Transmitting Values Through Literature: Considering Three Short Stories of Chinese Revolution

By Mohammed S. Ali
2015, Vol. 7 No. 04 | pg. 1/2 |

In a 1920 speech on women’s literature, the cultural critic Zhou Zuoren argued that the value of literature lies in its power to show us new human perspectives and “erase all boundaries and distances” (Zhou 1920), as spoken in the words of Leonid Andreyev. Thus, literature is tasked with the challenge of pulling us out of our own narrow perspectives, first by appealing to those perspectives and then by subverting those same ideas and exposing their shortcomings and fallacies.

Yet what happens when one generation of writers attempts to turn the tide on the values instilled by the literature of a previous generation? This question is exlpored and answered in the consideration of three classics, each written by Chinese women in the Revolutionary era: Zong Pu’s Red Beans, Ding Ling’s Shanghai, Spring 1930, and Xiao Hong’s Hands. Answers are found in the transformations and clashes between the old bourgeois ideals and the new socialist ideals that play out in the worldviews of their protagonists. In their dramatizations of social change at the individual level, these authors provide insight into the powers and limitations of literature to shape readers’ imaginations and determine their modes of feeling, acting, and being in society.

Zong Pu’s 1956 piece Red Beans focuses on the polarization between bourgeois and proletarian sensibilities through the painful romance between the leftist-minded protagonist Jiang Mei and the bourgeois villain Qi Hong. Thanks to the influence of her friend and revolutionary Xiao Su, Jiang Mei undergoes a transformation mediated by leftist literature by which she abandons her bourgeois sensibilities and commits herself to the revolutionary cause. The bourgeois Jiang Mei, prior to her transformation, is described “as remote from the world’s troubles as those pink oleanders” (Zong 1957, 251). Already, there is an association between a bourgeois background and attention to natural aesthetics. Bourgeois Jiang Mei is also described as removed from worldly affairs and oblivious to the struggles of humanity. Her favorite literature before entering the university and meeting Xiao Su are identical to Qi Hong’s, drawing heavily from romantic writers.

The explicit inclusion of their mutually beloved poem, “The River City,” is a telling example of their bourgeois sensibilities. The poem reads, “Who lives on, who has died / None can know / Thought not longing / I can never forget / A solitary grave…” (Zong 1957, 255), demonstrating that it is a glorification of a single person’s death amongst a multitude of thousands, thus establishing such bourgeois romance as devoid of general empathy in its stark valuation of one individual. Yet this valuation is revealed to be distorted and dangerous. Qi Hong’s motivations unravel as Jiang Mei grows farther apart from him in the pursuit of her own, leftist dreams. In one instance, “Qi Hong started to recite some lines from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. His voice was full of emotion, but Jiang Mei suspected that he cared more for the poetry than he did for her” (Zong 1957, 257).

Jiang Mei’s suspicions reveal that it is not the valuation of the individual that is the focus of the narrator’s feelings in romantic literature, but rather, a glorification of the feelings themselves, which are placed onto a physical person. Recalling “The River City,” the focus of the poem is not on the individual laid to rest in the solitary grave so much as it is on the eternal sorrow itself. Qi Hong’s declaration of love for Jiang Mei establishes that she is not the object of his feelings, but a person onto which he may map them. His poetic overture, “But you know how much I want to be with you, to go with you to listen to the newborn cicadas chirping and see the lotus leaves growing on the water” (Zong 1957, 259), is undermined by Jiang Mei’s observation that it sounded as though he was treating her as “some book or object that he owned” (Zong 1957, 259). It is made apparent that Qi Hong is moved by the natural imagery and sensations he fawns over, rather than the qualities of Jiang Mei as a human being. It is as if Qi Hong treats Jiang Mei as a mirror and a doll at which he can express his intense emotions and have them reverberate to him in turn.

Qi Hong’s glorification of his emotions follows precisely from what his bourgeois romantic literature has shown him and taught him how to do as evinced in his own speech and Shakespearean recitations. He is a case in point of the power of literature to shape one’s imagination and ideals and thereby determine his modes of being in the world, even if it is to his own detriment.

The failure of Qi Hong to see beyond himself is contrasted with Jiang Mei’s awakening as her roommate exposes her to leftist literature and revolutionary ideas. After reading Between Life and Death at Xiao Su’s recommendation, Jiang Mei realizes, “The ‘everyone’ her mother spoke of was the same as the people being spoken about in the book. Yes, life should be for everyone” (Zong 1957, 252). Her first exposure to leftist ideas resonates with her prior experiences and helps her to conceptualize and articulate her feelings on an idea her mother first planted within her mind. Her experience reciting “The Torch” for a school event further demonstrates the power of socialist literature to shape the imagination as a force for good, in parallel to Qi Hong’s corruption through bourgeois literature.

In her performance, Jiang Mei “felt as though she really were the girl Tang Ni, marching in a demonstration with a torch in her hand…Xiao Su was just like Li En, the girl’s mentor” (Zong 1957, 257). As the events in Red Beans play out, Xiao Su actually does act as a revolutionary mentor to Jiang Mei. Her experience in the recitation demonstrates literature’s ability to imbue one’s imagination with vocabulary and focus to thereby assign meaning to one’s own life experiences. Yet while romantic literature has taught Qi Hong’s imagination to find meaning in natural imagery and forceful emotions, socialist literature has cultivated in Jiang Mei a deep sense of empathy, a conceptualization of humanity (“everyone”) and human rights, and a burning passion to fight for those rights. This cultivation is moreover a cumulative process whereby literature reinforces itself which each new exposure. When editing leftist manuscripts at Xiao Su’s request, Jiang Mei remembers her poetry recital. “The call for democracy and freedom from starvation that ran through all of the pieces touched her deeply.

The same excitement that she had felt on the evening of the poetry recital stirred her again. The figure of Tang Ni appeared before her” (Zong 1957, 259). This passage demonstrates the repetitive reinforcement literature provides towards shaping one’s ideals. As is seen later, Jiang Mei gives up her romance with Qi Hong and becomes an active participant in the revolution. She eventually becomes a cadre in the Communist Party, solidifying the notion that the transformations of her ideals by literature lead to a transformation of her modes of being and activity in society.

Ding Ling’s 1930 piece, Shanghai, Spring 1930 conveys an examination and a call-to-arms for writers to abandon misguided romantic literary ideals for ones grounded in reality and in social improvement. Early on in the piece, Ruoquan, the author-turned-revolutionary and ex-friend of Zibin, becomes the mouthpiece by which Ding Ling explains how fiction impacts the formulation of ideals and exhorts her fellow writers to take responsibility for the effects of their work on their readers. He states that young, bourgeois readers “found that these [romantic] works suited their taste perfectly because they described the kind of depression they felt but couldn’t understand. Or else they found that those stories represented their ideals, and the characters were very adorable, so much like themselves” (Ding 1930, 116).

Ruoquan’s statement is underscored by the abundant observation that reading is a comparative exercise whereby people establish connections between their own experiences and the recorded experiences they encounter in literature. Through these connections, literature can exert a power over readers to construct meaning out of their own life experiences and memories by leading them to emulate the way that it (and by extension, its author) constructs meaning out of the verisimilar experiences catalogued within its stories. Such is the case for Meilin. In describing her own perspective on her relationship with Zibin, the narrator reveals, “In the past, having read a lot of classical and romantic fiction, her ideal had been to throw over everything for love. Once she fell in love with him, she really had left everything behind” (Ding 1930, 125).

Ding Ling structures the sentence to indicate a causal relationship between Meilin’s exposure to classical fiction and the establishment of her romantic ideals, just as is expressed in general terms within Ruoquan’s aforementioned speech. Furthermore, she reveals that Meilin actually followed through with her romantic inspirations by actually leaving everything behind for love, demonstrating that the determination of people’s ideals does not merely involve planting the stuff of dreams, but also directs their modes of being and acting in society, in a manner much like Jiang Mei’s socialist embrace in Red Beans.

Ding Ling’s criticism of bourgeois romantic literature is grounded in her claims that such literature is damaging because it promotes false ideals. In Ruoquan’s speech, Ding Ling criticizes romantic bourgeois literature for encouraging harmful emotions and turning people’s attention in the wrong direction. She writes, “They can’t see the connection between their suffering and society” (Ding 1930, 116), implying that bourgeois romantic literature causes youngsters to obsess over their suffering and become blind to society. In effect, the literature turns their attention inward and exclusively toward themselves as isolated individuals. This neatly describes Zibin and contributes to the establishment that he is a quintessential product of the culture Ruoquan is criticizing.

However, it is known that Zibin loves his wife and lives comfortably off of the royalties from his literature; the source of his anxiety is not from romance or poverty, as his misguided readers have been lead to believe through his works, but of his inability to integrate into the changing, revolutionary cultural scene. The misdiagnosis of bourgeois literature to its readers’ suffering is implied in Ruoquan’s speech and played out in Zibin’s life. Zibin’s relationship with Meilin, however, reveals that this misdiagnosis is not inadvertent, but intentional. The narrative describes their relationship from Zibin’s perspective early on, stating he “had gotten himself a pretty good position and, from among a small number of intellectual women, he’d been able to select a young woman [Meilin] who was above average in appearance, bearing, and culture” (Ding 1930, 115). The language conveys that he treated Meilin as a specimen, choosing her from a stock of animals. These are hardly the words Meilin would use to describe her romance with Zibin, as evidenced later when she reflects on her changing mood: “In the past she had read his fiction and had worshiped him. Then he had fallen in love with her, so she had fallen in love with him” (Ding 1930, 124).

There is no suggestion that Zibin had “selected” Meilin from a batch of female candidates to presumably approximate his ideal wife. However, Meilin’s perspective on their romance also conveys a mechanical touch. The manner in which she fell in love with Zibin is described like a reflex, as if they were following step-by-step the path of a romantic story. The divergent perspectives between husband and wife on their shared love implies a duplicitousness of bourgeois romantic literature to present a seductive yet fabricated reality that, by virtue of its falseness, obliges its followers to construct an artificial reality for themselves. While failing to see Zibin for who he really is, Meilin realizes that her personal ideals are not the ones that bourgeois romantic literature enticed her to follow, further establishing that bourgeois romantic literature is damaging because it is false.

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