Sinking (Chenlun) by Yu Dafu, 1921

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SINKING (Chenlun)
by Yu Dafu, 1921

Yu Dafu was one of the most versatile and prolific writers of the period of the May Fourth Movement. He wrote traditional poems (gushi), essays, fiction, editorials, political analysis, and literary criticism. Although his traditional poems were highly praised by Lu Xun and other critics as the finest of those of his contemporaries, it was his fiction that established a national reputation. He also gained recognition as one of the founding members of the influential Creation Society. "Sinking" ("Chenlun") is the title piece of Yu Dafu's first publication, which was also the first short story collection in China's so-called new literature.

The protagonist is a young Chinese student sent by his family to pursue a college education in Japan, an alien country where he constantly feels humiliation and hostility because of his nationality. Living in tormenting loneliness and feeling the pressure of sexual desire, he has involuntarily segregated himself from his Chinese friends and indulges in sexual fantasies and masturbation. Although his earlier education upheld a strong sense of ethics and moral purity, he is too weak to resist sexual temptations and is caught in a perpetual and losing battle against haunting erotic desires and sinful voyeurism. While walking along a path in the countryside one morning, he accidentally overhears bewitching talk between a Japanese man and woman who are making love behind the bushes. Aroused by his fantasies of the scene, that afternoon he gets on a trolley and then transfers to a ferry without knowing his destination. Going ashore, he suddenly finds himself pacing in front of a brothel, and in a trance he walks in and spends an evening there. That night, driven by unbearable shame and sinfulness, he walks into the sea and drowns himself.

Like many of Yu Dafu's later stories, "Sinking" adopts the approach of an autobiographical confession. The basic tone is one of persistent self-condemnation, and the protagonist's experiences often reveal conspicuous similarities with the author's own life. Yu Dafu's use of this approach stems from his belief in the concept of "literature reflecting life" and from the influence in China of the European decadents and romantics. He once stated that "all literary works are the autobiographies of the writers." In "Sinking" this approach is particularly evident, and it cannot be ignored in interpreting the story.

The plot of "Sinking" shows neither the pattern of rising climax and descending action nor the formula of conflict and resolution normally found in fiction. The story is told by a third-person narrator who is omnipresent and omniscient, always ready to disclose every single thought or feeling of the protagonist. The exposure starts from the first line, which tells of the protagonist's painful solitude. Every action contributes to the portrayal of the protagonist's character: oversensitive, highly sentimental, unstable, and unpredictable. At one moment he is so touched by the beauty of nature—a gentle breeze, a quivering blade of grass, or a fragrant and delicate flower—that he sheds tears and soothes himself in fantasy, seeing Cupid-like angels dancing and soaring around him. When he is desperately seized by melancholy, he grumbles to himself and feels grudges against his Japanese classmates. He is sometimes overwhelmed with hypochondria and with a megalomania mixed with patriotism.

The use of the third-person point of view is successful on two counts: it makes it possible to reveal the protagonist's inner feelings through a number of monologues, and it allows the story to shift back and forth between the present and the past. Psychological tension is created by combining the third-person point of view with the forthright self-exposure of the protagonist. The tension is created precisely at the point at which his sexual impulse and his moral vision clash against each other. To use Yu Dafu's own words, "It is a clash between soul and desire." The clash is not linear but rather takes an alternate form of development. For example, a momentary peace is broken by his peeking at the landlord's daughter while she is taking a shower. This leads to condemnation by his other self, the self constructed by his moral vision. As a result his guilt causes him to escape to a reclusive life in a mountain house, where he regains his tranquillity. Before long, however, he accidentally overhears amorous lovemaking, which again stirs his lust. The struggle between his carnal and his moral self results in the accumulation of enormous frustration and pressure, making him a victim torn by guilt and shame. The tension ultimately causes the total breakdown of his spiritual loftiness. At the end he drowns himself in the sea, and the title implies both falling into the water and the falling of his soul.

The self-exposure, particularly the depiction of the protagonist's lustful desire and erotic fantasies, is blunt and straightforward. It is tinged with the influence of the Japanese "self-novel" (watakushi shōsetsu), a style highly charged with subjective and personal feelings and inclined to be direct. One interesting aspect of the style in "Sinking" is the intimate relationship between the protagonist and nature, where he constantly searches for consolation and tranquillity. The story is structured in such a way that his triumph and defeat in the battle to resist sexual temptation parallel the presence and absence of nature. In this sense nature becomes a symbolic sanctuary. Yet sometimes this detailed exposure of his inner feelings seems trivial and superficial. More often than not it diminishes the artistic effect. This is largely caused by Yu Dafu's excessive readiness to use biographical elements. It contributes particularly to the superficiality of character portrayal and the unwieldiness in the narrative.

These flaws, however, tend to be insignificant and produce no real blemish in the story. Through his admirable lyric style and faithful attitude to realism, Yu Dafu succeeds in portraying a desperate young man's psychological conflicts and sexual frustration. "Sinking" presents a theme of human suffering, not merely a breakthrough of the forbidden sexual theme. It is a genuine avant-garde work in China's new literature.

—Pin P. Wan