Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Jeffrey Wasserstrom's "Global Shanghai"

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Global Shanghai, 1850–2010: A History in Fragments, and reported the following:
Page 99 comes midway through Chapter 6—a look at Shanghai in 1975. It only contains one full paragraph, as the page is taken up partly by a photograph [below right, click to enlarge] of a mass rally denouncing Confucius—the same sage that the Communist Party, in a startling about-face, now venerates. The photo, showing workers raising their fists, comes from a rare 1975 English language guide to Chinese cities, which was published in Beijing and I bought at a Shanghai flea market.

That guidebook is mentioned on page 99, but the main paragraph focuses on a different book: a polemical Chinese language work from the mid-1970s. In a section that serves as an epigraph to the chapter, that book claims that whenever the Maoist theme song “The East is Red” rang out from the chimes of the city’s most famous clock (an old one that used to symbolize foreign domination), local residents were inspired to accomplish great things. Here is the page’s main paragraph in full:

The History of the Bund and Nanjing Road, the second text quoted at the start of this chapter, is filled with often-lurid details of myriad ways that predatory foreigners and unpatriotic Chinese mistreated and humiliated Shanghai’s working classes prior to 1949. But it also contains small signs of being produced at a moment when the possibility of a future rapprochement with the West was in the air. For example, after pointing to the wondrous effects on the local populace of hearing the strains of ‘The East is Red,’ it speaks of how impressed by the recent improvements to Shanghai’s two most famous districts, the Bund and Nanjing Road, all open-minded foreigners will be—including overseas Chinese returning to see the homeland they left behind and Westerners who once spent time in the city during its decadent treaty-port incarnation.

Page 99 is representative in one way. It finds me grappling with how Shanghai was shaped by or opened itself to international flows during a year that fell at either the start or midpoint of a decade. Wanting to cover a long stretch yet avoid providing a comprehensive blow-by-blow account of a complex city’s life, I imposed a special structure on Global Shanghai. All chapters other than the “Introduction” and a forward-looking “Conclusion” take the form of “snapshots” of the metropolis in seven individual years, running from 1850 (when the city’s first newspaper started) to 2000 (when the first Starbucks arrived).

Some of these “snapshot” years are obviously important ones. 1925, for example, witnessed a general strike that paralyzed the metropolis. Other years, including 1975, were less special. This is not surprising, since I picked the years by following a simple mathematical device—they come at quarter-century intervals.

There are two ways that Page 99 is quite unrepresentative. First, the book has a fair number of illustrations (18), but that means only the rare page contains an image. Second, nearly all other illustrations draw attention to features of Shanghai that set it apart from other Chinese urban center at a given point in time. The shot of the rally, by contrast, could have been of any number of cities. This reflects the fact that the heyday of Maoism saw Shanghai, which has so often marched to its own beat, falling line much more than usual with national rhythms.
Read a brief history of Shanghai's future, part of an essay based on the themes of Global Shanghai.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom's other publications include China's Brave New World and Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China: The View from Shanghai. He is a regular contributor to academic journals and has also written for a variety of general interest periodicals, including Newsweek, The Nation, the TLS, New Left Review, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Los Angeles Times and the Christian Science Monitor. He also writes at The China Beat.

--Marshal Zeringue