Tag Archives: literature

Still some red dust in Shanghai ?

years of red dustI recently read Qiu Xailong’s “Years of red dust”. This collection of short stories first published in France in 2008 describes daily life in one Lilong of Shanghai named “Red dust”, from 1949 to the mid-2000’s.

By looking at residents’ personal story, we can better understand China’s recent history and the impacts of some events (the Korean war or the Cultural revolution) on people’s daily life. Life in this lilong is not easy and people lack intimacy and  space; they have to endure other residents’ curiosity, but this can also be a place where they can find some friendship.

The last story of this book takes place in 2005. We can wonder if we can still find the “Red dust” lilong in today’s Shanghai. Maybe this place has been developed into a high rise building or a commercial center? But, actually this does not really matter. Because, people have not disappeared. Of course, we may not encounter “Old hunchback Fang” anymore and “ the iron rice bowl” has been broken down. But relations between residents may not have changed that much, inhabitants are still driven by ambition, love, and other feelings.

To me, the main message of this book is that cities are not made of concrete, cement and so on.., but they are made of inhabitants. This is also what I have learned with the UrbaChina programme. Cities do not exist without people, and so urban policies should focus on inhabitants and their well-being,… and policies should be made by inhabitants.

An interview of Qiu Xiaolong is available here.

Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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Dust and sweat

dust and sweatIn 2012, Liu Xinwu’s novel Chén yǔ hàn (尘与汗, in English Dust and sweat) was translated into French and I recently read it with great interest. Liu Xinwu (刘心武), one of contemporary China’s most gifted writers, wrote this novel in 1998, and gave us an insight into a migrant’s life in the late ‘90s. In this book we discover how Lao He (the main character) and his companions adapt to their urban life. As suggested by the novel’s title, this life is tough. We discover the hard living conditions of migrant workers, and their strategies for “muddling through”.
These ex-farmers are searching for new opportunities, new ways of earning their living. They are led down very different paths: in this novel, they encounter a triad member, a man who rents trampolines and a Daoist soothsayer.
For some of Lao He’s colleagues, buying lottery tickets is another way to transform their lives, and sometimes it works…

This novel also reveals the gap between the older generation of migrants, who do not fit in this new China (to the point of losing their mind), and the younger generation, who already feel urban.
This book can be seen as a snapshot of the late ‘90s in China, like Lao She (another great Chinese writer)’s novels in their time .

Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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China’s Zenith

 Cities greatly influence fiction.  From Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, literature and cinema have used urban transformations and their social effects to criticize our society. Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis depicts a very unequal society and the growing role of mechanization.

More recently, in China, Lou Ye’s Suzhou River has shown us the other side of Shanghai’s transformation under the reforms. We may argue that fiction can help us to understand China’s urbanisation and help us to improve our urban environment.

 In 1924, Sinclair Lewis, who won the Nobel Prize of literature in 1930, published a novel, Babbitt, that has now become a classic. In this masterpiece, Sinclair’s main character “George F. Babbitt” a real estate agent of the American middle-West is going through an existential crisis. In this novel, Lewis criticizes the daily life of the new American middle class, and their consumer frenzy.

 Lewis also depicts the dull life of Middle West cities. Unlike European cities or US historical cities on the East coast, “Zenith”, the fictional city where Babbitt lives” is quite a new town. Lewis tells us that it was founded in 1792 by only five settlers, but experienced a rapid and massive expansion in the early 1920’s.  “Zenith” symbolizes the urbanisation process that the USA experienced at the beginning of the 20th century, with the development of suburbs and urban sprawl. For the first time, the majority of Americans were no longer famers, but urban settlers, and they invented an urban way of life that still influences modern urbanism.  This unprecedented massive urbanisation favoured urban standardisation.  In this novel, Babbitt is delighted and comforted by this standardization. But, as a result of this phenomenon, all cities look similar. They do not have a distinctive atmosphere. Zenith looks like every city of the Middle-West. When Babbitt was published, many American cities boasted that they were the real “Zenith”. In Zenith, businessmen, who belong to clubs such as the Boosters, the Rotary club or the Elks, are also urban designers: they shape the city according to their economic interests.  The inhabitants do not intervene in the making of Zenith.

Culture and arts are considered marketing products that need to be exploited.

“Culture has become as necessary an adornment and advertisement for a city to-day as pavements or bank-clearances. It’s Culture, in theaters and art-galleries and so on, that brings thousands of visitors to New York every year and, to be frank, for all our splendid attainments we haven’t yet got the Culture of a New York or Chicago or Boston—or at least we don’t get the credit for it. The thing to do then, as a live bunch of go-getters, is to CAPITALIZE CULTURE; to go right out and grab it” 

These businessmen try to grab every opportunity the new city has to offer, and so work closely with the authorities in order to know where the latest land development will take place. In the novel, Babbitt and his friends make good business deals by buying lands where they know tramway lines will be built.

The unprecedented urbanisation in Zenith also creates increasing inequalities among its inhabitants. The newcomers, the migrants, live in poor housing, and work in harsh conditions, whereas other people, including Babbitt, enjoy very modern and even luxurious living and can’t wait to buy the latest gadgets.

But Babbitt, the symbol of the modern urban dweller, does not feel at ease. Of course, he enjoys his new car, his nice house and his marble office, but he also feels the emptiness of his life, and so tries to find a more exciting way of life by meeting new people outside his social class, having an affair and supporting socialist ideas. However, in the end, his relatives and his business associates urge him to reintegrate his “normal life”. Although Babbitt cannot escape from this world, he will support his son, who will demand more freedom.

After reading “Babbitt”, the first remark we might make is that the urbanisation process occurring in China is not completely new: Western countries have already experienced it. Inequality and corruption are not unique to China. But the most important point, in my view, is that cities should strive to be places of aspiration.“Zenith, despite its name,” only fulfils materialistic needs: it is a place of consumerism, but this is not enough for Babbitt. Cities like Zenith create frustrations, not dreams.

Because of rapid urbanisation, there must be a large number of Zeniths in China, and there must also be many Babbitts in these cities who, unlike Lewis’s characters will hopefully succeed in building meaningful cities.

Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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