Representing and Coping with Early Twentieth-Century Chongqing: “Guide Songs” as Maps, Memory Cells, and Means of Creating Cultural Imagery

Igor Chabrowski, European University Institute
Boats moored in Chongqing river port. Photo by Fritz Weiss; permission by Tamara Wyss.
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Abstract

Chongqing’s “guide songs” form an interesting subgenre among the broad category of haozi 號子 (workers’ songs). These early twentieth-century songs were a form of rhythm-based oral narrative describing Chongqing’s urban spaces, river docks, and harbors. Each toponym mentioned in the lyrics was followed by a depiction of the characteristic associations, whether visible or symbolic, of the place. This article aims to analyze the verbal images of Chongqing presented in these songs in order to understand how the city was remembered, reproduced, and represented. The article deconstructs representations of the city produced by the lower classes, mainly by Sichuan boatmen, and links culturally meaningful images of urban spaces with the historical experiences of work, religion, and historical-mythical memory. It also points to the functions that oral narratives had in the urban environment of early twentieth-century Chongqing. Rhythmic and easy to remember, the songs provided ready-to-use guides and repositories of knowledge useful to anyone living or working there. A cross between utilitarian resource books and cultural representations, they shaped modes of thinking and visualizations of urban spaces and Chongqing. Finally, this article responds to the need to employ popular culture in our thinking about Chinese cities and the multiplicity of meanings they were given in pre-Communist times.