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Modern Chinese Literature Insights

One of the most important aspects of an American education is the study of British and American literature. The language in both countries is considered the same.

Those who go on to college might be introduced to a variety of European literature: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, Victor Hugo, Guy de Maupassant, Dante, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, etc.

What is sorely lacking in our schools is the mention of any of the works of great Asian writers. Asia not only has the most people in the world but the greatest variety of legend, myths and stories we in the West seldom enjoy or even know about.

This year marks the 89th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement in China. It was a social, political and cultural time of change for the Republic of China. China was only eight years removed from thousands of years of Dragon Throne rule. Novels, newspaper serials and magazines of the time fed a growing contempt for traditional culture. The “old days” were keeping China from matching the military and industrial power of Japan and the Western world.

On May 4, 1919, word came that the Versailles treaty (that ended World War I) had ceded the defeated Germany’s territorial rights in China to Japan. Massive student riots broke out. China felt shamed to have Japan (people they compared to monkeys) be ceded the old German territories of Shandong province, home of Confucius.

China intellectuals (anyone who had finished high school was an intellectual) saw the need of a new culture. The old culture stressed the Confucian lifestyle of hierarchy and relationships of strict obedience. Democracy and science study became the way of the future.

Writers began to write as they talked rather than in the stilted classical Chinese of the centuries past. One of these, Lu Xun (or Lu Hsun) wrote many short stories showing the corrupt nature in business, politics and government. One of his best short novels is The True Story of Ah-Q, about a village idiot who thinks everything he does is great and monumental. It suggested a proud China played the fool while being controlled and outdistanced by Western nations.

The character of Ah Q is continually defeated, yet he keeps turning the situation around so he is the better man, the ultimate winner. No matter how many times he stumbles or fails, he seems to himself as spiritually superior to the pinheads around him. He even fails as a revolutionary. While being carted outside the city to be executed as a spy (which he wasn’t) by firing squad, he laments: “Most people were dissatisfied, because a shooting was not such a fine spectacle as a decapitation.”

Without some understanding of the times, this story seems strange and difficult, especially the satire, humor and pathos. China, for more than a century, suffered the notorious opium trade pushed on them by the British Empire. When China’s Commissioner Lin wrote Queen Victoria to stop shipping opium, she did not even answer. Britain’s great empire saw all their colonial subjects as inferior.

All the writing was not dark and gloomy. They made the most of humor as the following On Expressing An Opinion by Lu Xun reveals:

“I dreamed I was in the classroom of a primary school preparing to write an essay, and asked the teacher how to express an opinion.

“‘That’s hard!’ glancing sideways at me over his glasses, he said: ‘Let me tell you a story–When a son is born to a family, the whole household is delighted. When he is one month old they carry him out to display him to the guests–usually expecting some compliments, of course.’

“One says: ‘This child will be rich.’ Then he is heartily thanked.

“One says: ‘This child will be an official.’ Then some compliments are made him in return.

“One says: ‘This child will die.’ Then the father is thoroughly beaten by the whole family.

“That the child will die is inevitable, while to say that he will be rich or a high official may be a lie. Yet the lie is rewarded, whereas the statement of the inevitable gains you a beating. You don’t want to tell lies ¦.”

“I don’t want to tell lies, sir, neither do I want to be beaten. So what should I say!”

“In that case,” the wise teacher said: “Aha! Just look at this child! Oh, my word…. Oh, my! Oho! Hehe! He, hehehehehe!”

Britt Towery is a retired missionary and freelance writer in San Angelo, Texas.