Regret for the Past (Shang Shi) by Lu Xun, 1925

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by Lu Xun, 1925

"Regret for the Past" ("Shang shi"), collected in Pang Huang (Wandering) in 1925, is one of Lu Xun's best stories and has a lyric élan rare among modern Chinese writings. When compared with the author's other works, which are often satirical rather than sentimental, this story seems to have a peculiar appeal in its indulgence for human foibles, but its treatment of the pathetic elements of life and the tragic aspects of love remains uncompromising from start to finish. The tone is chastening and dark with premonitions of doom.

Told in the first-person-central point of view, the story is a confession of the protagonist, Juansheng, that contains little dialogue but much reminiscence and soul-searching. Some critics, notably Lyell and Lee, tend to downplay or ignore the significance of the confession, yet there is no denying that the intensity of Juansheng's remorse somewhat redeems his guilt: "If only there really were a hell! … In the whirlwind and flames I would put my arms round Zijun and ask her pardon or let her take her revenge!" The author's attitude is not unsympathetic. Instead of ironically exposing the protagonist as mean and silly in a cool and aloof style, Lu Xun seems not so detached. This can be seen in the narrative prose, which takes on an earnest, passionate glitter. Another engaging element about the story lies in the haunting picture it invariably presents to the reader: two lonely lovers moving against a desolate background, fighting not only tradition and other people but also each other while despair closes in on them.

The story successfully evokes the ambience of Beijing during the 1920s, one of the darkest periods in the long history of China. It was a time when ordinary people lived under numerous restrictions, as is suggested by the repeated image of a bird in a narrow cage forgetting how to flap its wings. As we are told in the story, "man's place in nature" is only somewhere "between the dog and the chicks." The chicks, which cannot survive the destitution of the family, are symbolic of Zijun, and the dog, deserted like Zijun, symbolizes the homeless Juansheng. The 1920s was also a time when honest people could barely eke out a precarious living by hard work and a time when a discharge slip was almost tantamount to a death sentence. Superior knowledge or better education did not help a person land a decent job, for what really mattered was who and not what one knew. Both Juansheng and Zijun are members of the younger, better-educated generation, a new breed in the wake of the May Fourth Movement of 1919, yet their knowledge of Western literature and foreign languages is more of a liability than an asset, for it turns them into liberals spurned by their contemporaries.

Zijun's case seems even more desperate. When she says, "We can make a fresh start," she knows deep in her heart that this is a false hope. Because she is a woman, the burdens of tradition and old customs are especially heavy on her. For all her courage in cutting her hair short and cohabiting with the man she loves, she cannot free herself entirely from "the trammels of old ideas." For instance, she feels embarrassed to look at a picture of the English poet Shelley because he is male, although he died more than a century before, and she never tries to find a job since a decent girl is not supposed to work. Thus, after being "disowned" by her uncle and jilted by her lover in Beijing, she has no other choice but to be "taken away" by her father, who presumably comes from a much more conservative city or village. It is understandable that Zijun, susceptible as she is, cannot survive such a rigid, uncongenial milieu, for her father and other people would certainly regard her as a shameless "hussy" deserted by a reckless villain, a much worse position than that of a jilted wife: "What a fearful thing it is … walking … one's path in life amid cold looks and blazing fury! This path ends, moreover, in nothing but a grave without so much as a tombstone." Though the cause of her sudden death is not mentioned, it must be suicide.

Unlike Zijun, Juansheng manages to avoid the impending doom by virtue of what may be called his survivalism. In his opinion "the first thing in life is to make a living." He would jettison everything else in order to survive: the chicks are served for food at his "insistence," the dog is abandoned, and even a "clean break" with Zijun is sought since "all she could do was cling to someone else's clothing, making it hard for even a fighter to struggle, and bringing ruin on both." Survive he does, only to learn too late what a selfish coward he is. This kind of self-knowledge is often hard to come by. In Juansheng's case its price is terribly high, for he loses Zijun and her love. He can obtain self-knowledge only through an agonizing, futile journey in which he moves out of the hostel with Zijun in search of happiness and moves back to it alone in great distress. He eventually realizes that it is selfishness and timidity rather than honesty that prompted him to tell Zijun that he did not love her any more. He learns too late that he mistook Zijun's intrepidity for an ability to take care of herself after their separation, and it never occurs to him, while he is taking refuge in the public library, how lonely and cold Zijun must feel alone in a loveless, heatless room. He does not understand what is love or how to love. Compared with him, Zijun appears noble and brave, capable of sacrificing herself for love at any cost and completely fearless and impervious to people's "sarcastic smiles or lewd and contemptuous glances." If Juansheng feels that the way he proposed to her is laughable and even "contemptible," to her it is no joke. Love is too serious a matter to be joked about. While Juansheng insists that a man must make a living before there can be any place for love, Zijun could argue that without love life is not worth living. When her father comes to take her away, she "solemnly" leaves all their worldly goods ("salt, dried chili, flour, half a cabbage, and a few dozen coppers") for Juansheng to eke out his existence "a little longer." It is apparent that, heartbroken as she is, she still loves him.

With Zijun gone, nothing remains for Juansheng but emptiness. The only way for him to make a fresh start is through confession, and the first step is to record his remorse and grief for Zijun's sake as well as for his own. The record turns out to be a superb story of tragic love. Indeed, nowhere else does Lu Xun brood more darkly over the themes of love versus existence and sacrifice versus selfishness, and nowhere else in modern Chinese literature do we find a young couple so desperate in their struggle to survive and so alienated from society.

—Sherwin S. S. Fu