Fiction, written by Lu Hsun, the father of modern Chinese literature, is a critically realistic work that mirrors the societal veracity of his time. Lu Hsun was a brilliant writer who had a clear insight into the social history of the country and understood the Chinese culture and society impeccably. His writings are found to be embedded with elements of imagism, surrealism, and symbolism; however, the realism of the time that is presented in his stories bear secular importance as they paint a historical picture of the social era of China.
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He has used various postmodernist forms to enhance his representation of a culture that is vast and ancient. Though a modernist/postmodernist in style, Hsun presented an apt realism in his work that enhances our understanding of the history of China in the 1920s. Jaroslav Průšek points out that Lu Hsun gathered a lot of the material for his plot and stories from historical sources and traditional documents (Průšek 171).
Consequently, historical facts and social cohesion of the Chinese society is abundantly present in the stories written by Hsun. In this essay, I will argue that the eighteen short stories in the Selected Works of Lu Hsun presents a picture of the social realities of china and present the emergence of the new Chinese nationalism in the post-May Fourth revolution era. In this essay, I will discuss the short stories written by Hsun. The short stories by Hsun are enriched with tropes of satire, realism, symbolism, and psychoanalytic.
Thus, a single trend is insufficient to grasp the complete theme of the short stories; rather, they represent a series of trends that are collected together in the stories. Social history and symbolism are the two basic elements that may be found to run consistently in the stories written by Lu Hsun. This paper will undertake an analysis of the selected short stories to demonstrate the presence of realism in Hsun’s stories that present a clear picture of the Chinese national character and social history.
Drawing from the inferences made by Fredric Jameson on Chinese literature, one can assume that Chinese literature written in the 20s and 30s were predominantly memoirs of social history. Jameson points out that third world literature is predominantly “national allegories”: “All third-world texts are necessary, I want to argue, allegorical” (Jameson 69).
Jameson went on to emphasize the Chinese literature’s overemphasis on the allegorical social structures in literature arose from the struggle with western imperialism and hence, affected their skillfully hidden depiction of the historical facts of the time under tropes of allegory.
The Chinese stories written in the 20s and 30s represent the social histories of the era, especially the social and political contexts of the time. Detailed analysis of the stories of Hsun particularly presents a picture of the Chinese social realities. Arguably, the literature defines the historical facts in a social context and, therefore, presents the real nation to the readers of the future.
While reading “Diary of a Madman,” western literary understanding would make the readers believe that it is a story about the psychological breakdown of a man (“Diary of a Madman” 3). The madman in the aforementioned story by Hsun is engulfed in a psychotic-break wherein he believes that the people around him were harboring a secret from him. Moreover, his delusional mind assumes that the secret must be their indulgence in cannibalism.
When the man had reached a climax of his delusions and was about to harm himself physically, he faces the truth of his cannibalistic brother, who had murdered his little sister years ago, which he believed was due to illness. Like any other modern western tales of psychosis, Hsun creates a halo of objectivity wherein the readers are unable to separate the truth from the madman’s fictitious phobia.
When the protagonist hears a conversation between his brother and the doctor (whom he assumes to be another cannibal), the charade between reality and fiction completely shatters. Nevertheless, where do we find any relevance to history in a madmen babbles? The truth, when stripped-off of all its illusions, becomes a naked fiction. This is what Hsun observes in this story. Hsun reconstructed the “grisly and terrifying objective real world” underneath the charade of the illusive world we live in.
The existence is stripped bare through illusions of a madman (Jameson 70). The narrative by Hsun employs the existentialist trope of reality and illusion to create a literary effect and presupposes, unlike traditional Chinese works on realism, a prior “personal knowledge” (Jameson 70). Hence, the underlying assumption that Hsun makes is that the readers have a distinct understanding of the dark world of a neurotic mind to appreciate the realism in his story.
The symbolic realism that is expressed through the explicit use of cannibalism relates to Chinese society. This figurative description of the Chinese society by Lu Hsun turns out to be more “literal” than the “literal” level of the text” (Jameson 71). The society that Lu Hsun describes through this story is post-imperialist Chinese society where men and women literally act as cannibals as they try to devour on their fellow citizens in desperation.
Their souls maimed and retarded by the traditional rules of society, and they consume on one another just to stay alive. Lu Hsun observes this phenomenon in all hierarchies of society. Hence, the story of the madman by Hsun is actually a symbolic representation of the terrifying social history of the time.
In another story, “The True Story of Ah Q,” Lu Hsun presents a social satire on Chinese national character through the story is about a dim-witted, drunkard, laborer (Hsun 10). The story relates to the frivolous daily routine of a man who has almost no work or education. The story symbolizes self-deception even when a man faces extreme disgrace and downfall. When Ah Q faces humiliating moments, he convinces himself of his moral superiority over his oppressors and succumbs to their tyranny:
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If the idlers were still not satisfied but continued to bait him, they would, in the end, come to blows. Then only after Ah Q had, to all appearances, been defeated, had his brownish pigtail pulled and his head bumped against the wall four or five times, would the idlers walk away, satisfied at having won. Ah Q would stand there for a second, thinking to himself, “It is as if I were beaten by my son. What is the world coming to nowadays?” Thereupon he too would walk away, satisfied at having won. (“The True Story of Ah Q” 10)
The above quote is a true depiction of modern China that was built between from the 1900s to 1940s. The introduction of western philosophy into Chinese society updated the intellectuals of the May Fourth era with a new awakening, and they started questioning the traditional mores of the Chinese society and blamed it for the country and society’s backwardness.
Then the Chinese nationalism that brewed in the country was painted with disgust and abasement of the cultural norms of the country, which is evident in “The True Story of Ah Q.” Hence, Chinese society was moving towards an anti-traditionalistic nationalism that detested the cultural and social norms of the old purists.
The intelligentsia that grew with the May Fourth hailed western liberalism as the way ahead for the development of the backward Chinese society. The satire becomes more blatant at the end of the story when Ah Q executed for a minor crime, definitely bringing forth the faults in the traditional Chinese society. Ah Q becomes a metaphor for all Chinese men and women who lived at that time. He, therefore, becomes a symbol of the traditional Chinese excess so loathed by the modern intelligentsia of the 20s.
In the preface of “Call to Arms,” Lu Hsun expresses his disgust for the traditional backwardness of the Chinese society and his motive for using literature as a medium to fight against traditionalists:
The people of a weak and backward country, however strong and healthy they may be, can only serve to be made examples of, or to witness such futile spectacles; and it doesn’t really matter how many of them die of illness. The most important thing, therefore, was to change their spirit, and since at that time, I felt that literature was the best means to this end, I determined to promote a literary movement. (“Preface to Call to Arms” 1)
In the story “Some Rabbits and a Cat,” Lu Hsun describes a group of children, adults, and a dog adults gathered in a circle to watch the small bunnies playing. The description resembles the gathering of people awaiting public execution. Even in this case, the crowd had gathered to satisfy their curiosity as they would in case of a public performance. However, once the curiosity of men and women dissipated, the bunnies were locked up in an iron cage in the backyard.
The bunnies are described as naïve, almost like the Chinese people, especially the younger generation, who were trying to find a place in the hostile and caged Chinese society. However, there is an element of hope in the story. The rabbits are creatures that breed and survive their oppressors, as Hsun believes, would the Chinese people.
The rabbits are downtrodden, which occupy the lowest echelon of the Chinese society. Though the downtrodden are often trampled under the oppression of the powerful, they always survive. This story depicts the spirit of survival of the Chinese youths and the poor. The story has another metaphor in the black cat that preys on the first two bunnies. It depicts the ugly class of men who devour on the society, the elite, powerful, and rich class. Here too, Lu Hsun implicitly talks of the cannibalistic tendency of Chinese society.
In “A Comedy of Ducks,” the readers, now in the form of a little duckling, encounter similar images of cannibalism. The duckling represents the naïve youth of China who treads on an unimaginative, discoursed path of set patterns and behavior, and gobbles the people who digress from the norms. The story relates the condition of a “silent” China that had lost its voice. The voiceless, apathetic people of china are the real ducks in the story. The imagery of the cannibalistic Chinese society again becomes apparent in the story.
Other stories like “My Old Home” and “The New Year’s Sacrifice” to show a strong urge in the narrators of the stories to depart from the traditionalist culture of the old China. The urge to create a new identity for the Chinese people, separate from the old, claustrophobic Chinese identity, becomes apparent in the stories. In “My Old House,” the narrator of the story realizes his doubts about the traditional ideologies present in society.
He begins to doubt the reasons behind the life’s adversity that Jun-t’s, the narrator’s childhood friend, faces every day. When the narrator returns after a long absence from his home with many new experiences, he somehow is unable to reconcile between his newfound life and his old life. The identity crisis that the narrator faces is established through alienation from his old way of life that he had renounced a long time ago. His doubt about the bleak old ways are voiced when he says:
As we drew near my former home the day became overcast, and a cold wind blew into the cabin of our boat, while all one could see through the chinks in our bamboo awning were a few desolate villages, void of any sign of life, scattered far and near under the somber yellow sky. I could not help feeling depressed. (“My Old Home” 9)
Doubts about the traditional past become more apparent when the narrator asks the existential question if the old-fashioned past has any place in the new modern world. The narrator talks of Jun-it’s as a mirror image of his former self and questions the ideals he held earlier. He also evaluates the meaningless meddling of the older ways in Jun-Tzu’s wretched life.
“The New Year’s Sacrifice” narrates the story of a woman who was twice married and divorced, then raped and lost her child, had become suicidal in the end. When she actually died, the narrator cannot understand the reason behind her existence in the first place.
The narrator of the story believes that the main protagonist, the wife of Hsiang Lin, of the story leads a meaningless life immersed in traditionalism, does not denounce the traditional way completely. The narrators in both the stories are unable to fathom the reason behind the silent observance of the traditional ways of life by Jun-the and Hsiang Lin’s wife in the hands of poverty and patriarchy.
In both the stories, “My Old Home” and “A New Year’s Sacrifice,” the narrators are unable to create a self-identity separate from the traditional self, and that is why they talk of the meaningless existence of Jun-t’s and Hsiang Lin’s wife. They believe a separate identity can only be created with meaning reason for existence when that identity is separated from the clutches of traditionalism.
The only way the characters in Lu Hsun’s stories can create a separate identity is by denouncing the traditional way and accepting the new. In this similar fashion, Lu Hsun creates characters in almost all his stories, as grotesque and extreme. They are distortions of the traditional Chinese society that the modern intellectuals detested.
The history of the transformation of Chinese society from imperialism to communism cannot simply be marked by eleven years of violent events. The struggle emerged from within the society. The change brought forth through a series of social struggles within the enlightened minds that struggled to create an identity separate from that of the traditionalists. Lu Hsun’s stories represent these minds that deliberately wanted to break free from the shackles of old China.
Hence, the stories he wrote were filled with symbolism and imagery of a naïve, senseless, and quixotic world that did not have an identity. The older world was so desperate and oppressed that their cannibalistic instinct became apparent, and they devoured on the flesh of fellow citizens merely to ensure their survival. The stories of Lu Hsun are replete with this social history of China.
Lu Hsun relates a history that does not talk of the wars and revolutions but of small internal struggles of men and women to survive in an increasingly cannibalistic and power-hungry society. The emergence of the new Chinese nationalism from the May Fourth revolution creates a space for the downtrodden, who remained as invisible in the traditional Chinese societies. They were mere cogs in a machine that was dispensable and had no individual identity.
The characters of the lunatic, the wife, the friend, the ducks, and the bunnies are symbols of the underdogs in the traditional Chinese society who had no meaning for their existence; they were devoid of identity and lived a life of perpetual fear. Lu Hsun, in his stories, creates little symbols that paint the picture of a society that China in the twenties was trying to topple. Thus, the stories are true histories of China and the Chinese people and narrate to the readers the true pulse of the Chinese nationalism of the twenties.
Hsun, Lu. Selected Stories of Lu Hsun. Trans. Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1972. Print.
Jameson, Fredric. “Third-world literature in the era of multinational capitalism.” Social Text 15 (1986): 65-88. Print.
Průšek, Jaroslav. “Lu Hsün’s “Huai Chiu”: A Precursor of Modern Chinese Literature.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 29 (1969): 169-176. Print.