2. MISOGYNY AND MISANDRY,
FILICIDE AND PARRICIDE
Questions arising in Living Hell, as in The Travels of Lao Can, about the equivocal relationship between law and violence, between crime and punishment, between the cynical and the carnivalesque response to judicial anarchy, continue to occupy the minds of Chinese writers of the post–May Fourth era. As a matter of fact, modern Chinese literature has been described as originating with a bloody scene. According to his own account, in 1906, Lu Xun (1881–1936), initiator of modern Chinese literature, saw a slide show of decapitation as he was studying medicine in Japan. In the slide, a Chinese is about to be beheaded by Japanese soldiers for serving as spy for the Russians during the Russo-Japanese war, while a surrounding Chinese crowd waits to see the bloody spectacle. Lu Xun was allegedly so traumatized by the slide show that he gave up medical school to become a writer.
As I have discussed elsewhere, violence and "modern" literature erupted at the same time, as Chinese literati set out to gaze at the bloody consequences of their cultural heritage. Modern Chinese literature is not a medium employed passively to reflect extant social abuses; as implied by the dramatic case of Lu Xun, it was instead provoked into existence by a drastic jolt at both the emotive and ideological level, when the author confronted his national status symbolized by a decapitated body. This literature arose as part of the radical Lu Xun's and his contemporaries' search for the cause of the Chinese "original sin," which is projected by the spectacle of decapitation. Lu Xun asks, why did Russia and Japan wage a war against each other yet choose China as their battleground? Why is a Chinese willing to work for one foreign army to spy on the other? Why does the Chinese crowd look on so callously as one of their compatriots is beheaded?
For Lu Xun, the Chinese spy may as well be killed for collaborating in a war that nominally had nothing to do with China. Moreover, just as the spy deserves his capital punishment, so are his fellow Chinese spectators unworthy of mercy. Lu Xun sees in these Chinese a readiness to transform themselves from spectators to practitioners at every cannibalistic rite, though the cost is everyone's blood. Lu Xun's charge could have extended even further, to the Japanese and Russians, who had manipulated the Chinese into humiliating themselves. Finally, Lu Xun must have tortured himself with this question: if all Chinese are culpable for bringing
Lu Xun's "Kuangren riji" (Diary of a madman, 1918), usually regarded as the harbinger of modern Chinese fiction, invites one more reading. Insofar as his Madman launches a one-man investigation of social evils, only to discover that Chinese society as a whole is guilty of cannibalism, Lu Xun has told a story about justice lost and refound, the most cynical version. The origin of social evil—cannibalism—can be named by the Madman only at the cost of his being confined, censored, clinically (mal)treated, imprisoned, and finally "eaten up" by his closest family members. The story is full of penal and carceral imagery, such as quarantine, persecution, rehabilitation, a stifling iron house, and so on. All these forms of punishment, as the ending of the story tells us, prove to be nothing but preludes to yet another round of cannibalistic banqueting.
If Lu Xun is pessimistic about the retrievability of justice, he is just as equivocal about the consequences of finally bringing that desired justice into practice. Consider his famous allegory of the iron house, in which a crowd is jailed and suffocates from lack of air. Should a sole waker among the crowd wake up his fellow inmates (which might result in a panicked and useless attempt to escape)? Or should he let them die "peacefully" (and therefore become a reluctant witness to mass murder)? In other words, faced with a hopelessly suffocating China, should an intellectual watch the final collapse as a spectator, or should this person come to its rescue, however unworthy it is of the risk? In either case, Lu Xun and his Madman have incarcerated themselves in a dilemma.
Lu Xun's predicament as a justice seeker, together with the cynical, self-deprecating bent of his imagination, may not be completely original, however. An apparently "modern" writer, Lu Xun has a temperament that betrays many fixations inherited from "premodern" writers; what comes to mind are Liu E's elite yearning for justice in The Travels of Lao Can and Li Boyuan's cynical spectatorship in Living Hell. One recalls that, in the imagined hell of Lao Can's dream, Liu E can still see justice done in another world; in the realistic hell that is contemporary China, Li Boyuan simply scoffs at any attempt at restoring justice. Lu Xun appears as the self-imposed tragic fighter standing at the threshold of Hell, unable, or unwilling, to cross over to either side. As T. A. Hsia speculates, one of the most prominent images Lu Xun takes up as a modern writer is that of a chivalric hero in a dynastic cycle, a hero who holds open the "gate of darkness" to let his comrades and other innocent people flee disaster, only to be crushed by the gate when he falls exhausted.
Straddling the threshold of the "gate of darkness," Lu Xun, as a "scholarly knight-errant," must have sensed the uncertainties in his revisioning of justice. Like Liu E, Lu Xun wishes to imagine himself as a chivalrous literatus, standing alone against the "gate of darkness" while dreaming a late Qing dream of the true
Two more examples can be cited from Lu Xun's short stories to illuminate the uncanny affinity between the concept of justice and its denial. For instance, the climax of "Zhufu" (New year sacrifice, 1921) is preceded by none other than an argument about the innocent suffering in this world and its redress in the other. In that episode, the ill-fated wife of Xianglin, now reduced to a beggar, stops the homecoming narrator Lu Xun and asks him if the soul survives death. Earlier on, Xianglin's wife was told that, since she had been twice widowed and now deprived of her only son, her body would be sentenced to be torn apart by her dead husbands in Hell. She was advised to donate a threshold at a nearby Buddhist temple, to be trampled on as her substitute so that her sin would be atoned for. In their encounter, the dying woman intends to seek from the narrator Lu Xun a reason for her plight in this life. To her question, the narrator responds, "It is hard to say" (shuo bu qing).
The reference to Hell and afterlife brings to mind, again, the dialectic formed by two of the late Qing novels discussed in the last section. Hell, in Lu Xun's narrative, may suggest the underworld courtroom of Liu E's Travels of Lao Can, in which retribution is carried out in the most fastidious way; at the same time it may also correspond to the secular judicial institutions of Living Hell, which prove to be hideous replicas of the other world. After her donation of the threshold, Xianglin's wife was still treated by her fellow villagers as if under a curse. Neither the justice of this world nor the justice of Hell applies to her. With her question never answered, Xianglin's wife dies, presumably in the fear that she will be eternally tortured in Hell.
But as she dies, Xianglin's wife leaves behind another "hell," so to speak, in which our narrator-author will be eternally tortured. In his failure to either stand by the poor woman or deny collusion with society, the narrator Lu Xun would carry with himself an everlasting sense of guilt. One question remains to be asked, however. Given his obsession with crime and punishment, could it be possible that his vision of Hell is that which Lu Xun fears and desires? Not unlike Xianglin's wife who resigns herself to her imagined perpetual condemnation, Lu Xun may have created and inhabited a literary hell of his own from which he was unable,
At the other end of Lu Xun's gallery of characters stands the ne'er-do-well A Q. One may remember how, in "A Q zhengzhuan" (The true story of A Q, 1921), A Q is created as a clown starring in a series of country turmoils, from bullying, attempted rape, robbery, riot, and revolution to his own execution. Throughout the earlier part of the story, A Q dreams of becoming a bandit-hero who, even arrested and sentenced to capital punishment, would die a fearless man. This dream is reinforced after he has watched the spectacle of a beheading at a city theater. For A Q and his rustic fellow villagers alike, the bloody punishment has been romanticized into an exotic event. A Q's imagined "death wish" is finally realized, only in the most ironic manner. A Q believes that he is being executed for a charge of which he is largely innocent; for the crowd coming to see the show of his execution, the much-awaited decapitation turns out to be an anticlimax. Thanks to advances in modern technology, A Q is not ceremoniously beheaded, just shot.
As a parody of a society nurtured on an insatiable cannibalistic desire, the story easily impresses one with its violent potential. At issue here is how the violence and its punishment are described in such a way as to become a fatal comedy of errors. A Q is both the victim and the victimizer of his society. While he has previously committed crimes that result in no legal punishment, he is now executed for a felony he did not commit. A Q is transformed from an enthusiastic onlooker at a bloody spectacle to the devastated scapegoat in that spectacle; his tragedy, if there is one at all, lies in his complacency as a cruel but empathetic watcher. But if A Q's bloody desire was aroused by his watching the beheading scene in the folk theater, cannot one describe the same arousal in Lu Xun's writing about Chinese cannibalism, as a result of his watching of the legendary slide show? As a chronicler-watcher of A Q's tragicomedy, does Lu Xun hide a cannibalistic impulse behind his indignant posturing? If so, has Lu Xun truly done justice to A Q in the literary world?
For the revolutionminded writers of the post–May Fourth era, next to fiction, drama became an important venue in which the debate over justice versus violence was presented. With its mandate to be "acted" out in a public space peopled with viewers, drama appeared more readily to approximate the locus of the courtroom, prodding its implied audience to deliberate over a human case reenacted on the stage. Courtroom drama, just like its fictional counterpart, had been one of the major genres of traditional Chinese literature since the Yuan dynasty. For centuries, Chinese audiences have watched judge-investigators preside over difficult
Two early modern plays, Pan Jinlian (Pan Jinlian, 1928) by Ouyang Yuqian (1889–1962) and Dachu youling ta (Breaking out of the tower of ghosts, 1928) by Bai Wei (1894–1987), can be discussed as examples. As its title indicates, Pan Jinlian is a play based on the life and death of Pan Jinlian, one of the most notorious femmes fatales in classical Chinese literature. As one of the earliest modern efforts at rewriting the "bad woman," Ouyang Yuqian's play holds a sympathetic view of Jinlian's motives for committing adultery and murder. Instead of being a blood-thirsty villainess and licentious shrew, Pan Jinlian is cast in Ouyang Yuqian's version as the archetype of the free-spirited Chinese woman sacrificed to a rigid male-centered social system. After having been humiliated and sold by her first master, married to an impotent dwarf, and spurned by the brother-in-law she had fallen in love with, Pan Jinlian turns to adultery and murder, as if these extreme deeds were the only remaining means by which she could express her desire.
A feminist might very well follow up on this theme and develop a reading of Pan Jinlian's sexual politics. At stake here is nevertheless the extent to which Ouyang Yuqian has introduced a dynamic, critical dramaturgy representing traditional justice held at bay. By this I have in mind particularly the final act, in which Pan Jinlian and Wu Song come face to face at the funerary meal in memory of the dwarf Wu Da. Cross-examined by Wu Song as to the murderer of his brother, Pan Jinlian retorts that, while she may be the person who poisoned her husband, the genuine murderers are none other than Wu Song and the other men in her life. As for Ximen Qing, the archvillain of the play and Jinlian's lover, Jinlian defiantly argues that she "has been willing to serve as his plaything," since, unlike other men, Ximen Qing "would treat [her] as nothing less than a plaything." Doubly infuriated by Jinlian's confession, Wu Song demands Jinlian's heart as a compensation for the death of his brother. To the murderous demand, Jinlian responds, "I gave you my heart a long time ago."
Pan Jinlian sounds more like the victim than the principal suspect, whereas Wu Song is less the avenger than the perpetrator of the whole family tragedy. As Wu Song thrusts his sword into the chest of his sister-in-law, justice seems to have been done, with Jinlian's protesting words still lingering in the air. Rarely has one seen in traditional court-case drama such a gripping debate between two parties to a murder case, to say nothing of the alleged murderer rising to lay charges against the prosecutor. Crime and punishment threaten to switch roles. Ouyang Yuqian scores one more point, by having the killing of Pan Jinlian take place right at the funerary banquet table. Appetite, passion, and death wish are mixed, invoking the ambiguous undercurrent of Lu Xun's cannibalistic banquet.
Still, what distinguishes Ouyang Yuqian's Pan Jinlian most is that he has turned a play about a court case into a play as a court case. In a conventional courtroom play, the courtroom provides the central chronotope in which evidence is presented,
This implied forensic scene must have indicated a significant moment in regard to the way modern Chinese writers and audience imagined justice at the time. Ouyang Yuqian's play is as much a violation of the law of verisimilitude constituted by conventional court-case drama as it is a defiant rewriting of the law sanctioned by moral and political authorities. As will be argued in the following sections, this new "theatrics" of justice and violence would eventually become a major trope in Chinese Communist revolutionary discourse. When the function of the formal courtroom has been handicapped by wayward political and legal forces, a public space like the stage can be used as its phantom substitute; the stage reenacts cases denied access to the courtroom, thus challenging the monolithic institutionalization of judicial procedure.
In Bai Wei's Breaking out of the Tower of Ghosts, a different kind of family tragedy bears witness to the tyranny of Chinese cannibalism. In the play, a cruel landlord cum opium dealer, Master Rongsheng, is about to marry Yuelin, a servant girl whom Rongsheng bought years before and adopted later as his foster daughter. This plan is under way despite the fact that Rongsheng has seven concubines and Yuelin has fallen in love with Rongsheng's own son, Qiaoming. In the meantime, Rongsheng has to cope with his rebellious tenants, whose recent riots have been reinforced by the support of local revolutionaries. The plot is further compounded by the appearance of a woman revolutionary named Xiao Sen, who was once impregnated by Rongsheng. On a visit to the mansion of Rongsheng, Xiao Sen is shocked to discover that Yuelin is her long-lost illegitimate daughter, and so the real father of Yuelin is none other than Rongsheng!
One can easily point out the problems of the play. Loaded with creaking plots, improbable characters, and sentimental tears, Breaking out of the Tower of Ghosts may well be an example of bad melodrama, indicating the immaturity of the playwright. However, I argue that precisely because these dramatic elements are so "unnaturally" blended, they call attention to the play's contesting ideological powers. A rebellious daughter in her own right, Bai Wei wrote her play on behalf of both modern and traditional Chinese women trapped in the aftermath of the first Chinese Communist revolution, during the course of critiquing the eclipse of justice in the name of revolution. Relentless ethical aberration and physical violence thrive at every level of the play, in the form of rape, incest, child desertion, bribery, riot, murder, revolution, and antirevolution, all the while anticipating the cataclysm of the final disaster.
The play's central symbolism develops around the so-called tower of ghosts (youling ta), referring to the site of an old tower taken by Master Rongsheng from a widow. The site has since been deserted amid rumors that it is haunted by ghosts; the only building that remains in the vicinity is a small house, used by Rongsheng to cage women who dare to defy his lust. Shrouded in a deadly atmosphere, the tower site may be a "living hell" where many young females have been tortured. The tower of ghosts also reminds us of the famous essay by Lu Xun, "Lun leifeng ta de daodiao" (On the collapse of the Leifeng Tower, 1926). As the legend goes, the monk Fahai incarcerated the beautiful White Snake under the formidable Leifeng Tower for good—an eternal condemnation of the snake for having fallen in love with a human. The collapse of the tower, after having stood for hundreds of years, represents for Lu Xun a belated natural justice overthrowing the punishment meted out by a male-centered justice system.
Bai Wei makes clear reference to the collapse of Leifeng Tower in her play and adds to it an ironic, bitter note. Although the tower of ghosts no longer physically exists, the old, male power still rules women by invoking the coercive system of the tower. At one point in the play, Bai Wei has one woman servant articulate the fact that the tower site is not haunted by ghosts; it is Master Rongsheng who fakes ghostly sounds from time to time to sustain the old, terrifying myth. Moreover, Bai Wei suggests that the "ghosts" of the tower not only persecute women but also their own young, male descendants. Hence, "the tower of ghosts is referred to by the young master as the [patriarchal tyranny of the] old master. Master Rong-sheng may not look like a ghost, but in view of the way he oppresses his young male descendants, isn't he comparable to the Leifeng Tower that crushed the White Snake spirit?"
The archvillain of the play, Master Rongsheng is described as a fiendish landlord, an unscrupulous merchant, a heartless father, and a sex maniac. His evil forces have undermined the political, economic, ethical, and sexual foundations of Chinese society and could let it fall into anarchy at any time. Yet before his final moment comes, Master Rongsheng manages to hold on to his power, as a pillar of his society. As the play develops, when Master Rongsheng's son, Qiaoming, comes forward to challenge his father's wish to marry Yuelin, the father takes out his pistol and slays his son. Not content with that, Rongsheng goes on to trap the leader of the rioting tenants, jailing him under the false charge of being the murderer, and to kill an old servant, who at the last minute reveals that he has been Rong-sheng's best friend and romantic rival.
For Bai Wei, crime on such a horrific scale goes beyond the control of imaginable legality. It can only be put down by even more outrageous deeds of violence. In the final moment of the play, when the woman revolutionary Xiao Sen returns and reveals to Master Rongsheng that she was the girl once seduced by him and that Yuelin is their daughter out of wedlock, Rongsheng, in fury, shoots at her. To protect her mother, Yuelin rushes to Xiao Sen with another pistol, which happens to be close to hand, and fires back at her father; father/rapist and daughter/victim
What strikes us is that when she is delivering her crazy, dying remarks, Yuelin is made to address directly the implied audience, as if the plethora of anger, madness, and pathos can no longer be contained by the enclosure of the stage but must spill over onto the audience. As in the case of Ouyang Yuqian's Pan Jinlian, the theater is turned into a site where a different kind of justice is being sought. To her audience, Yuelin cries, "Shame, shame,… unbearable shame, revenge, revenge, only to be acknowledged by the sea. Ah! What a world it would be like! (addressed to the audience) Red, yellow, green,… all colors! (crazier, driven to dance) Ha-haha!… Upside down!… All is upside down! The world has been turned over!…Fresh, beautiful!… Hahaha, all is upside down—this is the gift of death." (Stage directions in parentheses; emphasis mine.)
Critics in the Communist camp have praised Breaking out of the Tower of Ghosts as a model drama for women's liberation. The theme of class struggle has been high-lighted in view of the deadly conflict between the landlord and the proletariat, father and children, man and woman. A feminist of the fundamentalist persuasion would praise the play for its focus on misandry and its celebration of sisterhood and mother-daughter coalition. These critics may have underestimated the (self-) destructive power embedded in the play. Close reading shows that in Bai Wei's world, revolutionary leaders turn out to be either burdened by their dark past or disabled by unforeseeable contingencies. The woman revolutionary Xiao Sen has been so busy with her adventures that she has had no time for the baby, which she left in the hands of cruel and rapacious foster parents; hence the daughter's protest that she never had a real mother. The peasant protest does triumph in the end, but only as the result of landlord Rongsheng's death at the hands of his own daughter. Moreover, Yuelin is never portrayed as a feminist heroine; she appears instead as a girl troubled by a chronic, manic-depressive syndrome, and the root of her psychological instability is traced to her being deserted by her mother. Whereas the incestuous conjugation between father and daughter is stopped by the timely death of the father, the much-expected reunion between mother and daughter comes only at the cost of the daughter's life. Finally, Yuelin is presented as having fallen in love with her own half brother, so that if she had had her (unnatural) way, she would still have committed incest.
The political, ethical, and emotional irrationalities in the play, once unleashed among the characters, never really settle as the curtain drops. These irrationalities, which manifest themselves in the expedient form of madness, I argue, constitute the most equivocal force of the play. As Yuelin is trying to address her listeners beyond the stage, she is said, by other characters and by "stage direction," to have gone mad. Bai Wei may never have achieved the kind of self-irony attained by Lu
The play takes on another dimension if one looks into its "life" in the extratextual context. As Bai Wei writes in her postscript to the play, the extant version of Breaking out of the Tower of Ghosts is actually a rewrite based on an original that had been rudely "taken away" by a male colleague, to be published as his own. This violence in the literary world adds yet another dimension to the risks that a writing woman has to face, while she is writing about the risks her female characters encounter in the male world. Finally, Bai Wei's play lends itself to a parallel reading with Cao Yu's Leiyu (Thunderstorm, 1932), a melodrama also dealing with incestuous marriage, forbidden love, mistaken identity, murder, and revolution. Cao Yu's play was an immediate success when premiered in 1932, and would be staged numerous times in the years to come. Bai Wei may not be the playwright that Cao Yu was, but the eclipse of her play, despite its striking resemblance to Thunderstorm, serves as one more depressing example of a woman writer's vulnerability when competing for literary power in a male-dominated world.