Yu Dafu

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Nationality: Chinese. Born: Fuyang, Zhejiang Province, 7 December 1896. Education: Studied at Jiaxing Secondary School and an American missionary school, Tokyo, 1913-16; studied political economics at Imperial University, Tokyo, 1916-22. Family: Married 1) Sun Quan in 1920, two sons and one daughter; 2) Wang Yingxia (divorced 1940), three sons; 3) He Liyu in 1943, one son and one daughter. Career: Writer, editor, and translator, Shanghai, from 1923; lecturer, Peking University, 1923-24; professor of literature, Wuchang, 1925, Sun Yat-sen University, 1926; German instructor, Shanghai Law Faculty, 1927; editor, Torrent and Mass Literature, and at Shanghai University of Fine Arts, 1928-30; co-editor with Lu Xun, q.v., PenLiv, 1928-29; professor, University of Anhui, 1930; lived in Hangzhou, 1933-35; editor and government worker, Fujian, 1936-38; local government council worker, Wuhan, 1938; editor and journalist, Singapore Daily newpaper, 1938-42; moved to Sumatra under assumed name Zhao Lian, forced to serve as interpreter for Japanese military police, 1942; wineshop owner, 1942-45. Founding editor, Creation Quarterly, 1921-24, Creation Weekly, 1923-24, Creation Monthly, 1926. Member: Creation Society, 1921 (co-founder); League of Left Wing Writers, from 1930 (founding member). Died: 17 September 1945.



Wenji [Collected Works]. 12 vols., 1982-85.

Short Stories

Chenlun [Sinking]. 1921; as Chenlunji qita [Sinking and OtherStories], 1947.

Wei bing [Stomach Trouble]. 1921.

Nan qian [Moving South]. 1921.

Mangmang ye [Deep Night]. 1922.

Feng ling [Wind Bell]. 1922.

Xue yu lei [Blood and Tears]. 1922.

Li san zhi jian [Before Parting]. 1923.

Qiu lin [Autumn Willows]. 1923.

Cai shiji [Coloured Cliff]. 1923.

Niaoluo xing [Marital Episodes]. 1923.

Huanxiangji [Returning Home]. 1923.

Qing yan [Bluish Smoke]. 1923.

Qiu he [Autumn River]. 1923.

Luo ri [Sunset]. 1923.

Haishang tongxin [Correspondence Written at Sea]. 1923.

Yi feng xin [A Letter]. 1923.

Chunfeng chencui de wanshang [Intoxicating Spring Night]. 1924; as "Nights of Spring Fever," in Nights of Spring Fever and Other Writings, 1984.

Zhong tu [In the Middle of the Road]. 1924.

Beiguo de weiyin [A Weak Voice from the North of the Country]. 1924.

Shiyi yue chu san [November the Third]. 1924.

Song Fangwu de xing [Seeing Fangwu Off]. 1925.

Huaixiang bingzhe [Homesick]. 1926.

Yan ying [The Shadow of Smoke]. 1926.

Han xiao [Cold Night]. 1926.

Shen lou [Mirage]. 1926.

Lingyuzhe [A Superfluous Man]. 1927.

Bo dian [A Humble Sacrifice]. 1927.

Xiaochun tianqi [Gossamer Weather]. 1927.

Haigu milianzhe de duyu [Monologue of a Collector of DecayingBones]. 1927.

Guoqu [The Past]. 1927.

Qingleng de wuhou [Fresh Afternoon]. 1927.

Weixue de zaochen [Snowy Morning]. 1927.

Jijinji [Chicken Ribs] (novella). 1927.

Mi yang [The Lost Sheep] (novella). 1928.

Deng'e maicang zhi ye [The Night of the Moth's Funeral]. 1928.

Zai han feng li [In the Cold Wind] (collection). 1929.

Mafeng de duci [Wasp's Sting]. 1929.

Zhibi de tiaoyao [Dance of the Banknotes]. 1930.

Yangmei shaojiu [Strawberry Brandy]. 1930.

Shisan ye [Thirteen Nights]. 1930.

Mayinghua kai de shihou [Blossom Time of the Maying Flower]. 1932.

Dong Zi Guan [name]. 1932.

Chi kuihua [Late-Blooming Cassia]. 1932.

Bilianghu de qiuye [Autumn Night in Bilianghu]. 1933.

Chanyuji [Repentance] (collection). 1933.

Qi mu [At the Decline of Years]. 1933

Chu ben [A Start]. 1935.

Nights of Spring Fever and Other Writings (selection). 1984.


Chun chao [Spring Tide] (unfinished). 1923.

Gushi [Legend]. 1928.

Ta shi yi ge ruo nuzi [She Is a Weak Woman]. 1932; as Raoliao Ta[Forgive Her!], 1933.

Jihen chuchu [Footprints Here and There]. 1934.


Shi ci chao [Collected Poetry], edited by Lu Tan-lin. 1962.


Niaoluoji [Wisteria and Dodder] (prose). 1923.

Gei Mo Ruo de jiuxin [An Old Letter to Mo Ruo]. 1924.

Xiaoshuo lun [On the Novel] (literary criticism). 1926.

Yi ge ren zai lushang [A Lonely Man on a Journey]. 1926.

Nanxing zaji [Various Notes of a Journey to the South]. 1926.

Qi yuan [Source of Prayers]. 1927.

Riji jiu zhong [Nine Diaries]. 1927.

Gei yi wei wenxue qingnian de gongkai zhuang [An Open Letter to a Young Writer]. 1927.

Quanji [Complete Works]. 7 vols., 1927-33; 1st vol. as Hanhuiji[Cold Ashes] (stories), 1927.

Er shiren [Two Poets]. 1928.

Bizhouji [Battered Brooms] (prose). 1928.

Qilingji [Fugitive Fragments] (prose). 1930.

Xian shu [Books for Idle Hours] (prose). 1936.

Xuanji [Selected Works]. 1942.

Wenxue nan tan [Random Talk on Literature]. n.d.

Riji [Collection of Diaries]. 1947; numerous other editions.

Suoyi duan pianji [Collected Essays]. 1965.

Editor, Xiandai mingren qingshu [Love Letters of ContemporaryCelebrities]. 1936.

Translator, Yu Dafu suoyi duan pianji [Collected Short StoriesTranslated by Yu Dafu]. 1935.


Critical Studies:

in Three Sketches of Chinese Literature by Jaroslav Prusek, 1969; Yü Ta-fu: Specific Traits of His Literary Creation by Anna Dolezalová, 1971; in The Romantic Generation of Modern Chinese Writers by Leo Ou-fan Lee, 1973; "Yu Dafu and the Transition to Modern Literature" by Michael Egan, in Modern Chinese Literature in the May Fourth Era, edited by Merle Goldman, 1977; "Yu Dafu's Superfluous Hero" by Mau-sang Ng, in The Russian Hero in Modern Chinese Fiction, 1988.

* * *

The earliest and most successful of Yu Dafu's short fiction is associated with the Creation Society. The society was formed under the leadership of scholar-writer Guo Moro, who engaged the interest of other young post-May 4th Movement (1919) literati, among them Yu Dafu, then studying in Japan. The society's founding publication in 1921 featured Yu Dafu's collection of stories under the title Chenlun (Sinking) (including "Sinking," "Moving South," and "Silvergray Death"), which created an immediate sensation in China. In 1928, disaffected from the creationists' increasingly leftist views, Yu Dafu quit the society. He wrote for other groups, helping establish the League of Left Wing Writers (1930), but eventually he turned from political themes to more subjective content.

Subjecting Yu Dafu's work to extraordinarily intense scrutiny, critics focus upon its apparent autobiographical nature. They invariably note Yu Dafu's own preface to "Sinking," which claims that all literature is autobiographical but which gives various degrees of credence to the statement. C. T. Hsia sees the story as "unabashedly autobiographical," noting the close identity between the author's background and that of his protagonist, and complains that Yu Dafu fails to transform his personal experience into literary medium. Jaroslav Prusek agrees that Yu Dafu writes almost exclusively about his own experience and feelings, but he discerns that while Yu Dafu draws upon diaries, notes, and letters for his fiction, he does "apply belletristic processing of this personal experience as a basic artistic principle." Yu Dafu's writing is not, Prusek claims, after all a record of personal experiences but fiction for the "anonymous reader." Yu Dafu, he observes, writes in the third person and "actual incidents … are practically submerged beneath a truly fantastic whirl of emotions and imaginings." But even in the late 1980s other authoritative critics still assert that the autobiographical element in Yu Dafu's fiction is paramount; Mau-sang Ng explains that the author makes himself the protagonist, "attempting to go beyond himself to create visions of himself through his writings."

A more thoughtful view discounts Yu Dafu's own assessment and warns against what William Wimsatt called the "intentional fallacy," that is, "deriving the standard of criticism from the psychological causes of a text." From this standpoint criticisms of Yu's work as autobiographical emerge as misinterpretation.

The view specifically refutes charges that Yu Dafu's output is what Hsia calls "maudlin sentimentality" and "emotional dissipation," or that "Sinking" is a "mawkish tale of adolescent frustration and guilt." On the contrary, as a pivotal writer in the transition to modern Chinese fiction, Yu Dafu introduces, according to Merle Goldman, "an extremely important and subtle innovation, the use of irony." Goldman observes that the "objective narrative technique [in 'Sinking'] serves instead as an ironic counterpoint that undercuts the hero's sentimental view of himself, emphasizing the basic absurdity of his self-image." The theory is convincing. In each situation the reader is shown how the protagonist invariably misconstrues his predicament, which is invariably of his own making. Patently, Goldman concludes, such writing is not "the predominance of a literal imagination fascinated by the narrow world of his private sensations and feelings," but rather "an objective, and ironic presentation of a character with a mistaken and sentimental view of himself. "

As a Chinese student in Japan, the protagonist in "Sinking" feels that his Japanese classmates are racially prejudiced against him. But his own sense of intellectual superiority, or artistic integrity, also pits him against his fellow Chinese. The reader sees him isolated through his own misperceptions and not as the pitiable, lonely figure of his self-evaluation. However much Yu Dafu may have shared the protagonist's experience, he presents the material objectively for the reader's evaluation, not as a sentimental recollection.

In a long tradition of cheerful pornography, Yu Dafu's treatment of sex was sensational. His modernity lay in his honest exposure, through the protagonist, of his own sexual fantasies. As such, sex is elevated in his fiction above the merely prurient to moral and psychological abstraction. In "Sinking," for example, the hero finds himself impotent in his relations with women and resorts instead to the guilty voyeurism and masturbation that lead to his implied suicide.

Patriotism was another motif that found ready response among the youth of Yu Dafu's day. Critical appraisal might consider the theme only superficially grafted onto Yu Dafu's more deeply felt interests, but his contemporaneous audience was convinced by the merging of the protagonist's frustration at both the national humiliation and his individual impotence. The hero's final invocation ("O China, my China, you are the cause of my death!") might ring hollow in modern Western ears after the entirely self-directed introspection of the narrative, but to his Chinese audience the call to arms was clear.

The sources of Yu Dafu's inspiration have equally been scrutinized. The author was well-versed in traditional Chinese literature and in European, Russian, and Japanese works. It is no affectation that his hero, at the beginning of "Sinking," is "seen strolling with a pocket edition of Wordsworth's poems." Chinese writers traditionally expressed their disdain for the mundane world and corrupt officialdom; the European and Japanese so-called "decadent" writers provide extensive models for the outcast hero. In particular the protagonist's self-pity in "Sinking" is most commonly identified with Goethe's The Sorrows of Werther (1774). Yu Dafu's approach in other works, like "The Superfluous Man," is also judged to have been significantly influenced by the nineteenth-century Russians, for example, Dostoevskii's "Underground Man" and Turgenev's "The Diary of a Superfluous Man."

Yu Dafu's early work, especially "Sinking," generally considered to be his best, continues to generate critical controversy. Its autobiographical foundations and exploration of intimate sexuality arouse outrage, exasperation, or admiration, or all, in the reader. The overlay of patriotism and national shame may seem artificial in today's view, but such concerns were overriding in Yu Dafu's time and were appreciated by his youthful audience. His Chinese and foreign literary scholarship is also admired, and absorbing interest is exhibited in the antecedents that shaped his attitudes and styles.

—John Marney

See the essay on "Sinking."