Walking along Nanking Road in a sunless Sunday afternoon, I recalled in a flash the concluding lines of Baudelaire's Le Couvercle:
"Le ciel! couvercle noir de la grande marmite Ou bout l'imperceptible et vaste Humanite. (The sky: the black lid of the mighty pot Where the vast human generations boil!)
The lines seemed suddenly to embody themselves before my eyes. The gloomy overcast sky and the seething throng of human animals conspired to jerk, so to speak, these terrible lines into concrete visualisation. And especially the vast throng of Sunday-making people, so stupendous and overwhelming! The very thing to move Xerxes to tears over the sentimental reflection that not one of these multitudes would be alive when a hundred years had gone by.
Just as the 'Peking Man ' (that paleontological reconstruction) is the Chinaman of the past, so the "Shanghai Man" is the Chinaman of the present, and—who knows?—might be that of the future too. In current Chinese literature, the term "Shanghai Man" has long been used as the synonym for a Babbitian sort of person, smart, efficient, self-complacent, with ever so slight a touch of vulgarity. He has the best of everything and is healthily innocent of all spiritual fermentations. Mammon is in Heaven and all's right with the world! Like the poet, the "Shanghai Man" is born, not made. Not everybody living or buried alive in Shanghai can be the blessed "Shanghai Man." We poor journalists, for example, have certainly no claim to that honorific title. And of that huge Sunday-making crowd at least twenty per cent have been merely compelled to seek their living here, unadapted and unadaptable to Shanghai. I know many persons who have spent twenty or thirty years in Shanghai and yet remained to the end strangers in a strange land.
Now this failure to adapt oneself to one's milieu may be a case of what Bergson calls raideur and therefore fit for ridicule. But we might be mistaken; for this apparent raideur is perhaps the sign of strong character and superior intelligence. Have not men of powerful intellect and fine sensibility often complained within our hearing that they felt out of their element in Shanghai, or that they at once despised and envied the contentment of the " Shanghai Man" with his environment? It is no sheer accident that the campaign for humor inaugurated by the Analects Semi-monthly should have started among the Shanghai Intellectuals. In an article published in the China Critic several years ago, Dr. Y. T. Lin made a superfine analysis of the varieties of Chinese Humor. But this New Humor (of which Dr. Lin is himself the sponsor) is the Old Humor writ small: there is no Rabelaisian heartiness or Shakespearean broadness in it. It is full of subtle arrierepensees, refined petulance, and above all a kind of nostalgia as evinced in the loving memory of the academic life in Europe, the rehabilitation of the culture of the Ming dynasty, etc. This shows that our New Humorists are really out of humor with their surroundings and laugh probably because they are too civilised to weep.
A publicist lately spoke on the lack of "Culture" in Shanghai. He talked of founding libraries and other "cultural" institutions with a view to bringing sweetness and light to Shanghai. Sweetness and light indeed! Can there be anything other than sourness and gloom under "this black lid of the mighty pot"?