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Haipai Culture in Shanghai

It is usually stated that Shanghai was the biggest port, the main business and industry metropolis of China. It could thus been deducted from it that the essential role of the city was the management of business affairs. Yet, the more we get interested in the history and also in the present of this big conurbation, the more we discover that the political and cultural role of this city was very important in the development of the country.

In fact, Shanghai had its own cultural school, "Haipai", who was a mixture of Chinese and western cultures or a new literature of modern style in contact with the foreign countries. The city then inaugurated a literary tradition, towards the end of Qing dynasty and writers at that moment converged to Shanghai. At this time, cooperation becomes established between Chinese authors and religious foreigners.


Shanghai modern history cannot disregard a composite, pragmatic, commercial, cosmopolitan culture, open to the masses: Haipai.

The architects made live in the city the neo-classic constructions or "Art deco" with the industrial buildings; offices, hotels, luxury villas and leisure centres along with lilong, a traditional urban housing environment. Its creation keyed up physical appearance, the image of the modern woman, leisure activities and consumption.

Chinese cinema was born in Shanghai and literature was inspired by most varied Westerners influences. In spite of its detractors, Haipai inaugurated a new era.

In Shanghai, 1920s-30s are the period when formed and developed the frame of a modern consumption culture while the rest of China is in the hands of war Lords; during this time Shanghai built a financial and commercial empire, attracting banks, traders  of the whole world and adventurers, becoming in the popular mind "the Paris of the East”.

At this epoch architecture reflected the new urban classes, urban sociology and modes of consumption which pushed this architectural frenzy: this structural design was inspired by French art deco and by the American jazzy style mixed with Chinese ornamental elements; it is also what is called haipai.

Nanjing Road in 1920s

Nangjing Lu, 1920s

Nanjing Lu (南京路) the commercial and cultural district construction begun with four big stores. Typical was Wing On, the subsidiary of a company from Hong Kong, established in 1918 and precursor: tearoom, hotel, roof-terrace and dancing room in the same building.

Besides stores, new places of entertainment, Guangming Grand Theater (大光明), today transformed into a cinema, Paramount Dance hall (百乐门) with its art deco hall and air-conditioning were built as well. It is the mythical period of the golden age of the Chinese cinema.

Those same factors caused a parallel evolution of the readership and entailed a transformation, if not a break, in the literary tradition of haipai.

Subsequently split into two currents, the one cultivating the lowest and most superficial tastes, until degenerating sometimes into an enticing literature of sex and violence, the other one satisfying the fashion passion and the unpublished work of the new urban classes, to aim towards a cutting edge literature.

The "decadent" haipai

Few of these authors reached posterity since many of them contented with writing remaining anonymous for magazines and popular tabloids which attracted the reader by gossips and diverse rumours including on the life of actors or celebrities, by funny stories, columns of leisure and love stories, even erotic...

Haipai Culture

The "rising" haipai

On the other hand, there was a fleeting but brilliant, original and innovative movement illustrated by Shi Zhecun a Chinese author and journal editor in Shanghai during the 1930s. Shi Zhecun was quite active on the Shanghai literary scene and introduced Chinese readers to various trends in modern literature and art.

Mu Shiying was a further Chinese writer best known for his modernist short stories. He was active in Shanghai in the 1930s where he contributed to journals like Les Contemporains (1932 - 1935), edited by Shi Zhecun.

Mu Shiying had a dandyish image which was reinforced by his writings - often set in the dance halls of Shanghai. His most famous short stories are highly modernist pieces that attempt to convey the fragmented and inhuman nature of modern life in the metropolis. They experiment with expressionistic narrative techniques that break with a standard textual flow by juxtaposing disconnected visual images.

It is however in Mu Shiying news that this Shanghainese style doubtless attained its most elaborate expression.

Haipai Culture in Shanghai

At the same time, it is an inspired cinema style, entertainment that was all the rage in Shanghai and for which these authors were fascinated.

“Literary haipai” shaped so little by little around themes such as sex and love representing an inescapable basis which took more or less provocation or vulgar forms according to the authors, and the kind of people they addressed.

From the forties, this mixture of enticing authors and trivial works, alternating with innovative writers whose works constitutes a page of Chinese literature history, with in the focal point  a multitude of writers, very feminine, which remain secondary but make their contribution to the evolution of this kind of prose and testify of the mentalities openness is brought into being continuously.

Zhang Ailing was one of the most influential modern Chinese writers. Chang is noted for her fiction writings that deal with the tensions between men and women in love, and are considered by some scholars to be among the best Chinese literature of the period. Zhang Ailing is the one who marked haipai culture from the forties.

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