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Mina Choi Tenison

Dongping Yang

Author, The Tale of Two Cities: Shanghai vs.Beijing

Beijing or Shanghai? Everyone has an opinion, but who is right? Yang Dong Ping addresses this on-going debate in his 60,000 character tome, Cheng Shi Ji Feng (The Tale of Two Cities) published earlier this spring. With an English version due out later this year, Prof. Yang sat down with us to discuss some of the central arguments of his book.


That’s: What is the main difference between Shanghai and Beijing?

Since the 19th century, Shanghai has been the biggest industrial and commercial city in China. Its nickname is “shi-li-yang-chang”, meaning a place where many Westerners gather; whereas Beijing has always been a political center, a gigantic “guan-chang” where officials, high and low, gather and carry out their activities. Shanghai has always been a “shi”, (a city), whereas Beijing has always been a “cheng”, (traditionally a place with walls), therefore always self-contained. As a result, the rise of Shanghai and Guangzhou prompted the development of the whole delta area, whereas Beijing’s rise has had no ripple effects; Beijing is still surrounded by poverty of its neighboring regions.


That’s: You also trace these two cities’ characters historically. Can you tell us how the 1949 revolution and the Cultural Revolution changed the character of these two cities?

Shanghai turned from a city of the bourgeoisie to a “vanguard of the planned economy.” It became the base camp for leftist culture and the source of the Cultural Revolution. Shanghai produced Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan [two members of the “Gang of Four”]. If you count Jiang Qing, who also lived and worked in Shanghai, then three members of the Gang of Four were from Shanghai, which says a lot.

On the other hand, the revolution and political campaigns also destroyed the city walls if Beijing. Old Beijingnese, who are known for their modesty and etiquettes, kindness and generosity, receded into the historical background. But unlike Shanghai, Beijing kept its doors open to immigrants. As a result, Beijing has now become the center of intellectual culture in China.


That’s: You characterize the Shanghainese as stingy, competitive, not particularly ambitious, and concerned with outer appearance. What created these characteristics?

The urban living environment of Shanghai was dictated by the Planned Economy after 1949. The bourgeoisie was overthrown and the urban upper class disappeared, and with it, their enterprising spirit. Ordinary residents such as clerks and workers and their working-class culture became dominant in Shanghai. As their material wealth and living conditions deteriorated, the Shanghainese coped by holding onto the memories of past grandeur and Western influence.


That’s: You also write about the difference between Shanghai women and Beijing women.

In general, Shanghai women are more gentle and refined, and focus more on the quality of life and personal taste. They are accustomed to taking charge of the finances and hen pecking their husbands. But they are petty. Beijing women are more broad-minded and outspoken.

That’s: Shanghai husbands are famous for doing the housework. Do you think this is true?

Shanghai men are really a rare and treasured species. They are popular among women because they have a strong sense of family responsibility, work hard, and take tender care of their wives. They are especially good at housework. In the past, capable men could not only cook, but also use sewing machines, repair bicycles and clocks. Some could even make furniture. A man who was sent to the countryside with me was the son of a professor in Jiao Tong University. He was the embodiment of all these traits. A local peasant complimented him by saying he “could do everything except give birth to a child.”


That’s: What do you think of Xin Tian Di?

Obviously, Xintiandi is a commercial success. It has captured the essence of “New Shanghai”; it’s glamorous, expansive, luxurious and westernized. In addition, it maintains some sense of the old, though barely discernable. The only problem is that it’s fake: Xintiandi is not Shanghai. It’s a place for foreigners to see Shanghai and a place where Shanghainese come to see something foreign. Nevertheless, it’s still better than glass skyscrapers that have overtaken most of Shanghai.


That’s: Were you born and raised in Shanghai? Which city do you personally like better?

I am new immigrant of both cities. However, I spent my youth and adolescent years in Shanghai, so I am more emotionally involved with Shanghai. Beijing was more a battlefield for me to realize some of my obligations and ambitions. When I was young, I was influenced by the leftist culture of the time and despised Shanghai’s petty bourgeoisie. As I wrote, “it is in the expansive crudeness of the North that I gradually learnt to appreciate the value of Shanghai life that I had despised as a young man, and came to understand all the virtues of tenderness and subtlety as of an old lover.”

Now I return to Shanghai a few times each year and am amazed by the changes that seem to be taking place every day and every month. I also lament the authentic memories that are being expanded, edited and faked. Nanjing Lu is no longer the old Nanjing Lu; Huaihai Lu is no longer that Huaihai Lu……I realize that the Shanghai we are familiar with and the Shanghai we are fond of is vanishing. Every time I go back to Shanghai, therefore, I take a lot of pictures of old Shanghai buildings for old times sake. Maybe I won’t be seeing them again.

That's Shanghai - August 2007

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