1 Shazshura

Kong Yiji Lu Xun Analysis Essay

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, while fully conscious of the May Fourth context which opted for a world culture (the West?), advocates native literature—乡土文学—and emphasizes the importance of local culture and customs that show “restricted” ways of human experience; to him the 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 beauty 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 than Sister Xianglin in Lu Xun’s New Year Sacrifice; to Xiaoxiao life is what it is; 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.

Nearly all Lu Xun’s short stories were written between 1918 and 1925. The time they deal with is from the eve of the Republican Revolution of 1911 until the May Fourth movement of 1919. The characters they present are mostly women whom Lu Xun considers victims of traditional Chinese society—he calls them “unfortunates”—whether a failed litteratus, a maudit révolté (cursed rebel), an unlucky ricksha puller, or a young village woman plagued by widowhood. Although Lu Xun seems more comfortable as a writer when he deals with the downtrodden, he also sometimes concerns himself with certain members of the ruling class, the scholar-gentry either in or out of office, who are opportunists, compromisers, or oppressors of the common people. Although the stories usually focus on a single protagonist and expose either his or her misery or hypocrisy and cruelty, sometimes they also condemn the entire Chinese populace. This view is developed in “The Diary of a Madman,” in which the protagonist goes beyond tradition and sees the people as cannibals—the weak devouring the strong. Lu Xun was a moralist who viewed contemporaneous China as a sick and degenerate society badly in need of treatment. Ironically, the young man’s concern for the health of China gains for him the diagnosis of “mad.”

Lu Xun is usually termed a “realist” as a writer of short fiction. Communist critics call him a “critical realist,” a “militant realist,” and even a Socialist Realist. Although Lu Xun sought to make his stories conform to reality as he had experienced it and wanted his readers to credit them as based on the truth, he was not realistic in the sense of the fiction of the great European exponents of nineteenth century realism and naturalism, such as Ivan Turgenev, Gustave Flaubert, and Émile Zola, in whom he never showed any interest. His realism was very personal and highly subjective. He was not interested in the material but in the spiritual. In his short stories, he probes into the human spirit as that has been affected by environment and tradition. If one considers the men he took for his intellectual mentors, T. H. Huxley, Max Stirner, Søren Kierkegaard, Henrik Ibsen, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Brandes, Lord Byron, Gogol, and Andreyev, one sees a curious thing: The majority are associated with the anti-Romantic spirit of individualism, and only two of them, Huxley and Brandes, with the anti-Romantic spirit of positivism. Lu Xun had an ironic view of reality that was highly subjective and tempered by strong Romantic elements. It was this view that attracted him to writers such as Gogol and Andreyev, both of whom attempted the fusion of Romanticism and realism and then the fusion of realism and symbolism, and Lu Xun adopted similar practices. Therefore, as a writer, Lu Xun might be more usefully termed a subjective realist or an expressionist rather than a social realist. He was surely not a Socialist Realist. One wonders how he would have taken Mao’s Yen’an Forum Talks of 1942. A satirist must exaggerate, draw sharp contrasts between good and evil. Although he exposed the faults of Chinese society, Lu Xun never offered any remedy except that it should honor the individual and free the spirit.

Lu Xun’s short stories, for the most part, grew out of his personal experience. He enhanced this subjectivity by the power of his imagination and taut artistic skill. His stories are characterized by their brevity but above all by their compactness of structure and their pithy, sharp style, in which each word is needed and apposite. His prose is strongly imagistic, especially in its visual appeal. Lu Xun seldom employs the figures of metaphor or simile; when he does use such a figure, however, it is usually highly effective. He makes use of historical and literary allusion, and one or more such allusions are to be found in the vast majority of his stories. He sometimes resorts to symbolism. Dialogue is usually kept to a minimum. Irony is a pervasive element in nearly all Lu Xun’s stories, with satire a frequent weapon used in defense of individual freedom. He shows unusual skill in fusing an action with its scene. Although description is suppressed, atmosphere emerges strongly.

Lu Xun was a highly sensitive man with a strong sense of justice. He was not content to endure evil with passive indifference. A sedentary literary man (a wenren), he admired action more than anything else but had no heart for it himself. An acute observer of human nature, but one with a limited range, he had a special knack for sketching what he saw with deft, swift strokes of his pen and with a minimum of words. He was a very gifted writer of short fiction but a mediocre thinker. His thinking fell short of complete clarity. A “wanderer” in the wasteland of hopes and broken dreams, he was at first inspired by Charles Darwin and Friedrich Nietzsche but misunderstood both. His later excursions into Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilich Lenin curtailed his imagination, aroused in him resentment and prejudice, and ran counter to his natural instinct for freedom, independence, and appreciation of individual worth. It was unfortunate that as a creative writer he thought that changing the face of China was more important than painting its portrait. As an individual, he could do little about the former but could have done much about the latter. He never realized this truth until the last year of his life.

Perhaps Lu Xun’s major weakness as a writer of fiction is his fondness for nostalgia, his lapses into sentimentality, and his inability always to deal fairly with persons other than the downtrodden. If in his short fiction Lu Xun had depicted humanity as he found it in all its richness, splendor, and nobility together with its poverty, stupidity, and moral degeneracy—in a spirit that extended charity to all and with a sense of the kinship of all human beings that included tolerance and a readiness on his part to pardon, leaving moral lessons for others to proclaim and class distinctions for others to condemn—he might have been a great writer rather than simply a gifted one whose full potential as a creative artist was never realized.

“The Diary of a Madman”

Of Lu Xun’s stories collected in Call to Arms, “The Diary of a Madman,” although it made its author prominent, is not one of his best. The first story to be written in the Western manner, it is more clever in conception than effective as a well-constructed tale. As C. T. Hsia, a judicious critic, has pointed out, the story’s weakness lies in the author’s failure to provide a realistic setting for the madman’s fantasies.

“Kong yiji”

The story “Kong yiji,” about a failed scholar who has become a wine bibber at a village tavern, where he is the butt of jokes, is a much stronger story than “The Diary of a Madman.” Kong yiji has studied the classics, but he has failed to pass even the lowest official examination. With no means of earning a living, he would have been reduced to beggary except for his skill in calligraphy, which enabled him to support himself by copying. He loved wine too much, however, and he was lazy. When he needed money, he took to stealing books from the libraries of the gentry. For such actions he was frequently strung up and beaten. After being absent from the tavern for a long time, he reappears, dirty and disheveled, his legs broken. Partaking of warm wine, he is the butt of the jokes and taunts of the tavern yokels. He departs from the tavern, but he is never seen again. It is presumed that he has died. As a commentary on the Chinese social order, the story presents a man who is a part of the detritus left by the examination system. At the same time, he must take responsibility for his own weaknesses of character. In addition, the story shows how cruel and unfeeling people can be to those who are less fortunate than they.


“Yao” (“Medicine”) is another powerful story. It shows especially careful construction and makes effective use of symbolism. The story concerns two boys who are unknown to each other but whose lives follow equally disastrous courses to become linked after their deaths. Hua Xiaozhuan is the tubercular son of a tea-shop owner and his wife. The boy is dying. Anxious to save his life, the parents are persuaded to pay a packet of money for a mantou (steamed bread-roll) soaked with the blood of an executed man, which is alleged by tradition to be a sure cure for tuberculosis. The beheaded man is young Xia You, the son of the widow Xia. A revolutionary seeking the overthrow of the Manchu or Qing Dynasty, he was betrayed to the authorities by his conservative Third Uncle, who collected a reward for his treason. Thus, the blood of a martyr and hero, a representative of the new order, is used in the service of a superstitious and useless medical cure. If the parents are ignorant and superstitious, they also truly love their son and try by all the means they know to save him, but he dies, regardless. Nobody has sought to save Xia You from execution; indeed, all the customers at...

(The entire section is 3740 words.)

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