Out of the squalor and into the light: When the Shanghai wall came down

Yu Garden in the former walled city, 1990 (photo by Isham Cook).

A city wall is a potent symbol—and equally so its tearing down. The dismantling of the Beijing fortifications began soon after the Communist takeover in 1949. I say “dismantling” as more than a few jackhammers were needed to raze some sixty kilometers of massive ramparts twenty meters thick by fifteen meters high, and it took the better part of two decades. The ostensible reason was to ease transportation, but it was also to make a revolutionary point: the sweeping away of the old to make way for the new. Xi’an’s thirteen-kilometer and Pingyao’s six-kilometer walls remain fully intact; the cities were wise enough not to engage in Liberation-fueled cultural destruction. The extant twenty-one (originally thirty-five) kilometers of the Nanjing wall remains the most impressive and beguiling of all of China’s city walls, as it snakes around the city to conform to its topography. By dour contrast, the moat surrounding the Beijing city wall, once it was filled in and paved over, turned into the rush-hour parking lot known as the Second Ring Road (a few of the city’s other moats were preserved or reconstructed and moved further away from their original location). In 2002, the city restored a 1.5-kilometer section with original bricks, assuaging a bit of its guilt, though this required the razing of 2,000 homes that were built where the wall had formerly stood.

The modest five-kilometer wall surrounding Shanghai was another matter. Built up in 1553 to fend off pirate attacks, it wrapped around the city in a tight oval, unlike the grand rectilinear plans of Imperial Beijing and Xi’an. Although the wall lasted a good 360 years until the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Shanghai was never designed to be walled in. The city’s transportation routes were creeks and canals, requiring unhampered flow. With flooding problems exacerbated by water gates and free access blocked to outside boats, the waterways silted up over time and became unusable sewage and refuse ditches. The wall was torn down to little public fanfare and much relief in 1912–14. No signs of it remain today except for a tacky little restored section attached to the Dajing Ge Pavilion, not even built to the original height. There remains the ghostly circular outline of the former moat paved over by Renmin and Zhonghua Roads (map below). More evident is the striking difference between much of the old city and the surrounding urban environment. That is because the decision of what to do with it has languished in confusion and indecision for over a century. Whatever hasn’t been cleared away or become rubble is shabby and decrepit, reminiscent of the more impoverished byways of backwater China, or an American inner-city ghetto, while the rest of Shanghai flourishes around it.

Former walled city, 1990 (photo by Isham Cook).

It was always thus, above all whenever the population burgeoned and became squeezed into cramped neighborhoods with no room for expansion. The wealthy laid claim to large swaths of the walled city to build their sprawling courtyard homes, temples, gardens and orchards. To remind the rabble of who was in charge, they named the streets after themselves. Late nineteenth and early twentieth-century reactions by visiting Westerners, when the city had become quite populous (250,000), are revealing: “Filthy dirty and neglected,” according to Peter George Laurie in The Model Settlement (1866), or as described in James Ricalton’s 1910 account in China Through the Stereoscope: A Journey Through the Dragon Empire at the Time of the Boxer Uprising, “a wilderness of low, one-story buildings…traversed by lanes or streets which might better be termed fetid tunnels, seething with filth” (both cited in Denison & Guang). Famed traveler Isabella Bird (to be returned to in Chapter 4) wrote of the walled city in 1899, “It is bad form to show any interest in it, and worse to visit it,” though she herself found “the slush was not fouler nor the smells more abominable than in other big Chinese cities that I have walked through.” The “dark, crowded, dirty, narrow, foul, and reeking” streets are only “eight feet wide…narrowed by innumerable stands, on which are displayed, cooked and raw and being cooked, the multifarious viands in which the omnivorous Chinese delight, an odor of garlic predominating.” Enough eye-witness accounts survive to give us a sharply etched idea of these streets, so narrow, wrote James S. Lee in 1907, “there was just room for two people to pass each other…full of beggars with hideous mutilations, and distorted limbs, and lepers, who were hardly recognizable as human beings,”  and in the middle of which was “an open drain or channel, littered with garbage and refuse, so that we had to crowd close to one side to prevent ourselves falling in.” As in medieval European cities, the lanes were so narrow they obscured the sky above. In the words of contemporary Liu Yanong,

Bamboo poles with laundry rest on the eaves of houses on the opposite sides; the sky is permanently obstructed by the drying underpants, foot-binding strips and cloth diapers. Lazy housewives don’t even bother to wring the laundry before hanging it. Pedestrians curse the residents in their homes, who loudly return the abuse. There is no end to quarreling until the sound of gongs announces the magistrate is on his way. Yamen runners rush ahead to clear the way yelling: “Take down your wash!” as if there was a fire. People rush to drag their laundry poles back into their houses and grab any stray clothing that drops; those not quick enough get a public scolding. (Cited in Knyazeva & Sinykin, Shanghai Old Town: The Walled City)

Even after the wall was torn down the character of the place remained the same, as an eyewitness of the 1930s recounted:

One street here, perhaps half a mile long, must rank as one of the oddest in the world. Spread on the sidewalks for its entire length, on a day when there is no rain, is an endless assortment of picked-up rubbish for sale. It is a new revelation in poverty. The Flea Market in Paris looks like Tiffany’s in comparison. Each “shop-keeper” has a dirty cloth a yard or two square laid on the ground. On this he has perhaps a single burned-out electric bulb, an old tooth brush or two from some garbage can, some scraps of rusty wire, some bent nails and a couple of cork stoppers. That will be all. He will sit all day, day after day, to sell that—presumably the findings of his wife and children sent out as scavengers. And the hundreds up and down the street, most of them, will have stocks as amazingly trifling and worthless. A few will have such imaginably useful articles as a workable cast-off hinge or a pair of bent scissors. Anything, absolutely anything, available in ash heaps and garbage cans is on sale here—an unmated old slipper, a nicked ink bottle, the cover of a book with the pages gone—all are for sale, each merchant having only half a dozen or so bits of such junk for his entire stock. (Townsend)

Famed American journalist Carl Crow (1884–1945) (to be returned to in later chapters), summed up the old city in those early decades of the new century as “a mean place…actually not important enough to justify the dignity of a wall” (Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom).

Former walled city, 1990 (photo by Isham Cook).

Fortunately, we now have a valorous attempt at a corrective reading in Katya Knyazeva and Adam Sinykin’s, Shanghai Old Town: Topography of a Phantom City. Vol. 2: The Walled City (Shanghai: Suzhou Creek Press, 2018; Vol. 1: The Old Docks covers the area between the walled city and the Huangpu River). Knyazeva, who is researcher, photographer and primary author, is at pains to conjure up the glories of the old city—the elaborate gardens, the fine stone and woodwork still plentiful to the discerning eye in many of the surviving buildings, and everything else of missed significance. It will not escape the notice of expats and China Hands that it often takes a foreigner to conceive of such a book. Earlier models on Beijing’s history are Michael Meyer’s The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed and Virginia Stibbs Anami’s Encounters with Ancient Beijing: Its Legacy in Trees, Stone and Water. The latter publication is especially gorgeous, from the lush cover and interior photography to the exhaustive research and descriptive care of the prose, drawing us into an urban story that would otherwise escape notice. Comparable publications in Chinese are hard to come by and whatever can be found tend to be dull and pedantic. This is due to a general contempt among the Chinese for history, above all the history of their country, the more so as this history is trumpeted (a paradox explored in my Questioning China’s “5,000 years” master trope), and still less interest among the citizenry for the cities they live in. When school lessons and government propaganda on TV and film reduce history to a narrow list of events, when the professional practice of history proper—requiring the airing of alternative accounts and competing interpretations—is forbidden, then history fails to exist in any meaningful sense of the term. People know this. Hence the kneejerk antipathy among the majority to anything smacking of “history.”

Knyazeva’s tome resurrects the Shanghai walled city in over 500 lavishly illustrated and exhaustively researched pages, including a systematic tour of every important street and lane, both those which survive and those which have been obliterated. There is much that is informative here. We learn, for example, that rickshaws and other vehicles were of little use in the city because they couldn’t surmount the arched bridges spanning the numerous creeks, perpetually slippery from spilled water carried by the parade of water carriers whose guild was protected by the city authorities (the foreign concessions outside the walled city had piped-in tap water by the 1880s). In the absence of a social welfare system or any municipal services to speak of, the wealthier half were left to organize rudimentary fire brigades and hospitals, charities for orphans and the destitute, the collection of the many dead abandoned on the streets from starvation, disease and infanticide, and the maintenance of the streets and bridges.

Knyazeva photographs every building she can identify and which has some sort of story behind it. There are many illustrations of noteworthy architectural and decorative motifs. The cumulative effect creates a mysterious mood or atmosphere. Some details are photographed so close-up as to appear abstract or unidentifiable, conjuring up talismanic symbols of an ancient society, if one existing only a century ago. Interspersed with these are photos of the present-day occupants of the buildings, going about their business or lounging around with an ambivalent or suspicious gaze at the camera. Most of these residents are of modest economic means, dowdily dressed and comporting themselves with indifference toward the historical significance of their habitat and blind to the motives of the strange foreigners so obsessed with it. Although Knyazeva’s photos are meant to convey a nostalgia, some seem to undercut her labor of love by depicting with unintended candor the evident shame for their shabby surroundings written in the faces of those inhabiting them.

Former walled city, 2018 (photo by Isham Cook).

Knyazeva befriended surviving descendants still living in their family’s Qing-era homes. From them we learn about the last major destructive event to visit the old city before today’s bulldozers, the rampaging Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution, who set about mutilating every piece of traditional handiwork they could find, scraping bas-reliefs off gates and lintels and smashing street-side sculptures, as if attempting to complete the work the Japanese had begun in their bombing campaigns in the 1930s. After 1949, the surviving houses and mansions were arbitrarily partitioned up to peasant families. If the owners were lucky, they were allowed to reside in one of their own home’s rooms. This is another reason why foreign-authored historical publications on China tend to fare better than mainland editions. Anything dealing with the Cultural Revolution remains taboo. Knyazeva is at pains to record the source of each occasion of loss, and the Cultural Revolution gets frequent mention. She only succeeded in having it printed on the mainland by publishing it independently and in English.

The argument of The Walled City rests on an act of imagination, a fantasy: what the old city would be like if it could be fully restored. This will never happen. On the contrary, there will soon be nothing left, apart from the shlocky built-up tourist section surrounding the Yu Garden. The real estate is too valuable to tolerate anything less than high-rise development.

But there is another phenomenon taking place which goes some way toward offsetting the loss of China’s original walled cities. Oxymoronic as it sounds, it is the explosive growth of ancient canal towns. The fashion took off in the early 2000s in the Shanghai vicinity of Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, most notably Zhouzhuang (周庄) and Wuzhen (乌镇), though southern China is populated with scores of them. The towns can be dated back hundreds of years or even one or two millennia, but only recently has the concept of turning these picturesque old villages into major tourist destinations caught on in a big way, perhaps on the model of long-established haunts such as Lijiang and Dali in Yunnan Province or Pingyao in Shanxi Province. Decrepit structures were repaired and refurbished and the towns expanded beyond their boundaries with new buildings in the same style, so that it’s no longer possible to tell where the original ends and the fake begins. Rumor has it the towns’ inhabitants have been told to make themselves more visible through their windows and ape their traditional lifestyle for the thousands of tourists who mill through the narrow streets every day; rumor also has it they were hired and brought in specifically for the job. There are also “ancient” water towns on the same model sprouting up from scratch, such as Gubei Water Village (古北水镇) near the Simatai Great Wall outside of Beijing, constructed only a few years back. Great care is taken to make everything look authentically old to justify the high entrance fees. The crowds don’t seem bothered by the question of authenticity. If anything, the more impressive the simulacrum, the more they feel they are getting their money’s worth.

Former walled city, 2018 (photo by Isham Cook).

If the tourist authorities were serious about recreating life in old Chinese towns, or the walled city of Shanghai for that matter, if they really wanted to be authentic that is, you would find yourself in a crowd of men with shaved foreheads and Manchu queues, prostitutes calling from doorways and other scattered females in bound feet tiptoeing along or being carried on the back of their maids (respectable women were discouraged or forbidden from venturing outside), dying lepers and child beggars latching onto your limbs, while opium fumes mixed with noxious rural miasmas from stagnant creeks wafted through the muddy lanes. During the Small Swords Uprising of 1853–55, the walled city was taken over by a local militia of Triads paying homage to the Taiping, who had by then established a religious dystopia in Nanjing. The Taiping figured out one of the most effective methods totalitarian regimes employ for inserting the tentacles of fear deep into the minds of the populace: stamp out sex. All men and women, including married couples, were segregated and anyone caught in the sexual act was executed (a form of psychological terror experimented with in the Cultural Revolution, when married couples were split up into sex-segregated dormitories). The militia banished thousands of prostitutes and courtesans from the walled city. They fled to the foreign settlements to the north. After the collapse of the uprising, sex workers who hadn’t fled crawled out from hiding and set up shop in the Rainbow Bridge neighborhood of the old city, which as Knyazeva recounts, became a magnet for males in their leisure hours. Those who had fled never came back, once they saw what foreign-run Shanghai had to offer.

The British Concession started developing in 1846, followed by the American and the French concessions; in 1863 the British and American concessions merged to form the International Settlement. From the perspective of our aesthetically sophisticated sensibilities, we look back with nostalgic interest to historical architecture and museum-set cities, but the refugees arriving from the walled city in foreign-run Shanghai would have felt quite the opposite—a disgust with what they were leaving behind and an overawed embrace of the new and the modern. Even in those rustic beginnings it would have seemed like emerging from black-and-white Kansas into technicolor Oz: the elegant stately buildings in styles never seen before, the spacious paved roads and sturdy wooden walkways in place of the cramped lanes of the walled city, the outdoor gas lighting brilliantly illuminating the streets at night from the 1860s, followed by electric street lighting in the 1880s. The century’s last two decades saw miraculous modern sanitation—fresh piped-in water and sewage safely removed from people’s homes, whereas sewage in the walled city was dumped into the creeks. In the first decade of the new century came motorcars and tramlines. By 1920, 9,000 settlement homes had telephones, and cinemas were sprouting up like mushrooms. By the 1930s, well, by then visitors from around the world were flocking to Shanghai, now boasting teeming boulevards, classy dancehalls, and sexy cheongsam-clad poster girls suavely posing with cigarettes. Meanwhile, life in the walled city—and the rest of China—by staying where it was, was receding into the past. The contrast must have struck foreigners and locals alike as pathetic and embarrassing.

The standard mainland narrative of the so-called “century of humiliation” (1839–1945) would have us believe the foreign powers were responsible for the immense violence over this time period, but the most catastrophic manmade event was homegrown, namely that perpetrated by the Taiping and Qing armies in one of China’s many and recurring civil wars. Only the Japanese approached the same scale of destruction in their invasion of China. The Opium War treaties granting the Western powers control over Shanghai, Tianjin, Hankow, and other ports is also singled out, symbolically at least, as epitomizing a particularly egregious aspect of the 100 years of the concessions, when the motherland was not allowed to govern its own territory. There was indeed cause for outrage when foreigners were let off lightly for crimes against Chinese, landlords charged steeper rents to the latter than to their fellow Western citizens, and Chinese were excluded from parks and hotels or lashed with truncheons by Sikh policemen who wouldn’t dare touch a foreigner (practices which were eased over time). But people vote with their feet and they kept pouring en masse into the concessions. As Shanghai historian and native Lynn Pan recounts, “By 1885, the Chinese population of the International Settlement outnumbered the foreign by nearly thirty-five to one, while in the French Concession, there were some 25,000 Chinese to 300 foreigners.”

Former walled city, 2018 (photo by Isham Cook).

At the vanguard of this migration were the courtesans. Among the many thousands of refugees fleeing to the concessions from the Small Swords Uprising of the 1850s and the Taiping siege a decade later, it was they who ascertained how to turn their newfound circumstances to advantage. Whereas prostitution in Imperial China was proscribed and punished (while the elite were generally spared; see Sommer), the authorities in the concessions allowed it to flourish openly. But more important than the freedom to practice their profession without fear of arrest or public censure was freedom of movement. In the walled city, courtesans were confined to the indoors and a passive life of waiting, and dependence for their livelihood on male visitors led to them by word of mouth. In the concessions they could actively target customers. Initially setting up shop in the undeveloped back streets of the British Concession, they expanded to an area bounded by today’s Nanjing East Road to the north and Yan’an East Road to the south (formerly Yangjing Creek separating the British and French Concessions), Henan Middle Road to the east (Chessboard Street), and Hubei Road to the west (the edge of the original Race Course, moved in 1863 further west to today’s People’s Park) (Yeh).

In this territory they now called home, the courtesans evolved a practice of hosting frequent, daily parties—issued through “call chit” invitations delivered to nearby courtesan houses by messengers—to which they invited friendly rivals, who brought with them their own customers and patrons, for the purpose of mutual networking as well as entertainment. In an almost choreographed routine, as we learn from contemporary Han Bangqing’s novel The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai, four intoxicants were rotated throughout the day and night as new guests arrived and others departed, to optimize their comfort and prolong their stay. The guest was greeted with a water pipe lit with tobacco, and tea for relaxation; this was followed by many rounds of a popular drinking game similar to rock-paper-scissors (which is Chinese in origin) known as the “finger game,” the losers downing shots of Shaoxing wine (a rice wine of similar alcohol content to grape wine). To enliven guests who became drowsy from too much alcohol, opium was then offered as a stimulant, before things swung back to more drinking—and the guests’ carefree spending on the elaborate meals. There was much flirting of a nature which today would merit the term sexual harassment, and which the females present encouraged up to a point. Sex itself was rarely available in the top-ranked courtesan houses; males could visit lesser-ranked houses for girls on demand.

Patronage was a courtesan’s ladder to success. It generated a cash flow enabling her to live in ever-larger apartments decked out with quality furniture and décor, including the de rigueur huge framed mirrors hung high on the walls and tilted towards the guests to expand the room’s size. To further adorn these salons with appropriate cultural capital, and to hold her own with wealthy intellectuals, the ambitious courtesan cultivated not only singing and poetry but literary study and philosophy. As her reputation grew, she became unattainable and coveted. Patrons competing for a courtesan had to throw away large sums of money on her. None was promised anything, though there was the expectation that the most favored would finally be invited to share her bed. Her sexual and psychological control over the chosen patron gave the courtesan leverage to secure a stable future, potentially as his concubine or wife. Here we come full circle to traditional bourgeois marriage, where sexual ownership is promised to the man with the livelihood to afford it. On the other hand, other courtesans prized their independence, even when the sums racked up on credit by their patrons failed to materialize, and they had to resort to sleeping with lesser customers to maintain their lifestyle or prevent financial disaster. The venues also saw their share of violence and rape, though less so in the more exclusive houses which attracted a politer crowd and the skilled courtesan who knew how to manage the boorish customer, as we shall see below.

Wuzhen water town, 2014 (photo by Isham Cook).

Appearing every day out on the street doing the neighborhood rounds gave rise to the idea of showing off. Instead of merely gathering their train to visit another courtesan house only a few minutes away, they turned their journeys into an event with a route along which they could draw an audience. The startling sight of colorfully dressed courtesans trawling the streets in sedan chairs and horse-drawn carriages began to attract enthusiastic gawkers and crowds. By the later nineteenth century, the daily outing ventured well beyond the courtesan district to the riverside along the Bund, before heading westward down Bubbling Well Road (Nanjing West Road) all the way to Jing’an Temple and back, finishing with a circuit around the Race Course—rounding out to some fifteen kilometers. Midpoint on this journey was a stop-off at the luxurious Zhang Garden (張園) with its mixture of Chinese and Western pavilions, where the masses flocked to view the fashionable (only the garden’s gate survives, but a few hundred meters to the east is Shanghai’s present-day equivalent, the huge Starbucks Reserve Roastery). As Catherine Yeh observes in her informative study, Shanghai Love: Courtesans, Intellectuals, and Entertainment Culture, 1850–1910, “the courtesans helped shaped a new type of urbanite performance, in which looking and being looked at became absorbing activities in their own right.” The courtesan parade around the Race Course grew into a major occasion during the biannual races, attended by the thousands, more eager to see the courtesans than the horses. The magazine Entertainment (游戲報) gushed at the 1899 races:

Yesterday was the second day of the races and more people participated than on the first day. Especially noteworthy were the top courtesans; dressed without exception in the height of fashion, they were dashing up and down through the Foreign Settlements….Lin Daiyu wore a blue satin gown trimmed with pearls; she was riding in a four-wheeled carriage drawn by black horses, with her coachman dressed in a gray crêpe-de-Chine jacket and a black-rimmed straw hat. Lu Lanfen in a pearl-trimmed gown of lake-green color; she rode in a black carriage with her coachman in a starched light-blue cotton uniform with a black vest and a straw hat. Jin Xiaobao a flowered gown with black butterflies on a white background; she rode in a yellow carriage with red wheels, her coachman in a lake-green silk uniform with a black-trimmed straw hat. Zhang Shuyu a pearl-hemmed blue gown; she rode in a black carriage accompanied by Gu Yu, who wore a moon-white pearl-hemmed gown; their coachmen each had on black summer hats and wore light white-gray uniforms. (Cited in Yeh)

These Victorian Marilyn Monroes became the first mass media sex symbols (an industry also burgeoning in Paris at the time). This was an extraordinary transformation of the high-class prostitute from her reclusive, hermetic existence back in the walled city. The public spotlight in turn compelled the leading courtesans to take on a leadership role and become spokeswomen for charitable causes, in collaboration with the newspapers. Yeh sums up this development:

With public activities such as performing in public theaters and storytelling halls and participating in charity fund-raising, they created a public persona that was marked by the presence of two mutually exclusive features of the modern celebrity, high exclusiveness and perfect accessibility….The tabloids took over the traditional patron’s role of spreading the courtesan’s fame, the exclusive channels of communication were thrown open, and courtesans gained a strong influence over these papers as the papers’ success with the public hinged on the new stars’ public performances.

Already among contemporaries the visual documentation of the era took on an obsessiveness, and Yeh’s study includes over 150 detailed lithographs and photographs of late-Qing courtesans from magazines, city travel guides, collectible photos and postcards. (Her book can be fruitfully paired with Ferry M. Bertholet’s beautifully illustrated Concubines and Courtesans: Women in Chinese Erotic Art for a more comprehensive visual understanding of the period.) After the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the camera would be instrumental in the transformation of the courtesan into the Shanghai “poster girl” and the cinema sex goddess of the 1920s–30s.

Gubei Water Village, 2017 (photo by Isham Cook).

A major ramification of the courtesan’s public arrival was that it abetted the cause of women generally. The concept of sexual equality was only dimly imagined in late-Qing China. The courtesans in the foreign settlements were among the first women at liberty to reject marriage and support themselves through self-employment (although, as Sommer documents, mobile sex workers burgeoned among the lower classes throughout nineteenth-century China). Admittedly, financial independence was only an option for the minority of successful courtesans who had the physical allure, culture and social savvy to enlist wealthy patrons. But none of this could have happened without the conceptual breakthrough of freedom of movement. It was not understood until witnessed in action. Though Chinese women arriving in the settlements were shocked and offended by the sight of courtesans nonchalantly carrying about in open carriages, it put the idea into their head that this was something they too could do. Respectable women had also been confined in their homes and now they saw they no longer had to be. They flocked to the public gardens to view the courtesans and indeed acquired the latest clothing fashions from them. It would not be long before women were marching with men on the streets for nationalist causes; female university students were at the forefront of the May Fourth Movement in Beijing and Shanghai in 1919. All of this was enabled by the move from the walled city into the foreign settlements, a mini revolution which impacted the consciousness of all those who experienced it.


If after his failed attempts at the Imperial exams in Beijing, Han Bangqing (1856–94) had written a courtesan novel while living in Shanghai’s walled city instead of the International Settlement, it would have been in the tradition of eroto-romantic classics such as Li Ju-chen’s Flowers in the Mirror (1827) and the anonymous Courtesans and Opium (1848), or the earlier Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone (aka. A Dream of Red Mansions) (1791) and The Plum in the Golden Vase (1610, often attributed to Tang Xianzu), with which he was certainly familiar.  What he did write, Sea Flowers (海上花), published in 1894 and better known in the English translation of Eileen Chang and Eva Hung as The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai, could only have been the product of a mind profoundly impacted by settlement life. The freedom of movement which liberated the settlement courtesan, in the hands of Han Bangqing similarly liberated the novel, not so much in terms of content (sexual relations was a timeworn topic in Chinese literature) but on a deep structural level. His novel is notably radical in the way it breathes naturalism into the dialogue, but its breakthroughs in narrative technique were not due to any influence from contemporary developments in European fiction (e.g. the Naturalist school led by Émile Zola), whose celebrated works had yet to be translated into Chinese.

Sing-song Girls can be regarded as one of the most original of novels. There are several reasons as to why it’s not better known and appreciated today. It was written in the Wu dialect, testing the patience of Chinese readers not from the Shanghai region. Eileen Chang’s 1983 translation into Mandarin helped gain it wider recognition, but a greater obstacle for Chinese and English readers alike is that it’s not an easy read. Han set out to encapsulate a society in microcosm with a vast cast of characters whom the conventional reader would be able to keep track of and identify with. On this last count he can’t be said to have wholly succeeded, but his particular solutions to this narrative challenge are of immense interest to the more sophisticated reader, anticipating as they do many modern cinematic techniques of story-telling (Han died two years before the arrival of film in China in 1896).

Shanghai café in former French Concession, 2014 (photo by Isham Cook).

Many novels have been constructed on an epic scale, seeking to capture a whole society with a large cast of characters. Tolstoy’s War and Peace contains almost 200 characters and 1,400 pages (Oxford edition), but that’s dwarfed by the aforementioned Chinese classics The Plum in the Golden Vase, which has over 800 characters and 3,700 pages (Princeton UP edition in five volumes) and The Story of the Stone with over 400 characters and 2,500 pages (Penguin edition in five volumes). Sing-song Girls is more modest in scope but still substantial, with 120 characters and 527 large-format pages. Epic novels typically embrace a broad passage of time to allow new characters to be introduced at a leisurely pace, a few at a time, so that the reader isn’t overwhelmed, as with The Plum in the Golden Vase. There also tends to be a constraining unity, such as unity of place, to which the action keeps returning in order to build familiarity; The Story of the Stone achieves a strong sense of unity by circumscribing the story to a single large household revolving around a few main characters. Han sought to capture the actual conditions of life in the courtesan district, where people were on the move daily from one location to the next. The challenge he set for himself was what form of narrative could best realize the telling of concurrent stories involving a mutually acquainted cast of characters shifting among these multiple locations. The resulting novel has no main plot but numerous simultaneous plots occurring in over twenty different courtesan houses. With such a potentially fractured and unstable narrative, the central structural problem was how to create linearity and continuity out of all these isolated snapshots, more precisely how and when to move seamlessly among the various locations to form a satisfying montage of courtesan life (Cao Xueqin was confronted with the same challenge in The Story of the Stone when he wrote: “The inhabitants of the Rong mansion, if we include all of them from the highest to the humblest in our total, numbered more than three hundred souls, who produced between them a dozen or more incidents in a single day. Faced with so exuberant an abundance of material, what principle should your chronicler adopt to guide him in his selection of incidents to record? As we pondered the problem where to begin, it was suddenly solved for us by the appearance as it were out of nowhere of someone from a very humble, very insignificant household who…turned up at the Rong mansion on the very day of which we are about to write” (italics Cao’s)).

The technique Han latched onto was to tag along, as it were, with the cast. Whenever a character or group of characters gets up to leave one establishment and go to the next, the narrator follows along, as if with camera in hand. This brings the action to the next locale with its new mix of characters. Later, the narrator follows another character to the next locale, as so on. As we keep returning to earlier locales, the characters grow familiar (the novel gels after a second reading). While reading Sing-song Girls and trying to visualize the action in my mind to better keep track of it, I was reminded of certain modern films of the more innovative variety. There is a movie version of Sing-song Girls by the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, Flowers of Shanghai (1998), an elegant enough film if one isn’t familiar with the novel, but the effort falls woefully short. Hou’s signature technique (shared with fellow Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang) of fixing the camera in place for long takes to simulate “real time,” sharply narrowed the parameters of the action, so that only a few portions of several intertwined plots could be featured in the 130 minutes Hou had at his disposal; this also forced him to cut abruptly from one locale to the next rather than depicting the passage to and from the various locales, an important feature of the novel.

Shanghai café in former French Concession, 2012 (photo by Isham Cook).

A more fluid approach toward action that moves among various ensembles of characters in shifting locales is found in the ever-inventive Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz, who made a film version of that most film-resistant novel In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, or rather a section of the massive novel’s first volume, Swann’s Way. The result, Time Regained (1999), is intriguing more for Ruiz’s unique cinematography than Proust’s writing. The camera is in almost continual motion, gliding in and around the characters, while spatial depth playfully contracts and expands and objects and furniture move toward or away from the camera as if of their own accord. The effect is to make the camera seem very much alive, an autonomous creature, ever prowling and on the move—like the peripatetic narrator of Sing-song Girls. Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) is just as original in its cinematography, famously shooting the entire ninety-three-minute sequence in a single take, as the camera carried by an unseen character follows a mad Frenchman from the nineteenth century inexplicably stuck in the corridors of Saint Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, as the time jumps to and from the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries. If Sing-song Girls could be rendered into film in a way that does justice to the novel, it would employ the fluid filmic techniques of a Ruiz or Sokurov. It would also be better suited to a TV series in sixty-four episodes, the number of chapters in the book.

The narrative structure of Sing-song Girls could be examined at greater length, but I’d like to shift to another innovative aspect of the novel, its dialogue. Almost any fragment of the dialogue can be chosen at random and profitably analyzed, from the seemingly trivial to the charged and dramatic. Let’s unpack an instance of the former before moving on to a more consequential example. Clever Gem is a first-class courtesan attending a party at the house of another first-class courtesan, Twin Pearl, with many wealthy patrons present. She informs her primary client, Cloudlet Chen, that they’ve been invited to the house of her elder sister, Love Gem, a second-class courtesan. Clever Gem doesn’t want to go as they have more important parties to attend that evening but feels obligated for the sake of saving her sister’s face. She drags several of the patrons along, already quite inebriated, and they ride over to Love Gem’s house minutes away by rickshaw. Love Gem fawns over the guests, embarrassing her younger sister. After a round of drinking, most of them leave, while Clever Gem, Cloudlet Chen, and another patron, Benevolence Hong, agree to stay longer. Love Gem plies them with opium, but Clever Gem grows impatient and gets up to leave:

“Let’s go, too,” said Clever Gem to Cloudlet, who immediately put down his opium pipe.

Afraid they would really leave, Love Gem detained Cloudlet on the divan with one hand, saying, “Please don’t go, Mr. Chen!” With her other hand, she held on to Clever Gem, complaining, “Why are you in such a hurry? Is it because our place is so small, so you won’t stay a minute longer than necessary?”

Clever Gem shifted her weight impatiently from one foot to another and persisted. “I’m going.” But Love Gem clasped her around the waist and threatened, “Go then! If you do, I’ll never look in on you again.”

Cloudlet laughed a little awkwardly. At this, Benevolence said, “You two stay a little longer; I’ll go ahead.” He then took his leave from Cloudlet and walked out of the room. Love Gem immediately let go of Clever Gem to see him off at the stairs, saying repeatedly, “Do come tomorrow, Mr. Hong.” (Chapter 29)

You may notice the dialogue is rather clipped, and if that’s all we had, the characters’ behavior might seem somewhat abrupt or illogical. But the speech is supplemented by the author’s close attention to their body language—Love Gem grabbing Cloudlet and her sister in each hand, Clever Gem shifting on her feet, Love Gem releasing her—which telegraphs their motives more effectively than words and conveys the precise import of Love Gem’s threat, “I’ll never look in on you again.” Without these intimate, physical gestures, we might interpret her threat to be angrier than it is. Her gestures tone it down and are just playful enough to allow Cloudlet to laugh it off. After all, she doesn’t want to frighten them all away for good.

The key point I wish here to highlight, beyond the vital importance of body language in the dialogue throughout the novel, is that we are not privy to what’s going on in the characters’ heads. The narrator adds little touches here and there to help, but they are redundant, e.g., “Afraid they would really leave….Clever Gem shifted her weight impatiently….Cloudlet laughed a little awkwardly.” We know Love Gem is afraid they will leave, Clever Gem is impatient, and Cloudlet feels awkward about their leaving, this being already evident from the combined interplay of the body language and the dialogue. What is remarkable, however, is the disciplined consistency of the narrator’s approach—never telling us what’s going on in the heads of the characters unless it’s told or implied in their words and gestures. If the novel’s narrator is a keenly observant one, it goes no further than that. It’s an impersonal sort of narrator, a mere video camera, and it’s up to the reader to work out the motivations and psychology of the characters. This is what is known in literary terminology as third-person objective point of view, or “objective POV” for short.

A famous example of objective POV is the oft-anthologized Hemingway short story, “Hills like white elephants.” It can be assumed the story was catalyzed by Hemingway’s eavesdropping on an angry conversation between a young American couple while waiting for their train at an outdoor café in the Spanish countryside. It’s difficult to make out what the couple are bickering about at first, until we realize the man is pressuring the woman to get an abortion, after having gotten her pregnant. A lesser author would have made this explicit in the dialogue, but Hemingway lets the conversation proceed in all its mysterious obscurity, with the crucial elisions intact and no clear resolution by the end. It’s a great example of less is more and makes for fascinating reading. Three decades before Hemingway, Han Banqing wielded the same technique over hundreds of pages.

Implicitly regarded as not “reader friendly,” objective POV is seldom employed anymore by novelists today. The default, conventional POV modes are either first-person or its third-person equivalent, “omniscient” POV. Like first-person POV, omniscient POV takes us into the head of the main character or characters; when a third-person narrator is privy only to one or a limited number of characters, it’s sometimes called “limited” or “subjective” omniscient POV. It’s the easiest style of narration to follow since it makes transparent the characters’ mental landscape, their feelings and motives, allowing the reader to identify with them; the reader also obviously enjoys vicariously sharing the characters’ innermost thoughts. From an empirical or experiential standpoint omniscient POV is unrealistic, yet it feels perfectly effortless, as we are so used to it. Nothing could be more natural than a narrator slipping in and out of characters’ heads at will and revealing the thoughts, desires and goals of each to the reader. Many writers may not even be aware they’re using omniscient POV but intuitively employ it since almost all novels narrated in the third person employ it. This does not mean omniscient POV is inherently superior to objective POV; they are simply different modes or styles, each with its pros and cons.

Shanghai café in former International Settlement, 2017 (photo by Isham Cook).

With objective POV, by contrast, we have no more access to the characters’ minds than we would if we were interacting with them in real life, where we also do not have this access, even among those we are close to and spend every day with. People are often not even sure what’s going on in their own head, let alone others. An honest engagement with human psychology soon bumps up against this problem. People’s thoughts are never straightforward but a hapless bundle of dynamic and conflicting emotions, rendering everyone vulnerable and liable to be swayed this way or that by those around them. This includes people known for their strong personality and firm opinions; their seeming decisiveness may be nothing more than a defense against threatening alternatives. Pragmatics, the field of linguistics which studies this aspect of social behavior, analyzes the gaps and contradictions in real speech. In actually occurring conversation, meaning is conveyed more by what the speakers are silent about than not. Body language picks up some of the slack, but it is never crystal-clear what people mean or intend, despite what they say. It’s this more sophisticated understanding of dialogue that many novelists who work in objective POV try to capture. With the reader denied access to their minds, the characters paradoxically reveal themselves all the more through their language, expressions and gestures.

Before returning to Sing-song Girls, let’s consider some of the pitfalls of omniscient POV in the hands of a conventional novelist, Christopher New’s Gage Street Courtesan (Earnshaw Books, 2012), a tale of a Jewish courtesan and former opera singer from Galicia living in 1860s Hong Kong. Despairing of her occupation, Franziska Goldmann is keen to marry one of her clients and lovers but becomes entangled with a powerful prince, with tragic consequences I’ll not divulge here. We will focus on one episode, chosen almost at random, to illustrate a rather heavy-handed use of omniscient POV. Her pimp, Edwin Hammond, shows up for one of his periodic sexual sessions with her. As they share a drink and a chat before moving to the bedroom, he squeezes her hand provocatively:

She glances at his slightly bloodshot blue eyes as he lets her hand go, at his permanently ruddy cheeks merging with his greying beard. A kindly man, she knows him to be, a successful lawyer. He doesn’t go to church much, he’d told her, but she knows he gives money to charity for Eurasian orphans, the discarded offspring of “protected women” whose protectors have ceased to protect them. But she can’t help thinking of Mr Hammond’s wife, why isn’t she enough for him? Does he come to me like a greedy child at a party, she wonders, or like a starving one? She asks herself so many questions these days, but now she asks him one. “Is your wife back?”

He sips the wine and sighs, either with satisfaction or with regret, or perhaps with both. “Last week, yes.”

“You don’t look very pleased.” Is this malicious of her? Yet actually she wants to know. “Didn’t you miss her at all?”

He smiles, glancing obliquely up at her over the rim of his glass. “I was able to find some consolation. As I shall continue to, I trust, if not quite so often as before.” He drains his glass, puts it down with a little thump on the table and nods towards the door, his bristly white hedge of eyebrows raised suggestively. He doesn’t have much time today. “Now, for instance?”

Owner couple of Shanghai café in former International Settlement, 2017 (photo by Isham Cook).

Here we have dialogue, body language, and—the prerogative of the omniscient “all-knowing” narrator—Franziska’s interior thoughts. The initial question is whether her interior thoughts provide crucial information contributing to our understanding of her character and motives and thereby warranting their inclusion. A more fundamental question, however, is whether the making explicit of her interior thoughts actually prevents us from accessing her character. For it presupposes a common fallacy in fictional dialogue, that there is a one-to-one correspondence between thoughts and words or actions, a comic-book form of characterization that represents a severely attenuated view of the human personality and corresponds to nothing in real life. People are not robots or automatons with an internal scripted software program for producing a predictable output of words and behavior—the literary formula for creating cardboard characters. To counter this tendency, an author needs to disrupt the illusion of causality between mental activity and speech, and complexify the thoughts so that they work at variance with speech. Alternatively, an author can employ objective POV and withdraw this interior activity altogether. For the sake of experiment, let’s see what happens if we remove Franziska’s thoughts from the above passage:

She glances at his slightly bloodshot blue eyes as he lets her hand go, at his permanently ruddy cheeks merging with his greying beard. “Is your wife back?”

He sips the wine and sighs. “Last week, yes.”

“You don’t look very pleased. Didn’t you miss her at all?”

He smiles, glancing obliquely up at her over the rim of his glass. “I was able to find some consolation. As I shall continue to, I trust, if not quite so often as before.” He drains his glass, puts it down with a little thump on the table and nods towards the door, his bristly white hedge of eyebrows raised suggestively. “Now, for instance?”

The passage is now much improved, and not just because its quicker pacing matches that of actual conversation. The narrator’s explicit inclusion of three rationales for Edwin’s “sigh” in the original—satisfaction, regret, or both—forecloses other possibilities. But there are other possibilities, freed up in our revised version, such as that he simply wants to convey to Franziska the impression of genuine longing to see her by pretending to be uninterested in his wife. Franziska’s response, “You don’t look very pleased,” likewise invites a variety of interpretations which a pragmatics analysis could tease out, now that we’ve turned them into real people with opaque motives behind the front of their words.

I’d now like to examine a more extended passage in Sing-song Girls, to demonstrate the author’s psychologically charged dialogue resulting through his nimble use of objective POV. We don’t have space here for a microanalysis so I will paraphrase parts of it and highlight a few notable points. The scene takes place in the house of a second-class courtesan, White Orchid. A liability of being from a second-class house is it makes her more vulnerable to the overtures of those of low character or criminal background, such as the tyrannical bully nicknamed Lai the Turtle, the son of a high-ranking government official and accompanied everywhere by his gang of thugs (Dennis Hopper’s harrowing portrayal of Frank Booth in David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet comes to mind).

Dajing Ge Pavilion with remnant of the city wall, rebuilt not quite to the same height as the original wall (photo by Isham Cook).

They show up unannounced with great fanfare, yelling and breaking pieces of china for starters, to the protests of her maid and a servant girl. White Orchid emerges from her room to calm Lai down with smiles and apologies for her tardy welcome. Guests at a courtesan’s house are normally feted in a large parlor or dining room before a few favored ones are later invited into the more intimate surroundings of her bedroom, but she deftly upstages him by inviting him directly into her room. Taken aback, “He stretched out stiffly in the chair and bellowed, ‘I’m not going into that room just to fill a gap!’” (i.e. have sex with her). She holds his hands and coaxes him into her room. As he enters, he bumps his head on a lamp suspended from the ceiling and responds by shattering it, exclaiming, “‘Even your rotten lamp tries to bully me!’” She maintains a tactful silence as one of his gang adds, “‘The paraffin lamp doesn’t recognize you, that’s why you got hit. Now if you were a favorite client, that wouldn’t have happened. It seems the lamp is quite clever.’” The hooligans work up this conspiracy with the intent of becoming violent again, but Lai remains calm and offers to pay for the lamp, and even orders a messenger to a specialty shop to bring over an array of lamps forthwith from which the best replacement can be chosen. When the lamps arrive, they hang up ten of them, and to mark the occasion Lai issues call chits to courtesans of his acquaintance to join them. White Orchid flatters him by lighting all of the lamps, causing the room, soon crowded with a dozen courtesans, to become uncomfortably hot and the hooligans to take off their shirts.

She pours him a cup of wine as routine requires. He raises the cup to her lips and tells her to drink it for him. When she turns away, he slams the cup down on the table. She glances at him sideways, picks up the cup, and says with a smile, “If you want me to drink, you should offer me a cup. Now you’re giving me what I offered you. Don’t you appreciate a courtesy?” She then slams her cup down in front of him.

This made Lai smile. He drained the cup and then filled it again and gave it to her. She downed it in one gulp. Everybody at the table gave a cheer. His spirits soaring, Lai wanted to match her cup for cup.

“You please go ahead, Your Young Excellency. I’m not much of a drinker,” she said, frowning.

“You’re still trying to fool me!” he said in astonishment. “You’re well-known for your capacity. How dare you say you’re not a drinker?”

“Your Young Excellency is going to be the death of me,” she said with an icy smile. “With us, drinking is an acquired technique. We can down a large tumbler of wine then make it come up again; that’s how we learned to drink. At parties, when guests see me draining cup after cup, they all say I can hold my liquor. Little do they know that when I get home I have to bring it all up before I feel all right.”

Lai also sneered. “I don’t believe it, not unless you drink a large tumbler of wine now and then bring it up to show me.”

White Orchid deliberately digressed. “Bring up? Is Your Young Excellency suggesting that I lay something on for you?”

All this while when Lai had been talking to her, she neither teased nor joked, so he was overjoyed at this remark. He stretched out his right hand to pull her into his arms, but she was too quick for him. Pretending to be upset, she screamed coyly and ran away from him.

White Orchid is thus able to fend off Lai’s advances with a combination of affability and humor and just the right amount of annoyance and coldness, as she bangs her own cup down and gives him an “icy smile.” Elsewhere during their visit she both flatters and ignores him, or withholds her feelings and becomes tantalizingly inscrutable:

Lai, for his part, saw that though she was attentive, she showed neither warmth nor coldness in her attitude and wondered how she was disposed toward him. Presently he took her by the hand, sat down side by side with her on the edge of her bed, and plied her with questions. She took special care that she answered his questions but did not volunteer any other information.

When he tries to grab her, she wiggles away with calculated ambivalence, squealing “coyly,” deferring his advances rather than outright rejecting him and saving his face. This enables her to hold the line before he tires of his attempts, for the rest of the day at least. She thus mollifies and controls Lai and asserts her authority as master of her domain with astute skill, all delivered by the author in precision dialogue and minimal commentary. The hands-off approach of objective POV enables the drama to emerge intact and unmediated by gratuitous interventions into the characters’ thoughts. The few interventions that do occur (e.g., Lai “saw that though she was attentive” and “wondered how she was disposed toward him”) don’t tell us anything not already deducible from the actions and dialogue.

Later in the novel, Lai and his gang pay a visit to a new courtesan of rumored beauty, Second Treasure, who has been compelled into the trade by scheming relatives and financial hardship. Quite lacking in the rhetorical finesse of a White Orchid, Second Treasure has scant tolerance for boorish customers. But I withhold spoilers, and the reader is invited to witness what transpires when a courtesan of stubborn constitution encounters the likes of Lai the Turtle.

There is a final peculiarity of Sing-song Girls that Western readers of this groundbreaking novel will not fail to notice. The author was well acquainted with life in Shanghai’s foreign settlements where he lived for many years, and the courtesan district upon in which his novel was set. But apart from one brief visit by a settlement policeman and a reference to a Japanese courtesan house, foreigners make no appearances in the story. It is the curious phenomenon of a novel that could not have been written anywhere other than in the emancipatory environment of the International Settlement yet is Chinese through and through. The wall was still present in a powerful symbolic sense, preventing both Chinese and foreigners from interacting even as they intermingled on the same streets. It was as if the Chinese in the settlements could not bring themselves to engage with foreigners until their hated symbol came down, while foreigners, for their part, had their own psychic wall of entrenched racism to overcome before they were able to take note of the native culture without hostility. This would later change; it would still be another two decades after the publication of Han’s novel before the old city wall came down. From that point on, when Shanghai became international, Chinese literature could no longer hold back its wholesale encounter and hybridization with Western literature.

Works Cited

Anonymous. Courtesans and Opium: Romantic Illusions of the Fool of Yangzhou. Trans. Patrick Hanan (Columbia UP, 2009).

Anami, Virginia Stibbs. Encounters with Ancient Beijing: Its Legacy in Trees, Stone and Water (China Intercontinental Press, 2004).

Bertholet, Ferry M. Concubines and Courtesans: Women in Chinese Erotic Art (Prestel, 2011).

Bird, Isabella. The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (John Murray and G. P. Putnam, 1899; Earnshaw Books, 2008).

Cao, Xueqin. The Story of the Stone [The Dream of the Red Chamber]. Trans. David Hawke in Five Volumes (Penguin, 1973).

Crow, Carl. Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom (orig. pub. 1940; Earnshaw Books, 2007).

Denison, Edward & Guang Yu Ren, Building Shanghai: The Story of China’s Gateway (John Wiley & Sons, 2006).

Han, Bangqing. The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai. Trans. Eileen Chang and Eva Hung (Columbia UP, 2005).

Knyazeva, Katya, and Adam Sinykin. Shanghai Old Town: Topography of a Phantom City. Vol. 2: The Walled City (Shanghai: Suzhou Creek Press, 2018).

Lee, James S. The Underworld of the East (orig. pub. 1935; Green Magic, 2000).

Li, Ju-chen. Flowers in the Mirror. Trans. Lin Tai-Yi (Ishi Press International, 2015).

Meyer, Michael. The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed (Walker & Company, 2008).

New, Christopher. Gage Street Courtesan (Earnshaw Books, 2012).

Pan, Lynn. In Search of Old Shanghai (Hong Kong: Joint Publishing Co., 1983).

Sommer, Matthew H. Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China (Stanford UP, 2002).

Tang, Xianzu (attrib.). The Plum in the Golden Vase or, Chin P’ing Mei. Trans. David Tod Roy in Five Volumes (Princeton UP, 1993).

Townsend, Ralph M. Ways That are Dark: The Truth About China (orig. pub. 1933).

Yeh, Catherine. Shanghai Love: Courtesans, Intellectuals, and Entertainment Culture, 1850-1910 (U of Washington Press, 2006).

*    *    *

You may also find these posts of interest:

Chungking: China’s heart of darkness
Confucius and opium
The expat and the prostitute: Four classic novels, 1956-62
The literature of paralysis: The China PC scene and the expat mag crowd
The ventriloquist’s dilemma: Asexual Anglo travelogues of China

Like this post? Buy the book (see contents). Now available on Amazon:


2 replies »

  1. Yet again, Cook exercises his right to apply literary baby oil to his cock. Unfortunately some poor souls will attempt to finish this ‘essay’.

    • Thank you for your intimate understanding of my writing. I’m not quite sure what you mean by your second comment, but congratulations on having the attention span to actually make it to the end of my essay, if indeed you were able to do this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.