3. A LITERATURE OF BLOOD AND TEARS
I have described the way in which the concepts of justice and violence evolved along with the development of the genres of fiction and drama. With a series of short stories and sketches, Lu Xun launched a narrative inquiry into the ambiguous terms of crime and punishment in a society bereft of political and ethical order. In a new dramatic form, Ouyang Yuqian and Bai Wei dealt with the polemic of justice by staging the crime scene in such a way as to stimulate a debate among not only characters but theater audiences. In this way, both genres challenged established legal and literary order in a rapidly changing historical context.
By the beginning of the thirties, these two, the narrative deliberation and the theatrical reenactment of crimes and punishments, had converged to become a powerful discourse demanding and instantiating a new definition of social and poetic justice. This discourse was further consolidated as the Communist trope of "mass revolution" gained currency. To show their solidarity with the "insulted and the injured" and to promote a body politic of revolutionary writing, progressive writers united under the banner of a "literature of blood and tears" (xue he lei de wenxue).
What is to be noticed is that the slogan, as well as the works produced in its name, derives its power from a renegotiation of the arts of telling and of showing. The literature of blood and tears is believed to possess such demonstrative force as to both evoke the blood and tears repressed in the objects of narration and to induce blood and tears at the site of writing and representing. Instead of catharsis, as would have been expected of these Europeanized intellectuals, the new poetics
What Anderson does not mention is that, in the name of displaying blood and tears, this literature offers a discursive format akin to the forensic debate over the nature of violence and its containment. Tears and blood are corporeal clues that need to be reconstituted so as to testify for or against a given defendant. Its performative inclination is expected to be the first step leading toward the final call to justice. As such, the works of "blood and tears" are really not too far away from the two late Qing court-case novels discussed above, in the sense that the realization of crime and justice presupposes a staging in a corporeal theater.
There are, nevertheless, moments in which tears and blood are called on, only to confuse an issue instead of settle one. These moments give rise to the theoretical double bind in legal or ethical disputes. In Paoxiao lede tudi (The roaring earth, 1931) by Jiang Guangci (1901–31), for example, the young leftist revolutionary, Li Jie, is forced to make a painful decision as his comrades propose to burn down the properties of local landlord families. As a leader of the local proletariat organization, Li Jie is obliged to see to the implementation of this plan. He is, however, beset by several worries. Li happens to be the son of the richest landlord in town; should the peasants' riot take place in the proposed form of burning and looting, it would mean a total devastation of the Li family estate. Moreover, even though he could not care less about his father's life and fortune, Li is worried about the well-being of his bedridden mother and his younger sister, still a mere child. Should these two females be sacrificed to the cause of justice as part of the peasant rebellion?
Throughout his short career, Jiang Guangci had been known as a tendentious Communist writer with a corpus of works addressing contemporary revolutionism of the most sentimental kind. Jiang's narcissism and romantic eccentricities, nevertheless, compelled in him a literary imagination germane to Communist literature despite its superficial call for altruism and scientific historicism. It is the romantic yearning for a lost, originary, and communal state that makes it easy for a writer like Jiang Guangci to be taken in by Communist myths about return to the lost origin. There is a good reason that he has been regarded as the forerunner of the "revolution plus romance" formula of Chinese leftist fiction. This fact, ironically, may very well be one of the reasons for his ejection from the party in 1930. One is now supposed to read Jiang Guangci's work in a pejorative way, treating it as a "historical phenomenon." But in the above-cited episode of The Roaring Earth, Jiang demonstrates an acute sensitivity when dramatizing the personal dilemma of a revolutionary.
A landlord's son, Li Jie had nevertheless fought against his father's oppression of the tenants. After a series of confrontations between father and son, Li Jie leaves
I have no father now. I have only an enemy. It is only on the battlefield that I can meet the enemy, but I hear that my mother is at home, sick…. Mother! Please forgive your rebellious son!…There is a duty much more important, much greater than filial piety. To live up to this duty, I am willing to bear the bad name of rebel. Mother, you have lost your son!…
Alas! A man after all has his feelings. You know how distressed I am! I love my innocent, darling little sister.
In pain and despair, Li Jie falls unconscious. When he comes to, the burning and killing have taken place.
After years under the tyrannical rule of Li Jie's father, the rioting tenants finally prove that they have the will and the capacity to overthrow a landlord. Insofar as it endorses "rebel justice" at the expense of an existing social order, The Roaring Earth must be regarded as one of the most important models for Chinese Communist fiction of the forties and fifties, a model that celebrates a "spontaneous" uprising of the proletariat against the ruling class. By forgoing personal and familial attachments, Li Jie has passed the harsh test of his Communist convictions. He may be guilty of a family murder, but for the advancement of revolution and history, he understands that the end justifies the means.
There are irksome factors, however, looming behind such a (self-)righteous reading of this episode. Even before the fire starts, we are told, Li's father, the archvillain of the novel, has run away to a nearby town. To revenge their suffering, the peasants should presumably have tracked him down and punished him in person. Instead, they choose to set fire to the Li family compound in the absence of the villain. The fire thus works more like a symbol, or "staged" effect, signaling the end of landlord rule. Moreover, by burning to death a very ill woman and her child, for the reason that they are immediate family members of the villain, these peasant heroes show a decided preference for justice in the form of theater, for acts of symbolic terrorism. By theater, I do not mean that the riot or killing is unreal, but that it is "acted out" in such a way as to gesture toward a revolution that does not actually happen; instead, the revolutionaries appropriate to themselves the landlord's power to oppress, punish, and destroy at will. At its best, the symbolic justice mimics the peasants' desire to throw off oppression; at its worst, the theatrical terror enacts the peasants' desire to replace and imitate their oppressors. By terrorism, I mean that a ritual asserting loyalty and brotherhood within the group of revolutionaries has been established, one in which the test is the ability to live with terror.
By pushing Li Jie to the center of the stage of terrorism, the tenants wait and watch to see whether their leader will play his role the right way. Li Jie could have prevented the murder from happening, as he well understood that his sick mother and weak sister should not have been held responsible for his father's misdeeds. But he lets the fire engulf his family compound so as to "make a point," to his fellow revolutionaries as well as to himself, that he can relinquish all his ties to the past. Li Jie's mother and sister thus die an undeserved and cruel death, ultimately for the sake of Li Jie's accreditation as one who is a revolutionary more than a son. By killing them for crimes they never committed, Li Jie can purge his own crime, that of being a descendant of a landlord family, though it is a crime Li Jie never committed. Only in feudalism are individuals held guilty of the sins of their ancestors; here, Li Jie offers a feudal proof that he no longer is the property of his father, by destroying the father's other feudal property, buildings, women, and children, allowing himself to think that he has rid himself of feudal consciousness.
Only in feudalism can one purge oneself of the guilt acquired from one's original clan by submitting utterly to the will of one's new clan. The ultimate proof of new cult loyalty is always the capability to destroy the old clan, to put aside one's individual feelings and become as one with the new clan. Jiang Guangci could not have been unaware of the ironies underlying this violent code of self-abnegation. This is most emphatically indicated by Li Jie's monologue: "I have read Turgenev's Fathers and Sons and always felt the conflict between the fathers and sons in the novel is too commonplace. It is far less exciting than the antagonism between my father and me. I wonder if there will be a writer who can write out this father-son struggle of mine. I truly hope that such a writer exists." Even before the crime has been committed, the hero of the patricide is already contemplating his status in comparison to famous examples. This is the narcissistic, romantic side of the would-be revolutionary hero, the side that makes him more than ordinarily vulnerable to group shame and group praise.
T. A. Hsia doubts Jiang Guangci's sincerity even at Jiang's seemingly most pained moment. Having seen too many melodramatic gestures in Jiang's works and life, Hsia rightly suspects the veracity of The Roaring Earth. My argument is that, given his indulgence in role playing, Jiang's mannerism as a writer and as a revolutionary may have given rise to a crucial trope in Chinese Communist poetics and politics alike. When theater and violence, mutual spectatorship, and reciprocal surveillance are mixed, a dangerous discourse—of romanticism but not of revolution—is born. The question has to be whether this discourse has significantly rewritten the discourse of feudalism or is merely its reiteration, disguised by its romantic, European clothing. One suspects the killing is performed as a bloody public spectacle so as to renew, rather than subvert, the kind of hell of crime and punishment these romantic revolutionaries wish to overthrow.
As one of the best interpreters of Lu Xun's ethics of writing, Wu Zuxiang (1908–94) may well have intended in his stories a thirties' version of cannibalism, indicting a society devoid of any moral and legal resources. Indeed, in the famous
The scene of execution can be treated as a neat reversal of the ending of "The True Story of A Q," in which A Q is quickly shot to death while the crowd looks on. For Wu Zuxiang, a proletarian convict of the thirties would struggle against his oppressors right up to the moment of extinction, registering one last protest against the injustices done to him. Still, "Young Master Gets His Tonic" is a story couched in the rhetoric of "victimology" that marked Lu Xun's tributes to the insulted and the injured. It is in novellas such as "Fanjia pu" (Fan family village, 1934), and "Yiqian babai dan" (Eighteen hundred piculs of rice, 1934) that the terms of crime and punishment are polemically reexamined.
In "Fan Family Village," a village woman named Xianzi is subject to increasing humiliations and pains as her village is beset by drought, civil war, and changes in rural economic structure. The final blow comes when Xianzi's husband, Gouzi, whose love is her only remaining source of stability, is arrested on a charge of robbing and murdering a nun, and a cunning intermediary for the local magistrate comes to demand a bribe. Xianzi turns for help to her mother, who has recently won a considerable amount of money at a lottery, but she is refused. In desperation, Xianzi kills her mother by braining the old woman with a sacrificial candlestick.
I need not belabor the multiple layers of plight surrounding the woman: drought, civil war, religious fraud, superstition, judicial malpractice, murder, robbery, parental cruelty, and burgeoning capitalism, each making its contribution to the matricide. Critics from C. T. Hsia to Philip Williams have had a lot to say about the ethical dilemma involved in the final bloody scene of the novella. What used to be considered a quintessential taboo of humanity, matricide, finds itself justified in given historical circumstances. Xianzi's mother used to be a rustic peasant woman. After working for years as servant to a rich family in the city, she has developed a monstrous desire for money. Ironically, this old woman's acquisitive consciousness, which makes her value money more than kinship, augments in equal proportion to her Buddhist convictions about spiritual transcendence. Instead of helping her daughter out, she would prefer to donate money to the nunnery run by the nun who would later be accidentally killed by Xianzi's husband.
Xianzi's mother intends to purge her sins from this and previous lives by donating money to the nunnery, money which she has made by participating in the new mode of production in the city. Xianzi's husband robs the nunnery with a belief that gods may as well pay back part of their worshipers' donation so as to redeem
Just as in The Roaring Earth, a horrific crime has to be done in "Fan Family Village" so as to suppress the inhuman quality of life as it was and underline the necessity of revolution. Whereas the young, educated, landlord-turned-revolutionary Li Jie completes his initiation into revolution by countenancing the killing of his mother and younger sister, an illiterate peasant woman such as Xianzi is now made to go through a similar ordeal of parricide so as to reach her moment of political awakening. Bai Wei's Breaking out of the Tower of Ghosts can be regarded as predecessor of both works in terms of parricide, but her play differs in trying to exonerate its patricidal heroine by recourse to the old device of hysteria and madness. However, for Jiang Guangci as for Wu Zuxiang, at a time when the whole world verges on moral and economic bankruptcy, nobody can have clean hands.
It is in this sense that Lu Xun's vision of cannibalism has to be subjected to a new interpretation. Lu Xun sees in Chinese an instinctual need for mutual persecution, which will drive them to final catastrophe. Violence, in the form of parricide, is treated by Wu Zuxiang, Jiang Guangci, and like-minded leftist writers as something capable of generating positive consequences. Revolution is nothing if not a justifiable form of violence, enacted to subvert the traditional form of tyranny. Chinese political theory, from the Zhou dynasty to the Qing, justifies popular violence—if it overthrows a cruel and decadent dynasty and replaces it with the dynasty that is historically anointed to loot, kill, and defy authority until it secures the imperial power. The morbid impulse of cannibalism inherent in the Chinese character that upset Lu Xun is once more legitimated, so to speak, in the hands of writers like Jiang Guangci and Wu Zuxiang. As either would have agreed, at the right historical moment, for the right ideological cause, even the most victimized social being can be, and should be, motivated to walk over any remnants of social and moral law. What distinguishes Jiang and Wu from their fellow writers, at least as far as the examples being discussed here are concerned, is that they are not unaware of the terrible freedom implied in the form of group violence newly sanctioned in the name of revolution. These two writers have dramatized in their works criminal cases so as to warrant not a hasty verdict but a prolonged legal debate.
This leads us to the juxtaposition of two forensic scenes in Wu's acclaimed novella "Eighteen Hundred Piculs of Rice." As the novella opens, representatives of the various houses of the powerful Song clan meet, after a recent drought, to determine what to do with the eighteen hundred piculs of rice they have reserved
The central scene of the novella is the clan temple where the meeting is being held. Its refurbishment long overdue, the clan temple stands in dreadful dilapidation, a most telling sign of the decline of the Song clan. The clan temple used to be the site where social functions were performed, most important of which was the executing of familial justice and order. Thus, this meeting is being held at the temple. But as Wu Zuxiang tells us, just as the temple can no longer properly accommodate a family meeting, the continued squabble under the leaking roof of the temple signals the disintegration of the doomed houses. Meanwhile, the angry peasants have run out of patience. They break into the clan temple, grab the representatives, and pillage all the rice.
The novella does not stop here, however. In the uprising, the peasants carry gongs and drums, wear devil masks, and "shriek, jump, and whistle like demons." They drag the district head to an abandoned platform, where the community had once prayed to the rain deity for relief from the drought, and use the site to act out a ritualized destruction of the old order and its superstitions. For a writer as careful as Wu Zuxiang, that the mock trial is performed on a ritual stage cannot be coincidence. Taking justice in their own hands, the peasants still need to return to the site of clan ritual to enact the destruction of the old order.
The eerie carnivalesque atmosphere of the uprising, with all the audiovisual cacophony of peasants dressed as demons and devils, suggests not so much the beginning of a new historical moment—in which a different or at least reinvigorated practice of justice will be hailed—as a return to the mood of late Qing novels such as The Travels of Lao Can and Living Hell, where the image of Hell is paraded. And as such, violence perpetrated in the name of "modern" justice is tellingly reinstated in its premodern, even prefeudal form. Wu Zuxiang may have attempted to record realistically the way that peasants conceive of justice; but his realistic representation of the revolutionary scene betrays no less a romantic longing for the fiendish and brutal pleasures of originary communal life.