The Shanghai Summer, once again, is nigh, and one of the most obvious (and frequently overlooked) symbols of the China’s urban-rural divide emerges. We are not talking about the hordes of migrant workers dozing off in the gutters on sweltering street corners, but about the ubiquitous parasol.
Turn on the TV in China and virtually all the commercials at a particular time in the afternoon deal with products aimed at whitening the skin. The parasol is, naturally, a crucial accessory, even though the chances are slim that the sun’s rays can penetrate the film of smog and haze that has settled over the years across the skyline.
Even so, you notice, also, that when a frail, pale Shanghainese girl has been caught unawares by the sudden clemency of the weather, she will hide her face against the vicious ultra-violet with a pocketbook or handbag, or will flee behind the nearest tree or within the umbra of the nearest obese foreigner.
The city folk, you see, do not want to look like they have spent the entire day tilling the fields or herding the goats. It is no coincidence that the Hindu deity, Lakshmi, is the goddess not only of beauty, but also of wealth. The two are intimately connected.
Paleness was similarly cherished in Europe — especially in Britain — until agriculture virtually died out and foreign holidays became a much more potent status symbol than the ability to stay indoors. In China, however, brown skin is still far too suggestive of the bumpkin.
And in Shanghai, where status is particularly cherished, everyone seems to fear the possibility of being exposed as — in the local dialect — a shangwanin (xiangxia ren or countryside person). The idea that a Shanghainese has won first prize in the lottery of life seems to be inscribed in the very rhythms of the local dialect, and perhaps in the name of the city itself — Shang-hai, above the sea.