Moral Degradation in China in the 20th century
The 20th century is a period of great inventions, savage wars, and millions of ruined lives. The whole world was bemused by the pitiless murders of human beings. It was a dramatic period for the Chinese nation, as well. The National War, Japanese forces, low level of life and corrupt highest ranks of society slowly and steadily led the country to moral degradation. Nevertheless, the 20th century gave the Chinese nation also a hope for revival, for reconsidering their values, and for preserving the real ones. A lot of important and crucial figures made their contribution to the Chinese culture development through the 20th century. Shen Congwen and She Lao were among those people whose profound literary works made society reconsider its moral values and principals and look for further mental development. Having extremely different personalities, life experience and beliefs, two of them shared love to their country and its people, shared hope in the good nature of human being, and criticized the totalitarian character of communist. Shen Congwen’s The Husband and She Lao’s Rickshaw Boy are acclaimed all over the world and were translated into English several times. The novels, which depict extremely different life stories, share partially some basic ideas and aspects of human life and have some textual correspondences and oppositions.
Congwen’s and Lao’s years of life include both the beginning and the second half of the 20th century. That time in the history of China can be characterized by a great decline in all spheres of human’s existence. The circumstances of that period influenced lives of both writers, creating new obstacles and challenges in their ways. Shen Congwen was born in the family of a military officer on December 28, 1902. As he was in his 20s, Shen had already discovered the beauty of literal art and began to dedicate all his time to literature. The author depicted vivid and realistic scenes from country life, was concentrated on sexual themes and was not afraid to raise problematic and actual for that time topics. Communist ideologists and writers criticized the writer for such active social position. In 1930, a short story The Husband was written. The work focuses on the realities of local country life and accentuates the lack of morality among people. The story became well-known in different countries and was translated into English. In the following years, a great number of books were written by Congwen, but almost all of them were forbidden to publish.
By opposition and critics of communist ideology, the life of another Chinese writer can be characterized. It was She Lao who had links to collapsed Manchu Dynasty and disapproved Marxist ideas and corrupt capitalist government. She Lao was born in the family of the former palace guard of Manchu Dynasty, in 1899. After finishing school, he became a school teacher. In 1924, Lao went to London where he taught Chinese at the University of London’s school of Oriental Studies. After living five years in London, the writer returned to China and became more engaged in politic. A number of works were written by She Lao in the following ten years. In 1936, the novel Rickshaw Boy appeared in the magazine “Cosmic Wind”, and three years later, it was published. In the novel, the author portrayed physical and moral decline of individual and society. Like Shen Congwen, Mr. Lao was concerned in his novels about the deterioration of social and political situation in China. He also actively criticized the Japanese occupation of Northeast China.
The Husband and Rickshaw Boy have completely different plots and characters, yet both of them describe the main problems of the Chinese country in the 20th century – moral decline of people and corrupted authorities. These common ideas were raised by Shen Congwen and She Lao through the employment of certain writing techniques, language figures, various symbols and inserting complex characters in their pieces of writing. These two stories share many parallel and opposing elements, which can be identified and explored through analyzing and comparing their plots, set of characters, stylistic features and symbols.
The short story The Husband by Shen Congwen describes all peculiarities of the family life in the countryside. The relations between a husband and a wife lose their romantic and spiritual sides, when prostitution becomes a natural way for the last one to earn a living. Men usually stay in the village and take care of a household, while their women go to the city to obtain a well-paid and prestigious job, namely to turn into a prostitute. Such way of life is ordinary and acceptable for the Chinese society. The young husband comes to the city and is amused by its luxuriance and richness comparing with the life in the village. His wife, who is one of the best and the most beautiful prostitute on the river, earns big sums and becomes a real citizen. The man respected all her clients and even was glad to meet them and to get acquainted with such important and noble figures: “It was the first time he had ever talked with such noble person. He’d never forget this wonderful experience”. The main character of the story, the husband, is a derivation from social rules, since he, finally, sees all absurdness of such lifestyle and wants his wife return to a countryside. The title of the story carries some particular meaning since the definite article before a noun informs the readers that the main character is not ordinary, just one of the other men, but he is unique and preserves his values. The main heroine has to choose between her marriage and her prestigious job. She chooses to return to the rural life with her husband. Shen Congwen did not want to prettify or to hide details and peculiarities of the country life in China, but he tried to make it more realistic. The main problem, which is raised in the story, is the loss of moral values by people. The author explains that this phenomenon is not a fault of the ordinary Chinese people, but it is a result of the dire economic situation in the country and of the well-developed corrupt authorities. Nevertheless, Shen Congwen still believed in a good nature of people, in importance and integrity of marriage. The main characters of the story prove that in all situations there is always a way to be sincere with yourself, to preserve your values, and to follow your heart, but not only materialistic aims.
The idea of moral decadence of Chinese community is also the main subject of She Lao’s Rickshaw Boy. Although the problem is described from completely another perspective, the author supports Congwen’s topic of the corrupted human nature. The main character of the novel is a bereaved boy, who leaves his village and goes to the city to earn money for living. The boy chooses proper and interesting job for him – to run in a rickshaw. Xiangzi prefers to earn money by physical work, to be honest with people and to have a good reputation among other rickshaw men: “He brought with him a country boy’s powerful physique and honesty”. His main desire is to buy his own rickshaw, but as soon as he gets one, the boy is taken by soldiers. Despite all the hard and restless work done by him, Xiangzi cannot manage to fulfill his dream and become happy. Injustice of the life as well as challenges, troubles and misfortunes, which befall on the boy’s way, change the main character from a determined and strong man into a weak-willed person, who cannot live one day without drinking. Despondency of the person and inevitability of moral degradation are the striking points that make the difference between two stories. She Lao sees no hope on change to good of the Chinese mentality, while Shen Congwen still believes in richness and benevolence of human soul.
One common feature in two stories is changeable, not static main characters. Yet, Shen Congwen’s couple preserves its moral values, while in Rickshaw Boy the moral degradation of the main hero is inevitable. In The Husband, the social roles of a man and a woman become reversed. The husband stays at home, leads calm lifestyle, and is proud of his wife, who earns money by sleeping with other men. In the story, the greatest power is concentrated in the woman’s hands. Women are depicted as clever, cunning and stronger personalities, while men are very close in their behavior to children. For instance, when Seventh Maid’s husband does not stay in the city, she gives him money, like mothers give candies to their kids. On the other night, the woman brings her man candies to make up for her absence. The husband is a simple and faint-hearted man, who knows nothing about the city. That is why, when warden comes to the boat, the young man is almost scared to death and hides from him. Nevertheless, after the conversation with the warden, who is considered wife’s important client by the husband, the young man becomes happy as a child and cannot keep joy inside. At the end of the story, the husband understands all inanity of life on the river, and this discovery is the starting point of his spiritual recovery. Although the man cries in the final part of the story, these are tears of mature and honest man.
Congwen’s “The Husband” describes the upside down society, where men are concerned about housework and women are breadwinners in the family. In the story, it is the woman who decides everything and speaks. The main writing technique which is used by the author is to make familiar strange, while strange becomes familiar. Thus, the life on the river is safer than on the ground, since inhabitants of boats have their own loyal guard – the warden. At night the boats change into cozy and friendly dinner rooms, when people gather around fire and prepare meal. But closer to the end, this deformed world gets into normal state: life in the country is considered better and happier than that in the city. It is the husband who speaks at the end, and his wife agrees with his words and follows her man. The world in “Rickshaw boy” seemed to be ordinary in the beginning: a person works hard and receives what he/she deserves. Although Xiangzi has to work long three years to get enough money for buying a rickshaw, he reaches his aim and manages to do it. The War appears to be a turning point of the novel, since the world changes and nobody can be sure in future and I fulfillment of dreams. People have no rights, no confidence and no morality. Injustice of life is mostly the result of the War, which makes people to worry only about survival, but not about feelings of others.
The main character of Rickshaw Boy is a complete opposition to Congwen’s character. Xiangzi is strong, determined, and hard-working man. He has no family and earns his living without help of others. He does not pay attention to his health or other ordinary things, such as alcohol, women, and amusements. The young man thinks only about his working success and about buying his own rickshaw. The rickshaw becomes the greatest desire of the man, his only aim, and his only concern. Xiangzi does not let himself rest and relax until he can buy a rickshaw. Rickshaw turns into a symbol of independence, power and freedom in the story. However, the boy’s dreams about happy future cannot be fulfilled. Six months after buying his own rickshaw, Xiangzi is taken by soldiers and separated from his priceless purchase. But it was only the first of all misfortunes that will appear on the way of the boy: Xiangzi’s unhappy marriage with the daughter of the owner of rickshaw rent shed, his love affair with a prostitute, and failure of his financial state. Under pressure of all these circumstances, the main hero, whose will power saves him in the beginning of the story, gives up, begins to drink a lot, and loses all his noble features. She Lao demonstrates how easily a good person can take a wrong way and destroy his/her life.
One more important and accomplished character in Rickshaw Boy is Fourth Master Lui, who owned a rickshaw rent shed. He is a master of manipulation, respected by people and has a great reputation. At the same time, he always gives a hand to his friends and encounters if they require his help. He is tall and looks like a tiger with round nose and square jaw. The prototype of this character can be seen in Congwen’s The Husband, and this is the warden. He is the “lord of the river” and Godfather of almost all prostitutes. The warden had only one eye but he can see much better than most people with two. He has a family, likes to drink and enjoys his life. The warden has an extremely good reputation in the city, since he is more respected and more powerful than local authorities: “His power over those little boats was more concentrated and absolute than that which any Chinese emperor or president ever had on land”. Yet he is so powerful and strong, the warden feel real sympathy to Seventh Maid’s husband and wants to make friends with him.
The interconnection and parallelism between The Husband and Rickshaw Boy can be observed not only through the characters of the stories, but also through the particular descriptions of the cities by the writers, through usage of different symbols and through presenting main problems with the help of various writing techniques. First, both stories describe and focus on the completely opposite profession: prostitution and rickshaw men. While the first is completely far from any moral principles, rickshaw pulling is honest and fair way to earn money. Thus, physical pleasure confronts physical and hard work.
Second, both writers raise the problem of importance of money in the characters’ lives. The Seventh Maid in The Husband thinks that all problems can be solved by money, but her man, indeed, denies it. Xiangzi is concerned only with money, even his big dream to have own rickshaw is only the way to earn more money.
From the first sight, the social roles of man are different in two writing, but their common features reveal throughout the stories. Thus, the rickshaw man seems to be independent from women, self-controlled, strong-willed, but by the end of the story, he is seduced by his future wife and falls in love with a prostitute. These relationships with the woman make him unhappy, but he cannot change his position. On the contrary, the husband does not depend on his wife, since he can choose whether to stay with her in the city or to return to the village. The end of The Husband shows the power of the man, who makes his wife to leave her craft and leave with him.
In addition, She Lao and Shen Congwen used in their works completely different space and time characteristics. In Rickshaw Boy, the city is a friendly and safe place for the main hero, but fields and countryside are a real danger for his life. The city feeds Xiangzi, and only here he feels as at home. In The Husband, the city is a hostile place for the character, since there are no moral norms and values on the river. It is the city that changes people, makes them materialistic and indifferent to each other. What is more, for Shen Congwen’s story the life on the river begins at night, while for the rickshaw boy night in the field mean almost death.
Finally, there are a great number of symbols in both novels. In Rickshaw Boy, one of the most important symbols is the camel. Xiangzi’s nickname “camel” is not chosen accidently. Both animals and the man were in great danger, but they managed to survive. Xiangzi’s character possesses many features that associated with camel behavior. He is hardworking as he can work long hours without any break, does not pay attention to any obstacles, determined and concentrated on his aim. In The Husband, the story about the knife is quite symbolic. Although the knife does not perform any practical value, it is a sign of the husband’s importance and value. When the man cannot find the knife, he even shouts on his wife, and she begins to cry. Thus, the husband shows his prevalence over his woman.
In conclusion, Shen Congwen and She Lao are two masters of Chinese literature. Both of them were born, lived and worked almost at the same time of period, describing and raising the same topic. Yet their works, namely The Husband and Rickshaw Boy are wonderful creations and landmarks in the world literature, completely different in their structure and plot, and, at the same time, share parallel and common symbols, ideas, and writing techniques.