In her book The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, Anyi Wang demonstrates the struggle between Old China and New China. In contrast to Chinese history written by the patriarchy about men, pompous ideas, and battles and wars, Wang focuses on the details of life that is usually neglected in the larger history of a patriarchal society. Throughout the novel, Wang only implies that there is a larger history going on. Rather, she defines the essential elements of the soul of Old Shanghai as “alleyways” (longtang), “the young lady’s bedchamber” (guige), “gossip” (liuyan), “pigeons” (gezi), and protagonist Wang Qiyao. Wang uses the setting of the longtang to depict the sorrowful story of perseverance in the face of adversity during the tumultuous time from the Liberation of 1949 to post-Cultural Revolution.
Wang paints the face of adversity in the moving description of the young lady’s bedchamber:
“The bedchamber in a Shanghai longtang is a place where anything can happen, where even melancholy is noisy and clamorous. When it drizzles, raindrops write the word “melancholy” on the window. The mist in the back longtang is melancholic in an ambiguous way – it unaccountably hastens people along. It nibbles away at the patience she needs to be a daughter, eats away at the fortitude she must have to conduct herself as a woman. It tells her that the arrow is on the bowstring, about to fly, that the gold pin is in the box, and all is ready. Every day is more difficult to endure than the last, but, on looking back, one rues the shortness of the time. Consequently, one is at a complete loss. The young lady’s bedchamber embodies the naiveté of the Shanghai longtang, passing in a single night’s time from being young and innocent to being worldly and wise, in a nerve-ending cycle, one generation after another. The vestal bedchamber is but a mirage thrown up by the Shanghai longtang. When the clouds open to reveal the rising sun, it turns to smoke and mist. The curtain rises and falls, one act follows another, into eternity” (17-18).
It is clear from the description that young ladies have to exemplify certain societal behaviors like patience, but it becomes difficult to do so with the environment. Constantly disciplining themselves, once they’re older, they fail to realize what is truly important at the time and come to regret the shortness of youth. However, upon this loss, these women gain wisdom from their situation. In the Shanghai longtang, there is a constant cycle of naiveness to wisdom from one generation of women to another.
Wang demonstrates this by following the life of Wang Qiyao. Wang Qiyao lived her most precious years as a girl and her adulthood as a women in these Shanghai alleyways, as well as died in these alleyways. She could have happily settled into the predestined life of a typical longtang girl, in which she should have married a decent white-collar bank clerk hired by one of the shiny foreign banks located around the Bund. However, at the age of sixteen, Wang Qiyao and her school friends visit a film studio. This moment proved to be a pivotal point in her life, causing her to yearn both to escape her room and for the glamour of Hollywood. Ironically, this ties her bedroom in Shanghai longtang and in the Old China. Her constant recollection of her pinnacle days makes her unable to leave the longtang. Even when she does leave, she finds herself bored and yearning for the her life in Shanghai. Wang Qipao remains stagnant as her mind is constantly stuck in the past and she is unable to develop herself.
Foils to Wang Qipai are her former best friend Wu Peizhen and her own daughter Weiwei. Unlike Wang Qipao who yearned for glamour and was a fashion leader, Wu Peizhen and Weiwei were content with the longtang life and were only followers of fashion. Yet, these two were able to escape the turmoils of China by marrying affluent men. There ability to leave China stems from their apathy or lack of knowledge to the Old China as well as their lack of ties to New China, as demonstrated by Jiang Lili, who also demonstrates a stagnant life due to her ties to the New China.
Using Wang Qipao and other characters of the book as an example, Wang Anyi demonstrates how people during this time may be drawn into stagnation due to Old China and New China. Despite the Shanghai’s complete make-over into the modern metropolis, the longtang still exists along high-rise and unsightly new construction. In the maze of longtang, one can easily lose oneself just as one can in the struggle between Old China and New China. While New China is being built, Old China will never disappear and China will remain stifled by the pollution and smog that envelops it.
Wang, Anyi, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow: a Novel of Shanghai, trans. Michael Berry and Susan Chan Egan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 17-18.