The Book of Shanghai, a new collection of short stories published by Comma Press of Britain, presents a kaleidoscopic view of the city through the works of 10 authors in Shanghai.
Published in English, the book was released in April and received praise for being an eclectic mix of old and new, a bust of genres and a juxtaposition of different lifestyles in a bustling city where many characters are gripped by loneliness by the cultural blog The Book Satchel.
Comma Press has for years been collecting short stories from authors based in cities around the world, publishing The Book of Tokyo, The Book of Newcastle and The Book of Gaza.
Essayist Will Heath from the online magazine Books and Bao writes that The Book of Shanghai is easily my favorite in this series since The Book of Tokyo and a mesmerising and infinitely re-readable study of all the moving parts of one of the world's most unknowable and exciting cities.
According to the book's editor, Dai Congrong of the Chinese literature department of Fudan University, this project first began in 2018, when she was approached by Comma Press, which explained to her their intention to publish a collection of stories that cover diverse subjects and reflect the rich dimensions of life in Shanghai.
Dai says the Shanghai collection by Comma Press differs from previous publications by overseas Sinologists as it geared toward the general public instead of just literature experts.
More than half of the authors are young and middle-aged, according to Jin Li, the co-editor of the book.
As a literary critic, I have closely followed the young and emerging writers in contemporary China. Shanghai, being a city of the future, is full of vitality and hosts a wide variety of youthful creativity, he says.
Jin also speaks about the 10 authors featured in the collection, singling out Xiao Bai as one who has constantly explored new possibilities in literary expression.
Also featured in the collection are Cai Jun and Shen Dacheng, whose writings tend to be mystical, Chen Qiufan, a science-fiction writer, and Fu Yuehui, whose style is more traditionally realistic, Jin says.
The first story of the book is Ah Fang's Lamp by Wang Anyi, one of the most acclaimed writers of Shanghai. Heath describes the story as intimate, soft but harsh, small in scale but huge in heart.
Another critic, Kevin McGeary, who wrote for the China Channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books, compares Wang Zhanhei, one of the authors in the collection, to the bestselling writer-turned-filmmaker, Guo Jingming.
While Guo's Tiny Times focuses on the glamour, youth and wealth of Shanghai, his writing shows minimal mastery of story structure, McGeary writes.
In comparison, Wang can be described as Guo's literary antithesis, McGeary adds.
Wang's contribution to the collection is The Story of Ah-Ming, which revolves around a lonely elderly woman collecting recyclable trash from public bins.
According to Jin, young writers such as Wang have refused to associate the commercialization and sophistication of urban life with the sole definition of urban life. Instead, they have cast empathetic eyes to tap the relationship between individuals and the city with a restrained attitude.
Authors such as Wang Zhanhei, Teng Xiaolan and Xia Shang focus on the presentation of diversity in urban existence and intricate differences in the individual's psychology, he says.
Dai says literature is the best way to introduce a city, noting that great cities in the world such as Dublin and Edinburgh have been widely recognized for their artistic and literary significance.
She points out that The Book of Shanghai is unique because it was a project proposed and executed by an overseas publisher, not translated from an existing Chinese book.
When we talk to overseas readers, it is no good just recommending what we find interesting. People in different societies and different cultural backgrounds have different expectations. Thanks to the initiative of the British publisher and to the growing influence of China, we hope to see more interest in Chinese cities, she says.
Readers will see a multifaced contemporary Shanghai that is always changing and evolving. Many people still have limited knowledge about China, comprised of traditional symbols such as tea, dumplings and red lanterns. They are not aware of the drastic changes of the country and what's on the mind of young people in Shanghai.