Letters Archive
Spring 1999, Vol. 7, No. 2
  • Exploring Saturn
  • Jumping the Dragon Gate: Storytellers and the Creation of the Shanghai Identity
  • Teaching the Holocaust
  • Lecture on Southern Letters
  • Jumping the Dragon Gate: Storytellers and the Creation of the Shanghai Identity

    Laura A. McDaniel, assistant professor of history, participates in the 1998/99 Fellows Program, "Inventing Work. " She describes her current research in the following article.

    In 1875, a local Shanghai pictorial newspaper ran an article about the prevalence of storytelling beggars in the Chinese part of the city. The article described these beggars in the following manner: "These pitiful creatures are usually driven to this lowly profession by disability, but this is not their only problem. They are hungry and diseased, and most of them are so filthy and covered with scabs that you can't bear to look at them." Crowds of gawkers were attracted to these beggars by lurid curiosity, and once a sizeable number of people had gathered round, the beggar would pull out a small stringed instrument and sing a portion of a well-known epic tale. When he had finished his tale, the beggar would walk around to each of his listeners, holding out his cupped hands to solicit donations.

    This newspaper article and countless others like it give us an indication of the abjectness of storytellers in late imperial China. Virtual beggars by trade, often driven to their profession by disabilities, criminal records, or homelessness, they faced perpetual poverty and discrimination. In the official hierarchy of professions, storytellers ranked even lower than prostitutes in terms of social and political status. Their itinerancy made it difficult for them to marry, settle down, or even find a steady source of income; as a result, they were considered threatening to the social order, and they had little, if any, access to traditional Chinese networks of support and control. They were scorned by the state and by society as a whole, and they had little recourse in the face of hardship.

    Sixty years later, in 1936, the storyteller Xue Xiaoqing found himself racing along Shanghai's Bubbling Well Road in his shiny new Austin motorcar and pulling to a stop outside the glamorous Ciro's Dance Hall, where upwards of 500 fans awaited his performance of the now-famous story "Fate in Tears and Laughter." The son and grandson of storytellers who had traveled an itinerant circuit and begged for a living, Xue could certainly say that his profession had undergone an enormous transformation since his father had taken up storytelling forty years earlier.

    The astonishing leap in social status among Shanghai-era story tellers exemplified by Xue Xiaoqing and many others is inextricably linked with immigration to Shanghai, with the development of the city of Shanghai itself, and with the emergence and conscious creation of a modern urban identity specifically associated with Shanghai. Historians of China have long accepted the classification of all urban immigration as "sojourning," under the assumption that this kind of relocation did not involve a fundamental change in identity. However, my research on Shanghai-area storytellers indicates not only that urban identities did exist, but that they were an essential feature of the social mobility I have just described.

    Until the late nineteenth century, Shanghai and its surrounding hinterlands formed something of a continuum. In terms of how this city figured in the eyes of storytellers, Shanghai was just another market town on the circuit traveled by itinerant performers in Zhejiang and Jiangsu. Whether they were in Shanghai or in a small village in rural Jiangsu, storytellers tended during this period to give ad hoc performances in abandoned temples, dilapidated tea houses, temple fairs, and marketplaces, or simply on street corners. By the 1930s, however, Shanghai had undergone such a remarkable economic, architectural, cultural, and technological transformation that it dwarfed the other cities and towns in the region, and provided storytellers with new physical and cultural spaces in which to establish more respectable reputations.

    Shanghai's earliest storytelling venues, all located in the oldest section of town (called the "Chinese City"), were actually tea houses with the bare minimum in terms of furnishings and amenities. In this sense, performing at a teahouse in Shanghai in the late nineteenth century was no different from performing at a teahouse in any of the other cities and towns in Zhejiang and Jiangsu at this time. It was at the turn of the century that the storytelling venues of Shanghai began to move into the more modern "foreign concession" areas and to distinguish themselves from the other storytelling venues in the region. First, there was an explosion in terms of numbers: the last thirty years of the nineteenth century saw the rise of over seventy new storytelling houses in greater Shanghai, and by the 1940s Shanghai boasted over 500. Just in terms of opportunities for storytellers to perform, Shanghai quickly outstripped the other cities and towns in the region. These new storytelling theaters were important to the social mobility of story tellers in other ways as well. They enabled storytellers to work for fixed wages, rather than for the small donations they received from open-air audiences, and this helped to improve the lot and status of these performers.

    Between 1885 and 1900, the introduction of electricity, running water, and multi-story architecture set Shanghai's storytelling venues apart from the more primitive establishments outside of the city. Running water made for better tea and the appearance of more modern public hygiene. Electricity enabled storytelling house owners to light their establishments well past sunset, thus introducing not just the possibility for additional storytelling performances every day, but also the whole concept of Shanghai as the "city that never sleeps" (bu ye cheng), and all of the powerful cultural resonances that that entailed. In some of the highest-level storytelling houses, electricity also allowed for amenities like electric fans and even primitive air conditioning, conveniences appreciated by performers and their increasingly wealthy clientele alike. These new technologies attracted higher class patrons and justified the ad vent of higher admission fees to storytelling houses; as a result, storytellers working in these establishments earned more money and enjoyed the increased prestige associated with catering to high-class audiences. Finally, advances in architecture allowed for the appearance of immense storytelling theaters that accommodated up to 500 people, as well as grandiose five-to-ten-story entertainment houses where several famous story tellers might perform simultaneously in different rooms. Ultimately, performing in Shanghai's foreign concession areas was simply considered more comfortable, more profitable, and more prestigious. "Of course I preferred working in the foreign concessions," insisted one storyteller I interviewed. "Storytelling houses in the foreign-concession areas were just better than the ones outside of Shanghai or in the Chinese City. Everything about them just seemed cleaner, more elegant, more cultured. My heavens, even the tea tasted better' The tea you got in the Chinese City in those days was cloudy, and it had a strange taste."

    By the 1930s, Shanghai had come to represent the pinnacle of the storytelling world, and only those storytellers who were able to consistently find work in the privileged urban spaces of Shanghai were considered truly successful in this profession. The storyteller Tang Gengliang phrased this situation in the following way: "In the old days [i.e., before 1949], when you learned the storytelling art, first you studied with your master, then you worked on your own, traveling the itinerant circuit, and finally you came to ShanghaiÑif you could do this, then it was a sign that you had really perfected your art and had become a star."

    By the 1930s, the expression "jumping the dragon gate" had entered into the lexicon of storytellers and, indeed, into the popular imagination. To "jump the dragon gate" (tiao long men) was, in the jargon of storytellers, to land a job in one of the storytelling venues of Shanghai's foreign concessions. Storytellers had a particular fondness for self-comparison to scholars, and so it is interesting to note that this expression has its origins in popular lore about the imperial examination system. A popular Chinese proverb speaks of the ability of a common carp to "jump the dragon gate" and transform himself into a dragon (liyu tiao long men) as an allegory for commoners who succeed in the imperial examinations. To "jump the dragon gate," then, was to catch the golden ring of success and fame. For storytellers in the Zhejiang-Jiangsu area, this could be achieved only in Shanghai's foreign concessions.

    Those storytellers who did "jump the dragon gate" worked very hard to shore up their new found status through affiliation with highly territorial storytellers' guilds. These guilds emerged at the turn of the century as one of the most important factors in creating a class of "professional, elite, well paid storytellers with clear urban affiliations and in distinguishing this group from their untrained, poor, itinerant, rural based counterparts. The distinction between guild "insiders" and "outsiders" was starkly apparent to performers and spectators alike in the storytelling world.

    Guild affiliation gave a select group of storytellers exclusive access to jobs in the highest-paying, most prestigious storytelling houses. Guild leaders paid heavy dues to storytelling-house owners in order to lay claim to these establishments, and these monopolies were reinforced with bribes, extortion, and physical violence. The simple truth is that if you were not a member of one of two storytellers' guilds in Republican-era Shanghai, you had no chance of finding employment in any of Shanghai's 500-plus storytelling houses.

    One gained entrée into a reputable storytellers' guild by completing a long apprenticeship with a senior member of that guild. But in order to promote the impression that storytelling was a professionalized, elite line of work that was not open to street riff-raff, many storytelling masters made a show of being exceedingly choosy about potential students. What seems to be the case is that every storyteller who attained any degree of fame in late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century Shanghai became apprenticed to his or her teacher through connections with friends or family. The hearty disapproval of "outsiders" to this system is evident from an article that appeared in a storytelling newspaper called Robinson in 1943. The author of this article complained that the storyteller Xu Hansheng randomly accepted untrained itinerant storytellers as his "apprentices" in exchange for payment, and allowed them to advertise them selves as his students (and thus as guild members) without actually giving them any training. Most successful storytellers frowned upon such practices, in large part because they deprived Shanghai's storytelling guilds of the financial rewards and quality-control privileges inherent in the apprentice ship system. "If Zhao is allowed to continue operating this way," warns the author, "then any old country bumpkin can become a [guild] member, and the quality of the storytelling profession in this area will sink considerably. [Zhaos Guild] should seriously consider throwing him out!" The author's distress over the desegregation of the storytelling profession is amusing, however, because the majority of Shanghai-area storytellers were not originally from Shanghai and thus overwhelmingly qualified as "country bumpkins" themselves in a geographic sense. What saved bona fide guild members from being labeled as "country bumpkins" was that they submitted to a training process meant to cleanse them of their peasant habits and school them in the intricacies of elegant, educated-looking comportment. The implicit argument here is that the difference between city people and their country cousins is one of refinement, culture, education, and class.

    One aspect of maintaining this refined, cultured, "urban" image was refraining from spitting and clearing one's throat in public. While such habits were tolerated among itinerants and people who performed in the dingy teahouses outside of Shanghai, they were frowned upon in the elegant new storytelling avenues of the foreign concessions. In 1933 a Shanghai based storytelling afficionado wrote to one of the dozens of storytelling fan newspapers in Shanghai to complain about the standards of comportment and performance among storytellers in a small town outside of Shanghai, where he had just made a business trip the previous week. "Performers and audience members alike cleared their throats and spat incessantly," he lamented. "I was disgusted and embarrassed to be in such an uncultured place, and I couldn't wait to get back to [Shanghai], where people are more refined."

    The professional boundaries between guild-affiliated storytellers and their untrained, itinerant counterparts coincided with (and even contributed to) the emerging distinctions between rural and urban people in general in Shanghai. Beyond the great efforts they made to monopolize Shanghai in terms of employment opportunities, storytellers further demarcated the distinction between "urban" and "rural" people by playing on this dichotomy in the content of their stories. The image of Shanghai that appeared in the stories and songs of most storytellers in this region was one of opulence and modernity, as in the following song by Wang Gengxiang:

    The ten-li foreign enclave is extravagant,
    Featuring only the best in clothing, food, housing and transportation.
    Families live in high-rise apartment buildings,
    And drive automobiles when they go out.
    Most comfortable of all are the rich young mistresses of these families:
    [They are] modern girls who consider shark's fin and sea cucumber to be just ordinary dishes,
    And they do nothing all day but dress up in the latest fashions.

    The stereotypical Shanghainese man brought to life in the stories of the 1930s and 1940s was wealthy, modern, fashionable, and heavily influenced by foreign trends. He usually owned an auto mobile, which could be used at a moment's notice for a quick shop ping spree on Nanjing Road (the main thoroughfare). He lived in an opulent foreign-style mansion and dined on delicacies every day, and his wives and daughters paraded up and down the wide avenues of Shanghai's foreign concessions dressed in the latest fashions, their high heels making distinctive clicking sounds on the pavement and the smell of expensive perfume wafting through the air behind them.

    Of course, such images were far from being descriptive of the reality that everyone experienced in Shanghai, but they were presented to the listener as a Chinese version of the "American dream," qualities to aim for or even qualities that might rub off on them if they stayed in Shanghai long enough. Storytellers represented the Shanghai identity to their listeners as a natural object of envy for all those who lived outside of Shanghai, but also as something that was within reach for newcomers to the city. One of the most amusing stories that promoted the Shanghai identity as glamorous but within the grasp of the "little people" was the story of "The Little Nun Who Came Down the Mountain," by Zhu Yaoxiang and Zhao Jia4iu. The story of the little Buddhist nun who abandoned life at her convent on the hill to indulge her desire for sex had been a popular and well-known one for years. But Zhu and Zhao gave this story a new twist: in their version of the story, the little nun is overcome not by sexual desire but by a yearning to shop and to be like Shanghai's "modern girls." "Where can I indulge my desire to wear powder and blusher?" the little nun wonders. "Where can I adorn myself in silk and satin? The more I think about it," she sighs, "the more my heart aches!" In the end, the little nun leaves her convent and comes to Shanghai to indulge herself in makeup and expensive clothes. Incidentally, she also finds herself a husband there.

    Another way in which the con tent of these stories helped to create the Shanghai identity was by explicitly defining what it meant to be "not-Shanghainese." In the world of late Republican-period Shanghai, the polar opposite of the Shanghai dweller was the country bumpkin from Jiangbei (a rural region to the north of Shanghai). If the Shanghainese were the quintessential modern success story for Jiangsu, then Jiangbei migrants were at the opposite end of the spectrum, the ultimate self-delusional losers. The caricature of the Jiangbei migrant was, of course, just as much an invention as the Shanghai dweller; but its existence helped to reinforce popular faith in the Shanghai identity.

    The Jiangbei migrant became the "Other" against which the Shanghai elite defined its own identity. The Jiangbei migrant who appeared in the songs and stories of Shanghai's early twentieth-century storytellers was basically a buffoon. In contrast to the elite Shanghai dweller, dressed to the nines in the latest fashions, the Jiangbei migrant of popular songs and stories was inevitably shabbily dressed in clothing that identified him as a country bumpkin, and these modest clothes were often disheveled or covered with dirt. While the Shanghainese usually appeared in these stories and songs as real estate tycoons and ladies of leisure, Jiangbei migrants were most often incarnated as rickshaw pullers and coolies (two of the lowest professions in Republican-era Shanghai). While the typical Shanghai urban ite was savvy and sophisticated, the Jiangbei migrant was always a bungling fool, and this was often accentuated in popular stories by making the Jiangbei migrant not just stupid, but deluded about his own intelligence. The storyteller Yao Yinmei recalls, "All I had to do was say a few words in Jiangbei dialect [to indicate a Jiangbei character], and the audience would burst out laughing. It's not that what I had said was particularly funny, but they were laughing in anticipation of the stupid things this Jiangbei character was bound to do."

    The link between the social mobility of storytellers and their invention and embrace of the Shanghai identity is a unique but important one. In the mid-nineteenth century, storytellers in Jiangsu and Zhejiang found themselves literally at the bottom of the social heap, without even a home to call their own. It was precisely at this time that Shanghai began to expand and improve, and it was this growth in Shanghai that created new possibilities for mobility among storytellers. Not only could these previously dispossessed people find steady and gainful employment in Shanghai; but as Shanghai's cityscape began to boast unique and more "modern" things like plumbing, electricity, and opulent interior decorating, residents of this city took pride in these improvements-and the storytellers who were lucky enough to work in these new establishments at the time found themselves perfectly positioned to lay claim to this new territory and this new, "modern," "urban" identity. These storytellers enhanced the glamour of this urban identity and widened the imagined cultural barrier between urbanites and rural people with the content of their stories. They shored up this claim to an "urban" identity for themselves with the help of elaborate rules and institutional structures, so that these "urban storytellers" became an exclusive club to which rural outsiders simply were not admitted. Urban identities were so strong among Shanghai storytellers be cause Shanghai was literally what made them who they were-before the glitz, wealth, and expansion that characterized Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s, storytellers were "nobodies." Shanghai was what made them "somebodies."

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