Shanghai has long been the city of beginnings. Cultures mingled together there, creating a unique heritage that applies traditional Chinese culture to Western influences, as well as combining the Chinese customs with a bit of Westernness. This element is often overlooked in the present day, partially due to China’s focus on rapid development and post-Great Leap Forward policies. However, back in the 1920s, the coexistence of multiple cultures used to be the major reason for Shanghai’s global prominence.
Jazz is originally an American musical phenomenon, which originated in Harlem, New York as part of the African-American cultural heritage. It then spread across the world and eventually arrived in China in the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to the country's exposure to the West and admiration for western cultures. This merging of cultures took place aided by trade between China and other countries, as well as colonization attempts from the West, which had grown consistently since the defeat of China in the First Opium War. The cosmopolitan Shanghai had thus became the center for the African-American influences, and eventually, this fascination had resulted in a new musical creation called Shidaiqu (shidaiqu, 時代曲) a fusion of Chinese folk music and jazz. Shidaiqu literally means “songs of the era”. This translation perfectly describes the impact this new musical scene had on Shanghainese society. Originally appreciated only by expats, it eventually became the voice of modernity. By the 1940s, Shidaiqu music had reached its peak of popularity, having created a bridge between the East and the West. Jazz clubs, such as the historical Paramount Dance Hall (bailemen, 百乐门), became gathering places for members of the elites and businessmen.
The origin of this phenomenon dates back to 1935. One of the most influential African-American Jazz artists, Buck Clayton, and his band ‘Harlem Gentlemen’, arrived in Shanghai that year. After performing with Chinese composer Li Jinhui (黎锦晖) they decided to create a new music style together: Shidaiqu. Their performance was described as “boundary-breaking”, and it resulted in many further cooperations between the Chinese and American artists. It also brought about the popularization of Chinese traditional music in the West and Western music in the East. One of the most prominent African-American poets, Langston Hughes, who went to China for a few weeks in 1934, described Shanghai, the hub of global Chinese culture, as “a town in another world. Here there are sky-scrapers, neon lights, night clubs, jazz bands, air-cooled movies…”. Upon his awe over the city, he wrote an anti-colonial poem called “Roar, China!”, personally identifying with the struggles of the oppressed society and expressing similarities between the African - Americans and the Chinese in finding their national identity (Historic Shanghai, n.d.). During those times, nearly every club in the French Concession of Shanghai (one of the districts created as a result of western colonization in China) had concerts performed by “fellow Harlemites”, as described by Hughes.
If on one side Shidaiqu gained popularity in mainstream society, especially after implementing this music in Shanghai movies, it was on the other criticized by the authorities, who labelled it as “decadent” and “inappropriate”, due to its cultural connotations. Some of the main accusations the music faced was inauthenticity, and the sentimental love songs were seen by the Communist Party as appealing only to petite bourgeoise, or xiaozi (xiaozi, 小资), a social group of small-scale merchants and middle-class people who seek to belong in the higher classes. They were also accused based on their connection to American jazz music, in an era of growing anti-American sentiment in China, to the point where they were seen as a “rightist” movement, and therefore against Communist principles.
Moreover, in the Republican China, oppressed by foreign powers, the idea of “blending” with the West in any aspect was derogatory for the authorities and indeed the way the Chinese citizens were treated and humiliated by the Westerners was an important consideration. Shidaiqu quickly found an alternative- a leftist, socialist genre called Qunzhong music（qunzhong yin yue, 群众音乐) a mix of Hollywood film music, Soviet choral music, and Chinese folk. Both of these genres were portraying a distinct vision of China, later on becoming more and more related to each other. Performed by beautiful Sing Song Girls (whose name comes from the Chinese courtesans in the 19th century), Qunzhong songs became means of propaganda, which portrayed daily problems of the common people, socialist ideology, and nation building practices. With the advent of the Japanese occupation that took place thereafter, music was recognized to be a good way of unifying the Chinese - yet, it was still censored due to its associations with “Yellow Music” (huang si yin yue, 黄色音乐), a term describing pornographic and morally questionable music, due to fetishization of the singers who sang it. In the eyes of the Chinese media, although the Yellow Music genre was generally not appreciated, Shidaiqu and Qunzhong music were essentially two spectrums of the political thought in the early 20th century China - the first one thought of as ideologically corrupted and decadent, whereas the second one was presented as a morally superior alternative.
Shanghai’s cosmopolitan atmosphere allowed various artists to find a sense of identity in the city, and sympathize with its citizens struggling with foreign aggressors at that time. Music was the most popular way of expression, both in a political and individual way, telling stories of life, challenges, prospects and visions of the new China. With political divisions, mostly caused by foreign Concessions of French and British in the city, combined with a rich and vivid lifestyle of Shanghai citizens, Shidaiqu eventually rose to intellectual prominence as the singers began to implement literary practices based on classical Chinese literature into their music. Besides the folk literary stories they sang about, they wanted the genre to rise above mere popular music. Instead, they wanted to turn it into a highly sophisticated art for the elites, something able to immortalize the stories of a nation. The songs were later regarded as an important factor in the modernization of China, which was taking place at that time. However, slightly snobbish and luxurious, the singers had quickly started to lack social consciousness and failed to promote national ideals, which eventually resulted in the Government shutting down nightclubs and concert halls. The importance of the meaning behind the songs has long lasting connections with Chinese history and how Chinese political leaders have depended on classical expressions throughout the ages in order to capture the national and social imagination and convey ideologies. The idea of implementing classical stories into the modern songs might have seemed like a pointless idea due to the lack of its relevance to the modern lifestyle, but in fact, referring to these “thought foundations” was a sign that the ideas they portray transcend time and generations.
Nowadays, Shidaiqu has been rediscovered by a sophisticated Shanghai audience, also thanks to the opening of a multitude of jazz clubs and bars in the city. Young people go there to get a taste of a “hipster-like'' entertainment style, whereas elderly citizens, possibly nostalgically, enjoy many of the songs from their youth. The historical buildings are revitalizing rapidly, creating new space for well-established Chinese jazz artists, such as 76-year old Li Mingsheng, who’s been performing at Fairmont Peace Hotel for over 40 years (SCMP, 2018).
In recent years, the Shanghai Restoration Project was created to recover the old tradition as well as encourage new artists to discover new sounds within the Shidaiqu genre. The musical project even released an album called “The Classics'' which aims to introduce this music to the mainstream audience. One of Shanghai’s popular venues, JZ Bar, located in the Huangpu district of the city, is well known for its 1930s furnishing and classic, old-school atmosphere which attracts the fans of live jazz music, which is played there seven days a week (Hu, 2020).
Marta Gramatyka is a student of Chinese Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Originally from Poland, she aims to create bridges between China and the West and encourage intercultural dialogue. She is interested in Chinese traditional culture and history, the social development of Chinese society, as well as international relations, diplomacy, and foreign policy. You can find her on Instagram (@thegrvmv), Twitter (@m_gramatyka), and LinkedIn.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
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Historic Shanghai (n.d.) Roar, China! Langston Hughes in Shanghai. [online]. Historic Shanghai. [Viewed March 28, 2021]. Available from https://www.historic-shanghai.com/roar-china-langston-hughes-in-shanghai/.
Hu J. (2020) Can Jazz Survive COVID-19? China has Tested the Waters. [online]. All About Jazz. [Viewed March 28, 2021]. Available from https://www.allaboutjazz.com/can-jazz-survive-covid-19-china-has-tested-the-waters.
SCMP (2018) A 97-Year-Old Trumpeter? Meet World's Oldest Jazz Band in Shanghai. [online]. South China Morning Post. [Viewed March 28, 2021]. Available from https://www.scmp.com/culture/music/article/2110028/worlds-oldest-jazz-band-shanghai-rare-constant-amid-chinas-breakneck.