Spring Silkworms (Chun Can) by Mao Dun, 1933

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by Mao Dun, 1933

Acknowledged as one of the most influential prose stylists in twentieth-century China, Mao Dun, the pseudonym (meaning "contradiction") of Shen Yanbing, brought both the novel and short story genres from the fringes of Chinese literature into its mainstream. His impressive corpus of creative writing, critical and theoretical works, and organizational activities significantly trans-muted both the form and focus of modern Chinese letters. He was among the first writers to have artistic success in addressing the urgent political issues of the times, and he did so in compelling works that reflected the point of view of both sophisticated urban intellectuals, often women, and simple rural peasants. A charter member of the Association for the Study of Literature, founded in 1920 to read and translate major Western writers, Mao Dun joined the Communist party in 1921 and in 1930 helped found the powerful, influential League of Left-Wing Writers. With the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, he served as the head of the Chinese Writers Union and, until the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, as minister of culture.

Because nearly all of Mao Dun's creative writing was inspired by the tumultuous political upheavals through which China was passing in the first half of the twentieth century, it is helpful to view "Spring Silkworms" ("Chun can"), one of the author's best and most important works, in its historical context. The story appeared in 1933, a year after the so-called Shanghai incident, in which Japanese and Chinese military forces clashed in that city from January through May, which coincides with the spring setting of the story. For over a decade the Japanese, who at the time were also concluding their conquest of southern Manchuria, had been seeking ever more favorable terms for the sale of their manufactured goods, as had various Western powers. Many Chinese responded with boycotts of Japanese products, which often erupted into violent confrontations. When a Chinese mob attacked a group of Japanese Buddhist monks in January 1932, Japanese agents provocateurs fomented demonstrations that eventually grew into several months of military clashes and that are described in Mao Dun's story as a war. The incident precipitated a shift in world opinion away from Japan to China and served as a precursor of the harrowing events yet to transpire between the two nations. "Spring Silkworms" is an artistic response to this imperialistic incident, into which the author also weaves another of his signature themes, attacks on Chinese feudal thinking and behavior.

As the story opens, spring is approaching in what was once a highly productive part of southern China. The elderly peasant Dung Bao laments that nothing—China's political and economic stability, his family's fortunes, the local power structure, the farmland, the crops, the canal, even the spring weather itself—is how it used to be. It is not a season of renewal, for everything seems to be in decline. Foreigners, both Western and Japanese, dominate the country economically and rival moneylenders and pawnbrokers in exploiting the peasants. To his despair, the efforts of the new Nationalist government to rid China of the foreigners seem ineffective, and the recent fighting with the Japanese in Shanghai has left the silk-weaving factories there idle, a situation that will have a negative impact on him and the other peasants who raise silkworms for income. Heavily in debt after losing his rice fields and with his winter food supplies nearly gone, Dung Bao hopes that a good crop of silkworms will wipe out his debts and give his family enough to live on.

Dung Bao has two sons. A Su, the elder, is much like his father, tradition bound, dutiful, and superstitious, and he believes that the family's precarious state is their fate and that little can be done about it. The younger, A Duo, believes that nothing will change unless people change first. He is cheerful, outgoing, and even rebellious, and he lends a helping hand to any hardworking village woman, with some of whom he also flirts. Dung Bao quarrels with those in the village who want to use better-quality foreign, presumably Japanese, eggs rather than Chinese eggs for hatching silkworms. Because of his hatred of foreigners, he patriotically resists buying foreign eggs. He borrows money from relatives not only for Chinese eggs but also for the mulberry leaves to feed the silkworms after they have hatched and as they weave their cocoons.

Then begins the exacting, highly work-intensive, almost ritual-istic preparation of the eggs for hatching and for feeding and nurturing the silkworms. During this two-week period no one gets much to eat, for all of the money is spent on additional mulberry leaves for the ever hungry silkworms. Keeping a day-and-night watch on the silkworms' food and warmth, everybody becomes sleep-deprived, stressed, and prone to quarrels. Because Lotus, the flirtatious young wife of an old neighbor, seems to have made careless errors in her early preparations, her silkworm harvest is ruined. Consequently, she is considered unlucky and is ostracized from the community. One night while the younger son is keeping watch, he discovers that the angry, resentful Lotus has stolen some of his family's silkworms and thrown them into the stream. In spite of her mean-spirited behavior, he allows her to leave and tells no one. Seeing the two together, neighbors assume that they are having an affair and that the silkworm crop has been jinxed. The news quickly reaches Dung Bao. Unconvinced by his son's denials, the old man carefully inspects the silkworm room for signs of ill omens, and though finding none, he is still full of misgivings about the future.

Dung Bao's silkworm harvest, like that of everyone else's in the village, is prodigious, the best he has seen in decades, with more than 500 pounds of cocoons. Just as everyone is about to celebrate this fortuitous event, however, news comes that because of the war none of the silk-weaving factories in the immediate area will be open for the season. To sell their crop, the peasants must travel five days to distant factories. With no other options available, the two sons set out. When they return, Dung Bao learns that because of the market glut the prices were low. Moreover, his cocoons, from Chinese rather than foreign eggs, brought an even lower price. In short, he and his fellow villagers, for all their Herculean efforts, have not sold enough even to cover their expenses. In fact, as tax collectors and moneylenders invade the village to demand payment, they are worse off than when they started.

The reader is immediately struck by the tone of objectivity and casualness with which the tragic story is presented. It seems like reportage of overwhelming calamities. In its implications the story is a acerbic indictment of China's feudal past, of the foreign powers operating with impunity in China at the time, and of the ineptitude of China's Nationalist leaders. The character of Dung Bao is richly drawn. He is, on the one hand, superstitious and accepting of his lot, yet on the other he is shrewd in his assessment of the situation in his country and of the motives of those around him. He possesses great strength of character and dignity because of his tenacity and hard work. The two sons represent the two directions in which China may proceed: the elder son the past, with its continued failures and faults and its exploitation of the poor from both within and outside the country; the younger son, an incipient socialist-realist hero whose god seems to be other people, denotes the future, which is to be built on action, rational thinking, kindness toward others, and hard work.

The story is lush in descriptive detail, not only of nature and the landscape, whose beauty had been extolled in earlier literature but which now has been decimated through inept use and mishandling, but also of the quotidian lives of struggling village peasants. The reader is made to feel their grime and poverty, taste their hunger and want, and acknowledge but not judge their pettiness and foibles. One cannot help but admire their dedication to hard work, their magisterial spirit in the face of poverty and events beyond their control, and even their sense of humor—in short, their humanity.

The process of hatching and harvesting silkworms is also compellingly narrated in the story and serves as the powerful central metaphor of the work. The voraciousness of the silkworms for mulberry leaves, the cost of which then places the peasants in a condition of near starvation, is tellingly juxtaposed with the greed and rapacity of both the feudal and imperialist-capitalist orders operating in China. In Mao Dun's view the peasants' lives are being destroyed by these two systems much in the same way the mulberry leaves are devoured by unattractive, lowly worms, which, in turn, produce a nonessential luxury good used to adorn the backsides and flatter the vanity of the world's exploitative middle and upper classes.

"Spring Silkworms" points to the socialist-realist direction that Chinese short fiction would take well into the 1980s. In its early, pristine form, uninhibited by the rigid dictates of party ideologues and bureaucratic operatives—the kind found in "Spring Silkworms"—this type of literature possesses qualities of freshness, affectiveness, and realism heretofore unknown in Chinese writing. The work of a master storyteller and humanitarian, "Spring Silkworms" is a felicitous blend of art and politics whose success is not often matched in the socialist-realist canon. It can also stand among the world's best short stories.

—Carlo Coppola