“People from my generation all know that if a product has been ‘Made in Shanghai,’ whatever the thing is, it’s going to be the best quality,” Qiang Fang, a 60-year-old Beijinger, said. He fondly recalled the Shanghai brands of his childhood: Zhong Hua toothpaste, Phoenix bicycles, Butterfly sewing machines and Red Lamp radios. Before Reform and Opening Up, the whole country relied on products that were “Made in Shanghai.” Everything from candies to cars came from there.
But there’s a big difference between liking a city’s products and liking a city’s people. When you ask Beijingers for their views on Shanghairen, you’ll hear some pretty strong opinions…
“Shanghaiers are snobs. For them, all waidiren (non-Shanghaiers) are peasants.” “Shanghai women are calculative—and hard to please.” “I really pity those Shanghai men. Their wives are so bossy, they become house-husbands. They’re no longer men.”
Chen Zhuo, Wang Ping and Xiao Kuo, the Beijingers who offered up these opinions, are all in their 30s, and none of them have spent much, or any, time in Shanghai.??And like any good city rivalry, this fierce animosity doesn’t only flow in one direction.
“They’re all so very niu (牛)!” offered Yang Zhe, a 28-year-old Shanghai man, in description of Beijingers. (Niu literally means “cow,” but when used like this, it means “awesome,” or, in this case, “self-important.”) Yang Zhe has not only never been to Beijing, he’s never even spoken to a Beijinger before.
Chen Wenjun, a woman who’s never left Shanghai, threw out only one word to describe Beijingers, “lihai,” and then laughed. Lihai (厉害) is the female version of niu, meaning “aggressive, confident and full of themselves.”
“They’re masters of kan (侃, idle, boastful chat), especially when it comes to political gossip,” said Mr. Wu, a civil servant. “They bring up personal details about Zhongnanhai politicians as if they’re relatives, or next-door neighbors. That’s so Beijinger! They think that they’re royal descendents of the Qing Dynasty.”
“I’m always skeptical when a Beijinger says ‘bao zai wo shen shang’ (包在我身上, ‘you can count on me’),” said 33-year-old Zheng Zhiping. “You have to be careful of them.”?
So where does this shared animosity come from?
“There’s a huge competition between the two,” one man, a rare referee who inexplicably wanted to remain anonymous, explained. “They’re both so full of pride.”
Beijingers are proud of their Forbidden City, their Great Wall and their fiery Northern temper. They are the descendents of aristocratic men, refer to themselves as “ye” (lords), and have a reputation for choosing yiqi (义气, fraternity) over money.
Shanghaiers, meanwhile, consider their city to be the financial capital of China. They’re proud of their own virtues: that they’re practical, delicate, and make it a point of honor to keep their word. They also insist that instead of their rumored exclusiveness, they are actually the most inclusive people in all of China.
Both cities are equally prejudiced against the other, and just bringing up the topic of this article, with groups of friends in both cities, invariably led to disruptive debates. But if this is a nationwide popularity contest, Shanghai is unfortunately the loser—thanks to television.??In the early 1990s, a TV show called “The Yearning” (《渴望》 Kěwàng) appeared. It was so wildly popular that it brought the country to a standstill. Factories literally closed early so that the workers could catch the show. No one went to the movies anymore, and sales of color televisions skyrocketed. It also introduced China to its very first televised Shanghai stereotype.
The virtuous heroine of the program was a Beijinger, while her cruel husband came to represent all Shanghai men—well-educated, yet heartless. His name was Husheng (沪生), literally meaning “Born in Shanghai.” For Shanghai men, there was no getting away from the image of Husheng—they’ve been stereotyped ever since.
The bias has also become blatant in the immensely popular CCTV Spring Festival Gala Show, Chunwan (春晚). In one sketch, xiaopin (小品), all of China’s regional characters are lampooned.There’s an honest, clumsy peasant from Northeastern China. There’s a fat, rich businessman from Guangdong Province. And then there’s a squeaky-voiced man, who cranes his neck and peers hard from behind thick glasses, a vegetable basket dangling effeminately from his arm. Where’s he from? Definitely Shanghai. In Shanghai, the reaction to this caricature was clear, and Chunwan’s audience-rating reached a new low this past year—less than 17 percent. The Northerners loved it, though, and a startling 85 percent tuned in.
China’s two most famous comedians have actually embraced these stereotypes, and push them to their limits. Shanghai’s Zhou Libo always appears onstage well-groomed, dressed in tailored suits. He’s proud, acid-tongued and a whiz at smart Shanghainese word games. Chunwan’s all-time star, Zhao Benshan, meanwhile, usually appears as a hunched Northeastern peasant, speaking in a heavy Northern accent. Sometimes he even wears a string of onions around his neck.
In 2006, Shanghai Zhou was offered the dream of most Chinese entertainers—an invitation to perform on CCTV’s Chunwan. He turned it down. “What would I do if they wanted to hang a string of onions across my chest?” he laughed. For most of the nation, this reinforced the image of Shanghaiers as haughty and arrogant. But for Shanghaiers, it was the perfect response. They cheered, and applauded Zhou.?
Honestly, we’re content to see this feud continue. It’s only natural that these two great cities should rival in this way. When two strikingly different and equally uncompromising characters meet, sparks should fly. Wouldn’t it be boring if Shanghaiers and Beijingers just greeted each other casually, shook hands, and said, “Nin chi le ma? (您吃了吗？)” Of course!
So let Chen Lai believe that “Shanghai accents stink of arrogance. On top of that, they’re so petty.” And let Wang Bangrong think that “Beijingers tend to be freer with promises, especially with the help of grain wine.” Me? I’m just going to stand on the sidelines, and enjoy the sport.
- She’s a stereotypical Shanghaier.
- You must have eaten some garlic. Haha!