Lecture Notes

Chinese 220 Lecture Notes
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Kong Yiji, by Lu Xun, 1919; 《孔已己》鲁迅著

  • It is hard to be sympathetic with the title character; it is equally hard to be on the side of the crowd mocking Kong Yiji, who is created to have roughly the same characteristics and traits as most men of letters like the author himself, a shadow of Lu Xun; perhaps we need to back off from an either-or way of reading Lu Xun; what is important is not where LX stood with regard to his anti-hero but how he felt at the time as a very self-afflicted person with feelings of self-loathe, self-disgust or self-pity, hoping to purge these negative feelings of his by creative writing; therefore he is not for or against Kong Yiji; or we can say that he is BOTH for and against the educated class of which Kong Yiji is a representative: proud to a fault, too conceited to acknowledge his own shortcomings, and too obsessed with learning and traditional values to live in the present; to some extent he is like LX who could not shake off his cultural background as a person educated in Chinese classics and unable to reconcile China and social change; LX could never be for one and against the other; through Kong Yiji as as readers come to feel LX’s anguish and deep anxiety about modernity.
  • As readers we need to see this feeling of ambivalence, and understand the psychology of China as LX experienced it; the author created this character in his own image as a man of culture and yet refused to invest him with qualities that would make him likeable; the critical distance is achieved through the first-person narrator, a 12-year old boy who never likes Kong Yiji very much and does not take him seriously; this says much about the author’s problematic self-awareness (a split self?) and his view of society in which traditional values were becoming increasingly irrelevant; the story addresses a number of issues regarding the literati class (士大夫阶级) to which the author belonged, national characteristics, and the despair of a spiritual culture being replaced by a material one;
  • Among other things, Kong Yiji aspires to be a cultured person wearing a long robe, to distinguish himself from the laborers wearing regular shirts; but he fails to pass the civic exam to obtain public office, and lives on a meager pay for copying writings for others; despite his effort to hold his self-image as the learned and cultivated who in the traditional society were normally well respected and honored, Kong Yiji is scorned and constantly made fun of by others as a total failure, including the illiterate, who delight in his poverty, a human wreck unable to be one of those wearing scholar’s gown and drinking sitting down in reserved booths; worse, he is often badly beaten after caught stealing from those he works for; the humiliating and degrading position he occupies shows the light in which Lu Xun sees many like himself dreaming of one day becoming somebody through a classical education; Kong Yiji’s repeated and pretentious references to classical language, showing off his imperfect knowledge of the classics, fail to command any respect from those who view him as a failure and thief; the proprietor of the wine-shop is not very willing to let him drink on credit;
  • Kong Yiji’s lifestyle, if it could be called such, is a sham, a sign of the problematic nature or status of the literati class in China who ought to be the main backbone and conscience of the nation; he wants to pass himself off as a true gentleman and scholar to no avail; children with whom he is willing to share his appetizer surround him only because of what they can get from him not because what he has to say to them; the story calls into question the moral characteristics of Lu Village (China), represented by all those who mock and scorn him, making it difficult or impossible for him to assume the role of the educated; yet even as he is reduced to a street person and social zero, Kong Yiji still lives in self-denial, utterly unable to manage his day-to-day existence; he tells everyone that he broke his legs because he fell when in fact they were broken by a wealthy and powerful family that caught him stealing;
  • The depiction of everyone around Kong Yiji expresses the author’s general view of China as a society devoid of any kindness and compassion; people enjoy taunting Kong Yiji and delight in his personal failure and disappointment; the boy notices him because of the laughter he hears when the wine-shop patrons make fun of Kong Yiji; and the only reason that people at the bar still remember him is that he still owes money; Lu Xun is clearly not telling the story of one individual’s plight; rather he is showing apathy, cruelty, hypocrisy, and selfishness that underscore the ways his society operates and devours human beings whole, which is the author’s prognosis of China’s social ills that doom this nation; for many, personal success through a classical education is a dead-end in the age when people began questioning Chinese cultural credentials.
  • The anti-hero is also a parody of the phrase “neisheng waiwang” (內聖外王), a phrase taken from Zhuangzi and often alluded to when people try to explain the conducts and ways of thinking of a Chinese person educated in traditional China. Literally it means “inwardly a sage, and outwardly a king.” People interpret this phrase differently as there are different schools of thought in China. To the Confucians who advocate a positive and active approach to the world, the internal sage signifies self-cultivation of moral virtues while the kingly outward appearance means the ability to practice one’s moral principles, effect political change, and rule the country. However, the Daoists who emphasize the unity of man in nature, the sage inside helps one transcend or empty his earthly desires such as ambition and greed while his kingly existence in the world means activities such as his monastic lifestyle through which he achieves other-worldliness. The phrase holds the key to the personality of the cultured individual in ancient China who views himself an agency of history or nature. That cultured personality finally cracks up and disintegrates into Kong Yiji, Ah Q, and the madman.
A Madman’s Diary, 1919, by Lu Xun; 《狂人日记》鲁迅著

  • Structurally, the short story, the first to be written in vernacular language, begins with a preface or authorial intrusion in literary/classical Chinese to indicate, among other things, a distance or disclaimer; it is customary and conventional for writers of classical novels to frame his story and establish his authority as a story-teller by offering some accounts as to the origin and authenticity of his story, its morals, or its historical or cultural context; doing so eliminates any personal connection on the part of the author to what he is about to tell, which is written in the vernacular language of a madman, who is the brother of the one that gave him the diary showing evidences of “persecution complex”, a mental disorder and a form of insanity; the medical term also invokes the authority of science behind which Lu Xun’s fictional persona retreats to further disassociate himself from the madness that actually serves as a mode of wisdom or supreme intelligence on traditional morality; therefore the madman crazy enough to think of himself being victimized and devoured by a cannibalistic tribe of which he is a member is actually closer to Lu Xun than the well spoken gentleman addressing the reader at the beginning;
  • Lu Xun’s tacit affinity with the madman exists only in what they think about Confucian morality, a conclusion that Lu Xun arrives at through his systematical anti-traditionalism as a progressive thinker and madman reaches because of his condition and insanity which is medically certifiable by his pattern of thoughts in the diary; the relationship between May Fourth intellectual enlightenment and insanity reveals the conditions of modern thought: thoughts and ideas that would put the thinker into the rank of madman, a plight in which Lu Xun often finds himself as an intellectual and writer; although the process through which the madman comes to suspect his relatives as cannibals proves to be pathological or illogical, his “persecution complex” enables him to transcend the confines of normative moral thinking in China and creates critical space to which the reader is invited to think about Confucian traditions differently from before; the reader can laugh at the madman or provide real substance absent from the madman’s pathological fantasies;
  • That it is a madman that tries to indict Confucianism as a form of cannibalism does not necessarily exonerate the moral philosophy; for sure his reasoning is flawed but his lunacy also introduces other unconventional perspectives such as social Darwinism: “probably all primitive people ate a little human flesh to begin with. Later, because their outlook changed, some of them stopped, and because they tried to be good they changed into men, changed into real men;” in the context of the story, the diary about his own imminent annihilation, including his sincere plea to “save the children,” is total nonsense; but that does not mean such a sense of despair and doom would not resonate with readers feeling spiritually suffocated or dead, both individually and collectively, as Confucian virtue and morality get perpetuated;
  • When despair is generally accepted as a permanent condition of life, going kicking and screaming the way the madman does certainly marks him out as odd if not totally insane; but actually it is the sanity of such a conservative culture that is really the problem; thus the real reason to despair is that, as we are told, “my brother recovered some time ago and has gone elsewhere to take up an official post;” on the symbolic level, the madman’s recovery could only mean rescindment of any critical awareness or/and extinction of new thoughts and revolutionary ideas and China needed.
  • It is not clear whether LX is for sanity or madness. The madness is also a mode of wisdom in this case as it enables the madman to be critical of Confucian morality as a form of cannibalism devouring the individuals whole. But such a vision of the human society cannot sustain itself and he, the madman, has to return to sanity as he also returns to an office of some sort. But such sanity as represented by an official (and Confucian) post is questionable if kindness, righteousness, filial piety are just another name for “eat man.” LX also expresses his own mental anguish through the madman, alienated from his fellow countrymen because of his own intellectual enlightenment, and in this sense, the madman is also the author’s shadow just like Kong Yiji; it is into these tragic and pathetic characters or heroes that a Chinese cultural identity disintegrates.
Soap, 1924, by Lu Xun; 《肥皂》鲁迅著

  • This story is quite uneventful in terms of plot; there’s no action other than the purchase of a bar of scented soap by the central character called Si-ming (四铭) for his wife; coherence seems lacking because of non-events such as his running into a young woman beggar, his disapproval of social changes, his sentiments about female virtues, and his wife’s bickering with him over the bar of soap, all of which do not seem inner-connected; it is almost as if the “story” is nothing more than some rambling of a failed intellectual who takes himself too seriously;
  • Perhaps we can decode the story by understanding soap as a metaphor for something normally unspoken of in Chinese society; for example, view it as a symbol or substitute for repressed sexual desire, and his sentiments and moral views as hypocrisies that Lu Xun satirizes; in other words, we can interpret Soap as an attempt to pathologize or psychoanalyze those that have a classical education (“old fool” or “恶毒妇”) whose idealism and austere morals are but exercises of self-flagellations; Si-ming reveals the anatomy and perversion of high morals as a form of hypocrisy;
  • The wife’s remark is not too far off when she says that he did not buy the bar of soap for her but for the young beggar whom he idolizes as a paragon of female virtues; she gives away the secret of her husband’s sexual appetite; remember that at the scene of the young woman panhandling for food for her grandmother, some young punks make the lewd remark that it wound be fun to bathe and scrub this girl clean with a bar of soap; telling from the way he talks about the girl (his moral indignation at those who did not give money to her and treated her as a sexual object), the wife infers that he bought the scented soap with this girl in mind; by his own admission, he did not give money to the young woman beggar even though he seemed moved by her action at the time; what he did because of this little incident was buy a bar of soap for his wife, and that is because the lewd remark made by one of the punks;
  • The thoughts associated with this bar of soap thus reveal the ways Chinese men (especially hypocritical Confucian moralists like Si-ming) think about women, viewing them either as the cause of social ills when they are not properly dressed or as paragons of female virtue when they beg for food to save the lives of older family members; Si-ming is vociferous while talking with his intellectual friends about the need to exult the girl begging to save her grandmother because her action represents Confucian filial piety; he even inadvertently alienates one of his colleagues by badmouthing those unwilling to be charitable to the girl; but his interest in the girl is not very dissimilar with that of those he refers to as “low-life” who eroticize and sexualize the 19-year old girl begging in the street; the soap is emblematic of his repressed sexual desire that is sublimated in the form of high morals with which he idealizes and moralizes the female pan-handler; his repeated denial only confirms the wife’s intuition and suspicion of her husband’s lust, which is why she washes herself diligently with the scented soap to attract his attention;
  • The story shows the anatomy of Confucian (male) morality as a form of immorality that praises and condemns women for all the wrong reasons; had Si-ming done as the hoodlums and punks suggested—to take advantage of a penniless and powerless 19-year old girl—he would probably have no more harsh words to say against girls wearing short hair nor high praises for women beggars; powerless women arouse not just sympathy or moral indignation in him but also a perverted delight, and the choices of educated women to walk in twos and threes freely in the street and wear short hair frighten him more than bandits; these teenage girls, whether the coeds or beggar, are women whom he lusts but with whom he cannot do anything other than passing moral judgments on them, which is next thing or substitute to scrubbing them with a bar of soap; in short the bar of soap reveals the connection between high morality and sexual repression, between conscious attitudes and unconscious desires;
  • It seems that “Soap” is written in such a way as to question traditional morality, especially when it comes to female virtue, that requires women to be filial. This is done by way of Si-ming, the patriarch whose moral outlook seems quite as expected as he praises the beggar woman and criticizes the college girls. Such austere moral view is expected of any Confucian gentleman, and his remarks concerning the beggar woman and the young college students seem warranted, appropriate and even high-minded. But the soap episode reveals that such Confucian high-mindedness is really the result of male sexual repression. The bar of soap Si-ming buys for his wife establishes a connection between sexual fantasies (the content of the unconscious, or the id) and high morality (the rational and conscious values and attitudes, or the super ego). Quite unconsciously, Si-ming reveals that he (the established order, or the symbolic male order) likes women better if they remain powerless like the beggar woman, and he feels morally outraged by free women over whom he has no control, like the college girls wandering in the street in twos and threes. He compares them to bandits and outlaws. When his wife sees the link between his moral rhetoric and his sexual fantasy, she realizes the true nature of high culture, advanced at the expense of basic human and sexual instincts. In this classic case of Freudian psychoanalysis, Lu Xun exposes the hypocrisy of Confucian morality and humanism. His position against and indictment of Confucian tradition as cannibalistic is predicated on this (Freudian) critique of culture.
  • English (e.g. “old fool” or “恶毒妇”) irritates Si-ming because, although spoken by some young punks, it represents attitudes and values with which he is unfamiliar, which shows the extent of the May Fourth new culture movement (五四新文化运动), as well as the degree of conflict or incompatibility between new ideals and old habits; by writing this story, LX seems to be debunking and deliberately bankrupting traditional morality as hypocritcal, repressive and unreasonable.
Picture Book of 24 Acts of Filial Piety, by Lu Xun

  • The Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety (《全相二十四孝诗选》) was a book written by Guo, Jujing (郭居敬) of Yuan dynasty (1271年-1368); Guo wanted to put together such a book after his father passed away and searched history for true stories of the finest examples of filial respect practiced by devoted children throughout the centuries; each story was chosen to exemplify the teachings of Confucius; he not only told their story, but wrote a poem for each;
  • The main themes are caring for parents and self-sacrifice; to Confucius what distinguish humans from animals are rituals (礼) through which we practice and exercise our moral beliefs; the book is one of Chinese classics that help define and exult the core values of Confucianism as is The Paragons of Female Chastity (《列女传》) showing how women could become a moral being by exemplary cases; these classics instill in women and children the needs to respect and take care of their elders and husbands;
  • The book by Lu Xun is nothing less than an act of iconoclasm, mocking what is held as sacred and ridiculing the lofty ideals in a gerontocracy (a society ruled by elders); as a rebel, LX makes fun of the unreasonable degree of moral austerity people are expected to show when exercising respect for their aging parents; each of the 24 acts involves discomfort, self-sacrifice and even death as justified by the lofty goal of “being filial”; it is from a child perspective that LX critiques these rituals, viewing them as totally inhuman and inhumane, and totally against every natural instincts in a human being; such a large of inhumanity is indeed what LX levels against Confucianism in A Madman’s Diary where the deranged realizes that while reading Chinese classics all he could see are two words “eat people”;
  • LX’s anti-traditionalism and iconoclasm are quite systematic; his frontal attack on traditional morals is informed by Western humanism that emerged from the renaissance period that basically celebrated Man for who he is rather than condemned him for what he is not or cannot be (as during the medieval period, the dark ages); in other words, LX is trying to introduce a new humanism which is more sympathetic with human conditions in which ordinary people live, as opposed to a humanism that is unattainable; that is why LX takes up the positions of women (New Year’s Sacrifice) and children as a vantage point from which to indict Confucian humanism as a form of inhumanity in the name of which people are made subject to many human indignities; what Book of Filial Piety exults as examples of high morals and excellent human accomplishments LX views as examples of human perversion in which human nature is twisted and violated;
  • That is why LX yells bloody murder against Confucian morality and satirizes what he views as a form of total ignorance; as a truly enlightened person, he encourages his readers to think for themselves and think critically of moral rituals that in fact celebrate cruelty against the young and women; his critical attitude towards the antiquated values as institutionalized in rituals becomes a part of the May Fourth legacy shaping the twentieth-century Chinese thinking and self-reflection; yet often times LX’s all-out attacks on traditions are painstakingly subtle and nuanced, flavored in humor, sarcasm, and under-statement; he is a writer of cultural clashes in which writing (and reading) itself is rendered problematic.
Old Hometown, 1921, by Lu Xun; 《故乡》鲁迅著

  • The story, on first reading, seems rather blend; nothing dramatic happens over the time span of little over two days; what is tumultuous is what’s going on inside the narrator, the author’s persona, overwhelmed by the sudden reappearance of his childhood playmate, Runtu; but Runtu is by no means the focus of the story, not even how different he looks after over 20 years; as a psychological drama, the short story shows, among other things, Chinese identity (Confucian cultural identity) as very limited; when looked from outside, a Confucian scholar such as Brother Xun is but one more “master” to be obeyed rather than a life long friend as Brother Xun originally thought he was to Runtu; Confucian humanism as represented by Brother Xun is called into question when the reader realizes how unreliable his private memory is; the problem the story seems to address is the identity or the image of the Chinese intellectuals who were out of touch with the day-to-day reality of the rank and file ordinary people that they profess they know or at least care a great deal; that tacit and self-flattering assumption is called into question when “I” or “brother Xun” feels that he is tricked by his own faulty memory;
  • Hometown, by definition, is where one grew up and with which one is thoroughly familiar; but that is exactly what is untrue in this story; nothing turns out as “I” has expected because he has not prepared himself for what the passage of time has done to his hometown, to his childhood playmate, and to himself; as he re-enters his hometown, he already feels alienated or disconnected from the place about which he has so much fond memories and to which he has strong emotional attachments; what awaits him is an existential moment when it hits him that nothing stays the same over time; what seems to have eluded him as a humanist and idealist is the impact of (material) life on people, especially Runtu; more precisely, class-consciousness (or social awareness) that never was a part of his past with Runtu has entered into the picture when Runtu greets him by calling him “Master;”
  • As a young child, “I” was never anything to Runtu, nor Runtu to him, other than a dear friend and playmate; the circumstances under which Runtu came to his family as a temp helper when his (Runtu’s) father presided over an elaborated family ancestral worship ceremony for the Lu family did not register in the minds of both kids who immediately became close friends; in this sense, “hometown” also signifies innocence because as young boys they were totally oblivious to such things as class, wealth, or status, too busy with catching birds and little animals; now that they have all gown up, their friendship inevitably developed or corrupted into a master-servant relationship in which Runtu feels quite at home, much to the dismay of “I” still in the mood to sentimentalize their childhood days;
  • We as readers identify with the values of the narrator from whose perspective the story gets told; he is not snobbery as the woman doufu shop-keeper believes he is; he as well as his mother are kind to those whose social conditions are not as good; but as the authority of the narrator is undermined and cast in doubt, so is his humanity; how does Runtu remember their days as boys? apparently he is not sentimental about their past or reunion; the narrator also wonders about how his niece Hong’er and Runtu’s son Shui-sheng would remember one another years from now; would they feel as awkward then as he and Runtu do now?
  • As an adult, Lu Xun finds his memory to be seriously flawed; his fond memory of Runtu is clouded by doubt after he runs into his childhood playmate and good friend from who only remembers him his master, which takes away authority as well as authenticity of whatever he has to say about human relationships; the narrator is bitterly frustrated and disappointed by Runtu’s servile attitude to him, which directly contradicts his impression of him as a good friend, a peer, and an equal, able to teach him everything there is to know about nature: the names of insects, and ways in which to catch beautiful birds as well as the animals that would harm the crops; the striking discrepancy between who Runtu was as Lu Xun remembers him and the poor farmer renders problematic one’s ability to recall past events, which is one of the corner stones of our intellectual and emotional life;
  • the details of hometown and characteristics of the individuals, Sister Yang (杨二嫂、豆腐西施, Bean Curd Beauty) and Runtu, suggest changes that defy and undercut one’s fixed opinions of the world and the people in it; that which we call “hometown” offers many surprises even though we tend to think that is the one place (“China”) about which we know everything intimately; brother Xun has been away and to many places; as he returns, he romanticizes his past and those living in it, but those from his hometown make it hard because they cannot live or act according to how someone remembers them;
  • The things that have changed since their teenage days suggest, registered through seeming insignificant details, the existence of social classes which has been conveniently forgotten or overlooked by the person in reverie, who is becoming an official, married with three concubines; with five children to feed and farm produce he is unable to sell, Runtu intrudes into Brother Xun’s innocent memory of their childhood and forces the reader to register important changes in human consciousness, in intellectual interests, in tastes, and in sensibilities; contrary to Marcel Proust’s view (the author of Remembrance of Things Past) that memory is truer and more meaningful to the individual than the real event that has happened, the message in Lu Xun’s Hometown seems to be that very little meaning and significance can be given to remembrance, despite the fact that there is often a reality hidden in the way past events are remembered. Proust believes there is an essence in our remembrance whereas Lu Xun questions the role memory plays in the life of an individual; both authors show in their narration that past and present merge, that reality appears in half-forgotten experiences, and that parts of the past are felt differently at different times; political events such as the Republican Revolution (1911) or the May Fourth (1919) invite people to re-imagine society in new ways; but old social realities are not easily imagined out of existence.
The New Year Sacrifice, 1924, by Lu Xun;《祝福》鲁迅著

  • The narrator represents the dilemma of an intellectual hoping for social reform but feeling impotent when it comes to helping women such as Sister Xianglin who lives under three oppressive powers: that of the husband, of the father, and of religion (夫权、父权、神权); this story revolving around Sister Xianglin shows the ways women operate in Confucian China under the three-obedience rule (三从四德) : when a daughter obey the father; when a wife obey the husband, when a widow, obey the son; not only does the heroine live a miserable life but she is also not free even in death, tormented spiritually by the weight of female virtues she aspires to that requires, among other things, that “a good woman does not serve two men” (一女不事二夫); the fact that she has been married to two men possesses her soul and bothers her conscience because as a traditional and religious woman she feels sinful and consumed by fear after Ah Ma Wang tells her that, according to popular Buddhist belief in karmic retribution, after death she will be sawed in halves in hell by her two dead husbands fighting over her, which is why she asks the narrator at the beginning if there is a soul after a person dies;
  • The steps she takes (or is forced to take) in life help register attitudes towards women that are actually traps into which many women in Chinese society always fall; she is a wife twice, a mother, a widow, a maid, trying to be “womanly” the best she knows how in a patrilineal society in which a woman’s worth is measured by her devotion and service and loyalty to man; in her first marriage, she was a diligent wife to Xianglin; after he died, she tries to stay chaste and be a good daughter to her mother-in-law, the surrogate patriarch who has the right to and does marry her off for cash; in fear of being viewed as unchaste she runs away and becomes a maid in a family in Lu Village until she is spotted, brought back and married to a mountaineer; to honor her dead husband, she tries to kill herself at her wedding; in the next year she dutifully produces a son for her husband who soon dies of typhoid; she tries to raise her son by herself until disaster strikes again when a wolf from the mountain ate her son while she is away; the second time Sister Xianglin comes to work for Lu family as a maid, she has lost her mind, a lunatic constantly talking to herself and others about the incident of her son’s death, shunned by all as a bad omen and social disgrace;
  • On the new year’s day when she dies, Fourth Uncle of Lu family talk about her as “a bad sign of character” (谬种, which is how Lu Xun was often viewed by his enemies); the society in which she lives and works appreciates her services while she is able to provide them but treats her (women) as sacrificial objects offered to bring good fortune; it is a society indifferent to the life and death of poor women like Sister Xianglin and it, the patriarchal system, operates like a meat grinder of female flesh; whenever people talk about Sister Xianglin, they employ the language or rhetoric of female virtue and chastity, misrepresenting her life in a way that ignores her real conditions; people congratulate her on getting work and celebrate her marriage as though they are all women are born and meant to do; that she is a captive of that moral and religious system that reduces her to this powerless position in the first place shows the extent of female victimization by the patriarchal order; exploited economically while alive and kept in hell after death because of religion, Sister Xianglin is truly synonymous to female suffering in its totality; she reflects Lu Xun’s view of Chinese morality as a sacrificial ground where many women meet their end.
The True Story of Ah Q 《 Ah Q 正传》鲁迅著,

  • Written to satirize what the author views as archaic modes of consciousness, the story is also a sad commentary on 1911 revolution which, in Lu Xun’s eyes, accomplished very little; what happens in Wei Village epitomizes China in a crisis where traditional values and attitudes that Ah Q represents no longer operate and where, instead of a brand new rational social order emerging, the primitive and brutal sacrificial rituals are performed to ensure peace; in his confused state, Ah Q is a national self-portrait or a mirror in which the Chinese find themselves suffering from a false sense of pride and living in self-deception (“moral victory” or 精神胜利法); he represents the archaic thoughts and values no longer relevant to how people live; he is executed as a sacrificial victim in the village which is a network of victimization where everyone is a victim and victimizer; he is cowardly to bullies but pugnacious in front of the weak like the little nun; to him (and Chinese populace) unable to make a decent living, revolution is but a chance to rub the rich, get even or settle old scores; such feudal and benighted attitudes do not qualify him as a revolutionary but only mark him as a likely scapegoat in a sacrificial crisis through which to restore social order;
  • The final execution scene reenacts a slide show of decapitation that LX saw while in Japan (1902-09); the slide shows a Chinese spy for Russia to be killed by the Japanese while other Chinese watched, indifferent to fellow countryman’s suffering and death; according to LX, it was because of the chilling apathy and indifference every Chinese wears in that slide that made him change his mind about studying medicine and want to become a writer, for “what good would a sturdy health do to a people if all they could do is serve as the spectators at the execution of their fellow country men?” by writing literature, LX was hoping to wake up the spirit and conscience of China, which is Ah Q’s epiphany at the end, watching his own murder by his fellow villagers looking like a pack of wolves waiting to devour him;
  • The story also shows LX’s ambivalence and pessimism toward revolution: “As far as I am concerned, there is no need to be like Ah Q if China is to have no revolution; but if revolutions are inevitable, so is Ah Q; and the fate of my Ah Q cannot be otherwise, nor can his character be any different. Gone without a trace was the year when the Republic was founded; if more reforms are to take place, I trust there will be again revolutionary parties by people like Ah Q. I wish what others say were true, namely, what I wrote reflected only a time gone by now or was about a particular historical moment, but I am afraid what I have seen is not what is preceding the modern period, but rather what is post-modern, even 20 or 30 years since then. In fact it did not denigrate the revolutionary party since, after all, Ah Q already wears his hair with his pigtail coiled around a bamboo-chopstick;” from “On Reasons for Writing The True Story of Ah Q,” in Complete Works of Lu Xun (Luxun Quanji) vol.3, p.379
  • also satirized is what LX views typical of many Chinese ignorant and unable to see beyond their self-interests; when Ah Q hears of the word revolution, he wants to join it because, as his dream reveals, revolutions will enable him to get even with everyone; in his dream of himself as a revolutionary, he fantasizes of getting the women he wants, killing off those he dislikes, and destroying everything that is not his; his attitude typifies LX’s prognosis of the Chinese not capable of making real social progress;
  • It seems that “Soap” is written in such a way as to question traditional morality, especially when it comes to female virtue, that requires women to be filial. This is done by way of Si-ming, the patriarch whose moral outlook seems quite as expected as he praises the beggar woman and criticizes the college girls. Such austere moral view is expected of any Confucian gentleman, and his remarks concerning the beggar woman and the young college students seem warranted, appropriate and even high-minded. But the soap episode reveals that such Confucian high-mindedness is really the result of male sexual repression. The bar of soap Si-ming buys for his wife establishes a connection between sexual fantasies (the content of the unconscious, or the id) and high morality (the rational and conscious values and attitudes, or the super ego). Quite unconsciously, Si-ming reveals that he (the established order, or the symbolic male order) likes women better if they remain powerless like the beggar woman, and he feels morally outraged by free women over whom he has no control, like the college girls wandering in the street in twos and threes. He compares them to bandits and outlaws. When his wife sees the link between his moral rhetoric and his sexual fantasy, she realizes the true nature of high culture, advanced at the expense of basic human and sexual instincts. In this classic case of Freudian psychoanalysis, Lu Xun exposes the hypocrisy of Confucian morality and humanism. His position against and indictment of Confucian tradition as cannibalistic is predicated on this (Freudian) critique of culture.
  • LX’s pessimism has to do with his general assessment of what he called “national characteristics” (国民劣根性); during his study in Japan, he also read with great interest a book by Arthur Smith, an American missionary who lived in China for over half a century, entitledChinese Characteristics (《支那人的气质》) with 24 chapters, each devoted to one Chinese characteristic such as “face,” “frugality,”  “industry,” etc.; the book became a subtext for his satire; Ah Q’s denial or self-deception or “method of moral victory” is a form of placebo that only makes a person feel good and numb to the need to make necessary changes in order to survive.
Regret for the Past, 1925, by Lu Xun; 《伤逝》鲁迅著

  • As far as plot goes, the story is a romance; but the tragic relationship of Zijun and Juansheng in fact has little to do with love and everything to do with Chinese attitudes towards change; inspired by such English Romantics as Shelley, Byron, Ibsen, and Tangore, the young lovers decide to rebel against Chinese cultural traditions they view as oppressive; in other words, the story is a double articulation of both the position of Western Romanticism and Chinese mores; to affirm her faith in self-autonomy and individual liberty, Zijun says with pride, “I am my own mistress; no one has the right to interfere with my life;” but that sense of personal freedom turns out to be false and unsustainable as Juansheng slips from his position of a hero and abandons Zijun after he realizes that “man must have enough to eat before he can truly love someone;” the development of the story proves that social conditions are not ripe for the kind of intellectual progress the two lovers have anticipated; when China imitates the West the way Zijun and Juansheng do, personal tragedies result;
  • The romance is inspired by the cultural ideals of freedom and liberty; but set in the Chinese context, it soon deteriorates into a classic case of personal indiscretion and regret; the reader finds it hard to identify with the hero who narrates the past in a way less than disingenuous, making Zijun first a flaming liberal with the refrain, a weakling in marriage who needs to be told, and then an emotional wreck who has to be taken home by her uncle when their cohabitation is failing; the failure has little to do with traditions opposed to individual choice but a lot to do with a form of romantic self-reinvention as licensed by western ideals of free love and individual liberty;
  • Juansheng’s regret lends expression to Lu Xun’s view of Western ideas that have little chance of being reconciled with Chinese social realities; Juansheng’s inauthentic existence helps register or negotiate cultural differences as Lu Xun understood them; in his lecture on “What happened after Nora leaves home” given at Peking Normal University, Lu Xun talked about Henri Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House and asked the women students not to emulate Nora for women like Nora could not survive short of becoming a prostitute (堕落) or returning to her husband; Regret exposes the limits of Western individualism which, while noble and spiritually uplifting, requires certain set of social conditions for it to be really good; that China, with its economic conditions so inadequate and deplorable for the individual, China is not ready for such Western ideals; thus Juansheng’s remark,“A man must make a living before there can be any place for love;”
  • What is new and controversial in the story is a cohabitation situation between Zijun and Juansheng (sex and/or love without marriage), an idea to be frowned upon in the 1920s; also controversial is the idea of women’s independence (self-autonomy) as ridiculed in Zijun’s remark, “I am my own mistress. None of them has any right to interfere with me!” which is why we have an ideal love run amuck; together Zijun and Juan-sheng represent the crisis of Chinese consciousness; this explains why the self-person narrator Juan-sheng has a problem recalling the past truthfully, which is truly regrettable; his attitude is symptomatic and characteristic of the intellectual class unable to make up their minds as to which or whose discourse to use to describe their modern experience; is it (intellectual progress) love to cherish or a bad mistake to regret?
  • the story also shows the extent of an identity crisis; it is not just those holding onto Confucian and Taoist beliefs that experience this identity crisis; progressive thinkers such as Juansheng and Zijun willing to embrace Western ideas too experience this crisis; Juansheng is unable to narrate his life as a liberal with a straight face; he wants to identify with the ideas of individual liberty and gender equality; however, the romance through which the two young people want to exercise their right to choose as free moral agents collapses on them; Juansheng’s identity as an enlightened person making conscious choice for himself dsintegrates at the end when he says, “I must advance silently, taking oblivion and falsehood as my guide;” he is not any wiser or any more enlightened than, say, Ah Q.
  • Another way to read the story is to follow the scholarship of critic Mau-Sang Ng, the author of The Russian Hero in Modern Chinese Fiction (1988) and see Juansheng as dandy the same way Russian hero Eugene Onegin is in Alexander Pushkin’s (1799-1837) novel Eugene Onegin. In this comparative context, Juansheng through whose point of view the story is narrated reveals Lu Xun’s skepticism about Western liberalism. The Russian hero is a victim of his own cultural sophistication with which he injuries an innocent young woman Tatiana who confesses to him her love for him. Likewise, Juansheng’s behavior and conduct towards Zijun shows, among other things, a cult of self. To him, a Chinese liberal, the cohabitation with her is a way for self realization as a dandy who looks nice, talks fashionably, and with leisurely hobbies. He coaxes Zijun into a rebellion against social conventions but when he finds himself inconvenienced by the consequences, he gives her up.
Medicine, 1919 by Lu Xun; 《药》鲁迅著

  • The short story subdivides into four fragments; in the first part we learn that a father, Da-Quan Hua, goes to an execution ground and pays to get some bread soaked with the blood of a revolutionary martyr just executed; in the second part, the reader understands the reason behind the father’s action as he has his son, Young Quan, eat the bread in the hope that his consumption would be cured and his life preserved; the third part reveals, through a casual conversation involving the father, Mrs. Hua, and a witness of the execution, that the revolutionary killed, named Yu Xia, dies heroically without any fear because he believes that he is dying for everyone in China, including his executioners; in the last and fourth part, two mothers, Mrs. Xia and Mrs. Hua, come to mourn their dead sons buried not far from one another;
  • One immediate and possible theme for this bleak and morbid story is the futility of human sacrifice in the name of revolution; far from being respected and honored, the heroic self-sacrifice of the revolutionary youth is viewed by many as an act of stupidity; he is betrayed by non other than his uncle who turns him in to authority for money because he does not want to be associated and implicated by his subversive activities against the government; the blood shed for a noble idea is sought after literally by those kept ignorant by superstition who do not know a thing about revolution; the location of the execution ground—xuan ting kou (轩亭口)—is the actual place in Shao-xing (Lu Xun’s native town) where a young woman revolutionary by the name of Qiu Jin (秋瑾, 1875-1907) was decapitated for trying to overthrow the Qing government; the short story expresses the author’s reflection on revolutionary struggles perhaps too costly for what they actually accomplish;
  • The masses – especially those in China – are always spectators at a drama. If the victim on the stage acts heroically, they are watching a tragedy; if he shivers and shakes, they are watching a comedy. Before the mutton shops of Beijing a few people often gather to gape, with evident enjoyment, at the skinning of the sheep. And this is all they get out of it if a man lays down his life. Moreover, after walking a few steps away from the scene they forget even this modicum of enjoyment. There is nothing you can do with such people; the only way to save them is to give them no drama to watch. There is no need for spectacular sacrifices; it is better to have persistent, tenacious struggle.” In his speech “What Happens after Nora Leaves Home;”
  • The dark picture painted here is that of a nation in which the masses do not understand the revolutionary ideals and beliefs of those willing to lay down their lives to change society; the story conveys a strong sense of hopelessness or despair on the part of the author that voices his pessimism and skepticism about revolutions and political reforms in which a few brave individuals pay with their dear lives only to produce spectacles that crowds watch with sadistic pleasure; in other words, Lu Xun calls into question the logic or equation of blood for change by showing a sacrifice that proves totally senseless because on the part of the masses there is absolutely no real understanding or appreciation of the ideals and cause for which Xia dies;
  • The larger issues being addressed here include how to define and dignify human life, what China’s hopes and disappointments are, the role of the progressive intellectual and educated in social change, the needs for enlightenment of the masses and reevaluation of traditions; these interwoven threads become the aesthetics of Lu Xun’s new fiction thematically committed to the roles of the individual in national politics.

An Incident, by Lu Xun

  • The author is well known for his relentless attacks on Chinese traditions and scathing criticism of what he calls “the national characteristics” of the Chinese people. His fiction is largely made up of satires and parodies making fun of Confucian cultural and moral ideals which he personally held in contempt. Given his iconoclastic attitude toward the traditional culture and critical view of the Chinese as a people and society, “An Incident” is very unique and special. It is a moment in the author sees hope and future in the uneducated such as the rickshaw man who has shown more humanity than the author himself.
  • As one often living in despair, Lu Xun surprises the reader by creating this rickshaw man who is capable of true human compassion and gentleness. He is less interested in money than in the well-being of a stranger. It is the “I”, the fictional persona of Lu Xun, that is devoid of compassion at that moment as it never occurs to him that these ordinary and uneducated people have as much kindness and concerns for others as he, educated in both Chinese classics and in Western philosophy. In a sense, this little incident shakes his beliefs and theories as a public intellectual who always views himself as morally superior to the masses. In this instance, he is dwarfed by a plain rickshaw man who possesses finer qualities than he. Perhaps he is created out of the author’s guilt for being so critical of the Chinese people.
  • Lastly, the short story proves Lu Xun a split personality and a conflicted man whose views on Chinese society swing back and forth from pessimism to optimism, from despair to hope. He needs to see the positive side of tradition from which he receives his cultural identity.
Sinking by Dafu Yu 《沉沦》郁达夫

  • The protagonist “I” is, among other things, a poet in the traditional sense: removed from society, a social misfit compelled by a quest for beauty and deep respect and love for nature; as a fictional character he models on the hero in The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774 (by Goethe, 1749-1832, and translated into Chinese《少年维特之烦恼》at the turn of last century )who would rather die for love than put up with the rules of social conventions; spun from this romantic prototype of the West is also Zijun (Regret for the Past by Lu Xun) who models on Nora, the female protagonist in A Doll’s House 1879 (by Henri Ibsen 1828-1906, and translated as《玩偶之家》); at the time, many Chinese writers were inspired by and emulating their Western literary idols; the “I” is sinking because of the heavy moral burden of national humiliation that many Chinese felt, citizens of a nation repeatedly defeated by Western industrial powers;
  • In “Preface to The Sorrows of Young Werther” by Guo Moruo (郭沫若 1892-1978), the co-founder of Creation Society (创造社) during the May Fourth movement, aesthetics of Romanticism is introduced that is responsible for Sinking as a work of literary imagination, in which the protagonist, though somewhat scandalous, embodies that qualities exulted by the English Romantics: (1) emotionalism over rationalism, (2) self or genius as manifestations of the divine, (3) nature over culture, (4) primitivism, (5) conditions of childhood over that of adulthood, innocence over corruption; a poet and Romantic hero, the protagonist is courageous enough to explore and very frank about his sexuality and other raw emotions; he is a prototype of a Romantic hero who feels glorified in his own self-imposed alienation (his genius or outstanding qualities); death or suicide is the logical way out for these children/geniuses/poets; the aesthetics and tenets of romanticism, especially the views of children as pure and innocence, and of adulthood as adulteration and corruption, is also very pronounced in Ba Jin’s Family and Ding Ling’s Miss Sophie’s Diary;
  • Sinking (1921) lends expression to the national sentiments of humiliation and despair that had lasted since the Opium War (1840); the protagonist suffers from acute hyperchondria and a sense of racial inferiority or complex; as a modernizing nation and rising military power that had defeated China, the Japanese tended to look down upon the Chinese as an inferior race; the protagonist represents the Chinese psyche and the depth of national humiliation, stigma and despair; the story records certain Chinese self-perception; just like Lu Xun’s works that pathologize the Chinese psyche, Yu also shows the traumatized national awareness or identity; one individual’s happiness or misery is always wrapped up in the fate of his nation: “China, my China, you are the cause of death! I wish you could become rich and strong? Many of your children are still suffering!”
  • Also, historically, the short story scandalized the Chinese literary community with its frank treatment of sexuality; the literary circle at the time was not ready to embrace the topic/theme as a valid literary and aesthetic experience; many openly rejected Sinking as trash or decadent; but younger generation of writers from the Creation Society identified with Dafu Yu and affirmed his literary merit and accomplishment; the story by genre is a confession in the sense that it defies social mores and established tastes by revealing personal and private failings or scandals; one can say all the bad things about the sinking hero, but no one can deny what he experiences is true, which is basically the literary and social function of confession
  • Also evident in this story is the shift of Chinese cultural paradigm (the literary coup d’etat) whereby Chinese writers began looking into the West for literary models; the protagonist constantly refers to Western authors and their literary writings as a source of moral authority; May Fourth generation of intellectuals such as Hu Shi, Chen Duxiu, Zhou Zuren, Lu Xun, etc. tend to favor Western liberal ideals over indigenous cultural traditions such as Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.
Miss Sophie’s Diary by Ding Ling 丁玲,1904-86《莎菲女士的日记》1927

  • One of the first women to write about their own experiences in the 20th century as opposed to following the literary convention of writing female experiences of being “virtuous wives and good mothers” (贤妻良母); father died when she was 4; brought up by mother; attended Shanghai University; at 23 wanted to study in Peking University but failed, stuck in Beijing and joined the CCP in 1932;
  • It’s thus no surprise the heroine in the short story is an educated woman from a well-to-do family and keenly aware of such intellectual issues as gender equality and self-autonomy and well informed about feminist attitudes to sexual freedom/repression, women’s right to education, and familiar with the May Fourth rhetoric of anti-traditionalism; Miss Sophie holds in contempt traditional social mores concerning women; her rebellious attitude is clear in her liaison with Lin Jishi, a handsome married man and womanizer from Singapore, and in her “eccentricity” towards those around her, toying with Wei pursuing her romantically;
  • Like Sinking by Dafu Yu, this story is also in epistolary form or an “I” novel as it was called in Japan; the female protagonist is quite frank with herself as a sexual being; the significance of this Chinese Nora, lies in her candor in this female confession of a woman bitter, resentful, lustful, imaginative and rebellious, a new feminine type to that of the traditional woman who is expected to be docile, self-effacing, obedient, reticent, and subservient; just like men, she is also perfectly capable of sexual love (passion) independently of social or moral concerns; she is just as driven by pleasure principle as men; in the early 1980s prior to her death, while being interviewed by Western journalists and literary writers, Ding Ling revealed that Sophie’s “warming up the milk” at the beginning of the story was euphemism for female masturbation;
  • what is unconventional about Sophie is her psychological depth and complexity as a woman; in classical literature, it is always men that are “unfortunate” to have the emotional ambivalence and duality; it is always men that have to make “painful” choices regarding whom to marry or seduce; Sophie represents a female subjectivity capable of questioning the very morals to which most women remain passive and obedient; in this story men are sexual object in the female gaze rather than desiring subject; Sophie is spiteful of conventional marriage and defiant of established social mores like the philanderer Lin; it is Wei that she despises because he is too conventional minded in his romantic approach to her; Lin’s promiscuity does not prevent intimacy on her part with him who seems to have higher caliber mind;
  • The author’s awareness of gender difference in perception is the aesthetic of the story: when Sophie asks Wei to share her diary, the latter totally misunderstands her frustration and thinks that, from a male perspective and the habit of viewing women as men’s property, she is in love with Lin Jishi; such plot details show the difficulty of intimacy between the two sexes; Sophie’s confession or psycho-narration gives a voice to women who have been silent and lends expression to dark emotions and repressed energies with which a successful woman must be in touch to be whole;
  • As a writer, Ding Ling is better known for her full-length novel entitled The Sun Also Shine on Sangan River about the land reform; this 1948 novel won her Stalin Prize of Literature in 1951; in 1931 she went to Yan’an, joined the communist revolution, and began writing fiction with peasant themes and larger political issues that preoccupied her and seemed more important than the petty bourgeois concerns with individualism.
When I was in Xia Village (1941) by Ding Ling 《我在霞村的时候》丁玲

  • The author gradually moved away from fictional writing as a form of individual expression, such as Miss Sophia’s Diary (1928), and began collaboration with such authors of the League of Leftist Writers as Lu Xun in Shanghai; she was arrested and imprisoned for her association with the communists; in 1936 Ding Ling went to Yan’an, the headquarters of the Red Army, where she became a member of the Chinese Communist Party and began writing about social problems (e.g. war against Japanese aggression, the land-poor peasants in revolt against the oppression of the landlord and gentry class, feudal society as a form against women without an education, the communist revolution, etc.); in 1942 during what is called “the rectification movement” in Yan’an (延安整风运动), she was bitterly criticized and severely censured by other Leftist art workers for being too critical of the revolutionary struggle; the so called “revolutionary literature” as defined by Mao Zedong in his famous “Yan’an Talk on art and literature” decreed that art must serve the general struggle of the masses (“peasants, workers, and soldiers”) against their class enemies;
  • Written during China’s war against Japanese aggression (1931-45), the story is about a peasant girl, Zhenzhen (name means “chastity”), who spies for the communists while a “comfort woman” (慰安妇) in the Japanese troops in China; she is first raped by the Japanese and then forced to become a prostitute; her experience in the brutal political reality—sleeping with the enemies of the Chinese people—is a social stigma that her relatives and fellow natives cannot forget or forgive; the first person narrator is an educated woman revolutionary (very much like Ding Ling herself) who is sympathetic with the young heroine afflicted with venereal disease and alienated from her own folks who could not understand her; Zhenzhen begins to see beyond her suffering and gain political consciousness in which to see herself as a part of national struggle for a new China; she is not happy even if she were welcome back into her village; she wants to reinvent herself by joining the communist cause and by going to Yan’an where she will have a chance to be someone else other than a rape victim;
  • Compared to her later works such as Sun shone on Sangan River, this short story does not openly proselytize the communist cause; the depth and complexity of Zhenzhen’s ostracism and anguish within a homogeneous Chinese community are even more intolerable than the humiliation inside the Japanese troop; she feels no longer a member of her village but identifies with a larger cause that she hope will make her a new woman; through her, the author finds her true identity as a revolutionary; the story, short as it is, captures the complexity of human existence; through the conditions in which Zhenzhen struggles for self-realization, the author introduces several political issues: the lack of choice for women and gender discrimination; Zhenzhen does not want the arranged marriage by her father and likes Xia Dabao; tyranny of moral majority: Zhenzhen is no longer considered a Chinese once she “slept” with the Japanese soldiers, which involves racial and sexual politics, and finally nationalism and internationalism: Zhenzhen realizes that as an individual, she does not belong to any man, or any village, or any race and nation for that matter; “A person’s life is not just for one’s father and mother, or even for oneself;” she feels that her future lies in the cause of communism; only in that international political movement (or Yan’an) does she feel she is be able to live freely;
  • This short story is not just the fruit of Ding Ling’s literary imagination but perhaps also an exercise of literary thoughts of Mao Zedong and Mao Dun who wrote “Literature and Life” (1923, ” in MCLT pp.190-195) to emphasized the writer’s roles to express “the spirit of the time/history” or Zeitgeist and to educate the masses on communist armed struggle; in this ideological debate over the role of literature Ding Ling found herself on the same side as Liang Shiqiu who, in his “Literature and Revolution” (MCLT pp.307-315) advocates the role of the author as an independent thinker who is not bound by any political or ideological loyalty; as a revolutionary writer, she has to align her fiction with the general struggle when she feels her own individual voice and vision are not the same as how Chinese social reality is understood by the party; many writers found themselves either attracted to or restricted by a mode of political writing that may not allow them to describe life as they intimately knew it.
  • If compared to Lu Xun’s Medicine where there is also a revolutionary as in this one, we notice the absence of Lu Xun’s profound skepticism in that short piece; the dark and bitter irony of a dedicated revolutionary dying for the masses that appreciate his blood only for medicinal purposes would not have been well appreciated, tolerated or uncensored in Yan’an. Yan’an, synonymous with Chinese communism, would want “the masses” depicted as fully capable of appreciating what the communist revolution and communists are doing for them, the way Zhenzhen is. Granted that she still appears unsophisticated and immature, Yan’an is no illusion to Zhenzhen the romantic and bourgeois ideals are to Zijun (in Regret: “I am my own mistress; no one has any rights to interfere with my life”). Her aspiration to become a communist fighter and soldier originates from, in this story, her experience as one of the “oppressed working people” (受压迫的劳动人民) on several levels in a patriarchal as well as semi-colonial society.
  • In Lu Xun’s Medicine, the revolutionary represents a mode of political awareness way more advanced than the archaism of which the masses are capable. In Xia Village, Zhenzhen is a member of the masses (人民群众), beginning to understand how her personal suffering would come to an end through communist revolution, which Lu Xun’s characters never would (the prison guard, the family in search of blood-soaked buns, Ah Q, Kong Yiji, Xianglin’s wife, etc.). Kao Chueh-hui also feels alienated at his hometown in his own family; but Ba Jin (Pa Chin) the author of Family would have him search meaning and personal liberation in Shanghai, synonymous to cosmopolitanism and bourgeois individualism. Ding Ling is reading and looking at China through the lens of communist ideology that offers people salvation by inviting them to join a social revolution. Lu Xun’s heroes are all more or less living in despair as Zhenzhen is not. Yan’an appreciates and capitalizes on her suffering, which is the “right” kind of suffering that pushes one to join a collective struggle, a cause greater than one’s self. The sufferings of Xianglin’s wife, Xiaoxiao, Sister Liu (A Kiss), Sophie, Zijun, and Ch’i-Ch’iao are all the wrong kinds of suffering which are, in literature, not yet brought into the progressive narrative of communism.
The White Haired Girl, by He Jingzhi and Ding Yi, 1945; 白毛女, 贺敬之、丁毅执笔

  • In He Jingzhi’s Preface, the playwright admits that the subtext of his revolutionary libretto is an oral tale entitled “white haired goddess”, a ghost story circulated about peasants in Shanxi Province. In Chinese folktale tradition, there is the genre of hungry ghosts. As a member of Yan’an Lu Xun Academy of Art and Literature, 延安鲁迅文学艺术学院,He understood Mao’s view of art and literature well as a vihecle for social change and as a part of the new culture for the interests of the proletariat, or “the peasants, workers and soldiers”; what was a ghost story and superstition was quickly translated into what Mao called “the revolutionary literature” to mobilize the peasants to join the revolutionary struggle against the Nationalists and the landlord class. Living in the “liberated areas” (解放区) by the Chinese communists and the red army, He was writing this play against the political and historical backdrop of land reform (土改) led by the communists in which an estimated 800,000 to two million landlords were wiped out.
  • The libretto libretto (1947), which won the Stalin Peace Prize for Literature and Art in 1951, is a success in that it exemplfies the aesthetics of what Mao called “revolutionary romanticism” in his “Yan’an Talk on Art and Literature” in 1942, (延安文艺座谈会讲话) in which Mao asked the artists to use their talent for the purpose and interests of the masses and their liberation; so defined, art and literature became a tool for the communist revolution that reflects very little of the view of the artist but everything important in the political struggles as understood by the CCP; in this sense the play rationalizes the land reform and justifies the party’s policies regarding the struggle of the landless or land poor against the landlords as a social class;
  • Also a witness of the land reform at the liberated areas was an American by the name of William Hinton who compared the land reform movement to the abolition of slavery in the U.S.. He felt very encouraged by what he saw and wrote: “Every revolution creates new words. The Chinese Revolution created a whole new vocabulary. A most important word in this vocabulary was fanshen. Literally, it means ‘to turn the body,’ or ‘to turn over.’ To China’s hundreds of millions of landless and land-poor peasants it meant to stand up, to throw off the landlord yoke, to gain land, stock, implements, and houses. But it meant much more than this. It meant to throw off superstition and study science, to abolish ‘word blindness’ and learn to read, to cease considering women as chattels and establish equality between the sexes, to do away with appointed village magistrates and replace them with elected councils. It meant to enter a new world.” The word fanshenappears numerous times in this revolutionary liberetto
  • What is worth noting is the fact that the labor of love by He Jingzhi has proliferated in the ensuing decades and there has been libretto, ballet, film and regional operas by the same title; just like in the West musicians and dramatists tend to replay and restage their favorite classical masterpieces to register the new values of their own time, in each variation of the original “The White Haired Girl” is found new interpretations of the revolutionary struggle; dramatic details are altered and revised. For example, in He’s original play, Xi’er is looking forward to being married to her rapist Huang Shiren, the despotic landlord; such details disappear in later versions and variations after 1949. The play offers a scenario for social change in which the collective violence against a few is fully justified
  • For the rape of Xi’er and murder of her father Yang Bailao, the evil and despotic landlord Huang is executed as the play comes to an end; and the play celebrates the dictatorship of the prolitariat in the name of which many “class enemies” were eliminated in Chinese history. That struggle of the poor against the rich, the landless against the landlord, is staged in such a way that reviews Chinese humanism of a given time. The play reveals He’s views on what is kindness and/or cruelty, just like by commenting on the bloodshed of the French Revolution Mark Twain also reveals where he stands as a humanist. “There were two ‘Reigns of Terror’ if we should but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon a thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the ‘horrors’ of the minor terror, the momentary terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold insult, cruelty, and heartbreak? What is swift death by lightning compared with slow death by fire at stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by the brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver and mourn over, but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by the cold and real Terror—that unspeakable bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.”
  • He Jingzhi’s play is an expression, among other things, of Mao’s indignation by the suffering of the masses at the hands of what he called the oppressing classes. To Mao there is no absolute or universal Love that exists independently of one’s ocial class. In his Yan’an Talk, he says, “There is absolutely no such thing in the world as love or hatred without reason or cause. As for the so-called love of humanity, there has been no such all-inclusive love since humanity was divided into classes. All the ruling classes of the past were fond of advocating it, and so were many so-called sages and wise men, but nobody has ever really practiced it, because it is impossible in class society. There will be genuine love of humanity — after classes are eliminated all over the world. Classes have split society into many antagonistic groupings; there will be love of all humanity when classes are eliminated, but not now. We cannot love enemies, we cannot love social evils; our aim is to destroy them.”
  • In the same talk, Mao also reveals his own experience of personal transformation: “Here I might mention the experience of how my own feelings changed. I began life as a student and at school acquired the ways of a student; I then used to feel it undignified to do even a little manual labor, such as carrying my own luggage in the presence of my fellow students, who were incapable of carrying anything, either on their shoulders or in their hands. At that time I felt that intellectuals were the only clean people in the world, while in comparison workers and peasants were dirty. I did not mind wearing the clothes of other intellectuals, believing them clean, but I would not put on clothes belonging to a worker or peasant, believing them dirty. But after I became a revolutionary and lived with workers and peasants and with soldiers of the revolutionary army, I gradually came to know them well, and they gradually came to know me well too. It was then, and only then, that I fundamentally changed the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois feelings implanted in me in the bourgeois schools. I came to feel that compared with the workers and peasants the un-remolded intellectuals were not clean and that, in the last analysis, the workers and peasants were the cleanest people and, even though their hands were soiled and their feet smeared with cow-dung, they were really cleaner than the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois intellectuals. That is what is meant by a change in feelings, a change from one class to another. If our writers and artists who come from the intelligentsia want their works to be well received by the masses, they must change and remold their thinking and their feelings.” For Mao this personal transformation came with it a change in perspectives, values and attitudes. The change makes possible a new sense of social justice whereby kindness and compassion for the poor and downtrodden, dirty and uneducated that they were, meant brutal and cruel treatment for rich and powerful, clean and learned as they were. This highly prejudicial and biased view of the revolution guided Mao and many revolutionary writers like He Jingzhi in their political analysis of China, especially their understanding of the rural reform to empower the land-less and land-poor against the landlord class as well as the intellectuals. Central to the political ideology of Mao is this sense of social justice that is at once humanizing and brutal, which is why as a revolutionary leader, Mao makes no effort to sugarcoat his view on the violent overthrow of the old social system, essential to the aesthetic of the red classics.
Red Detachment of Women, a film directed by Xie Jin, 1958; 《红色娘子军》谢晋导演

  • Also a piece of red classics written to make intelligible political events, the film was later adapted into an opera, one of the eight model dramas during the Cultural Revolution, and a ballet performed in front of U.S. President Nixon when he visited China in 1972.
  • Based on the true story of the all-female Special Company of the 2nd Independent Division of the Chinese Red Army first formed in 1931, this fanshen story presents the viewer with a crisis on the Hainan Island where a regional war is being fought between the communist Red Army fighting to liberate the oppressed and the nationalist troops with the support of the local warlords. In this well-known red classic, the female protagonist, Wu Qionghua, joins the Red Army, initially for her personal vendetta against the despotic landlord Nan Batian, caught in between but willing to collaborate with the nationalists when threatened by the peasants. However, with the help of Hong Changqing, her political instructor who helps her join the Red Army in the first place, Wu soon realizes that the real end to her misery and suffering does not come when she kills Nan, which she later does, but when the entire class of landlords is overthrown through communist revolution.
  • To some extent this piece of red classic can be understood as what Rene Girard calls “a persecution text” written from the perspective of the prosecutor, the same way White Haired Girl is one; although it is different from White Haired Girl, where the execution of landlord Huang restores peace and unity in the community and signifies the attainment of social justice. In Red Detachment of Women, however, the execution of Nan does not enable Wu Qionghua to feel liberated or the people of Coconut Grove to feel reconciled with themselves as a community. In other words, the satisfaction of having justice done is deferred to a future time at which, after a long and arduous struggle, all Wu Qionghuas and Xi’ers are liberated from the shackles and bondage of slavery. This is effected when, after Nan escapes, Wu volunteers herself to go in disguise and bring his head back, only to be told by Hong that that is not the social justice that they as communists and Red Army fighters are risking their lives to achieve. To broaden her horizon, Hong asks Wu to find on a map of China Coconut Grove; when she realizes that it is not even represented on the map, Hong tells her that personal courage is not enough to liberate the whole country. Here we have a case where the myth of communism and the ritual of scapegoating work hand in hand to produce a version of social justice that transcends personal grievances. Wu is seen as blinded by her vendetta and told to be more conscious of the suffering of millions of others. It is only by overcoming her person hatred does she become a conscientious revolutionary and red army fighter. In White Haired Girl, the selection or choice of victims is according to the magnitude of the alleged crimes committed, and the punishment is administered in relation to the malice of the accused and guilty. In Red Detachment of Women, the effort to scapegoat Nan belongs to a much larger and more general armed struggle against a class that is particularly susceptible to persecution; namely, the rich and landed gentry all across China. The stereotype of persecution is also different in that now the victimary mechanism of the crowd banding together against a single victim has become, through political elaboration, a war to destroy and eliminate, as Mao said in his Yan’an Talk, an evil class of people.
  • As the story ends, Wu takes over the commanding post of Hong, the secretary of the communist party who is burned to death by Nan’s men, and says to the detachment of women now under her command: “Pick up your guns and beat down the enemy no matter he is Nan Batian or Bei Batian. It is not enough for us to do so. Our children need to fight following us. We’ll fight till the entire proletariat class is liberated!” Her speech is followed by the theme song that goes like this: “March forward, march forward. Soldiers’ duties are heavy as women’s grievances are strong.” Thus the film, opera, and ballet of this red classic bring to a new height the collective violence and murder, fully justified on moral, religious and political grounds;
  • Within a different perspective, the story can be construed as about the personal transformation of Wu Qionghua from a slave girl full of hatred and bitterness, seen whipped at the beginning of the film for trying to run away repeatedly, to a conscientious and resourceful revolutionary soldier and fighter; the first half of the film shows her possessed by hatred and driven by a strong desire to avenge her father’s death; when asked by Fourth Master if she would run away again, she replies, “Yes, I will as soon as you are not watching me;” (跑!看不住就跑。) She is headstrong and would rather die than stay subjugated and subdued; however, a transformation seems to have taken place when  we see her reluctant to take liberty of leaving the stockade in which she is put for violating the order of her commanding officer; it’s almost as though she runs into an invisible wall as she stops herself saying to Sister Lian, “I need to be self-conscious” (我得自觉); that self-awareness as a revolutionary soldier is her new identity; her emotional maturity is not reached overnight, however. After Nan Batian (the despotic landlord) escapes, Qionghua requests that she goes alone to take back his head, only to be made ashamed of herself by Secretary Hong who again enlightens her on the goals and missions of world revolution to liberate all the oppressed and to build a new China. In the “war room” of the red brigade there hang pictures of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, a world map and a map of China, all of which signify world revolution as Chinese communists envisioned and understood it;
  • To some extent, the film is a “buildings roman”, an education novel, about the growth and coming of age of a poor peasant girl who finally understands her purpose and meaning in life; she goes through enlightenment by joining the communist party and the red detachment for women. On a more abstract level, one can argue that the story is about communism as a civilizing force, educating people such as Qionghua about how to transcend their own narrow-mindedness and dedicate themselves to the true justice for all. Qionghua is a shrew to be tamed by Chinese communism in some way Christianity can be seen as a civilizing force or mission in the world.
  • To some degree the triumph and great appeal of Chinese communism, alluded to and prophecied in this film, is similar to the triumph of modern Christianity as D.H.Lawrence understood it, by destroying all authorities for the masses. Here is what Lawrence says in his last book entitled “Apocalypse“, “They [the poor] had a will to destroy all power, and so usurp themselves the final, the ultimate power. This was not quite the teaching of Jesus, but it was inevitable implication of Jesus’ teaching, in the minds of the vast mass of the weak, the inferior. Jesus taught the escape and liberation into unselfish, brotherly love: a feeling that only the strong can know. And this, sure enough, at once brought the community of the weak into triumphant being; and the will of the community of Christians was anti-social, almost anti-human, revealing from the start a frenzied desire for the end of the world, the destruction of humanity altogether; and then, when this did not come a grim determination to destroy all mastery, all lordship, and all human splendor out of the world, leaving only the community of saints as the final negation of power, and the final power. … The community is inhuman, and less than human. It becomes at last the most dangerous because bloodless and insentient tyrant. For a long time, even a democracy like the American or the Swiss will answer to the call of a hero, who is somewhat of a true aristocrat: like Lincoln: so strong is the aristocratic instinct in man. But the willingness to give the response to the heroic, the true aristocratic call, gets weaker and weaker in every democracy as time goes on. All history proves it. Then men turn against the heroic appeal, with a sort of venom. The will only listen to the call of mediocrity: which is evil. Hence the success of painfully inferiror and even base politicians. Brave people add up to an aristocracy. The democracy of thou-shalt-not is bound to be a collection of weak men. And then the sacred ‘will of the people’ becomes blinder, baser, colder and more dangerous than the will of any tyrant. When the will of the people becomes the sum of the weakness of a multitude of weak men, it is time to make a break. Many men are socialists out of perverted power lust. And this form of lust is diabolical, deadly, it is a fearsome form of hate. Even Lenin was pure hate. The rest of the bolshvists are usually impure hate. It comes from the perversion of the nature of power in a man. … Lenin was a pure a poet of action as Shelley was of words. … He was, in a sense, the god of common people of Russia, and they are quite right, in the modern sense, to worship him. ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. And Lenin wanted above all things to give them their daily bread. And he could not even do that. What was love in theory became hate in practice.” Although Lawrence’s antithesis of aristocracy and democracy may be problematic for many people, his insights into the way mass psychology works are almost inexpendable when understanding Chinese red classics.
Xiaoxiao, 1929, by Chen Congwen (1902-88) 《萧萧 》沈从文著

  • In his “Universal or Restricted”, the author states, “A nation’s culture and civilization stress the narrowing of that which is universal”; this is to emphasize, among other things, that nothing is universal unless national writers identify the cultural specifics through something becomes universal in a given culture and period in history; Shen hates to be viewed as one of those he called the “cultural figures” or “propagandists” who knew the universals but were unfamiliar with the way these universals (worldviews, technology, social theory, Party directives, etc.) can apply to specific situations (what he called “restricted”); the author is thoroughly familiar with and himself part of the May Fourth new culture movement which opted for a Western modernity, but believes in what is later referred to as “native literature”—乡土文学—and emphasizes the particulars of the local culture and customs which he called “restricted”; to him the (Western) universals are always experienced through cultural particulars limited to a given time and place
  • On the surface level the story is very disconnected to the set of national concerns and issues raised in the may Fourth movement (democracy, science, need for social reform, gender equality, abolition of Confucian morality and other apparatuses of feudalism, etc.); it is revolving around the life of a young and ignorant peasant girl who is in no way able to appreciate the needs for social reform and education; yet, what happens to Xiaoxiao reveals a number of social problems unique to Chinese society and culture: (1) child bride system prevalent in rural areas, (2) arranged marriage by elders that have absolute power over young people, (3) the vast difference between urban and rural cultures; coed students and child brides; (4) barbaric penalty for minor sexual indiscretion and transgression; (5) a patrilineal and phallacentric preference of male children to female; in this sense the novella is rich with cultural peculiarities that need to be registered before the “war for social progress” can be won
  • the uniqueness of Shen Congwen’s short story is that Xiaoxiao comprehends none of these issues and is relatively unaware of what is happening to her, as a 12-year old girl, she has even less cultural consciousness (“China”?) than Sister Xianglin in Lu Xun’s New Year Sacrifice; to Xiaoxiao, life is what people have been brought up to know it to be; the exceptions are all a matter of chance for her as an individual person; to her life is a short cycle of a child giving birth to a child in which she never experiences love or freedom; given May Fourth rhetoric of social progress and anti-traditionalism, what becomes amazing about this story is not what it has touched on but rather what is left unsaid (if we are to compare this story with Ba Jin’s Family for example); in other words, Xiaoxiao is a pronoun for China as Shen Congwen sees it: restricted by its own local inertia where Culture, if it matters at all, manifests itself in particular habits or unique practices; “By rights, she should have been drowned, but only heads of families who have read Confucius would do such a stupid thing to save the family’s honor;” this is the type of places in which Xiaoxiao lives at the periphery of modern society;
  • uniquely local or “Chinese” is her attitude to life that is incredibly stoic and resilient; the author did not depict his heroine as a fool as Lu Xun did with his Ah Q and Sister Xianglin, nor did he exoticize rural China as a pristine primitive paradise; to be sure, he is well informed by the issues and spirit of May Fourth; however, he never allows himself to be more than just a writer (and humanist) depicting life as how he has experienced it, uncolored by political expediency or fashionable social theories and myths; the girl from Hunan province is just that, quite removed from the new location of culture, which is the city like Beijing and Shanghai;
  • As an author, Shen Congwen would not elaborate on the inner world of his 14-year old fictional character Xiaoxiao who, unlike such characters as the madman, Chueh-hui, Sophie, the hero in Sinking, or Ah Q, feels at home in the midst of adversary situations unthinkable to any educated adult. Shen keeps psycho-narration to a minimum and suspends any authorial intrusion to even suggest a crisis in the Chinese psyche. The effect is astounding: China in this short story is a primitive paradise where people are joyful, serene, and resilient to unimaginable hardship, misery, and misfortune. The news of the coeds has little to no effect on the heroine because of the great mental distance in between rural China and the new way of life the coeds represent.
  • This family structure, so closed and recalcitrant to change, insulates the title character’s existence which, although quite shocking and disturbing to the reader, is natural to Xiaoxiao and the villagers precisely because the mental distance. The author casts change in this village to show, among other things, the vast mental distance between Xiaoxiao and the coeds, between the cultural particulars and cultural universals;
  • A Romantic, a rebel, and an anarchist like his contemporaries, Shen Congwen believed that literary men should be the vanguard of society, leading the nation toward a better future. The May Fourth avant-garde was radical in a political as well as literary sense. Shen’s radicalism was best manifested in his anti-establishment stance. As distinct from his contemporaries who mostly turned leftists, he was considered dangerous by both left-wing and right-wing governments. In literary practice he resorted to a kind of primitivism, the view of rural innocence and virtue as the essence of Chinese culture. Shen’s avant-gardism is shown in the marginal kinds he experimented with, such as fantasy, the reworked Buddhist tale, the Gothic tale, the epistolary story, and so forth, which were in sharp contrast to the dominant realistic discourse in his time. Shen’s primitivist tendencies can be shown in three groups of stories: the Miao romances, the country stories, and the city stories. The anti-aestheticism and anti-elitism found in these stories were closely connected with the folklore movement in his time. The Miao romances, envisioning a utopian country to which government intervention becomes a detrimental force, also manifested Shen’s anarchistic tendency of anti-government. The anti-establishment tradition handed down from Shen has become a heritage for modern Chinese writers.

Psycho-Narration Homework and creative writing exercise

In her book Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction, Dorrit Cohn examines several important works of psychological realism in the West and shows how quoted and narrated monologues operate in these works. I find her discussions very interesting because much of what Lin Yusheng talks about in his The Crisis of Chinese Consciousness gets presented through psycho-narrations. For example, the crisis of Chinese identity is most apparent in the psycho-narration of Ah Q about to be made a scapegoat victim by his fellow villagers:

Now he saw eyes more terrible even than the wolf’s: dull yet penetrating yet that having devoured his words, still seemed eager to devour something beyond his flesh and blood. And these eyes kept following him at a set distance.

We also come to appreciate the magnitude of this crisis from such quoted monologues as: “Save the children!” by Lu Xun’s madman, or “O China, my China, you are the cause of my death!” from the hero in Yu Dafu’s Sinking. As readers we are able to see what Samuel Beckett refers to as “ . . . but the within, all that inner space one never sees, the brain and the heart and other caverns where thought and feeling dance their sabbath . . .” because of such psycho-narrations as Sophie’s diary or narrated monologue by Chueh-hui in Ba Jin’s Family, “We may not see each other again, he thought miserably. Once I leave I’ll be like a bird released from a cage. I’ll fly away and never come back.”  Without these modes of psycho-narration the stories would be quite opaque.

For this very reason, Shen Congwen would not elaborate on the inner world of his 14-year old fictional character Xiaoxiao who, unlike such characters as the madman, Chueh-hui, Sophie, the hero in Sinking, or Ah Q, feels at home in the midst of adversary situations unthinkable to any educated adult. Shen keeps psycho-narration to a minimum and suspends any authorial intrusion to even suggest a crisis in the Chinese psyche. The effect is astounding: China in Xiaoxiao is a pristine primitive paradise where people are joyful, serene, and resilient to unimaginable hardship, misery, and misfortune. The news of the coeds has little to no effect on the heroine because of the great mental distance in between her and the new way of life the coeds represent.

In no more than one page, provide a psycho-narration for Xiaoxiao who is at the end of the story 25 years old. This is an exercise in creative writing in which you dramatically change the literary aesthetics of Shen Congwen by offering a narrated or quoted monologue that would reveal what you believe should be her true thoughts and feelings on what has happened to her as a child bride. In other words, now that you know the aesthetics behind Shen Congwen’s narrative, create a different ending so as to liberate Xiaoxiao from the story. Your narrative should begin right after “ . . . On this day, Xiaoxiao had lately given birth, and when she carried her newborn babe, watching the commotion and the festivities by the fence under the elm, she was taken back ten years, when she was carrying her husband;” on the last page.

Family, by Ba Jin; 《家》巴金著

  • Born in 1904 and raised in a landed gentry class in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, Ba Jin (巴金 or Li Yaotang 李尧棠) lived to be a centenarian who witnessed nearly all of the great social upheavals in modern Chinese history; his education began in China’s interior but brought him to Nanjing, Shanghai, and eventually Europe as he became a translator, publisher, writer, and the chairman of China’s Writers’ Association; it is no wonder that in several of his fictional works, personal liberation or intellectual enlightenment is always signified figuratively by a journey or trip taken by the hero or heroine from Sichuan to a metropolis like Beijing or Shanghai, which shows a deep contempt for provinciality and cultural conservatism; he was 7 when the Qing government was toppled in the 1911 Republic Revolution; by the time he turned 15, students in Beijing took to the street to protest a corrupt government, setting off waves of angry protest across the nation that culminated in the May Fourth new culture movement that aimed at indicting and rejecting Chinese cultural traditions; at 45 he witnessed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, a new political order and the dictatorship of the proletariat under which he was to write for the remainder of his life;
  • The mind of Ba Jin as an enlightened person and the style of his literary imagination as a writer would not be what they are if he had not known anarchism or translated works of Russian literature. Between 1926 and 1928, during his study abroad in France, he translated into Chinese Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread (Mianbao yu ziyou 《 面包与自由 》 240 pages) from French and German texts, and Ethics, Origin and Development (Lunlixue de qiyuan he fazhan 《伦理学的起源和发展》570 pages). Between 1929 and 1930, he translatedThe Memoirs of A Revolutionist (Wode zizhuan 《我的自传》550 pages). In his article “On the History of Russian Social Movements” (Eguo shehui yundong shihua 俄国社会运动史话 ), Ba Jin introduced anarchism as “. . . beginning with the assumption of achieving the freedom of the will by breaking loose all the shackles,” and declared null and void “the duties and obligations imposed upon the individual by society, state, religion and family.” “To me,” wrote Ba Jin in his article “On Anarchism” (Annaqi zhiyi 安那其主义), “the most satisfying aspect of anarchism is its emphasis on personal freedom, without resorting to official and rigid social organization.” Although a discourse developed in the West mainly as a critique of capitalism and critical reaction to industrial civilization through which a government could nationalize natural resources and the wealth of a country without the consent of the people, anarchism was eagerly embraced by many in China, a nation just emerging out of its agrarian society, with little nationalized industry or regimented production from which the anarchists wanted to free the individual citizens. Ever since the beginning of the last century, Chinese anarchists had been critical of the feudal family structure, the central location of Confucian culture. In 1907, Han Yi published his article “On Destruction of the Family” (《毁家论》汉一) and argued how the traditional family stood in the way of social progress. Another anarchist Li Shizeng called for what he referred to as “Ancestor Revolution” (《 祖宗革命 》李石曾), believing that the patrilineal values at the core of Confucian civilization were responsible for China’s stagnation.
  • As a member of an anarchist group, Ba Jin naturally shared this critical view and felt the relevance and indeed the necessity to adopt anarchism in China because it was a way to alert the people to “. . . the fear of economic totalitarianism, the hatred for centralized authorities and a deeply felt love for freedom of the individual.” For Ba Jin, the discourse of anarchism was an intellectual enlightenment that made him more conscious of the human conditions he felt he had a duty to improve if China was to become a modern nation. His pen name, ba jin, is made up of two the syllables taken from the names of the two anarchists he admired, Bakunin (巴库宁) and Kropotkin (克鲁包特金). As aptly pointed out by Mau-sang Ng, the author of The Russian Hero in Modern Chinese Fiction, “Indeed the writings of Kropotkin were to remain a source of inspiration and comfort to Ba Jin throughout his early period, especially in times of distress. As he wrote in the preface to the translation of Kropotkin’s Ethics, ‘At the time when the revolution was crushed in Russia, Kropotkin frantically wrote his Ethics, and I was moved by the same spirit when at the time of the great massacre of Chinese people I put all my strength into the translation of this book.’” (pp.186-7) These literary activities gave Ba Jin insights into and appreciation of Russian literary works, especially works by Ivan Turgenev such as  Fathers and Sons and Virgin Soil, which he took pain to translate: Fu yu zi 《父与子》1943 and Chunu di 《 处女地 》in 1944. Needless to say that “the Russian presence is most keenly felt in Ba Jin’s early fictional works;” (Ng) These works shaped his fictional imagination from which his famous novel Family was to come forth as testimony to his faith in anarchism.
  • It is no wonder that the traditional family becomes the subject matter of his Family, for which he is perhaps best known. The traditional family in pre-modern China was a link in the social hierarchy that a Chinese person could experience most directly and intimately as a form of political oppression the anarchist wanted to abolish in order to emancipate the individual. Ba Jin’s novel was written within and mediated through this Chinese anarchist discourse; the story dramatizes the problems of such feudal institutions as foot-binding, concubinage, arranged marriage, ancestor worship, etc. Structurally, this full-length novel about the ups and downs of a family is not very different from so many classical Chinese novels such as The Dream of the Red Chamber. But thematically, it belongs to a completely different intellectual tradition. It is in France, as Ba Jin later recalls, “that these nearly twenty years of my early life weighed down on my heart like a nightmare. The nightmare cruelly destroyed the souls of many of my young contemporaries. I almost became one of the victims myself, but I was saved by ‘naivete’ and ‘boldness.’ In that, I was perhaps like Juehui.” Family signifies, among other things, a tension or antithesis of society and human nature, which is perhaps best articulated by the French philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau (1712-1778), an influential figure in European Enlightenment, who believed that man was good when in the state of nature. Both nihilism (in favor of rejecting all existing values) and anarchism (with the view of government and authority as harmful and unnecessary) grew out of this intellectual enlightenment. Thus the central hero Juehui can be seen to embody the tendencies in both political philosophies to interrogate existing values, to question authority, and to accustom people to the romantic idea of man as good in nature. In this sense, one could read the work as a variation of Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons in which the young nihilist hero Bazarov, who tells his brother, Pavel, that he will abandon nihilism when Pavel can show him “…a single institution of contemporary life, either in the family or in the social sphere, that doesn’t deserve absolute and merciless rejection;” such contempt for society, especially Russian serfdom, is also borne by Gao Juehui who finds social discrimination against the servant class morally incomprehensible. Also from an aristocratic and landholding family like Juehui, Bazarov prefigures his Chinese counterpart.
  • In a sense, the novel is an intense dialogue between Western liberalism as culminated in the European Enlightenment and Confucian humanism as viewed by many intellectuals of the May Fourth generation. Although many read the story as a clear indictment of the latter by the former, the work, like many other ones by Ba Jin, is in fact much richer and more nuanced than just presenting an ideological position. The author tries to tell a human tale of our ambivalence to change and tradition, with all views well represented by a wide range of characters such as the three Gao brothers, Mingfeng the maid, Qin, Mei, who signify many degrees of attraction to and repulsion by Confucian values. The family scandals on the part of the uncles who take on mistresses on the side are created to dramatize the corruptive power of civilization: those moral or cultural figures like Feng Leshan or grandpa are hypocritical the same way adulthood can be seen as an unadulterated form of corruption, in contrast to the innocence of childhood. Much evil is done in the name of filial piety and kindness: indulgence in lust, wanton disregard of people’s will, especially that of women, practicing filial piety to an absurd degree where lives are lost when maids are treated as female slaves and concubines.
  • However, a true and great master of fiction, Ba Jin was extremely skillful as he choreographed the conflict of human desires to belong and to be free, creating drama out of the complex human existence that offers man no easy solutions. Although oppressive in many ways, the traditional family is nonetheless depicted as the location of meaning, a platform on which all characters perform to achieve their individual identity. On this center stage, Juehui is not at all a star beyond reproach. His romance with Mingfeng seems quite self-serving in that it gratifies his ego as a savior and redeems his life as a member of the landlord class. It is then arguable that Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons is a possible subtext in which the young nihilist hero Bazarov, also from an aristocratic and landholding family, falls in love with a young woman of humble origin, Anna Odintsova, as a way to redeem his own meaningless existence; such is the idea behind Juehui’s romantic passion for Mingfeng, a palimpsest of the redemption motif, also evident in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in which the nihilist protagonist Raskonikov falls in love with a peasant woman named Sonia. Family, therefore, is not only an indictment of Confucian morality but also a critique of Western social thought such as anarchism or feminism. When reflecting on their suffering as women in Confucian China, characters such as Ruijue, Mei, Qin, and Mingfeng, show a divergence of views. Reference is often made to such Western literary works as Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, a declaration of women’s independence in a capitalist society that treats women as playthings, and almost a Bible to educated women of the May Fourth generation; the grievances of the various female characters thus amount to a collective accusation of the traditional female decorum and chastity. But these characters are also products of a feudal society and they still dream of being married and becoming housewives as the ultimate form of female self-fulfillment.
  • It is not without a sense of irony that we come to see Ba Jin’s life as a cultural hero who put so much faith in the total emancipation and freedom of the individual from conventional mores and debilitating moral obligations. Despite or because of his status as a celebrity and famous writer, he was persecuted by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) like many writers and intellectuals, including his wife, Xiao San. As one of the greatest modern Chinese writers who has captured many important social changes of the twentieth-century in his popular fiction, Ba Jin sincerely wished that a museum of Cultural Revolution be built as a reminder of the dark side of modern Chinese history about which he had written so positively as an author of fiction.

Hands by Xiao Hong (1911-1942); 《手》萧红

  • The story may appear just about a peasant girl with bad luck, it is really a literary exercise of writing about social class; as a member of the League of the Left-wing writers, Xiao Hong was advancing the vision of China on the verge of the communist revolution; in other words, the story successfully promotes the self-consciousness of the proletariat to which Wang Yaming belongs, a young woman embodying the down trodden oppressed class of land-poor and landless farmer class;
  • She does not do anything to deserve the humiliation and scorn to which the rich girls subject her; she is looked down upon mainly because she does not belong to the bourgeois class all the others do in this English school for girls; her hands are black because she is from a family of dyers that receive 30 cents for dyeing a bolt of cloth; her accent and bad English pronunciation give her off, her bedding smells, and she has lice on her, all of which are stereotypical descriptors for the “proletariat”;
  • Wang Yaming then has all the “characteristics” of the oppressed (working or laboring) class, despised by the wealthy and educated; those others at this learning institute that ostracizes her in every way it can form the collective portrayal of the bourgeois class: snobbish, callous and indifferent towards human sufferings; the principal, the housemother, the custodian, have no personal reasons to hate Wang Yaming except the fact that she clearly does not belong to this place for the rich;
  • this type of literature to promote social change and social justice borders on socialist propaganda if it were not because of the aesthetics of literary realism; Xiao Hong moves the reader towards thinking about social issues critically, the same way American writer Lewis Sinclair does in his The Jungle depicting social conditions of the workers in a Chicago slaughterhouse (1906) as ripe for revolution; it is not by accident that the American novel appears in Hands and Wang Yaming realizes the similarities between working people everywhere;
  • the message therefore seems to be that the solution for these people–the proletariat–lie in social movement and social change; Wang Yaming can put on her father’s oversized gloves to cover her hands; she can study twice as hard as other girls to learn English, but without a revolution the problems of people like her, her dyer family, can never be adequately addressed and solved.
The Shop of the Lin Family, 1932; Mao Dun (1896-1981) 《林家铺子》茅盾

  • For fiction written to help people understand society and history better, it is important tat we situate ourselves in the history and society in which the author was writing; on January 28, 1932, Japanese troops attacked Shanghai, accelerated Japan’s military aggression in China since 1931 (WWII for the Americans began in 1941 when Japan attacked Pearle Harbor; but for the Chinese the war began in 1931 when Japan occupied northeastern China); there was a strong national sentiment against Japanese aggression and a nationwide boycott of Japanese goods, which is how Mao Dun’s story begins, with Miss Lin finding nothing to wear that is not made in Japan;
  • A realist writer, Mao Dun wants to show, through what happens to the Lin family, the national and international situations that contribute to the misery of the Chinese people; namely, the lives of the individual Chinese are wrapped up in the fate of the Chinese nation in the age of global imperialism; representing the interests and behaviors of the national bourgeoisie hoping to become prosperous through international commerce, Mr. Lin runs a small convenience shop as well as a banker; he business is doomed because, as the leftist author wants to show, the peasants’ real way out of this economic situation in which Japan and other industrial and imperialist nations control China is for them to organize around the Chinese communist party and fight for China’s sovereignty and independence; in other words, what happens to Mr. Lin is part and partial of a general struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie caught in an international struggle for economic control and dominance;
  • Mr. Lin’s story as a failed Chinese businessman is never meant to be an isolated event but rather a snap-shot taken from a chain of events leading up to the collapse of China’s national industry and banking system; the ready availability of cheap Japanese commercial products made Chinese local commerce weak and precarious at best; the Chinese national political struggle to boycott Japanese goods also contributed to the general disruption and sluggishness of the local market; in a way Mr. Lin’s financial live line is connected, through many middle men, to whole sale centers in Shanghai from whom he buys commercial products; the picture to emerge from this story is one in which everyone’s wellbeing is connected to the fate of China in the global capitalism; Mao Dun thus uses his story to help reader understand how Japanese imperialism (along with Western financiers, Chinese compradors, national capitalists and industrialists, etc.) is responsible for local businesses in China;
  • His story underscores the need of a larger national struggle on the part of the Chinese to resist foreign aggression; Mr. Lin’s failure is representative of China’s plight as a semi-colonial and semi-feudal third-world country in a national crisis internally and externally; noteworthy is also Mao Dun’s view of how global capitalism/imperialism as a pernicious force destroying the infrastructure of China as agrarian society; when pressed to pay back the loans he has from the financiers in Shanghai, he has to collect the smalls debts the farmers owe him; meanwhile, the feudal elements such as corrupt officials in charge of local business also stand in the way of Mr. Lin’s business; Miss Lin is nearly forced to become a concubine to a powerful commissioner of trade; such details are not meant as the result of individual choices but as what is bound to occur; in other words, human interactions in this story unfold not so much because people are mean or kind-hearted as due to economic necessity; every social class act as dictated (and determined) by their economic and political interests.
  • About Midnight (子夜); below is a part of the Preface to his full-length novel, taken from a talk he gave in 1939 to a group of students. In it, Mao Dun (茅盾) offers his insights as a Marxist and communist into the historical situation in which China found itself.
  • I decided that my novel should deal with three aspects of this current situation: (1) how Chinese industrialists, groaning under foreign economic aggression, were hindered on the one hand by the feudal forces and threatened on the other by the control of the money-market by compradore-capitalists, and how they tried to save themselves by employing even more brutal methods and intensifying their exploitation of the working class; (2) how, as a result, the working class was obliged to put up a fierce resistance; and (3) how the national capitalists, at enmity alike with the Communist Party and the people as a whole, were finally reduced to the only alternative of capitulating to the compradores (the tools of the imperialists), or becoming compradores themselves. A novel of such content, of course, would offer scope for dealing with quite a number of problems, but I decided to restrict myself to a refutation of the Trotskyte fallacy. I would use my facts to prove that China, far from becoming a capitalist country, was being reduced to the status of a colony under the pressure of imperialism. Truly, there were a number of people among China’s bourgeoisie who had much in common with the old French bourgeoisie, nevertheless the China of 1930, unlike eighteenth-century France, was a semi-colony, which meant that the outlook for China’s bourgeoisie was particularly bleak–it was, in fact, utterly hopeless. Such were the circumstances which gave rise to the attitude of vacillation in the national bourgeoisie. I intended also to refute some of the fanciful theories advanced by bourgeois scholars in those days. Typical of these theories was the following: China’s bourgeoisie could save itself–by which they meant developing industry and setting up a bourgeois regime–by opposing the national, democratic revolutionary movement led by the communist Party and at the same time opposing feudalism and compradore capitalism. As it turned out, Chinese capitalists like Wu Sun-fu, who opposed both the working class and the national, democratic revolution led by the working class party, were left with no alternative but to become compradores themselves.”
Black Li and White Liby Lao She (1899-1966) 《黑白李》老舍 (舒庆春)

  • born in Beijing into an impoverished Manchu (red banner) family; his father served in the Imperial Guards during the Manchu reign and was killed during the Boxer Rebellion when foreign allied forces attacked Beijing in August 1900; studied at high schools in Tianjin and Beijing, and spent part of his time studying English at Yenjing University (燕京大学); intellectual growth influenced by the May Fourth movement in 1919 and also by Christian missionaries that sent him to teach Chinese at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London for five years (1924-29) during which time he read Dickens, Zola and Conrad; became a professor of Chinese at Qilu university (齐鲁大学) after coming back to China; after the War of Resistance against Japan, he came to the U.S. as a visiting lecturer for three years; in 1966 he killed himself at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution when he, along with many writers and intellectuals, was struggled against and paraded as counter-revolutionary;
  • the short story best captures the author’s ambivalence toward modernity and tradition as represented by White Li and Black Li respectively; his cultural identity is rendered problematic by his education in Chinese classics and by his intellectual indebtedness to Western liberal traditions (including Christianity); the two brothers represent the psychological split many enlightened intellectuals experienced, torn between cultures, traditions, and values that they felt were as irreconcilable as the color white and black;
  • The role and function of Wang Five, who is also torn, allow the reader to appreciate both liberal and conservative values as attractive and good, which was how the May Fourth generation of intellectuals felt about European Enlightenment and Confucian moral traditions that affect the lives of ordinary people like Wang Five, a rickshaw puller who thinks that his two masters, Black and White Li, one understands his heart (for equality) while the other understands the needs of his legs; Wang Five finds it hard to decide which master he likes better or/and resents more; the two brothers differ in such a way that, unlike what the title seems to imply, there is no black and white issues or moral positions; good and evil exist only when we fail to recognize the common humanity that unites all people regardless of their differences;
  • the author is indebted to Western literature in general and inspired by one literary work in particular: Dickens’ The Tale of Two Cities; just like Lao She, Dickens was also brought up in a very conservative culture (Great Britain); he wrote his novel to reject the idea of revolution as acted out during the French Revolution (1789) which triumphed by shedding the blood of the royals; although the Revolution is known to have given the world the concepts of Liberty (自由), Equality (平等) and Fraternity (博爱), it was also baptized by much blood and rooted in hatred for the rich (much of it justified of course); Dicken’s story emphasizes love (Christian kind) as the solution for social injustice, the kind exemplified by Sydney Carton willing to die by the guillotine in the place of his rival Charles Darnay who is married to Lucie; the same kind of personal sacrifice or love appears in Lao She’s short story in which Christian love compels Black Li to sacrifice himself and die for his brother, in the way Christ dies for all sinners;
  • In the Bible, Jesus Christ is said to be in this world but not of this world, a distinction that underscores the difference in people’s attitudes toward change. Black Li is, in a way, not of the world when in it. He is so self-cultivated that living and dying differ far less to him than to his brother White Li, who is both in and of the world. White Li complains bitterly about the dead controlling the lives of the living (because of filial piety), but for Black Li, life is no object when it comes to honoring moral prinicples and the names of one’s dead ancestors; and that is probably why Lao She greatly appreciated Charles Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities” and modeled his “BLack Li and White Li” after it by having Black Li die for his brother the same way Sidney dies for Darney in an act of self-sacrifice. Lao She saw and understood the two attitudes towards human existence, which is full of injustice and indignity: one way to address these problems is through revolution and even violence (e.g. the French Revolution), and the other through love and self-sacrifice. White Li represents a this-worldliness and cannot transcend his own experience and its existential meaning, whereas Black Li takes on an other-worldliness and remains unaffected by what Wang Five and his brother see as great social injustice. He is concern about it and asks Wang Five to take a rest whenever he can.
  • White Li and, to some extent, Wang Five, are inspired by the idea of social equality but also possessed and driven by hatred; White Li fans the flames of discontent and instigates a strike among the trolley bus drivers; on the other hand, Black Li approaches social problems by way of self-sacrifice; he is complacent with the existing cultural and social order and embodies a benevolent ruler/king totally oblivious to the oppressive nature of social hierarchy; his own values (Confucian and Christian conservative) require that he does what he did; thus the story can be read as an example of love, not hatred, as the way to resolve social conflicts and reach social harmony;
  • Black Li and White Li (as well as Tale of Two Cities) helps us articulate and reflect on our response to social change. As people, we all have propencities to be “this-worldly” and “other-worldly”. The exchange and interaction between the two Li brothers dramatize and elaborate our inner psychological split. Some people achieve their human wholeness by emphasizing outward social change while others by stressing religious and cultural cultivation.
  • The last sentence of Black Li and White Li seems indicative of the view that morality (or even culture) and history are two totally different spheres; to find out the truth about change (“smashing the gates of hell”) has the least to do with cultural presuppositions about good and evil or right and wrong. Before Black Li dies, he already lives in “heaven,” in the realm of moral ideals, far removed from the confusion in which Wang Five and White Li find themselves, a hellish existence full of contradictions and inconsistencies. Lao She’s characterization of the two Li brothers shows a belief that culture and nature are always at odds with one another; a truly “cultured” man is a dead man in heaven; and hell is the condition of being alive through social change that disrupts an orderly society. This belief is also resonant in An Old and Established Name, in which refusal to change on any moral or ethical grounds is tantamount to self-removal from history; what happens to Fortune Silk was happening to China if the Chinese refused to give up some of their age-honored principles and values. His philosophical view on change proved to be prophetic; in 1967 when Cultural Revolution began and he was beaten, struggled against, and paraded in the street by the Red Guards as a counter-revolutionary writer, Lao She decided to end his life and jumped into a lake near his residence. He’d rather die than joining the revolution to destroy everything he had valued.
  • Another issue being addressed in this novella is this: How do we know there is a common humanity among people of different moral perspectives and religious persuasions if not by looking at the way family treat one another with loyalty, love, kindness, and readiness for self-sacrifice? In this story, a lofty and noble love for all human race falls short of ringing true (White Li fails to show up at the protect and be with the commoners he proclaims he loves) whereas brotherly love (one of the five cardinal or universal relations among men, according to Confucius, is that between elder brother and younger brother) that White Li despises produces a powerful act of self-sacrifice on the part of Black Li who dies for the sin of his brother.
  • A popular and perhaps worn out comparative cultural theory is that in the West there are two cultural traditions responsible for the way Western sociopolitical history developed: Athenian democracy in the Greco-Roman tradition and top-down family structure theocracy in the Judeo-Christian tradition. China and East Asia, on the other hand, is comparable to the West only in this second respect due to the emphasis on the family structure in Confucianism as a state religion in China. This theory is often used to explain why democracy is coming to China so slowly or the differences between East and West in general.
An Old and Established Name by Lao She, 1936; 《老字号》老舍

  • Although the details of the short story are specifically Chinese and localized, the sentiments in the story are quite universal and generic in that it is a part of human nature to resist change; the central hero, Xin Dezhi (信德智) from whose perspective the story is narrated, introduces change as a painful process in which he is robbed of his identity; what is universal about him is his deep anxiety about the fate of his Fortune Silk Store (福丝绸店) brought to extinction by accelerated trade and consumerism; the collapse of the store, bought out by the Heaven Silk Store with a different style of business practices, brings to the fore a general if not universal trend of change as driven and dictated by profit and self-interest;
  • Among the several issues being debated and negotiated in the story is Lao She’s views of high (spiritual) culture and popular (material) culture; as the language of narration has made it abundantly clear, there is a tacit dichotomy between honor and integrity on the one hand, represented by Manager Qian at the Fortune, and the pursuit of profit and interests in personal gain on the other, represented by the very success of Manager Zhou and the boss of Village Silk Store; in other words, in the story we have a situation in which the pursuit of business success corrodes and compromises traditional moral values in such a way that people no longer value things such as trust, integrity, truth, and honor, which are the corner stones of human interaction and trade;
  • If anything, what makes the Fortune Silk Store unique is none other than its refusal to be more pragmatic and utilitarian which readily characterize the business practices of the Heaven and Village Silk; there seem to be two very different management styles in competition and contest; the so-called change brings into existence new ways of running the sale: to play phonograph full blast to attract business, to have gaudy gaslights hung out, to escort patrons home, to turn silk business into a carnival sideshow, to have lottery drawings, in short, to do everything necessary to make money; Manager Zhou embodies the principle of expedience whereas Manager Qian honors the ethics and fairness in business; in the end utilitarianism (“the greatest good for the greatest number of people”) wins the day and triumphs over “the stick-in-the-mud traditions of the Fortune”, which is run more like a medieval barter system; (“Often Manager Qian would even participate in the weddings and funerals of his regular customers.”)
  • As revealed in this story, Lao She’s attitude toward change comes to this: a mass society or popular culture often operates by “vulgar ostentations” and deceptions such as giant sales all year around; and in this mass society, things of true value, whether it is a genuine piece of silk or an honest businessman like Qian, are not recognized or appreciated; gone with the Fortune Silk is a culture in which every member of society is expected to be truthful and honorable to one another, in trade or otherwise; the author critiques a new social system, (in his full length novel entitled “Camel Xiangzi,” 骆驼祥子, Lao She calls it “individualism,”) that has no conscience or integrity, a pernicious force that appeals to people’s self-interests only: “Men have separated themselves from the animals but now drive their own kind back among the beasts. Xiangzi remained in this ‘cultured’ city but he was being transformed into an animal. Not a bit of it was his fault. He had stopped thinking and, therefore, the human being in him was destroyed. He bore no responsibility for that at all. He’d never hope again. … Handsome, ambitious, dreamer of fine dreams, selfish, individualistic, sturdy, great Xiangzi. No one knows how many funerals he marched in, and no one knows when and where he was able to get himself buried, that degenerate, selfish, unlucky offspring of society’s diseased womb, a ghost caught in Individualism’s blind alley.”
  • it seems that the author’s attitude towards change, reactionary at times, is predicated on his pessimistic view of the masses as incapable of a long and illustrious moral tradition (Confucian humanism) that dignifies human existence; if anything, Fortune Silk’s going out of business signifies not only the death of an old and established name in business, it also signifies the moral bankruptcy of a mass society that has been uprooted from its own cultural traditions; two things seem very clear to Lao She: that change is inevitable that would significantly alter the Chinese way of life as we know it because it could not cope with the rising demands of the people, and that some of the traditional values worthy of preserving are to be lost forever; such an attitude toward change, as developed and articulated 75 years ago, is still prevalent today among many dissidents and critics of modernization;
  • Xin Dezhi is in between Black Li and White Li; he identifies with tradition (and its values) but lives in the world too. At the end, with the Fortune Silk being bought out, his identity disintegrates. But in the context of the story, there is no suggestion of him being stupid because there are so many suggestions through small details of how much (or little) people will get who are in favor of change in the direction of people swindling other people in business. The change as depicted in this story will bring about dishonest business practices, which more than morally justifies the position of Xin Dezhi. Only when one is not of the world is he able to judge this world as does Sidney and Black Li, both of whom live in times of great social change and revolution. Yet they both seem to have risen above hatred and self-interests and done what is often viewed as courageous and heroic action.
A Kiss by Shi Tuo 《一吻》师陀 (芦焚, 王长简,1910-88)

  • Born in a small village in Henan (河南) Province; with only high school education; 1931 moved to Beijing (Peking) and started career as a writer; many of his works are in collections of short stories and essays, and they tend to be lyrical; moved to Shanghai in 1936 only to find himself soon afterward in a city bombed by the Japanese; known for his collection of short stories entitled “Orchard City” (果园城记,1946) from which A Kiss is taken; he is sympathetic with small and ordinary people who are often the subjects of his fiction and familiar with their lives which he painstakingly presents in his works; in 1946, he became a teacher for School of Theatre and Drama in Shanghai, and the chief editor of Shanghai Wenhua Film Studio, responsible for screenplays; after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, he was the editor in chief of Shanghai Commercial Press, and Shanghai film screenplay society;
  • The short story deals with memory, nostalgia, and illusion in what seems almost a playful way, as the third person narrator recalls the life of one Sister Liu living in Orchard City; like Lu Xun’s short story My Old Home (故乡) where personal memory seems faulty and unreliable,A Kiss begins with the narrator’s fuzzy memory, “It was 1913 or 14 or 15, I do not know in complete detail;” in other words, the narration carries with it a sense of uncertainty about its own truthfulness, with which many Chinese readers were able to resonate in a society rapidly changing, altering the way people remember the past and envision the future;
  • Nostalgia is a form of memory when inflated, colored and sentimentalized, and when we almost reinvent the past events in ways that we would like them to have been; in his article “The Telling of Shi Tuo’s ‘A Kiss’: Few Words and Several Voices,” Ted Huters aptly points out that it is the dreariness of Sister Liu’s present that shapes how she remembers the past when Tigerfish forced a kiss on her; her nostalgia for her childhood (of the kiss) thus compensates her present-day unhappiness as a rich but lonely widow of a man much older; her trip down the memory lane back to Orchard City to find lost love, which probably never was there to begin with, shows, as Huters puts it, “a cycle of incapacity to see in which the hopelessness of the present is so painful that it cannot be faced, and people must build illusions based on a past that never was;”
  • On the surface we see the evils of arranged marriage as a cultural institution that seems to have deprived our heroine her chance at happiness with Tigerfish; but if and when we look deeper we realize, by Tigerfish’s own recount of what did or did not happen, that Shi Tuo is actually calling into question an attitude towards or simplistic view of history as progressive; if anything, what happens to the mother (a romantic elopement with her lover that eventually landed her poor and insecure in old age) and to the daughter, Sister Liu herself, leading a life her mother chose for her to avoid her own mistake (an unromantic marriage to an old man that left her some money), makes it clear that people are unable to control their destiny through change; in spite of what the mother did and what Sister Liu would do for her children, if she has any, neither woman is happy, because ultimately man is not in control of his life as he envisions it;
  • The meaning of the kiss is anything but what Sister Liu thinks it is; living a wretch life of a rickshaw puller, Tigerfish does not even recognize her, let alone cherishing fond feelings for her until Sister Liu shoves a wad of bills in his hand before running off; change, it seems, can be an illusion as is perhaps the case of this kiss, especially when we refer to past, present and future that are but our psychological projections or wish fulfillments; the meaning of the kiss (past events) always becomes more than what it is as people remember it, casting it in the shadow of doubt.
The Golden Cangue by Eileen Chang (1920-1995) 《金锁记》张爱玲

  • Qichiao is another one of those characters whose life seems totally unaffected by change; she is thus Tradition in the purest sense of the word through which everything unfolds and repeats itself like clockwork; her misery as a woman from a humble origin, the daughter of a sesame oil merchant, reproduces itself in her children; her life completes another cycle of despair, ruined by the patriarchal system in which women trade in their youth and beauty for wealth (symbolized by the gold lock she is wearing); both the beginning and ending paragraphs stress people’s inability to undo what is done or to escape the effects of culture; although she is married up, she is despised and never loved because her life as a woman is never about love; as she survives in this house, she becomes a slave to her wealth that she desires at expense of her happiness; hers is a life characterized by strong nostalgia and poignant regret, the constant and recurring themes of Chinese spiritual life
  • To the extent that Qi-chiao never is what she seems, she is what Julia Kristeva refers to as the abject, in between the signifier and the signified; her existence as a woman thus cannot be adequately understood unless we as readers first understand her relationship to the phallus, the male symbolic order; otherwise none of what she does makes any sense: the decisions to marry a cripple in Jiang family, to secretly flirt with the third brother only to reject him years later when he is available, to keep her son busy at home with concubines and opium smoking, to marry her daughter off for the sake of wealth, or to antagonize her own brother and sister-in-law; her degradation is as much the result of her own individual choices as a large scale perversion of the feminine as a whole
  • Change for Qi-chiao (and perhaps for Eileen Chang as well?) is becoming worse or realizing one’s own helplessness about it, which is a powerful feeling that many readers can relate to in an age of revolution;
  • Modern Chinese Intellectual historian and thinker Zaifu Liu uses Eileen Chang to redefine modern Chinese literature:http://mclc.osu.edu/rc/pubs/liuzaifu.htm and
  • Born in Shanghai, grandfather the son-in-law of an influential Qing Official Li Hongzhang (李鸿章); father divorced and remarried as was she; attended St. Maria’s Hall girl school, known for her eccentricity and precocity; after the fall of China to the CCP, she moved to Hong Kong in 1951 and came to the U.S. as the wife of Ferdinand Reyher in 1956; taught briefly in Radcliff College and UC Berkeley and died in California; subject matters of her novels are usually (1) romance and (2) class or caste issues within a traditional household
  • more a culturalist rather than a political activist (like Lu Xun, Ba Jin, and Mao Dun), although she is quite familiar with the tenets of the May Fourth movement; for her marginalized role in modern Chinese fiction, she is best studied as a woman writer in that “Alongside her descriptions of Yindi’s or Qiqiao’s adventure, she sought within the May Fourth realist discourse a voice of her own, a voice that turned the programmatic enunciations about nation, humanity, and revolution into something else: she has blurred the nation, making it appear as alienation, making humanity show itself as femininity, making revolution develop into involution;” (David Der-Wei Wang’s preface to her Rouge of the North, a longer version of the same story)
  • Qichiao is another one of those characters whose life seems totally unaffected by change; she is thus Tradition in the purest sense of the word through which everything unfolds and repeats itself like clockwork; her misery as a woman from a humble origin, the daughter of a sesame oil merchant, reproduces itself in her children; her life completes another cycle of despair, ruined by the patriarchal system in which women trade in their youth and beauty for wealth (symbolized by the gold lock she is wearing); both the beginning and ending paragraphs stress people’s inability to undo what is done or to escape the effects of culture; although she is married up, she is despised and never loved because her life as a woman is never about love; as she survives in this house, she becomes a slave to her wealth that she desires at expense of her happiness; hers is a life characterized by strong nostalgia and poignant regret, the constant and recurring themes of Chinese spiritual life
  • To the extent that Qi-chiao never is what she seems, she is what Julia Kristeva refers to as the abject, in between the signifier and the signified; her existence as a woman thus cannot be adequately understood unless we as readers first understand her relationship to the phallus, the male symbolic order; otherwise none of what she does makes any sense: the decisions to marry a cripple in Jiang family, to secretly flirt with the third brother only to reject him years later when he is available, to keep her son busy at home with concubines and opium smoking, to marry her daughter off for the sake of wealth, or to antagonize her own brother and sister-in-law; her degradation is as much the result of her own individual choices as a large scale perversion of the feminine as a whole
  • Change for Qi-chiao (and perhaps for Eileen Chang as well?) is becoming worse or realizing one’s own helplessness about it, which is a powerful feeling that many readers can relate to in an age of revolution;
Winter Nights by Xianyong Bai  (1937- )《冬夜》白先勇

  • A Taiwanese writer, Bai is the son of a general in the Nationalist army by the name of Chongxi Bai (白崇禧); by “Taiwanese” writer, several things are meant: (1) a “China” complex or cultural identification with traditional cultures; (2) at the same time, a self-awareness as Taiwanese, either indigenous Taiwanese (本省人) or mainland Han people who came to Taiwan with the defeated nationalist army (外省人), and (3) contention of several histories and cultural identities fighting for supremacy; mentioned in the story are several literary traditions: Confucianism, the May Fourth movement in 1919, and the cosmopolitan life in Taipei, which offers a variety of points of reference;
  • The author got an M.A. from Iowa state university creative writing center, 1965, and has resided in the U.S. (Santa Barbara, California) where he was teaching writing; as a Taiwanese and diaspora writer, fiction first and foremost becomes a way to define, redefine, or even reinvent oneself, something that most of the mainland authors do not have while writing under the strict censorship of a political cultural industry; the issues emerging from this story are dear to the author writing to redefine his relations to modern Chinese history since the May Fourth, Taiwanese identity, his own adolescence or immaturity, existential anguish as a diasporic writer in the U.S., etc.
  • In such a context, it is not hard to appreciate the conversations between the two professors, Zhuguo Wu (吴柱国) and Qinlei Yu (余钦磊), who perhaps represent both sides of the author as a real split person torn between the ideals of the May Fourth new culture movement and the demands of a mundane life that tend to erode one’s beliefs and values; while both are ideologically committed to the progressive rhetoric of the May Fourth movement, the two realize how much they have mellowed down and even become cynical since their youthful days wherever they have been, either in Taiwan or in the States. As the two old friends talk it becomes clear that their previous fervent political ideals and attitudes of the May Fourth era (such as fighting the corrupt government and dedicating themselves to social and intellectual progress) have significantly cooled down in the course of less than 50 years, in fact their intellectual life is quite cold, thus the title of the novella “Winter Nights.”  What remains true is their remembrance of the past, but not how they wish they could have lived their lives.
  • The personality and experience of the two individuals complement one another in a way that best brings to the fore a delicate situation with which many Taiwanese are familiar, in which they feel more and more estranged from the culture and history of the mainland where they still have homes (figuratively and literally), yet as the hope of a homecoming becomes ever more slim, chilling as winter nights, they have no other choice but to continue living, in Taiwan or abroad, and be defined by both their college years spent in Beijing during the May Fourth movement (1919) and by what they have done since in Taiwan or the U.S.; both professors are at the retirement age or the end of their career, perhaps signified by “winter”;
  • Wu returns searching for roots and feels apologetic for his personal fame in the U.S. as a Chinese historian, a “plain deserter” in his own words; but much to his surprise, the life of professor Yu is not as idealistic as he had thought; professor Yu has no more passion and love for English Romanticism as before and wants to change place with his friend Wu so that he can live up a little bit for himself. It’s ironic that the way they have actually lived their lives is anything but how they had planned it when young. In this sense the story is also about the tension between senex and puer (wise old man and eternal youth) as what Carl Jung called psychological archetypes, as David Tacey characterizes these two tendencies in his Remaking Men: “senex is the ability to order experience and to teach this order to others, but puer is the capacity to remain open to mystery and revelation. Senex defends wisdom by closure, whereas puer creates spirit by openness;” The two professors, it seems, are drawn to and torn by the spirits of the puer and senex, of May Fourth and Confucianism, Taiwan and the Mainland, what they think they can be and what they have done and become; such are the conditions of a middle-aged (33-years old) man writing this story, in psychological conditions the reader may find familiar.
Love Must Not Be Forgotten by Zhang Jie 《爱是不能忘记的》张洁 (1938 - )

  • Like Ding Ling and Zhang Ailing, Zhang Jie is a woman writer whose works further articulate women’s issues and interests; although a “love story” or “romance”, there is something highly controversial because the love here, unconsummated, is more meaningful than marriages of many years; in the past marriage and family were presented in literature as the only form of female fulfillment; but now, to Zhongyu; marriage could be a prison; The Ark is another work about three divorced women huddling in one crummy apartment for mutual moral support
  • One of the relationships central to the story is that between two women who happen to be mother and daughter, which develops concurrently with the romance between mother and her male lover; therefore it is possible to argue that the story is also about the initiation of Shanshan into the world of heterosexual relations; the title of the story also happens to be the title of the mother’s diary from which the daughter benefits in no small ways; Shanshan learns not to cave in to the pressure of conformity that rushed her mother into a bad marriage;
  • In 1979 when the book was published, China was beginning to open to the outside world and implement economic reforms; denouncing Mao’s revolutionary excess was allowed and even encouraged; thus the story questions the convention of marriage in a socialist country when the mother’s passion compels her to challenge the conventional views of female fulfillment and matrimony; Zhang Jie’s romance calls into question traditional marriage based on moral obligations and duties, sanctified by Law and public opinions; the mother’s love for a married man transcends morality that binds men and women together as husband and wife; her love, totaling less than 24 hours, means more than their marriages and children;
  • Romance tends to destabilize society by calling into question the very values and mores on which cultural institutions rest; but many educated people resonate and identify with this type of spiritual union in this romance that contrasts the marriage between the man and his wife (whose father died for him), built on compassion, sympathy, moral duties and legal obligations, mundane and unworthy of real respect; that is why Zhang Jie’s novella was so controversial even at the time when the Chinese were openly critical of Mao and socialism under which Zhang Jie grew up
  • The novella privileges the will of the individual over that of the collective; it signals an attempt on the part of intellectuals to rediscover and rethink the values of what had been disparagingly referred to as the “petty bourgeoisie”; it asks the reader to critically scrutinize their semi-public roles as husband, wife, father or mother; the reception it received in 1979-80 indicated that majority of the reading public was not yet quite ready to embrace this “extreme” form of individualism just like certain sectors of the U.S. population are not ready even now to accept or tolerate, say, gay marriage which is often perceived as “immoral” by the moral majority;
  • In the story female autonomy is advocated in ways that undermine the political and moral authority of the state (and of the father/patriarch) as all romance tends to do: Jane Eyre, 1847, by Charlotte Bronte; Madame Bovary, 1856, by Gustave Flaubert; Anna Karenina, 1876, by Leo Tolstoy; Effi Briest, 1894, by Theodor Fontane, Awakening, 1899, by Kate Chopin; such romance renegotiates public opinions on marriage, sex, women’s rights to choose and remain single, and so forth.
Half of Man Is Woman by Zhang Xianliang (1936 – ) 《男人的一半是女人》张贤亮

  • A novelist and poet, Zhang was born in Nanjing into a middle-class family; like Zhang Jie, the author of “Love Must Not Be Forgotten,” he grew up and spent his formable years in the “new China” (since 1949) in which his father, a Kuomingtang official, was arrested for spying and died in a Maoist prison in 1952; his poem “Da Feng Ge” (大风歌 Song of the Great Wind) was published in 1957, the year in which Mao’s anti-rightist campaign began and regarded as problematic politically; between the years 1958 and 1979 he was accused of being a rightist, imprisoned several times and held in labor camps and state farms for a total of 22 years; during the Cultural Revolution he was labeled as “anti-revolutionary-revisionist”; in 1979 he was formally rehabilitated and now in the post-Mao and post Deng era of economic reform, he is a very successful businessman dealing with cultural effects;
  • He wrote Mimosa, 《绿化树》 and created the character Zhang Yonglin as his fictional persona who, during the early 1960s, lived through the time of a great famine; Zhang has managed to stay alive, fighting with rats over food; transferred from a prison camp to a state farm, he becomes engaged to a resourceful but illiterate woman, who helps him recover a semblance of normalcy, but he is thrown back into the camps before he can marry her.
  • Zhang Yonglin also appears in the sequel Half of Man Is Woman (1985); semi-autobiographical, the protagonist is sexually repressed and spiritually demoralized by long years of imprisonment; the story reveals how China’s entire intellectual community was emasculated, terrorized into submission; the protagonist spends some 20 years in labor camps where he meets Huang Xiangjiu, a woman he marries years later only to realize, on his wedding night, he is impotent, symbolic of the extent of the psychological trauma and the split of personality that many intellectuals and writers had sustained; it was a time in which there was no other way to think than Mao’s ideology of Chinese communism by which an entire nation was hypnotized; it was a time when the myth of communism controlled everyone in this mass society
  • The physical union, which eventually takes place, with the woman does not heal the hero’s mental problem as the title seems to suggest; his wife’s affair with the village chief is one more indignity on top of many he has suffered as a criminal of the state; his mental anguish represents the lived experience of a whole generation of writers who had to give up their freedom to survive the political tyranny of Mao, a dark period characterized by coercion, personal betrayal, and back-stabbing, even among family members; like the collective life depicted by Gu Hua in his Hibiscus Town, it was a time when human evil came to the fore and insanity was mistaken for patriotism; to find a woman is a quest for human wholeness that is lost
  • The surreal conversation between Zhang Yonglin and a castrated and domesticated horse signifies a critical self-reflection on the part of many intellectuals who began to understand the full extent of their own political castration and defumanization; like the draft horse, they have lost that which gives them the greatest joy and pleasure in life, that which makes them different from animals: their ability to think for themselves; told from the perspective of a state prisoner, the story reveals the human costs of Mao’s theory of the uninterrupted revolution in which a whole community of writers had to be silenced and lobotomized; in this sense, the book can and perhaps should be read as the voice of a dissident of communist modernism.
Hibiscus Town, by Gu Hua, 1980;《芙蓉镇》古华著。

  • The novel was written after the Cultural Revolution came to an abrupt end due to Mao’s death in 1976; the events in the past two decades are reconstructed in the novel to reveal the critical self-reflection people then had who nearly lost their humanity during the communist revolutions; what happens in Hibiscus town is nothing less than a mass hysteria in which Mao’s ideology of “class struggle” possessed and drove everyone to turn against those around them in the name of “liberation”; the casualty of this red terror, lasting for two decades, is everyone involved whether s/he is a member of the “proletariat” or “bourgeoisie” class; to his credit, Gu is one of the few able to transcend the meanings and ideals of Chinese communism, and help people break free from the “social reality” secured and mediated through the rhetoric of revolutionary movements;
  • The novel also signifies the restoration and triumph of conscience, sanity and humanity over Evil disguised as “the dictatorship of the proletariat” against five classes of people (landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, saboteurs, and rightists 地、富、反、坏、右) viewed as the enemies of the state; the indignities they suffered show the extent of insanity and split of human nature on the part of those like Wang Qiushe who, the formerly poor and powerless, were given a chance to exact revenge on the formerly rich and powerful; the fictional narrative is a penetrating analysis and signifies at least two levels of meaning: the social reality of Mao’s revolution and the psychological reality of sadomasochism; there is a direct correlation between frustrated sexual desire and passion on the one hand, and political zeal and pleasure on the other; in other words, the political movements give vent to personal vendetta and malice that fuel the diabolical imagination of the revolutionary, and these “uninterrupted revolutions” are exercises of Marxist and Maoist theories of “class consciousness” and “class struggle”, the theoretical bases for glorifying the poor and vilifying the rich;
  • Like Zhang Xianliang’s Half of Man Is Woman, this novel is also written from the perspective of the outlaw and disempowered, represented by Qin Shu-tian and Hu yu-yin whose only crime or sin is their ability to ameliorate better than others in the countryside; because of their self-reliance, industry, intelligence, beauty and artistic gift, they become targets or convenient scapegoat victims of Mao’s revolution for an egalitarian society, a fate shared by millions of intellectuals and artists in the city; like Li Jiajia who commits suicide at the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, millions met their tragic ends as waves of political movement washed clean the path to a communist utopia; to prove one’s loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and to the cause of the proletarian revolution, one often felt compelled, as does Li Man-geng, to turn against and betray those closest and dear to them;
  • During this tumultuous time in China, human relations became politicized according to dogmatic interpretations of Marxist theory of class struggle (namely, people’s economic activities determine their consciousness); Gu’s novel undoes the wrong done to those like Hu Yu-yin and Li Jiajia, begins re-humanizing a mass society drained of its intelligence and terrorized (or hypnotized) into submission; the story of Hibiscus town shows the anatomy of Chinese society as a proletariat dictatorship in which people behaved (mobilized) like a mob and did not know what they were doing to each other.
Black Snow by Liu Heng 《 黑的雪 》 刘恒

  • Published in 1993, the novel came out as China’s economic reform was in full swing; since 1979 the life of everyone Chinese had been greatly altered by an earth-shattering event in which the planned economy, owned and run by the government, was dwindling and decentralized while a free market economy was growing robust; corrupt government officials began trading in their power and authority in exchange for capital and quickly became entrepreneurs in the private sector; a class of the nouveaux riches (the newly rich) was emerging, fully backed by the CCP higher-ups and blessed with foreign investment pouring in from abroad;
  • At the same time, the social infrastructure was also changing quickly; millions of workers previously on the government payroll became unemployed or underemployed, trying to make ends meet by their reduced salaries or early retirement pension or severance pay; many previous state employees now sought work in the private sector that was hiring people who were educated, talented, or technology savvy; those who grew up in the Mao years when formal education was discontinued for over a decade suddenly found themselves out of work and unemployable; this lost generation, including the author himself, felt abandoned and cheated by a system that jettisoned them for something in which they would never be a part; as an emblem of that, the protagonist, Li Huiquan, is an orphan
  • The transformation from socialism to capitalism was also a seismological change in values and attitudes; in the words of China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, “to be rich is glorious” (发家致富光荣); money is the true lubricant of this social transformation, the way Maoism was the driving force during the preceding decades of socialism; revolutionary ideals became bankrupt nearly overnight and a person’s credentials as a government cadre or official were becoming worthless if not “redeemed” for privileges or apartments; the nature of these changes manifest itself most directly in cell phone text messages: “When Chairman Mao waved his hand, I became a sent-down youth; when Deng Xiaoping waved his hand, I became a self-employed entrepreneur; when Jiang Zeming waved his hand, I became an unemployed worker” (毛主席挥手我下乡;邓小平挥手我下海;江泽民挥手我下岗); before buddy is someone with whom you have shouldered a riffle together and gone south with the lierbation army across the Yangtze River together; now buddy is someone with whom you have split the spoils together and been to brothels together” (以前铁哥们儿是“一起扛过枪,一起渡过江”现在是“一起分过赃,一起嫖过娼”)
  • Now people interact not as comrades or fellow revolutionaries, but as business associates and partners; and everyone in Huiquan’s circle of friends is very conscious of this except Huiquan, the protagonist who, much to his credit, does not know how to adapt to the new reality of capitalism because he is too hung up on old attitudes and values such as love, friendship, loyalty, and self-sacrifice, a classic example of “nice guy finishes last”; like Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Li Huiquan is also stuck with a set of obsolete and archaic chivalric values, which makes him both a tragic hero and a fool; many readers can easily relate to him but don’t want to become him; they see themselves in this man but are happy they are not him; Quixote is referred to in literary circles also as a “Spanish Christ”; in other words, he is modern man’s primitive shadow; the reader emotionally (subconsciously) identifies with the anti-hero while intellectually (consciously) in denial of any connection to this social misfit or social zero, a failed individual who represents everything modern man does not want to be. In Lao She’s An Old and Established Name, the protagonist is also such a misfit that refuses or is unable to change and adapt to new ideas;
  • There is also psychological realism in this story, in that Li Huiquan is a classical case of personal withdrawal who is emotionally all shut down; a similar case of that is Willie, the protagonist in film Goodwill Huntings, a young man, although very bright and talented, who has trust issues; he would not trust people and has a problem with intimacy for fear of abandonment. Li Huiquan is in the same psychological complex in which he is inextricably stuck, unable to have real friendship because, as an orphan, he never experiences unconditional love and acceptance. Any “friend” he has, he has to show loyalty in street fight to keep; as an ex-convict, he is forever in search of acceptance.
  • as a failed hero whose demise serves as a critical reflection of social values, Li Huiquan is one of many problematic characters such as Holden Caufield in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951) or the protagonist in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) or, remotely, Meursault, the protagonist in Albert Camus’ The Stranger (1942).  While no reader would identify with or emulate them, these failed heroes inform us, among other things, the way social values change, often at the expense of the individual’s sanity. Although no reader would truly like Li Huiquan, perhaps all readers would unfailingly see how the recent economic transformation in China has accustomed people to thinking in terms of vanity (Luo Xiaofeng), profit and hedonism (Cui Yongli), betrayal (Fang Guangde and Ma Yifu), fame and success (Zhao Yaqiu). All his friends succeed for the reasons he fails; he fails to quickly adapt to these new values and attitudes.
Soul Mountain by Xingjian Gao, 《灵山》高行健著

  • Translator, painter, novelist, playwright, and the 2000 Nobel Laureate in literature, Gao Xingjian was born in 1940 in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province. When interviewed by the Taiwan United Press, Gao attributed his worldly success to his mother’s upbringing, honoring her as the source of his artistic talents. “Mother used to be an actress who was also fond of literature. I was on stage performing with her when I was five. That was my first stage experience, a kind of prenatal education one can say. Later on she also taught me how to read and write, enabling me to have a relatively broad horizon of what is literature beginning with Western myths and fairytales.” It was also because of his mother’s advice that he chose to attend Beijing Foreign Studies University, BFSU, (instead of the Central Academy of Fine Arts) in 1957.  With a college degree in French literature from BFSU, he was assigned to work in the Chinese International Bookstore in 1962 and in 1975, he began working as a translator for the magazine China Reconstructs. Two years after the Cultural Revolution was over, he was able to visit France and soon after his return he joined the Beijing People’s Art Theater as a screenwriter and playwright.
  • How he ranks amongst modern Chinese literary writers has to do with the overall social and cultural transformation of which he is not only a product but also a forerunner. Sick and embarrassed by the stale language of socialist realism, a mode of literary writing endorsed and privileged by the state, Gao rightly belongs to a generation of writers, artists and playwrights known as China’s modernists desperately seeking from the West new forms of artistic expression as new modes of perception. Among them, Gao Xingjian is perhaps one of the most active and informed, experimenting and adopting aesthetics considered then as avant-garde. In 1981, he published “A Preliminary Examination of Modern Fictional Techniques” (《现代小说技巧初探》) in which he discussed the writing styles of many Western modernist novelists as well as modern Chinese writers beginning from the May Fourth era. As a pioneer of the theatre of the absurd in China, Gao produced several plays, between 1981-87, that include “Absolute Signal” (1982) and “Bus Stop” (1983, which is noticeably modeled on Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”), “The Primitive (1985) and “The Other Shore” (1986). But with his reputation as an avant-garde artist, Gao also risked being seen as openly subversive and critical of the state in these experimental plays that, in their essence, express human desire for authentic experience, free from ideological control of the human mind.
  • Soul Mountain, the fictional work for which he won the 2000 Nobel Literature Prize, is the capstone of his writing as a modernist. Based on his own misdiagnosis of lung cancer, the loosely autobiographical work is the story of a man seeking his primitive origins in “ling shan” (soul mountain), a non-existent place in the wild, in order to stay away from the industrial civilization at which modern man arrives only a fragment of himself. This quest for one’s wholeness against one’s culture follows the threads of several characters referred to as “I,” “him,” or “you” that represent the split personae of the author, characters who are painfully conscious of the rules of language that do not allow them to articulate their authentic existence. Almost an exercise of deconstruction, the work is marked by its textual self-awareness in that the narrative, consisting of fragmented thoughts, intellectual reflections, interviews, and recollections, constantly undermines its own authority to tell a story with plot and meaning. However, there is nothing nihilistic about this monumental work which, as it lengthens to 81 chapters, becomes a register or an index of many intellectual discourses: official history, the languages of Marxism and Maoism, local legends, Confucian classics and Buddhist beliefs, popular songs and famous poems, to which Gao refers frequently with almost a kind of playfulness. What remains behind his craftsmanship as a fiction writer and is truly meaningful is this inward psychological journey for identity and selfhood, undertaken by each and every fictional character, bringing to the fore the existential anguish only an enlightened person at war with culture can relate to and appreciate. The problems of meaning and life are thus rendered experiential through the difficulties of fiction writing itself. Such is the psychological meaning of the futile journey to find Soul Mountain. The narrative marks the advent of a new literary Self on a par with its Western counterpart, one that is stubbornly self-referential like Shakespeare’s Hamlet as Allan Bloom understands him.
  • This prize winning work is not the monumental product of a genius but grows naturally from the literary thoughts of Gao Xingjian who believes in intellectual self-reflection or what he calls “cold literature” (leng wenxue), literature that is basically for the writing subject himself and totally detached from the so-called social or historical reality. Novels such as Soul Mountain and One Man’s Bible exemplify this “cold literature” by a freedom from the moral burdens compelling the previous generations of Chinese writers to take it upon themselves to save China through fiction and be a voice or conscience of the Chinese people. Gao’s short fiction is far less ambitious and presumptuous as he basically aestheticizes the private lives of small individuals who are by no means the legitimate subject of Chinese “history” or “society”. His focus on these marginalized lives gives Gao’s fiction an authenticity and originality never seen before in a political or historical novel that narrates by referring to (and colluding with) the discourse of an existing social order. The fictional characters, sometimes even nameless, often offer moments of true reflection, awakening, and enlightenment which are free from ideological thinking. Little wonder that he tried to free himself from a repressive political culture by a self-imposed exile in France as a necessary condition for his own creative writing and self-expression.
  • Lastly and oddly, nothing marks Gao’s unique and problematic place in modern Chinese literature more than the Nobel literature Prize awarded to him in 2000, which in no small ways calls into question criteria conventionally held dear by the state-sanctioned Chinese writers’ association that ranked Gao’s work as “very average.” Firstly, great fiction writers in the twentieth century China are those like Lu Xun, Ba Jin, and Mao Dun, whose realistic works are overwhelmingly valued and canonized mainly for their reflections or representations of social transformation, often despite the novelist’s strong desire to be free from the context of social history. Gao’s award thus reveals a different aesthetic authority that happened to honor this type of “average” work and recognize its seeming indifference to social ideology and politics. Secondly, Gao’s French connection, (“After I studied French, this opened up a new arena for me and gave me access to foreign literature in the original. At the time, many French authors in China were banned, so it was still difficult to read certain French authors;”) brings art and literature in modern China to a point at which the concept of national literature cannot remain unproblematic. His French citizenship and his subsequent literary publications in French do not help this situation, although they seem to be characteristic of an age in which a writer or writing itself no longer has a specific home or country.
  • Here is a guideline for how to read Soul Mountain written to change our habit of reading fiction and/or understanding reality. One very important difference is this “novel” (if that is the correct term for Gao Xingjian’s book) does not presuppose or reference or represent a social reality like all the other fictional works we have studied. It is even difficult to find a “story” within this storybook because, structurally speaking, there is no real character, plot, or coherence. To approach this book the way we do conventional novels would probably constitute a “misreading”.
  • So what is the correct approach to Gao Xingjian as an author and to this book as fiction? We need to understand the person and historicize his being in time. It’s like in psychoanalysis where we must first understand one’s relation to a repressive culture in order to make sense of his or her irrational behaviors. Gao Xingjian’s literary aesthetics makes sense if we are familiar with the drastic and regimented measures through which China has become modern in the past century. If anything, his book constitutes an instance of what Sigmund Freud refers to as “the return of the repressed”. Gao is deliberately unconventional due to his critical attitudes towards conventions instrumental in social control, which alienate Man from Nature and from his own spirituality (“soul”).
  • His literary aesthetics is informed and shaped by these recurring and intertwining themes present throughout this book:
    • That Man is caged by his own cultural inventions or classifications or categories such as “identity”, “gender”, “personality”, “history”, “nation”,  … and ultimately “form”;
    • That Man is alienated due to his own preoccupation and obsession with the meaning of his own existence (Hisotry), and his inability to be himself at peace with Nature; he has to always wear civilized masks and perform constructed identities;
    • The importance of being in touch with our past, childhood memories, the primitive Self, libido, our forgotten selves, which are being “modernized” out of sight and becoming the contents of our unconsciousness;
    • The spiritual needs to journey inward, to self reflect, and to return to a time or state of consciousness when culture is not highly developed, Man more wholly, when things remain undifferentiated, and when a shared humanity or community is not threatened to proliferate and disintegrate into “you”, “I”, “he”, or “she”;
    • The absurdity of man’s inability to live with himself, without myth (god) or history; his cultural or gender identity becomes his iron house from which it is not possible to escape.

    Throughout this semester when we practice the craft of literary criticism, we use the word “represent” a lot, showing our understanding of the relation between fiction and the real world. But this one may be an exception in that it is deliberately self-referential and, for that reason, it signifies perhaps an important moment in Chinese fiction the way Servantes’ Don Quixote marks the beginning of a new phase in Western literature. Here is how Michel Foucault interprets the novel, in his chapter “Representing”:

    … The erudition that once read nature and books alike as parts of a single text has been relegated to the same category as its own chimeras: lodging in the yellow pages of books, the signs of language no longer have any value apart from the slender fiction which they represent. The written word and things no longer resemble one another. And between them, Don Quixote wanders off on his own.

    The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences, p. 48

    As Gao Xingjian’s characters wander everywhere and find no understanding of the world in which they live, our attention as readers is directed to the function of literature itself.  Our frustration with not finding characters, plot or meaning is part of an intellectual or artistic exercise to be critical and painfully self-conscious of our proclivity to create meaning and order when there is none, at least not possible through word and fiction. The book thus ends, “The fact of the matter is I comprehend nothing, I understand nothing.”

To Live by Yu Hua (1992) 《活着》余华

  • As film, the story (re)introduces social change in the 20th century China in the philosophical and religious contexts of Taoism and Buddhism; by the former I mean an emphasis on events as meaningful coincidences, downplaying human efficacies, countervailing Confucian view of the world as a moral universe with the view of man as only one of the creatures at total mercy of the natural universe over which he has little control; by latter I mean a theory of suffering as the result of human craving and desires; in the film the viewer sees how greed or karma gives rise to suffering (Long’er covets Fugui’s house and wins it through gambling only to become a slave to his real estate and dies because of it; Chunsheng’s passion for driving gives rise to You-qing’s death and his own indebtedness and guilt; Fugui’s political ambition motivates him to carry his sleep-deprived son to the spot where he is soon to be killed; town chief Niu’s loyalty to the CCP soon backfires when he is labeled a capitalist)
  • Taoist attitude to life is exemplified by the story known as “border-town old man losing his horse” (塞翁失马), which is meant to undermine Confucian endeavors to moralize and intellectualize human existence; the intrinsic values of life get reiterated every time when a human life is lost to a political campaign waged in the name of social progress: 8 million dead in the suppression of the counter-revolutionaries in 1950-1 (镇反), 35 million during the Great Leap Forward in 1957-8 (大跃进), 3 million during the Cultural Revolution in 1966-76 (文化大革命); Fugui’s personal story is a sober lesson for Mao’s revolutionary excess which accustomed people to the idea that life has to have certain meaning or purpose for it to be worth living
  • Zhuang Tzu (355-275B.C), founder of Taoism, told the story of Hun Tun (浑沌): “The ruler of the South Sea was called Light, the ruler of the North Sea, Darkness, and the ruler of the Middle Kingdom, Primal Chaos. From time to time, Light and Darkness met one another in the kingdom of Primal Chaos, who made them welcome. Light and Darkness wanted to repay his kindness and said, “All men have seven openings with which they see, hear, eat and breathe, but Primal Chaos has none. Let’s try to give him some. So everyday they bored one hole, and on the seventh day, Primal Chaos died.” Through the senses we come to understand the world, which is no longer undifferentiated as before because knowledge helps man distinguish things and rationalize life
  • Another Taoist story told in Zhuang Tzu is called “the usefulness of uselessness”; a wondering carpenter saw a gigantic old oak tree standing in the field near an earth-altar. His apprentice stood admiring the oak for a long time and then ran after carpenter Stone and said, “Master, I have never seen timber as beautiful as this. But you didn’t even stop to look, and go right on without stopping. Why is that?” “Forget it and say no more!” Said the carpenter. “This is a useless tree. If you wanted to make boats, they would sink; if you wanted to make coffins, they would soon rot. You can’t do anything useful with this tree, and that is why it has become so old.” But in an inn that same evening, when the carpenter went to sleep, the old oak tree appeared to him in his dream and said: “Why do you compare me to your cultivated trees such as white-thorn, pear, orange, and apple trees? Even before they can ripen their fruit, people attack and violate them. Their branches are broken; their twigs are torn. Their own gifts bring harm to them, and they can’t live out their natural span. That is why I have long since tried to become completely useless. Imagine if I had been useful in any way, would I have reached this size? You useless mortal man, what do you know about useless trees?”
  • When reading the work, it is important to keep in mind the time period in history in which the novel was read and the Chinese audience for whom the book was written; without registering these factors first, many passages or the entire book (or film) may seem a continuous stretch of man-made (Yuhua-made) misery and suffering that may or may not deserve our sympathy or even attention; the lesson of Fugui’s life, of which there are so many, seems always to be a greater appreciation of life, something invariably overlooked while it lasts and valued when no more; in the 1990s, the Chinese seemed not only ready to be critical of Mao’s ideas of communism and class struggle, but also in a mood for restoring humanity and sanity in China;
  • Remember the nature of human interactions as depicted by Half of Man Is Woman? Mao’s theory of the uninterrupted revolution (不断革命) had launched one political campaign after another in which even family members turned against one another like Zhang Yonglin’s wife threatening to hand over his manuscript to the authorities; such chapters of collective hysteria in the 1950s-70s in modern Chinese history came to an end with the death of Mao but people were still haunted by the atrocities they had suffered or/and done to others; it is in this historical juncture that Yu Hua’s book came out with a protagonist, Fugui, who tells his own story in a way that gives back to the Chinese people their humanity and sanity
  • He is at once a fool and a sage; a fool because he is no different from everyone else in China that find money, wealth, and Mao irresistible; the Chinese reader relates to him easily as a person who, at the time, never understood the meaning of his actions; in the post-Mao era, the Chinese reader can also easily relate to Fugui as a sage who finally wakes up to the ultimate goal and meaning of his life: to live; all his disillusionments in life become the necessary conditions for what the Buddhist regards as the true enlightenment for the sage; as Fugui recalls his past life, he sentimentalizes every moment of it by his sagely wisdom and enlightened view of life; just like most Chinese that became disillusioned with Mao’s idea of communism, Fugui too now understands what life is really about and cherishes it in a way the unenlightened would not understand
  • There is a book entitled Man’s Search for Meaning written by a Jew, Viktor Frankl, (1946) who survived the Nazi’s holocaust; in it, the author details the day-to-day life in a German concentration camp; he talks about the psychological experience of everyone there who went through shock, apathy, depersonalization, moral deformity, and bitterness; the book is informed by a different attitude as it reaffirms meaning in life and personal freedom; Yu Hua’s work is informed by a different religious and philosophical tradition, although it also details the conditions of Chinese socialist revolution as catastrophy in which millions perished; unlike Frankl, Yu Hua’s fictional persona rejects attempt to idealize human life so as to respect the sanctity of life and make it more authentic; it is not entirely unlikely that in the future when Chinese finally come out of the shadow of Mao, Yu Hua’s work might be considered holocaust literature, recording a historical madness that sent millions to their deaths
  • When we read the passages of touching moments when Fugui’s family members enjoy each other’s company before they died, think of a recent past in which people lost their reasons and ability to love others as well as themselves; a past from which many just awoke like a nightmare; that is the psychological meaning of Fugui