The Best Novels About Old Shanghai

The Books I Picked & Why

Midnight

By Mao Dun

Midnight

Why this book?

Published in 1933 Mao Dun’s Midnight is the Chinese novel that most accurately shows the harsh effects of the freewheeling capitalism that characterised old Shanghai in its international treaty port days. The city’s great wealth is built on low wages, awful conditions, and exploitation. This is Shanghai as a powder keg about to explode.


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Man's Fate

By Andre Malraux

Man's Fate

Why this book?

Malraux’s novel is perhaps the most intricately atmospheric novel of old Shanghai, written in 1933 but set amid the 1927 Lefist Uprising and the massacre that follows. Malraux weaves the stories of Chinese revolutionaries, Russian agents, stateless refugees, foreign businessmen and poor workers into a portrait of the city. It is also a book that shows Shanghai as the most modern city in Asia between the world wars – neon, traffic jams, jazz….


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Lust, Caution: The Story

By Eileen Chang

Lust, Caution: The Story

Why this book?

Set in wartime Shanghai in a time of espionage, betrayal, and murder. Chang knew of what she wrote – her own husband worked for the pro-Japanese collaborationist Chinese government of Wang Jing-wei and was considered a traitor. It’s a wartime novel where bombs don’t fall and soldiers don’t fight but everyone, including the main character of Wang Chia-chih (based on a real-life Nationalist Chinese spy Zheng Pingru, but with a fair amount of Chang herself thrown in), is faced with issues of resistance, collaboration, fighting back or staying quiet. A novella, but no less a masterpiece for being short.


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Shanghai: A Novel

By Riichi Yokomitsu

Shanghai: A Novel

Why this book?

Riichi, an experimental, modernist Japanese writer, was perfectly suited to Shanghai, always an experimental modernist city. Shanghai was written after the author’s extended sojourn in Shanghai in the late 1920s. It is a fever dream of a city, cosmopolitan, deracinated, and louche yet almost impossible to grasp. Riichi’s Shanghai is not totally naturalistic yet his novel amazingly embodies the very spirit of old Shanghai.


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Mu Shiying: China's Lost Modernist

By Andrew David Field

Mu Shiying: China's Lost Modernist

Why this book?

This is a collection of short stories by one of China’s modernist masters, mostly translated by Andrew Field. However, Mu is largely forgotten and rarely read now either in Chinese or in translation. The reason is simple – he chose to collaborate with the Japanese in World War Two. Yet his short stories are so emblematic of old Shanghai, its dancehalls and bars; nightclubs and bordellos. Mu moves through a Shanghai demimonde of Chinese and foreigners, gangsters and tycoons, imported whisky, and Shanghainese cuisine. His writing is the epitome of the nighttime neon-lit old photography of the city we are so familiar with; his characters those we see on the old pre-war black and white movies from Shanghai’s film studios.


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