Traditional Chinese literati’s entry into urban life

By HUANG DAN / 10-29-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Built in 1918, this building in Shanghai was home to the headquarters of Shen Bao during the 1930s. Photo: SINA

On April 30, 1872, the Chinese newspaper Shen Bao [formerly transliterated as Shun Pao, known in English as Shanghai News] was born in Shanghai. In the “Call for Submission” published on its first issue, Shen Bao called upon “scholars and intellectuals” to provide “short essays,” “long prose,” and “poems and rhymed chronicles.” And it stressed that “publication is free of charge.” As a result, “numerous reputable scholars and intellectuals actively submitted their writings” to Shen Bao, which ended up carrying more literary works than journalistic writings. The submission to Shen Bao was not only distinguished by its huge volume, but also by its form: Chinese intellectuals set out to build “Ya Ji,” or literary assembling, on Shen Bao for the regular exchange of literary works.

‘Disembodied network of presence’
Ya Ji is a form of gathering for traditional Chinese literati to meet and befriend each other based on their literary works. It is a small-scale gathering among friends, acquaintances, or masters and students to share, read, and review poems. Hence, Ya Ji is semi-private, similar to salons in Europe as described by Jürgen Habermas. Unlike salons, Ya Ji participants appreciated the quality of literary works more than the social status of their authors. Hosts of Ya Ji were not necessarily the epicenter of the circle, unless their literary talents were highly esteemed by the participants. Moreover, Ya Ji did not engage in cultural critique. As a literary circle, Ya Ji mainly sought entertainment and expression of cultural taste by reciting verses. As the participants of Ya Ji were comprised mostly of friends and acquaintances, their interaction was bound by geographic proximity, which gave Ya Ji distinctive characteristics. In the late Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), scholars in Shanghai were mostly migrants from other provinces, and strangers to the city. Newspapers became a public field open to a massive number of readers.  
According to Richard Sennett, the creation of a public sphere is related to social imaginaries. If a society has public spheres, it must also have the capacity for imagination. Likewise, the condition of a public sphere shapes imagination. The key is that a set of codes is needed to create a connection between imagination and a public sphere and make the connection be recognized by people. This set of codes is a faith system, or expressions to create a meaningful sense of public sphere in society. Eventually, expression becomes the bridge and the sign/indicator to understand the public sphere. 
Not only was Ya Ji the encounter between intellectuals and newspapers, it was also the encounter between scholars at the interface of newspapers. Drawing on the tradition of Ya Ji, newspapers opened a public channel for intellectuals to enter urban life. Men of letters used Ya Ji to create a “disembodied network of presence.” As a set of signs and indicators for expression, Ya Ji formed a Shanghai culture that offered an anchor of imagination to the life of practices, and a practical support to imaginary life. Meanwhile, it nurtured a generation of urban literati.  
Shen Bao’s Ya Ji was something for people both to experience and to relate to. It encouraged Shanghai’s migrant literati to gather on newspapers, and to express their feelings via poem-writing, which constituted a key facet of their state of existence.
‘Invented tradition’
Normally, Shen Bao’s Ya Ji published traditional-style Chinese poems, but I regard it more as an “invented tradition” in Eric Hobsbawm’s conceptualization. It implies continuity with the past, but this factitious continuity responds more to the present by referring back to the past. For newspapers, Ya Ji connected them to readers and authors. In due course, the form and mode of Chinese newspapers were created thereby. For China’s men of letters, participation in the publicized private gathering relieved their self-pity and loneliness. Accidentally, they were introduced to a new form of urban life, which resembled tradition on the surface. This experience became their guide towards the writing and publishing practices typical for modern urban life. 
Newspapers are not reflections of the city. Rather, newspapers participate in the constitution of the city that we inhabit. Cities create different types of people, while inhabitants also create different cities. The genres of poetry or of literature in general always “include dimensions of intention, emotion, and factual narratives to entail the interaction between the public and the private; the presentation of knowledgeable conversations; and the forming of historical memories.” Thus, starting from Shen Bao’s Ya Ji, scholars drew upon the publication and the “flowing time” of newspapers to build a unique culture and spirit, or a critical part of Shanghai’s urbanity, which was characterized by a crossing of high culture and low culture, the Western and the Chinese, the traditional and the modern, and the urban and the rural.
Newspaper “Ya Ji” is based neither on profit orientation nor on voluntary choices. It was a form of endearment between newspapers and Chinese literati after their encounter. If the elite are defined by “social status, power, and wealth,” scholars migrating to Shanghai in the late Qing Dynasty were obviously non-elites. Yet, it was the intervention and operation of modern newspapers that won and created a chic lifestyle and urban image for the Shanghai literati. Ya Ji is not Habermas’s “public sphere.” The scholars heralded into the urban life of Shanghai in the late Qing Dynasty were far from becoming public intellectuals in the modern sense. The scholars, newspapers, as well as the urban culture mediated by Ya Ji presented a special facet of China’s modernization metamorphosis.       
Huang Dan is a professor from the College of Media and International Culture at Zhejiang University. This article was edited from his paper submitted to the forum.