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April 1, 2019

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Homesickness, a modern luxury we can all afford

After overthrowing the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), Xiang Yu sacked the former Qin capital Xianyang, lighting fires in palaces that would burned for three months. Then, captive beauties and treasure in tow, he turned east, in the direction of his hometown Pengcheng (today Xuzhou, in Jiangsu Province).

The warlord was homesick.

His counselors tried to dissuade him, citing Xianyang’s numerous advantages as a capital, being shielded by mountains and fortresses, and built on richly fertile soil, but all to no avail.

Xiang famously retorted: “If you become prosperous, but fail to return to your hometown, it’s like being clad in silk walking in the dead of night.”

This homesickness ultimately cost Xiang his empire to Liu Bang, who sired a long line of illustrious princes in one of the greatest dynasties.

In olden times, this sentimental attachment for the good old days, townsfolk, familiar sights and buildings was valued as being very Chinese, and rooted in agrarian society.

A Jiefang Daily commentary recently wondered whether modern urbanites may also find themselves suffering from xiangchou (literally homesickness).

I think the question can be restated as whether urbanites can afford the luxury of nostalgia in the concrete jungle.

Not long ago, I happened to pass through the Zhangyuan neighborhood that has been much in the news for the residents’ compliance with a plan to have them relocated to new homes. A few trucks were parked there and some migrant workers were struggling with ornately carved pieces of furniture, furniture that spoke to a time when things were meant to pass from generation to generation.

Today, in the culture of disposables, things simply outlive their usefulness and are thrown away. Hopefully, a few years from now, when the former residents of the shikumen complex return to visit their old homes, even though they no longer have neighbors to share their gossip, what is left of the old buildings will help them walk down memory lane. This suggests urban people also have xiangchou. Even in a big city like Shanghai which owes its rise to commerce and where the ability to keep up with change is highly prized, people still have a tendency to put roots down in the soil.

An old shikumen might appear backward to outsiders, but to those who have spent their entire lives there, it is full of stories, anecdotes, joys and sorrows only known to the privileged.

In an article about his life, Li Liangrong, a professor at Fudan University, wrote that soon after he began to work, he took his young son on a visit to his parents in the old neighborhood where he had been raised. His mother warned him: “Do not give us money, but bring bags of gifts so that when you walk in with the bags, the neighbors will see and say, ‘Oh, it’s that Li’s second son, with bags big and small’ … that would be delightful!”

Pervasive sameness

This is a warning only a mother could give to a son. For Li’s parents, the old neighborhood provided the context where they were judged and respected, and they enjoyed it enormously.

I remember not long ago an elderly gentleman I have known for two decades told me that he had been living in what was formerly known as Taoyuan Village on Fuxing Road M. for 78 years, since he was 13. The neighborhood was once on a par with the Jing’an Villa and Huaihai Fang, and favored by many movie stars as a place of residence.

When Chen fled Zhenjiang in Jiangsu with his family as a result of the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, they rented the house from a landlord whose youngest daughter, then 11, would become Chen’s wife. Today the couple still live there.

When I was there a few weeks ago, my only feeling was that the small pathway at the gate of the drab building was even narrower than I remembered. Such memory is invaluable, though not so useful. As Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman observes, “Transience has replaced durability at the top of the value table. What is valued today is the ability to be on the move, to travel light and at short notice. Power is measured by the speed with which responsibilities can be escaped. Who accelerates, wins; who stays put, loses.”

When consumption reigns supreme, individuals trapped in the anonymity of urban existence may be more conveniently identified by the logo on a handbag. But, in time, we may come to resent the pervasive sameness and the constant urge to catch up with standards: the uniform streets, pavements, highrises, and signboards, however immaculately kept up, only succeed in being tedious, as moving from one place to another is like changing from one hotel to another, with standardized amenities. Who remembers the hotel one stayed last year?

We need something that remains unchanged to define our uniqueness, and that’s where xiangchou comes in.


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