Valerie Levan
University of Chicago
Iconoclasm in Self-Expression: Narratives of Love and Guilt
Psychological guilt is often coupled with romantic desire in the short stories and
novels of the 1920s and 1930s. The presence of such guilty feelings can surprise readers
accustomed to the more permissive attitudes of late imperial poetry or prose fiction, and
lead to speculation about their source. The question of why modern protagonists
suddenly begin berating themselves for behavior and passions that would scarcely have
troubled their literary forefathers is indeed worth asking, for although these earlier
philanderers do not always escape from karmic retribution, most seem to view the
romantic encounter as their prerogative and not as a shameful pleasure. Regardless of the
light in which late-imperial narrative presents their actions, late-imperial protagonists are
rarely described as feeling guilty about what they do and furthermore are not depicted
within their textual worlds as heartless or amoral. On the contrary, their lack of
“compunction” can be more accurately read as according with the sexual morality of their
time, for a certain degree of philandering was in fact a male prerogative as long as it did
not lead these patresfamilias to neglect their primary duties. Men who took concubines
could even claim to thus comply with one of the most fundamental of their primary duties:
to produce male heirs to continue the family line. While we have ample evidence that
their wives were not always happy with this arrangement, women whose husbands took
concubines, visited brothels, or fancied male opera singers had no socially sanctioned
grounds for grievance as long as their husbands continued to provide for them and
maintain family fortunes. So I ask again, why is it that desire makes their modern sons
feel so guilty?
Valerie Levan
University of Chicago
One common response to this question informs the reasoning behind some
condemnations of Yu Dafu as a decadent writer. According to this familiar explanation,
young writers like Yu felt guilty for whiling away their time with barmaids and actresses,
or for creating protagonists who did so, when they owed their energies and allegiance to a
duty that trumped any ties of romantic involvement: that of rescuing the nascent Chinese
nation. There is truth to this line of reasoning, and in fact one finds support for it in Yu
Dafu‟s own work, for example in the following rather bald words of Sinking ‟s lovelorn
protagonist: “I won‟t love a woman again! I‟ll just love my motherland ( zuguo ), and
simply think of my motherland as my lover!” 1 The idea of saving the nation was,
however, an ethical yardstick against which any endeavor could be measured and either
fall short or succeed. Anything that did not directly play a part in the project of national
salvation could be subject to charges of uselessness and frivolity, and presumably lead to
feelings of guilt if one continued to indulge. Thus because a guilty conscience vis à vis
the nation is not linked exclusively to romantic or sexual experience – which I will refer
to jointly as „intimacy‟ – we must dig a bit deeper to uncover the roots of this very
specific form of guilt.
I would like to suggest that the cause of guilty feelings about intimacy as
expressed in literature can be found in societal changes that affected writers‟ ethical
frameworks, or shifted, as Charles Taylor would say, the “horizons” of their moral
experience. Under the auspices of the women‟s movement, “civilized” marriage
( wenming hunyin ), new sexual morality and “free love” were ideologically linked to
1 See Yu Dafu, Yu Dafu wenji , vol. 1 (Hong Kong: Joint Publishing Co., 1982), p. 49. “ 我在也不爱女人
Valerie Levan
University of Chicago
national salvation. 2 In terms of practice, proponents of these changes in the social order
believed that by freely choosing their own spouses and entering into companionate
marriages based on mutual respect and attraction, rather than into “forced” unions
arranged by their parents, this generation of young people would provide the loving and
enlightened homes and the healthy reproductive environment in which the sons and
daughters of a new China could be produced and nurtured. In terms of theory, the search
for true love became a symbolically charged pursuit, representative not only of the
exercise of modern individualist freedom, but even constitutive of that free identity, as
modern romantic relationships offered young men and woman an opportunity to
instantiate their ideals. Thus there was great pressure to succeed in one‟s romantic
endeavors, because to do so was to have success in a very significant way as a free
modern individual.
There was not, however, a consensus view of how to go about conducting these
modern affairs of the heart. Despite a plethora of guidance in advice columns,
sexological writings, missionary tracts, and popular and high literature, there was not
much agreement on a clear standard of behavior to which one should ideally hold oneself.
Questions arose, such as those of constancy: should it apply now to men as well as
women, or be done away with altogether? Also lacking were economic opportunities for
2 The notion of “civilized marriage,” also called “new-style marriage” ( xinshi hunyin ), was introduced with
the help of Christian missionaries, who used the term to designate a marriage ceremony according to the
Christian model, entered into by a man and a woman who had selected each other of their own volition. In
fact, Christianity seems to have offered still rare opportunities for young men and women to mingle outside
of their own homes, and bible study meetings receive both matter-of-fact and humorous treatment in the
novels of Yu Dafu and Zhang Ziping as excellent places to meet girls. See Yu Dafu‟s Moving South and
Zhang Ziping‟s Shangdi de ernümen (Children of God). “Free love” or ziyou lian’ai (also lian’ai ziyou )
basically indicates a relationship entered into of one‟s own free choice, without family involvement or
consultation. It should not be regarded as synonymous with the sexual liberality expressed by the same
term in the 1960s in the United States, though it sometimes was used in the Chinese context to indicate a
union formed only of love, without strictures of duty or responsibility, and obliged to last only as long as
mutual feelings of love endured.
Valerie Levan
University of Chicago
young women or men to lead the independent existences necessary for them to become
closely acquainted with unrelated members of the opposite sex. 3 It is true that the rules
of love remain malleable in societies with long-defined codes of romantic conduct, and
that the presence of established rules does not mean that they will be followed. It is still
far easier, however, to act without anxiety when one knows what one thinks it is right to
do, regardless of whether or not, in the end, one does it. The problem intimacy posed for
young people in China during this time was that although they had declared the old order
of arranged marriage, concubinage, and sexual permissiveness (for men who could afford
it) an obstacle to modernity, they did not yet enjoy the social conditions necessary to
make viable a new order of free love based on gender equality. Some exploited this
interlude between romantic moral orders, some saw their lives destroyed by it, and many
others muddled along as best they could. 4 Lu Xun‟s well-known story, Regret for the
Past , in which the formerly idealistic male protagonist makes a “confession” of his failed
free love relationship, exemplifies the latter, and expresses the self-doubt and
disappointment which seems so often to have been the result of the modern intimate
Young male protagonists without a romantic moral compass – or with one ill-
matched to then-current conditions of Chinese society – experience unprecedented guilt
with regard to intimacy because they fail to love successfully, or they think or fear they
do, or in the worst case, desiring the freedoms and standards of a past they are
3 Because these progressive young people so seldom succeeded in persuading their own parents to adopt
their enlightened views, entering into a free love relationship often meant breaking with their families and
renouncing any claim to financial support. Even famous freethinkers like Yu Dafu and Lu Xun found
themselves unable to resist familial pressure to marry, and both had brides selected for them while they
were students.
4 I should note that the “young people” I am talking about are members of the educated elite. The vast
majority of marriages during this period were still arranged.
Valerie Levan
University of Chicago
endeavoring to view as un-free and backward, they fail to find contentment in the single
partner they have freely chosen, and who seems to have freely chosen them. While my
intention is certainly not to wax nostalgic about the conditions of Chinese society – or
any other society, for that matter – prior to the gains of the Women‟s Movement, I do
think that an understanding of romantically oriented literature from the early part of the
twentieth century benefits from the admission that the pressure for men to find in a single
partner qualities they could previously have sought in a few different women (and men)
did indeed place great strain on romantic relationships and on the very idea of “free love”
itself. 5 The prominence of guilt in literature provides us with startling and overwhelming
proof that free love was as perilous as it was promising for the psyches of its young
protagonists. In this chapter I will focus on Yu Dafu‟s full-length novel, Mi yang (Lost
lamb) (1927). While my ultimate goal is to understand how guilt figures in Yu Dafu‟s
process of literary self-articulation, I also look to contemporaneous discourses of
intimacy to support my conclusions. I begin my investigation by discussing the new
model of selfhood and self-expression that emerges alongside these new modes of
I. The Guilty Subject: Another Look at the Paradox of Self
For what I have to say, I shall have to invent a language as novel as my project.
- Rousseau, the Confessions
5 Because my primary concern in this study is with Yu Dafu, I am more interested in looking at this
problem from the male point of view. Much could also be gained, however, from considering the
unprecedented choice free love offered to women as potentially problematic in this transitional period,
instead of simply assuming that any opportunity for the greater exercise of freedom would have been
positive. This kind of openness in interpretation would allow us to see, for instance, that Ding Ling‟s Miss
Sophie might not entirely owe her mercurial temperament to the physical illness of consumption, but could
also be suffering from the very real anxiety of charting her own romantic course.
Valerie Levan
University of Chicago
Scholars of modern Chinese literature have addressed the problem of modern
selfhood in terms of a “paradox of self,” wherein the self is caught in a sort of tug-of-war
between the contradictory but equally essential ideologies of iconoclasm and
nationalism. 6 According to this view, iconoclasm signifies the May Fourth claim to
absolute “newness,” to a complete break with tradition and an embracing of Western
concepts of self-consciousness, enlightenment and critical autonomy. Nationalism, on
the other hand, is tied to collectivism and depends on a continuation of traditional,
holistic views of the Chinese self, though in this modern version the self is more likely to
be in unity with the nation, history, or the masses, rather than with the cosmos. The
paradox, then, lies in Chinese intellectuals need to draw on both the power of
nationalism/collectivism and Western ideas of individual autonomy to resist Western
imperialism. Iconoclasm threatened the collective source of power, while nationalism
endangered the possibility of an active role for the self in historical development. 7
Although this idea of the paradox of self might express part of the difficulty involved in
modern subjective experience, it is important to understand that it is not the only paradox
generated by an iconoclastic stance.
Yu Dafu worked with many different “visions of the self,” as Leo Lee has
observed, and it is more profitable to an understanding of his work to delineate strategies
for self-expression than to puzzle over a clear definition of a single, circumscribed model
of modern selfhood. A consideration of the paradox iconoclasm generates in self-
6 Kirk Denton uses the term “paradox of self” both in his 1992 article on Yu Dafu and in the introduction to
his 1996 anthology of essays on modern Chinese literature, where he defines it at greater length. See Kirk
Denton, Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893 – 1945. (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1996).
7 Denton, Modern Chinese Literary Thought , p. 45.
Valerie Levan
University of Chicago
expression thus reveals more about the significance of Yu Dafu‟s project than does the
paradox of self outlined in the preceding paragraph. Iconoclasm in self-expression
necessitated a rejection of linguistic and poetic precedent. In their attempts to achieve it,
writers aimed to cast off not only the linguistic conventions of the classical form, but also
the traditional rhetorical strategy of poetic allusion, whereby one expressed the strength
of one‟s own emotions through reference to those of famous personages from the
historical or poetic past. Without recourse to set patterns of classical diction or the
common allusive “database” of traditional literature, and not yet enjoying the stability of
a standard modern literary vernacular, writers faced an expressive medium in flux. This
creative situation exhilarated some writers with a new sense of freedom and possibility,
but it also caused great anxiety for others, who agonized over what they saw as poor odds
for successful expression and communication. 8
Confessional narrative presents an imperfect solution to this expressive impasse. 9
The confessional form supplies a clear narrative structure and a common set of
expectations as to the uniqueness of the confessing subject, and yet a communicative
dilemma inherent to the form itself keeps the solution from being completely sound:
confessional narrative can rupture subjective isolation and achieve communication, but
only in a way that is fleeting and particular to the specific interlocutory situation of each
confessional utterance. By means confession, one (ideally) finds present acceptance and
absolution from past misdeeds, but the future still remains uncertain. Forgiveness thus
8 Despite their friendship and partnership as founding members of the Creation Society, Yu Dafu and Guo
Moruo are near perfect examples of the extremes to which views of this creative potentiality could go.
While Yu seems to constantly question his expressive powers, Guo enthusiastically celebrates his in
exuberant (though clumsy) poems like Fenghuang niepan (Phoenix Nirvana), which he concludes thus:
XXXXX. It is interesting to note that according to the judgment of posterity, it Yu Dafu‟s work that
receives more recognition for its artistic merit.
9 Confessional narrative is the subject of my second chapter.
Valerie Levan
University of Chicago
establishes only impermanent contact, the extension of which contact requires a repetition
of the request for absolution, again via the medium of the confessional utterance, which
for its part demands the admission of another crime. This results in a consistently
negative mode of self-articulation, in a subject whose inner truth is always expressed by
way of his culpability.
Iconoclasm in self-expression required a new language with the flexibility to
express modern content in a modern way, and yet the innovations in content reached
beyond the tangible aspects of an industrializing world. Although with time the physical
content of our world does change – leading to the poetic conundrum Yu Dafu so
succinctly describes as “inton[ing] about airplanes and automobiles” – our expressive
needs are more fundamentally altered by radical changes in what we think it is most
important to say. 10 If self-expression were now to mean the articulation of an individual
inner world through unique thoughts and feelings, then it would be necessary to develop
a new language that reflected these changes in selection of meaningful content. Thus
iconoclasm in self expression gave voice to a desire for radical originality in the content
as well as the form of self-narrative, lending unusual resonance to Rousseau‟s words,
taken from his own Confessions : “For what I have to say, I shall have to invent a
language as novel as my project.”
This resonance was not lost on Yu Dafu and writers like him, nor did it escape the
attention of their critics. Beginning in 1927, Rousseau became the topic of fierce debate
between Yu Dafu and the essayist and translator Liang Shiqiu (1903-1987). 11 Although
10 Yu Dafu. “On Poetry,” in Yu Dafu wenji . vol. 6, (Hong Kong: Joint Publishing Company, 1982), p. 223.
11 Liang in his early years was a prominent member of the Crescent Society ( Xinyue pai ), made up mostly
of students returned from the United States, and Liang‟s own negative view of Rousseau reflected the New
Valerie Levan
University of Chicago
the conflict allegedly centered on Rousseau‟s views on women‟s education – the only
aspect of Rousseau‟s thought Liang was willing to sanction – their argument soon
deviated in an intriguing way from its intended topic. In Yu‟s first essay in the series,
“Biography of Rousseau,” he clearly empathizes with Rousseau, and states with great
“The height of the Himalayas has no need for praise from the tiny; the old
trunk of a great tree doesn‟t fear the invasion of an ant. But poor
Rousseau, during his lifetime he suffered the envious attacks of the men of
letters of his age and went mad. Even down to the present, there are still
numerous upright gentlemen hanging about England and America who
criticize his actions and assess his value, saying he‟s „worthless.‟
Insignificant critics of this humble person‟s country, even if you
affix critical eyes to the tips of the hairs on the crowns of your heads, you
still won‟t be able to see the soles of Rousseau‟s feet. You‟re better off
expending your energy to first read Rousseau‟s books for several years
and then make another attempt at a critique. Now allow me to discuss the
career – everywhere subject to oppression, forever the target of poison
Humanist perspective he had learned at Harvard from Irving Babbitt. Liang later left Mainland China for
Taiwan, where he remained a prominent academic, perhaps most noted for his translation into Chinese of
the works of William Shakespeare. Yu‟s essays on Rousseau all appeared in the Beixin Bi-Monthly, a
publication of the Creation Society, between January and May of 1928. They include: Lusao zhuan
(Biography of Rousseau), Lusao de sixiang he ta de chuangzuo (Rousseau‟s Philosophy and Creative
Work), “Fanyi shuoming jiusuan dabian” (Translation and Explanation as Response), “Guanyu Lusao” (On
Rousseau). Liang initiates the discussion with his article frm October of 1927, published in Fudan Weekly ,
entitled “Lusuo lun nüzi jiaoyu" (Rousseau on Women‟s Education). In March of 1928, he reacts directly
to Yu with “Guanyu Lusuo – da Yu Dafu xiansheng” (On Rousseau – In Reply to Mr. Yu Dafu). Although
Liang does not mention Rousseau or Yu Dafu by name in his October 1928 essay “Wenren you xing”
(Literary Men of Integrity), published in Xin yue yuekan (Crescent Monthly), it is clear from specific
references that they are his targets. Yu responds and ends the debate on a somewhat puerile note with his
April 1928 essay “Wenren shouyin” (Literary Men‟s Masturbation). See Yu Dafu wenji , vol. 6 (Hong
Kong: Joint Publishing Co., 1982), pp. 1-54. Liang‟s “Literary Men of Integrity” is reprinted in Liang
Shiqiu wenji , vol. 1 (Xiamen: Lujiang Publishing Co., 2002), pp. 331-337.
Valerie Levan
University of Chicago
arrows – of this ever wandering liberator of mankind, who in his late years
was finally led by madness to suicide.” 12
This opening passage is remarkable, and not least for its incorrect assertion by Yu, who
was occasionally suicidal himself, that Rousseau‟s detractors drove him to a death by his
own hand. Liang and his cohort are the clear targets of the sarcastic “upright gentlemen
hanging about England and America” whose ignorance of Rousseau‟s work disqualified
them from evaluating it. 13
Yu seems to be aiming, however, for more than a rebuttal of Liang‟s negative
assessment. What Yu Dafu expresses is a desire to win justice for Rousseau, and in
presenting his attempt as a “biography,” Yu makes another stab at the very project
Rousseau hoped to complete with his own Confessions . Despite his awareness that The
Confessions were “half fictional and half factual description” – he even lists it along with
Julie and Emile in a section on Rousseau‟s “creative work” – Yu presents a narrative of
Rousseau‟s life that reads like a wholly credulous summary of Rousseau‟s own memoir. 14
Yu‟s second essay, “Rousseau‟s Philosophy and Creative Work,” has a much more
12 喜马拉雅山的高,用不着矮子来称赞,大树的老干 ,当 然不怕蚍蜉来攻击,可是不幸的卢骚
箭,流离四方,卒至晚年来因疯 自杀的人类解放者的生涯。 With the phrase “this humble person‟s
country,” Yu Dafu refers to himself, and thus China. He cites Liang‟s evaluation of Rousseau as
“worthless.” While Rousseau did indeed suffer from mental illness during the later years of his life, he did
not commit suicide, and it is not clear why Yu Dafu thinks he did. See Yu Dafu wenji , vol. 6, p. 1.
13 As is their mentor, Irving Babbitt, whose “Harvard Manner” ( hefo taidu ) Yu roundly criticizes alongside
Babbitt‟s well-known book Rousseau and Romanticism in the essay “Translation and Explanation as
14 Ibid., p. 6. Yu‟s phrase is “ 半虚半实的描写
.” The reference to the Confessions as a creative work comes
in p. 34.
Valerie Levan
University of Chicago
academic and measured tone, and yet even here Yu demands that Rousseau get his just
deserts. In his closing paragraphs on Rousseau‟s philosophy, Yu writes:
“Because of the recklessness of his own actions, according to upright
gentlemen Rousseau seems like a monster who destroys ethics and
subverts society, and everyone mistakenly thinks that he‟s a heretic who
promoted crime and opposed virtue. But who is aware that Rousseau
advocated the strictest virtue and commended the goodness of man‟s
natural state, that his attack on society and the evils of mankind was
fiercer and more thorough than any other? In any one of his books one
finds arguments for this everywhere.” 15
As we will soon see, Yu‟s willingness to stick his neck out for Rousseau was very likely
motivated as much by a need for self-defense as by a desire for critical equity. Liang
Shiqiu‟s response in “On Rousseau – in Reply to Mr. Yu Dafu” and “Literary Men of
Integrity” strongly suggests that the Romantic wantonness he rejects in Rousseau is to be
found as well in Chinese writers of confessional narrative.
The thrust of Liang‟s critique of the confessional form appears in the essay
“Literary Men of Integrity,” which Liang first published in the October 1928 edition of
Crescent Monthly . While Liang does not mention either Rousseau or Yu Dafu by name
in this essay, his critique of “dissolute literary men” ( wenren wu xing ) and appeal for
“literary men of integrity” ( wenren you xing ) refers obliquely to them both, by
condemning the specific behaviors of sending one‟s children to an orphanage and of
15 卢骚因为自己的行为失于检点,由正人君子看起来,仿佛是毁灭伦常,搅乱社会的怪物的原因,
Ibid., p. 32.
Valerie Levan
University of Chicago
divorcing one‟s wife after one had seduced a married woman from a respectable family. 16
These targeted attacks follow upon Liang‟s assertion that the figure of speech “dissolute
literary men” unfortunately finds many opportunities for application in Chinese men of
letters, past and present. In his day, Liang thinks, the problem has only increased, for
“after the so-called „New Culture Movement,‟ in addition to the „communicable disease
of Chinese-style men of letters,‟ [the problem] has been augmented with the vices of
literary figures from the Western degenerate faction.” 17 Liang lists the symptoms of the
traditional “communicable disease” as “unrestrained drinking, whoring, lack of restraint
with family property and child-bearing, slovenly dress, licentiousness, arrogance and
impropriety, etc.;” his account of the nasty habits plaguing Western men of letters
includes: “sex mania, extreme boastfulness, sentimentality, persecution complexes,
ostentation, self-aggrandizement, uncontrollable sexual appetite, etc.” 18 The double
standard that allows literary men this freedom – and even maintains “men of letters are
very passionate, that is as it should be” – clearly frustrates Liang, and he vociferously
opposes the notion that such a lifestyle is necessary to the artistic soul. 19
16 In perhaps the most reviled of his many morally questionable actions, Rousseau deposited the five
children Thérèse Levasseur bore him at a foundling hospital. Yu Dafu had begun his infamous romance
with the renowned but married beauty Wang Yingxia in 1926. They were married to each other in 1927,
but the shady beginnings of their relationship still made it quite scandalous. See Liang, pp. 332, 333.
17 在所谓‘新文化运动
恶习。 See Liang, p. 331. Liang is quoting himself from his previous paragraph with the phrase
“communicable disease of Chinese-style men of letters.”
18 纵酒,狎妓,不治生人家产,不修边幅,放荡不羁,狂倨无礼等等。。。色情狂,夸大狂,伤
感,被迫狂,显示狂,骇俗震世, 性欲横流 等等。 Liang, p. 331. One could certainly spend much
more time than I have allotted here to discuss the differences Liang perceives in literary afflictions East and
West. I will take the time to note that in addition to the cultural difference of humility – which Liang found
lacking to the point of illness in the West – the Western ailments are presented in language that is slightly
more scientific. Liang uses the word “ kuang, ” or “madness” or “mania” to modify four of the seven
Western vices, thus transforming literary figures‟ bad habits into pathologies. His repeated use of deng
deng , or et cetera , is particularly damning when following upon such lists.
19 文人多情,正应如此。
Liang, pp. 333-334.
Valerie Levan
University of Chicago
What really gets under Liang Shiqiu‟s skin, however, is not this debauched
lifestyle and the reading public‟s tolerance of it, but rather the confessional form that
some writers use to present their misdeeds to the public eye. Liang writes: “the most
dissolute of the dissolute men of letters are those who themselves do innumerable
immoral things and then arrogantly and nakedly admit it all and call this a confession.
What is called confession is certainly not an expression of remorse, but is simply an
affront to publicly acknowledged moral conduct.” 20 Impersonating the voice of a writer
of confessional literature, Liang lampoons the confessional strategy as a base attempt by
the author to gain pity and admiration, and to impress the reader with his superior
courage and narrative skill. Confessional narrative is also a preemptive move – by
narrating one‟s faults oneself, one is able to avoid others‟ accusations, or at least render
them irrelevant by virtue of redundancy. 21 It is because of this strategy, according to
Liang, that “by way of a single confessional utterance, the dissolute man of letters is
transformed into a hero of sincerity.” 22
Liang Shiqiu does make a compelling case against confessional narrative, and yet
his attack can be applied with much more accuracy to Rousseau than to Yu Dafu. In an
essay entitled “Guilty Reflection,” Jean Starobinski elaborates on Rousseau‟s insistence
on his absolute uniqueness, which Rousseau uses to justify his behavior, because not only
20 无行的文人中之最无行者,就是自家做下了无数桩的缺德事,然后倨傲的赤裸的招供出来,名之
曰忏悔。忏悔云云,并不是悔过的表示,只是在侮慢社会的公认的德行。 Ibid., p. 335.
21 That Liang chooses to switch here into the voice of the confessional writer and use such colloquial
language is an indication of his own very strong feelings about this point. He writes: “ 我做下了这等事
…” Ibid., p. 335
22 于是在一片忏悔声中无行的文人就变为真诚的英雄了。
Ibid., p. 335.
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University of Chicago
are existing norms not suited to him, but he maintains he has found new norms of which
others are yet ignorant. In Rousseau‟s late writings, Starobinski argues, “we find a man
who not only claims to have been banished from all social order but also insists that he is
the model on which any legitimate social order must be based.” 23 Although Starobinski
restricts his comments here to Rousseau‟s late writings, one finds such a tendency much
earlier on as well in works like Emile and Julie and the prefaces Rousseau attached to
them. Rousseau‟s problem is not uncertainty about the goodness of his own motivation –
about that he maintains absolute confidence. His difficulty – and the motivation for his
autobiographical project – lies, as Starobinski observes, “not in acquiring self-knowledge
but in making others see what he already knows.” Starobinski continues, “Rousseau‟s
first question is: Why aren‟t immediately obvious inner truths immediately recognized by
other people?... He is forced to resort to autobiography… because it is not enough to
understand himself; that understanding must be reflected through the eyes of witnesses in
the outside world.” 24 What Rousseau wants more than anything is to be recognized,
which for him coincides with justification, and with being found innocent. 25
The self-knowledge that Rousseau takes for granted is a luxury with which Yu
Dafu does not find himself favored. I have argued in the preceding chapter for a view of
confession as self-constructive, as constituting the self that it articulates. This is not the
case for Rousseau, whose sense of himself clearly precedes its expression. For Rousseau,
the problem lies not with self-knowledge or self-expression – both of which pose great
difficulty for Yu Dafu – but with the reader‟s recognition. For Rousseau, the failure of
23 See “Guilty Reflection,” in J.J. Rousseau – Transparency and Obstruction (Chicago: UChicago Press,
1988), p. 204.
24 “The Problems of Autobiography,” Ibid., p. 182.
25 Ibid., p. 183.
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University of Chicago
self-articulation is never his own fault; the blame lies with his audience, who either
willfully or otherwise are unable to understand the obvious. While the goal of presenting
a unique inner self is the same for both men, the obstacles that block their success – and
which lead them to adopt the confessional form – are in fact quite different. An
overwhelming sense of guilt pervades Yu Dafu‟s comparatively brief creative writings,
and it is precisely this emotion that is surprisingly absent from Rousseau‟s lengthy
“confessions.” In contrast to Rousseau, who Paul de Man rightly ridicules for excusing
himself as he accuses himself, Yu Dafu‟s protagonists are so caught up in feelings of
wrong-doing and remorse that they are willing to manufacture crimes – as I discuss at
length in the previous chapter – just to achieve the temporary relief of confession. 26
Yu and Rousseau are further distinguished by their differing relationships to what
Liang calls “publicly acknowledged moral conduct” and Starobinski refers to as “norms.”
For Liang, the “confessant” justifies his immoral behavior with a belief that he, as a
literary man, is exempt from the rules that bind the average person – and it is this that
Liang opposes when he argues that literary men differ only in occupation from all other
men, and should thus be held to the same standards. 27 In order to make his point, Liang
invokes an “only moral standard” as an absolute law to which all must submit. A look at
the modified quotation with which Liang graces the opening of “Literary Men of
Integrity” leaves little doubt as to the standard to which he refers: “virtuous conduct is
having virtue in one‟s heart and exercising it through one‟s actions.” 28 Liang‟s source is
the classic Confucian text the Zhou li . While an assumption of the correctness and
26 See Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), chapter 12 “Excuses (Confessions),” p. 280.
27 Liang, p. 331.
28 See for instance Liang, p. 335. His phrase is “ 惟一的德行的标准
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University of Chicago
universality of the Confucian ethical standard might have gone unnoticed a few decades
or even years prior to the time in 1928 when Liang was writing, by that point, Chinese
urban society had changed to such a degree that a clear, unified standard of conduct –
particularly with regard to intimate life – could no longer be taken for granted. 29 Despite
the dexterity of his attack on the confessional form, through his citation of the Zhou li
Liang inadvertently reveals the fatal weakness of his argument: it presumes a stable
moral framework for all human actors, when in fact they must function in a world in flux.
Liang positions himself as an adherent of a moral order whose bankruptcy he refuses to
recognize. With his head thus in the proverbial sand, he cannot but fail to understand the
problem to which the modern Chinese confessional narrative responds. Herein, too, lies a
key distinction between the confessional projects of Rousseau and Yu Dafu: while
Rousseau alone rejects accepted norms and relies instead on a new system he himself
promotes, Yu Dafu exists in a moral limbo between Confucianism, which he and other
progressive intellectuals had worked to debunk, and an idealized, modern moral system
that at this point is at best half-formed. 30
Thus far I have been trying to present the predicament of modern subjective
experience as that of existing in a world in flux, in a transitional landscape of ill-defined
moral horizons. This view is of course not my own invention, and has been liberally
applied to understandings of the intersection of ethics and modernity in the West.
29 In inaugurating the “New Life Movement” in 1934, nationalist Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek
responded to this problem by attempting to revitalize Confucianism while joining it with nationalism,
authoritarianism, and modern science.
30 This ethical predicament is structurally similar to the position of these transitional intellectuals with
regard to language, as I discuss it in chapter 1. My view here and in chapter 1 should not be confused with
older models that situate May Fourth figures between tradition and a preconceived (i.e. Western) notion of
modernity. My point is quite different, in that I understand these transitional intellectuals as being in the
frustrating but inspiring position of needing to work toward an idealized future as if it already existed,
because doing so was the only available means of bringing it into being.
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University of Chicago
Scholars of Chinese literature and culture, however, now more often consider the
problem of subjectivity in relation to the status of the subject‟s nation, and interpret the
plight of the modern subject in terms of his or her political and material conditions. 31 As
subjects of a fractured nation that by the 1920s and 30s had been war-ravaged,
economically chaotic, and exposed to foreign powers‟ colonial dominance for several
decades, it should not come as a surprise that Chinese intellectuals experience a “paradox
of self.” I do not aim to question the legitimacy of this line of reasoning, for undoubtedly
there is a great deal of truth to it. My own argument proposes simply to supplement this
more familiar method of inquiry by considering also the possibility that selfhood and
self-expression were threatened by upheavals in intimate life and by adherent changes in
self-perception, and furthermore, that literary explorations of these upheavals are not
merely self-indulgent and superfluous, but rather stand at the heart of ethical
development during this transitional period.
In acknowledging a great debt to Charles Taylor and his monumental work
Sources of the Self (1989), I follow in the footsteps of Haiyan Lee, who also relies on
Taylor‟s articulation of an “affirmation of ordinary life” as a hallmark of modernity. 32 In
Sources of the Self , Taylor explores selfhood and morality as intertwined, because he
believes that only through knowledge of what it is that we hold up as “goods” – as
standards that give meaning to our lives – can we understand what we think constitutes
31 In past criticism, the problem of subjectivity was more often considered in terms of a struggle to deal
with a somewhat belated and painful entry into a now reified Western modernity.
32 See Haiyan Lee, Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 2007), introduction. While Lee is most interested in Taylor‟s idea of an affirmation of
ordinary life, the aspect of his argument in Sources of the Self that resonates most for me is the notion of
moral orientation and the idea that moral life is necessarily experienced as a narrative.
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University of Chicago
our experience of selfhood during any given historical period. 33 According to Taylor, in
the West, the perceived lack of a real foundation for our understanding of the good is
“essentially a modern predicament.” 34 While everyone must function according to some
sort of moral framework, there is no single framework that holds the position of absolute
fact. This difficulty differentiates us from our ancestors, who could rely on an
unchallengeable framework of either God or polis, and whose moral fears consequently
centered on failure to live up to an unquestioned standard. The modern individual, on the
other hand, finds himself on a “quest for sense,” in search of a believable framework, and
fears not the condemnation of an unchallenged standard, but the vertigo of
meaninglessness. 35 While we can imagine a person or a culture living by frameworks
different from our own, we cannot imagine an existence entirely devoid of their shaping
and structuring function, for it is only within such “strongly qualified horizons” that
human agency can come to exist in the first place. 36 “To know who you are,” Taylor
asserts, “is to be oriented in moral space.” 37
Although Taylor‟s book goes on to trace the history of the varied “location” of the
Western self in moral space, he does so to make the point that the self, like the goods that
make up the framework by which it is oriented and thus defined, is subject to change.
Thus his observations, though they center on the Western model, can be put to service as
well in the Chinese case. 38 Of course our goods are not identical East and West, nor are
33 See Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: the Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1989), pp. 3-4.
34 Ibid., p. 9
35 Ibid., pp. 17-18.
36 Ibid., p. 26-28.
37 Ibid., p. 28.
38 In Translingual Practice , Lydia Liu concludes that Taylor‟s argument is not useful in part because he
“reaffirms Judaeo-Christian values.” While this is undoubtedly the case, Liu‟s further conclusion that
Taylor thus “allows the Judaeo-Christian tradition to lay exclusive claim to the ideals of the good” cannot
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University of Chicago
they constant in either place throughout history, but we cannot deny a striking structural
similarity in the manner in which we orient ourselves (and our selves ) around them. Most
enriching for our understanding of the linkage between confessional narrative and
modern selfhood is Taylor‟s idea that in order to make sense of our quest for moral
horizons, we must perceive our lives as narratives of our moral experience. 39 The
construction of this narrative poses the additional difficulty of self-articulation, the
perfection of which Taylor rightly considers an impossibility. 40 On our journey of
becoming, then, we must continually seek to articulate ourselves, for according to Taylor
we are not “full beings in this sense until we can say what moves us, what our lives are
built around.” 41 In other words, legitimately laying claim to human agency presupposes
an ability to articulate the parameters within which it comes into being, to say who one is ,
for “what meaning there is for us depends on our powers of expression.” 42
The idea of intimate life as a key site of ethical negotiation during this transitional
period in China corresponds with Charles Taylor‟s assertion that an “affirmation of
ordinary life” became a cornerstone of modern Western understandings of selfhood. 43
Following this affirmation of ordinary life, how one conducted oneself in work and love
became the crucial moral issues, and thus attaining the status of a good person depended
be the product of careful reading. The scope of Taylor‟s case study is indeed limited to a history of
concepts of self in the Western tradition, but his particular material must be taken in the larger context of
his book as just that – a case study. What Taylor has to say about the narrative process by which we
structure our ideas of ourselves around those “things” that we hold up as good is meant, I believe, to be
generally applicable. For Liu‟s comments, see Translingual Practice , p. 8.
39 Ibid., p. 46-48.
40 Ibid., p. 34.
41 Ibid., p. 92.
42 Ibid., p. 22.
43 See Part III of Sources of the Self , “The Affirmation of Ordinary Life,” especially chapter 13, “God
Loveth Adverbs.”
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University of Chicago
on “do[ing] what everyone does, well.” 44 And yet what is new in the modern period in
China, in contrast with the West – and contrary to Haiyan Lee‟s interpretation – is not
this affirmation of ordinary life. In Chinese culture, ordinary life had long been affirmed
by the teachings of Confucianism, according to which one‟s successful performance of
one‟s function within the family was ultimately related to good governance and even
world peace in a way that was cumulative and causal rather than allegorical. The
question that arose as Chinese society began to transform itself during the late Qing and
Republican periods was thus not whether ordinary life would be of moral importance, but
how the affairs of that life were to be best conducted in the absence of the master moral
narrative of Confucianism. It is this “how” that produces the guilt and anxiety about
intimacy as we find it in the works of Yu Dafu, and what is truly new is the emphasis on
the uniqueness of individual experience that so pervades his work.
II. Modern Spirits. Modern Flesh?
For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are
contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.
- Galatians 5:17, King James Version
Since the publication of Yu Dafu‟s Sinking collection, critics have often referred
to its subject matter as a conflict between ling and rou , or spirit and flesh. 45 Yu Dafu
44 Ibid., p. 279.
45 Indeed, the issue of ling/rou – or more specifically, how to bring the desires of the body in line with the
loftier ambitions of the soul – was generally very prominent in the first decades of the twentieth century.
Part of what brought the soul/flesh conflict to so many people‟s minds were the rapid and drastic changes
in social mores and morals, and particularly those concerning romantic love and the social status of women.
For a detailed analysis of this change, see Peng Hsiao-yen, Haishang shuo qingyu, cong Zhang Ziping dao
Liu Na’ou . (Taipei: Zhongguo wenzhe zhuankan 19, 2001). Particularly the introduction and first chapter
on new sexual morality during the May Fourth period are helpful for their discussion of changes in popular
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University of Chicago
himself provides grounds for such an interpretation in his initial preface, in which he
writes: “The first piece, Sinking , describes the psychology of a sick youth. One could
also say it is an analysis of youthful hypochondria ( Hypochondria ); it carries with it a
narration of modern people‟s dejection, – sexual needs and the conflict between spirit and
flesh.” 46 In a 1923 review of Sinking , however, Cheng Fangwu, a fellow member of the
Creation Society, expresses his frustration with this interpretation, and asserts that in
conversation Yu intimated that ling/rou was not his focus. Cheng wonders, therefore,
why Yu in his preface returns to the spirit/flesh dichotomy he had privately rejected. 47
According to Cheng, the protagonists‟ needs are not limited to those of the flesh, but
should be understood as products of a “heart needing love,” which Cheng clarifies with
the German translation “Liebeduerftiges Herz .” 48 The central conflict in the stories is
this need for love and the awareness that it will not be satisfied, Cheng contends, and not
“some conflict of spirit and flesh.” 49 Zhou Zuoren also takes issue with Yu‟s evaluation
and asserts instead that “what is described in this collection is the modern dejection of
youth… the conflict between the will to live ( sheng de yizhi ) and reality is the basis for
this dejection; people are not satisfied by reality, and yet are unwilling to escape into
emptiness, and so they remain in this cold, hard reality, seeking happiness and well-being
morality and the social status of women as reflected in the women‟s journals and popular periodicals of the
46 Yu Dafu. Chenlun . Shanghai: Taidong tushuju, 1929. p. 2. 第一篇沉沦是描写着一个病的青年的心
Hypochondria 的解剖,里边也带叙着现代人的苦闷,
47 According to Cheng, the interpretation that the Sinking collection depicts the “conflict of soul and flesh”
( ling rou chongtu ) is so popular that no one says anything else. Cheng Fangwu, “ Chenlun de pinglun,” in
Chen Zishan, Wang Zili ed. Yu Dafu yanjiu ziliao . (Hong Kong: Joint Publishing Company, 1986), p. 6.
48 所以我想《沉沦》的主要色彩,可以用爱的要求或求爱的心(
Liebebeduerftiges Herz) 来表示
Cheng, p. 8.
49 Cheng, p. 9.
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University of Chicago
that they cannot attain.” 50 “The so-called conflict of spirit and flesh,” he writes,
“originally only meant the opposition between sexual desire and its repression, it
certainly didn‟t connote any idea of judgment, taking spirit for good and flesh for evil.” 51
In the traditionally dominant culture of Confucianism, desire and its regulation,
which was perceived as vital to social harmony, were expressed in terms of a relationship
between the force of essential human passions ( qing and yu ) and the regulatory power of
ritual ( li ) and, later, order or reason ( li ). 52 The goal of both self-cultivation and good
governance is not the eradication of these passions, but rather their regulation by means
of ritual. As part of a fascinating investigation of the significance of qing in the famous
Ming novel Dream of the Red Chamber , Anthony C. Yu provides a very useful summary
of the function of ritual in the thought of the Confucian philosopher Xunzi. Yu quotes a
passage from Xunzi that compares ritual to the marks over deep places that guide
travelers through perilous waters, both directing their course and guiding them to a safe
passage. According to Yu‟s analysis of this selection, ritual for Xunzi involves both a
prescriptive and a prohibitive aspect – it both “delimits the normative locale of the ritual
action and specifies its proper content” and “cautions against the transgression of its
boundary.” 53 Although Anthony Yu draws attention to the repressive nature of this way
of thinking that requires the strict regulation of something essentially human – a position
that is no doubt warranted by Dream of the Red Chamber ‟s tragic story line – we can also
50 Zhou Zuoren, “ Chenlun, ” in Chen Zishan, Wang Zili ed. Yu Dafu yanjiu ziliao . (Hong Kong: Joint
Publishing Company, 1986), p. 3. 这集内所描写是青年的现代的苦闷。。。生的意志与现实之冲突是
51 Zhou, p. 3.
52 The characters for these terms are, respectively 情,欲,礼,理 .
53 See Anthony C. Yu, Rereading the Stone: Desire and the Making of Fiction in Dream of the Red
Chamber (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 75.
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University of Chicago
see from his analysis that in contrast to the essential opposition of ling and rou , the
relationship between li and qing is one of guiding, channeling and directing. Whether the
violent struggle between spirit and flesh wounds more or less deeply than ritual‟s
methodical pruning of passion is a topic that I must leave to other scholars. Suffice it for
now to say that in encountering and adopting this imported idea of spirit and flesh,
progressive intellectuals eager to cast off the fetters of Confucianism found themselves in
a new moral quagmire, the uncertainty of which led to a powerful sense of “modern
The dichotomy of ling and rou is undoubtedly a foreign import, as should be
evident not only from its lack of correspondence to the Confucian system of passion and
ritual regulation. The very idea of ling and rou , or spirit and flesh, is predicated on an
understanding of the person as consisting of a mind/body duality that most certainly runs
contrary to traditional Chinese understandings of personhood – not to mention medical
science – which did not recognize such a division within the self. This cultural difference
has given us, among other things, famously awkward translations like “heart/mind” for
the single concept xin , a rendering that loyally represents the traditional Chinese view of
the mind as a body part, and as part of the body. This traditional idea of unity carries
over into the use of xin in the construction of more modern terminology, where it is
employed to render both the organ of the heart, xinzang , and the science of psychology,
xinli xue . The term ling , redeployed to translate the Western concept of spirit as half of
an imported spirit/body duality, is at best an awkward fit. 54
54 Unfortunately for scholars of comparative religion, the mind/body unity of traditional Chinese t hought in
no way indicates a simpler understanding of things spiritual. Confucius‟s reticence with regard to spiritual
or otherworldly matters is well known, and his thought provided few answers for those concerned with the
status of their “souls” or “spirits.” I put these words in scare quotes because they do not have a one to one
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University of Chicago
In Zhou Zuoren‟s comments, cited above, on the “so-called conflict of spirit and
flesh,” it is not clear to what “origins” he refers when he writes that the conflict
“originally only meant the opposition between sexual desire and its repression, it
certainly didn‟t connote any idea of judgment, taking spirit for good and flesh for evil.”
Does he refer back to Greek tradition, or to Confucian ideas of qing and li ? Whatever the
case may be, the critical dialogue between Yu Dafu, Cheng Fangwu and Zhou Zuoren
over the applicability of the spirit/flesh conflict to the subject matter of Yu Dafu‟s stories
indicates a discrepancy not only in interpretations of the stories, but also in
understandings of the significance of spirit and flesh. The Christian religious view,
familiar to many urban coastal Chinese from their contact with foreign missionaries,
constructs the duality as an opposition between the yearnings of spirit for a Godly life
and the urgings of the flesh for satisfaction of base longings. Seen in a secular light, the
animal desires of the flesh had to be controlled and tempered by the ennobling moral
influence of the humanizing spirit. Either way, the spirit/flesh conflict introduces an idea
correspondence with any Chinese terms. In fact if we expand the Chinese sources on thoughts on the
“soul” to include Buddhism, Daoism and folk religion, the issue only becomes more complex, for although
all share some idea of the human being as possessing an immaterial or spiritual component in addition to
the physical body, they differ in their understandings of the quality, function and even number of the
component. When used to refer to such a concept roughly overlapping with Western notions of “soul,” ling
most commonly appears as part of the compound linghun . As an anecdote on the frustration this
complexity can cause, I direct the reader to the words of the anthropologist Stevan Harrell, who, in a 1979
article entitled “The Concept of Soul in Chinese Folk Religion” and published in the Journal of Asian
Studies , attempts to determine the number of souls each person possesses: “So we must reject the idea of
two “souls” as a basically analytical construct which has little bearing on the behavior of folk believers.
The same can be said about ten “souls.”… For twelve souls I find little evidence… Three “souls” seems
much more likely, because the idea fits well with other aspects of Chinese folk belief and with much of
ritual behavior. The notion of three souls comes from the generally held beliefs about the fate of the soul
after death… But when people are asked whether there is one “soul” in three parts, or one “soul” which is
somehow simultaneously in three places, or whether there are actually three separate “souls,” the common
response is either wonderment or some sort of rationalization that varies idiosyncratically.” Eventually,
Harrell performs his own rationalization, writing: “In other words, there is only one ling-hun ; or there is
more than one, but they are alike, and can be treated in the same way at the same time, which makes them
functionally one.” I cite sections of this article only for the frustration they illustrate, and do not attempt to
present the complexity of Harrell‟s thesis. Those wishing to consult the full article, which is very
interesting, should see Harrell, The Concept of Soul in Chinese Folk Religion,” in The Journal of Asian
Studies , vol. 38, no. 3 (May, 1979), pp. 519-528.
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University of Chicago
of duality into Chinese senses of selfhood, and furthermore it is a duality that is most
often rendered as a dichotomy. As Zhou Zuoren‟s comments indicate, the ling/rou
dichotomy could also be extrapolated to deal with other analogous dualities beyond the
interior scope of the human individual. Thus his idea of a conflict between the happiness
that people desire and the “cold, hard reality” in which they live is merely an extension of
the spiritual/material distinction brought into focus by the opposition of ling and rou . 55
While a concept of guilt is perhaps present in all cultures, the importance of a
guilt sense – an internal feeling of unease or remorse over wrongs for which one feels
responsible – tends to vary more from place to place. Much has been made in
comparative studies over the designation of East Asian cultures as “shame cultures,” in
opposition to the “guilt cultures” of the West. According to this opposition, to put it very
crudely, what is most torturous to the Westerner is living with the unexpiated inner
knowledge of wrongdoing and the subsequent remorse, while East Asian morality is
policed instead by fear of bringing shame on oneself and one‟s associates – familial or
otherwise – were one to transgress, and those transgressions to become known. These are
of course generalizations, and surely neither Western nor Chinese culture enforces
morality solely through guilt or shame. In fact, we do well to remember that in English
the concept of guilt as applied to the feelings or conscience, rather than referring to a
person‟s or entity‟s responsibility for misdeeds has been with us only since Shakespeare‟s
55 An early play by the fellow Creationist Tian Han, Zai kafei dian shi yiye (One Night in the Café) (1922)
provides support for the notion of the ling/rou conflict as extending to a discrepancy between ideals and
real, material conditions of existence. The female protagonist, Bai Qiuying, who is a waitress in the café,
and Lin, the young student she befriends there, are both unable to realize their dreams because of their
straightened financial circumstances. The student speaks consistently of his troubles as stemming from a
conflict between spirit and flesh, and not knowing how to “seek out the road he wants to take.” For both
Lin and Bai, financial woes are related to romantic ones, though in different ways: Bai is rejected by her
lover because her poverty has forced her to take the low-status job of waitress, and Lin no longer receives
financial support from his family because he has refused to enter into an arranged marriage. See Tian Han,
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University of Chicago
time; the Oxford English Dictionary lists as an early instance the following lines, spoken
by the Duke of Gloucester, in Henry VI , act 5, scene 6: “Suspition alwayes haunts the
guilty minde.” 56 In Chinese, though the word for guilt is the same as the word for sin –
zui – it does not on its own have any sort of internal connotation. To create the idea of an
inner guilt-sense – Shakespeare‟s “guilty minde” – zui must be combined with other
words, as in you zui gan , or zui’e gan , literally the “feeling of being guilty.” Another
term for guilt or guilt-sense in modern Chinese is nei jiu : nei indicating internal, and jiu
having the meaning of both chronic illness and guilty feeling or remorse. 57 This very
vivid term emphasizes the traditional idea of mind/body unity that viewed the gnawings
of guilt on the uneasy conscience as an actual – and not merely a metaphorical – ailment.
With regard to the specific passion of romantic or sexual desire, Chinese
traditional culture has been celebrated as comparatively tolerant, though such lenience
was of course limited to elite males. 58 Female behavior, on the other hand, was highly
circumscribed, as is attested to by legal and social history, as well as the wide circulation
of female morality tracts such as the various reprintings of the classic Lienü zhuan , or
Biographies of Chaste Women, during periods of Confucian resurgence. And yet the
presence in elite households of manuals of “arts of the bedchamber,” many of which
56 The date given is 1593. Depending on one‟s perspective, this might seem a long or a short time ago. My
point is that it hardly marks the “beginning of time” in the West, and thus indicates that the concept of a
guilt-sense is something that evolved gradually into its present form in Western culture as well. See
ax_to_show=10 , definition 6.
57 The etymology of jiu helps to explain these dual meanings, as the graph quite literally is made up of
the illness radical on the left and the character , which signifies a lengthy passage of time.
58 Polygamy was legal and common in elite households for much of Chinese history, ostensibly because the
production of male heirs was essential to the continuance of the family line, which practices of ancestor
worship raised to a level of metaphysical importance. In addition to the legally sanctioned practice of
taking a concubine, however, men were also free to engage in extramarital (or extra-contractual) romantic
relationships with both men and women. This is not to say that such behavior was encouraged, but it did
not in the dominant culture constitute a zui (sin or crime). If such activities led a man to neglect his
familial or official duties, they could be subject to censure, but otherwise they were tolerated.
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University of Chicago
contained advice for men wishing to procreate, indicates, at least according to the
influential studies of R. H. Van Gulik, that within the confines of the marital chamber,
Chinese gentry-women may have enjoyed relatively uninhibited sexual lives. The
feminist Sinologist Charlotte Furth uses the vantage point of traditional Chinese medicine
to cast doubt on Van Gulik‟s rosy view, and aims in her study to show that such erotic
manuals were less about mutual pleasure for its own sake than they were about the sexual
domination of women in the service of the patriarchal system. 59 Wolfram Eberhard also
desires to counter the notion of a sexually libertine traditional China through a special
chapter on “Sin, Guilt and Sex” in his study, Guilt and Sin in Traditional China . To
make his point, Eberhard looks to the shanshu , or “morality books,” of Chinese folk
religion, and presents lengthy catalogues of the many and varied sex-related sins he finds
therein. 60 As the reader can see from the above, the relative restrictiveness or liberality of
sexual life in pre- and early-modern China remains the subject of some scholarly debate,
with “relative” as the operative word, for not only do such discussions often (always?)
rest on an overt or implied contrast to the sexual mores of another (most often Western)
culutre, but the judgments to which they lead also depend very much on whether a
particular study orients itself to a male, female, heterosexual or homosexual perspective.
In the preface to his famous book, Sexual Life in Ancient China , to which Furth‟s
critique responds, Van Gulik distinguishes between the “excessive prudery” of the
Manchu Qing dynasty and the “healthy and normal” sexual practices of prior times.
59 See Charlotte Furth, “Rethinking Van Gulik: Sexuality and Reproduction in Traditional Chinese
Medicine,” in Gilmartin, Hershatter, Rofel and White ed. Engendering China: Women, Culture and the
State (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994).
60 See Wolfgang Eberhard, Guilt and Sin in Traditional China (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1967), particularly Chapter 4, “Note on Sin, Guilt and Sex.” Unfortunately Eberhard‟s discussion of guilt is
unconvincing in the end because he elides the recognition of certain actions as crimes with a feeling of guilt
upon committing them.
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University of Chicago
According to Van Gulik, the ancient Chinese were not despotic practitioners of “sexual
vampirism,” but rather enlightened polygamists 61 with a vested interest in keeping their
women happy. Indeed he states that part of his aim is to correct the “current foreign
conception of the depraved and abnormal sexual habits of the ancient Chinese.” 62
Douglas Wile is much more effusive in his positive evaluation of “Chinese sexual
sensibilities,” and writes of the Eastern ideal as follows:
“the male conductor rehearses each member of his female orchestra
through the entire score, only to rest his baton as she reaches crescendo,
absorbing the exhilarating waves of sound, before he retires to his dressing
room to count the evening‟s receipts. As Western culture begins to ask
itself, “Now that we can do anything that we want, what do we want to
do?” Chinese sexual yoga arrives with a fresh perspective that will
stimulate even the most seasoned Sinologists and jaded satyrs.” 63
Wile‟s introduction is noteworthy not only for its extravagant rhetoric: Western culture‟s
question, as Wile would have it, along with the possibility of turning to ancient and
medieval China for an answer offers some needed perspective on the changes in sexual
morality that occur as China begins to quickly and seriously modernize in the beginning
of the twentieth century.
From the perspective of the May Fourth progressive intellectual, it is the West
that is seen as liberated as well as libertine – it is both the birthplace of the Women‟s
Movement, and the source of such institutions of modern romance as the café, the
dancehall and the movie house. The Western ideal of the companionate marriage based
61 An domestic analog, perhaps, to the image of the benevolent despot?
62 See R. H. Van Gulik, Sexual Life in Ancient China (Leiden: Brill, 1961), pp. VI-VII.
63 We must leave it to Wile himself to determine the category to which he best belongs. See Douglas Wile,
Art of the Bedchamber: The Chinese Sexual Yoga Classics, Including Women’s Solo Meditation Texts
(Albany: SUNY Press, 1992), p. 3. Wile contrasts the Chinese model of male conductor and female
orchestra with the “Western sexual ideal” of “short duet.”
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University of Chicago
on the emotions of both parties seemed the perfect antidote to the repressive Confucian
system of sexual segregation, arranged marriage and submission to familial duties. In
this context, it is important to remember that in a comparison of intimate practices in
China and the West, we cannot assume that China is always more restrictive. 64 As China
modernized, changes in marriage law and social practice did win new sexual autonomy
for women, and yet intimate practice seemed to become more conservative in just about
every other way as modern science and social thought with a foundation in Christianity
replaced Confucianism as the new regulators. 65 Women of some financial means gained
far more mobility in the public sphere, greater freedom to choose partners, and some
control of their romantic lives. Male behavior, on the other hand, with the albeit
important exception of independent spousal selection, was greatly curtailed. At the same
time, homosexuality was demonized, brothels were labeled unhygienic, polygamy
became backward and the “arts of the bedchamber” perverted or pornographic. 66 Thus
the advent of “free love” in no way indicated the absoluteness of freedom with which it is
sometimes associated.
Exacerbating the conflict of ling and rou was the uncertainty of modern moral
horizons, horizons which themselves were needed to give clear shape to the aspirations
for which ling stood. “Freedom” had most certainly become a hyper-good, and yet just
how far this freedom should extend was still a matter of debate. One of the more
64 Perhaps intimate life is one area in which the grass truly will always appear greener on the other side of
the fence.
65 For a thorough discussion of the effect of Western science on concepts of sex and sexual practice in
China, see Frank Dikötter, Sex, Culture and Modernity in China: Medical Science and the Construction of
Sexual Identities in the Early Republican Period (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1995). A main
thrust of Dikötter‟s argument is that the modern scientific discourse on sex in China was always linked to
ideas of population and procreation, with the goal of creating stronger, better citizens, and that this
pragmatic emphasis was popular in origin and not the result of state control of the scientific establishment.
66 Sex manuals had long been the subjects of censorship, a claim that Van Gulik substantiates with his
assertion that he found almost no published material on sex from the Qing period.
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University of Chicago
renowned instances of such debate surrounded the case of a Miss Chen, a young woman
who broke off an engagement to her hometown sweetheart in order to marry Tan Xihong,
a professor at Peking University. To understand the ire her case aroused, we must note
that Miss Chen entered into free-love relationships with both men, and thus the modern
status of the two commitments was equal. 67 We know the case today thanks to Miss
Chen‟s fiancé, who was so incensed by Chen‟s behavior that he published a complaint
about it in a Beijing newspaper, where it was read by the budding sexologist and
professor of philosophy, Zhang Jingsheng. Zhang then responded with an article
championing Chen, entitled “Research on the Rules of Love and the Miss Chen Shujun
Affair.” 68
In his article, Zhang laid out key beliefs on love that two years later would
become the foundation of his long treatises Mei de rensheng guan (Philosophy of
Aesthetic Life) (1925) and Mei de shehui zuzhi fa (The Means of Organizing an Aesthetic
Society) (1925). According to Zhang‟s article, love is governed by four universal rules:
1). love is conditional, 2). love is comparative, 3). love is changeable, and 4). spouses are
67 Had Miss Chen‟s engagement been arranged, and had she terminated it to marry a man she chose for
herself, she would doubtless have been made a heroine of the Chinese Women‟s Movement.
68 Haiyan Lee discusses this article and Zhang Jingsheng‟s general corpus in her book Revolution of the
Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), and in an
article entitled “Governmentality and the Aesthetic State: A Chinese Fantasia” in Positions 14:1 (Durham:
Duke University Press, 2006). Although Lee‟s summary of Zhang‟s article is accurate, it is unclear why
she claims that he refers to Chen as “Miss B.” In the original Chenbao funkan article, Zhang consistently
calls her by her name, Chen Shujun. Charles Leary‟s dissertation on Zhang Jingsheng, which takes as its
source for the “Rules of Love Debate,” Zhang‟s self-published collection of relevant essays, and not the
original periodical, also refers to Chen as Miss B and incorrectly lists the title of the Chenbao fukan article
as “ Aiqing dingze yu B nüshi de yanjiu, ” when in the April 29 th , 1923 edition of Chenbao fukan it appears
as “ Aiqing de dingze yu Chen Shujun nüshi shi de yanjiu .” See Leary, Sexual Modernism in China: Zhang
Jingsheng and 1920s Urban Culture (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1994), p. 140. Leary also indicates that Zhang
Jingsheng, as a colleague of Professor Tan at Peking University, was personally acquainted with both Tan
and Chen, a claim that is not unlikely, but which he does not substantiate. In her book, Haishang shuo
qingyu (Desire in Shanghai) (Taipei: Academia Sinica, 2001), Peng Hsiao-yen provides a very interesting
discussion of Zhang Jingsheng‟s sexological theories and their relation to the development of a new sexual
morality. She does not specifically mention the “Rules of Love,” but concentrates instead on Zhang‟s
longer works and his notorious Xing shi (Sex Histories). I will return to Zhang himself in more detail in the
next section.
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University of Chicago
a type of friends. 69 Basically, love is predicated on the satisfaction of certain
“conditions” - emotions, personality, appearance, talent, reputation, wealth, etc. – and
lovers, by way of comparison, are always on the hunt for a better deal. Thus love is
changeable, and is redirected toward partners who more optimally fulfill the conditions.
When this happens – no matter if the lovers are in a stage of courtship, engagement or
marriage – they should be able to part as friends do. 70 Thus Chen Shujun is not to be
condemned, but praised as a “new type of freedom-loving female, a woman who is able
to understand love and even put her principles into practice.” 71
Zhang‟s controversial views had an incendiary effect, and the editor of Chenbao
funkan , in which Zhang‟s essay was first published, elected to open the pages of the
newspaper to the debate, printing a total of fifteen lengthy commentaries in the month of
May alone. 72 In his preface to the first response, the editor seems to side with Zhang, and
expresses his disappointment that many of the young readers who have written in at that
point are “speaking on behalf of the old Confucian code of ethics; one can clearly see that
young people today are certainly not reading with assiduity or thinking with diligence.” 73
In the May 19 th issue, four such young men express their dissatisfaction with Zhang‟s
proposed rules, writing that while they can accept emotions, personality and talent as
conditions, they have serious reservations about making wealth, reputation and
69 See Zhang Jingsheng, “ Aiqing de dingze yu Chen Shujun nüshi shi de yanjiu ” in Chenbao funkan , April
29th, 1923.
70 Zhang‟s reasons for believing that friends part ways amicably and without complication are mysterious.
He does not explain himself on this point.
71 Ibid. “ 陈女士是一个新式的,喜欢自由的女子,是一个能了解爱情,及实行主义的夫人。
72 Chenbao fukan was a serious newspaper, and alongside the contributions to the Rules of Love debate in
the month of May, the paper published articles on psychology, modern labor law, philosophy, education,
and politics, including a longer piece on Abraham Lincoln. I mention this because it further demonstrates
that the Chen case and the varied views of it were perceived as issues of consequence.
73 See “ Aiqing yuanze de taolun ” in Chenbao fukan , May 18 th , 1923. “ 不过很使我们
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appearance qualifications for love. The affections of a woman like Chen, ruled as they
are by money and fame, are “like water and poplar blossoms” – in other words,
changeable and insubstantial. 74 A system of romantic comparison based on wealth, fame
and dashing good looks would no doubt be devastating for poor young scholars, and
correspondingly what seems to most concern these four is the freedom that Miss Chen
takes and the danger to constancy in love that her actions pose. They write: “If after a
woman is already engaged or married she still holds to the idea of love having
comparable conditions, can this woman‟s character still be regarded as legitimate??” 75
Others are led by Zhang‟s rules to ruminations on the nature of love. A contributor by
the name of Ding Wenan insists that love that can be interrupted by a third party is
infatuation, and not the real thing. Ding goes on to lay out the “proper order and
sequence of love” as follows: “1.) acquaintance, 2.) investigation, 3.) reaching an
understanding, and 4.) being in love.” 76 Another writer, Feng Shizao, takes issue with
Zhang‟s use of the word “research” in his title, and argues that love “is abstract and total,
scientific methods can‟t be used to analyze it and it is not possible to directly describe it.
It‟s really so mysterious!” 77
While some writers are outraged by Chen‟s case, many more object to Zhang‟s
rules, and one writer by the name of Ding Lesheng accused Zhang himself of creating a
negative opinion of Chen. “In order to evaluate Miss Chen Shujun‟s case, originally, we
74 See “ Aiqing dingze de taolun ” in Chenbao fukan , May 19 th , 1923. The phrase is “ 水性杨花
75 Ibid. “ 如果一个女子于既定婚或既结婚只后还存着比较爱情条件的念头,这个女子的人格还算得
76 See Ding Wenan, “ Aiqing dingze de taolun ” in Chenbao fukan , May 20 th , 1923. “ 爱情的循序是怎样?
1 )认识 2 )考察 3 )谅解 4 )恋爱 .”
77 See Feng Shizao, “ Aiqing dingze taolun ” in Chenbao fukan , May 21 st , 1923. “ 爱本是抽象,整个的,不
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needed only to investigate whether or not she and Tan were linked by genuine feeling.
All other questions of moral or immoral, rape or not rape, age difference…none of them
have the slightest relevance.” Ding continues: “Once we‟ve read that article, we know
that Miss Chen was simply infatuated with Mr. Tan‟s position, prestige, and talent… .” 78
In the eyes of many readers, by attributing what they viewed as base motives to Miss
Chen, Zhang Jingsheng condemned the woman he had hoped to celebrate. Most
objections to Zhang‟s rules stem from his championing of a conditionality and
comparability that frightened many of his contemporaries. Now that men and women
had so many new possibilities and freedoms, if love truly did proceed according to the
rules Zhang imagined, what would ever keep romantic relationships alive, and marriages
and families intact? The most counter-intuitive aspect of Zhang‟s thought is that he
envisions us loving so sensibly (heartlessly?), and accepting our positions on the
comparability scale without any fuss.
Much more could be said about Zhang Jingsheng and his theories of modern love.
For now, the debate surrounding the Chen case and Zhang‟s subsequent research into the
“rules of love” should simply illustrate that codes of intimate conduct were in flux and
standards of acceptable modern behavior were a matter of controversy. There is no doubt
that freedom was desired, but questions of obligation and responsibility remained
unsolved. The four students who fault women like Miss Chen for their fickle and
mercenary natures do have a point, and yet the converse of their concerns is also valid:
78 See Ding Lesheng, “ Aiqing dingze taolun ” in Chenbao fukan , May 22 nd , 1923. “ 我们批评陈淑君的事
.” “ 我们既经看了那篇文章,知道了陈女士纯系迷恋谭君的地位,资望,
才能 …”
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University of Chicago
might not pure, true love be in need of a solid grounding in the very material conditions
that Zhang‟s detractors deride him for proposing? In her analysis of Zhang‟s rules,
Haiyan Lee sees him providing a counter-point to May Fourth Romanticism, with its
allegedly idealized vision of heroic passion. Lee writes, “whereas the May Fourth
discourse affirms a heroic self beyond mundane concerns, Zhang‟s rules seek to
incorporate love within the fluctuating boundaries of everyday life. He is bringing love
down, as it were, from the pedestal of transcendental principle to a prudential plane,
treating it not as a categorical imperative but as contingent on a variety of values, goods,
and circumstances.” 79 While this may be so, it still does not offer much comfort to the
lover without a stable income or illustrious reputation, who struggles with exactly this
problem of accommodating his grand passion to the reality of his material circumstances.
While the ling might well be nourished on a diet of poetry and moonbeams, the pesky rou
still had to find a way to pay for rent and groceries, not to mention movie tickets, dinners
out, and shopping sprees. This focus on the discrepancy between aspirations and reality
introduced even greater uncertainty into intimate life, for one constantly had to wonder
whether or not one‟s expectations – both for oneself and one‟s partner – were justified.
The desire many contributors expressed for the traditional virtues of loyalty and
constancy they found wanting in Miss Chen left them vulnerable to the editor‟s charge
that they were merely “speaking on behalf of the old Confucian code of ethics.” This is a
serious accusation, and it cuts to the heart of the feelings of guilt so prevalent in Yu
Dafu‟s stories. The lack of a clear code of conduct, along with an intense desire to
79 See Lee Haiyan, Revolution of the Heart , p. 147. Her section on “The Rules of Love” appears on pp.
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University of Chicago
conduct oneself in a modern, world-wise fashion that was nonetheless genuine, presented
a situation of living in which each step taken brought new opportunity for self-doubt.
As I have said before, with the introduction of the modern predicament as
centered around the conflict of spirit and flesh – or lingrou chongtu – came an idea of the
individual as composed of two opposed parts. Flesh became a source of evil, and spirit a
source of good, and the hunger to bring the vulnerable flesh into line with the lofty
aspirations of spirit motivated many discussions of the conflict. This opposition located
moral conflict squarely within the unit of the individual: how one felt and desired and the
manner in which one manifested those emotions and longings determined one‟s status as
a moral being. The back and forth of desire and its regulation took place now inside the
modern self, with little help or guidance from externally imposed ritual. Thus moral
conflict became, in a sense, more intimate, and extended to the furthest reaches of the
subject‟s inner world. Here, spirit and flesh struggled for control, creating an inner
atmosphere of ferment that proved fertile ground for the development of the “guilty
minde.” In the stories of Yu Dafu, the sense of guilt the characters express is genuine
and warranted by the circumstances of their transitional period, and yet the act of
articulating this guilt becomes a way of asserting one‟s authenticity, of making oneself
count as an individual in the modern sense.
III. The Love Story as Penance
And to him, as the days went by, it was as if the heavens had fallen, and he were sitting
with her among the ruins, in a new world, everybody else buried, themselves two blissful
survivors, with everything to squander as they would. At first, he could not get rid of a
culpable sense of license on his part. Wasn‟t there some duty outside, calling him and he
did not come?
- D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow
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University of Chicago
In 1925, building on principles outlined during the “Rules of Love” debate, Zhang
Jingsheng published two treatises on the aesthetic organization of society. 80 Zhang, who
had completed a dissertation at the University of Lyon on Rousseau‟s theories of
education, structured his aesthetic social philosophy around what he called a “ qingren
zhi ,” or “lover system,” an organizational principle that he set up in opposition to existing
hunyin zhi ,” or “marriage systems.” According to this lover system, which was to be
heterosexual in orientation and centered around the female half of each couple, women
with full sexual autonomy would cultivate their erotic skills and use them to make the
world a better place by controlling the behavior of men, in whom Zhang Jingsheng had
considerably less faith. Because the lover system‟s basis in principles of conditionality
and comparability offered no guarantees of constancy, individuals would strive
continually to perfect themselves in order to retain their lover‟s affections, or to “trade
up” for a more desirable partner. 81 Although based on principles of free love and sexual
autonomy, Zhang‟s “aesthetic life” was by no means to be a free-for-all, and would
depend as much on a regulation of individual life according to “scientifically”-derived
standards of beauty as it would on a utopian harmonization of individual desires
according to a scale of romantic comparability. Jing Tsu does not exaggerate when she
80 These treatises were Mei de rensheng guan (The Philosophy of a Beautiful Life) and Mei de shehui zuzhi
fa (How to Organize a Beautiful Society).
81 In the years since Charles Leary completed his dissertation, “Sexual Modernism in China: Zhang
Jingsheng and 1920s Urban Culture” (1994), several scholars have done very interesting work on Zhang
Jingsheng‟s sexological work and aesthetic philosophy. Most notable are Peng Hsiao-yen‟s Desire in
China: From Zhang Ziping to Liu Na’ou , Jing Tsu‟s Failure, Nationalism and Literature , and an article and
book by Lee Haiyan, respectively entitled “Governmentality and the Aesthetic State: A Chinese Fantasia”
(in Positions 14:1 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006)) and Revolution of the Heart . For specific
information about the “lover system,” please see Leary, pp. 217-225; Peng, pp. 14-21 and 56-63; Tsu, pp.
129-141; and Lee‟s entire article.
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University of Chicago
credits Zhang with popularizing a program of eugenics. 82 Indeed, while the utopia Zhang
Jingsheng imagines in his treatises might seem rather relaxed and permissive – founded
as it ostensibly is on ideas of beauty, love and freedom – it is also extremely well-
managed in its discouragement of deviation from the beautiful standard.
In her analysis of Zhang Ziping‟s novel Taili (1926), Peng Hsiao-yen shows how
the discourses of sexology and intimate life exemplified by the works of Zhang Jingsheng
became a salient topic for contemporaneous fictional literature. In Zhang Ziping‟s novel,
they manifest in a desire for an alternative, utopian space where love can take its own
course, unhindered by the tenets of Confucian society and unimpeded by quotidian
concerns. 83 Zhang Jingsheng‟s sexological writings and Zhang Ziping‟s novel could
possibly have a stronger connection than that of mere shared milieu, for the plot of Zhang
Ziping‟s novel Taili (July, 1926) and the story of the second “case study” in Zhang
Jingsheng‟s Sex Histories (February, 1926) are similar enough to incite suspicion of
direct influence. 84 Whatever the relation between the works of sexologist and novelist, in
Taili Zhang Ziping does create an intimate Utopia, albeit a fleeting one. As Peng
indicates in her analysis, what appears to be a lovers‟ paradise is soon shattered, as the
male protagonist‟s unrestrained lust leads to loss of health and eventually to both lovers‟
ambiguous watery death – did they drown or did they jump? – in an ocean that doubles as
a sea of desire, an image all the more evocative for its association with the Buddhist
82 See Tsu, pp. 136-137.
83 See Peng, Desire in Shanghai . See her second chapter, Zhang Ziping de lian’ai xiaoshuo , particularly
pp. 39-41.
84 See Zhang Jingsheng, Xing shi , Jiang Ping‟s account, “ Chuci de xingjiao ,” pp. 53-76. Both stories
recount a young man‟s sexual awakening at the hands of the lonely young matron in whose home they are
temporarily living. The woman in both accounts first appears as a temptress and then quickly becomes
emotionally dependant on the young man, whose own lack of restraint in lovemaking begins to ruin his
health. In both accounts, the young man expresses feelings of guilt for his inability to truly fulfill the
obligation he feels he has incurred to provide for the woman‟s material needs. While neither story is
incredibly original, they are similar enough to warrant notice.
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University of Chicago
concept of the “great sea of suffering.” 85 Zhang Ziping‟s narrative seems to support the
full sexual autonomy with self-regulation that Zhang Jingsheng calls for in his treatises,
for one can imagine that if his protagonists had lived in a society governed by Zhang
Jingsheng‟s aesthetic principles, they might have had a better chance at a happy ending.
At the same time, Taili perfectly demonstrates why Zhang Jingsheng‟s lover system
could never succeed with the happiness he imagines: the darker emotions that make up
love‟s underside – guilt, fear, jealousy, and pride – rarely accommodate themselves as
sensibly as one would wish to the “facts” as presented by sliding scales of conditionality
and comparability.
Yu Dafu, too, longs for a new intimate territory in which love can be fully
satisfied. The pages of his novel Mi yang (Lost Sheep) (1928) are filled with yearning
for a space in which ling and rou no longer struggle against each other, where love
sustains itself without interference from social forces or material concerns. This
imagined world would also be governed by a qingren zhi , but its principles would be
different from those promoted by Zhang Jingsheng. While Zhang Jingsheng‟s lover
system relies on a vaguely Darwinian notion of a survival of the most attractive, Yu
Dafu‟s utopian intimate space is founded on the equally idealistic assertion that love
should conquer all, and that nothing can stand in the way of love if lovers understand
each other well enough. Within the novel Lost Sheep , the primary evidence for this
imagined utopian space lies in the other-worldly, out-of-time mood established by Wang
85 See Peng, p. 40. The idea of over-indulgence in sex leading to loss of vitality and eventually illness for
the male is an almost hackneyed plot element, probably because of its correspondance to traditional
Chinese medical knowledge. Critics often accused Zhang Jingsheng and others who claimed to deal with
sexually explicit topics in a modern “scientific” way of simply dressing up traditional erotic knowledge in
modern sexological jargon and trying to pass it off as something new.
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University of Chicago
Ziyi, the novel‟s male protagonist and first-person narrator, as he recounts the story of his
love affair with the small-town traditional actress, Xie Yuying. 86
Wang‟s account opens as follows: “In the fall of 19XX, because of a serious brain
disease, I stayed in A city on the northern bank of the Yangtze River to convalesce.” 87
Without concrete information about time or place, the reader is thus from the very
beginning reliant upon the subjective descriptions of a narrator whose admission of
compromised mental faculties – brain disease – undermine the implicit reality statement
of the first-person account. From Wang‟s initial self-description, however, it is clear that
this is a young man whose rou is severely out of step with his ling . He tells us:
“Although I generally enjoyed novel reading and oil-painting, words like “love,”
like “romance,” that are so commonly heard in spheres of literature and art
actually had no relationship whatsoever to my own life. My anatomy, however,
and my physical development were of course the same as any young man‟s: hot
blood flowed through my veins, and my senses and my sexual organs left nothing
lacking.” 88
This discrepancy of ling and rou has caused his poor health, for as several physicians
have told him, his “brain disease was the fault of unregulated ( bu tiao ) sexual desire;”
these well-meaning doctors advise him to “make a few male and female friends” in order
to “drive off the feelings of depression that have built up in [his] breast.” 89 Wang‟s own
86 Wang is not specific about the type of traditional drama that the girls perform.
87 See Yu Dafu, Mi yang in Yu Dafu wenji , vol. 2 (Hong Kong: Joint Publishing Company, 1982), p. 1. “
XX 年的秋天,我因为脑病
A 城里养病
88 See Ibid., p. 3, “ 平时虽则喜欢读读小说,画画洋画,然而那些文学界艺术界常常听见的什么恋
89 Ibid., p. 3, “将我的脑病,归咎在性欲的不调 .” “ 多交几位男女朋友,可以消散消散胸中堆积着的忧
.” Although I am tempted, I think it is taking too much of a risk to read this as a medical
recommendation for sexual experimentation. My understanding of the doctors‟ advice is that more social
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University of Chicago
account and his report of his doctors‟ words establish a complicated relationship between
mind and body. The fact that mental distress causes physical illness, and an absence of
depressed feelings can bring about recovery indicates a notion of mind/body unity that
makes terms like “psychosomatic” irrelevant. And yet Wang‟s distress seems very much
to be the product of a rift between the spirit‟s desires for idealized love and the flesh‟s
biological need for sexual release. Wang‟s inability to reconcile the grand dreams of love
he has culled from novels and Western painting with the evidence of sexual desire
presented by his own body leaves him feeling despondent about the former and guilty
about the latter, and thus he remains doubly dissatisfied with his existence.
When Wang does experience grand passion in “real life,” it is fitting that it is with
an actress and within the idealized space of the theater. Wang is first captivated by a
group of girls together before one gradually comes into focus as the object of his
affections: “only after looking at them carefully a second time,” he recalls, “was I able to
tell that in all there were three.” 90 At this point, the girls are backlit, gazing out over a
hotel balcony at the Yangtze, and their similar heights and builds would make them
indistinguishable were it not for their differently colored clothes. After this first
encounter at a river-side hotel, Wang meets them several times by chance while strolling
about town, and before long he begins to follow them with purpose. After the girls‟
bright dress leads him to suspect that they are actresses, Wang learns their names by
contact will simply help to dispel Wang‟s depression, and thus provide a healthy outlet for some of his pent
up feelings.
90 Ibid, p. 4, “ 第二眼再仔细看时,我才知道她们共有三人 .” This moment recalls Marcel‟s first meeting
with Albertine in Proust‟s In the Shadow of Young Girls in Bloom . Although Yu Dafu does not have much
to say about Proust, and it is therefore unlikely that there is any direct influence here, it is also an
interesting coincidence that the major threat to both Wang‟s and Marcel‟s relationship is a female
friendship. In the Shadow of Young Girls in Bloom is the second volume of Proust‟ epic work In Search of
Lost Time . The title of the second volume is also translated as Within a Budding Grove .
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reading them from a playbill, though at that point he does not yet know which name
belongs with which face. 91 Slowly Wang‟s affections begin to focus on one of the three,
one whom he first identifies in the theater as audience members call out her name: Xie
Yueying. Wang is not yet so enamored, however, that he is unable to make a cool
assessment of her ability as an actress. He rates Xie Yueying‟s performance as flawed
but solid, though he concedes that in provincial A city, “of course she could conquer
everyone.” 92 By sarcastically referring to the disorderly small-town dandies in the
audience as “aesthetes” because of the way they ogle the vivacious dan , Wang makes it
clear that his own interest in Yueying has not robbed him of his ability to reflect. 93 The
moment of Wang‟s first singular identification of Xie Yueying – when she appears
onstage in costume – does leave a deep impression on him, and yet despite her finery and
her location on the elevated, idealized space of the stage, he retains the composure of a
connoisseur even as he begins to fall in love. 94 In this way, the idealized world conjured
up by the illusions of the theater is continually undermined in Wang‟s descriptions, and
yet the sphere of art in which their romance begins succeeds in introducing to their
relationship an element of doubt as to whether Yueying‟s passion (or his own?) belongs
to the realm of “authentic feeling” or “performative emotion.” 95 Unfortunately for
91 In this all-female acting troupe, Xie Yuying plays the male role of bearded sheng , Li Lanxiang the female
role of hua dan , and Chen Liankui is a hei tou( ??) I don‟t know what type of role this is: 黑头
92 Ibid., p. 8. “ 她当然是可以压倒一切了 .”
93 Ibid., p. 8. All roles in Chinese opera, to speak very generally, were traditionally played by male actors.
The dan is no exception, though the dan is a female character, and a hua dan is a fetching young woman.
94 Xie Yueying is listed on the playbill as playing a xu sheng , or bearded gentleman. This strikes me
as an odd role for the women who becomes the love interest, but the narrative says nothing more
about it. I am going to just let this go, unless any readers think it needs further treatment. As far as I
can tell, there is nothing obviously erotic about a woman playing a male role in Chinese opera,
because the costume for both male and female roles is a loose gown that does not reveal the wearer’s
95 I am indebted to Anthony Yu for this observation.
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Wang, this doubt that he is never quite able to shake has disasterous consequences for his
Outside of his clearly defined role as spectator, however, Wang quickly loses his
self-possession as their budding romance continues the theme of other-worldliness begun
with the theater. To further support the creation of an atmosphere of intimate utopia, the
narrative represents the lovers‟ struggle to attain a different plane in terms of actual
physical space, beginning with the setting of their first experiences of physical intimacy
at significant distances from the earth. On the day of their first solo outing, Wang and
Yueying go into the countryside on a short excursion to Riverside Temple ( ying jiang si ),
which boasts a tall pagoda that visitors can surmount for an expansive view of the river.
Even before their ascent into the tower, the temple environment has a palpable effect
upon them: “Right away we felt a sort of indolent and carefree atmosphere of leisure that
cast all distress for the past and anxiety about the future to the back of our minds. Xie
Yueying forgot that she was a woman of talent, a woman who served as a plaything by
profession, and I also forgot that I was dependant on others as a guest.” 96 After an initial
moment of intense excitement and fear, their inhibitions continue to dissolve as the
inexperienced Wang finds himself pressed up against Yueying in the darkness of the
tower staircase as they fumble their way forward. Once they reach the uppermost level of
the pagoda, they join hands and look down on the glassy surface of the river and “the
many sailboats and steamboats, like toys, gliding past on the smooth glass.” 97 As an
96 Ibid., p. 23. “ 早就感到了一种优游的闲适气氛,把过去的愁思和未来的忧苦,一切都抛在脑后
Wang is very sensitive about the fact that he is dependant upon his father‟s friends for financial support.
See p. 2.
97 Ibid., p. 25, “ 有许多同玩具似的帆船汽船,在这平稳的玻璃上游驶
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indication of how lost they are in this moment, Wang suggestively adds: “I didn‟t know
how much time we‟d spent up on the pagoda; I only noticed the sun sinking lower and
lower, and when I gazed down, in the neighboring village smoke was already rising from
the cooking stoves.” 98
Although their first experience of sex together is in a hotel room, 99 the second
instance, which Wang describes in more detail, takes place in a ship‟s cabin as they make
their escape from Yueying‟s theater troupe and friends who wish to keep them apart.
Wang himself makes use of utopian imagery in his account of their tryst: “The miniscule
ship‟s cabin became a paradise on earth, a land of the immortals in this world of dust,
until our clothes were undone and thrown off and even the abundance of blankets folded
on the cot had been cast away.” 100 So expansive does the freedom they find in the tiny
cabin seem to Wang that he imagines them transcending the limits of their circumstances
while remaining within its confines. There is nothing new about the idea of star-crossed
lovers enjoying the opportunities for intimacy that a journey by sea affords – separated
from parents and friends, from the policing eyes of society on land, the ship provides an
ideal distance from the native territory and its rules and expectations. And yet Yu Dafu‟s
use of this trope is nonetheless moving, and allows Wang to convey a real and poignant
sense of desperation when he writes:
“And I wished that this boat were always going to be on this grey stretch of
river, that it would always move slowly forward like this, that it wouldn‟t
stop, that it wouldn‟t draw near to the shore, that it wouldn‟t arrive at any
98 Ibid., p. 25, “ 在塔上不知道逗留了多少时候,
也已经起了炊烟 .”
99 See ibid., pp. 44-45.
100 Ibid., p. 49, “ 这一间小小的船舱,变了地上的乐园,尘寰的仙境,弄得连脱衣解带,铺床叠被的
.” Wang‟s imagery draws on Christian and Buddhist traditions.
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destination whatsoever. I only wanted to go with her, with Xie Yueying, just
the two of us, to continue floating along like this, until the ends of the earth,
until the two of us had disappeared from the human world.” 101
The fact that Wang cannot hope to see his wishes realized does nothing to lessen their
intensity. The desire he feels while on the boat for a life of drifting and floating, away at
all cost from solid land, presents the idea of intimate utopia in a slightly more complex
light. In Wang‟s imagination, this new “territory” he seeks – as a space in which ling and
rou come into harmony and love can be realized – is not simply an idealized version of
reality, but seems rather to be of a different order altogether. Instead of erecting a new
world on the ashes of the old, as D. H. Lawrence‟s lovers feel they do, Wang‟s ideal
seems to reject any rootedness in space and any notion of horizons whatsoever.
Entering such a world necessitates a total avoidance of anything outside of
themselves, their immediate needs, and the spaces they directly inhabit. The lovers break
all contact with friends, and only seek out newspapers for theater listings or gossip
columns. Although financial pressures begin to weigh on Wang as their resources
dwindle, both he and Yueying are entirely indifferent to the political situation. Because it
is impossible to imagine their journey through Jiangsu province in “19XX,” from
provincial A city to the then-capitol of Nanjing to the metropolis of Shanghai not
bringing them into direct contact with instantiations of the political news they ignore, this
lack of any connection to current events leaves a noticeable hole in the narrative. This
absence only adds to the impression of the two lovers, cocooned by their mutual
affection, existing beyond the intrusions of the world of time and space. In Wang‟s
101 Ibid., p. 50. “ 我并且希望这轮船老是在这一条灰色的江上,老是象这样的慢慢开行过去,不要停
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version of events, he and Yueying seem to be living the encapsulated ideal of the perfect
romance, or as he puts it, “Day after day we wandered at leisure; night after night we
spent in ecstasy; indeed, as for all the empty, common enterprises of this human world,
we forgot them entirely.” 102
Even within this “paradise on earth,” however, there are signs of a snake in the
grass. Romantic vision collides with modern reality in the course of their idyllic travels
when Wang stumbles upon the historic “Rouge Well,” and decides to tell Yueying a
version of the tale of Houzhu of Chen “just as you would tell a story to a little child.” 103
Wang first paints a rosy picture of the debauched final emperor of the Chen dynasty, who
spends his days and nights at leisure with a harem of lovely girls “just like” Yueying.
Wang extols the talents of the Emperor‟s female entourage to a rapt Yueying, but when
he describes how they cavorted by night at nude drinking parties and slept all together,
Yueying gets curious about the particulars. “Everybody all together?” and “But didn‟t
they feel bashful?” and “Didn‟t he get tired, sleeping with all those girls all day?” she
asks. 104 Thus far, Wang and Yueying have been endearing themselves to each other
through the telling and reception of this tale: Wang as the fount of cultural knowledge,
who flatters Yueying by comparing her to the beautiful concubines of the imperial past;
and Yueying as the charmingly pliant receptacle for his wisdom, who enchants Wang
with her display of childlike attention. They are flirting with each other, after all,
102 Ibid., p. 54, “ 我们就天天游逛,夜夜欢娱,竟把人世的一切经营俗虚,完全都忘掉了
103 Ibid., p. 54, “ 我就同和小孩子说故事似的把陈后主的事情说给她听
104 Ibid., pp. 55-56. “ 大家都在一块儿的 ?” “ 她们倒不怕羞 ?” “ 整天的和那么些姑娘们睡觉,他倒不累
?” Although Houzhu of Chen is a real historical personage, Wang takes some liberties with his story.
Wang‟s portrait of him as a womanizer matches standard historical evaluations, but Wang‟s version of his
downfall is not accurate: Houzhu of Chen‟s rule was challenged by Emperor Wen of the rival Sui, and not
by a peasant rebellion.
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projecting their own romance onto the backdrop of the Rouge Well. Wang is soon
shocked out of this fantasy world, however, by Yueying‟s response when he asks her
what she thinks those concubines did when the enemy general Han Qinhu stormed the
palace. “Naturally,” says the guileless Yueying, “they went with Han Qinhu!” 105 Her
reply leaves Wang dumbstruck. The right answer, the answer Wang is looking for, is that
the girls – rather than be disloyal or dishonored – committed suicide by jumping into the
well. Wang is eventually able to contain his disappointment with Yueying, but not before
making it clear that he rates the virtue of the emperor‟s concubines far higher than her
own. 106 In this way, Wang‟s narrative presents an account of their romance as an
encapsulated, heroic ideal, and yet instances like the trip to the Rouge Well gives his
reader glimpses of a reality he will not admit to himself.
Wang later tells us that “she and I, in the course of what was now almost a month,
with the exception of the time we separated to go to the toilet, coming and going,
sleeping and waking, not for one second had we ever left each other.” 107 This kind of
togetherness, it turns out, is essential to the survival of their particular intimate utopia, for
the moment they are separated, Wang begins to regard Yueying as a being who exists
independently of their love for each other. When he does this, long-banished time and
space re-enter their relationship in the form of history and distance. The catalyst for this
change is a chance encounter with an old friend of Yueying‟s who had once belonged to
the same theater troupe, and with whom, to Wang‟s chagrin, Yueying now desires to
105 Ibid., p. 56, “ 自然是跟韩擒虎了啦 !”
106 Ibid., p. 56. Wang says “Yueying! How could you be as corrupt as this!” “Those concubines, they were
far higher than you, they all jumped into this well with the emperor to die.”
107 Ibid., p. 66. “ 我和她,在这将近一个月的当中,除上便所的时候分一分开外,行住坐卧,一刻也
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spend time. 108 The friend, Xia Yuexian – whose continual laughter and slowness to
speech give her, in Wang‟s eyes, an almost demonic quality – forces on both lovers an
awareness of the world outside their relationship. 109 Because it is Wang who tells the
story, the reader cannot be sure of Yueying‟s thoughts or feelings, but it is clear at least
that Wang begins to think about Yueying‟s life as part of an independent narrative, one
that has past episodes and the potential for a future trajectory that have nothing
whatsoever to do with him. For Wang, these are not happy thoughts, and they generate a
feeling of terror that leads to an equally intense desire to know that his possession of
Yueying is total.
Wang laments the change that has taken place in their relationship, and describes
its now cyclical shape as follows:
“Because of the intense anxiety and jealously stirred up in my heart, when I got
home I embraced her, and in a torrent of tears I exerted myself in enjoying an
exercise of the rights I had to her. But then once I had spent my energy, she,
looking serene and untroubled, as if she had felt nothing, combed through my hair
with her hand and said:
„You child, you. Don‟t be so crazy. Look at the way you‟ve been acting lately
– you‟re just like a mad dog. What does it matter if I go out for a stroll? What
gives you cause to be so small-minded? You‟ll wind up making yourself ill, and
there‟s nothing fun about that. What are you afraid I‟ll do? Do you really think
I‟d be able to leave you now?‟
108 Xia Yuexian ( 夏月仙 ) (lit. Summer moon immortal) is her original name; her stage name is Xiao
Yuehong ( 小月红 ) (lit. Little moon red, a possible reference to menstruation). Much could be made of
these intriguing names for the woman who after all mysteriously draws Yueying away from Wang and
whom he cannot begin to fathom.
109 Wang describes Yuexian as follows: “This Xiao Yuehong, whose real name was Xia Yuexian, was not
at all bad-looking, but with that diminutive build of hers, along with her not saying much, and her habit of
always laughing, she made me feel afraid and uneasy.” See ibid., p. 65. “ 那本名夏月仙的小月红,相貌也
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Consoled by her like this, all of my desire for her grew even more strongly
aroused, and the result, just like always, was a feeling of impatience on her part:
she wanted to get up again to wash, do her hair, dress and put on make-up, and
then go out once more.
When she went out, of course I would follow her, and of course others would
look at her again, and of course once again I would not be able to control my
jealousy. And then in the evening, we‟d go to eat dinner in a restaurant, and after
finishing dinner would return home, and repeat again the eruption of violent
passion and the cruel tyranny of the flesh ( jinrou de nüe shi ).
This state of affairs, in a repeating cycle, continued as the days passed, and
my entire nervous system began to present a strange appearance.” 110
Having entered now into a world in which he must contend with others for Yueying‟s
affections, Wang can no longer be sure of her heart, and only when he physically
dominates her in the act of making love is he able to achieve any kind of certainty about
his position. This brief respite is for Wang immediately followed by bitter
disappointment, as he realizes that his desperate performances leave Yueying unaffected,
and do not bring him any closer to an absolute confirmation of her affections. 111
For Wang‟s ling , love is the heroic love of paintings and novels, a love that needs
no rules because it is stronger than any obstacle; it continues in adversity, and has no
110 Ibid., p. 73. “ 因为内心紧张,嫉妒激发的原因,我一到家就抱住了她,流了一脸眼泪,尽力的享
呈出一种怪现象来了 .”
111 It is in such situations that the significance of her occuptation as an actress becomes most apparent, for
Wang‟s difficulty all along is that he feels he can never be sure if her feelings for him are genuine, or if she
is the sort of person capable of genuine feeling.
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patience for the everyday. It exists out of time and in its own encapsulated universe. In
the intimate utopia that he and Yueying initially seem to inhabit, it does seem, as
Lawrence wrote, “as if the heavens had fallen, and he were sitting with her among the
ruins, in a new world… with everything to squander as they would,” or rather, as if they
dwelt in a new universe in which any mark of time or space were irrelevant. Their
dreamy perch on the pagoda, the romance of their ship‟s journey, their flight into
anonymity in Shanghai, all of these seem to indicate that their own story will achieve the
romantic time- and spacelessness of the heroic model, which exists, as I have said, as a
kind of bubble, away from the slings and arrows of the everyday. The everyday, truly
arrow-like in the narrative trajectory in which we must imagine it, moves forward, allows
for beginnings and ends, and most of all for development. Our experience of it is located
within horizons that are both the product of that experience – of our stories as we tell
them to ourselves – and the conditions that make the telling of such stories possible. In
being forced by renewed contact with old friends into the context of the everyday, the
capsule of Wang and Yueying‟s heroic romance ruptures, and rather than assume the
form of the trajectory, by accounting together for their past and building a joint narrative
with which to move forward, they are instead caught in an endless cycle, moving forward
in time but not space, repeating the same steps over and over again.
Wang and Yueying‟s relationship does end, of course, with Yueying leaving him,
though Wang does not relinquish his claim right away. His search for her creates a
narrative moment of bitter comic relief, as Wang is made to pay a penance for the
timelessness of their earlier travels together through an arduous attempt to win her back.
As he endeavors to find Yueying, Wang has the misfortune of retracing the steps of their
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journey, but this time during the New Year holiday when no one is open for business, and
he finds himself in the ridiculous position of having to tell his story again and again to
innkeepers who only vaguely remember him and are reluctant to even answer their
doors. 112 Thus the cyclical structure of their later relationship is duplicated in narrative
form within Wang‟s own narrative, as he repeats himself to irascible hotel proprietors
who would much rather slam their doors in his face. This story telling is humiliating for
Wang, who must admit both to absconding with an actress and to being jilted by her.
According to the internal logic of the narrative, it also provides an integral opportunity
for penance.
Wang‟s account closes with his detailed description of his physical sensations as
he loses consciousness, and thus Wang‟s first-person narrative ends in the moment he
loses the ability to continue to tell it. He writes: “Suddenly I felt a large, heavy piece of
blackness fly onto my forehead, and everything that happened after that, I don‟t
remember.” 113 Though this is the last the reader hears of Wang‟s voice, the novel
continues into an afterword, in which we learn for the first time the conceit of the novel‟s
origin. Wang, it turns out, wrote his narrative as a confession, at the advice of an
American missionary, who tells him:
“All of our cares, we can grasp ahold of them and give them to a shepherd who is
greater than us, because we are all sheep who have lost our way, and we can‟t
avoid the danger and fear of being lost. We only have to lay bare before this
shepherd the danger and fear that we cannot bear ourselves and let him take it up
112 Ibid., pp. 77-84.
113 Ibid., p. 91. “ 忽儿我觉得脑门上又飞来了一块很重很大的黑块,以后的事情,我就不晓得了
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for us; only then can we continue on with our lives. In the church, this is what is
meant by prayer and confession.” 114
The language of the missionary‟s explanation, perhaps, is what leads the editor – who the
reader has every reason to believe is Yu Dafu – to choose Mi yang , or “Lost Sheep” as
the title for “Wang‟s” story. To remain for a moment longer within the conceit of the
narrative, the revelation of the afterword makes the reader aware that when Wang puts
his romance with Yueying into narrative form for the surly innkeepers, it is really a sort
of training for the final gesture of penance he must make if he is to recover. The reader
learns also that Wang wrote his penitential love story while being treated for “heart
disease” – as opposed to the “brain disease” from which suffers at the beginning of his
account – in a foreign hospital in A city. 115 If he wishes to recover, to “continue on with
[his] life,” as the missionary says, his written confession is presented here as a necessary
This formulation makes his romance, as that which must be expurgated,
functionally indistinguishable from his guilt. According to the missionary‟s belief, and to
the facts of Wang‟s story, if he confesses his romance, he will be free from the guilt he
cannot bear, and be able to continue on with his life. This brings us back to the
etymology of jiu – as a term holding the significance of both guilt and chronic disease, as
I discuss in an earlier section. Both meanings are in effect here, as Wang undergoes what
seems very much like a faith healing by stretching out his initially idyllic romance into
114 Ibid., p. 93. “ 我们的愁思,可以全部把出来,交给一个比我们更伟大的牧人的,因为我们都是迷
115 Ibid., p. 93. There is nothing odd about the perfectly standard term Yu Dafu uses for “heart disease”
( xinzang bing ), but I do think its juxtaposition to the “brain disease” from which he initially suffers is
intriguing. Is it the ailment that changes, or just the diagnosis?
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the trajectory of narrative, admitting its context in space and time, and leaving it as a
record of the guilt he no longer carries within himself. Free from the jiu that has been
causing his “heart disease,” Wang can break out of the debilitating cycle he has entered
with Yueying and eventually regain his equilibrium.
The course his life takes thereafter, which the editor summarizes for us in his own
brief first-person narrative, is also worthy of our attention. Only by way of a chance
encounter with a residual image of Wang‟s romance does the editor come to possess
Wang‟s confession in the first place. The story of the origins of Wang‟s confession as
published text is as follows: one day the editor, who was for a time a teacher in a modern
school in A city, is drinking coffee, leafing through foreign journals and chatting with an
American missionary friend. He is struck in his perusal of one journal by the presence of
a Romanized Chinese name listed among the artists selected for an exhibition in Paris:
the artist, one “C.C. Wang,” his painting, “Lost Woman” ( Shiqu de nüren ). The editor
draws his American friend‟s attention to the article, saying: “A painting by one of our
Chinese students abroad has even been chosen for exhibition in a Paris salon.” 116 The
missionary thinks for a few moments, and then realizes that this C. C. Wang must be the
young patient he‟d urged to written confession a few years back. Thus the reader learns
of Wang‟s transformation from nearly dead patient with “heart disease” to internationally
recognized artist, the object of praise even in the rarified atmosphere of the Parisian
In a double sense, it is Wang‟s transformation of his guilt/romance – his jiu – into
an artistic product that enables him not only to continue to live his life, but also to do so
116 Ibid., p. 92. “ 我们中国留学生的画,
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as an international success. This C. C. Wang, whose confessed love story becomes the
novel we read, uses an aestheticized image of Yueying – the “lost woman” – to launch
himself into the heroic realm of “love” and “romance” in the paintings and novels that he
at first admires, but which he laments have “nothing whatsoever to do with [his] life.”
Having let go of the actual romance, Wang uses it as the raw material for an act of
transcendence that allows him entry into an international aesthetic space. What he leaves
behind in China, and what Yu Dafu in turn presents to us, is merely the record of a guilt
he has sloughed off. Having purged himself of his guilt through the exercise of narrating
it, Wang is able to transcend language and universalize his expressive medium with the
image of the lost woman he creates in his painting. Wang‟s story offers an ideal outcome
for the confessional narrative, for the entire novel models the transformative power with
which confessional narrative is already invested within the perameters of the plot in many
of Yu Dafu‟s other works.
IV. Conclusion: The Limits of Iconoclasm
New at this time and in the works of Yu Dafu is the all-importance of self-
expression. While ordinary life had long been affirmed as a site for virtuous conduct in
Confucian culture, a new emphasis was placed on the uniqueness of individual emotional
and psychological experience, making it the locus of the modern self. As I have tried to
show in the preceding pages, Yu Dafu‟s method of self-articulation involved the creation
of a guilty subject who voices himself via confession. I argue also that this guilt, though
new, was not the far-fetched posturing of an effete and isolated writer, but was the
believable product of amorphous ethical codes during this transitional period. And yet
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these feelings, though believable and genuine, were still crucial to the construction of a
means of self-expression that seemed to provide a way out of a temporary expressive
impasse. In order to reveal who one was – to gain the recognition of others – one had to
find a way to articulate one‟s allegedly sui generis inner world, and for a time the
confessional mode provided just that possibility. Now, although this predicament
reverberated throughout the works of a major strain of modern Chinese literature during
the May Fourth period and on into the 1930s, it was to be a short-lived experiment, at
least in Mainland China.
By the late 1930s, and certainly by the time Zhou Yang‟s call went out for
national defense literature – in response to the Japanese military encroachment that had
also warranted a United Front between the warring Communist and Nationalist armies –
writers no longer produced the sort of confessional narratives I have been describing
here, in which the self depicted is a self sought in the course of narration. 117 While some
writers, perhaps most notably Zhang Ailing, did continue to affirm the importance of
ordinary life as a topic for literary work into the 1940s, most authors were convinced of
the need to write politically responsible work, though of course their interpretations of
what that meant varied. 118 Very often this literary development is linked to the
worsening national situation, and the case is made that writers and reading public alike
117 Zhou Yang (1908-1989) was an important Marxist critic and CCP administrator who served as dean of
the Lu Xun Academy of Art and Literature in Yan‟an. He first published his well-known essay, “Guanyu
guofang wenxue” (On National Defense Literature) in the June 5 th , 1936 edition of Wenxue jie , though he
had coined the term “national defense literature” in 1934. Some writers – most notably Lu Xun and his
protégé Hu Feng – objected to that slogan as too vague because it lacked a clear orientation on the problem
of class. They favored instead a “mass literature of national revolutionary struggle.” The conflict between
the two became known as the “two slogans debate.” See Denton, Modern Chinese Literary Thought , p.
404, and Liu Yansheng, Zhongguo xiandai wenxue lunzheng shi (Guangzhou: Guangdong renmin
chubanshe, 1999), particularly chapters 26 and 27, on the two slogans debate, pp. 392-409.
118 In 1944, Zhang Ailing wrote “Ziji de wenzhang” (My Writing), in which she defended her stories of
romantic difficulties faced by ordinary men and women.
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could no longer stomach the self-expository writing that had once enthralled a significant
faction of both. For writers who did continue to write in a confessional vein, blame is
often placed on censorship, with the implication that had they been free to do so, they
would have abandoned minute psychological description and instead written works that
dealt openly with external political realities. 119 Certainly the changes in the political
situation that occurred the onset of the War of Resistance to Japan and the Civil War
between the Nationalists and Communists did account for much of the change. I would
like, however, to introduce the possibility here that these confessional narratives might
also have collapsed under their own weight, which is to say under the weight of the
monumental importance given to the uniqueness of individual emotional and
psychological experience.
In exploring this point, I want to return again to Rousseau‟s Confessions , this time
to the introduction, in which he states the aim of his project with a force that borders on –
but by no means crosses into – self-parody. His prefatory remarks are as follows:
“I am forming an undertaking which has no precedent, and the execution
of which will have no imitator whatsoever. I wish to show my fellows a
man in all the truth of nature; and this man will be myself.
Myself alone. I feel my heart and I know men. I am not made like
any of the ones that I have seen; I dare to believe that I am not made like
any that exist. If I am worth no more, at least I am different. Whether
nature has done well or ill in breaking the mold in which it cast me, is
something which cannot be judged until I have been read.” 120
119 This was no doubt often the case, particularly during times like Shanghai‟s “Solitary Island” period
(1937-1941), when the foreign concessions were the lone space of relative freedom in a “sea” of Japanese
occupation, and writers had to negotiate carefully between different sets of rules.
120 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions and Correspondence, Including the Letters to Malesherbes in
The Collected Writings of Rousseau , vol. 5, Christopher Kelly, trans. (Hanover: University Press of New
England, 1995), p. 5. That Rousseau is comfortable at least rhetorically making himself synonymous with
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According to Rousseau, both his emotions and his project are unprecedented and
unrepeatable – and what worth it, and thus he, has lies in its difference from others.
While we might accept this as a valid personal philosophy or legitimate view of selfhood,
it is not normally the way that we read literature, and rarely what we look for in art. Here
Rousseau‟s study of himself falls prey to the perils of the “Portrait,” if we recall the
words of the “man of letters” from Rousseau‟s preface to his novel Julie , that “the
Portrait is of interest to few People; the Tableau alone can please the Public.” 121 The
very uniqueness of the subject matter, which should ensure the work‟s significance, is at
the same time a potential source of its irrelevance. For what, we might be forgiven for
asking, is the consequence of a work that can only tell us of the inner world of a single
individual, unique in the universe? Without the promise of repetition, which Rousseau so
grandly insists is impossible, how can we be expected to trouble ourselves with his
account? To insist on the absolute uniqueness of his account is in some measure to
dispense with any possible claims to universality or even to consequence, for the
narrative of a self thus isolated can only be of limited significance for the rest of us.
To these questions of the value of intimate description and the validity of the
singular stance, I believe two early poems of Yu Dafu‟s begin, in retrospect, to provide
an answer. In October of 1920, in the Japan-based journal Taiyang (Sun), Yu Dafu
published two classical poems under the heading “Untitled,” along with the notation that
they are written in the style of the Tang poet Li Shangyin (ca. 815-858). Replete with the
erotic boudoir imagery of a wealthy household, the poems together tells the story of a
night of love between an accomplished scholar and a jade-like beauty:
his book – “until I have been read” – is another indication that he and Yu have different problems when it
comes to self-articulation.
121 I cite this passage in the second chapter.
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Laughing and crying out in dreams, she‟s bashful upon waking, / when
reds are like longing and greens like sorrow. 122
Through sense of intoxication, spring plays the rogue / above a courtyard
of falling petals, the moon‟s like a hook.
By year‟s end, she‟ll have barely reached sixteen / at midnight, the
shadows are about to flow over copper plates. 123
Too languid to roll up the pearly curtain and hear the swallows‟ talk / I
tease her for the tenderness of her demeanor. 124
The initial poem provides a fairly typical, if well-written, description of an exquisite but
fleeting amorous encounter. Yu may well have written the poem about his wife, whom
he married during a semester break and then left to return to Japan, since he takes the
trouble to describe the beloved‟s inexperience through her bashfulness and very young
age, and also employs the reference to the phoenix pair, which usually suggests a married
couple. Two characters – zuo’e – literaly “do evil,” but which I‟ve translated here as
“play the rogue,” rupture the mood of untrammeled pleasure with an insertion of modern
guilt, as the passion whose joys are otherwise ornately described is framed here as a
roguish or wicked action, by which the beloved is defiled. Time in particular is in tension
in this poem. Here the poet and his lover seem caught between the moment of the
encounter, which seems situated in an indefinite present, and a keen awareness –
indicated through falling petals and water clock – that this moment at the height of youth
and passion is nothing if not fleeting.
122 I am indebted to Anthony Yu for his help in translating this poem. This line marks the
season as high spring, when vegetation is already flourishing, by playing on the set
phrase “green parts fat and red parts thin.”
123 The reference is to the workings of a (by this point rather archaic) water clock, with
the implication that despite her young age, the beloved is very much aware of, and
wsitful about, the passage of time.
124 “Swallow‟s talk” is a set phrase for lovers‟ tender way of speaking to each other.
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The second poem continues the story of the event as follows:
A virginal blossom opens on branches of jade-green / so lovely as to
comsume my longing in early spring.
When the moon fades in the willow-tops, I guess at our meetings / When
the rooster crows from his basket-cage, it is time for us to part.
Brocade-like writings should bring Song Yu to mind / the phoenix pair, if
merely dreamt, would annoy Xi Shi. 125
Plainly I know these are pleasures had by one and all / and yet I feel that
our affairs are quite extraordinary.
As is to be expected from classical poetry, emotive import is communicated through
allusive reference, to Song Yu, the phoenix pair, and Xi Shi, as well as through variations
or repetitions of set idioms such as “reds are like longing,” “tender jade melon,” “falling
flowers,” and “swallows‟ talk.” This set of poems captures a unique instance through
reference to similar moments and moods across Chinese cultural history. Though telling
the tale of an event that for the poet and his lover would indeed have seemed singular –
for while of course they can make love again, their youth and beauty will not last forever
– the deployment of allusion and idiom easily allows for the further substitution of the
125 梦来啼笑醒来羞,红似相思绿似愁。中酒情怀春作恶,落花庭院月如钩。秒年碧玉瓜初破,子
奇。 See Yu Dafu Collected Works of Yu Dafu , vol. 10, pp. 226-227. Song Yu is believed to have been a
brilliant student of the famous poet and patriot Qu Yuan (ca. 340 - 278 BCE), who was exiled by the King
of Chu. Depressed that his counsel was not heeded and despairing over the state of the Chu kingdom,
legend has it that Qu Yuan waded into a river holding a large rock, and committed ritual suicide. The Feng,
or male phoenix, and Luan are both mythical birds that together represent husband and wife. Xi Shi is one
of the four famous beauties in ancient China, and is said to have been so enchanting that the moon would
fade and flowers close their petals to avoid comparison with her. Like most famous beauties in Chinese
history, she also stands accused in bringing down a kingdom. In her case, the King of Wu took her as a
favorite consort and became so distracted with her that he neglected affairs of state. He then committed
suicide when the situation became dire and he realized that he would be defeated by the Kingdom of Yue,
and thus the amorous couple was divided.
Valerie Levan
University of Chicago
reader‟s own experience in the world of the poem. Furthermore, the aesthetic demands of
classical poetry leaves Yu little choice but to draw allusive material from a shared “data-
base,” and thus his poems can only depict a unique event by means of reference to the
romantic lives of others.
The irony of the attempt to depict uniqueness through allusive reference is not lost
on the poet, however, whose concluding couplet indicates an unusual awareness within
the set of poems of the problems of consequence that an insistence on absolute
uniqueness can pose: “Plainly I know these are pleasures had by one and all / and yet I
feel that our affairs are quite extraordinary.” Up until this point, the set of poems had
achieved an internal a balance between universal and particular that allowed it to express,
and to communicate. It describes a singular moment, but does so by means of generally
available cultural material, making it a creative instance of what amounts to a familiar
pattern. The final couplet destroys this unspoken balance with an almost tongue-in-cheek
self-reflexivity, as the young Yu sums up the joys of the marital bed as “plainly” common
to all, and yet despite that, his own experience still seems the most “extraordinary.” At
the tender age of twenty-four, Yu Dafu had stumbled upon a truth that Rousseau did not
learn in a lifetime: only hubris or inexperience makes us insist on the singularity of our
intimate experience, and yet the illusion of such singularity remains vital to our visions of
Part of the difficulty here rests in the medium of classical poetry, and it is a
difficulty that Yu Dafu hoped to overcome in his prose writing, in which a clearly defined
“I” is far easier to establish. We must not, however, allow the difficulty of constructing a
singular perspective in a classical poem to explain away the significance of this insight,
Valerie Levan
University of Chicago
which holds true nonetheless, for much of what makes our own experience precious is the
very fact that it happens to us. This poignant feature of human emotional life
unfortunately does not translate so well into literature unless it is framed in such a way
that the reader can find his or her own experience – real or imagined – also written there
in the pages. This is the sort of balance that the writer of confessional literature had to
strike in seeking out non-hackneyed, expressive language from a still roughly-hewn
vernacular form, but doing so in a way that made his content both compelling and
accessible. This Yu Dafu was able to do very well, and it solidified his reputation with
his contemporaries and into posterity, where he now holds a representative place among
other writers concerned with identity-formation as well as self-expression. The after-life
of Yu Dafu in such contemporary works will form the subject matter of my final chapter.