What do the following have in common – foot binding, prostitution, the silk industry, concubines? They all have to deal with the reality of women in Shanghai and they are all omitted from the current exhibit at the Asian. Shanghai, The Art of the City, presents such a cleaned up and ready for its close-up image that you would never guess that it was a byword for decadence, corruption and violence.
In the first part of the exhibit, we are treated to a display of charming images about women. In the cataloge, one brush-and-ink drawing is described as women playing table tennis, another one is identified as a courtesan while another women is using a sewing machine, but among the lot, there is only a casual mention of bound feet.
It wouldn’t have taken much to include this information in the exhibit – maybe a photo, a pair of the tiny embroidered slippers and we would have had a telling visual of the deformed feet that Chinese women tottered on for centuries.
What about the reality in the section titled "New Women?" In Stella Dong’s book on Shanghai, she recounts the experience of Alicia Little, a 19th century Englishman who attended an upper class banquet. As upper class women were secluded, the only women who attended were concubines and prostitutes attached to the various brothels in the district. Beautiful, young and beautifully dressed, the women were carried into the room in palanquins and "limped" back into them after the dinner was over. These women were the lucky ones, pretty, with some accomplishments who lived in fairly luxurious surroundings until they got too old to ply their trade or got ill. But the reality for most women in Shanghai was different. By the time Shanghai became a treaty port, it was the brothel capital of the world. One in every 130 women in Shanghai were prostitutes, making Shanghai also the V.D. capital of the world. (Dong, 35 - 45).
The exhibit would have gained immeasurably if there had been an open acknowledgment of the status of women during the 150 years covered by the show. Women were regarded as inferior and expendable. An ancient maxim decreed “Eight saintly daughters are not equal to a boy with a limp.” It's something that the Chinese Communist government fought against but their "one family, one child" policy resulted in more male births with girls being either aborted or abandoned (and China is not alone in this attitude). This policy resulted in a disparate ratio of 114 males for every 100 females among babies from birth through children four years of age. Normally, 105 males are naturally born for every 100 females.
Now, I realize that the museum is doing a survey and that a lot of children come to view the exhibit. It wouldn’t do to have too much frankness in the signage but why not somewhere in the catalog? In fact, given the talented museum staff, why not something in the wall text?
Some new women – like the Soong Sisters, daughters of a millionaire family really were new women -- although they were still defined by whom they married. The second daughter, Ching-ling married Sun Yat-Sin, the founder of the Chinese Republic. The youngest daughter, May-Ling married Chiang Kai-shek, the eventual dictator of China and Taiwan while the eldest daughter, Ai-ling, married the richest man in China at the time. There were the daughters of the nouveau riche who bought the gorgeous Art Deco furniture and carpets displayed in the exhibit but the majority of women in China, in Shanghai (or elsewhere), worked for pennies, were treated like dirt and lived hard and difficult lives.
Even the goddesses of the Chinese Cinema suffered from public expectations. Ruan Lingyg, one of the most famous, committed suicide because of this. I wrote about this in a previous post:
Where the Asian DOES get it right is in their film series. Starting off with the film "Triad," they will be showing a wide variety of films not normally seen. The series focuses on films that portray the reality of the city, from the prostitute in "Triad" to "The Goddess," the best known surviving film staring Ruan Lingyu to documentaries on the Jewish refugees in Shanghai.
If women make up 50% of the population, why are we, why is the museum in 2010 promoting such an inaccurate and sanitized picture of their lives? The Shanghai exhibit at the Asian is a survey show. Parts of the exhibit suffer from taking such a wide-angle view of a city with such tumultuous past. Yet, it would not have taken much to include a few items such as an opium pipe, a pair of bound slippers, a portrait of of a real prostitute or the Chinese part of the city circa 1920 or 1930 to have made the show more accurate, without sacrificing its broad appeal. Monday is International Women's Day and we are still fighting to have our authentic experience and history told.
Shanghai, Art of the City. Catalog of the exhibit
Stella Dong, Shanghai, 1942-1942. The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City.