CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 22, June 2010


The Shanghai Style | China Heritage Quarterly

The Shanghai Style

Zhou Zuoren

On Zhou Zuoren’s Style

Jonathan Hutt

When a new issue of the highly respected literary journal, Threads of Talk (Yusi 語絲) appeared in the nation’s bookstores in January 1927, it featured an article highly critical of both Shanghai and its culture. For at least some of the magazine’s ‘enlightened’ readership, the inclusion of this piece may well have appeared to be a strange editorial decision. This was, after all, a publication compiled by a team of celebrated authors and academics and which counted amongst its many contributors some of the leading lights of the New Culture Movement. Therefore, it was only reasonable to expect that its content reflect a concern for the pressing cultural (and by extension social and political) issues facing the nation, a concern that was shaped by the unwavering idealism of the May Fourth intellectual. In sharp contrast to the customary collection of scholarly articles, the question of Shanghai’s culture was decidedly hackneyed. Consequently, after their initial shock, the loyal Threads of Talk readership must surely have anticipated something exceptional; or a thoughtful work that offered fresh insights into a city that had been subjected to continual criticism since its inception as a treaty port almost ninety years earlier. If so, they would have been sorely disappointed. Whilst they might admire its many literary flourishes (for clearly this was the work of a master stylist), the brief yet vituperative essay simply restated what had long been regarded as being the many deficiencies of Shanghai’s culture.

Fig. 1 ‘It’s headed for Shanghai’ (Dao Shanghai qude 到上海去的), manhua 漫畫 by TK (Feng Zikai 豐子愷).

In a clear illustration of the irony that frequently colours Shanghai’s history, what might so easily have been dismissed as an editorial anomaly or an insubstantial and disposable piece of prose would eventually be recognised as one of the most important and influential pieces ever to be written about the city. Largely unnoticed at the time of its publication, this essay would serve as a catalyst for a new wave of attacks on Shanghai, sparking one of the major intellectual debates in twentieth-century Chinese cultural history. Furthermore, this very article was to change the nature of all future discussions on the burgeoning metropolis, lending an intellectual credibility to the bigotry and bias against this new urban environment and defining the threat it supposedly posed to Chinese cultureIn doing so, it would also allow for the creation of a stronger and more unified opposition to the so-called Shanghai school (Hai pai 海派), bringing together adversaries of radically different intellectual temperaments and ideological standpoints. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this article would help define and perpetuate stereotypes, which would become readily detectable in all subsequent depictions of the metropolis. In short, this composition was to play a pivotal role in defining the very quality that gave this essay its title.

Although the route from minor essay to writing of great historical significance is long and tortuous, it is possible to identify several factors that contributed to the longevity of this particular critique. First, and most extraordinary, is the apathy that greeted the publication of ‘The Shanghai Style’. Prompting little in the way of a response and still fewer rebuttals, this essay would remain unchallenged and with time acquire a degree of substance and veridicality that defied its modest origins. Yet, it was the pedigree of its author that would ultimately save this article from the oblivion into which innumerable works on the metropolis have simply disappeared. Its publication in a highbrow journal and the author’s command of the vernacular baihua 白話 language were all clear indications that this was not the handiwork of a literary hack. However, it was the eventual recognition that ‘The Shanghai Style’ belonged to the canon of great anti-Shanghai texts that confirms that these were indeed the reflections of one of the era’s great intellects. While much of this canon is both fêted and familiar, the reputation of ‘The Shanghai Style’ has been highly susceptible to the shifting fortunes of its author, Zhou Zuoren (週作人 1885-1969), a man who remains one of the most problematic figures in the cultural history of twentieth-century China.

While the timely appearance of ‘The Shanghai Style’, its accuracy in gauging the cultural climate, and even its prophetic powers are all noteworthy, it is the seemingly innocuous content that masked a still greater ability imperceptible to both author and audience alike. With ‘The Shanghai Style’, Zhou had unwittingly crafted a work that would, in due course, serve as a bridge between past and future critiques of the metropolis, thereby uniting the traditional bias of the late-Qing scholar with the as-yet unspoken criticisms of the Marxist intellectual. Accordingly, this modern man of letters does not simply uphold conventional aesthetic judgments of Shanghai, but rather infuses them with the idealism of the New Culture movement and in doing so anticipates the Sturm und Drang that will characterise the Haipai debate of the 1930s.

Predictably then, in Zhou’s portrait of the city, Shanghai appears much as it would have to the intellectual of the late-Qing: a bastard child of colonialism and a permanent reminder of China’s humiliation at the hands of the West. Though treaty port Shanghai may have periodically offered safe haven for such reform-minded scholars, in general it attracted a vulgar breed of ill-educated and money-grubbing opportunists. Naturally, the city’s culture was a reflection of its sordid commercial origins; ‘the culture of compradors, hooligans and prostitutes, altogether devoid of rationality and elegance.’ For Zhou, this environment had given rise to something intangible, a spirit or ambience that would permeate every sector of society and generate all manner of vile and odious phenomena, repugnant to the traditional scholar and the modern intellectual alike. Inevitable and inexorable, this was the Shanghai Style.

I am in every sense a follower of the Mean [Zhongyong zhi dao 中庸之道]: Therefore, although I am fond of humour, I truly despise the Shanghai Style of humour for its excess, vulgarity and its vice. Shanghai began life as a home for foreign colonialists and its culture is a reflection of this fact: the culture of compradors, hooligans and prostitutes, devoid of rationality and elegance. Now, the atmosphere of this city has brought into being a Shanghai Style, a spirit that has permeated every sector of society and generated all manner of vile and odious phenomena, including so-called writings in the Shanghai Style.

The loathsome nature of the Shanghai Style is most clearly observed in matters concerning sexual relations. Still, the issue here is not that they are salacious but rather the very solemnity and gravity with which they treat this subject. Relations between the sexes are without question of critical importance to human life and thought, and so the discussion of such matters is not only to be tolerated, it is also one that can be of great interest. All that is required is for the subject matter to handled correctly. For this to be achieved, there are few requirements: a sense of artistic refinement, a clear scientific understanding, and a moral rectitude. With a basic understanding of the subject and the correct artistic choices, what needs to be said will come naturally. If this path is followed the work itself will possess great literary merit, or I should say, moral value. If not, one risks causing great offence by virtue of your obscenity.

Sex and money are at the very centre of Shanghai culture. It is a society so permeated by an atmosphere of decadence that it is only natural that there is a cynical attitude to both life and love. For those who possess the Shanghai Style, women are simply the playthings of men, while women themselves are perceived as somehow unwholesome and fundamentally evil. Consequently, sex is both a legitimate pastime and a fundamental right of the Shanghai male, yet for the city’s women it spells only humiliation and shame. Thus, it can be said that here the question of sex is governed by traditional superstitions and morality. Accordingly, in Shanghai they ridicule modern attitudes and modern morality and disparage the new woman. As for her younger sister, the female student, she is still more intolerable as she is unwilling to observe the ‘ancient rites’. As the spirit of the Shanghai Style is ‘faith in gods and ghosts, upholding the moral code’ they are by nature staunch traditionalists who oppose all the trappings of the modern woman.

Since the advent of new literature, many have raised the subject of ‘humour’. A common misconception is that humour can be found at its very best in the city of Shanghai. Yet, nothing could be further from than the truth. Humour is only one aspect of the literary craft, one that embodies the three major elements I have mentioned earlier. I firmly believe that humour develops from this sense of artistic refinement and moral rectitude. Nor is it ever excessive, for it is a manifestation of sophrosune, which I translate as the Doctrine of the Mean. One cannot possibly say that the Shanghai sense of humour is judicious, and therefore it is unrelated to the true concept of humour.

The Shanghai Style is an atmosphere that has existed since ancient times and cannot be said to have only developed along with the city, for it is an evil long present within the Chinese tradition. However, it is at its most intense in Shanghai as it has merged with the atmosphere of the city itself and flourished. Therefore, (and here I must apologise to my friends in Shanghai) it has acquired this sobriquet. For this very reason, the Shanghai style is simply one aspect of the doctrine of those who preach “the restoration of ancient ways,” and all the various schools of thought that seek the same ends. Still, given the times in which we live, maybe these many and varied rejections of our era are a true necessity.


Zhou Zuoren, ‘The Shanghai Style (Shanghai qi 上海氣)’, Threads of Talk (Yusi 語絲), 127 (1 January 1927). Reprinted in Zhou’s About Dragons (Tan long ji 談龍集, Shanghai: Kaiming shudian, 1930, pp.157-160.