Wang Meiyi is a writer and scholar. She is currently Director of the Institute of History, Guangzhou Academy of Social Science. As well as writing cultural essays, she also studies the modern history of Guangzhou city and Lingnan cultures. One of her publications, Guangzhou Chenxiang Biji, received several awards including 'The beauty of books in China 2008' and 'Top ten most favourable Canton books in the 2011 South China book fair'. She recently led a project on the modern history of Guangzhou city and edited Studies of Modern Guangzhou (volumes I and II).
In her talk, Wang Meiyi introduced three major features of Guangzhou: its strong commercial power, openness to the outside world and plebeian culture. These features deeply affected the daily lives of people in Guangzhou. As the biggest gateway city for overseas trade in China, Guangzhou had become the only port city in 1757, and its commercial strength was beyond question. Because of its success in foreign commerce, Guangzhou thus became a pioneering city open to Western civilisation and foreign influence. Its plebeian culture resulted from its location, which was remote from central authorities but close to the outside world. The cultural atmosphere in Guangzhou was democratic and informal. Moreover, relegated officials were often sent to the Lingnan region. Adherents of the former dynasty also brought a rebellious spirit into Guangzhou culture. City life in Guangzhou was free and peaceful.
Wang Meiyi emphasised that the recent research project on the modern history of Guangzhou city, conducted by the Institute of History, Guangzhou Academy of Social Science, aimed to switch the perspective from a grand historical narrative to a micro-history of Guangzhou. She summarised that previous research had mainly studied Guangzhou from the aspect of political history and placed it within the narrative of modern Chinese history. Research perspectives and topics were thus closely related to modern Chinese politics and revolution. Instead, through a close study of city life in Guangzhou, the Institute hoped to reconstruct the history of civil society and public life in Guangzhou from a micro-social and cultural perspective. With a 'downward' research vision, it planned to conduct broad empirical research on aspects of city culture and daily life in Guangzhou, such as food, clothing, shelter, transportation, entertainment, festivals, customs and material culture. It was a new subject worth further exploration. Through the study of micro-history, historical contexts and details of daily life that had been simplified, missed, hidden or even misrepresented in the grand narrative of history could be rediscovered. Wang Meiyi then introduced four aspects of the city culture and daily life of Guangzhou: intellectual culture, intellectuals' lives and leisure, folk culture and ordinary people's lives, and influence of Western culture.
A region remote from central government, Guangzhou was often considered a place for relegated officials and its culture did not thrive before the arrival of Ruan Yuan in 1817. An important and noted scholar and official in the Qing dynasty, Ruan Yuan first devoted himself to developing education and culture wherever he took up an official post. He was appointed Governor-General of the two provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi in 1817, and 3 years later he established Xuehai Tang in Guangzhou to promote practical learning. He also founded a comprehensive and effective academic system for intellectual education, which profoundly influenced the development of Puxue (simple and plain learning) in Guangdong. Ruan Yuan and graduate students from Xuehai Tang played a significant role in promoting intellectual culture in Guangzhou. Chen Li, a major scholar of Puxue, was head of Xuehai Tang at the time, and he established another important school of Puxue, Dongshu School. Later, when Zhang Zhidong became Governor-General of the two provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi, he established Guangya Academy with the help of Chen Li's students. These major academies changed Guangzhou city culture significantly.
As for intellectuals' lives in Guangzhou, Wang Meiyi discovered a rich tradition of leisure culture from diaries written by scholars at the time. City life in Guangzhou was the most vigorous in the early years of the Daoguang reign. After becoming the single port city in 1757, Guangzhou experienced notable commercial development after decades of overseas trade. Both merchants and scholars found opportunities for their own personal development. During the early years of the Daoguang reign, the shadow of wars did not hang over China and intellectuals enjoyed a leisurely lifestyle in Guangzhou. Xie Lansheng, Chair Scholar of the Yang Cheng Academy, recorded his social life in detail in his diary. He kept close contact with people from different classes and the activities he recorded reflected a tradition of pleasure in Chinese scholars' intellectual lives. Wang Meiyi pointed out that leisure had been suppressed by the political and revolutionary discourse of new China since 1949. However, research on Guangzhou city culture from the Qing dynasty to Republican China revealed a leisure culture within Chinese intellectuals' lives. In Xie Lansheng's diary, events of visiting friends, watching dramas, admiring flowers, holding parties, boating, practising calligraphy and so on appeared often, reflecting a leisurely lifestyle. Wang Meiyi also commented on an example of Erju and the Garden of Ten Fragrances: 'The Garden of Ten Fragrances was a garden where ten kinds of fragrant flowers were planted, and Erju refers to the two painters of Ju Lian and Ju Chao living in the garden. When they mixed colours to paint different seasons of Lingnan in the Garden of Ten Fragrances, it must be an enjoyable time'. Other examples included Canton scholars such as Shang Yanliu, Rong Geng and Ye Gongchuo living in Beijing. These scholars and their life stories were ignored after the founding of new China, and it was not until recently that they were gradually rediscovered in the academic world.
Most merchants in Guangzhou did business with foreigners. With a low social status in traditional Chinese culture, Chinese merchants often improved their standing by socialising with scholars and adopting an intellectual lifestyle. They loved to publish book collections and distribute them free of charge. They also enjoyed collecting books and building up private libraries. One of the famous Canton merchants, Wu Chongyao, published a collection of books named after his private library – the Yueya Tang Collection, edited by Tang Ying. Among the four largest private libraries in Guangzhou during the late Qing dynasty, three were built by successful merchants, including Yuexue Lou owned by Kong Guangtao, Haishan Xianguan owned by Pan Shicheng and Yueya Tang owned by Wu Chongyao.
Remote from central government, local culture in Guangzhou was especially strong. Folk culture and ordinary people's lives reflected distinct characteristics of the Lingnan region. Wang Meiyi studied such people's lives in Guangzhou from an aesthetic perspective. She pointed out that aesthetics was ignored in dominant discourse. She illustrated the aesthetic aspect of folk culture in Guangzhou through a historical record of a flower called Su Xin. She read the record from Qu Dajun's book, Guangdong Xinyu, in which he described a village named Zhuangtou along the Pearl River. Every household in Zhuangtou grew the Su Xin flower. The flowers were collected and sent to the town gates for sale every day. Such activities reflected a beautiful picture of ordinary people's lives in Guangzhou. Wang Meiyi also displayed a photo taken by an English photographer, John Thomson, depicting a boat woman on the Pearl River. Wang Meiyi pointed out that the boat woman appeared healthy and as having a special charm, which symbolised a thriving folk culture in Guanghzou.
Western influence on city culture in Guangzhou could be seen in various aspects of life, such as people's daily supplies, city architecture and Western missionaries' cultural activities. Wang Meiyi took the villas in Dongshan as an example, and discussed the combination of Chinese and Western architectural styles.
At the end of her talk, Wang Meiyi identified three important districts for the study of Guangzhou history: Dongshan, Xiguan and Shamian. Missionaries and Chinese from overseas mainly gathered at Dongshan. It was therefore the most Westernised district in Guangzhou. Chinese merchants and their later generations mainly lived in Xiguan, combining traditional Chinese and Western cultures. Shamian was a district for consulates and reflected features of a foreign settlement. These three districts are the most representative of the history of the city of Guangzhou.