Letter from Shanghai

Dear H,

On the third Wednesday in January, the last Wednesday before the lunar Chinese New Year, the city of Wuhan, with eleven million people, was placed under quarantine with flights and trains to the city all canceled and residents discouraged from leaving town: one of the most dramatic and ambitious public health measures in medical history. At that point there were hundreds of reported cases of the coronavirus, predominantly in Wuhan where it originated. There had been more than a dozen deaths, and the abrupt effort at containment seemed at the time like something that could only have been undertaken by a one-party authoritarian state under a supreme leader who holds all the levers of power in Beijing.

We were teaching a three-week January term course at NYU Shanghai, which was due to end that Friday, just as the Chinese New Year holiday began, and we—and our students—had been following the Wuhan coronavirus story all through the course. Many of the students, who had come from the NYU campus in Abu Dhabi, found the weather in Shanghai cold and wet, and in other years would probably have assumed that was to blame for the coughs and sore throats and upper respiratory infections which were sending some of them to the student wellness center. This year, though, everyone who got sick wanted to know, more or less seriously, could it be that scary new virus? Their parents, we knew, were emailing them to express anxiety, as the story built from a couple of cases of a new pneumonia in Wuhan reported on December 31, to an escalating contagion that had begun to appear elsewhere in China.

On Thursday in Shanghai, just before the New Year, face masks became the order of the day in public places, though, as far as anyone knew, there was only one confirmed case of the virus in the city. By Friday morning the vast avenues of Shanghai’s skyscraper quarter Pudong were somewhat spookily empty of traffic, and everyone you met walking to work was wearing a mask. The absence of traffic was not because people were staying home out of fear of the plague, much less that the government was keeping them at home—not yet—but rather on account of the Chinese New Year which sets in motion what has been called the largest migration on the planet: every year perhaps four hundred million Chinese citizens migrate around the country, leaving the cities to go home and celebrate the New Year with family in their native towns or villages. We put on our masks Friday morning and went to the Pudong airport to fly home to New York, expecting crowds and lines and delays and perhaps health screenings, but the airport was empty; everybody had already gone home for the holiday.

Shanghai has an estimated population of 25 million people, and 10 million of them are migrant workers, coming from elsewhere in China, having contributed their labor in Shanghai to the construction of what sometimes feels like a science fiction cityscape of towering skyscrapers. Dating from the 1990s, Shanghai was made into the post-Maoist poster city for Chinese urbanism, developed by the Shanghai municipality with the approval of Beijing. A twenty-first-century city of business and finance rose on the east bank of the Huang-Pu River (hence Pu-Dong, Pu-East) facing the old city on the west bank (Pu-Xi).

Our course is a three-week course on Children and Childhood, combining Larry’s perspective as a European historian with Perri’s as a pediatrician; we try to look at the idea of childhood and the realities of child-rearing from both disciplinary vantage points. The course has also evolved into an introduction to China, and Chinese history and culture, and even to the city of Shanghai—not because either of us is an expert, but because we’ve wanted to use the city around us as much as possible and give our students the chance to feel they’ve encountered the country during their three-week stay. And, in fact, you learn a lot about a place—or a historical moment—by looking at children growing up and at the institutions which educate them.

New York University is located on Century Avenue in Pudong, two subway stops from Lujiazui, which is the epicenter of skyscraper Shanghai: where the Shanghai Tower now dwarfs the World Financial Center (known as the Bottle Opener because of the cut out opening in the top section), the graceful Jin Mao Tower (which incorporates pagoda architecture), and the fanciful Oriental Pearl Radio & Television Tower. This is the Shanghai skyline reproduced on a million souvenirs—from silk scarves to, yes, bottle openers—and photographed by every tourist from the broad walkway on the older side of the city, across the river.

We’ve been teaching this course in Shanghai every January since 2013 and have watched the completion of the Shanghai Tower, second tallest building in the world, at 128 floors and just over 2,000 feet, twisting snakelike into the sky within a transparent glass sheath that encases the building’s sinuous structure and makes optimal sustainable use of solar light, geothermal energy, and wind technology. In a country famous for its air pollution, the Shanghai Tower is supremely green.

The Shanghai Tower, like all the structures of this megalopolis, was built by some subset of those ten million migrant workers from the provinces, and every year we take our NYU students to visit a Shanghai school for the children of those migrants. We had already discussed with our students the Chinese hukou system of residency permits, with social benefits strictly tied to official residence status. To send your children to school in Shanghai has always required a Shanghai hukou, unobtainable for the millions of rural migrants from the surrounding provinces. The adults could come to the city and work, but the children were supposed to stay home and go to school in their home provinces, giving rise to China’s huge population of “left-behind children,” a source of much concern over the past couple of decades, as cities like Shanghai and Beijing and Shenzhen boomed.

Many migrant parents, however, brought their families along, hoping for better schools and more opportunities in the city, even with all the drawbacks of having the wrong hukou. At first they set up schools of their own. But faced with a population of 350,000 migrant schoolchildren, the city of Shanghai eventually did open some public schools—generally underresourced, if not impoverished—to accommodate and educate those migrant children.

The migrant school that we visited with our students was for middle grade students—there are still no places in Shanghai high schools for the migrant children. Stepping Stones, the service organization that arranged our visit, provides expatriate volunteers to come teach English to the migrant children. English language skills are vitally important for educational success in China, and the migrant school, which pays low teacher salaries, does not have any native English speakers teaching. The school is built around a playing field, and the classrooms, which held around 40 students each, were unheated; students studied in their winter coats. Each pair of NYU college students took a group of 8 to 10 Chinese fourth or fifth graders and played English “games” with them: roll the dice and ask a question, turn over the card and tell me the word in English. The groups were noisy and enthusiastic, and the children clearly enjoyed having visitors, though it wasn’t clear how much English they knew. Most of these migrant children will not complete high school or attend college; many will leave their rural high schools to come back to the big city that their parents helped build and service, and they will take up the work of keeping it running and keeping it clean.

The migrant workers have built those quintessential urban construction projects that lie at the center of Shanghai urban public life: the monumentally huge, dazzlingly designed, and spotlessly clean shopping malls of the Chinese Communist Party state. We both grew up in New Jersey and are familiar with shopping malls in their mid-twentieth-century suburban American manifestation. Nothing quite prepares you for your first glimpse of shopping mall splendor in the People’s Republic of China, where Shake Shack nestles up against Abercrombie & Fitch and Louis Vuitton, alongside crowded restaurants specializing in everything from Chengdu hotpot to Hong Kong dim sum. Mao’s portrait is present on every banknote, but the banknotes themselves are becoming increasingly irrelevant in a cashless economy where everybody pays by holding a cell phone over a QR code. Old style Maoist ideological principles certainly seem altogether irrelevant at the mall, while new Communist Party slogans about “core socialist values”—like social harmony and economic prosperity—are emblazoned on building walls all over Shanghai.

There is a new affluent class enjoying the Chinese malls: the prospering generation of the post-Maoist economy. That economy was ingeniously planned by Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping, who turned Maoism on its head and replaced communist ideology with economic pragmatism. If Mao is remembered for the aphorism “A revolution is not a dinner party,” Deng is famous for having remarked, “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” Deng, who died in 1997, made the startlingly mixed Chinese economy work.

In recent years the rate of economic growth in China—amazingly strong for so many years—has notably slowed. Yet, magnificent new malls are completed from year to year, as are brand new skyscrapers and big new extensions of the subway system (think how long it takes to add one single new station in New York City). While foodies in New York might not expect to find destination restaurants in shopping malls, in Shanghai whole floors of restaurants are absolutely full all evening long, with crowds waiting outside (which, in the mall, means inside) to hear their numbers called. Restaurants serve every variety of Chinese regional cuisine, with lots of Korean and Japanese options as well, not to mention American, French, and Italian. The Century Link Mall—just across Century Avenue from NYU Shanghai—is a labyrinthine complex with two giant towers, a huge atrium, and intricate basement levels that lead efficiently in and out of the subway. In January, awaiting the New Year, the atrium featured lavish tributes to the rat, whose totemic year was about to begin. Last year it was the pig. The mall also has space for art installations: last January there was an interactive display inspired by Keith Haring’s cartoon graffiti art.

The first major elevated structure in Pudong, completed in 1994, was the Oriental Pearl Tower, 1,535 feet tall, then the tallest structure in the city. In the base is the Shanghai History Museum that uses lifesize dioramas to narrate the history of the city, which is, for China, a fairly recent history: Shanghai didn’t become an important city until the nineteenth century when it was established as a treaty port in which the British and the French obtained economic and legal extraterritorial concessions. The History Museum in the Pearl Tower places a particular emphasis on the 1920s and the 1930s, perhaps the city’s most glamorous Gatsby moment, epitomized by Art Deco style, international commerce, horse racing, jazz music, and the fashion style of the high-collared silk sheath dress called qipao. This moment, however, preceded the Communist Revolution and represented the political apogee of Mao’s archenemy Chiang Kai-shek who then lost out to Mao in 1949 and established a rival regime on Taiwan. Still, the Pearl Tower History Museum lovingly re-creates the Shanghai of Chiang Kai-shek’s China, including the winding streets of storefronts and nightclubs of 1920s Puxi, with sultry “Shanghai ladies” peering from old advertising posters.

The Century Link Mall has now gone one step further and re-created those same streets on one of the mall’s underground levels, but instead of building them as museum facades, the mall has lined these mock subterranean streets with real restaurants, producing a cross between a food court and a living history museum. For instance, one of the most famous emporia for the most famous of all Shanghai food items—the xiao long bao, or soup dumpling—is a dive called Jia Jia over on the Puxi side of the river, near People’s Square, where you watch workers behind glass preparing the dumplings that you are about to eat, usually pork, crab, or a combination of the two. Jia Jia has now been transported to Pudong, situated on a fake 1920s street and rendered commodious and comfortable. Street food has largely disappeared from the immensely broad (8 lanes of traffic) Century Avenue in Pudong, and public life has been reconcentrated in the mall. After eating Jia Jia’s soup dumplings, or another shop’s biang biang chili noodles, or barbecued lamb skewers, the Chinese diners step outside the restaurants onto the “street” plastered with those same 1920s poster girls in their qipao dresses and take photos of themselves in front of the posters, often alongside—or seated in—a full-size model of a rickshaw—once a symbol of the oppression of laboring people in China but now just picturesque.

In Pudong, just around the corner from NYU Shanghai, is the Angel Joy Academy—a private kindergarten which, for a fairly steep price (though not by Manhattan standards), promises to make your child bilingual starting at the age of two. After taking our students to the migrant school, where 9- and 10-year-olds were struggling to master a limited number of English words while wearing their winter coats, we went over to the Angel Joy Academy to see the experience of elite Shanghai children. In a beautiful modern building, nicely heated, colorfully decorated, a group of 2-to-3-year-olds sat in a semicircle around a fluent English-speaking teacher who led them in an English song about the days of the week. Another group of 5- to 6-year-olds were exchanging conversational sentences while also reading and writing English words and phrases concerning sea creatures (most of which are eaten at the mall). For our students it was a lesson in the receptivity of the young brain, and the possibility of achieving real bilingualism for the truly young, but it was also a lesson in privilege and opportunity (as comparable visits would have been in Manhattan). The accomplishment of the two-year-olds seemed almost supernatural, while the curated discipline of the classrooms was both seductive and a little uncanny. The incongruousness with the Maoist past was also notable in a variety of ways, not least for the fact that the toddlers were being groomed not for a Chinese revolution but for an English-speaking dinner party.

English is a crucial subject for the notoriously difficult gaokao college entrance exam in China and also for the less well known, but perhaps even more important, zhongkao high school exam—which 50 percent of Chinese students are supposed to fail, keeping them out of academic high schools and eliminating them from the university track. For centuries entrance to the Chinese imperial bureaucratic elite was determined by a fiercely competitive Confucian examination system, and the importance of contemporary academic entrance exams means that a certain degree of English proficiency is becoming a fundamental social class marker in China today. In Shanghai, the English language has a distinctive history since the city was for a full century an English outpost in Asia, with British business interests and an extraterritorial quasi-colonial community dominating the foreign concessions in Shanghai: from the British defeat of the Chinese in the First Opium War in 1842 to the Japanese ouster of the British in 1941. The buildings along the Bund embankment, on the Puxi side, where people congregate to photograph the skyscrapers across the river, still tell the story of this history. There is the neoclassical palace of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation from the 1920s, with its gleaming internal columns, brilliant mosaics on the inside of the dome, and murals representing the world’s great banking cities, from Shanghai to New York. Its neighbor is the imposing Custom House whose British clock tower somewhat peculiarly chimes out the Maoist anthem, “Dong Fang Hong” (The East Is Red). A little way down the river is the green-roofed Art Deco skyscraper of the Peace Hotel, also from the 1920s, built by the supremely cosmopolitan British-Baghdadi-Jewish Sassoon family, the octagonal atrium featuring gilt reliefs of Shanghai views. Here the English language reached perhaps its Shanghai zenith when Noel Coward, staying in the hotel in 1930, wrote the brilliantly witty comedy Private Lives.

Like the re-created food street in the Century Link Mall, the Peace Hotel also demonstrates the Shanghai nostalgia for the 1920s and 1930s, the age of the British concession and the age of Chiang Kai-shek, here brought to life by the nightly performances of a jazz band whose members are old enough to remember the old Shanghai jazz world that preceded the advent of Maoism. Two saxophones, a trumpet, a bass, a piano, and drums, play “Hello, Dolly!” and “When the Saints” with a steady hypnotic rhythm—and a singer in qipao dress joins them for some sets, intoning jazz-age Shanghai songs. Over the years that we’ve been coming to Shanghai, the audience, originally dominated by older foreign tourists, has become, increasingly, a younger Chinese crowd. The singer acknowledges their applause with an almost indifferent exhaling of two syllables: xiexie, thank you. The performances of the Old Jazz Band are a sort of supersession of the Maoist past; band members have made a video in which one of them recalls, “The Cultural Revolution was rough for us. We weren’t allowed to listen to any music. Then one day they played Beethoven’s Fifth on the radio, and we knew it was over.”

The Old Jazz Band. Photo credit: Larry Wolff

The Cultural Revolution was a catastrophic epoch in the history of Chinese communism, beginning in 1966, when Mao undertook a massive and violent purge of the Chinese Communist Party that involved purging not just the Party itself but the entire educated professional and administrative elite created by the first generation of Chinese communist rule. Our class reads about the Cultural Revolution in the beautiful memoir Mulberry Child by Jian Ping, who recalls how her own family was devastated when her father, a Communist Party official, was denounced and imprisoned as a traitor to communism, while she and her siblings were expected to denounce publicly their own parents. This was the moment when educational institutions in China were demolished, teachers were reviled as traitors, and “educated youth” were sent to feed pigs in the countryside in the name of reeducation. The only knowledge considered ideologically sound was to be found in Mao’s Little Red Book. After Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping (himself removed from office and excoriated during the Cultural Revolution) presided over the rebuilding of China’s educational system. Following a decade in which academic achievement was largely dismissed and suppressed, the gaokao college entrance exam was reinstated as early as 1977, and the zhongkao high school entrance exam followed in 1980. The huge influx of academic talent in that first exam-tested university entrance class of 1978 became, after graduation, a major part of the elite cohort that shaped the transformation of post-Maoist China.

English quickly began to play an important role in the new curriculum, and we once met with a group of children’s book writers and publishers who told us that in the post-Maoist decade the first book that everyone wanted to bring out in a new translation was Charlotte’s Web. There was a translation that dated to 1952, the very early years of the communist regime, immediately following the American publication. The new translation appeared in 1979, three years after Mao’s death, a fantasy of farm life at a time when educated youth were no longer being deported to the countryside to labor on farms.

While today the Cultural Revolution is officially labeled as a “mistake,” there is little public discussion that goes beyond that, and the label hardly expresses the traumatic effect that these years had on a whole generation. Jian Ping is roughly our age, and anyone from the educated world of urban China would remember the period painfully. Some children in the Angel Joy Academy probably have grandparents who were deported to the countryside for reeducation after being forced to denounce their own parents. Xi Jinping—the current communist leader who has pursued Deng’s economic pragmatism but also experimented with a sort of neo-Maoist authoritarian style of politics—was thirteen in 1966, saw his father arrested, denounced, and beaten, and was himself sent to the countryside for rural reeducation. It is partly in reaction to the Cultural Revolution that education and exams have come to play such a crucial role in the shaping of the post-Maoist elite.

Our third school visit took us to the Number Two High School of East China Normal University. This is a city school for students who do very well indeed on examinations, an elite “exam school” with an extraordinarily impressive campus, suitable for a small college, where the city of Shanghai invests in its strongest students. On visits in past years, we and our students have been frankly told that the students at this high school are expected to go out and win Nobel Prizes for China—and that their education program is especially designed to foster innovation (we visit the “innovation lab”) because of concerns that Chinese education has not always managed to do this (“Where is our Steve Jobs?”). The students at Number Two High School speak excellent English and usually have no difficulty finding common subjects with our own students as they take them on the tour. They are close enough in age to have many common cultural references, and they use social media in similar ways—though our students are uniformly shocked by how programmed the free time and the social lives of elite Chinese academic students seem to be.

As we moved through the second week of our three-week course, the news about the novel coronavirus in Wuhan became a louder daily drumbeat, and as we started the third week, students who felt sick were frankly worried that they might have somehow contracted that virus. The first death in Wuhan was reported on January 11. At that point, there were no cases in Shanghai, and the cases in Wuhan were largely linked to direct exposure to a live animal and live seafood market. But then it was confirmed that the virus could pass directly from human to human, within the Wuhan hospitals. Later that week one of our NYU students who went to a Shanghai medical facility to have a cough checked out was looked over with the virus in mind—and told clearly that his fever came from something else. Advice from the university authorities, passing on advice from health authorities, offered the absolutely correct guidance: wash hands, stay hydrated, get plenty of sleep, avoid crowd situations, seek medical attention if you have a fever.

Our final class meeting was held this year on Friday, January 24, the day before Chinese New Year, as travel restrictions were being extended to cover 35 million people in 11 cities in Hubei province. Shanghai was still relatively unaffected, but it was beginning to be clear that the virus might not be contained in Wuhan, or even in China. At this last class, we talked about what marks the ending of childhood in different cultures and in different contexts. We discussed the biology of adolescence, body change, and brain maturation, the social dynamics of education, financial independence, and growing up. The students offered up examples from their own experiences of what marks the end of childhood, ranging from taking the adult part in a religious ceremony to going to the doctor alone for the first time. They were aware that as part of their three weeks in China, they had not only adventured to a new part of the world, but also found themselves caught up in an evolving crisis, in China and also internationally, in which their teachers could not easily guide them, let alone predict the outcome. They had done their best to learn something about Shanghai and something about childhood, they had taken note of what was happening around them and tried to figure out how to protect themselves, how to reassure their parents, how to walk the line between worrying and getting on with their work. Many of them had told us, in the context of that final class discussion, that they often felt they were not yet adults. Yet, they found themselves in a situation in which the adults, all of them, were also doing their best to figure things out day by day.

The Shanghai we left behind was about to embark on the frightening experiment of extended self-quarantine and the painful shutdown of its own remarkable economy, decisions that the rest of the world would soon be confronting. Like us, our students can picture the skyscrapers, the malls, the kindergartens, the middle schools, the high schools: all empty and quiet. NYU Shanghai delayed the opening of its spring semester, and then offered its classes online; that building on Century Boulevard, where we taught, has not held classes since we left.