao. Don’t merely write for the sake of writing. At whose feet flutter, in the midday breeze, red flags without insignias. And that one should express genuine feelings. Black sedans; grey, lemon and mauve mincars; a silver van. In a natural language. Veer in the opposite direction to head down People’s West Road.
Hu reveals a basically expressive concept of literature. Diagonally across the intersection, for one of whose coordinates no name is given. And voices antipathy. Either on street sign or large map of Chengdu just purchased. Towards archaism. Rises the Sichuan Science and Technology Museum. And aesthetics. Passersby are a mix of tourists, mostly from this province of 100,000,000 inhabitants, along with unemployed roustabouts in black jackets. Hu’s article. Plus local shoppers. Was followed by. Author has not observed a single foreign visitor during the past hour, including his stroll from hotel to The Square of Heavenly Governance. Ch’en Tu-hsiu’s much more radical “On Literary Revolution.” We are 1000 miles from Shanghai. In which he raised three battle cries: A girl in a yellow jacket.
Down with carved and polished. Blue running pants. Obsequious. With a white stripe up the leg. Aristocratic literature! Has left her parents behind to seat herself on bench next to author. Establish instead easy-to-understand. Takes out an orange, peels it and begins to eat its sections. Expressive. Within two minutes. People’s literature! She is joined by her parents, the mother, in black jacket with red roses, shouting at her now seated husband from five meters away using twice the decibel level required.
Down with stale, extravagant, Classical literature! For a moment the marble floored plaza before Cartier is vacant. Establish fresh. The wind picks up. Sincere. The husband arises from his seat on bench and, peering into author’s notebook, declares, in Mandarin. Realistic literature! “English!” only to return to his Chinese paper, ignoring daughter and wife, as the latter now sidles up dimly to perceive and with a slight discomfiture frown at author’s activity, looking into his eyes for a clue.
Down with obscure. Planted on the sidewalk corner of the intersection is a Pepsi Cola umbrella, slightly aslant. Abstruse. A woman strolls past with shoe polish, brush and a stool, against which she knocks the brush to solicit business. Hermetic literature! Most male passersby under 25 have spiked hair. Instead establish clear. The photograph of a watch shows 10:08 on an old-fashioned dial. Popular. High above, the China Mobile Tower reads: 11:42. Social literature! Two teenies gambol past.
Despite his somewhat ambiguous terminology. In Levis and Nikes, their buttoned up shirts, in pink and green, left hanging out over their jeans but covered by flimsy rock star jackets. It is clear that Ch’en was aiming at. Some older girls wear skirts and pointed shoes with high heels. A literature revolutionary in content. But the vast majority is dressed in jeans and running shoes. Not merely at a revolution. A cement truck, cylinder revolving clockwise, its blue Chinese characters announcing its owner as “Chengdu Construction,” turns right. In literary language. A girl with bare midriff, belly button showing, hand in a fingerless glove — this only on a poster advertising a soft drink — indicates that she wants “the taste that pleases her,” as a basketball player looks up at though (due to ineffective collage) also past her.
Arrived at McDonald’s for a view of the present. Chinese dramatists did not think in terms of “tragedy” and “comedy.” Author takes seat at second-floor window for a view of the future: But, like Chinese novelists, often mixed the serious with the lighthearted. An enormous construction site, whose street-side wall below had obscured it. The happy with the sad. A parking garage, has recently been completed. The high with the low. The plaza above it only begun. This has caused embarrassment to modern scholars and critics. Between the window and author’s table a woman of 50 in red sweater takes a seat to await her daughter, who is placing an order at the counter. In particular, much ink has been spilled over the question. Reaching into her shopping bag, the mother removes a sandwich. Of whether there is true tragedy in Chinese.
Now the daughter arrives, with two soft drinks, a paper bowl of soup and a box containing four Spicy McWings. And if not, why not. Out over their table, below on the sidewalk, are visible three pedicabs, their operatives standing beside them. Although no attempt will here be made. The daughter’s cell phone rings with the bright tones of music. To offer definitive answers to these questions. Three commercial towers, all of recent vintage, loom in this vicinity. The following observations may perhaps be helpful. On the front of one building, a department store, is a large ad for a clear liquor (its name not legible from McDonald’s window), in which are represented a fantastic scene involving four red-clad dancers, their garments hanging off their arms like bat wings, behind them, formally attired musicians.
To begin with. McDonald’s walls are in chromium, deep mauve and aquamarine. It is more fruitful to inquire into the reasons why something happened. Its chairs, free standing rather than attached to tables, have circular seats in cobalt blue. Than it is to inquire why something did not happen. Its clientele is sparse, even at this, the lunch, hour. The birth of tragedy in ancient Greece. Youths in athletic jackets and pants. Was due to the combination of various social, religious and linguistic factors. Single men in garishly striped business suits. And if the same combination of factors. Next to the red-sweatered mother and her daughter sits a single girl with ratted hair. Did not exist in China. Her professional uniform consisting of a navy vest, a white shirt, jeans and a navy jacket, the last draped about her chair.
So it is hardly surprising that tragedy. Having ordered only a soft drink, she sits preoccupied with reading materials: As developed by the Greek dramatists. A fashion magazine. And defined by Aristotle. Xeroxed sheets laid face down. Did not emerge in China. A book with its bookmark only several pages into the text. Furthermore, the absence of tragedy as a well-established dramatic and literary genre. The skies of Chengdu are uniformly light grey. Does not necessarily imply, as has been asserted, that the Chinese lacked a “tragic vision of man.” The product of cloud cover, mist and pollution. In the preceding chapters. At curbside a yellow-roofed, light-green-bodied taxi awaits a fare. We have seen how some Chinese poets and novelists. Who now arrives in a brown leather jacket holding a black briefcase.
Did show a tragic vision of reality. In the whole of the vast square under construction appear scarcely a dozen hard-hatted workers. And there is no reason to suppose that Chinese dramatists. Pollarded evergreens border one edge of the site. Who more often than not also wrote poetry or fiction. Within the restaurant, on the farther wall, hangs a computer graphic. Were alone incapable of such a vision. Representing an icy shelf. They simply had to accept, or compromise with, theatrical conventions that demanded happy endings and the fulfillment of poetic justice. Behind which are skies in lurid orange and red. In any case, poetic justice does not necessarily destroy the prevailing tragic atmosphere of a play. Outsized bubbles floating within the imagined landscape hover above the water’s surface.
Even in great western tragedies. Exiting McDonald’s, author descends a stair case past a new Starbucks. At the end there is usually reconciliation or a restoration of order. As he prepares to complete his circumambulation of the plaza. Rather than unmitigated catastrophe. Whose northern side is bordered with banks and other commercial buildings. Yet no one has complained, for instance, that Fortinbras’ election to the throne is a happy ending that disqualifies Hamlet as a tragedy. The department store noted earlier reads “Chengdu Emporium.” Finally, it should not be taken for granted that tragedy is the highest form of dramatic literature. Along half its facade has been mounted a photograph advertising Italian-style villas. Is The Tempest or The Winter’s Tale. “Floraland.” Inferior to Hamlet or Macbeth? It is called.
Even if we admit that there is no true tragedy in Chinese. We cross an avenue to Citibank’s City Tower. It does not necessarily follow. Pausing to take an escalator to the second floor of the Tianfu Book Store. That Chinese drama as a whole. Where children’s literature is on display. Is inferior to Western, or any other, drama. Along with self-help books and an author on video defining drug abuse.
MM: We are in Shanghai, at the International Art Fair, talking to a Chinese artist who is exhibiting her work. Would you please tell us your name?
Mandi: Conquer-the-Universe tried to tell Plum-Blossom. Mandi! Not to yell at Lin.
MM: Mandi? That doesn’t sound very Chinese. If the kid wanted to stare at the shadows on the wall, let him.
Mandi: It’s my American name! What harm could that do?
MM: Oh, I see, and of course it’s also your artistic name. Besides.
Mandi: I have a Chinese name, Yi-lin, but while I live in Sydney, someone call me Mandi! Yelling was bad for her blood pressure. It’s more easy.
MM: Yes. But no sound would come from his mouth. Easier to remember, isn’t it?
Mandi: Yes! Plum-Blossom’s voice was growing sharper and louder.
MM: Mandi, why don’t you tell us something about your work, for example, about this large, important painting displayed on the wall of your booth.
Mandi: Well, I just use some Chinese thing, do some history and . . . um . . . some colorful thing, use the mixed media to mix some different thing together and show the new look in my painting. He woke up and turned the alarm off.
MM: The results are quite attractive: you have a figure in your painting that looks like the famous Tang dynasty woman, a little overweight, who is being hoisted by her servants onto a horse! It was three o’clock.
Mandi: Yes, it looks like me, doesn’t it? Plum-Blossom mumbled something about green onions. See the face? [Mandi turns her face sideways to reveal her profile.]
MM: Well, yes, as a matter of fact. She turned and resumed her snoring. The Tang dynasty had a taste for plump women, and maybe such taste is reviving! Conquer-the-Universe squeezed his way between the double bed, Lin’s bunk, the dinner table, the desk, the wardrobe, the chairs and boxes. Tell us which media you are mixing together.
Mandi: I am mixing the drawing with the bright oil color and pasting onto the canvas the historical texts. Until his bare toes touched the pile of uniforms on the floor. These texts are the contracts of history more than two hundred years old.
MM: This painting reminds me of Tang dynasty painting.
Mandi: The lady is like the Tang dynasty, but the history is only two hundred years old.
MM: I see. So you are combining an image from the Tang dynasty with texts from the Qing dynasty by using contemporary technique. Would you say that in a sense this painting is a self-portrait? The lady on the horse resembles you, and perhaps the historical materials reflect your own historical awareness in the context of present-day China.
Mandi: “The little girl saw three chairs in the room.” Yes, there are three different times represented in the painting. “The big one for Papa Bear, the middle-sized one for Mama Bear and the little one for Baby Bear.”
MM: Do you yourself, like the lady in your painting, know how to ride a horse? He rummaged through the uniforms.
Mandi: Yes, I am a good rider.
MM: Pairing the coats with the pants. And so the beauty of the lady, and the fact of her horsemanship, makes me think of you. But there is one element in the painting that does not resemble Mandi. Size “small” for my revolutionary little Red Soldier son.
Mandi: What is that? Size “large” for my revolutionary teacher wife.
MM: It is these strong colors. For though you are dressed in blue pastels, the colors in your painting are bright red and black. And size “medium” for my revolutionary self.
Mandi: Yeah, a young person always like jeans.
MM: Someone has said that blue is the international color, because people all over the world wear blue jeans, even the revolutionary women of Iran.
Mandi: Yeah, but the colors in my painting are red, because red is a Chinese color.
MM: Why do Chinese people like red so much? “Separate and isolate the enemies,” said Mao Zedong, “and vanquish them one group at a time.”
Mandi: The red . . . um . . . make you lucky? Give you some energetic?
MM: And when you put red together with black, what do you get?
Mandi: Because a different color, one light, one dark.
MM: And what do the two together mean? If the red means good fortune, what does the black mean? A real Marxist puts theory into practice, even on minor “enemies.”
Mandi: Because the black color the Chinese also always use. The black is the top person.
MM: I see. As in the black robes worn by traditional officials! He tiptoed around their attic room. And I notice that you yourself also have black hair! How unusual!
Mandi: No, Chinese always have black hair! Let the carpenter, who lived in the room below, sleep on.
MM: Not today, Mandi! The carpenter’s eyes would bleed with envy. Most girls in other Chinese-speaking countries put red streaks, or yellow streaks or green and blue streaks in their hair. When he saw Conquer-the-Universe returning from market. Or sometimes dye it blond, but you still have beautiful black hair. With a fat yellow fish. Very chic!
Mandi: Thank you. “A gentleman should never stoop to fight a small man like the carpenter,” Conquer-the-Universe could hear his father saying.
MM: Please tell us more about Shanghai. You have been to Australia, and you have an “American” name, and now you have come back to China. He felt that he had started his relationship with the carpenter in quite a “gentlemanly” fashion. What is your perspective on Australia and America, since you have returned from abroad?
Mandi: I like the Australians, because they buy my painting in Sydney when I live there two years, and many customer buy my painting in America now.
MM: Congratulations on your success! At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Though you were born (you have told me) in the provinces, you returned from Sydney directly to Shanghai. When six families moved into his mother-in-law’s three-bedroom house. How did you know where to find a place to live and work? Conquer-the-Universe had gone out of his way to be “friendly” to everyone, including the carpenter.
Mandi: I just looked the book, then I can find some village some artists live inside, so I move there in Shanghai. He would nod a hello when he passed the carpenter on the stairs and when they ran into each other in the market.
MM: I think you were very brave to come to a city, not knowing where to go and where to find a place to live. Now he hurried away to the market to buy the yellow fish.
Mandi: Very easy, for Shanghai is an international city. Have some book, tell you what to do, how to make a living.
MM: Now tell us a little, if you will, about the history of Shanghai.
Mandi: For Shanghai, the history, you can look the book. But I can’t tell you some new thing about history, for you are the expert!
MM: Not at all, but I understand: Even though you are interested in history, and use historical subjects in your work, you yourself are living in the present, here in Shanghai!
Mandi: Yes. I like Shanghai very much, because, ah, Shanghai have a lot of new thing and very modern and lot of young people and always have some foreigner working in Shanghai and have a lot of party and you can go to shopping . . . um, very good city! When he got home from the market, the only one in the kitchen was the woman from the basement making her breakfast.
MM: Do you think it is important to have foreigners coming to modern China? He thought of cleaning the fish while she was still using the sink. As I understand it, foreigners have been coming to Shanghai for some time.
Mandi: Yes, lot of foreigners said, “Here is best city in China.” She lacked his larger perspective, for which he was often ridiculed.
MM: And because you speak English, you can speak to most foreigners in Shanghai. But when his colleagues and students imitated his Russian-accented English, he didn’t mind.
Mandi: Yes, I have a lot of friend, uh, that is foreigner. For example, he said “lowf,” when he taught his students to say, “I love Chairman Mao.”
MM: Tell me some of their nationalities. He ran up the stairs to give her a hand with the basin stand. Where do your foreign friends come from?
Mandi: More come from America; and second come from French. And I learn the language for the French now. And third I have a friend who come from Germany? And some customer come from Japan? He showed Lin the fish.
MM: I see. You are talking about the customers who buy your paintings. Lin wanted to know if yellow fish came from the Yellow Sea. Very impressive!
Mandi: Yes, about my customer friends. “No,” he said.
MM: And what about the art that you see here at the Shanghai International Art Fair, from France and Germany, from America and Japan? “How come the gill is black?”
Mandi: I also have some friend who is foreigner artist. “This one is dead,” Conquer-the-Universe explained.
MM: And do you feel that you are influenced by foreign artists? He told Lin that “fish” punned with “abundance” and was therefore a symbol of prosperity.
Mandi: Some foreign artists like Shanghai very much. They moved here because more cheap and can buy lot of good thing. I know some person that’s two year working in Shanghai. If the fish in the calendar was dead, the meaning would be lost.
MM: To change the subject for a moment: This morning I saw on television a program about qi-pao, the beautiful Chinese dress that has a slit up the leg. When I spoke to you earlier about our interview, you told me that you would be wearing a qi-pao when I arrived. “Lin!” Plum-Blossom yelled. But when I came over just now (without telling you in advance), I found you dressed like an artist living in San Francisco, or New York, or Paris. Conquer-the-Universe quickly reached under his pillow to stop the alarm. You do not seem to be dressed like a Chinese person but rather like a westerner.
Mandi: Um, because daytime always similar, but nighttime, if I go to party, I have a good gown outside. “See what you have done to the fish!”
MM: You know, Mandi, sometimes I think that you have two sides to your personality. Conquer-the-Universe jumped out of bed. And that these two sides are reflected in the two different kinds of painting that you do: one historical, the other abstract. “I just wanted to see the color of its heart.”
Mandi: Yes, I have two thing. Lin had slit open the fish with his penknife. Sometimes I do the flower for the painting. Also I do some mixed media. A streak of yellowish green was filtering through the mass of dark, dead blood and moving on to the white meat.
MM: But this painting hanging on the wall is also yours, and it is neither flower painting nor history painting. It seems to me instead more like color-field abstraction. His knife had pierced open the fish’s gallbladder.
Mandi: Yes, I just like this color.
MM: So maybe there are three sides to your personality! “You have ruined the fish,” his mother shouted.
Mandi: Maybe more! “You have ruined the fish,” her voice went on and on, like a siren.
MM: Yes, maybe more.
Mandi: Because I like some new thing! Forget about the fish, he wanted to tell her, there would be other fish. I want to try some new one.
MM: I see, in this canvas, you are painting yet another subject. What would you say this painting is about? Stop your screaming, stop it, or you will end up with a stroke.
Mandi: That is the clothing, the old shirt or dress. “Please stop,” he said. But I use now the eye to look. No sound, however, would come from his voice. He clutched the basin stand, which lurched under the weight of his grasp.
MM: What is the relationship among all these different things? It rocked with him, then steadied. For your work includes abstract painting, flower painting, paintings of historical subjects, and a painting of a woman’s dress. Gradually the siren faded.
Mandi: [Laughter.] Because I’m more interesting something, so I do something. “That’s all right,” the faintness of his voice alarmed him.
MM: You do something, in other words, because it interests you? He told Plum-Blossom he would lie down for a few more minutes. You do what you feel like doing?
Mandi: Yes. The fish was ruined.
MM: Now abstraction is really a western form of painting. But the carpenter need not know, would not know. Whereas history painting, at least of this sort, with images and text combined, might be considered in relation to traditional Chinese painting, with its image and colophon. If he cooked it like it was not. What about these paintings of clothes?
Mandi: The paintings about clothes just look very easy and very beautiful.
MM: So as an artist you are always trying to be beautiful. Tonight he would dress the fish with golden sweet-and-sour sauce and score against the carpenter.
Mandi: Some people like very crazy thing, but I like beautiful thing.
MM: So do I. The fish would not be edible. Now what about these flowers?
Mandi: The flower: because I like flower. And the lady always like the flower. He would have to think of a way that Lin and Plum-Blossom would have something to eat. Flower and the chocolate.
MM: What? So do I. How? Maybe we should have some chocolate together some time. He wouldn’t worry now. Mandi, you have been talking about your career as a painter, but let’s for a minute discuss a more basic subject in your life and in your culture. There was plenty of time to worry. Let’s talk about love.
Mandi: I have one husband!
MM: Only one?!?
Mandi: [Laughter.] I want many, but in the law I can have only one. He very interesting. He tell me what he want to do. For example, my painting finished, he always tell me this part good, this part maybe you change a little bit.
MM: So you are very lucky. Your husband is interested in your work!
MM: Now, I understand that this man is your “husband,” but in China you call him your “ai-ren,” your lover, don’t you? What do you think? Can love and marriage go together?
Mandi: Yeah. Sure. Yeah.
MM: Well, that’s wonderful, for in many countries, as you know, they do not go together.
Mandi: Yeah. Lover different from husband.
MM: You have told me that you would like to have many husbands.
Mandi: [Laughter.]I was just joking.
MM: Oh, I see, you were just joking. [Laughter.] What about Chinese men? Do they like to have many wives?
Mandi: In China? Exactly!
MM: And what do you think of this? He had the whole day,
Mandi: Um . . . um . . . I think people if he have a very strong body and he make more money, have a good job, he can’t . . . uh . . . have a simple life, because . . . have some lady, young lady, and have some thing he want to make a good life, maybe he can’t . . .
MM: . . . have only one wife! He would come up with something by tonight. You know, in the Arab world they say that a man can have four wives, if he has enough money.
Mandi: Yes, I hear about this.
MM: But in most western countries they say you can only have one wife.
Mandi: Yeah, I think different place have a different life.
MM: But also, in the western world, where people have only one wife or one husband, they get married, and then they get divorced. How are things in China? What do you think about divorce?
Mandi: I think if together no really good, sometime unhappy, must be go to divorce, because can find the new life.
MM: Does this ever happen in China?
Mandi: Yes, a lot of happen in China.
MM: How many people get divorced?
Mandi: Um, I don’t have the exactly number, but I hear some story.
MM: And do you think this is because the Chinese are becoming westernized?
Mandi: No, because lot of the Chinese they aren’t go to the outside yet, but always young person or middle size person have some problem for marriage.
MM: Marriage, the world over, seems to be a problem for everyone, doesn’t it?
Mandi: Yes, maybe.
MM: Now, to change the subject again . . . Your English enables you to have many European, as well as American and Australian, friends. What have you learned about Europe? What do you think about the Europeans? For you what kind of a place is Europe, and what is its relationship to China?
Mandi: Before in China, you know, I have some customer who come from Europe. Europe is my dream. I think in Europe have a lot of history and a lot of beautiful sculpture and art and a lot of huge museum. It is my dream to come from Europe. Here in summertime, I to Europe.
MM: Where did you go?
Mandi: To Vienna, to exhibition.
MM: And did you have a good time in Austria?
Mandi: Well, I flight to Europe, and European not really friendly.
MM: So you found the Europeans to be not really very friendly. What do you think is wrong with the Europeans these days?
Mandi: Um . . . the European, everybody look very sad. You want somebody to help you find a road, you show the map, and everybody look unhappy.
MM: They say they don’t know the answer to your question! Yes, many times in Europe I have had this experience.
Mandi: He tell you, but zero talking English. In the airport, somebody don’t talking English, but I know he can talking three or four language. So what happened?
MM: Some people think that Europe is declining, is about to fall, whereas Asia is rising. What do you think?
Mandi: Yes, in Europe people look very proud, but I don’t know . . .
MM: Let’s talk instead for a moment, if we may, about what lies between Europe and Asia, as we move westward, that is, America. What about The United States, for example?
Mandi: American people always seem like sunshine!
MM: Oh really? They are more optimistic, you are saying.
Mandi: Yes, I saw somebody very happy and look very strong.
MM: But many people all over the world, as you must know, are anti-American; they don’t like the Americans at all.
Mandi: Oh really? I don’t know why. I like everybody in America. But this time I do exhibitions no happy with the European travel.
MM: You have said that the Americans are happy and optimistic, but you, who are not American, seem to be even more happy and optimistic. Why is this the case?
Mandi: Maybe I don’t go American yet, I maybe just look at some American in China, look very friendly.
MM: Do you think that people in Shanghai are optimistic about the future?
Mandi: I think the future will more have foreigner in Shanghai, and Shanghai more wonderful than now and the future will be very good.
MM: What about the future of China in general?
Mandi: Oh, the future of China will very, very strong. Yeah. And very “up.”
MM: Do you think that people should be afraid of China getting stronger?
Mandi: Yes, because some person nervous for the government, but I think the future of the government is a new person inside, with new feeling.
MM: I heard just yesterday in the news that China is making friends with South Korea and Vietnam, helping Vietnam, for example, with shipments of vaccine. Some people feel that China wants to dominate Asia, but others feel that China wants to be friends, with Japan and Korea, with Thailand and Vietnam, with America and Europe.
Mandi: The Chinese always very, very friendly. Always help for everybody. Always help the Vietnam. Before, have the war between China and Vietnam, but Chinese before that always helping, helping lot. Now finish this war. Always China help Vietnam again.
MM: Well, I would like to thank you very much for taking time out from your exhibition to have this interview, and I wish you the best of luck with your career.
Mandi: Me too. Thank you!
Lying awake in Shanghai’s sweaty old Great Eastern Hotel. In an ordinary middle-class neighborhood: I was serenaded by the night sounds of the street below. Kodak Express. It was more cacophony than symphony, though in time it became easy for me to identify the component noises as if they were coming from instruments in an uncanny orchestra. Spring Bud Tea Store: The clop of bare feet on the pavement signaled a passing rickshaw. “Slimming teas” on display. The rhythmic clack of chop-sticks against a brass kettle revealed the presence of a noodle vendor summoning customers to the sidewalk below for a late-night snack, while the insistent call, “Membao!” announced the arrival of a vendor hawking steamed bread instead. An “Outlet of Shanghai Tobacco Sales Network”:
The pungent odor of their rival offerings blended with the stench of the “Honey Buckets.” Memphis Reds, Memphis Blues. Filled with human excrement, or “night soil,” as it was called, being carted out of the city to surrounding towns for fertilizer. Shanghais, Chunghwas. But it wasn’t only the smell that informed everyone in the neighborhood of the honey bucket man’s arrival. Liqun Reds, Liqun Blues. His creaky old wheel barrow with its two iron-rimmed wheels provided plenty of advance warning. Dongdus. Screams. 51’s. Sirens. Sequoias. Blaring radios. Scarlet Camelias. Fire-crackers and tinkling bells added to the din echoing from Wanting Road. Cantonese Cuisine. The city’s main thoroughfare. A new Jinhua Waste Recycling Truck, parked against a fence at number 419.
The heavy clomp of shoes on the bare wood floor of the ancient hotel’s hallway. At 421, “Ai Ren Fu Shi.” Mingled with the muffled patter of slippered feet. “Nu Skin” at 423. Revealed the heavy traffic inside as well. (A men’s clothing store, a women’s beauty salon.) That total assault of the senses was my introduction in July 1946 to China’s teeming metropolis. “Lifeng Food” (a candy and snack store). As it happened sleep was out of the question. “Xiang Hua Lou” (a delicatessen). The hotel wasn’t intended for sleep. “P&Z” (a narrow shop full of jewelry). Only later did I learn that the Great Eastern was one of the city’s many brothels run by Du Yuesheng. “Mei Cha” (cosmetics). Boss of Shanghai’s infamous Green Gang. At 427, “Kim” (a children’s clothing store, selling “PacLantic”:).
“Big Ears Du.” (“Little fish, big ocean.”) As he was known. At 430. Had helped Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists gain control of Shanghai back in 1927. “Buddies” (a convenience store still being installed). When an early Communist cadre led by the young firebrand Zhou Enlai tried to take over the city. At 431, “Hua De Fan Dian” (a relatively fancy restaurant). Du’s thugs killed most of the fleeing Reds. Across the alley, “Mu Yang Ren Jia” (an older, larger, more popular restaurant, for lamb hotpot). “Heads rolled in the gutter like ripe plums,” according to one eyewitness. At 453, “Kimderlite Diamond” (at noon not yet open). A number of Communist railway workers were also cooked alive in the boilers of their steam engines. “Guiseppe” (men’s shirts and ties); “Chang Fang” (bedding and sleep wear); “O’See Me” (bras), all at 455.
At 459. Zhou, luckily, escaped, holding a cane, dressed in silk robe and fedora, the accoutrements of a prosperous merchant. “Les Enfants” (more children’s clothing). He boarded a ship headed for the Yangtze River city of Wuhan, known as Hangkow, at a time when it was a cauldron of revolutionary zeal. “Shanghai Maochang Optical.” “Big Ears” Du’s reward for masterminding the massacre was the tight hold that he still enjoyed on the city’s variety of vices. A nameless women’s clothing store. From the opium dens in the old section of Wantao. A nameless men’s and women’s shoe store. To the lively waterfront bars of Kongkew. At 461, “Bank of Communications.” Lined with smiling Chinese singsong girls. “Gujin” (more bras and panties). And dour white Russian “hostesses.”
Next door: a nameless stall advertising second-hand cell phones also displays wall clocks, circular, oval and square. Having arrived in Shanghai almost by accident, I wasn’t prepared for the raucous surroundings, or for the city’s clashing cultures. “Lianhua” (a chain grocery store, outside it, a vendor of walnuts with a modern digital scale). It wasn’t just the stunning contrast of East and West, or rich and poor, that made such an impression. Beside Lianhua’s door on the sidewalk two vegetable sellers, their clothes in tatters, have spread out their wares. I soon became accustomed to the procession of barefoot boys pulling their rickshaws alongside sleek Rolls Royces, to the starving beggars sprawled on the pavement outside elegant restaurants. “Wella” (a beauty salon).
And to the marble banks and modern offices towering over ramshackle shanties along the Huangpu River esplanade called the Bund. Next door a smaller branch of “Shanghai Tobacco Sell Netwark [sic] Units.” It was the inbred corruption and rampant violence that took some adjusting to. “Shanghai Pudong Development Bank.” I imagine a city that prided itself in having a street called Blood Alley. A woman in a light blue uniform is cleaning its door, already opened for business, using a pink and white towel. Or a place where one exasperated missionary cried out: At 473. “If God lets Shanghai endure, He owes an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah.” A real estate office. “Yes,” in the movies Marlene Dietrich had rasped, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”
Its owner smoking. Sailors really did get shanghaied. Next door, another beauty shop. But somehow I didn’t expect the non-stop drama of a town barely recovered from the “Dwarf Bandits” (its hated Japanese occupiers). “Yi Bao” (a drug store). Shanghai was several cities crammed into one. A “Bridgestone” dealership. French Town accommodated Gallic transplants who gathered for tennis and apéritifs at Le Cercle sportif français. Selling motorized bicycles. Brits whose favorite sport was lawn bowls on the greensward of their sporting club. Scooters. And a few Yanks who threw yahtzee dice from a leather cup on the long mahogany bar at the American Club. And bikes. Plus Austrian and Russian refugees. And tires for them all. Yanguizis, as the Chinese called these foreign devils.
Induction After breakfasting with Ronald we arise from the subway into a foggy urban scene. Madame Ts’ui, née Cheng, widow of the former chief minister, informs us that. Crowded with provincials along with Beijing residents. She, her nineteen-year-old daughter Ying-ying (“Oriole”), the latter’s younger brother and Hung-niang (“Red Maid”). The sun is attempting to break through. Are staying at the P’u-chiu (“Universal Salvation”) Monastery in Ho-tung. By far the dominant colors of female attire. Where the deceased minister’s coffin is temporarily housed. Are yellow and red. Pending final burial in his native place. Although black, as in New York, is the fashionable color for male attire. We further learn that Ying-ying was betrothed in childhood to Madame Ts’ui’s nephew, Cheng Heng. The ads in the subway station are all American, including freeze-frame sequences of NBA players driving uncontested toward the basket for two-handed dunks.
Act I The hero, Chang Kung. Mao Zedong. Styled Chü-jui. Gazes blandly down. Introducing himself as a scholar and the son of a deceased minister of rites. Upon the tourists about to enter The Forbidden City. Expresses his intention to visit a friend. Through the Gate of Heavenly Peace. General Tu Ch’üeh. Almost all are Chinese. As he is leaving for the capital to take his examinations. As this audience proceeds on in toward the Front Gate. He visits the Universal Salvation Monastery. High above on a balcony. Where he chances to see Ying-ying. A yellow-clad figure is acting out one of the Emperor’s public routines. Falling passionately in love at first sight.
Act II We have pushed ahead. Chang persuades the abbot. With the throng. To let him rent a room near the West Wing. Through Supreme Harmony Gate. (Where Ying-ying is staying.) On to Supreme Harmony Hall. So that he may prepare for his examinations. Inside is a richly decorated dragon throne. When he hears that a Buddhist mass will be held for the soul of Ying-ying’s father. Where the emperor presided. He bursts into tears. (Decisions final, no correspondence entered into.) Asking to join the mass for the souls of his parents. Over the trembling officials. This request is granted. We stand before Heavenly Purity Palace. However. One of whose flanks is being reconstructed. His approach to Ying-ying through the maid Hung-niang. A screen represents. Meets with rebuff. Half the reconstruction, its red tiles and pillars, is depicted against a blue sky (in traditional symbolism, each direction had its appropriate color:
Act III The color scheme was regularized in the Ming.) It is night. Another photo, in black and white. Ying-ying burns incense in the garden. Attached to a temporary wall. And prays to the moon. Hiding the construction site. Chang overhears her. Shows the building as it appeared in the early 20th century. And chants a poem. While another artist’s conception. To which she replies with one of her own. Depicts the completed restoration. But when he tries to engage her in conversation. A last view, copy of a Qing dynasty painting, shows the building, its roof clad in brilliant yellow tiles. She leaves. As the backdrop for the wedding of the Emperor, who is also clad in yellow, amidst various dignitaries clad in red, blue, white and black.
Act IV The mass is held. We cross the Zhong He Dian to enter another courtyard. Chang and Ying-ying look at each other with love but cannot speak.
Induction In dynastic times, we are told, the vast square was used for political activity. The rebel Sun Fei-hu (“flying Tiger”) besieges the monastery and demands Ying-ying as his wife. On another temporary wall have been posted historical scenes thereof. Madame Ts’ui promises to marry her to anyone. From various eras. Capable of repelling the rebels. Another Qing painting in reproduction depicts the admiration of the Emperor by three castes of officials. Chang claims that he is capable. The ordinary caste in red, a more elevated caste in blue, the most distinguished caste in black.
Act I The paving stones have degenerated from the Ming to the Qing to the present. Chang’s plan is to send a letter to his friend Tu Ch’üeh. Some repaving has been carried out. The “White Horse General.” But not much. A novice. The famed “National Palace Museum.” Hui-neng, volunteers to deliver the letter. As it turns out. He breaks through the ranks of the rebels and fulfills his mission. Includes everything that one can see: the ancient architecture, the grand public courtyards, the People, even the sky overhead, one is tempted to say. The general duly arrives and lifts the siege. This, in other words, is an outdoor (as well as indoor) museum.
Act II At last. On Madame Tsui’s behalf, Hung-niang invites Chang to a banquet. We are back out on the street. Chang happily anticipates his wedding with Ying-ying.
Act III Semi-obscured by distance. At the banquet. By an intervening fence. Madame Ts’ui breaks her promise. And by traffic along the adjacent boulevard. Asking that Chang instead marry someone else. Tiananmen Square comes into view. Since Ying-ying has been betrothed to Cheng Heng. In this pleasantly cool early afternoon. Chang is so disappointed that he contemplates suicide. Chinese passersby seem happy with their lot. Hung-niang offers to help him. Perhaps because these tourists, 90 per cent provincial, have had the wherewithal to make it to the capital for a view of the national monuments and the time to divert themselves with a stroll.
Act IV We take a seat. Chang plays his zither to express his feelings. Under a spacious dome of mistiness. Ying-ying hears his playing and is deeply moved.
Induction The fog dissipates. Ying-ying sends Hung-niang to visit Chang.
Act I Quickly the heavenly disk changes from white to pale yellow to gold. Chang asks Hung-niang to deliver a letter with a poem to her young mistress.
Act II Nonetheless. On reading the letter and poem, which her lover has penned in the most ingratiating style that he can conceive. At the center of the scene before us. Ying-ying feigns anger and writes a poem in reply. Though still at the edge of Tiananmen Square, the largest in the world, we are told. When Hung-niang shows it to Chang. Stands a monument, sharply angled and unpleasantly squat. He interprets it as a hint. A building dedicated to the People’s fallen heroes. For him to climb over the wall of the palace. Not only from the modern, Communist era. And meet Ying-ying under the cover of night. But also from earlier dynastic history.
Act III Chang comes to meet Ying-ying, who, however. Suddenly. Reproaches him for his conduct and leaves. A breeze picks up.
Act IV Madame Ts’ui. Ruffling the eight red flags. Having heard that Chang is ill. On either side of its entranceway. Sends Hung-niang to inquire after him. A police car arrives. Ying-ying takes this opportunity to ask the maid. Its pale blue lights flashing. That she carry a “prescription” to Chang. Slowly a hefty cop descends. The “prescription” turns out to be another poem. And walks to the center of West Changan Street. Which, in more explicit terms than in the previous poem, praises her love to him. There pausing to conduct, in the midst of traffic on either side of him, some perfunctory (but from this vantage point unascertainable) business.
Induction Ying-ying allows herself to be persuaded by Hung-niang to go to Chang’s room. First we must cross the vast extent of the Square.
Act I Chang waits anxiously for Ying-ying, who finally appears. A girl from the provinces. While Hung-niang stays outside. Having arrived in the capital alone. He kneels to Ying-ying in gratitude before leading her into bed. Asks that author or his guide take her digital photograph. She is bashful but yields to him. She is quite beautiful. He is overwhelmed with joy. Author asks if she is a movie star. After love making she pleads with him not to desert her. She is half-tempted by this curious foreigner. And he promises to be faithful. But decides prudently to continue on her way. For fear of being discovered, Ying-ying leaves with Hung-niang.
Act II We too continue on. Madame Ts’ui is suspicious and interrogates Hung-niang. Two policemen arrive at a lively scene ahead of us. Who admits that Ying-ying has been conducting an affair with Chang. A woman with a lively twelve-part kite is displaying it aloft in the Square. But blames Madame Ts’ui for this and convinces her that it would be best to allow the lovers to marry. In hopes of a quick sale. Ying-ying and Chang are summoned before Madame Ts’ui. The police are not amused. Who gives her consent for them to marry. They threaten to carry her off. But tells Chang that he must leave the next day for the capital to take his examinations.
Act III We reach the small restaurants. The lovers part tearfully. However. Ying-ying again expresses her fears that Chang may desert her. They have disappeared.
Act IV A wall of corrugated metal. Having reassured her that he will not. Has been erected. Chang stops at an inn for the night. Around the small district where they had once stood. Ying-ying appears. In preparation for the construction of a new high-rise building. She tells him that she has come to join him. We hail a taxi. Soldiers arrive to take her away by force. And head for another district altogether to seek an appropriate place to have our lunch. Thereupon Chang wakes up and realizes that it has been a dream. Before long we have turned into East Changan Street, the broadest of all Beijing’s boulevards. At dawn he departs in sadness.
Induction Whose traffic is flowing. Six months later. From East to West. Chang has passed the examination with top honors. From West to East. And is waiting for an appointment. Taxis with ocher-striped sides. He sends his page boy. Their roofs in blue or green. To deliver a letter to Ying-ying. Circulate.
Act I Ying-ying receives the letter. Along with other streamlined modern vehicles. And sends one in reply. Mostly manufactured in Japan, but also in the USA and in China. Together with various expensive gifts. All are shaped like used bars of bath soap. Which symbolically express her love for him.
Act II We pass many new towers: Chang is lying ill but recovers, when he receives Ying-ying’s letter and gifts. Banks and other commercial establishments.
Act III Line the boulevard. Cheng Heng comes to claim Ying-ying as his bride. Strikingly original. And deceives Madame Ts’ui into thinking that Chang has married someone else in the capital. In their deft incorporation of classical Chinese architectural motifs. Whereupon she agrees to allow Cheng Heng to marry Ying-ying.
Act IV Finally we arrive at the restaurant. Chang and Cheng confront each other. To take seats on opposite sides of a hotpot. General Tu arrives to expose the latter’s lie. We order lamb and beef. Whereupon the villain commits suicide. Mushrooms and vegetables. At last the lovers are happily married. And boil them together.
As the synopsis suggests, the dramatist’s main interest is not in presenting action but in expressing the lovers’ changing emotions. Thus do we look back upon our experience of China. For instance, the dramatic events of the siege of the monastery and the lifting of the siege are crowded into one induction. Narrow though it be. Yet whole acts are devoted to the expression of the emotions of one or the other of the lovers, with little action. And limited by our contemporary, foreign and prejudiced perspective. Throughout the drama Chang experiences a whole gamut of emotions: Beijing today. Rapture, disappointment, hope and doubt, sorrow of separation, longing for the absent one, indignation and final happiness. Though the capital. The intensity of his emotions may seem excessive to us. From which Jen, in the second chapter of Revolution had left Ancient China for the Paris of 1975. (We should remember, however, that in a society that did not allow young men and women to mix freely.) Seems hardly the center of China. (When they did have a chance to meet, their temptations were so much the greater and their passions so much the more intense.) Much less of Asia or the universe. Although Chang is hardly a hero by western standards. At least no more so than Delhi or Tokyo or London.
He shows some independence of character by his total devotion to love and his defiance of conventional morality. The Shanghai that we have revisited bears the same name as the city of 1992 (represented in Excelling) and of 1946 (represented in “MM’s China”). In fact, he even makes use of conventional morality to further his amorous goal: But here the similarities end. (He pretends that he needs a room so that he can study for his examinations in a quiet environment, and he pretends that it is his filial devotion to his dead parents that prompts him to join the mass, when in fact he is only seeking an opportunity to be near Ying-ying.) Chengdu from present perspective certainly represents a different experience from author and Taiwanese companion’s first encounter with professor, writer and director. Chang’s complete absorption in love suggests that it is possible, if only temporarily, to neglect society and live in a world of one’s own. Likewise the landscapes of Excelling are far distant from those of All, Regarding and Exists. Though not sanctioned by tradition like the time-honored withdrawal from society, sexual love seems to provide another escape from society, even if this escape surely cannot last. And also from their models, or “subtexts,” in the Ming, Sung and Yuan literati painters.
Ying-ying is at first not as single-mindedly in love as Chang, for she is torn between a wish to conform to conventional morality and gratitude toward her lover. Nor is there much of Confucian or Daoist import in these studies of the landscapes of Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma, as was explicit in the text of Engendering. This conflict within herself leads to seemingly inconsistent behavior and to her abrupt changes of mood. Although landscape here as a subject of contemplation must bear some relation to the reflective and artistic practices of the Chinese, transmitted to the West in the form of landscape gardening. Once she has had sexual relations with him, however. With its natural, irregular contours. She loves him wholeheartedly, while at the same time being sensitive to her vulnerable position as a girl who has lost her “virtue.” Which so influenced the English. In a society that sets a high value on virginity and endorses a double standard of morality for men and women. Engendering’s Norman, Oklahoma in turn seems distant. This accounts for her repeated pleas that her lover not desert her for another. From the Chinese, French and even American settings elsewhere in Revolution. Which thereby induce our sympathy and make her seem more than simply a stereotyped beauty.
Looking backwards is easier than looking forwards. In addition to the two lovers, another successfully portrayed character is the maid Hung-niang. Assigned the singing role in several acts, she emerges as a full-blooded and attractive personality. Resourceful, witty, loyal, courageous, empathizing with the lovers while laughing at their moonstruck passion, she forms a link between their private world of romantic love and the public world of humdrum reality. The retrograde vision is less demanding than the progressive. She brings the principals together as secret lovers and persuades Madame Ts’ui to let them marry. Practical and commonsensical herself, she is nonetheless capable of understanding the couple’s romantic passion. To keep its eye on the present alone is more than humankind seems capable of. Apart from her role of bringing the lovers together, Hung-niang also functions as a chorus, commenting on love and inviting us both to sympathize with and to laugh at the lovers. The present is here and now, but “now” quickly becomes the past, or the future, and “here” as well quickly becomes “there” or “elsewhere.”
Some critics have severely condemned the final part of the drama with its happy ending, but it is difficult to see how this could have been avoided. Like the animal that he is. Theatrical conventions apart, there are several reasons why the play should have ended happily. Or once was. For starters, in the original story there is no compelling reason for the hero to desert the girl, and now that in the drama she is explicitly identified as the daughter of a former chief minister, there is even less reason for the young man not to marry her. Or should be. Moreover, Tung’s narrative Western Chamber, on which the play is based, ends happily, and since the drama follows the narrative quite closely, it is very unlikely that the dramatist intended an unhappy ending. Man abides in the here and now. Moreover, the structure of the play shows more affinity with western comedy than with tragedy. The basic pattern of comedy Northrop Frye once summarized as follows: “Normally a young man wants a young woman, his desire is resisted by some opposition, usually paternal, and near the end of the play some twist in the plot enables the hero to have his will.”
The elderly live in the past. West Wing Story agrees with this pattern, except that the opposition comes from the heroine’s mother, not from her father. For they are mentally or biologically senile. Parts I-IV do not foreshadow a tragic ending. Or both. In language the play varies from sublime poetry to bawdy slang (like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet). Political and religious people live in a future. Poetic imagery is used as a means to fulfill various vital dramatic functions: In which they have ceased to exist. It expresses the imagined emotions of the main characters, depicting what could not be realistically presented on the stage (for example, love-making, described here in such poetic images as “dewdrops falling into the opened-up peony”) and provides a symbolic understructure for the dramatic action. Man is bound to the present. Though formerly condemned for its erotic passages. Bound to live within it. West Wing Story is nowadays recognized as a masterpiece of poetic drama. Like a healthy animal. And a paean to sexual love. Like a young man, ever renewed in the moment, ever in love with his Other and with himself.
The Working Week Press
Copyright © 2007 Madison Morrison
Inkbrush Painting by Chen Dapu
Collection of MM