Reviews / June 2015 (Issue 28)

Assassinating the Avant-Garde: Mu Shiying: China's Lost Modernist

by Huiwen Shi


Andrew David Field (Editor and Translator), Mu Shiying: China's Lost Modernist, HKU Press, 2014. 160 pgs.


Andrew David Field's Mu Shiying: China's Lost Modernist is an excellent book for a first-time encounter with this often ignored yet extremely talented Chinese modernist. The book offers translations of six of Mu's most representative stories from his artistic peak (1932–1934), and provides a spectrum of his versions of metropolitan love. Field's concise translations are accompanied by a substantial introduction and appreciation of Mu's life and works, as well as of the inter-war social and intellectual climate. An historian of Shanghai culture, Field delivers an astute and discerning investigation into Mu which will further the discourse on Shanghai modernism established by scholars such as Leo Ou-fan Lee and Shu-mei Shih.

Unlike literary giants such as Lu Xun and Eileen Chang, Mu Shiying, despite his ingenious technique and bold explorations of Shanghai's sensuous 1930s, did not garner a great deal of intellectual attention in China until the 1980s. This is probably due to both the brevity of his life and the subject of his works—he was assassinated in 1940 at the age of 28 (a result of his service to the notorious Wang Jingwei "puppet" regime) and his works deviated from China's mainstream ideologies. Mu, however, shows us important aspects of Chinese modernity: the mesmerising jazz age of the colonial Concessions, men and women entangled and estranged in short-lived relationships and the decadent life style of the bourgeoisie, often in a drastic contrast with the working class.

His experiments with Chinese vernacular, shifts the mood from one piece to another, and redefines the avant-garde, even by today's standard. Insightfully, Field argues that Mu is a forgotten figure not only because of decades of revolutionary policies, but also because it took at least half a century for "the rest of the country to catch up with him."

Field's translation catches up with Mu's peculiar narrative rhythm and stylish stream-of-consciousness, which focuses largely on the outer, visual world in order to suggest the characters' interiority.

Mu's works find beauty in decadence and weariness in enchanting luxury. He captures the mental distances that can exist between people even in close proximity, as well as the intensity of momentary feelings. Moreover, his language is compellingly fresh and inventive. Consciously and faithfully, Field also captures Mu's luscious, "neo-sensualist" language and always maintains its vividness. Exemplary are the iconic passages in "Craven 'A,'" in which the female body is scrutinised through the metaphor of mapping a nation. Mu's analogy between the male gaze and a lascivious coloniser is conspicuous, but it also risks exaggeration and affection. Field's translation, however, presents the sexualised body and the intensity of the gaze without overdoing it. The pelvis as a "triangular alluvial plain" immediately rings true to anyone who knows the geography of Shanghai. The translation also expertly preserves Mu's wicked sense of humor: the breasts are two "scenery spots" which men frequent, and which the narrator himself "plans to visit in the future."

Mu incorporates a large number of English words and phrases in his Chinese stories, the effect of which is striking. It records a linguistic phenomenon in the Concessions, while also shedding light on the code-mixing middle class of the time—they are highly educated pleasure-seekers, lost in the material world. Words like "hot baby," "sport," "saxophone," "cream," "cheap" and "gigolo" are scattered throughout, elevating, and at the same time, demeaning their users. To recreate this effect, Field chooses to sometimes put Mu's English in bold letters, although this distinguishing device is, confusingly, not consistently used.

Field's only major departure from Mu is in paragraphing. For "Shanghai Fox-trot" especially, he merges the short, quick-switching paragraphs into slightly bigger chunks, perhaps with the intention of lessening the fragmentation and therefore making the dazzling verbal streams more reader-friendly. There are also times when Field's translation seems to have fallen short of Mu's intentional ambiguity. It is true that Mu is always audacious, but he certainly does not lack subtlety. In the same story, Field writes "These two are up to something," when Mu's original comment on the fishy relationship between the stepmother and son is "這娘兒倆真有他們的!" (literally "What a pair of mother and son!") A better translation might be simply "What a pair!" This would hint at the father's sensitivity towards their relationship without revealing too much.

To complement what is inevitably lost in translation, Field foregrounds each story with a well-executed synopsis, allowing people with little familiarity with Mu to enter his world instantly. Not all of Mu's works are inviting on first encounter. For instance, "Shanghai Fox-trot," even in the original Chinese, can be difficult to follow due to its rapid movements, its constant switching of focus and its panoramic "cinematography." The synopsis, therefore, becomes a necessary educational resource, allowing readers to patiently follow the writer's "foxy" moves. Another example is "Black Peony," a story that travels from a material dance floor in the city centre to an idyllic rural cottage on the outskirts of Shanghai. In the synopsis, Field calls our attention to the rather restricted urban space of 1930s Shanghai, bringing geographical awareness to contemporary readers, who are accustomed to the city's current monstrous vastness. These inviting details fill meaningful gaps, draw you in and make some of the fragmented, mercurial stories more approachable. In addition, accompanying almost every story are rare images of 1930s Shanghai—from advertisements for cigarettes and whiskey to magazine covers portraying female figures—connecting us to city's passing jazz age. Also included are pictures of Mu at his prime, which add warm humanism to the book, and in me, stir a great sense of loss—one can hardly imagine what this pioneering artist could have achieved had he not died so young.

To read this book is to be constantly struck by how relevant these stories are, even well into the 21st century. Writers are still writing similarly challenging stories on China's ever-booming cities (Wei Hui's Shanghai Baby is one obvious example). Mu's complexity lies in the fact that despite his often glitzy subject matter, he also had a great deal of compassion for Shanghani's working class. It would be fascinating to read Field's translations of stories such as "Poles of North and South," even though such works are perhaps less mature, or have already been translated by others. Much like the femme fatale figures in Mu's stories, Field's little book seduces its readers and definitely leaves them wanting more.

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.