Writer and editor Mu Shiying declared 1934 the Year of the Magazine, marking a dramatic rise in Chinese pictorial magazines, modeled on American publications like Life and Vanity Fair. Often dismissed as low brow, Paul Bevan argues in his new book, “Intoxicating Shanghai”—An Urban Montage that these magazines and the so-called New-sensationalists brought literature to people who wouldn’t have otherwise read the more literary journals available then. Bevan structures his book around the years 1934 and 1935 to highlight a Chinese art and literature scene that is often absent from English-language books that focus on a largely expat Shanghai based in and around the foreign presence. He explains that the book
should perhaps be seen as a montage in its own right, focusing as it does on a number of different areas of enquiry: literature, art, cinema and music, and presenting them in a deliberately fragmented way. The book intentionally breaks with common academic conventions in order to present these diverse topics in ways that are somewhat closer to how they might have been enjoyed by readers of pictorial magazines in the 1930s.
Besides Mu Shiying and Hei Ying, their New-sensationalist colleagues included Ye Lingfeng and Liu Na’ou. According to Bevan, New-sensationalists aimed
…to explore new ways of seeing, hearing and feeling; to express things in ways that had not been possible before; to perceive things in fresh and new ways, an approach to the writing of fiction that had been all but perfected by Mu Shiying and was closely imitated by Hei Ying.
They wrote about jazz, dance halls, cinema, hai alai, and the latest women’s fashions. While Intoxicating Shanghai is an academic book—many of the pages contain more footnotes than text—the non-specialist will enjoy four newly translated stories from two pictorial magazines that enjoyed a short lifespan around Bevan’s timeframe of 1934-35, Wenyi and Wanxiang, that have not before been published in English. The first, Hai Alai Scenes by Hei Ying, features a married man who spends his nights at the hai alai fronton or arena, hoping to leave with a win under his belt. For readers not familiar with hai alai (or jai alai as it is more commonly spelled), Bevan provides a quick introduction:
During the first decades of the twentieth century hai alai was played in cities as far afield as Havana and Manila. In the 1930s it became popular in China—in Tianjin and Shanghai—and was one of several sporting attractions, including horse and dog racing, on which bets could be placed. Players were sought from across the Spanish-speaking world to play in the dedicated arenas that were built in Chinese cities.
Of Basque origin, the game is like handball or squash, but played with a long basket-like glove and a pelota (Spanish for ball). In the story, Shanghai residents, regardless of socioeconomic background, mix at the stadium to enjoy a popular sport and to gamble. This story, published in Wenyi in April 1935, is accompanied by illustrations from Chinese artists influenced by such western artists as Mexican Miguel Covarrubias and German George Grosz.
Two of Mu Shiying’s stories are translated and published in “Intoxicating Shanghai”. One is Camel, Nietzscheanist and Woman, a story of a man who approaches a modern woman at a café, the two of them smoking cigarettes and discussing the merits of their cigarette brands, coffee, and cocktails. His other story, The Lady in the Inky-Green Cheongsam, shows how New-sensationalist writers incorporated color into their writing. The cheongsam, or form-fitted Chinese dress with a mandarin collar, is also an icon of New-sensationalist writing.
An orange-yellow ray of sunshine was flitting back and forth on the arrow-head flower in the red porcelain vase by the window, the embroidered flowers of the bed curtains were already tinted by the deep-purple clouds of sunrise, projecting a swathe of bright, vibrant colour towards the front of the bed, but on that bed, lying there with me, was not the Senorita [sic] with the inky-green cheongsam but a piece of blue notebook paper…
Attempted Murder by Liu Na’ou is the most chilling of these newly-translated stories and tells of a psychopathic married man who tries to strangle a female bank clerk in the safe deposit vault. Bevan writes that New-sensationalist stories have been critiqued as misogynistic and he explains that in the introduction to Attempted Murder.
It is also important to note that this is a deliberate attempt to follow a generic type, first used by Paul Morand and later by the Japanese Shinkankaku-ha [ed. New-sensationalists], which typically shows a female figure whose character is considerably less developed than that of the central male protagonist. In this story the female target of the predatory unhinged narrator (a nameless woman) is described only from the point of view of isolated body parts, serving to dehumanize the object of his fantasies, something for which Liu’s colleague Mu Shiying was particularly well known.
Like most writers in the 1930s, Bevan notes, the New-sensationalists were all men.
Bevan also includes detailed background about the jazz age in Shanghai: bands like Buck Clayton and his Harlem Gentlemen, Nathan Rabin and his Champions, Serge Ermoll and his Orchestra, and Andico’s Music; Black American, Jewish, White Russian and Filipino bands, respectively. The New-sensationalists didn’t just write about jazz and nightclubs; they participated in the Shanghai nightlife scene just as much as they joined café culture and bet on sporting events.
Throughout the book, Bevan sprinkles tales of the rivalry between leftist writer Lu Xun and the New-sensationalists, all due to a misunderstanding over woodcut art. Lu Xun took woodcuts seriously as a form for mass communication; he thought the New-sensationalist use frivolous. It seems like a shallow dispute, but it started a rift between the two camps that would culminate in 1940 with the assassination of Mu Shiying and Liu Na’ou, bringing this period of artistic expansion all but to an end.
But other than mentioning a couple times that Mu and Liu were assassinated within three months of one another in 1940, Bevan doesn’t tell the story of their deaths. He only alludes to some of the issues behind their assassination:.
Nevertheless, writers such as Mu Shiying and Liu Na’ou seem to have simply continued with what they were doing despite the disapproval of those who sought to control them intellectually. The objectives of these two writers, both of whom met their ends at the hands of political assassins, might not have been purposely malicious in their disregard of the proscriptions of the others, but there is little doubt that they did overstep the mark from a political perspective, veering too far to the right, and meeting with strong opposition in left-wing political circles.
Setting this curious lacuna aside, “Intoxicating Shanghai” brings new short stories to English readers from a time and place that showed great literary promise. This brief stretch of the 1930s brings to mind the short bursts of world-class art and literature in post-2000 China. They sprouted up almost as quickly as they now seem to be disappearing. These examples can give us hope that literature and art, like hope, spring eternal.