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positions: east asia cultures critique 8.2 (2000) 349-387

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Shanghai Nostalgia:
Postrevolutionary Allegories in Wang Anyi's Literary Production in the 1990s

Xudong Zhang

Prologue: The City at a Standstill

In Zhang Ailing's now classic 1943 short story “Sealed Off” (“Fengsuo”), Shanghai, the epitome of Chinese urban modernity, comes to a standstill. At the beginning of the story, as the kaleidoscopic images of the city converge on a moving tram car—the entry to the urban space in both fiction and reality—the bustling, sleepless commercial center of the Far East seems assured of its eternal motion and energy, of a rationality and temporal order that underscore the passion and chaos of a modern metropolis. The rhythm of modern Shanghai seems a certainty, its course as predetermined as the iron tram tracks blazing in the sun, stretching endlessly onward. “If there hadn't been an air raid, if the city hadn't been sealed, the tram car would have gone on forever,” the narrator tells us. Toward the end of the story, however, one wonders if the city existed at all, if the modern, with all its material monumentality and mundane concreteness, is nothing more than a [End Page 349] fleeting sentimentality, a sham. What has happened in between, in the short period of time captured by Zhang in a few pages?

As the siren goes off, the stream of life is halted and frozen into a frame; the expansive space of urban interactions is now crammed into a tram car; the movement, fluidity, and restlessness that characterize the city yield to immobility and fragmentation; the openness of the urban space is replaced by the city as a fortress; and the internal fractions—in economic, social, and class terms—of the city are amplified by its inhabitants' instinct for self-preservation. The surreal(ist) transition from restless energy to eerie quiet follows the impersonal image of the big city at the beginning of the story:

Gradually, the street also grew quiet: not that it was a complete silence, but the sound of voices eased into a confused blur, like the soft rustle of a straw-stuffed pillow, heard in a dream. The huge, shambling city sat dozing in the sun, its head resting heavily on people's shoulders, its spittle slowly dripping down their shirts, an inconceivably enormous weight pressing down on everyone. Never before, it seemed, had Shanghai been this quiet—and in the middle of the day! A beggar, taking advantage of the breathless, birdless quiet, lifted up his voice and began to chant: “Good master, good lady, kind sir, kind ma'am, won't you give alms to this poor man? Good master, good lady …” But after a short while he stopped, scared silent by the eerie quiet.1

If one does not believe that the elaborate organism of the modern metropolis can be paralyzed by a single incident, not even one of the magnitude of the Pacific War, then the air raid that momentarily shuts down the city might look more like a fire drill staged by a sharp-eyed, mischievous writer for the purpose of filling another page of her literary sketchbook. Yet in Zhang, a moment of interruption grows rapidly into a shock as the reader, along with her characters, is pressed to face a temporal abyss, indeed a different dimension of temporality, in which the empirical and ideological order by which we organize our sense of the world suddenly becomes precarious and quickly collapses into a frozen surrealist landscape. In a city at standstill, modernity finds its vivid allegory in the dispersal of urban middle-class reality into a daydream, as the hypocritical male facade of the city crumbles before a woman's blush. Yet there is everything but sentimentality in Zhang's [End Page 350] writings about Shanghai. Once the air raid alarm is lifted, the city goes back to business as usual. After an imagined romance runs its course, the protagonist, Lü Zongzhen, goes back to his seat. Thinking about the phone call...


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