Alternative Trajectories: The Dichotomies of Modernist Interpretations between East and West

Globalism has drastically changed the world economy over the last 200 years, but the impact it has had on international culture is far deeper.  Chinese literature is exemplary of unique interpretation of the implications of European modernism given cultural trends.  Consider, for example, the response in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution to A Doll’s House, or Yu Dafu’s references to Emerson and Thoreau in Sinking.  These, as others, pose a distinct contrast to re-interpretations of early modernist or transcendentalist work than late European modernist work, characterized by a deep psychological devotion to nationalism and an element of self-deprecation which is more communal or societal than isolated.

The immediate response to Wong Chia Chi’s reference to A Doll’s House in Lust, Caution is one of rejection based on triviality.  Per Kuang Yu Min’s resentment for his brother being able to serve in the army against the Japanese but his family’s refusal to let him do so, he clearly states that he believes his group’s artistic talents can be put to best use representing the struggles of the day than the artistic themes of the Western literature they study.  In comparison, the trends of existentialism gaining hold at the same time (late 1930s-early ‘40s) in Europe advocated for a similar search for meaning, but particularly in the context of internal conflict and change, rather than explicit contribution to society.  This directly reflects the theme of self-sacrifice which was preached alongside the idea of the qing by Confucians throughout Chinese history, but which was particularly adopted by fringe groups pushing for revolution during the early to mid-20th century. Though, of course, Lust, Caution is a historical piece produced decades later, as a reflection of theatrical trends at the time, it demonstrates a quite different trajectory of increased sophistication of artistic method into extremely emotional, but relatively linear in terms of plot, works.  Furthermore, this deep emotional reflection presents a seeming societal trend towards deepened communication and awareness, rather than the Western trend towards individualism and isolation.  Though, just as the associated historical periods, these literary phases are temporary and unique, they serve to significantly demonstrate the trajectories of evolution of literature and culture in these two different types of society, even given a shared common background.

The central themes of Yu Dafu’s Sinking are rooted in romanticism, which is quite distinct from the communal modernism reflected in Lust, Caution, but reflections on Western literature represent a similar divergence.  This time of transcendentalist works by Emerson and Thoreau rather than slightly later modern works, like Ibsen, Yu states of the main character “most of the time when he picked up a book [like Emerson’s Nature or Thoreau’s Excursions], he would be so moved by its opening lines or first two pages that he literally wanted to swallow the whole volume” (33).  However, in contrast, Yu follows with “I should chew it over a period of time. For my enthusiasm for the book will be gone the moment I am through with it. So will my expectation and dreams, and won’t that be a crime?” (33).  While Western modernists preached a movement away from the romantic anti-societal ideals of the transcendentalists, the opposition that Yu describes is more one of overwhelmingness than disgust.  His call for simplicity is rooted in a hopelessness, like that of existentialists, which seeks temporary “expectation and dreams” (33) rather than some core meaning.  Thus, the trajectory this sets, even within “Sinking,” is towards ideologies such as nationalism (perhaps through a Freudian “flow” of libido) as even a substitution to death, rather than considering the latter an inevitability.  While substitution to death inherently seems like a positive outcome, from a modern Western perspective, this seems like a path towards, in some sense, an elimination of freedom or individual thought.  It seems to reverse the later quote by John F. Kennedy: “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” by posing the inevitable power as the Chinese nation rather than any individual.  As can later be explored in China’s political progression, this seems to have turned out to be true.

The theme of socialized self-deprecation as a method of self-sacrifice is well-displayed by the main character of The Goddess. Like “Sinking,” the ‘Goddess’ is shown to live on the edges of society, where she scrapes by with a seemingly sinful lifestyle to build a better future for her son.  On one hand, her occupation itself represents the widening acceptance of portrayal of taboo ideas in film, a modernist feature shared across the spectrum of cultures.  On the other, the resulting interpretation demonstrates a socialized normalization of seeking an improvement to society rather than internal personal discovery.  The ‘Goddess’’ final monologue while in her jail cell presents a sort of contentment to rot away in exchange for an elimination of a vice from society and the academic success of her son per his adoption by the former headmaster.  This does not pose death in the way that an existentialist might: as a realization of personal meaninglessness and a unique (almost anti-transcendentalist) transcendence, but rather as a final contribution (perhaps repentance) to society.  This very clearly demonstrates a divergence in the development of thought around death and the sacrifice or martyrdom represented by it between East and West.

Whether in either of the mentioned two films screened in class or Yu Dafu’s “Sinking,” early 20th century Chinese literature represents a development of early modernist ideals, as represented by Ibsen, that follows a distinctly different trajectory from later modernist works in Europe, as characterized by the existentialists.  This divergence is demonstrated by response to Western literature, contextualized to consider situations more relatable in a Chinese context, and by interpretation of death’s meaning contextualized to society rather than the individual.  It can be clearly seen in the divergence in paths of these disparate societies, but is most interesting in the context of their re-convergence in the modern era.  Even considering the mentioned work, Lust, Caution, it is possible to see re-integration of trends that were not seen in the considered evolution of Chinese literature, such as the staging of film as a spectacle over an ideological representation.  Perhaps the most interesting final question which this invokes is how a cycle of these sorts of cultural trends diverging and converging will play out in the rising future.

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