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The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (edition 2008)

by Wang Anyi, Michael Berry (Translator), Susan Chan Egan (Translator)

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613194,696 (3.88)25
Title:The Song of Everlasting Sorrow
Authors:Wang Anyi (Author)
Other authors:Michael Berry (Translator), Susan Chan Egan (Translator)
Info:Columbia University Press (2008), Hardcover, 456 pages
Collections:Read, Read but unowned
Tags:fiction, Chinese, China, Shanghai, 20th century, 1990s, Cultural Revolution, beauty pageant

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The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi



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The Song of Everlasting Sorrow is a novel equally about a woman and a city. The city is Shanghai, and the story opens in its last days of decadent opulence in the 1940s. The woman is Wang Qiyao, as a teenager a striking young beauty who has been raised on Hollywood movies and a mix of Chinese and Western fashions. Her life is that of a typical Shanghai girl until, with the help of a friend, Wang Qiyao gets a glimpse at the world of her dreams backstage at a Shanghai film studio. This leads to her being noticed by an amateur photographer who makes her his lifetime obsession. His photos of Wang Qiyao catapult her to local fame and a place in the 1946 "Miss Shanghai" beauty pageant.

Wang Qiyao's feminine world is echoed in the author's descriptions of Shanghai itself:

"Shanghai's splendor is actually a kind of feminine grace; the scent carried by the wind is a woman's perfume.... The shadows of the French parasol trees seem to carry a womanly aura, as do the oleanders and the lilacs in the courtyard--the most feminine of flowers. The humid breeze during the rainy season is a woman's little temper tantrum, the murmuring sound of Shanghainese is custom-made for women's most intimate gossip. The city is like one big goddess, wearing clothes plumed with rainbows, scattering silver and gold across the sky."

Wang Qiyao lives in a "longtang," the traditional Shanghai residential block consisting of a group of connected houses fronting a single narrow alley. There are detailed descriptions of the longtang and changes that both it and Wang Qiyao undergo over time as history sweeps across Shanghai.

But the tumultuous events of Chinese history from the 1940s to the 1980s are seen only indirectly. The name of Mao Zedong is never mentioned, nor that of any other public figure. Instead what we see through Wang's eyes are the changes in fashions, in music, and in the menus of restaurants. We see the city slowly darken and decay, then burst back into life again in 1976, but only in a cheap imitation of its former glory. Observing the sudden explosion of gaudy but poorly made and ill-fitting clothes, Wang Qiyao observes that "nothing could escape the prevailing crudeness and mediocrity in the general rush to produce instant results."

Wang herself has friendships with a number of women and affairs with several men, but never commits herself emotionally. Always seeking to recapture the glory of her youth when all of Shanghai was her admirer, she keeps others at arm's length. She is a creature of a Shanghai of the past, but when that Shanghai finally tries to recreate itself, Wang Qiyao discovers that "her world had returned, but she was now only an observer."

The characters in most of the Chinese fiction I have read are notably plain-spoken, thick skinned, and wear their emotions for all to see. The Song of Everlasting Sorrow is quite different. The language is lyrical, poetic, and at times almost magical. The characters are complex and subtle, reluctant to show their true feelings or to take action. Emotions are suggested by a single tear or a sharp turn of the head. In the same way, sweeping historical and social changes are only hinted at by the accumulation of dust on a window sill or the gradual fading of a treasured but never worn silk dress.

This is a beautifully written and intimate novel with subtle patterns and ironies. It offers a unique urban and domestic perspective on modern China that both contrasts and complements the more masculine perspective of most Chinese novelists. ( )
7 vote StevenTX | Jan 9, 2013 |
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"Set in post-World War II Shanghai, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow follows the adventures of Wang Qiyao, a girl born of the longtong, the crowded, labyrinthine alleys of Shanghai's working-class neighborhoods. Infatuated with the glitz and glamour of 1940s Hollywood, Wang Qiyao seeks fame in the Miss Shanghai beauty pageant, and this fleeting moment of stardom becomes the pinnacle of her life. During the next four decades, Wang Qiyao indulges in the decadent pleasures of pre-liberation Shanghai, secretly playing mahjong during the antirightist Movement and exchanging lovers on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. Surviving the vicissitudes of modern Chinese history, Wang Qiyao emerges in the 1980s as a purveyor of "old Shanghai"--A living incarnation of a new, commodified nostalgia that prizes splendor and sophistication-only to become embroiled in a tragedy that echoes the pulpy Hollywood noirs of her youth."--Publisher's description.… (more)

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