The first two decades of the 20th century saw the emergence of urbanism in sociology and philosophy: Georg Simmel wrote about the metropolis and mental life, and Walter Benjamin penned portraits of Western cities like Paris and discussed the work of Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe in the context of the flâneur,  the dandy who roamed the streets to observe the city and the people.

Agnès Bun’s collection of vignettes echoes Theodor Adorno’s famous comment that “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz.” All debates surrounding the quote aside, how does one manage to express anything at all when faced with the extremes of human suffering? I guess one way would be poetic language, because it oozes out of the pages of this short but powerful book.

When Chi Pang-yuan was a young girl, her father Chi Shiying was wanted by warlord Zhang Zuolin and his son, Zhang Xueliang. The crime was siding with a rival general, Guo Songling, at a time when the Republic was still relatively young and northeast China in constant turmoil. For most of her childhood and teenage years, Chi Pang-yuan would frequently be on the move, between Manchuria and all the major cities along the Yangtze River: Nanjing, Wuhan, Chongqing and Shanghai.

The twilight of the Ming Dynasty in Southern China, with its elegant courtesans, poets and playwrights, pageants, drinking bouts and boat rides, bedazzled the generation which witnessed its fall in 1644. It inspired a literary legacy which has fascinated readers ever since. The Ming twilight in “Southland” is immortalized in Kong Shang-Ren’s (d. 1719)  classic opera “The Peach Blossom Fan”. Kong interviewed many protagonists of the late Ming, including Yu Hai (d. 1693), whose memoirs are translated here by Harvard’s Wai-Yee Lee. 

In 1935, Ruth Day paid a six-week visit to her mother and step-father who were at that time living in Shanghai. When she returned, she published a short book on the trip. The book had a run of just 200 copies and seems to have quickly disappeared—but at least one copy found its way to the New York Public Library, where it was found by then PhD candidate Andrew Field, who contributed an introduction to its republication.