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Front. Hist.

China 2007, 2(2): 234253

DOI 10.1007/s11462-007-0014-8


Modernity East and West: Melodrama and

yanqing in Shanghais popular culture*
Higher Education Press and Springer-Verlag 2007

Abstract The rise of the melodrama as a literary and theatrical genre appears to
have had a co-relation with the rise of industrial cities in modern times around
the globe from Europe, North America, to East Asia. In China, this phenomenon
manifested itself in the yanqing (lit. speaking of feelings) genre that dominated
the popular culture scene in Shanghai in the most part of the twentieth century.
While the yanqing genre was an expression of particular Chinese modern
experiences, it also provided a channel for these local experiences to partake in
and enrich a global experience of modernity. This study shows how yanqing arts
helped ordinary Shanghai residents deal with changing patterns of gender, love,
and family relations in the fast-growing and modernizing city. Through such
re-examination of the yanqing culture this study tries to shed new light on some
important questions in modern Chinese history and help correct traditional elite
views of this history.

melodrama, yanqing, modernity, Shanghai

Every city has a legacy. If Republican Beijing invokes nostalgia of the lazy old
days in the Chinese past, then Republican Shanghai seems to have represented a
kind of romance of Chinese modernity. This romance of Shanghai modern,
borrowing Leo Ou-Fan Lees words, was in turn captured in numerous yanqing
Translated from Shilin (Historical Review), 2006, (4): 7079
JIANG Jin ( )
Department of History, East China Normal University, Shanghai 200062, China
* Parts of this article have been presented at the international conference, As China Meets the
World: Chinas Changing Position in the International Community, 18402000, held at
Vienna, May 1519, 2004; and The First Modern Chinese Social History Conference, held in
Qingdao, Shandong, August 2005. It is modified by the author when translated into English.

Modernity East and West: Melodrama and yanqing in Shanghais popular culture


(lit. elaborating feelings) products that flooded the citys public cultural domain.
Filled with descriptions of love, money, and women, yanqing products dominated
popular literature, from the so-called mandarin duck and butterfly school of
fiction in the early Republican period to popular writers such as Zhang Henshui
and Gu Mingdao in the 1920s and 1930s, from new impressionists such as
Mu Shiying and Shao Xunmei in the 1930s to neo-mandarin duck and butterfly
fiction represented by Zhang Ailing and Qin Shouou in the 1940s. In the scene
of popular entertainment yanqing was also the ever popular theme for various
local opera and story-singing theaters including Yue opera, Shanghai opera, Subei
opera, Pingtan, Tanhuang, as well as in movie theaters. Moreover, yanqing culture
prospered throughout the Republican era, and was developing under the pressure
of the warlord rule, the May Fourth New Cultural Movement, the Nationalist
Governments revolutionary ideology, Japanese occupation, and the civil war.
Although popular, yanqing culture was constantly under attack. Ever since the
May Fourth New Culture Movement (roughly 19151923), popular fiction and
entertainment focusing on love feelings served as a target of criticism for Chinas
intellectual and political elites. Leftwing intellectuals charged that the yanqing
artists indulged readers with exceedingly sentimental personal narratives, causing
them to lose sight of the nations great struggle for survival, social reform, and
modernity, and therefore failed to fulfill their duty to the well being of the nation,
as seen in Lu Xuns famous satire of early Republican yanqing literature as
mandarin duck and butterfly fiction, Shen Congwens attack against Haipai
(Shanghai-style) writers in the 1930s, and Fu Leis admonition to Zhang Ailing
in the 1940s.1 Not as radical, the nationalist government nonetheless shared
the sentiment of the left-wingers against popular yanqing culture, and the
governments basic attitude was to reform and control Shanghais popular
culture.2 This general hostility against popular culture continued into the post
1949 era and had negative impact on the study on the Republican history. On
both sides of the Taiwan Strait, the study on the Republican history had been
focused on intellectual and political elites while neglecting popular culture.
This situation began to change dramatically in the 1980s, and many monographs
on Republican Shanghais popular culture have since appeared. Perry Link led
the way with his pioneering study on the mandarin ducks and butterflies school
of fiction, while in the 1990s Wei Shaochang, Zhang Gansheng, Yang Yi,
Wu Fuhui, and David Wang followed up with more detailed and expanded studies
on the popular fiction in Republican Shanghai. In the meantime, Paul Pickowicz,
Yingjin Zhang, and Po-shek Fu examined popular film of the period, and Leo
For elite criticism of mandarin duck and butterfly school fiction, see Wei Shaochang, 1990,
1984, and 1962, and Rui Heshi and Fan Boqun, 1984.
See Jiang Jin, 2005: 95103.



Ou-Fan Lees 1999 study surveyed the field of fiction, film, and caf as
representatives of a modern urban culture of Republican Shanghai. Together,
these works created a rich literature of popular fiction and film in Republican
Shanghai and explored the question of cultural modernity of the city.3 Building
on the existing literature, this study examines the rise of yanqing culture in
Republican Shanghai in the process of the citys modern transformation and its
historical significance.

Yanqing and melodrama: Modernity East and West

In his analysis, the literary historian Yang Yi identified three consecutive stages
in the development of Haipai (Shanghai-style) literature, started with the
mandarin duck and butterfly school fiction writers such as Xu Zhenya and Bao
Tianxiao from the early Republican period, through modernist writers such as
Shao Xunmei and Mu Shiying in the 1930s, to neo-Haipai writers such as
Zhang Ailing and Su Qing in the 1940s.4 He pointed out that the mainstay of
Haipai literature was yanqing, following a tradition of the chuanqi genre prevalent
in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries:
Yanqing was the largest genre in Haipai literature. It seems no work could
claim to be Haipai if it did not elaborate on love. They (Haipai writers)
especially appreciated the tears of Venus, and so their love stories were always
sentimental. ... The narrowness of the thematic matter made it easy for Haipai
writers to fall into the trappings of scholar-beauty boilerplate; but once they
rose above such hackneyed formulations they could gain some insights into the
mystery of sex and love between men and women.5
Link, 1981; Wei Shaochang, 1962, 1984, and 1990; Wang Dewei, 1988; Zhang Gansheng,
1991; Yang Yi, 1993; Wu Fuhui, 1995; Pickowicz, 1993; Yingjin Zhang, 1996; Leo Ou-fan
Lee, 1999; and Poshek Fu, 2003.
The concept of Haipai culture is elusive and difficult to define, and much has been said about
it since the 1930s when some Beijing-based elite writers led by Shen Congwen criticized the
commercialization of Shanghai writers, such as Shao Xunmei, Mu Shiying, and Shi Zhecun,
labeling them Haipai writers. Haipai became since then a pejorative description of things and
styles of the commercialized Shanghai until after the Cultural Revolution. In recent decades,
with rapid economic development of the city, Haipai has gained much more prestige than it
ever enjoyed, and a few serious scholarly works appeared to rectify Haipai culture. For recent
discussions on Haipai literature and the Beijing-Shanghai debate in the 1930s, see Wu Fuhui,
1995. Hanchao Lu also briefly discusses Haipai and its commercial, modern characteristics in
comparison with Jingpai (Beijing style) as a more conservative, hinterland culture of China.
See Hanchao Lu, 1995. Other important works on the topic include Yang Dongping, 1994,
Yang Yi, 1993, and Zhang Gansheng, 1991.
Yang Yi, 335.

Modernity East and West: Melodrama and yanqing in Shanghais popular culture


Its bias against scholar-beauty boilerplate withstanding, Yang Yis comments

are apt descriptions of the orientation of Shanghais popular entertainment and,
indeed, Haipai popular culture as a whole. The genre of the love melodrama, in
fact, dominated literature, film, drama, opera, storytelling, and radio broadcasting.
The prevalence of the love drama can be understood as a cultural convergence in
modern Shanghai between the yanqing genre of the East and the melodrama of
the West.
The cultural historian Paul Pickowicz explained the origins of the genre of
melodrama as it first emerged in industrial Europe:
Melodrama, as Peter Brooks and others have suggested, is characterized by
rhetorical excess, extravagant representation, and intensity of moral claim. It is
an aesthetic mode of heightened dramatization that refers to pure and polar
concepts of darkness and light, salvation and damnation. The melodramatic
genre was developed first in French theater in the immediate aftermath of the
revolution, at a time when a significant post-revolutionary democratization of
culture was taking place. Although melodrama is a distinctively modern form,
its initial political thrust was conservative. The audience for melodrama
included people from all social classes who were frightened and confused
by the modern transformation of society. This new and powerful mode of
representation had a major impact on European fiction in the mid- and late
nineteenth century and has been kept alive by filmmakers and television
producers in the twentieth century.6
The melodramatic genre, as Pickowicz has also pointed out, dominated the
Shanghai-based Republican-era film industry. Despite their efforts to infuse
Chinese films with May Fourth thought in the 1930s, leftist filmmakers such as
Sun Yu, Cai Chusheng, Wu Yonggang, Shen Xiling, and Xia Yan, all became
captives of the powerful melodrama format. Although Xia Yan and Peoples
Republic of China (PRC) film scholars claimed that the 1930s films embodied
the tenets of social realism, the leftist filmmakers in the 1930s, as Pickowicz
argued, accepted without question the dominance of the melodramatic genre and
thereby doomed to failure any chance they had to introduce complex May Fourth
Perry Link, in his pioneering study on the early Republican popular literature,
put forth a similar line of interpretation of the mandarin ducks and butterflies
school of fiction, albeit without using the word melodrama. He pointed out that
Pickowicz, 301. The reference to Peter Brooks in the quote is from Peter Brooks, The
Melodramatic Imagination; Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess (New
York: Columbia University press, 1985).
Pickowicz, 301.



various aspects of the historical setting and literary characteristics of mandarin

ducks and butterflies fiction resembled those of popular literature in other
industrializing and industrialized societies:
The extent to which modern life patterns are inherent consequences of
industrialism may not be entirely clear; but modern-style entertainment fiction
(or television, in recent decades) has, for one example, consistently appeared
in tandem with industrialism around the world. From its beginnings in
eighteenth-century England this kind of fiction spread to Western Europe and
America, in many cases through direct borrowing as stories were reprinted or
translated across international boundaries.8
The genre of melodrama as summarized by Pickowicz, or that of popular fiction
as defined by Link, was introduced to Shanghai in the early twentieth century
via Japanese translations of western fiction being produced en masse in Osaka.9
It is of course no coincidence that Osaka and Shanghai, the foremost industrial
cities of Japan and China, respectively, were the centers of the melodramatic
productions for Japan and China. Chinese Republican popular fiction thus
displayed similar formats and included several sub-genres, as its counterparts
in Europe, America, and Japan: (1) love stories, (2) righteous-hero adventures,
(3) scandal, or muckraking stories, and (4) detective stories.10 These sub-genres
are not mutually exclusive, but more often than not overlap with one another to
form multifaceted modern adventure stories. On the other hand, the differences
between popular and elite fictions are obvious, as Perry Link pointed out:
In terms of literary styles, modern popular fiction both East and West was
distinct from elite fiction in ways which generally mark it as popular. Stories
often tell of strange, unusual events; their plots take unexpected turns; most of
their leading characters are flatly all-good or all-bad; many are expressed in
simple, direct language (though there are important exceptions to this); and
most are filled with action, sparse with description.11
Despite the fact that the development of the melodrama in China, Japan, and the
West were all somehow related to the process of industrialization and urbanization,
the Chinese perception of this very process, which shaped a Chinese version
of the melodrama, was in many ways not the same. While the English word
melodrama has no easy counterpart in Chinese, the two popularly used native
Link, 8.
Link, 9.
Link, 9. Also see Wei Shaochang, 1990.
Link, 9.

Modernity East and West: Melodrama and yanqing in Shanghais popular culture


terms, chuanqi and yanqing, capture much of the peculiarity of popular culture in
Republican Shanghai.
First, the Chinese were not just frightened and confused by modern
changes, as Pickowicz suggested of their Western counterparts with regard to
their uncertain future. For Chinese of the time, modern, a term applied mostly
to things Western, has a known quality and, for many, modern things were
both necessary and fascinating: necessary because China had to become
modernized in order to save itself from foreign dominance, and fascinating
because of the novelty and exotic (foreign) origins of things modern. Many
indeed welcomed the coming of the modern age with wonder and excitement,
favorably impressed by the steamboats, trains and railways, telegrams, and
skyscrapers, as well as by the foreign gunboats and powerful rifles that threatened
Chinas sovereignty. This sense of excitement and wonder regarding modernity is
captured in the native phrase chuanqi, which means romance, legend, or strange
story.12 Although the term originated with reference to a genre of fiction that was
popular during the Tang Dynasty, and later also came to refer to a genre of Ming
drama, the term had also been used liberally to refer to fiction that recounted
legendary or bizarre happenings. It thus struck Republican Chinese as an
appropriate phrase for describing the wonder of Shanghai in the first half of the
twentieth century.
Second, the most common form of melodrama in Republican Shanghai was the
love story. The Chinese term yanqing, in fact, probably comes closest to
describing the content and style of the citys popular culture. Yanqing, as a genre
of literature and entertainment, is characterized largely by a thematic focus
on love relations and a mode of aesthetics involving complicated plots
and exceedingly sentimental expressions of emotions. Yanqing authors rarely
conveyed much interest in politics in their work, and any political topic on which
they touched for narrative purposes never interfered with the poetics of qing
(feelings) with which they were principally concerned. While some yanqing
stories do deal with full range of human emotions, like those related to mundane
relationships among friends and siblings or between parents and children, the
majority focuses on love relations.
Republican-era yanqing literature and entertainment also had deep historical
and regional roots. Love stories in China can be traced back to at least the
Tang Dynasty, when they were a sub-genre of the chuanqi genre and therefore
consisted of tales of unusual events. Yanqing arts emerged as an independent
genre only in the seventeenth century, a period during which the Taizhou School,
which argued for gender equality and intellectual-spiritual companionship,
Leo Ou-Fan Lee also has a passing discussion of this concept in his Shanghai Modern. See
Leo Ou-fan Lee, 1999.



became influential in literary circles.13 In the wake of the bloody Manchu conquest
in the mid-seventeenth century, yanqing theme dominated literary and theatrical
production in the highly commercialized urban areas of Jiangnan. The
seventeenth-century scholar-beauty fiction and such famous chuanqi plays as
Hong Shengs The hall of eternity (Changsheng dian) have all focused on love
Viewed from the genres long history, one may consider the rise of the yanqing
genre was closely related to urbanization and commercialization in Chinese
history, as a cultural manifestation of the rise of a concentrated city population.
The wave of industrialization and large-scale urbanization in modern times,
however, facilitated the modern transformation of the yanqing genre, allowing a
convergence of a Jiangnan traditional qing culture with techniques and formulas
of the Western melodrama to forge a modern urban culture, reflexive of the
experiences and aspirations of modern Chinese going through modern changes in

Haipai entertainment and Shanghais cultural market

The treaty port city of Shanghai represented a political ambiguity for modern
Chinas sovereignty. Strictly speaking, foreign governments had no political rule
over the foreign settlement in the city. Foreigners were allowed to rent the land to
live and conduct business. The weakness of the Chinese body politic however
induced the foreign settlers to exercise the privileges of policing, administration,
and public service within the settlements, putting these areas virtually under
foreign jurisdiction. Further more, the so-called extraterritoriality and consular
jurisdiction that allowed foreign governments to give legal protection to their
citizens in China underscored the de facto foreign rule in these settlements.15
Ironically, the semi-colonial Shanghai provided safe havens for commercial
development and political opposition, and foreign power sheltered Chinas most
modern and the wealthiest sectors. Backed by a highly developed native economy
of the Jiangnan region and protected from political and military turbulence,
Shanghai attracted huge domestic and foreign investment and quickly grew into
the largest industrial and commercial center in Asia.
Shanghais economic expansion was accompanied by waves of immigration
that gave the city a highly diverse populationpolitical refugees such as the
Li Zhi was the most prominent spokesperson for gender equality and intellectual-spiritual
freedom within the Taizhou school. See Jin Jiang, 2001.
For a study on the scholar-beauty fiction of the seventeenth century in English, see Qingping
Wang, 1998.
Xu Gongsu and Qiu Jinzhang, 1933; and Shanghai gonggong zujie shigao, 1980.

Modernity East and West: Melodrama and yanqing in Shanghais popular culture


Qing loyalists running away from the revolution as well as revolutionaries

escaping persecution, economic refugees from nearby provinces fleeing
natural disasters and wars, peasants from impoverished countryside looking for
employment, and the gold miners seeking fortunes. Shanghai in the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries had already become the largest city in China,
with foreign settlements at its heart. By 1935 Shanghais population reached
3.6 million, among which about 1.6 million lived in the foreign settlement, plus
about 60,000 foreigners.16 The population in foreign settlements continued to
grow to 1.67 million in 1936 and exploded to 4.5 million in 1938 with the influx
of refugees fleeing invading Japanese troops.17 Another figure shows the
population at 4.37 million in 1947.18
Shanghai was not only a physical place defined by its ports of call and
complicated political jurisdictions; it was also a motor of Chinas modern
transformation under western influence. Shanghai is located at the mouth of the
Yangtze River Delta, backed by one of traditional Chinas richest areas, which is
also noted for its cultural vitality, and facing the East China Sea, beachhead of
Western impact on China. Largely due to its location, Shanghai developed rapidly
into a regional and national center of Chinas modern economy, and became a
metropolis known for its hybrid cosmopolitan atmosphere.
The combination of the foregoing factorsambiguous political sovereignty, a
lack of ideological control, a high concentration in resources, and the rapid
growth of a diverse populationproduced a dynamic market for all kinds of
cultural products, native and foreign, traditional and modern. Along the Bund and
Nanjing Road skyscrapers were erected to house modern banks, customs offices,
and department stores where imported goods were luxuriously displayed,
showcasing the citys modernity. A few streets away in the narrow lanes along
Fuzhou Road brothels and opium dens prospered alongside publishing houses,
bookstores, printing services, and newspaper headquarters. Because it combined
modern and traditional, and native and foreign cultural forms, Shanghai captured
the imagination of both the Chinese and the foreigners. Their image of Shanghai
was in turn captured by a distinctive urban popular culture manufactured by
artists who availed themselves of the citys flourishing print industry and
numerous entertainment venues.
Republican Shanghai was a place that manufactured modern romances in print.
Ever since the Ming Dynasty the Jiangnan area was home to Chinas most
advanced printing industry, with printers in the cities of Nanjing, Suzhou, and
Hangzhou leading the way. Shanghais printers built on this Jiangnan tradition by
Chen Zhengxiang, 1970.
Tang Zhenchang, 1989.
Chen Zhengxiang, 1970.



incorporating western machinery and paper, and soon became the nations leading
force in modernizing Chinas print culture. Shanghais printing industry was
the backbone of the citys commercial culture and helped shape cultural trends
ranging from clothing fashions like the qipao (cheongsam), a modern urban dress
for women, to the popular mandarin duck and butterfly fiction.19 Shanghais
printing industry was as capable of producing many inexpensive books in a
short period of time as it was of producing refined prints. This capacity
proved indispensable for the manufacturing of popular literature and actually
gave Shanghais popular literature its physical form. As the literary scholar
Zhang Gansheng has pointed out, the great expansion of popular literature began
with the appearance of daily newspapers with literary supplements in the early
Republican period.20 These literary supplements, with serialized fiction in daily
installments, were soon rivaled by literary magazines, which published weekly,
three times a month, semi-monthly, and monthly and carried up to a dozen
fictional works in a given issue, often including three or four installments of
longer works. If a series proved popular, an offprint would soon be produced.21
Shanghais print press also played a role in creating a mass opera culture. Printing
shops could be set up in someones downstairs living room, and cheap and
recycled paper could be used to produce low-cost handbooks, which could then
be sold at bargain prices from a few cents to maybe sixty cents each.22 Most of
these publications were printed in a small and thin format so that they could
easily be carried around in a pocket or a womans purse. These publications were
mass-produced to feed a large urban public interested in the opera. There were
fans who were also collectors of these pocket book lyrics, and amateurs used
these pocket books as scripts to put together shows for themselves.
This mass production of popular culture was penned by many literary men
who served as fiction writers, newspaper and magazine editors and publishers.
The Jiangnan area had been a reservoir for literary talents since the late Ming,
and quite a few towns around Suzhou were known for producing first level degree
holders. After the abolition of the civil service examination in the early twentieth
century, many literary men turned themselves into professional writers and made
A 1996 exhibition of Republican posters in Shanghai included a picture of the movie star
Li Lihua wearing a qipao made of mandarin blue cloth. A caption signed by Li reads: Mandarin
blue cloth is my favorite material for a dress. Liujin suiyue, 1996. Another example quoted in
Leo Lees Shanghai Modern shows the movie star Ruan Lingyu in mandarin blue qipao on the
cover of the popular Liangyou pictorial (Young companion) published in Shanghai in the
1930s and 1940s. See Leo Ou-fan Lee, 1999.
Zhang Gansheng, 1991.
For a detailed discussion, see Zhang Gansheng, 1991. Also see Link, 1981.
Shanghai yimin shuju, which produced many Yue opera lyric handbooks in the 1940s, was
for example located in the K22 Chengxing Lane, Park Road. See Xiang hudie, mid-1940s.

Modernity East and West: Melodrama and yanqing in Shanghais popular culture


a living on selling stories to Shanghais print media. During the Republican

period, according to Zhang Gansheng, there were around five hundred authors
whose serialized stories were turned into offprint. This group was twice as large
as the whole of Ming and Qing authors put together. The appearance of so many
authors in less than four decades was truly prosperous without precedence.23
This prosperous without precedence was impossible without the participation
of consumers. Popular fiction soon became an important part of everyday life
for many Shanghai residents. As Zhou Shoujuan, the famous mandarin ducks
and butterflies fiction author and editor of many popular literary supplements
and magazines, including Saturday (Libailiu, June 1914April 1916; March
1921February 1923), recalled in his later years:
There were not many magazines in the early Republican period, so Saturday
was very popular at that time. Every Saturday morning, readers waited at the
door of the Zhonghua Library, where Saturday was distributed. As soon as the
door opened people rushed in to be the first to buy the magazine. The situation
somewhat resembled the morning rush for pancake and deep-fried dough sticks
at the neighborhood restaurants.24
People from all over the country flowed into the metropolis, attracted by its
promise of opportunity, dazzled by its prosperity, amazed by its openness
and sophistication, and frustrated by its cold-heartedness and deception. Perhaps
because they lived in such a legendary place, Shanghai people liked legendary
stories. The best-seller writer Zhang Ailing commented on the characteristics of
Shanghai people:
Shanghainese are abnormal products made of traditional Chinese people
tempered in the high pressure of modern life and experienced in complex
interactions among all kinds of old and new cultures. The result may not be so
healthy, but there is a marvelous wisdom in it.25
Zhang identified herself as a Shanghainese and began her career as a Shanghai
writer in the early 1940s. She loved the Shanghai reader and titled her first
collection of short stories Chuanqi (lit. legend or romance), in which the story
Love in a falling city (Qingcheng zhi lian) raised a sensation. She adapted
it into a stage play, and a film by the same title was also produced before long,
creating a Zhang Ailing phenomenon in wartime Shanghai.
Zhang Gansheng, 1991.
Zhou Shoujuan, Chatting about Saturday, quoted in Zheng Yimei, 1987.
Zhang Ailing, 56.



Film was also an important part of Republican Shanghais popular culture.

Chinese film industry started in Shanghai and, from early on, subscribed to
the yanqing theme. Early features such as Spirit of the jade pear(Yuli hun), April
rose (Siyue qiangwei), Flame on Red Lotus Monastery (Huoshao Honglian Si),
and White Cloud Pogoda (Baiyun Si) were representative of the industrys
popular orientation. The popular White Cloud Pogoda (1928), for example, was
adapted from Chen Lengxues novel whose installments first appeared on
the literary supplement of the Shanghai Times (Shanghai shibao). Moreover,
Hollywood melodramas such as Gone with the Wind and The Waterloo Bridge
were extremely popular in Shanghai. Then, leftwing film rising in the 1930s, as
Pickowicz pointed out, was not able to get rid of melodramatic format, while
Chinese native film industry in wartime Shanghai intentionally produced yanqing
Local operas and story-singing genres were the most popular theaters in
Republican Shanghai. These immigrants-turned-Shanghainese carried with them
their native place identities, habits, and culture. The largest immigrant groups,
including those from Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Guangdong provinces, deployed
their native cultures as they competed for recognition in Shanghais public
spacesnative opera houses, as well as regional restaurants, grocery stores, and
native-place halls, became marks of their claims to cultural significance. Major
native theaters in Shanghai included Yue opera from Guangdong (pronounced the
same as Yue opera from Zhejiang but written with different characters), Suzhou
style story-singing (pingtan), Huai opera from Northern Jiangsu, Yue opera from
Zhejiang, Shanghai opera from the nearby countryside, and Shanghai-style
Beijing opera (Haipai Jingju). While first-rate Beijing opera troupes performed
in high-class teahouses and theaters in the foreign settlements during the early
twentieth century, and major Yue opera companies relocated to upper-tier theaters
when Yue opera became popular in the 1940s, other minor operas continued to
be performed mostly on the peripheries of the downtown areas, where their
constituencies were concentrated. Jiangbei opera, for example, was performed
mainly in small and shoddy theaters in working-class neighborhoods in
Yangshupu or the shantytowns of Zhabei for lower-class Northern Jiangsu
immigrants, while Shanghai opera was performed mainly in Nanshi, Huxi
(western Shanghai), and Pudong (across the Huangpu River) for a mixed lower to
lower-middle class local audience.27
Although the historical kinship between popular theatrical entertainment
and popular literature is well known to modern scholars, it is worth noting how
See Po-shek Fu, 2003.
I will discuss in detail the hierarchy of theaters, audiences, and opera genres and troupes in
another article.

Modernity East and West: Melodrama and yanqing in Shanghais popular culture


a dynamic intertextuality between the two media created a symbiosis of popular

culture in Republican Shanghai. Virtually every popular novel published in
Shanghai was adapted for popular theaters and storytelling genres, as well as the
cinema.28 Moreover, intertextuality went in both directions, for not only did local
operas and storytelling venues compete to stage popular fiction works, but
popular writers also rewrote popular opera plays and pingtan pieces as fiction.29
Zhang Henshuis Fate in tears and laughter (Tixiao yinyuan) is one of the most
remarkable examples of this intertextuality. Zhangs novel first appeared in daily
installments in Joyful forest (Kuaihuolin), a literary supplement to the major
newspaper Xinwen bao, from November 1929 to 1931. A complete offprint then
first appeared in 1932. The novel was extremely popular among Shanghais
readers and was quickly adapted to many forms of entertainment. An
article published in Coral (Shanhu) magazine in May 1933 documented this
Since Zhang Henshui published his novel Fate in tears and laughter, the novel
has been used as a blueprint for various forms of entertainment, such as film,
storytelling, Beijing opera, Guangdong opera, New Drama, western opera,
comic shows, puppet shows, Shaoxing opera (Yue opera), open ground operas,
comic books, and folk songs. At the same time several sequels and
alternative endings have appeared on the market. ... There are three versions
of Fate in tears and laughter in Tanci (Tixiao yinyuan Tanci) being broadcast
on Shanghais radio, scripted by Yao Minai, Qi Fanniu, and Lu Danan,
This intertexuality among various forms of popular literature and entertainment
contributed to a diverse yet interconnected popular culturea culture that was
For a detailed discussion of the connections among various popular entertainment forms
and popular literature, see Wei Shaochang, 1990, 264271. Wei wrote, for example: Mandarin
duck and butterfly fiction and authors were first staged in Wenmingxi (civil drama). Bao
Tianxiaos The fall of the plum blossom (Meihua luo) and Orchid in a deserted valley (Konggu
lan) were staged by the Shanghai New Citizen Society in March 1914. Zhou Shoujuan
published a review in Shen bao, and even participated in the performance himself. Early film
was in fact civil drama plays on screen. The three tycoon directors of the Mingxing Studio,
Zhang Shichuan, Zheng Zhengqiu, and Zhou Jianyun, all had experience with civil drama.
Actors of silent feature films produced in the early 1920s were almost all from civil drama
companies. During the mid- and late 1920s many mandarin duck and butterfly fiction
masterworks were made into films, including Spirit of the jade pear, The tide of Guangling,
Fantastic marriage bond (Xiafeng qiyuan), Orchid in a deserted valley, The fall of plum
blossom, and Flame on Red Lotus Monastery.
One example can be seen in the 1935 novel Love story: the complete story of Liang Shanbo
and Zhu Yingtai. See Ma Weishi, 1935.
Huayan yigai, All about Tears and laughters. Quoted in Wei Shaochang, 1990, 103104.



organized by the market place and reflective of a distinctly Shanghainese


In search of modernity: A reading

The Republican-era fixation on yanqing themes centered on women and love

signals, which was one of the most far-reaching and deeply-felt changes in
twentieth-century China: the social and ideological remaking of the family and
redefining gender relations. Concomitant with the May Fourth rhetoric of free
love and marriage and gender equality were changes in family structure, most
notably among immigrant families in large urban centers. The traditional model
of the multi-generational household was largely abandoned by new urban settlers,
who established nuclear families centered on an adult couple with children.31
Polygamy, another feature of traditional family structure for elite families, was
discouraged by emerging Republican social norms and, albeit with exceptions,
middle and upper-middle class men kept their second (and sometimes third)
wives in separate locations outside of the main household. The relationship
between husband and wife therefore became increasingly important within the
family. As young people began to explore new ways of finding a dream husband
or wife, courtship between young men and women became a common, if still
shocking, feature of Shanghais public life. The spectacular nature of Haipai
courtship was captured in an article published in the October 1939 issue of
the popular magazine Shanghai life (Shanghai shenghuo), which quoted a war
refugee who had only recently come to Shanghai when fleeing the invading
Japanese troops:
Somebody who had not been to Shanghai would have no way of knowing
that relationships between men and women could be so close. Every time I go
to the park I see that most people there are couples. One man and one woman
closely accompany each other, and they interact only with one another: one is a
gorgeously dressed new woman with hanging long hair, a powdered face, red
lips, and (clad) in stockings and high-heeled leather shoes, and the other is a
smartly-coiffed and creamy-faced young man wearing a western suit. As they
stroll along they laugh freely, holding arms or leaning close to one another, as
Sometimes, parents could also live with the family. However, unlike the traditional
multi-generation, multi-family household, grand parents could still live with one family but
were not the head of the family. A statistic for Shanghais population in 1947 shows average
size of Shanghais household as five, which was standard for Shanghais nuclear or extended
families. Chen Zhengxiang, 1970.

Modernity East and West: Melodrama and yanqing in Shanghais popular culture


if they are the only ones there. In the hinterland such behavior would surely
cause gossip and be considered shameless.32
This kind of intimacy between a pair of young man and woman may not represent
the style of ordinary Shanghai residents, but its shock effect on peoples perception
is no exaggeration. The excitement as well as anxiety and confusion over
changing family and gender relations manifested not only in popular literature
and entertainment but also in intellectual elite arts.
Popular literature writers, though not generally innovative thinkers on matters
such as the fate of the nation, followed the lead of intellectual elite in many
respects. In response to elite criticism, authors of popular literature tried to
incorporate reformist themes into their fictional world of love and passion, and to
frame personal narratives within some national narrative schemes. It was, after
all, the elite articulation of womens liberation and gender equality that sanctioned
the popular theme of romantic love in the first place. Zhang Henshuis Fate
in tears and laughter, for example, was set in the context of anti-warlord and
anti-Japanese resistance movements as well as framed in the rhetoric of womens
liberation and free love and marriage.
The need to reflect on changing family and gender relations was also manifested
in elite arts, as seen for example in Lu Xuns short story Remembrances of the
past (Shangshi) and numerous spoken drama renditions of Ibsens play The Dolls
House. In the elite Spoken Drama Theater, imported from the West via Japan, the
theme of womens liberation focused on free love, free marriage, and womens
right to education and work became central, made to carry the grand narratives of
national salvation and modernity. The Norwegian playwright Ibsens A Dolls
House, for example, became an all time favorite of the elite Spoken Drama.
The elite productions were, however, by and large too preachy or otherwise too
self-absorbed to attract a large following among the ordinary folks, and thus fell
short of helping the masses to make connections with the reality of a rapidly
changing modern world. A heroin for the intellectual reformers, the Norwegian
Nora probably appeared foreign and remote for the Republican housewives, the
largest group of Republican Shanghais middle-class women, whose absence
from the Spoken Drama Theater speaks much of the limits of the elite arts.
One strategy the New Culture elite adopted to reach out to the mass audience
was the melodrama, embodied in Hollywood movies and locally produced
Mandarin Duck and Butterfly films that carried Republican Shanghais silver
screen of the time. Not only leftist films fell under the melodrama mode, as
Paul Pickowitz has pointed out, but the most popular pieces of elite Spoken
Drama in the 1930sCao Yus Thunderstorm (Leiyu) and Sunrise (Richu), for

Xu Dafeng, 1939.



instancewere quintessential love melodramas, set in a modern coalmine and

a menacing metropolis (Shanghai), respectively, structured by the trials and
tribulations of romantic relationships, and intensely focused on the conflict
between good and evil.33 Indeed, the struggle between good and evil became even
more intense in those leftist films and spoken drama that aimed for an ideological
or moral transformation of the audience than it did in the more market oriented
popular culture productions. Ironically, intellectuals too participated in creating
the phenomenon of the love drama, by using the love drama to showcase core
leftist values and criticisms, framed in a set of dichotomies of good versus evil,
modern versus feudal, national pride versus foreign invasion, the working people
versus the ruling class, women versus the feudal, patriarchal system, and the
native and unspoiled countryside versus the decadent and foreign urban centers.
Ironically, the left-wingers melodrama became a part of Shanghais popular
yanqing culture, while works with sharper critical edge and deeper exploration of
human situation, such as Lu Xuns, would have to wait for decades to reach the
reading masses.
Love stories were not necessarily conventional and hardly meaningless,
despite being considered such by the cultural elite. In fact, the fixation on love in
modern popular culture reflected the psychological needs of an urban population
witnessing drastic changes in gender and sexual relations. Viewed from this
perspective and contrary to the impression that love stories in popular genres
were monothematic pabulum, love stories could have served as a modern
psychological adventure for Republican Chinese living in Shanghai, an exciting
adventure taking place in fictional spaces provided by popular literature
and theaters. Taking Zhang Henshuis Shanghai express (Ping-Hu tongche) as an
example, we read about a scandal with a detective quality developed around a
love affair occurring during a modern adventureriding on the fastest train
running between the nations old capital Beijing and the capital of its modernity,
Shanghai.34 A contemporary advertisement for Zhangs novel reads:
This book describes a love comedy between a newly-divorced, beautiful,
dissolute young woman and an affectionate banker on the express train from
Beijing to Shanghai. Exceedingly sentimental and tightly structured, this is an
original work among the yanqing fiction.35
While the advertisement focused on sentimental love story as the selling point,
the novel is much more than that, if not about something completely different.
Pickowitz, 1993.
Lyell, 1997.
Advertisement reprinted in Wei Shaochang, 1990, 107.

Modernity East and West: Melodrama and yanqing in Shanghais popular culture


When the story begins, the banker with his friend notices a lone young woman
sitting in the dining car, reading a book and drinking coffeedefinitely a
modern woman. By sheer chance, she sadly reveals that she is divorcing her
irresponsible husband who, it turns out, happens to be one of the bankers
nephews. Instantly fascinated by the womans modern classy manner, the banker
happily seizes the opportunity to offer his sympathy and help. Before the train
reaches Tianjin (the first stop) it is already settled that the woman would move
with the banker in his first-class compartment, as the steward could not find her a
sleeping berth in the first-class cars. The experienced romance reader can easily
guess that the two would fall in love with each other. In fact, the banker even
begins to entertain the idea of marrying her as his third wife. At Suzhou, the last
stop before the final destination, the woman gets off the train to buy some local
delicacy but never makes it back. As the train starts to move away from the
platform, the banker finds that all his valuables, some cash, mostly government
bonds and securitiestotaling 120,000 yuanis gone. A man in the next
compartment, whom the woman was afraid of for some reason, then tells the
banker that he had previous experience with the woman and she is indeed a scum.
The final scene of the novel is again at the Suzhou station. The former banker,
now totally a different person, is seated in the third-class car looking out from
the window aimlessly. Suddenly, he jumps up from his seat, pointing his fingers
to a woman on the platform, yelling: Catch her! Catch her! She stole my
money! ....
This is in many ways one of Zhangs most interesting stories reflexive of the
complex psychology of the contemporary ordinary Chinese man faced with
modernity. For ordinary folks, women, money, and Shanghai are metaphors of
the attraction, illusion, and elusiveness of modernity. The woman, whose true
identity is never clear in the novel, is at once real and elusive, intelligent and
wicked, fascinating and dangerous; she promises to entertain but ultimately
deceives and destroys the manin much the same way as his stocks do to him.
Shanghai is just as elusive as its stock market and the woman. In reality, Shanghai
was the nations capital of modernityits industrial, commercial, and financial
center. In the context of the novel, however, Shanghai is the destination never
being reached, but in the shadow of it destruction has occurred. Interestingly,
Zhang Henshui, unlike Zhang Ailing and many others, was primarily not a
Shanghai writer, despite the fact that Shanghai made him a bestseller novelist,
and his physical distance from Shanghai may have allowed him to capture
Shanghai with a more metaphysical imagination. The bankers adventure with
modernitysex, stock, and Shanghai itselfturns out to be a nightmare;
however, the experienceriding high in the first-class sleeping car and the
luxurious dining car while carrying on a love affair with a fascinating modern
woman on his way to Shanghaiitself must have been a feast for ordinary
peoples imagination of modernity. At the end the author, through the former



banker, warns the reader of the danger and deception of modernity symbolized in
the image of the modern girl; however, the humorous and casual style of the
narrative allows the reader to pleasantly enjoy the story and invites the reader to
participate in such modern adventure and do better than the protagonist.
For many Chinese moving from traditional countryside to modern metropolis,
fast changing ideology and practice of gender, love, and marriage relations were
shocking. New ideas and possibilities were at once exciting and confusing, and
they needed time and space to understand, digest, experiment modern gender and
love relations. It was in the love stories in popular literature and theater that
provided the populous experimental ground for experimenting modern love and
gender relations, allowing audience members to imagine and contemplate their
own problems or achieve satisfaction through fictional narratives.


The rise of the melodrama as a literary and theatrical genre appears to have had
a co-relation with the rise of industrial cities in modern times around the
globe, including Europe, North America, and East Asia. In China, this general
phenomenon manifested itself in the form of yanqing genre that dominated the
popular culture scene in Shanghai in the most part of the twentieth century. As
Chinas largest and most important industrial and commercial city, Shanghai also
served as a center of production, distribution, and consumption of the yanqing
arts. Yanqing products with made-in-Shanghai labels had deep roots in regional
traditions of the Jiangnan area, but also adopted melodramatic techniques and
formulas imported from the West via Japan. These products dominated Shanghais
popular culture scene as they captured ordinary Chinese peoples imagination in
the process of rapid modernization. Yanqing arts helped ordinary Chinese deal
with every day issues such as gender, love, and family relations informed by new
ideology and social arrangement. Yanqing arts thus had its political legitimacy as
it provided emotional and psychological support to ordinary Chinese undergoing
difficult modern transitions.
Republican-era intellectual and political elites, however, failed to appreciate
the usefulness of yanqing arts for ordinary people and simply denied the political
legitimacy of personal narratives of private feelings and everyday life. Historical
writings guided by revolutionary rhetorics after 1949 continued this pattern of
criticism of the yanqing genre, revealing the limits of revolutionary discourse as
a way of understanding history. Dated back to the late Qing, this revolutionary
discourse came to being first as a rhetorical strategy for national salvation in
response to international colonial ambition against China. In this discourse the
struggle for national independence became a prior, and modernization and

Modernity East and West: Melodrama and yanqing in Shanghais popular culture


mobilization of the population became two prime means to achieve the goal. The
supremacy of this revolutionary rhetoric of nation building rendered personal
concerns and private feelings almost irrelevant, if not detrimental to the nation.
Ironically, the process of modernization, at first taken up as a means to achieving
national goals, has eventually acquired a life of its own and manifested as a more
fundamental historical process independent from national designs. While national
boundaries have become an accepted reality in international order, the meaning
and implication of modernization have yet become clear. In Chinese academy the
emphasis on revolution and the lack of understanding of modernization resulted
in dogmatic theorization that equaled revolution with progress and modernity,
and expressions of individual/private concerns with tradition and backwardness.
In reality, however, Chinese revolutionary discourse was deeply Sino-centric and
dynastic in its underlying assumption, and despotic elements caught attention
only after the Cultural Revolution. On the other hand, revolutionary discourse
turned a blind eye toward popular culture, failed to see its ability to face challenges
of modern life squarely. Seemingly traditional in style, popular yanqing arts
experimented, developed, and popularized many modern ideas and values, such
as descriptions of modern travel, modern girl, and modern courtship as seen in
Zhang Henshuis Shanghai express.
For a long time, the Mainland scholarship in Republican history has focused
on political and ideological contestations between the two major parties
and neglected considerable development in urban modernity, specially the
development of Republican Shanghai. Republican Shanghai was, however, an
important phase in the development of modern urban society and cultural
modernity. The search for modernity in Haipai popular culture was a response to
new questions arising in everyday life that ordinary urban dwellers faced, such as
sex and love, marriage and family, etc.. In a rapid-modernizing urban society,
people needed to understand these basic questions of everyday life in light
of new ethic codes and ideological framework, and adjusted practice to new
norms that became a process of something may be called mundane modernity.
Modernization in mundane life proved a more fundamental historical process
than that did in war and revolution. Because it was routine and mundane,
the search for modernity on this level went on despite political and military
disturbances.36 To borrow the French historian de Marie-Claire Berges words:
Shanghai has had a turbulent history, but this history seems to have had followed
a certain orientation. It was a pursuit of an ultimate goalthe search for
modernity.37 This search, Bergere considered as the unique spirit of the city.
See Jiang Jin, 2005, 103.
Translation is mine, based on the Chinese translation of Berges 2002 book, Histoire de
Shanghai. Wang Ju and Zhao Nianguo, trans., Shanghai shi: zou xiang xiandai zhi lu (Shanghai:
Shanghai Social Sciences Academy Press, 2005), 3.



In the reform era, Shanghai has regained its vitality and once again become the
nations center for modernization. The search for the glorious old Shanghai and
the image of the metropolis in the minds of numerous ordinary Chinese seem to
have repeated the situation of Republican Shanghai. In reality, however, the
renewed enthusiasm of Shanghai modern reveals the needs for native resources
in the new wave of Chinas modern rush in the wake of a violent and turbulent
revolutionary history. It is in this context, in the context of Chinas modernization
process, could we better understand the particularity and significance of Shanghai
in modern Chinese history.

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