Author's own photograph, 2021.
Nostalgia about the 1980s-2000s in Contemporary China
This paper aims to analyse the nostalgia about the 1980s-2000s in contemporary China by tracing the semantic change of a single word – Shijing (市井) – in an urban context. As a noun, shijing refers to an urban area where commercial spaces are mixed with residential spaces of ordinary people, full of the hustle and bustle. As an adjective, according to the orthodox dictionary Da Cihai, it is used to describe philistine, vulgar and despicable people in the city. Conversely, in everyday use, it denotes an urban culture with renqingwei (human touch; 人情味; literally, the taste of human feelings) where the desires and emotions of ordinary people outweigh grand narratives. The contradictions and ambiguities of this word reveal the tensions between the elite and the ordinary, and the grandiose and the everyday over the right to the city.
Marked as roughly the first twenty years of China’s reform and opening up (from December 1978), the 1980s-2000s are mourned as a lost golden era. Users of the networking website Douban gather on the social media group ‘pretending to live in the 1980-2000’ to share their memories and photos. ‘It was a golden age spiritually,’ ‘it was full of hopes,’ ‘it was slow, more real, less commercial,’ ‘it was more open and more inclusive,’ ‘it was full of renqingwei,’ they sighed.
Based on the premise that social relations have a spatial form, I approach this nostalgic elegy by unfolding its spatial frame. To be exact, I will use the dining complex Wenheyou (文和友), known for its vintage-themed ambience of the 80s and 90s, as my primary study site of nostalgia. Situated at the high-end shopping mall Hisense Plaza in Changsha city (the capital of Hunan province), Wenheyou claims that they preserve the shijing culture by duplicating shijing streets, buildings, and food in the city core. For them, shijing is a bridge between a past with renqingwei and a current-day without.
Designed by and for Hunan Wenheyou Culture Development Group, this project has attracted widespread public attention since its opening in 2019. Three years on, it serves an average of 20,000 customers a day and has expanded two more branches to Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Furthermore, it is recognised as an exemplary case of Wanghong (Internet Celebrities; 网红) economy, with 108,000 posts written about it on the popular lifestyle social networking platform Xiaohongshu (RED; 小红书). Among these posts, ‘Recommended locations for taking photos’ and ‘Photo-shooting strategies’ are heated topics. Thus, the spread of photos is crucial for Wenheyou’s commercial success – photos by influencers attract real-life customers, who in-turn post images of their visit online. Alongside its business success, Wenheyou is nominated for the ‘city for humanity award’ by the influential Sanlian Life Week magazine due to its promotion of ‘the social values and humanitarian concerns in Chinese cities.’ The nomination speech highlighted the need to shift architecture’s role in the ‘age of consumerism’ – ‘Super Wenheyou in Changsha rejuvenates the diversity of urban street life by representing historical imageries with the ‘sense of authenticity,’ and it also rediscovers the architectural typology in the age of consumerism.’
Previous descriptions reveal that shijing plays a significant role in the spatial frame of nostalgia. It is simultaneously regarded as a part of the irreversibly lost ‘golden age’ (in the urban dimension) and a feasible cure for this loss (in Wenheyou). I define shijing as an urban area where ordinary middle- and lower-class people dwell. At the junction between urban nostalgia and nostalgic building, shijing can be employed to scrutinise these contemporary nostalgias. And, more explicitly, I regard shijing as an evaluative tool to read people’s right to the city. In doing so, I problematise the acclaimed ‘authenticity’ of nostalgia in Wenheyou by questioning its authorship and readership – that is, who defines the nostalgia, to whom does the nostalgia belongs, and how does this nostalgia retain or redefine the right to the city?
Relying on visual materials I gleaned from my field trip and social media, I build my argument through visual analyses. I concentrate on how visual encounters between viewers, images, and surroundings represent collaborative acts of interactive meaning-making. Film forms a site of meaning production in this dissertation study, and the formation of a fictional flaneuse’ journey searching for shijing in Wenheyou. The film represents multiple, changing authorship in a series of visual encounters, and generates plural dialogue.
The following texts are the extracted scripts from the video:
So, what is ‘shijing’ exactly?
The opposite of rules, the opposite of grandeur.
Wenheyou shows all this.
Yet, I know that it is all false.
This sense of falsity first collapses towards me and envelops me from the boundary.
Moving between the world of the fake and the real,
In and out of the precincts of shijing.
Falsehood spawns, above all, a dizziness.
Dizziness is a neutral word.
Dizziness arises between the real and the fake,
pointing towards a state of indeterminate freedom
that makes one wander beyond bondage, chains and oppression.
And once dizziness becomes the object of the gaze,
It falls back into a determinacy in itself.
It no longer utters a heavy mournful cry.
When I try to explain ‘shijing’ in English, I find that words become feeble.
This feebleness comes not so much from a retreat as from … _
a kind of swirling swing.
I cannot find the right words to describe -
How the street is awakened by a whisper,
a face disappeared amid the steam of hot dumplings,
and the sound of footsteps, tip-tap, tip-tap.
In a dizzying hallucination after the swirling swinging of our times,
深夜回望 _只洒下点点光影。 _
A late-night look back, spilling only a little light.
Has anyone been forgotten?
Name: Shijing, on the Debris of Shijing
Narrator: The Flaneuse
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Copyright of image: © Yixuan Chen