Monday, July 11, 2016

Shanghai's longtang — her vast neighborhoods inside enclosed alleys — are a magnificent sight - Wang Anyi

Today's quote is from The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, a 1995 novel by Wang Anyi. It was translated to English in 2008 by Michael Berry and Susan Chan Egan.

The novel follows Wang Qiyao, a sensitive Shanghai beauty, from 1945 to her murder in 1986. The title is identical to a famous 809 poem by Bai Juyi, about the romance and tragic death of the beautiful imperial consort Yang Yuhuan.


LOOKED DOWN UPON from the highest point in the city, Shanghai's longtang — her vast neighborhoods inside enclosed alleys — are a magnificent sight. 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. The darkness looks almost to be a series of furious waves that threaten to wash away the glowing dots and lines. It has volume, whereas all those lines and dots float on the surface — they are there only to differentiate the areas of this dark mass, like punctuation marks whose job it is to break up an essay into sentences and paragraphs. The darkness is like an abyss — even a mountain falling in would be swallowed whole and sink silently to the bottom. Countless reefs lurk beneath this swelling ocean of darkness, where one false move could capsize a ship. The darkness buoys up Shanghai's handful of illuminated lines and dots, supporting them decade after decade. Against this decades-old backdrop of darkness, the Paris of the Orient unfolds her splendor.

 ****

Shanghai's longtang come in many different forms, each with colors and sounds of its own. Unable to decide on any one appearance, they remain fickle, sometimes looking like this, sometimes looking like that. Actually, despite their constant fluctuations, they always remain the same — the shape may shift but the spirit is unchanged. Back and forth they go, but in the end it's the same old story, like an army of a thousand united by a single goal. Those longtang that have entryways with stone gates emanate an aura of power. They have inherited the style of Shanghai's glorious old mansions. Sporting the facade of an official residence, they make it a point to have a grandiose entrance and high surrounding walls. But, upon entering, one discovers that the courtyard is modest and the reception area narrow — two or three steps and you are already at the wooden staircase across the room. The staircase is not curved, but leads straight up into the bedroom, where a window overlooking the street hints at romantic ardor. The trendy longtang neighborhoods in the eastern district of Shanghai have done away with such haughty airs. They greet you with low wrought-iron gates of floral design. For them a small window overlooking a side street is not enough; they all have to have walk-out balconies -- the better to enjoy the street scenery.

*****

To return to the highest point in the city and look down on it from another angle: clothes hanging out to dry on the cluttered bamboo poles hint at the private lives and loves that lie hidden beneath. In the garden, potted balsams, ghost flowers, scallions, and garlic also breathe the faint air of a secret affair. The empty pigeon cage up on the roof is an empty heart. Broken roof tiles lying in disarray are symbols of the body and soul. Some of the gullylike alleys are lined with cement, others with cobblestone. The cement alleys make you feel cut off, while the cobblestone alleys give the sensation of a fleshy hand. Footsteps sound different in these two types Of longtang. In the former the sound is crisp and bright, but in the latter it is something that you absorb and keep inside. former is a collection of polite pleasantries, the latter of words spoken from the bottom Of one's heart. Neither is like an official document; both belong to the necessary language of the everyday. The back alleys of Shanghai try even harder to work their way into people's hearts. The pavement is covered with a layer of cracks. Gutters overflow; floating in the discolored water are fish scales and rotten vegetable leaves, as well as the greasy lampblack from the stovetop. It is dirty and grimy, impure, here. Here the most private secrets are exposed, and not always in the most conventional fashion. Because of this a pall hangs over these back alleys. The sunlight does not shine through until three o'clock in the afternoon and before long the sun begins to set in the west. But this little bit of sunlight envelops the back alleys in a blanket of warm color. The walls turn a brilliant yellow, highlighting the unevenness of the rough whetstone and giving it the texture of coarse sand. The windows also turn a golden yellow, but they are scratched and stained. By now the sun has been shining down for a long time and is beginning to show signs of fatigue. Summoning up the last vestiges of radiance from the depths, the lingering rays of sunlight flicker with a sticky thickness of built-up residue, rather dirty. As twilight encroaches, flocks of pigeons soar overhead, dust motes drift, and stray cats wander in and out of sight. This is a feeling that, having penetrated the flesh, goes beyond closeness.

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