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Mao Tun’s Midnight, Essay Example

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Essay

If for Walter Benjamin Paris was the iconiccapital of the nineteenth century and for some urbanists New York the iconic city of the late twentieth century then is Shanghai arrested the exceptional urbanism in thetwenty-first century? The vivid image made Shanghai an exciting reflection of Paris and Los Angeles in Asia. Calling Shanghai a “Paris of the East” was an incredible geographic misnomer (Bridge and Watson 35). It actually reaffirmed the globe’s imaginary, yet untouchable, “border” between East and West (35). Calling Shanghai a “Los Angeles of the West” perceived Shanghai’s position in Asia in much the same way Japan’s was at that point in history (35).One might think the way in which theShanghaicity of some 20 million people, host of 2010 World Expo, has been the heart of figurativemedia hypes in writing, film and art (35). In a growing steam of serious journalism and academic description, Chinese urbanism in general and the experience of Shanghai in particular, are held up to represent the future of the city. Indeed, just after the globe went urban, with just over half the world’s population now living in cities, a flurry of interest has focused on the dynamism of Chinese life in the 1930s.

It may help at the outset simply to describe some the main things that Old Shanghai as unusual and indeed in some senses unique as a physical place and human community. But where should such an account begin? One can start with matters of urban development and note that between the 1890s and the outbreak of World War II, Old Shanghai grew faster, geographically and demographically, than any other Chinese city (Esherick 192). Or one can point to the unusually wide array of Chinese novelists.

It is not simple matter forsomeone to respond to the collection of historical snapshots of different Chinese cities. One reason is so difficult, ironically, is that the snapshots in question fit together so well. When taken as a whole, they give a compelling vision of a coherent urban landscape – a vision that put in effective relief many of the basic features of Chinese cities (as places) and Chinese city life (as a genre of experience) during the republican era (Bridge and Watson 36). The problem this creates for someone who works on Shanghai has to do with issues of comparability and typicality. The celebrated and notorious city by the muddy Huangpu River – or more precisely the treaty-port era incarnation of it that is not often referred to as “Jiu Shanghai” (Old Shanghai) – was never an average or ordinary place (Esherick 200). Where, in a work devoted to drawing attention to common strands and teasing out overlapping themes in the urban experience, is there room for a discussion of a cityso anomalous that one of the best-known novelMidnight of the 1930s referred to it simply as “Shanghai the Incomparable”?

The period from 1928 to 1937 was noticeably a decade of growth for contemporary Chinese fiction. Shanghai in the 1930s was a veritable island of tangible modernity and also a bastion of foreign imperialist presence (Lee 6). Given this conjunction, it was no wonder that most Chinese writers who resided there developed, like Mao Tun, ambivalence toward this largest treaty port: they fully enjoyed – and indeed marveled at – the modern conveniences and material comforts Shanghai’s concessions provided (Lee 7). At the same time, they also regarded the city a center of capitalist exploitation and debauchery.

Mao Tun was a most learned and meticulous practitioner of “naturalism” in his meticulous gathering and deployment of material, his adoption of a macroscopic objective viewpoint, and his portrait of characters as victims of socio-economic forces (Fairbank and Feuerwerker 448). But he was not a master of its technique. Rather, naturalism served as an artistic means to realize his truly monumental vision of modern Chinese society (448). Despite his early membership in the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Tun’s fictional vision is essentially tragic, for it is concerned mainly with the futility of life in a class society doomed to decline and extinction (Fairbank and Feuerwerker 449). In a long novel Midnight of more than 500 pages, he erected a massive edifice of urban bourgeois society in Shanghai, dissected in many components – “bankers, landlords, stockbrokers, students, socialites” (Fairbank and Feuerwerker 449) – and depicted in detail the process of its inevitable collapse.

Midnight is a panoramic documentary of Shanghai in the grip of the Depression, and at the same time a penetrating study of its chief protagonist, the industrialist Wu Sun-fu (Sollars et al 516). Agitators among the textile workers, bandits in the home village, gilded idlers of the younger generation, cutthroat competitors on the stock exchange, industrial spies and idealistic students, corrupt politicians and rivals in love; all surround the towering central character of Wu Sun-fu, who is treated with remarkable compassion through to his final despairing cry, “Whom have I wronged, and how?” (Birch xxix) Mr. Wu has not been out of his house in more than 25 years (xxix). The long trip wearies the old man and then the sight of the changed city of Shanghai shocked him. He is too old to accept this new modern life and dies suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage on the night he arrives in Shanghai (xxix).

“The car was racing along like mad. He peered through the wind-screen….bore down upon him, nearer and nearer” (Mao Tun 15-16). Speaking of cultural shocks that immigrants from Chinese inland experienced in Shanghai, no one was able to offer a more dramatic and vivid account than Mao Tun. In the very beginning of his masterpiece, old Mr. Wu was fresh from countryside, but he was stunned by the city’s exotic grandeur, velocity and lights, among other things. His fear of being engulfed in the city finally killed him. When Mao Tun was devising the plot elements for the prototype of Midnight, he pondered over a more dramatic death.

While Shanghai under foreign capitalism had a terriblelook, the hurly-burly of the port– as Mao Tun’sfairly purple style of writingmeant to express – also emits a never-endinginfluence, as added in Midnight:the Romance of China by the three words on a neon symbol: “Light, Heat, and Power!” (Mao Tun 1).These wordsclearlypresenta new kind of “historicalreality”, the entry of modernism to Shanghaiwhose overwhelming power soon startles the central character’s father, anassociate of conventional Chinese gentry, to end.

In the preliminary twosections of Midnight, indeed, Mao Tun gives anoutstanding display of larger numbers of material signs of this progressing city ofShanghai: “cars (‘three 1930-model Citroens’), stimulating lights and ceiling fans, means of communication, ‘Western-style’houses (yang-fang), sofas and couches,guns (a Browning), cigars, scents, high-heeled boots, beauty parlors, jai alia courts, ‘Grafton gauze’, flannel suits, 1930 Parisian summer clothes, Japanese and Sweden matches, silver ashtrays, bottles of beers and soda, besidesseveral forms of amusement–dancing girls, ‘roulette, bordellos, greyhound racing,idealistic Turkish bathrooms, and big screencelebrities’” (Lee 5).

Such commodities of comfortswere not fantasy items from a writer’s perspective; however, they were part of a new truth which this novel wanted to represent and appreciate by writing it onto fictional panorama (Lee 6). They are, in a nutshell, signs of Shanghai’s road towards modernism to which Midnight reacted with a great deal of ambivalence and concern.This novel also had delineated the urban milieu in the process of a “long night before a dawn” (Lee 7) with all its ambiguous anguish. When he turned his attention to the countryside of the 1930s, he was likewise torn by a dilemma in which he attempted to see more hope in a landscape of despair.

This novelis amultifaceted study of the interrelationships between a city and country, and between foreign and Chinese businesses in a Shanghai disrupted by the world economic depression, Communist-led strikes and civil war (Phelps 354). The leading figure, a Chinese businessman, sets out to build a commercial empire but is out-smarted on the Stock Exchange by a Chinese rival who is backed by foreign finance (354). The Marxist message – that capitalism was reprehensible whether operated by native or foreign interest – emerges strongly but the antagonists are vividly and objectively presented, as are the numerous minor characters and sub-plots, and on the whole Midnight is a powerful and well-integrated in this neo-realist novel (Phelps 354). For all its dynamism and allure, the modern city of Shanghai paled in moral and ideological significance against the massive countryside, the rural world that this novel affirmed as the genuine reality that Midnight aspires to reproduce and recapture. The urban style of Chinese modernism in prose and poetry remained in isolated splendor for about the whole decade.

Works Cited

Birch, Cyril. Anthology of Chinese Literature: Volume II: From the Fourteenth Century to the Present Day. Grove Press, 1994. Print.

Bridge, Gary and Watson, Sophie. The New Blackwell Companion to the City. John Wiley and Sons, 2011. Print.

Esherick, Joseph. Remaking the Chinese City: Modernity and National Identity, 1900-1950. University of Hawaii Press, 2002. Print.

Fairbank, John King and Feuerweker, Albert. The Cambridge History of China: Republican China 1912-1949, Part 2. Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Lee, Leo Ou-fan. Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930-1945. Harvard University Press, 1999. Print.

Sollars, Michael, Arbolina Llamas Jennings, and Facts on File, Inc. The Facts on File Companion to the World Novel: 1900 to the Present, Vol. 2. Infobase Publishing, 2008. Print.

Tun, Mao. Midnight: A Romance of China, 1930, translated by Sidney Schapiro, 2nd ed. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1979. Print

Tun, Mao. Ziye [Midnight],Reprint, Hong Kong: Nanguo, 1973. 1-66

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