Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai

When asked to name famous Chinese novels, it is common to list books such as Romance Of The Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, Dream Of The Red Chamber, etc.  Technically, there is another novel Sing-Song Girls Of Shanghai by Han Pang-ch'ing (1856-94) which should be listed in the pantheon.  It has been made into a movie by Hou Hsiao-hsien in 1998 under the name Flowers of Shanghai.  A brief description by Stephen Cheng is that Sing-Song Girls Of Shanghai is 

... the first realistic novel exclusively devoted to an examination of courtesan life, the "flowers" of the Chinese title being a euphemism for courtesans.  It is also the first novel of which the dialogue is in the Wu dialect.  Yet its true distinction lies in neither of these innovations, but rather in the intelligence with which the author surveys the panorama of the Shanghai pleasure quarters at the turn of the century and in the distinctive narrative techniques with which he presents his story.  These techniques, particularly the novel's structure, thematic parallels and narrative mode, are the subject of this essay.

In summary, the scorecard for Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai is as follows --- great technique, unusual subject (which should not be a handicap given the reception of Dream Of The Red Chamber), and obscure dialogue.  It is that last item that prevents it from being more popular even among the Chinese.

On my bookshelf here, there is a copy of Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai as translated/annotated by Eileen Chang (note: the translation is from the Wu dialect into standard Chinese).  I read a few chapters and I felt distinctly dissastified, because something did not feel right.  So I went out and visited a few bookstores until I found a copy of the original untranslated but annotated book by Han Pang-ch'ing.

I am going to select a few paragraphs for comparison.  On the left, there is Eileen Chang's English version followed by her standard Chinese version on the bottom.  On the right is the original Wu dialect version.  The action in both Chinese version is the same, but the dialogues differ.

The young clerk had brought tobacco and tea during the conversation.  Benevolence Hung asked his nephew why he had come.

"No particular reason," Simplicity said.  "Just hoping to find some business to go into."

"Lately though, there hasn't been any business to go into in Shanghai," said Benevolence.

"Mother says I'm getting older by the year; and besides, what am I doing at home?  Better to go out into the world and do some business."

"There's certainly something in that.  How old are you?"


"You have an esteemed sister too.  I haven't seen her either for several years now.  How much younger than you is she?  Betrothed?"

"Not yet.  She's fifteen this year."

"Who else do you have at home?"

"Just the three of us, and a maidservant."

"Not many expenses with so few people."

"We also have to pinch and save much more than before."


I will give you my reaction as a reader.  First, as an English-language reader, I would have tossed this book aside after the first two pages.  The language is stiff (note: Chang rendered a technically accurate translation) and therefore this would not be the reason for me to read it.  If I had persisted, and this paragraph is a good indicator, I would be bored by the large cast of characters coming and going, talking about a lot of nothings.  This is one novel that will never be popular in English.

Next, in the standard Chinese version, the dialogue is less stiff than in English but it is flat and unexciting.  This was the reason why I got suspicious and had to go out and get a hold of the original.  I would have probably continued reading this for the narrative techniques.  In the end, I would not have considered this as an earth-shaking novel in standard Chinese.

Finally, in the Wu dialect Chinese version, it is in fact difficult to read visually.  This is the one and only Wu dialect novel that I have ever come across.  So it makes for difficult visual reading due to the strangeness of some of the words.  Some of these words were appropriated from standard Chinese just because they have the same sounds, and other words are completely made up because no such word exists in standard Chinese.  Going through this book, the Wu dialogue in fact requires the words to be read out aloud by the reader.  When read aloud, the gentle sounds of the Wu dialect all of a sudden illuminate their speakers and provide for a truly delightful experience.  The only problem is that I can't read this book in public, because I need to find a quiet room to read (and laugh) aloud.  And I count my blessings for knowing the Wu dialect.

A reader of standard Chinese may think that they can guess what it is all about.  How about this longer outburst below on the left?  How much did you get?  And then you have to remember that the point is to read it out loud.  A short reader's guide is shown on the right.