Palimpsests of Private Life
Columbia UP 2015
What’s not to love about Jie Li‘s new book?
Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life (Columbia University Press, 2015) explores the history and culture of Shanghai alleyway homes by focusing on two physical spaces, both built in the early twentieth century by Japanese and British companies, and both located in the industrial Yangshupu district in the eastern part of what was the International Settlement in Shanghai. An old house, here, is a palimpsest: Li excavates the archaeology of Shanghai’s alleyway homes as a way to get at a history of privacy and private life. The homes in Li’s book create and embody many kinds of private space: a nest, a foothold defined in terms of square meters, a refuge, a site for storytelling and gossip, a ruin to be destroyed or remade. As we travel through these spaces, Li introduces us to characters in from her story – and often from her family – that become, by the end of the work, people whom we’re sorry to say goodbye to. In addition to being a real pleasure to read, Shanghai Homes also urges us to consider our own homes as valid sources of scholarly inquiry, models a thoughtful engagement with video and cinema as research tools, and pays careful attention to the material histories of modern urban space. The result is both a beautifully written narrative and a compelling argument for studying the archaeology of daily life.