'Submerged in Shanghai'

Times Literary Supplement, 27 June 1997

DANGEROUS PLEASURES. Prostitiution and modernity in twentieth-century Shanghai. By Gail Hershatter. 591pp. Berkeley: University of California Press; distributed in the UK by Wiley. Pounds 35.0. - 520 20438 7.

THE SHANGHAI GREEN GANG. Politics and organized crime, 1919-1937. By Brian G. Martin. 314pp. Berkeley: University of California Press; distributed in the UK by Wiley. Pounds 32. - 0 520 20114 0.

PROLETARIAN POWER. Shanghai in the Cultural Revolution. By Elizabeth J. Perry and Li Xun. 249pp. Westview, 12 Hid's Copse Road, Cumnor Hill, Oxford OX2 9JJ. Paperback, Pounds 12.95. - 0 8133 2165 4.

Facilitated by the emergence of new primary sources and the relatively easier access to archives and libraries in the mainland, a number of careful monographs have recently attempted to get closer to the pulse of life in one of China's most colourful and corrupt cities. An imaginative and detailed examination of prostitution in the free-wheeling port of Shanghai, Dangerous Pleasures shows the importance of sex-workers in the social and political history of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century China. They figured at the centre of social debates concerned with the perils and benefits of modernity, and if prostitutes themselves rarely recorded their lives, they were the topic of a vast cautionary literature which can be put to good use by the inventive historian. Gail Hershatter relies primarily on guidebooks to brothels, collections of anecdotes about famous courtesans, tabloid gossip and newspaper reports, although some police archives and social surveys are also included.

'Prostitution' did not represent a unitary occupation, as a great variety of trades characterized sex workers, from poor street-walkers who worked in miserable conditions to the sexually inaccessible courtesans who were as famous as film stars in Hollywood. Fictionalized accounts of individual prostitutes were a staple of urban culture, circulating through journals and tabloids to create a sense of shared knowledge in which high class courtesans became public figures to be admired or chastized. Indicative of an unstigmatized participation in urban life, some courtesans even played a role in setting fashion standards. Their power to ridicule or humiliate through such small gestures as serving tea in a worn teacup was feared, and detailed guidebooks instructed men on the ritualized ways of comportment expected in the pleasure quarters. In many cases, physical pleasure was seen to be only a peripheral concern: self-presentation, dependent on the knowledge of sexual categories and rules of access, was far more important than sexual intercourse per se for both male customers and female prostitutes.

The regulation of sex traders was proposed by some government agencies, portraying prostitutes as a threat to public order. The Communist regime undertook forceful campaigns to eradicate prostitution after 1949; a strong and healthy nation, in the eyes of the leadership, was a sign of socialist modernity. The final chapters of this book evoke the emergence of prostitution in China over the past decade, as debates about sex work are once again embroiled with broader moral and social claims about the nature of sex, gender and modernity.

While these debates provide us with wonderful examples of how social elites wanted to appreciate, warn, regulate, or eliminate sex workers, they were far removed from reality, as one reformer observed in 1935: 'Actually, these are prostitutes as they exist in the brains and ears of the writers. If you ask such a writer, "What, after all, do these women eat, what do they wear, are they willing to lead this type of life or not?", he is unable to answer.' Hershatter is only able to provide a partial answer to this important question herself, as she relies too heavily on a very limited body of primary sources, mainly a dozen guidebooks dispensing to the prospective customer a repertoire of social practices and appropriate means of comportment to be followed in the brothel. While she regrets the absence of a 'voice' in which the prostitute can speak for herself, the authors of the guidebooks she so abundantly uses are hardly ever given a name, let alone a biographical profile: information on Sun Yusheng, whose pamphlet is quoted almost 200 times in less than six chapters, is rejected to an endnote. A reflection of the trivial nature of the main sources she deploys, the book lacks the necessary concision and analytical rigour which might have prevented the narrative from becoming marred in the anecdotal.

Invoking fragmentary evidence to reconstruct a social history of the different strategic alliances between gangsters and politicians, Brian G. Martin's study The Shanghai Green Gang is largely centred on the tribulations of its charismatic leader, the infamous Du Yuesheng. An important thesis of his book is that new social forces unleashed by the advent of modernity positively encouraged the reconfiguration of more traditional forms of organization, including Chinese secret societies. As the author convincingly shows, the Green Gang was less a vestigial remnant of a dying social system than a flourishing organization which actively interacted with and thrived on new political and economic structures. Shanghai was not one city, but three distinct municipalities, namely the Chinese City, the International Settlement and the French Concession. A fragmented administrative structure, the large influx of Chinese immigrants into Shanghai, the lucrative trade in narcotics, and the city port's central role as an industrial hub were some of the main factors which facilitated the rise of the Green Gang. Its power was further expanded by strategic alliances with modernizing elites, factory workers and political authorities; the relationship with the French authorities was mutually beneficial, granting the police force greater influence in dealing with security matters and the gangsters controlling the opium traffic. As 'compradors of violence', the Green Gang bosses were also crucial allies of domestic political forces, playing an active role in the extension of terror used by the Guomindang in its administration of Shanghai during the initial months of its rule. While this book illuminates many aspects of drug trafficking and organized crime in Shanghai, it remains more a political account of Du Yuesheng's career than a social history, as it only occasionally provides insights into the concrete workings of a secret society at the lower levels.

More solidly anchored in primary sources and critically engaged with social theories, Proletarian Power by Elizabeth J. Perry and Li Xun is a meticulous reconstruction of the Cultural Revolution in Shanghai, on the basis of secret biographies, Public Security Bureau interrogation transcripts and other confidential archival documents. Radically qualifying historical explanations of the Cultural Revolution which have emphasized totalitarian politics from above at the expense of social forces, the authors seek to explain the political activism of ordinary citizens from below. Bringing to life the participation of enterprising individuals in collective action, this important work explores in minute detail how leaders organized protest among factory workers. Not only does it succeed in putting a more human face on to the labour movement, but it also illuminates the distinctive forms of workers' unrest, from rebel organizations which attacked party authorities to the conservative outfits which defended them. Correcting the undue degree of attention to the experiences of students and intellectuals, this revisionist study highlights how labour activism was shaped by groups, networks and personalities which developed in an intense political climate marked by the imperatives of Maoism; one of the most fascinating conclusions is that the Cultural Revolution in Shanghai was not so much characterized by terror imposed from above as by a diversity of popular responses which exploded from below. Although the authors sometimes adhere to their sources a little too uncritically, replicating for instance the socialist regime's fascination with sheer numbers, magically recited like a mantra in order to provide a specious sense of precision even where a descriptive phrase would have been more to the point, this rich and concise study should be read by anyone interested in the complexities of political protests in contemporary China.