Preface：This article was written on November 26, 2010 (now, because of the passage of time, the practice of eating and drinking as one wishes has received a definite amount of suppression, as hereby explained) and was originally published in “The Blog of the Flying Fish”》. It was edited on July 2, 2014, and published in the Wechat public account《唐家弄潮儿》。
Some colleagues from my time working in Hefei came to Shanghai for some of their children’s activities. We were a bunch of good friends getting together. One of my coworkers served as the leader of a department. He was a bon vivant. Because we were all friends, he was just babbling on. After a few drinks he started complaining: What’s so good about Shanghai? Just a bunch of tall buildings that are impressive but useless. The houses are so expensive that you want to die. When there’s a traffic jam, you can’t move an inch. Doing anything is inconvenient, unlike in Hefei, where you can rely on relationships and people you know. It can even be said that one can use magical powers to do whatever one wants.
I was very familiar with my old colleague’s feelings. Once I was almost deeply immersed in them, feeling like I was indulging in pleasures and forgetting my duties（of course, now I’m glad I promptly broke free from those restrictions). Following on my old colleague’s topic, I gave my views: counting my time getting a master’s and PhD, until now (2010), I’ve lived in Shanghai for almost 15 years. I also once asked myself, what’s good about Shanghai? Also, I’ve criticized this city many times，as having youth but no meaning; as not having a single influential newspaper, magazine, TV station, radio station; as not creating a movie, TV series, cartoon, or literary work that had a deep impression on people (much less moved people emotionally). There was nothing except for copies and followers. The whole city was lacking in imagination and creativity. To the individual, the bustling metropolis of Shanghai was just a symbol, nothing more.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but say that I more and more liked to be in Shanghai（Once I thought of moving to Beijing to work. 这个年龄还是有一点点“转会”资本的。Hah. But at the beginning of 2006, having experienced Beijing for a month made me overwhelemed of Beijing’s climate. Since then, I’ve given up on that idea.). As for a reason, I can use one sentence to answer you: “In Shanghai, you can live your own life.”
“In Shanghai, you can live your own life.” You can understand that phrase from three levels. First, if you have some skills, you’ll have a lot of choices and opportunities in Shanghai. No matter what you do, you’ll survive. If it happens that your abilities are good, then your opportunities will also be good. Having opportunities and luck, you might be able to live very well.
Once when my friends and I were discussing what’s great about Shanghai, they all conceded that the best thing about Shanghai is its inclusiveness. Even though the native Shanghainese were full of feelings of superiority from the period of the planned economy, they still admired people with abilities. They are very willing to accept outsiders with skills. Wave after wave of new Shanghainese people, in every social class, found their footing. This was clear proof that there is a big connection between Shanghai’s status as a large, East Asian metropolis, full of experience and knowledge, and it’s culture of admiring foreign things without pandering to them.
Second, in Shanghai, you can live your own life, and no one will bother you. Regardless of whether your life is luxurious, ordinary, or difficult, this is the most important, most central quality. This is also the principal reason that many people are unwilling to go back to work after going to school in Shanghai. Because Shanghai basically turned into a marketplace society, relationships between people have basically become atomized. Unlike on the mainland, to receive friendship and recognition, the troubles are many. Living in the value-judgment system of others is too deep and long. You can’t help but compare your job, your money, your house, your skills, your children’s prospects. It’s just that you don’t compare the tranquility of your thoughts and feelings and the poetry of life.
In any small mainland town, if something happens in the morning on one street, by noon it has spread to the whole next street. This naturally results in a big scandal. Although native Shanghainese are fond of gathering around to see, and like to gather around and be lively, that’s only to add seasoning to a life of trivial things, nothing more. Once they return home and close their doors, their lives became self contained. You can live however you want to live. No one will bother you. And there’s no need to tire yourself by worrying about what others think.
Third, Shanghai has an essential item that you cannot help but long for. In other words, Shanghai will raise the quality of your a good you use every day. This is the unique romantic quality and peerless magnifacence of a large metropolis.
Even though it’s far from the lives of ordinary people, it sometimes stirs and arouses feelings deep in your heart. Maybe on the weekend you go to the theater or concert hall to see some music and dancing; or you go to a nearby museum to touch the flowing path of a culture of several thousands of years, and feel the meditations of nostalgia. Maybe you occasionally stroll down Nanjing Road or the Bund, and, in the rolling stream of people, lament the insignificance of a life, but also be unable to resist the ambition to seize everything in your hands. Maybe your family goes to the Red House to have a Western meal，or goes to Xintiandi to experience Shanghai at night. Or maybe you make transfers on the public buses and subway, and spend a few hours on your return trip, and then meet up with old friends from out of town for a meal, all for just a moment of happiness . . .
When Shen Congwen was down on his luck in Shanghai, he made a perfect observation about this kind of feeling: “The women of this city are barely literate, but they are only willing to live a life of poetry.”
Maybe people － in this life of desire, struggle, and reality – go back and forth between an outer world of noise and an inner world of peace, which allows them to take a life of dreams and misfortunes and live richly and transform in many ways!
Of course, the Shanghai of old was a bustling cosmopolitan city, and a society of immigrants where all types of people converged. It was also a paradise for adventurers, opportunists, and cheaters. The essence of the marketplace society helped build this paradise by providing power – and capital, and media – and soil on which to conspire. Since the mid-90s, Shanghai’s literary circles produced the rarely seen cultural cheater Han Han and the cheater’s group. Even though the mask has already been completely torn off, they still occasionally bounce around and be well regarded. It’s a full embodiment of a kind of culture that tries to smooth things over by defending oneself by disclaiming responsibility. Naturally, this is another topic I’ll discuss in the future regarding how there’s nothing bad about Shanghai.
You can sum up what’s good about Shanghai with a classic line from “Beijinger in New York”: If you love someone, send them to Shanghai. Let them feel Shanhai’s diversity, richness, and tolerance. If you hate someone, send them to Shanghai. Let them experience Shanghai’s challenges, complexity, and helplessness.
(The author is a Fudan University professor of international relations and public affairs, and a Ph.D. supervisor）