“My family” (second part), People’s Rights, September, 10th, 1913
Here is the second part of this intimate narrative by Wu Shuangre. This colorful piece brings us back to the small world of a lower gentry member around Wuxi 無錫 during the early 1910s. Before introducing the text itself I would like to throw in a few comments on how I would read this piece of writing.
First of all, as stated in the previous post, the early 1910s witnessed a a boom of intimate (or private) narratives: a few years or decades after the great (and sometimes endless) novels of the late Qing period, a thriving commercial and political press undertook what I propose to label as the turn to the intimate. Of course, and this is another salient aspect of early Butterflies writings, this turn gave birth to a new socio-cultural phenomenom known as “self-fashioning”. It greatly enabled acclaimed writers such as Xu Zhenya to make profits out of their newly gained fame. This was quite unlikely to happen during previous centuries when “writers” (or to be more accurate, specialists of the wen 文, that is to say scholars) hardly achieved economic independance from the State. Many exceptions to this general statement do exist, and it would be a gross mistake to believe that all the literati of the past centuries were only aiming at political achievements through their writing. Still, the collapse of the imperial examination system between 1905 and 1906 and the rise of print capitalism, first in coastal cities then also in major urban centers of the hinterland, did tremendously alter the way young literati envisionned their future. One would just have to flip through Bao Tianxiao’s 包天笑 fascinating memoirs to discover the rapid pace with which these changes occured at the turn of the century. Working as a journalist, selling novels and sometimes even making a little fortune out of it, all these endeavours were now accepted – if not totally respected. They became the new activities of the experts of the wen. And so was, for some of them who forsaw how these changes could benefit them, a new lucrative activity: self-promotion through literary means. With his deep and erudite understanding of the period, Chen Jianhua 陳建華, focusing on some of Zhou Shoujuan’s 周瘦鵑 short stories, gave a brief account of this trend in his last wonderful book 《 文以載車 – 民國火車小傳 》 (商務印書館, 2017).
Finally, the third and last thought I wanted to share after reading Wu Shuangre’s private narratives pertains to the intellectual history of the 1910s. In my dissertation I try to give early Butterflies writers all the attention they deserve in the broader intellectual framework of the period. It appears that what they stood for, namely, the promotion of their private life accesible to fragments published in newspapers, did play a role in the construction of national community from 1912. Drawing from Habermas’ analysis of the public sphere in the realm of literature, which precedes the political public sphere itself in his well-known – and controversial – reconstruction of European public sphere of the 18th and 19th centuries, I incline to think that a similar trend emerged in China during the first years of the Republic. While a national community formed by individuals who had just become citizens was still undergoing a shaping process, literary works like those of Wu Shuangre and Xu Zhenya, published in newspapers everyday, would provide these individuals with mirors of their inner emotional life. Just as Habermas highlighted it when dealing with English sentimental literature, these very literary works enabled a new autonomous group of people to develop a better understanding of their inner feelings.
To put it in a simple way, in the Chinese context, according to Confucian moral prescriptions, such feelings were not only banned from the public realm, but were also held in high disdain by a conservative scholarly tradition. To that respect, intellectual changes that took place and new literary trends that emerged during these founding years were critical. When new citizen-readers discovered what it was to actually feel and act as an individual through the reading of private narratives, they acquired a knowledge that could be transposed into the public sphere. The very sympathy (or “sentiment”, qing 情) they felt for poor victims oppressed by traditional social structures that forbid lovers to get married would be used in the political arena to foster a “national sentiment”. And so would be transformed into political sentiment the warm feelings they probably experienced while reading tender depictions of family scences (see Habermas on this very point). In either case, their sentimentality or ability to be moved (again, the qing) that spread so pervasively in the public sphere (both the literary one and the politic one) from 1901-1902 was key to the rising of political awareness. Because this new political quality was based on the very capacity to be sympathetic to other individuals who shared more or less the same cultural background and who were themselves readers of these stories and perhaps, in many cases, victims of the same moral prescriptions. In other words, I contend that with the founding of the Republic, privately cultivated sympathy mixed with and eventually shaped public sympathy, that is to say, political awareness and participation.
That is why when reading the following text and more generally this type of Butterfly writing I would suggest to go further than what usually turns to be simplistic first impression. What is at stake here, beyond the evident display of a commonly shared taste between literati for elegant gardening, is nothing less than how to operate the turn to the intimate. Here, Wu Shuangre chose to arouse reader’s feelings through recollections of warm and humorous family anecdotes, contrary to Xu Zhenya and other Butterflies writers who often favoured the most pitiful options. However, these two paths were leading to the same direction: laying the groundwork for the breeding of political feelings that were deemed necessary to the preservation of the Republic.
But before turning to political editorials that expressed such political feelings in next posts, let us discover which aspects of his private life Wu Shuangre thought were worth sharing with his readers. Here goes the second part of Wu Shuangre’s private narrative:
I live in a humble house. It has a living room, a main room, a study, a floor, a courtyard and a garden. However the living room is not big, and the room is not spacious. The next house is so close that you could almost touch it, and the little pavilion where is my study is slanting. As for the courtyard and the garden, the dimensions of the first one don’t exceed one square meter, and the second one is grotesquely small. But this is the place where I rest, strolling through all these spots, and I don’t find it humble at all. The living room is big enough to welcome guests and the study is well enough to read; the floor is high enough to contemplate the sky and the room is wide enough to dance or sew. The courtyard is spacious enough to stand in it, and the garden profound enough to take strolls. That is why I don’t envy at all those huge and fancy mansions with thousands of rooms. As we say, wealth is but the ornament of a house, virtue is the ornament of a man.
The little garden which was laid out behind the house goes by the name of “Beautiful land”. Here, you find a small world of cultivated trees, not exceeding a hundred square feet. And among this green spot, three old cypresses. Greatly endowed by Nature, they’ve all reached respectable heights, ranging from nine to twelve meters. They bear fruits even when it’s windy or rainy. Once they are ripe the fruits always fall naturally. Although their flavor is quite unique, you don’t want to eat them. However, you can find four of five trees in the garden that produce comestible fruits, namely: an apricot tree, a Chinese date tree, a pomegranate tree, a loquat tree and a cherry tree. The trunk of the apricot tree is a few arm spans wide. In the middle of spring, when all the flowers are blossoming, their gleaming soft red reminds you of the sweet smile of a gorgeous woman. Then their petals fall on the ground and, if it is not too windy or rainy, the branches will get full of fruits. From green to yellow, then from yellow to a soft red, they eventually become ripe. They taste just a bit sour, but still sweeter than the apricots sold at the market. The biggest ones are as big as the fist of a fat person, while the smallest ones are about the size of a cup. They are so easy to pick that you just need to hit the tree to make them fall on the ground, where a lot of them will just end up rotting. But their upper branches are too delicate to be hit, so I asked a blacksmith to forge a metallic tool to pick the apricots on them. It has an oval receptacle and four of five “teeth” (these teeth have the shape of stick but without sharp extremities) which is fixed at the extremity of a bamboo pole. A slight pressure on the branch is sufficient to make the fruits fall into the receptacle, usually two or three at the same time. This is very convenient, as it enables you to pick fruits without hurting the branches. This tool is definitely extremely well designed. And it can also be used to pick rather big and soft fruits such as peaches, plums or apples.
You won’t find flowers redder than those of a pomegranate tree. This kind of flower don’t produce more that the usual number of petals, though it’s not uncommon to encounter some single petal pomegranate flowers. They blossom in May and their fruits ripen in autumn. And when they are ripe, they burst into many little red grains, which look like coral or agate if you observe them from a distant place. They are incredibly sweet, but if you eat too many of them your lips will start puckering and the fruits will enventually become tasteless.
The flowers of the date trees are as small as osmanthus flowers. Their fruits become ripe in August. They were given a lovely name: White dew crisps. They also turn red when they are ripe and the branches bend under the weight of these heavy fruits hanging on. But these fruits are too small to be easily picked-up and if you hit the branches with the metallic stick they will fall on you like raindrops or hailstones. Sometimes they can even be harmful, as some of these fruits are the size of an egg. But if you slightly peel the tree, all its fruits whether they are ripe or not, will fall on the ground and then you just have to pick up the good ones. The reddest ones are the best, then come the half-red ones. They are a bit spongy, taste sweet and even have a distinctive fragrance. There are so many of them that my family and I just can’t eat them all, so we offer them as gifts, but it is still not enough to get rid of all the stock. So we choose the biggest and crudest ones, have them boiled until they are ripe. Then, with the help of needles, we carefully peel them off [a few words are missing in the sentence], then we put them in a cauldron where they are mixed with honey. After having made them simmering gently for a while, you can smell the fragrance of the dates. When there is no juice anymore and the fruits have turned to molasses, the cooking part is over. The final stage is to put them into a jar filled with coal where they dry. They taste delicious, we call them candied jujube. Joachim BoittoutNon classéLeave a comment22 March 2019 8 MinutesEdit “吳雙熱，余之家庭 (二)， 民權報, 1913年九月十日”
“My Family” (first part), People’s Rights, September 9th 1913
It was high time to introduce the closest friend of the Xu’s brothers: Wu Shuangre (a pen name which literaly means “doubly hot”, as he explains it in another article published in People’s Rights). Also a native of Changshu in Jiangsu province, Wu – probably my favorite one among early Butterflies writers – cultivated a very distinctive style, which main feature was his strong taste for humor. As I plan to reveal it in my next translations, Wu was well-know for his hability to transform tragic tears into laughs, and this skill eventually became quite a powerfull asset in the highly competitive Shangaiese world of sentimental writing between 1912 and 1917. Even in his most famous Nieyuanjing 孽冤鏡 (one of 1913 best sellers), on which I work in my dissertation, Wu never looses his taste for humor, something almost unthinkable in, say, Xu Zhenya’s Yulihun 玉梨魂.
However for the time being, I chose to focus on the following text (and will eventually come up with the entire story) in order to shed light on a major literary trend of the 1910s: the taste for personnal depiction. But it would be a simplistic reading to think that what matters in many of this intimate sagas is limited to the inner feelings of passionate/afflicted literati. As it appears in many texts of the early 1910s, what is at stakes beyond or rather through intimate introspections is nothing less than the fate of China after the founding of the Republic (1912). Picturing typical family scenes or teaching experiences in backward countryside, collecting childhood memories, all these choices aim at providing educated readers with perspectives which, they hoped, would help them envisionning the future of the nation. Hence the explicit name of a famous column in the literary page of People’s Rights: “Mirror of Transition” (guodujing 過渡鏡).
To put it plainly: what has to and what will remain of the past in the new democratic regime? To provide readers with clues to this thorny and – probably – unanswerable question, Butteflies writers made a critical move, as they chose to infuse the rational public sphere with feelings (qing 情) : drawing from their own experiences, they appealed to the sentiments of their readers, and, instead of triggering institutionnal debates pertaining to the new political organization of political power, they made them feel the intimate nature of these thrilling but somewhat scary ongoing changes.
Here is one example of such precious recollections of a not-that-distant past, in which Wu craftfully explores half a century of Chinese history:
Everybody has a family but family life leads eight or nine families out of ten to experience hardships. Parents lose their kindness, children stop being respectful, love between brothers and affection between couples fade away. And so does harmony between aunts and uncles. When this happens, family never fails to become a place full of noise and insults, which inevitably generates quite a lot of sorrows. Luckily enough, my family wasn’t like this. My father died in 1891, living me alone with my mother, who wasn’t actually my real mother as my father had remarried. She loved me as her own son regardless. As for me, I was also behaving with all the respect due to my parents. My mother, as a spouse is expected to do, was strictly preserving her virtue. This happened during the year of my eighth birthday, and all my lovely laughs and games earned me the love of my mother.
We were a small family. It was me, my mother, the second spouse of my father and her son. I didn’t have any uncle or brother (just one sister, who was married to Wu Zhongwang. Her husband passed away before age and the she decided to found a school for women, named Pingyang returning to our home one year after). The fact that I didn’t have any uncle or brother probably spared us many domestic torments. The four of us used to diligently fulfill our moral duties, making us a truly harmonious and republican family. Elders didn’t act like despots with youngers, and young people didn’t behave with arrogance. Never did we hear a single sound of fight or discontent. The only one who was invariably making a sad face, no matter how many smiles we could give him, was the portrait of… our ancestor!
A long time ago, in the time of our ancestors, our family used to belong to this category of people who, though not occupying any post in the imperial administration, were wealthy enough to be labelled as rich. During the Taiping revolt, the family was scattered away and all our patrimony got lost. My grandfather, who was very fond of ancient paintings and bronze vessels, would rather have trade gold and silver to save his precious antiques. He used to say that even if he was too poor to subsist, he’d never ever sell them. When he died, my father followed his will with the utmost respect and carefully stored them, although he had no interest for these things. And today, where are these pieces? Are they safe? They all ended in the hands of thieves!
My father relied on his writing abilities to feed our family. He was always very frugal and never spent much on clothes or food. I never saw him spending money on luxury or useless things. Ten years of a writing life enable him to save enough money to acquire a dozen of acres. I remember that he would always look at me and, sighing loudly, would ask me: “Son, I don’t know if you’ll be able to take care of this piece of land or if you will know how to make it flourish. If you don’t, I fear that his few acres won’t last long, and that I’ll find myself without any descendants. [Some words in the following sentence are missing, but its general meaning is:] However – who would believe it? – by the time I graduated from primary school, each year we were making a bit more money. This eventually brought some solace to my father.
What about today? Well, it stills belong to me, and as a family property it helps supporting my own family. There is no big house on it, but it still provides a shelter when it’s windy and cold. Although we don’t have abundant stocks of food, we are not starving. And although we don’t have enough money to afford hiring maids and servants, you’ll find a young boy answering the door at the entrance. People who live in misery would take us for moneybags. But we are poor! However each time this thought crosses my mind I immediately think about what I have in life: we are lucky enough to enjoy a blue sky without fearing calamities such as drought, floods and bandits. I also have enough food to feed my wife and my young children. Why always wanting more money? Wealth only makes you become stupid. As for the evil money you fought for, and all the goods you amassed, well, they just make the perfect residence for greedy petty thieves!