They were the first generation of Chinese women to embrace the modern world, becoming icons of style and feminist trail-blazers. Li Xueqing looks at the lives of Shanghai’s first socialites.
Shanghai socialites of the 1920s and 1930s were a special group. Elegant, smart and modern, these ladies from families of wealth and power were among the first women in China who were allowed to freely leave the confines of the home for study, work and pleasure. When their families were busying meddling in the politics and markets of Shanghai, they were living their own lives with style and personality.
Yan Youyun, the granddaughter of Yan Xiaofang, the first president of the Shanghai General Chamber of Commerce, was once nicknamed “Miss 84”, because “84” was the number on her car’s license plate. Yan was one of the first female graduates of Fudan University. She was famous for driving her own car to campus every day when there were no more than 200 cars in Shanghai.
Like Yan, the well-to-do ladies of her time were rich, well-educated and very modern. Many of them studied at church schools such as the McTyeire School. They were exposed to both Chinese traditions and Western values.
It is no coincidence that the first feminist lawsuit in China was filed by one of them. Sheng Aiyi was the seventh daughter of Sheng Xuanhuai, a leading figure in the Westernization movement. She sued her brothers and nephews for depriving her of her share of the family fortune in 1928.
The case became a sensation. It was not only about a lady fighting for her right to inheritance, it was also about women’s equal rights to men. Daughters were traditionally excluded from their parents’ legacy. This, however, was against the law in the 1920s. Sheng won the case, winning back the lawful shares of money for herself and her younger sister.
Trends from the West traveled fast to Shanghai, including fashion. Bian Xiangyang, a professor at the Fashion Institute & College of Art Design of Donghua University, says it took only one or two months for the latest fashions in Paris to land in Shanghai.
“In 1932, waist-controlled floor length dresses were prevalent in Europe. The next year, ladies in Shanghai were wearing long qipao,” said Professor Bian. “And qipao itself was the result of Western influences. It was worn like a dress, not a robe as it should have been. No one would actually wear a robe without trousers, right?”
The ladies carefully followed the trends with creativity. Their style was varied yet stuck to three core values: elegance, sophistication and modernity. “They were particularly elegant, their looks were exquisite, yet they looked natural. They were fashionable and a little bit ahead of others in Shanghai,” Bian says, “Just a little bit ahead, or they would look weird.”
One of the most gifted fashion gurus was Tang Ying, the daughter of the renowned doctor Tang Nai’an. When she saw any new design in the department store, she would memorize it, make alterations and take it to her private tailor. This made her always fashionable and distinctive in style.
Tang’s passion was not limited to fashion. The McTyeire graduate was a theater lover, too. “Tang was widely regarded among fashionable women as the number one socialite of the time,” says writer Song Luxia, an expert in Chinese family genealogy and the author of Ladies of Shanghai (上海滩的名门闺秀). “Tang was popular with the foreigners as well as the Chinese. She even performed Peking Opera Wang Baochuan in English.”
Tang changed her outfit three times a day, even when she stayed at home: a short-sleeved cardigan in the morning, qipao at noon and a Western-style long dress in the evening if she had any visitors. She frequently appeared in magazines of that time, such as Liangyou(良友) and Linglong (玲珑), the latter encouraged women to dress up and participate more in social activities like Tang did.
Is it still possible for today’s socialites to exert the same influence on society as Tang Ying did? Professor Bian does not think so. In our highly fragmented modern society it is unlikely a community’s style can be changed by a small group of people.
“The gentlewomen today may catch the attention of young college graduates, but it is unlikely for them to be followed or envied by high school students or women in their thirties. Each group has its own fashion code. For ordinary people, it’s difficult to copy the ladies’ style too. You don’t have appropriate occasions to wear what they wear, and you don’t have the means to enter their circle,” says Bian.
What makes a gentlewoman?
Song says people today have several misunderstandings about gentlewomen. “It’s not about parties or fun. It’s not about money or good looks either. I don’t think Zhao Yidi (wife of General Chang Hsueh-liang) was a beauty,” says Song. Being a real gentlewoman entails more than that. It is her duty to her family and society, the character she shows under extreme circumstances that make a gentlewoman.”
Song used Yan Youyun as an example. When her life of affluence and her husband were taken away by war, Yan displayed great courage and tenacity.
In 1938, Yan’s first husband Yang Guangsheng was appointed the consul general of China in Manila to raise a war fund among the Chinese living in Southeast Asia for the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945). Yan was a great help to him. She actively participated in the campaign and organized local women to prepare first-aid kits, winter clothes and quilts for the soldiers, as written in an unpublished article by Song and Xu Jingcan, niece of Yan.
After the Pearl Harbor incident in 1941, Yang declined General MacArthur, then commander of the United States Army Forces in the Far East, when he suggested Yang to go to Australia with the US army. Instead Yang stood by his duty in Manila. He and seven other officials in the consulate were arrested and killed by the Japanese after Manila fell into Japanese hands, leaving behind eight families, most of whom were women and children.
Yan took over the responsibility of looking after them all, including her three children. The lady who had never washed a handkerchief before had to lead these families to grow their own food while constantly moving and taking refuge in air-raid shelters.
After the war, Yan settled in New York. She got a job at the Department of Protocol of the newly founded United Nations so that she could support her children. She worked at the UN for 13 years and was highly regarded by her colleagues. She also resumed her active social life.
In 1959, Yan re-married. Her new husband was diplomat Gu Weijun. In 2014, she celebrated her 109th birthday. When asked about the secret of longevity at her 100th birthday, Yan said, “Don’t be caught up in the past. Spend more time thinking of how to create a better future.”