When news of Shanghai-born J.G. Ballard's death reached China Beat, we asked friend-of-the-blog Robert Bickers, author of Britain in China and Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai, to share his thoughts about the writer with us. He was kind enough to oblige, passing on these thoughts on Ballard's most famous novel, Empire of the Sun (subject, of course, of a Spielberg film), and also another work of fiction that uses Shanghai as a backdrop.
By Robert Bickers
They own him and disown him. “My brother was in his class at school,” one might tell you. “Why did he tell those lies about us in that book” another will ask. The ageing Shanghai British, solipsistic to the last, and acutely sensitive still about their history, were thrilled to have spawned a novelist (as they were a ballet dancer, Margot Fonteyn), but they were mostly bewildered by his work in general, and angry in particular at his book about them, 1994’s Empire of the Sun. But that book is not about them, of course, and it is not about
They did not like what they saw in his book, but all that they saw there was themselves: British internees shown lazy and petulant in camp, expatriate householders lording it over their Chinese servants. But Ballard’s tale was more concerned with the strange flavour of a city, “90% Chinese and 100% Americanised,” at least as he saw it and recalled it in his 2008 memoir, Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, than with the Shanghai British. It suggests many ways in which the writer’s wider body of fiction had always been shaped by his childhood, as Mervyn Peake’s “Notes for a projected autobiography” shows how his childhood years in the London Missionary Society compound at Tianjin lay at the heart of the Gormenghast trilogy. Perhaps the key to the failure of the Shanghai British to understand Ballard’s book lies not so much in their failure to read it as fiction, and not so much in their concern with his portrayal of the British Shanghailander society of which Ballard’s life was such a part, but in their failure to understand that it is a book about America. In
Shanghai, or “not Shanghai,” is the subject, or rather setting, of one other well-known recent English fiction, Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000). That tale of childhood (funny that both books are also about childhood) also prompted complaints about its use of the past, but in this case because Ishiguro did not research things quite properly enough: yes, Butterfield & Swire (whose manager in Shanghai is the protagonist’s father) was a leading British firm in the city, but no, it never dealt in opium, and no, it is not extinct. The company sued (the Shanghai British could only grouse at Ballard), and as a result the firm’s name was expunged from reprints of the novel. Ishiguro has a family link to the city too, his father was born there, his grandfather working there for
Robert Bickers is Professor of History at the University of Bristol, Co-Director of the British Inter-university China Centre, and leads the Historical Photographs of China project.