Shanghai in the 1930s: a glittering city, humming to the rhythm of its jazz-filled dance halls, streets lit up by neon signs, art deco buildings springing up like mushrooms. A whirlwind of dance, images of film stars vying with advertisements for cigarettes and lipstick, trains and cars traversing the city. Vice, crime, and prostitution beneath the glamorous veneer; then as now, Shanghai was heaven for the rich, hell for the poor. This was the time when Shanghai was known as ‘The Paris of the East’. It was a world city teeming with hedonism, life, and energy, dancing to the beat of jazz and looking for meaning in the curve of a woman’s smile.
No one expressed the vitality and rhythm of Republican Shanghai like Mu Shiying (穆時英), Shanghai’s “literary comet”. An avid participant in the nightlife culture of the city, Mu wrote prolifically in his short life,1 capturing the energy, colour, and tempo of life in the metropolis. Although Mu eschewed labels himself, he has often been associated with the group of modernist writers known as the ‘New Sensationalists’ (新感觉派; pinyin: xīn gǎnjué pài), who sought to portray the dynamic experience of modern urban life. His work should be seen in the context of the May Fourth and New Culture Movements, which were reactions against traditional Confucian values, instead promoting Western-influenced ideas around democracy, gender egalitarianism, and modernisation. Mu’s writing can be compared to—and stands alongside—Western modernist writers, showing their influence as well as that of Chinese modernists such as Liu Na’ou (劉吶鷗) and Dai Wangshu (戴望舒).
Recently, an English-language book devoted to Mu has been published, collecting six of his short stories, four of which have never been published in English before.2 The volume, Mu Shiying: China’s Lost Modernist, also contains a lengthy essay by co-translator Andrew David Field, which gives a biography of Mu and situates him in the context of his times. It is an excellent introduction to the work of Mu, who I was not familiar with before; for obvious reasons, he was not revived in China until the 1980s, and little of his work has previously been available in the Anglosphere.
What a treat that some of it now is! Mu is a highly accomplished writer, expressionistic and formally inventive, bringing to life the sounds and colour of Shanghai’s streets and dancehalls in dazzling style. Reading Mu’s stories, I was struck by their cinematic qualities— not just their references to film stars and movie culture, but above all their vivid imagery and sometimes montage-like structure. Mu is often more concerned with creating a series of visual impressions than a conventional narrative. In Shanghai Fox-trot in particular, time is compressed into a series of visual impressions as though captured through a camera, cutting between different shots of the city and its people.3 Indeed, it’s easy to see Shanghai Fox-trot as a city symphony in miniature:
The azure dusk blankets the whole scene. A saxophone stretches out its neck, opens its great mouth, and blares at them, Woo woo. Inside on the smooth floor, floating skirts, floating robes, exquisite heels, heels, heels, heels, heels. Free-flowing hair and men’s faces. Men’s white-collared shirts and women’s smiling faces. Arms outstretched, kingfisher-green earrings dragging on shoulders. A group of tightly arranged round tables, but with scattered chairs. Waiters in white stand in dark corners. Scent of alcohol, perfume, ham and eggs, smoke … someone sits along in the corner holding a coffee to stimulate his energy.
This is one of the most interesting passages in the story, not just for its evocation of the nightclub atmosphere, but for the fact that a page or two later, the entire paragraph is replicated in reverse (“A lone man sits in the corner holding a black coffee …”)4 Mu frequently uses repetition for poetic effect: later in the same story, we see the repeated image of “two eyeballs saturated with cocktails”. Another memorable example for me was a line repeated in Five in a Nightclub: “Seconds crawled like ants over his heart”—what a wonderful phrase to describe the desperation and apprehension of the titular five! Likewise, Black Peony is bookended by variations on the phrase, “The rouge on her lips goes through my shirt and imprints directly on my skin—and my heart is tainted red”.
In Five in a Nightclub, the energy of the street is conveyed in a stream of words and sentence fragments—lines from advertisements, conversational snippets, newspaper headlines—the writerly equivalent of cinematic montage. Mu’s camera-eye pans across the city streets, pausing on a woman applying lipstick, a neon sign, shops and cinema, zooming in to find its target:
Swirling, endlessly swirling neon lights—
Suddenly the neon lights focus:
In Mu’s stories, above all, Shanghai is colourful.
Red streets, green streets, blue streets, purple streets … City clad in strong colours! Dancing neon light—multi-coloured waves, scintillating waves, colourless waves—a sky filled with colour. The sky now had everything: wine, cigarettes, high-heels, clock-towers …
All of the Chinese silent films I’ve seen have been black and white,5 but I thought instantly of Lonesome (US 1928), with its beautiful stencil-coloured cityscape sequence.
Another striking line, from Craven ‘A’: “The midnight city had fallen deeply asleep. Only a pair of neon eyes was looking at me from under the sky-blue sheets.” I’m unsure if it’s a deliberate allusion, but the imagery is very suggestive of the famous cover of the first edition of The Great Gatsby.
Mu also makes mention of movie stars in his stories, his referents being American rather than Chinese. Norma Shearer is name-checked in three of the six stories, and in The Man Who Was Treated as a Plaything, the narrator, university student Alexy, compares love interest Rongzi to Clara Bow no less than four times. His image of her, the archetypal flighty, whimsical-treacherous woman, seems integrally shaped by the world of film:
I felt that every letter O was the imprint of her lips; the eyes in the poster of Vilma Banky on the wall looked like her eyes, Nancy Carrol’s [sic] smile looked like her smile, and strangely her nose was growing on Norma Shearer’s face.6
The time when Mu came of age saw the emergence of a new type of womanhood, the ‘modern girl’ (modeng nülang), the Chinese counterpart of the flapper, garçonne, modan garu (Japan), etc. Such women are the frequent subjects of Mu’s works, which depict the pleasures and dangers of romantic love in the metropolis, the push-and-pull, often transactional relations between the sexes in the seductive space of the dance-hall. As Field writes, all of the stories in the volume feature women “whose relations with men are ambiguous, unstable, unpredictable and uncontrollable”.
Mu Shiying’s two preoccupations—the woman and the city—are unmistakeably intertwined. Nowhere is this more obvious that in Alexy’s description of Rongzi:
This was truly a girl who lived on stimulation and speed, Rongzi! Jazz, machines, speed, urban culture, American flavour, contemporary beauty … she was made up of all these things.
Another example is the Black Peony: a woman of the city, liberated from traditional gender roles, yet defined by consumer culture and the pleasures of urban life.
“Take me, for example, I’m living in the lap of luxury, if you take away jazz, fox-trot, mixed drinks, the fashionable colours of autumn, eight-cylinder engine cars, Egyptian tobacco … I become a soulless person. So deeply soaked in luxury, carpe diem, I am living this life of luxury, but I am tired.”
“Yes, life is mechanical,” the narrator agrees.
One of the most incredible descriptive passages in the book, however, likens the female body not to the city but the landscape of a country. “A person’s face is a map,” states the narrator of Craven ‘A’, taking us from the “black pine forest zone” of Craven ‘A’’s hair down her face—“the mouth of the volcano opened slightly and out poured Craven ‘A’ smoke. Her breasts are a “twin pair of small mountains […] their purple peaks projecting faintly out of the clouds. This must have been a famous scenic spot”. The explorer’s gaze travels down the lower half her body, her “exquisite pair of sea walls”, the two gulls of her feet, dancing to the tune of ‘Goodnight, Vienna’. This description is not without sexual connotations; the narrator notes that “the place that met the sea must be an important harbour, a large port of trade” and that “everyone took this place as an excellent spot for a short-term visit”. It’s a very striking extended metaphor.
Elsewhere, women are often described in ways that recall film compositions; for example, in The Man Who Was Treated as a Plaything, the narrator moves “Through the Jazz forest of dancing legs”, and in Five in a Nightclub, women apply makeup in their compact mirrors in close-up—“But they only saw a nose, or an eye, or a curve of a lip, or a wisp of hair; they didn’t see the whole face.”
I’m not a film theory buff, but in reading Mu’s stories I recalled some of the silent film-era writing on the cinematic close-up. In 1921, Jean Epstein declared that the close-up was the soul of cinema, describing the affective power that this magnification had on him as a viewer:
A head suddenly appears on screen and drama, now face to face, seems to address me personally and swells with an extraordinary intensity. I am hypnotized. Now the tragedy is anatomical. […] Muscular preambles ripple beneath the skin. Shadows shift, tremble, hesitate. […] A breeze of emotion underlines the mouth with clouds. The orthography of the face vacillates. Capillary wrinkles try to split the fault. A wave carries them away.7
Bela Balázs was another filmmaker-writer who mused on the close-up, which he considered the “true terrain” of the film. In 1924, he wrote:
The close-up in film is the art of emphasis. It is a mute pointing to important and significant detail, while at the same time providing an interpretation of the life depicted. Two films with the same plot, the same acting and the same long shots but with different close-ups will express two different views of life.8
In Balázs’ view, the close-up is uniquely revealing; it discloses truth beyond the visible, not just “the face we wear, but our actual visual appearance”.9 The director guides the audience’s gaze and zooms in to show something more than just the sum of its parts, just as Mu does in his literary close-ups. Take this description from Five in a Nightclub:
On Daisy Huang’s laughing face, below her Norma Shearer hairdo, only one eye was visible, the wrinkles around it cleverly concealed by make-up. The shadow under her nose obscured lines at the corners of her mouth. But even laughter could not hide the weariness in her eye.
The character of Daisy Huang illustrates the central ambivalence of Mu’s work—a celebration of the nightlife of Shanghai, but one that reveals a certain trepidation, suggesting its uneasy undercurrents. The pleasures of the city may provide romance and adventure, but beware the concomitant sense of alienation and anonymity. This psychological ambiguity is, I think, one of the great powers of Mu’s writing—as we all know, the grey areas of life are more interesting than simple veneration or condemnation.
I’ve illustrated this article with images from 1930s Shanghai films, which express many of the same themes found in Mu Shiying’s fiction, although I find the film of this era less equivocal about the follies of city life; not surprising, given the experimental nature of Mu’s writing. I’m not trying to illustrate his stories, exactly, but to suggest how the language of contemporary film also dealt with the urban environment, contemporary femininity, the pace of modern life. Undoubtedly a topic that deserves further elaboration, and has probably had so from scholars. For today, though, let me recommend again the dazzling work of this very gifted writer.
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Mu Shiying: China’s Lost Modernist. New Translations and an Appreciation by Andrew David Field. Translations by Andrew David Field and Hong Yu, except for Five in a Nightclub by Randolph Trumbull. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2014. Available from HKU Press.