With the exception of Eileen Chang to whom she is often compared, few writers have become as synonymous with Shanghai as Wang Anyi. Although born in Nanjing, Wang was brought to Shanghai at the age of one by her mother, noted writer and Shanghai native Ru Zhijuan, and her quest to know the city over the years in spite of its protean elusiveness (as well as Wang’s intermittent absences) has become something of an elegiac obsession for the celebrated author.
If the post-WII Shanghai longtang—the city’s fast-disappearing low-rise lanes and the communities that dwell in them—are the real protagonists of Wang’s earlier novel The Song of Everlasting Sorrow rather than its heroine, beauty pageant contestant Wang Qiyao, then Shanghai itself assumes center stage in Fu Ping, her latest work to appear in English (here by the eminent sinologist and translator Howard Goldblatt). The novel’s eponymous character, an orphaned teenage girl from rural Yangzhou in the early days of the People’s Republic of China, is arranged to marry Li Tianhua and sent to live with his adoptive grandmother, Nainai, in Shanghai. She is expected to tread a similar path as the aging woman, whose life has been circumscribed by domestic work, widowhood, the death of her two sons, and the precincts of Huaihai Road in the Western District.
However, Fu Ping is different. “Crafty” and “almost wilful” in the eyes of Nainai as well as the neighbors, she places great importance on her marriage prospects, biding her time as the city gradually transforms her rural sensibilities into urban ones. Whereas village life “seemed to never change, not for generations”, Shanghai’s dynamic cityscape, with its “richly complex histories of local families”, offers an alternate take on reality, one that is “far more interesting than any movie.” Invariably, this inter-generational divide between the two women magnifies their already fraught relationship and gradually lays bare Fu Ping’s increasingly ambivalent, if not specious, commitment to a predetermined life of marriage and menial work.
The plot, though, is mere pretext, a literary sleight-of-hand that allows Wang to drift into the half-remembered histories of Shanghai’s urban landscape in order to linger among its atrophied lanes and alleyways. Consider, for example, the following passage in which the narrator describes the early experiences of Fu Ping’s uncle:
He profited greatly from those nine months, student days he would remember for the rest of his life. […] but if he closed his eyes, he could see a series of still images: enter through the small South Gate, walk down Wang Family Pier Road, turn into Doushi Street, through a cobblestone road with no name, enter a winding, twisting lane, until you reach a low spot, where there is an unremarkable wooden gate. Push it open and walk into a large, winding, twisting compound; the teacher’s home is in one of those east-facing twists. Every smell imaginable fills the place: the musty aroma of pickled vegetables, the foul odor of a baby’s urine, the sulphuric smell of burning coal, stale-food odors, a heated mixture of aromas amid which the teacher lives and reads, his head bobbing from side to side, holding a little stoneware teapot in which broken bits of tea leaves steep. Here the images end.
There is a Joycean celebration of memory in Wang’s writing, a belief in its ability to transcribe the sensual markers of a particular time and place. One imagines her as a mental flâneuse, exploring Shanghai’s psychogeographical terrain without any particular purpose or direction, being lured and repulsed by its aromas and odors, glimpsing its denizens preoccupied with the everydayness of life in order to make their forgotten experiences speak to our own. The book’s many digressions, then, reflect Wang’s own unstructured wandering in which she allows herself to be drawn toward those spaces that enliven her own experiences and expand her sense of self. In our age of technological determinism, such purposeless digressions are radical gestures.
In a piece of creative nonfiction entitled Crossed Paths, translated by Andrea Lingenfelter for magazine World Literature Today, Wang writes of her childhood longtang:
In that intricate network of alleyways and houses where you could never really be alone, chance encounters and near misses occurred with equal frequency. I always had the sense that, running inside those hard cement husks, there were mysterious pathways, hidden itineraries that determined who would end up walking with whom. We came and went, moving through the channels that threaded through these nests, until our own amazing stories began …
Although we cannot choose where we begin our lives, neither are we entirely powerless to decide the course they may take, Wang seems to suggest. How fitting that Fu Ping should find herself aboard a boat at the end of the novel, floating along the cold and clear floodwaters of the Suzhou River.
Brian Haman is the Book Review Editor of The Shanghai Literary Review. A former Fulbright Scholar, he holds a PhD and an MA from the University of Warwick in the UK and splits his time between China and Europe.