Steeped in history but striding forward

Pankaj Mishra – The Financial Times

Published: April 8 2006 03:00 Copyright The Financial Times
In 1926, Aldous Huxley reported that Shanghai was “life itself – dense, rank, richly clotted”. Today, the adjectives – also once used for Cairo, Damascus, Bombay, Calcutta and Benares – evoke not so much a place as the prejudices and fears of the straw-hatted European traveller in the pre-war years – someone fastidiously upholding the aesthetic norms of his bourgeois civilisation that, unbeknown to him, was soon to go up in flames.
To such a traveller, defying the heat and dust in his white suit, the first sight of Shanghai’s waterfront, the Bund, dominated by the customs house clock tower and the HSBC dome, or of Bombay heralded by the Gateway of India, was usually reassuring. Here, in the heart of the bewildering Orient, was something he could hold on to.
To be an Indian in Shanghai is to know a similar sensation of familiarity, if tinged with unease. It is also to be inevitably reminded of Bombay, the city most complicit with Shanghai in 19th-century inequity. Both port cities began to flourish after the British bullied China into opening up its markets to India-grown opium. The political and economic networks of British imperialism created a native class of comprador traders in the two cities, attracted to them a cosmopolitan cast of businessmen and adventurers and set them apart from their vast, steadily impoverished hinterlands.
During a recent stay I often gazed upon the Bund from a stylish new hotel in the Pudong. The architecture before me was more eclectic than that in colonial Bombay. It was also more pompous. But then the British abroad were always prone to self-aggrandisement in stone and their European rivals, trying hard to keep up, conjured even greater fantasies of grandeur.
The imposing solidity was once meant to awe the natives into obsequiousness. But things had changed dramatically in the last half century. The natives now not only “swarmed”, as the European traveller might have said, in the buildings on the Bund, they had also erected their own grand monuments on the once-desolate mud flats of the Pudong. Still, as in Bombay, it was hard to appreciate the architecture, colonial as well as post-colonial, for its own sake. I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling that what I saw was a faÁade and that behind it lay another country and a history that still shaped, in significant ways, the present.
In 1921, Gandhi claimed that Bombay’s big buildings hid “squalid poverty and dirt”. He was referring to the dubious sources of the city’s wealth. But it wasn’t just the trade in contraband goods but a kind of institutionalized brutality and callousness that underpinned daily life in both cities. As Shanghai’s great chronicler Lynn Pann describes it, in 1935 alone, the municipal corporation in Shanghai collected more than 5,000 corpses of poor people from the pavements of the International Settlement.
The British claim to represent civilised western values in India somewhat limited the potential for exploitation in Bombay and the deaths by starvation. But no such commitment to civilisation was deemed necessary in Shanghai, where modern capitalism assumed its most rapacious forms, and where an axis of gangsters, politicians and foreign businessmen effectively ruled the city until the communist takeover in 1949. Bombay had its sadistic police officers but there were more of them in Shanghai, where Sikh policemen imported from India were always ready to fire upon unruly Chinese.
Chinese and Indian thinkers and activists in the early 20th century could see that their richest and most glamorous cities were incompatible with nationalist pride. In 1921, while exhorting Indians to economic self-sufficiency and a ban on foreign imports, Gandhi asked Bombay to be “ready to lose what she has”. The same year the Communist party of China was born in Shanghai and began to feed upon the rage and frustration of the labouring poor and the anti-imperialism of the enlightened middle class. Not surprisingly, development on the socialist model, and the eradication of poverty in the countryside, preoccupied the post-colonial elites of India and China.
Consequently, both Shanghai and Bombay lost much of their power and prestige to inland, bureaucratic cities such as Beijing and Delhi, and had to wait many decades for the ideological moment when the creation of wealth in the cities was deemed more important than the removal of poverty. In recent years, a new form of globalisation, in which India and China are no longer subject countries but players on an apparently levelled field, has revived both Bombay and Shanghai. Originally created by global capitalism, neither metropolis has needed to undergo the brutal and traumatic modernisation suffered recently by such cities as Beijing, Xian, Bangalore and Delhi. However, the national experience of the past half century has given a markedly different character to the two cities once bound by empire.
In previous decades, historical amnesia and real-estate sharks helped destroy many of Bombay’s fine old buildings. Shanghai, on the other hand, was a beneficiary of the odd communist feeling for the past that also preserved Prague and helped rebuild Warsaw. Many of its European-era buildings have survived. Wearing the distinguished mantle of old age and decay, they now face their greatest danger from developers wishing to fill their grand spaces with the sterile sparkle of shopping malls.
In post-Mao China, Shanghai quickly regained its role as the engine of Chinese modernity. It took an early lead in this regard over Bombay, India’s window on the west. Visiting the city in 1983, soon after Deng Xiaoping launched his economic reforms, Jan Morris complained of inefficiency, drabness and a general aesthetic collapse. Nothing was further from my own experience this autumn with hotels, restaurants, taxis, public parks, and museums in Shanghai, which make the power and wealth of the new Chinese civilisation appear an undeniable reality.
Jinmao Tower looms gracefully on the Pudong and already seems to possess the solidity and iconic status of the Rockefeller Center in New York. The shiny cathedrals of consumerism on Nanjing and Huaihai Road, and the boutiques and cafÈs of Xintiandi persuade more quickly than the shopping malls of suburban Bombay that they are here to stay. Shanghai’s film studios produce cinema of arguably greater quality than those of Bollywood. New art galleries and nightclubs open almost every week. Modern Shanghai has its own trendy writers, if not of the stature of Lu Xun, Mao Dun and Eileen Chang, and they prefer to explore the fresh possibilities of individual freedom – sex, drugs and rock music – available in the metropolis rather than recount a painful recent history of arbitrariness and destitution in the countryside.
The two cities also deal differently with their hinterlands. Bombay has many empowered ethnic and religious xenophobes, often supported by its affluent classes, but they cannot keep at bay the destitute and hopeful immigrants from the rest of India. Together they contribute to the squalor of the city, which is as obvious now as it was during Gandhi’s time, although it also speaks of a messily democratic country where slum-dwellers form a sizeable electoral base no politician dares lose. In a throwback to Shanghai in the 1930s, a kind of mafia capitalism still flourishes in Bombay. Gangsters, politicians and businessmen together rule the city. In the recent past, their in-fighting has plunged large neighbourhoods into violence.
Shanghai, on the other hand, seems more orderly and remarkably free of poor people. One day on the Bund I found a beggar – the only one I saw in several walks around the city – and he was so melodramatically seedy that I half-wondered if he had been put there by the tourist board as a reminder of the city’s sordid imperial past.
The neon lights of Pudong skyscrapers throb luridly at night, making the “peaceful rise” of China appear, apart from everything else, an occasion for lovers of kitsch. But things are not so peaceful behind the glittering surfaces. The soil is subsiding in newly built-up Pudong; chemical poisons contaminate river waters elsewhere in China; and aggrieved peasants hold hundreds of demonstrations every week.
None of this seems to worry the hundreds of thousands of Chinese cheerfully moving through the shopping malls and the waterfront park in Shanghai. One feels in these great crowds, overwhelming even to an Indian, not so much life itself, dense, rank or clotting, as the poignancy of the desires of the Chinese people for a better life. It is always a shock to remember the immense suffering China has known in the previous century and it seems petty to begrudge the Chinese shoppers a bit of consumerist self-indulgence.
But, watching the old waterfront, or the lights of Pudong from the terrace at M on the Bund, you still feel the presence of an even greater and much more restless Chinese mass in the inscrutable countryside, cruelly shut out from the new urban prosperity their labour and taxes have contributed so much to. It is hard not to wonder if it is always true, in unfree and free nations alike, that, as Walter Benjamin put it, every step towards civilisation is also a step towards barbarism.
Pankaj Mishra is the author of the acclaimed ‘An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World’. He was a guest of the Pudong Shangri-La in Shanghai
Pudong Shangri-La, 33 Fu Cheng Road, Shanghai, tel: +86 21-6882 8888

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