“The longtang are the backdrop of this city. Streets and buildings emerge around them in a series of dots and lines, like the subtle brushstrokes that bring life to the empty expanses of white paper in a traditional Chinese landscape painting. As day turns into night and the city lights up, these dots and lines begin to glimmer. However, underneath the glitter lies an immense blanket of darkness – these are the longtang of Shanghai.”
Wang’s writing style takes a while to get into. The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (长恨歌) opens with details of the longtang or neighbourhoods within enclosed alleys of Shanghai. It’s a beginning that requires some patience from the reader. Because plenty of beauty awaits within.
“Four decades the story spans, and it all began the day she went to the film studio.”
Wang Qiyao is taken to a film studio by her classmate Wu Peizhen. There a director notices her and asks her to a screen test. However he realizes that:
“Wang Qiyao’s was not an artistic beauty, but quite ordinary. It was the kind of beauty to be admired by close friends and relatives in her own living room, like the shifting moods of everyday life; a restrained beauty, it was not the kind that made waves. It was real, not dramatic”.
To make up for it, he asks his friend Mr Cheng, a photographer, to take some pictures of her and one of them is published in a newspaper and Shanghai begins to notice her:
“The girl in the picture was not beautiful, but she was pretty. Beauty is something that inspires awe; it implies rejection and has the power to hurt. Prettiness, on the other hand, is a warm, sincere quality, and even hints at a kind of intimate understanding.”
She is convinced by the photographer Mr Cheng and her classmate Jiang LiLi to join the Miss Shanghai contest, where she becomes known as ‘Miss Third Place’:
“Girls like Miss Third place, however, are a part of everyday scenes. They are familiar to our eyes, and their cheongsams never fail to warm out hearts. Miss Third Place therefore best expresses the will of the people. The beauty queen and the first runner-up are both idols, representing our ideals and beliefs. But Miss Third Place is connected to our everyday lives: she is a figure that reminds us of concepts like marriage, life, and family.”
This is just the beginning of Wang Qiyao’s story. She gains the attention of a high-powered man, who essentially makes her his ‘apartment lady’ or mistress. After his accidental death, she is forced to restart her life in a different longtang, taking on the identity of a widow, making ends meet by giving injections (yes, this puzzles me too, apparently people come to her for various injections such as vitamins and “placenta fluid”). She makes new friends, starts to have a clandestine relationship with one of her mahjong partners (he is from a wealthy family) and finds herself with child.
While Wang takes us through the years of Wang Qiyao’s life, an aura of mystery still wafts around her. She is quite the enigma.
“She is the heart of hearts, always holding fast and never letting anything out.”
She is that woman at the party who sits quietly in the corner sipping tea. Not the life of the party (she is after all, much older than the rest of the partygoers) yet the eye is drawn to her:
“She was an ornament, a painting on the wall to adorn the living room. The painting was done in somber hues, with a dark yellow base; it had true distinction, and even though the colours were faded, its value had appreciated. Everything else was simply transient flashes of light and shadow.”
This is not just Wang Qiyao’s story but the story of Shanghai, as we move from the 1940s to the 1980s.
“Shanghai in late 1945 was a city of wealth, colours, and stunning women… Shanghai was still a city of capable of creating honor and glory; it was not rules by any doctrine, and one could let the imagination run wild. The only fear was that the splendor and sumptuousness of the city were still not enough.”
In 1960 though, times have changed drastically.
“In the still of the night the city’s inhabitants were kept awake not by anxious thoughts but by the rumblings of their stomachs. In the presence of hunger, even the profoundest sadness had to take second place, everything else simply disappeared. The mind, stripped of hypocrisy and pretensions, concentrated on substance. All the rouge and powder has been washed away, exposing the plain features underneath.”
Then in the 1980s, Shanghai is booming. Construction sites abound in this new districts’ “forest of buildings”:
“This was indeed a brand-new district that greeted everything with an open heart, quite unlike the downtown area, whose convoluted feelings are more difficult to grasp. Arriving in the new district, one has the feeling that one has left the city behind. The style of the streets and buildings – built at right angles in a logical manner – is so unlike downtown, which seems to have been laid out by squeezing the emotions out from the heart.”
The Song of Everlasting Sorrow was such a different read for me. It moves at a very gentle pace and is probably best described as a portrait of Wang Qiyao’s life. Yet I was drawn to her melancholic story, to Wang Anyi’s intricate depiction of Shanghai through these volatile years. It’s an enduring, elegant novel, and one of my favourite reads so far this year.
- 雨，沙沙沙 (1981)
- 黑黑白白 (1983)
- 王安憶中短篇小說集 (1983)
- 流逝 (1983)
- 尾聲 (1983)
- 黄河故道人 (1986)
- 六九屆初中生 (1986)
- 母女漫遊美利堅 (1986)
- Lapse of Time 蒲公英(1988)
- Love in a Small Town 小城之戀(1988)
- Love on a Barren Mountain 荒山之戀(1988)
- Baotown 小鮑莊(1989)
- 海上繁華夢 (1989)
- 旅德的故事 (1990)
- 流水三十章 (1990)
- 米尼 (1992)
- The Song of Everlasting Sorrow 长恨歌 (1995)
- 我读我看 (2002)
- 剃度 (2002)
- 启蒙时代 (2007)
- 天香 (2011)
Born in 1954, Wang Anyi (王安忆) is the daughter of a famous writer and member of the Communist Party, Ru Zhijuan (茹志鹃), and a father who was denounced as a Rightist. At age 16, she was sent to work as a farm laborer in a remote commune. She later joined a cultural troupe and began to publish short stories in 1976, and was allowed to return to Shanghai in 1978. In 2011, Wang Anyi was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.