Shanghai Stories

At a recent Faculty Lunch Speaker Series, Lena Scheen, whose research explores the social and cultural impact of China’s fast urbanization, focusing on Shanghai, talked about stumbling on a Pudong construction site that used to be where a 500-year-old temple stood. Fascinated by a group of elderly visitors who frequently pray and burn incense in front of the construction site, Scheen shared some insight about her research on the “temple that was,” in the following interview:

 It seems like a lot of your work revolves around storytelling.

Stories are the source of my research. I am interested in the impact of Shanghai’s fast urbanization on both the individual and on society at large. I look at how the changing city is imagined in stories -- how these imaginings express the mental and social impact of the recent transformation. In fact, I just published a new book on contemporary Shanghai literature called Shanghai Literary Imaginings: A City in Transformation.

My own work makes no distinction between fictional stories, official government stories, media articles, urban legends, oral history, or personal/family stories.  All of these reflect the changing city and are themselves also an intrinsic part of the urban transformation process. 

Kind of like the talk you did about the temple that was taken down and yet is still very real for some in spite of its physical absence.

Exactly. In that talk, I used the stories, both fictional and real, about a temple in Pudong to show -- and I strongly believe -- that what we don’t see is often more important than what we do see. We get distracted by what’s immediately in front of us, but we’re not actually perceiving what intricately lies beneath the surface. 

The physical temple is no longer there, but the fact that people still visit the site to pray makes it very present. All you see is a white wall -- inscribed with some characters -- surrounding a construction site and a muddy hole in the ground. It looks like nothing, but becomes a vessel for holding stories -- whether personal, national, religious or myth. These stories exist in a place that’s no longer a place.

A place like Yu Gardens has a clear narrative. Beautiful structures -- the bridge, the old teahouse -- their histories are right in front of your eyes. In contrast, standing before the undefined white wall of a construction site opens up the possibility of many unknown stories. It doesn’t make sense at first glance, but it forces you to discover what you ordinarily wouldn’t have. The former temple site in Pudong fascinates me because it was the place itself that kept telling me stories. It’s still telling me stories.

Is it easy to convince the old people who still come to the former temple site to give you their stories?

It’s not easy. As an academic, you’re supposed to maintain a distance and objectivity to your research subject. However, when it comes to ethnographic research, you need to integrate yourself into the situation. You can’t overlook the fact that I’m a white European asking them for their stories. If I were Shanghainese, it would be different. It already makes a difference in how they talk to me, how I look at them, how I think about my research approach, and ultimately how I write about it.

The first three months I went there, I didn’t know it was going to turn into a research project.  I was simply intrigued by what was happening and started visiting more often. The more stories they told me, the more interested I became. I hang out with them three or four times a month because if you don’t build trust, people won’t show or tell you everything. These stories are about vulnerability, and you have to take that seriously.

 So how do you convince a student that a story about a temple and 30 people is important?

It’s easier to convince students that something’s important when you raise their curiosity.  To show them it’s interesting to study 30 people in front of a white wall, ask, “Why do you> think they’re standing there?”

When I show them the text that says a temple used to stand there, I ask them “Who would have written that and why?” They start to guess and guess.  When I finally tell them the story, they’re hooked and really want to know more.

My students learned about the religious history of Pudong as they attempted to answer questions raised by this old temple site. For instance, now they know the temple was built in honor of the Ming general Qi Jiguang. They also unearthed the history of Shanghai’s battles with the wokou pirates, and were even exposed to historical aspects of the Communist Party. A famous communist spy, Li Bai, was killed right in front of that temple. And, of course they learned about Pudong’s urban transformation. It’s the historic richness of this seemingly random site that hopefully convinces them of its importance.