The World of a Small Chinese Village in the Time for a Big Change

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    The beginning of the 20th century is known as the time for significant social and cultural changes in China. In 1911 the Chinese revolution overthrew Manchu dynasty, and a protracted civil war was shaking the country. The official abolishing of the imperial power triggered the wave of political movements, struggle for the power, acts of popular resistance and tumults. Moreover, China did not lose its independence, but the territory of the country was divided into spheres of influence by the western states. Foreign merchants and entrepreneurs enjoyed privileges that made an adverse impact on the well-being of the local population. Besides, China suffered from Japanese aggression: two countries stood on the brink of war. Naturally, those events found broad literature coverage in the works by Chinese writers of that period. The story “Spring Silkworms’’ by Mao Dun and ‘’Xiaoxiao’’ by Shen Congwen describe the isolated world of rural China, embedded in old traditions and beliefs, which undergoes inevitable changes. Though the stories focus on the different aspects of village life and vary in the spirits imbued, they reflect the processes that were taking place in the society, depicting the everyday life of ordinary people, and expose the modern spirituality that pervades mundane things. However, the authors majorly accentuate the influence produced by the changes from the outside that break into the conventional mode of village life and modify it to the specific extent.

   The story “Spring Silkworms’’ by Mao Dun describes the traditional trade of Chinese peasants: breading of silkworms for production of silk fiber cocoons. The author describes the feelings of the people who regard their worms as the treasure to save the people from poverty, famine, and debts. A reader makes a witness to the people's relationships that are challenged for envy and greed, deep-rooted spiritual rites and beliefs that accompany the very process of worms growing, and experience together with the characters the bitter of the hopes crashed against the reality of unrests and war threat.

   The center of narration is Tong Bao’s family, which used to be wealthy, but grew sick over time. The sixty-year-old man reminisces about his life of twenty years before, when his family prospered and did not face any shortage and debts. However, due to Japanese occupation, civil war, unrests in the cities and foreign intrusion, the regular order of life was undermined and brought peasants into the abyss of problems. Millennial Chinese trade of growing silk cocoons is under threat: silk filatures are closed and perhaps will not open again. However, Tong Bao, who has come through a range of turmoil, cannot believe in the possibility of this situation. In his opinion, Old Lord in the Sky can forbid the silkworm eggs ripely, but He will never permit the closure of the filatures.

   The oncoming spring brings big hopes connected with the new crop of silk cocoons. Provided it is right, the village families do away with debts and hunger. ‘’Now all their hopes were pinned on the spring silkworms’’ (64). The story tells how carefully Bao’s family treats the worms: they gaze at the worms as if they were their newborn infant and called them ‘’little darlings’’(Dun 67). ’’With high hopes and considerable fear, like soldiers going into hand-in-hand combat, they prepared for the silkworm campaign!’’(Dun 64). Old Lord in the Sky was merciful, and the peasants of Bao’s village hatch a rich crop of cocoons. The village is saturated with happiness and thrill. Unfortunately, the people's hopes crashed: the filatures kept closed, and there was nowhere to sell the silk cocoons. Tao Bao’s endeavor to sell the cocoons in the city was unsuccessful: only a small portion was turned into cash. The family does not pay off the debts, does not make any profit, and loses the last patch of land.

  One of the problems that the story raises is the foreign intrusion. Tong Bao believes that the major issues are caused from the preponderance of foreigners in China: outlandish goods pervade the country and local producers are forced to sell their products for the low price, whereas the living becomes more and more expensive. The old man hates foreigners and calls them ‘'foreign devils''—red-haired ones with green eyes and unbending legs (Dun 59). The city folk seems to betray national traditions and sell out to foreigners: despite crying anti-foreigners slogans, they wear Western-fashion clothes.

  Mao Dun gives a detail description of the process of growing silkworms, which is embedded into spiritual rites and superstitions. Tao's family buys the best quality paper for the boxes to appease the spirit of the silkworm. They connect the failure of the previous year with the use of newspapers: it is forbidden to disrespect the written letter. Tong Bao seek an explanation for his family impoverishment in family sins: he remembers a young man killed by his ancestor. The family made numerous rituals to beg for mercy from the dead's soul. The religion is strong and permeates the villagers' life. 

  The people are thrilled with the signs of nature: their hearts sink when they notice scarce sprouts on garlic that may presage unfavorable weather conditions. Mao Dun transfers the high spirit of the people through nature: birds merrily sing and brooks cheerfully gurgle as if share the mood of the villagers.      

Also, the human relationships in the village drastically change. The people avoid visiting each other because ‘’the guest can frighten away the spirit of ripening eggs’’ (Dun 65). People are afraid of being evil-eyed and eschew the woman whose crop died: she can contaminate them with bad luck. In the ‘'sacred period'' the tension is flared up. A month of expectation and hope, of sleepless nights, hunger and worries come to ‘'swearing, curses, and disappointed sights'' (Dun 72). It is the first time when they cannot receive Old Lord's will because even the Sky seems to feel betrayed by the Government, which must have a conspiracy with foreigners. 

Mao Dun gives the accurate picture of the hardships of rural life. Mao Dun does not gloss over his characters or mitigates the tensions of life: he paints the narration in clear bright colors and reveals the conflicts of the time. Indeed, the story has a dolorous end, but the author does not embellish the reality.

  In contrast to the Mao Dun’s story, ‘’Xiao Xiao’’ opposes village to city and portrays the image of an innocent rural life, where humanity overrules the cruel laws of Confucian Morality. The experience in the town is dominated by old traditions, which are surprisingly sacrificed to pure affection and sympathy. Shen Congen shows a utopian world without violence and evil and highlights the better side of human nature.  

   The protagonist of the story is a girl of 11 called Xiaoxiao, who became an orphan and was married to a two-year-old boy. The marriages of this kind were common in China: a girl was a nurse for her husband to marry him several years later. The bride got upbringing in her husband’s house and did a big deal of housework. Xiao Xiao spends all her time with her husband: plays, feeds, takes cares, soothes and goes for a walk with him. Soon the girl grows up and turns into beauty. The changes in her appearance do not go unnoticed for a twenty-year-old farmhand Motley Mutt, who makes Xiaoxiao feel a desired one and then seduces her. Xiaoxiao abandons herself to him though she understands that she disobeys the morals. However, when Xiaoxiao realizes her pregnancy, she gets wrapped in fear of punishment. The girl decides on fleeing to the city but fails. The family is outraged with resentment and anger: the heiress of the bloodline conceived the first child from the other man. By Confucian Moral, Xiao Xiao is subject to drowning or selling to the other family. Nevertheless, family comes to a human decision to salvage the girl. Contrary to expectations, the story has the happy end.

   Shen Congwen tells about the hard destiny of a village woman. In the story, the girl of eleven does plenty of chores: she works in the fields, spins a thread, does washing, twists hemp, feeds pigs, works at the mill, and takes care of a child. Like any other child, Xiaoxiao dreams about running for pleasure or climbing a tree, but her life lacks children's joys. 

   Being under the pressure of the household duties, Xiaoxiao dreams about freedom: she sees herself a fish floating in the sea or a weightless one flying in the sky. When Xiaoxiao grows older, she finds another symbol of freedom—urban girls. The talks of the coeds are an essential part of the story. Village people have only a vague idea of city life, but describe it as a strange and confusing world which contradicts their moral standards. Codes wear foreign-style clothes, stay up until late hours, hang out with guys and sleep with them without a go-between. Some of them do not get married at all and go equal with men. Village people crack jokes about codes, laugh at the slightest mention of them and treat them as freaks.

   City girls dramatically differ from the village ones, as they imitate foreigners. For rural people, codes seem to be out of place, the creatures from the other world. Calling someone a student is a mockery. The village appears to be detached from the foreign influence that makes a cultural impact on China: rural people stick to the traditions and Confucian moral. Nevertheless, the changes apparently occur, when the family breaks the tradition and forgives Xiaoxiao allowing her to stay with the family and accepting her child. It would be an incredible outcome for the situation of the kind in the past, but modern time permits relief -- conservative village moves along. 

   The story has a ring composition: it starts with the marriage of Xiaoxiao and ends with the marriage of her son. The arrangement of the narration gives a hint on the wheel of the traditions. Xiaoxiao resignedly takes her destiny; she does not rebel against the deep-rooted order and never doubts its relevancy. However, the writer finishes the story with the scene of Xiaoxiao singing a song to her new son. She sings that in the future he will marry to a code. The final sounds as the prospects for the future, where women are free to choose their way.     



Two talented stories by the prominent Chinese writers are devoted to village life in the time of change at the beginning of the 20th century. That was a hard time for the country with widespread unrest, civil war, Japanese occupation and foreign intrusion. The writers reflect the hardships ordinary people face.  However, the stories have different endings. ‘'Spring Silkworms'' ends on a desperate note and leaves the reader with the feeling of frustration. The poor peasants seem to be doomed to famine and further impoverishment. The face of Tong Bao, exhausted and weary with worries sticks alive in the imagination. The story by Shen Congwen, on the contrary, soothes and provokes comfort feelings. The girl does not die for silly superstitions but salvages for a happy life. Both stories depict the separated world of a Chinese village, where millennial traditions are strong, but new trends from city life undermine the standard order of life and trigger changes in minds.

                                                                 Works cited

Dun,Mao. Spring Silkworms. Joseph Lau, Joseph and Howard, Goldblatt. The Columbia

   Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature (Modern Asian Literature Series), p.70.

   Columbia University Press, 1995.

Congwen, Shen. Xiaoxiao. Joseph Lau, Joseph and Howard, Goldblatt. The Columbia

  Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature (Modern Asian Literature Series), p.97.  

  Columbia University Press, 1995.

December 12, 2023



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