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Residual Romanticism in a Contemporary Shanghai Novel

Through a close reading of Wei Hui's bestseller Shanghai Baby (1999), this article highlights five elements to delimit a post-romantic neoliberal literary sensibility and its ruptures: (1) a "melotraumatic" quest for exuberance, (2)
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  Front. Lit. Stud. China 2017, 11(1): 106–132DOI 10.3868/s010-006-017-0005-2Sabina Knight (  )Department of Comparative Literature, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts01063, USAE-mail: SPECIAL ISSUE ARTICLE Sabina Knight Residual Romanticism in a ContemporaryShanghai Novel Abstract  Through a close reading of Wei Hui’s bestseller   Shanghai Baby (1999), this article highlights five elements to delimit a post-romanticneoliberal literary sensibility and its ruptures: (1) a “melotraumatic” quest for exuberance, (2) denial of dependency, (3) a celebration of individual choiceand market rationalities, (4) disillusionment and disappointment, and (5) aquest for intelligibility through narrative. Along the way I probe the narrator’sresidual romanticism as a little-addressed foundation of the novel’stestimony to a generational sensibility. By examining the relationshipbetween Coco the narrator and Coco the protagonist, I contend that thenarrator’s sustained self-remembering evokes her growing unease withneoliberal values. The tension between post-romantic cynicism and residualromanticism suggests the extent to which a supposedly dissident novel mayentice precisely for the ways its deep structure reinforces dominantdiscourses. Whereas Coco the protagonist follows a logic of consumerism,Coco the narrator gestures to non-commercial values—loyalty, care, empathy,trust, and solidarity. Appreciating the novel’s residual romanticism alongsideits post-romantic cynicism sheds new light on the story, its context,ambiguous feminism, and reception. Keywords  market rationality, residual romanticism, feminism,  ShanghaiBaby , Wei Hui, chick lit, body writing Introduction Wei Hui’s  卫慧  (1973–) novel,  Shanghai Baby  上海宝贝  (1999), sold over a  Residual Romanticism in a Contemporary ShanghaiNovel 107 million copies within two years of publication, further millions in Chinathereafter, and millions abroad in more than thirty languages. The novelmade Wei Hui the most famous of China’s contemporary “glamour girlwriters” ( meinü zuojia  美女作家 ), so dubbed for their works’ sensationalismand their jaundiced view of romantic love. 1 What accounts for the book’sappeal and longevity in scholarly discussions? Scholars have analyzed themany facets of the novel: its misandry, posturing, and generalizations; 2 itsportrait of Chinese urban youth’s negotiations of individualism; 3 its windowonto the effects of globalization on class, gender, and cultural citizenship; 4 its expression of a generation’s anxiety, hopelessness and nihilism; 5 and itsfraught reception among public intellectuals advocating for women’s rights. 6 Eva Chen  陈音颐  well represents the novel as exemplifying a neoliberalsubjectivity central to the global chick-lit genre. 7 To further the discussionbegun by these more sociological studies, this article offers a close reading ofWei Hui’s novel to explore its residual romanticism, a crucial source of itsresonance for readers with neoliberal sensibilities. 8 Against romantic visions of love that promise emotional fulfillment, 1 Other well known “glamour girl writers” include Mian Mian  棉棉 , Zhou Jieru  周洁茹 ,Zhao Bo  赵波 , and Zhu Wenying 朱文颖 . After Wei Hui, Mian Mian is the most notorious,especially for her novel  Tang   糖  ( Candy , 2000). 2 Shen Yuanfang, “Sexuality in East-West Encounters:  Shanghai Baby and  Mistaken Love .” 3 Ian Weber, “ Shanghai Baby : Negotiating Youth Self-Identity in Urban China.” 4 Deirdre Sabina Knight, “Shanghai Cosmopolitan: Class, Gender and Cultural Citizenshipin Weihui’s  Shanghai Babe .” 5 Lin Zhong, “Xiandairen de jiaolü he wuwang: Lun Wei Hui xiaoshuo zhong de renwu dejingshen tezhi.” 6 Xueping Zhong, “Who Is a Feminist? Understanding the Ambivalence toward ShanghaiBaby, ‘Body Writing’ and Feminism in Post-Women’s Liberation China”; and Kay Schaffer and Xianlin Song, “‘Beauty Writers,’ Consumer Culture and Global China: Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby , Mian Mian’s  Candy  and the Internet Generation.” 7 Eva Chen, “ Shanghai Baby  as a Chinese Chick-Lit: Female Empowerment and NeoliberalConsumerist Agency”; and Eva Chen, “Shanghai(ed) Babies: Geopolitics, Biopolitics andthe Global Chick Lit.” 8 Although beyond the scope of this essay, my argument about residual romanticismmight help elucidate other “glamour girl” works, as well as more high-brow ( ya  雅 )literary fiction by authors such as Tie Ning 铁凝 , Bi Shumin 毕淑敏 , Can Xue 残雪 , Chen Ran 陈染 , Lin Bai  林白 and Hong Ying 虹影 , and poetry by Zhai Yongming  翟永明 and Lu Yimin 陆忆敏 . Such a treatment could build on Xin Yang’s work contextualizing  Shanghai Baby among Wei Hui’s other works, sequels by others, and in the tradition of women writers“vocal about female sexuality,” 69, including Ding Ling 丁玲 , Lin Bai and Chen Ran. See XinYang, “Glamorously Intellectual: An Intertextual Reading of Wei Hui.”  Sabina Knight108 especially prevalent in Chinese fiction of 1978–85,  Shanghai Baby  appears tomanifest distrust of traditional romantic scripts. The novel thus figured withinan ongoing countermovement evident since the early 1980s wherein Chinesewriters explored themes of sexual repression and deviance in ways thatcalled romantic love into question. 9 Wei Hui (a self-identified feminist) 10 andother “glamour girl writers” took sensationalism even further as their characters struggle to make sense of their lives within a post-romantic order.Popular and scholarly writings have rightly emphasized the performance ofsexuality and self-exposure these writers use to market their works. 11 Yet it isalso a yearning for romantic exuberance and other characteristics of literaryromanticism that distinguish these writers and may explain the allure of their “body writing” ( shenti xiezuo  身体写作  or   quti xiezuo  躯体写作 ), a termwhose career in China I address at the end of the article.After introducing the novel, this article highlights five elements to delimit apost-romantic neoliberal literary sensibility and its ruptures: (1) a“melotraumatic” quest for exuberance, (2) denial of dependency, (3) acelebration of individual choice and market rationalities, (4) disillusionmentand disappointment, and (5) a quest for intelligibility through narrative.Along the way I probe the narrator’s residual romanticism as alittle-addressed foundation of the novel’s testimony to a generationalsensibility. Appreciating the novel’s residual romanticism alongside itspost-romantic cynicism sheds new light on the story, its context, ambiguous 9 Zhang Xianliang  张贤亮  confronted sexual repression as both a result of and ametaphor for political repression in his novella  Lühuashu  绿化树  (Mimosa, 1984) and hisnovels  Nanren de yiban shi nüren  男人的一半是女人  (Half of man is woman, 1985) and  Xiguan siwang   习惯死亡  (Getting used to dying, 1989). The last novel prefigures the“melotraumatic” mode discussed below, as the confessional narrator admits that sexserves as a means of proving to himself that he is alive. In another vein, Wang Shuo’s  王朔 “hoodlum” ( liumang   流氓 ) fiction about exploitative sexual encounters heralded later works by male compatriots He Dun 何顿 , Qiu Huadong  邱华栋 , and Zhu Wen 朱文 , who,with the “glamour girl authors,” were dubbed “unconventional” or “alternative” ( linglei 另类 ) writers. 10 Born Zhou Weihui, Wei Hui prefers to drop her surname Zhou and use only her givenname. Separating the two characters downplays the potentially feminist act of using just agiven name. 11 Megan Ferry, “Marketing Chinese Women Writers in the 1990s, or the Politics of SelfFashioning”; Sheldon H. Lu, “Popular Culture and Body Politics: Beauty Writers inContemporary China”; Xin Yang, “Glamorously Intellectual”; and Kay Schaffer and XianlinSong, “‘Beauty Writers,’ Consumer Culture and Global China.”  Residual Romanticism in a Contemporary ShanghaiNovel 109 feminism, and reception. Shanghai Baby  capitalizes on Shanghai’s distinctive position as one of theworld’s most exuberant sites of material and cultural consumption. Aninternational hub of artistic, intellectual, and social transformations,Shanghai’s global flows are key both to the story within the novel and to thenovel’s runaway success. Wei Hui’s semi-autobiographical protagonist adoptsthe name Coco, after Coco Chanel, and Shanghai’s cosmopolitan energyinforms her romantic mission in writing her novel. As she experiments with adizzying array of value orientations, the terms of her choices reflect theinternational fashions of global capitalism in a burgeoning metropolis. A“once-and-now-again global city,” 12 Shanghai offers Coco a dynamic stageupon which to fashion herself and perform as a consumer. Guided by a globalneoliberal ideology that foregrounds personal fulfillment, Coco produces alocalized testimony that aims—in high romantic fashion—to express thespirit of her time and place.Far from presenting a plot leading toward fulfillment,  Shanghai Baby  stagesa post-romantic drama of dual loss. Coco, the first-person narrator, chroniclesan affair that she experiences as compromising her ideals, diminishing her self-esteem, and hastening her primary partner’s death. Rather than push her drug-addicted partner Tian Tian  天天  to make a living, reconcile with hismother, or confront his sexual dysfunction, Coco plunges into asadomasochistic affair with Mark, a hyper-efficient married Germanbusinessman. In substituting Mark for Tian Tian, Coco extends to the intimatedomain a neoliberal market rationality based on consumer desire andsupplier competition. This rationality also highlights self-reliance (rather thaninterdependence) and the pursuit of solutions to life problems within acompetitive market place. Yet much of the novel expresses Coco’s desperateretrospective project to evade despair after Tian Tian’s overdose and Mark’sdeparture leave her bereft of both lovers. Given that Tian Tian relapses,overdoses, and dies after discovering her betrayal, Coco could be paralyzedby guilt. Instead she dramatizes her shame to integrate her memories in aseemingly post-romantic narrative.Beneath her rationalizations, Coco’s emotions betray a deep desire to 12 Jeffrey Wasserstrom,  GlobalShanghai, 1850–2010: A History in Fragments , 11.  Sabina Knight110 reconstitute her identity within a romantic quest for the truth of her times.By examining the relationship between Coco the narrator and Coco theprotagonist, I contend that the narrator’s sustained self-remembering evokesher growing unease with neoliberal values. Whereas Coco the protagonistseems tied to a logic of consumerism that binds her in dynamics motivated byself-interest, Coco the narrator gestures to non-commercial values—loyalty,care, empathy, trust, and solidarity.Without presuming to characterize the author Wei Hui’s intentions, I readthe text’s resistance to market rationality as offering a romantic critique ofneoliberal ideology. At the very least, Coco’s conflicts attest to ambivalence.Central to global “chick lit,” this “capacity for ambivalence” is, as WencheOmmundsen writes, easily ignored when the genre is dismissed as “thecomplicit product of the new cultural norm of individualism defined byconsumption, or even as one of its main instruments of propaganda.” 13 For behind the chic façade,  Shanghai Baby  testifies to a generation’s anxiousnegotiation of conflicting values—traditional, romantic, feminist,postmodern, and neoliberal. 14 MelotraumaandtheQuestforExuberance Shanghai Baby  voices acute anxiety about accessing desire, and Coco’swriting of her novel can be interpreted as an urgent romantic project torevivify the present. Lauren Berlant has used the term “melotrauma” toname a mode of writing or living that is anchored in such a project:Melotrauma is a fundamentally temporal form, focusing on the urgencyto wrest the present both from the forms we know—the burden ofinheritance, of personality, of normativity—and from the ones we canonly imagine in the futures to which the claims of the present are always 13 Wenche Ommundsen, “From China with Love: Chick Lit and the New Crossover Fiction,”333. 14 The Chinese srcinal, though uneven, contains experimental and philosophical passagesexcised from the more sensational English translation.
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