»  Literary Review

February 1991

  China's Bad Old Days

by Harriet Sergeant


Just how naughty was old Shanghai? All of us have, mouldering away somewhere in that recess of the imagination labelled POST-COLONIAL GUILT, some picture of infant prostitutes dying in gutters while slitty-eyed gangsters swill champagne with European nobs. Was it really like that? Or did the Commies make it all up? Harriet Sergeant has looked into the matter, and here is her report.

Well, certainly there was naughty stuff. The Europeans were far from home (or, in the case of the wretched White Russians, without a home altogether) in an age before air travel. The Chinese were citizens of a nation with no government, their lives and property the playthings of brutish warlords. Under the circumstances it was understandable that all parties should misbehave according to their lights. The nobs misbehaved in formal wear, though their imaginations seem not to have carried them much beyond bun-throwing. The White Russians misbehaved with ill grace, out of desperation. The expat lower-middle classes misbehaved somewhat more vigorously, English policemen working off their hangovers by tossing beggars into canals, the Sikh constables keeping their end up (so to speak) by rogering anything with an even number of legs. The Chinese misbehaved in their own unfathomable way, and Miss Sergeant gives us a glimpse of the goings-on in native brothels, where patrons attained the furthest shores of lust by sucking girls' feet.

Vice brought his old pal Glamour to the party. Every Chinese who lived through the period tells you that the most essential cultural expression of Shanghai's pre-war character was its movies. This is a shame, at any rate for those of us who do not think that film is an art form. I have watched some of these old Shanghai movies (well, I have looked into them) and for my money it is the kind of stuff for which — as people say when an anecdote falls flat — you had to be there. But I will allow, after reading Miss Sergeant's account, that the wedding of Butterfly Wu would have been worth missing lunch for.

The other side of all this gaiety was indeed terrible squalor and despair. The factories of the city reproduced all the horrors of the early industrial revolution, and then some. It is not surprising that the earnest young took to Marx and Engels: they were living in the very world those gentlemen had described. Lead poisoning, phossy jaw and TB were the lot of factory workers — and any of them was preferable to life outside the city, in the deeper horror of Warlord China, where the starving ate tree bark and the wells were clogged with corpses.

It is all far gone now. Shanghai has been transformed into Weston-super-Mare, leaving Posterity no richer and very little wiser. The only resident of the period likely to be remembered a thousand years on was the writer Lu Xun. East met West with perfect mutual incomprehension in 1933, when Lu called on George Bernard Shaw during the latter's visit to Shanghai. Miss Sergeant's coverage of the encounter places the participants very nicely: the one a self-indulgent old gasbag from a smug, safe country, playing at social rebellion, the other a saint and a hero — the pride of his race and paragon of his craft — for whom the game was all too real.

Miss Sergeant seems like a good sort. Certainly one cannot fault her diligence. She has travelled thousands of miles, interviewed every survivor she could find, and done prodigies of reading in a very respectable number of languages. I felt that she depended too much on her interviews, and found myself continually reflecting on how rare is the gift of carrying colourful memories intact into old age. But the balance between research and reminiscence is a difficult one to strike in books of this sort, and most of the stuff in the Public Records Office is pretty dull too.

Her prose style is blessedly plain. China has already attracted far too many Creative Writing lunatics. There are a few annoyances, though. I found especially distracting her determination to set a comma between absolutely every pair of adjectives: "small, Chinese boys" and so on. (The dread mark of the computerised style checker, perhaps. The one I tried kept telling me off for starting sentences with "but"!) And then there are those damn names. "Beijing," for God's sake. And "Nanjing" for "Nanking" — surely a grave loss to the makers of limericks. Miss Sergeant uses both "Nanjing" (for the city) and "Nanking" (for the road), though I think she has avoided putting both into the same sentence. Oy oy oy. Beijing, Schmeijing: we don't muck about like this with countries we take seriously.