Exploring Shanghai Gossip Through Literature

Cast with ordinary people and steeped in lyrical simplicity, Howard Goldblatt’s superb translation of Fu Ping commands a disarmingly quiet beauty. It is as if Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg had miraculously resurfaced, not in the cornfields of Ohio but in the shadows of Shanghai.

~Yunte Huang, editor of The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature

This week, we’re celebrating the release of Wang Anyi’s novel Fu Ping. Set in Shanghai in the 1960s, the novel reveals working class life at the heart of the city through the eyes of the titular character, who just arrived from the country. Today, cultural studies scholar Jie Li introduces Fu Ping—showing the importance of gossip to life in the side-streets of Shanghai, both historically and in Wang Anyi’s novels. Li is the author of Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life, a microhistory and memoir of the territories, artifacts, and gossip of two Shanghai alleyways across much of the 20th century.

Remember to enter this week’s Women in Translation Month drawing for a chance to win a copy of Fu Ping.

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“If Shanghai’s alleyways could speak, they would undoubtedly speak in gossip,” Wang Anyi writes in her 1996 novel The Song of Everlasting Sorrow“If the alleyways could dream, that dream would be gossip.” Although rarely featuring characters engaged in the actual act of gossiping, Wang Anyi’s oeuvre is permeated by the kind of emotional speculation so significant for the construction of gossip. Her mesmerizing, sprawling storytelling with rich, vivid details is also reminiscent of the structure and style of good gossip. For this Shanghai author, gossip is not just speech, but also “landscape” and “atmosphere” that “sneaks out through the rear windows and the back doors.” Gossip begins to “brew” at dusk; it has smells and tastes that “cling to the skin.” Gossip erodes privacy at the same time that it is the essence of the alleyway’s intimacy. Linking gossip to architecture and to the senses, Wang Anyi’s poetic meditation resituates it from print media to the alleyway as a social space and as a horizon of experience.

If the alleyways could dream, that dream would be gossip.

Nobody knows Shanghai gossip better than the city’s nannies, most of whom are migrants from rural areas. They not only exchanged long and complicated stories about the families they worked for, but also shared the skeins of narratives from their own roots and routes, from close and distant relatives from all over China. Having grown up with a nanny from Yangzhou, Wang Anyi centers her 2000 novel, Fu Ping, on this marginalized class of women so knowledgeable about the city’s nooks and crannies. The titular character Fu Ping’s name, literally “rich duckweed,” is homonymic with “floating duckweed” or “rich and poor.” As literary scholar Jiwei Xiao describes it, the name suggests the drifting lives and “rootless freedom” of many migrants to Shanghai as well as “the potential of the new proletariat class.” Orphaned as a child, Fu Ping is betrothed to the adopted grandson of Nainai, a nanny for a Communist Party official’s family, and comes to visit Nainai in Shanghai before her planned marriage. Through this newcomer’s eyes, ears, and nose, we readers can take a close look at the city’s neighborhoods, people, and things, eavesdrop on its legends, gossip, and whispers, and take a deep breath of its fragrances, mildews, and garbage, as Fu Ping drifts away from the city center to a shantytown of sanitation workers along the Suzhou River.

Set mainly in the years 1964 and 1965, Fu Ping also weaves together gossip narratives dating back to the 1930s and fast-forwarding to the Cultural Revolution. Given the political turmoil of China’s mid-twentieth century, the novel is deliberately sparing with historical time markers, or what historian Gail Hershatter calls “campaign time” (defined by a succession of Maoist mass movements) vs. “domestic time” (defined by activities around the household) in The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past. As Wang Anyi herself writes in the author’s note to Fu Ping: “In the chaotic changing of times, normal life remains unchanged.” Not that historical events did not matter, yet they changed individual destinies in altogether unpredictable ways. For example, the novel features as one of its many minor characters a “liar,” a motherless, unkempt, and impecunious classmate of the elder daughter of Nainai’s employer, in whose destitute household Fu Ping glimpses an omen of her possible future. 

In the chaotic changing of times, normal life remains unchanged.

A brief postscript at the end of the chapter reveals that this “liar” is to find new hope and dignity out of her family’s misery and society’s pity by joining the mass mobilization of sent-down youths during the Cultural Revolution. Gossip thus provides alternative histories, or herstories, of socialist Shanghai than any simplistic grand narratives of liberation or oppression.

Inspired by Wang Anyi’s fiction about Shanghai, I decided to excavate a century of gossip and memories embedded in the two Shanghai neighborhoods inhabited by three generations of my mother’s and father’s families. The resulting microhistory, Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life, spans the Republican, Maoist and post-Mao eras in four chapters entitled “Foothold,” “Haven,” “Gossip,” and “Demolition.” Apart from treating the home as housing defined by square meters, and then as refuge with assemblages of familiar artifacts, much of the book considers home as a site of private memory and storytelling. Chapter 3 traces a cultural genealogy of gossip in Shanghai as an everyday social practice, a recurring literary trope, and a form of counterhistory mediated by word of mouth, newspapers, fiction, cinema, and architecture. 

Taking the reader with me on a homecoming journey, we observe how the labyrinthine Shanghai alleyway–with its many communal spaces as well as voyeuristic theatre of everyday life–produced and reproduced stories, spun out yarns and woven them into a fabric with color, nuance, and variety. Descriptions of transient scenes unravel into extensive, serialized accounts featuring complex relationships playing out over several generations. In morally turgid stories of pain and embarrassment, alleyway residents find catharsis or consolation for the unspeakable in their own lives.

In morally turgid stories of pain and embarrassment, alleyway residents find catharsis or consolation for the unspeakable in their own lives.

Weaving together some such narrative strands, I reconstruct the lives or legends of a few women who grew up or grew old in the cramped quarters of Shanghai alleyways, their romantic illusions and sordid realities. Beneath the false, big, and empty talk of loudspeakers and mass rallies in a revolutionary era, small talk between family members and trusting neighbors provided rare occasions of honesty, solace, and humor, thereby articulating and recuperate their diverse experiences of historical turmoil. After all, gossip, as Wang Anyi put it in The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, is “somewhat like the trash of speech,” and yet “it is only in such shoddy scandalous material that something true may be found.”

Read an excerpt from the introduction to Jie Li’s Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life.

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