Shanghai Baby, the controversial novel by Chinese author Zhou Weihui, depicts the glamorous life of Coco (named after Coco Chanel, and based upon the author) – a character who loves shopping, smoking, drinking, and exploring her sexuality. The novel is packed with all the ‘taboos’, such as sex and marital affairs, which offers an insight into contemporary Chinese society for women (as well as acting as a tour guide of all the ”cool” places to eat and shop in Shanghai).
The writing style reflects the character of Coco – it’s basic, has a ‘teenager’ feel, and it’s not very mature. The themes also reflect this: sex, sexuality and becoming aware of one’s self – all of which fit in with young adult and teen fiction. Aside from the obvious, in this case sex which is everywhere in the novel, the book also shows the rapid commercialisation and modernisation of China and its consequences.
Many may argue whether it does reflect the ‘real’ modern China. Living in a very affluent and traditional Chinese city myself, I can see the similarities between Coco’s life and the life of many young Chinese women today. Life to them has three important areas: 1) making money, 2) spending money, 3) having a boyfriend. Note I said boyfriend and not husband; there is certainly an element of ‘try before you buy’ when it comes to modern Chinese women and relationships.
Author Zhou Weihui
Obviously, I cannot speak for all Chinese women. The many Chinese women from various parts of China who I have met however, all describe the life of women in Shanghai as being the same as that described in Shanghai Baby. Many openly criticise this, and Shanghai, exclaiming that they hate the city because it’s too ‘Western’ and not ‘Chinese’. These women criticised the women of Shanghai whilst playing on their new iPhones, discussing sex, and describing dreams of moving to the US, Canada, UK and other western countries – embracing ‘modernisation’. Whether they realise it or not, a lot of these women are Coco.
Shanghai Baby‘s sequel, Marrying Buddha, is a lot more mature in terms of writing and themes. There’s still a lot of sex and commercialisation, but the novel feels a lot more ‘adult’ and empowering. Coco is no longer passive and one-dimensional (how I feel she was in Shanghai Baby). Instead, she is much more well-rounded.
There is also more of an embrace of traditional Chinese culture in the novel too, with Coco spending vast amounts of time in Buddhist temples conversing with monks – informing the reader, and possibly modern China, that modernisation doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning traditions and one’s spiritual self.
Many will say Shanghai Baby empowers women because Coco explores her sexuality. But, she is rarely in control and is passive, being influenced by those around her. Marrying Buddha is empowering. Coco takes control of her life (although sometimes is still influenced by men), and by the end of the novel she is a strong, powerful woman.
Marrying Buddha, like Shanghai Baby also breaks ‘taboos’, for example, it embraces the Japanese. A lot of modern Chinese people – again, not all – still have contempt for the Japanese due to the history of the two nations (the rape of Nanjing plays a huge part in this feeling, as does continuous territorial disputes over islands). Coco however falls in love with a Japanese man, one who is able to detox and renew her spirit. To the modern Chinese, this may be seen as a betrayal but it does reflect an attitude which needs to be addressed. Coco doesn’t dictate her life and feelings by Chinese history, an idea which contemporary Chinese society is coming to grips with. Indeed, there’s a growing number of Chinese who are embracing the Japanese, but equally there are those who still openly hate the Japanese.
Whilst these are not my favourite Chinese novels, they are definitely novels worth reading for a depiction of modern China.