Sunday, January 13, 2008
Lu Xun’s “Mourning the Dead” is a depiction of tragedy at its best. More tragic than the ill-fated love affair between Zijun and Juansheng itself is the very fact that almost every reader might be able to feel relation to and sympathy for the protagonists and their plight. While “Mourning the Dead” is mainly described as a plain love story gone awry, its subject is much more complicated, weaving issues like the daily life struggle in China, gentle feminist subversion, and the manner people treat those who are closest to them.
Right at the onset of the story, it is made obvious that Juansheng, the narrator, experiences an enormous deal of anguish on the story he is bent on sharing. With great fondness, Juansheng reflects on his romance with Zijun, depicting it as genuine and pure, saying that he had kept almost nothing and she completely understood him. While the reader sees the development of the romance between Juansheng and Zijun, it becomes known that the two are so much in love to the extent of moving in together out of wedlock. Zijun’s living in with a man not her husband was an act of feminism, from the same person who argued that “I belong to myself! None of them has any right to interfere in my life!” in the earlier part of the story.
Although Zijun shows gestures of inspiring courage throughout the story, she yields to the strain and vulnerability of modest domestic life in the long run. Her lifestyle begins to put pressure on her emotional condition, and a disguised look of dejection or an ice-cold smile was always plastered on her face. The abrupt change in Zijun’s demeanor was probably the driving force for Juansheng to fall out of love with her, if he was ever sincerely in love with her in the first place. Juansheng had turned sad over what was earlier a happy setup, beginning to realize that “for the better part of a year now, [he] had neglected every last essential of human life for the sake of love alone—blind love. First of all, [he had] forgotten about the business of making a living. A man has to be able to make a living before he can provide a place for love to dwell.” Juansheng’s description of his love for Zijun as blind begs for the question of whether he was ever truly in love with her in the first place, or if his passion was nothing but selfish love.
It does not matter too much whether or not Juansheng was unintentionally pretending to be in love with Zijun, since once he realized he did not love her any more, he could barely control the feeling, saying that “with every word [he] spoke, [he] composed a rough draft of hypocrisy in [his] heart, and as the pages rapidly accumulated, [he] found it increasingly difficult to breathe.” This ultimately drove him to decide to confess this new development to Zijun. Expectedly, Zijun was heartbroken, and she went back to her family, leaving Juansheng “[s]houldering the burden of emptiness” and one who was to die briefly after their estrangement. After discovering Zijun’s demise, Juansheng said that “she had been fated to destruction, engulfed by the truth of the loveless world [he] had given her,” which opens the question whether it would have been better for those involved if he just lied. Juansheng traded truth for vain existence and a certain feeling of guilt, which everyone can have sympathy with. After having gone through Lu Xun’s “Mourning the Dead,” the reader is left wondering over the true meaning behind the story: should truth be told however selfish the act is and no matter how things turn out, or should happiness of the people around be preserved for its own sake?
On a different level, “Mourning the Dead” can be read in terms of Zijun’s strong-willed womanhood against the grain of the Chinese society. The Chinese traditional values disapprove premarital relations which, in fact, are considered as one major offense. The Chinese place tremendous importance on family life as they frequently live in big family units. There is a heavy value placed in following traditional norms as well as in accepting societal rules regarding the importance of the conserved structure of the family. For instance, Chinese families traditionally favored sons over daughters since a husband could divorce his wife for her incapacity to produce him a male heir. Even love is not exempted from the rules of traditional Chinese standards. The Chinese frequently perceived love and passion as a possible threat to the political and social order. As a way of repressing these epidemics of passion, rules were implemented in order to control marriage, reproduction, inheritance and the position of women. In China, Confucian philosophy taught repression of family love and marriage was frequently perceived as a business. Strict regulations on sex were dominant in that only sex within marriage for reproductive purposes was permitted. Hence, premarital and extramarital relationships were strictly forbidden.
Many of these societal norms recur as dominant themes in the story. As has been mentioned, Juansheng lived in with his former late mistress Zijun. Their moving in together outside the sanctity of marriage was not only against the will of Zijun’s family but also against the norms of the society. In the beginning, their relationship was exciting and daring but it eventually turned bleak when Juansheng lost his job as a result of his morally scandalous affair and when he honestly confessed that he was no longer in love with her. Ultimately, Juansheng was left alone missing his former happy days with his illegitimate wife as Zijun dies being implicitly unable to endure the taboo placed on her by the society.
Whereas Zijun is the representation of the female consciousness, she also represented everything that China was opposed to, like women living and thinking for themselves and going against their families and societies. Nonetheless, while Lu Xun applies his modernism by presenting a strong-minded woman, he also cautions the readers on the possibilities once this woman rebels against the traditional Chinese rules. Analogizing the revolution of the youth out of the context in which “Mourning the Dead” was produced, Lu Xun appeared to be presenting risky Chinese consciousness, stating that an extreme breakaway from the traditional values spells disaster on the rebel. Whereas Zijun was a Chinese woman and most of her struggles were at the mercy of her certain cultural values, women across the globe can relate to many of her borne difficulties like the binary of being an independent woman and of pursuing the role assigned to her by the society. In the beginning of her relationship with Juansheng, Zijun was regarded as powerful for breaking away from her family and following her heart despite strict social dictates, but as the story progressed, she grew less and less powerful, assuming the role of an exhausted, weak housewife who missed her husband’s love and days of affection that previously empowered her. She appeared to regret over not being able to enjoy what married men and women can. Probably, Zijun’s strong choice before of moving in with a man not her husband shifted to a weak choice of an inability to suppress her passion. This double-bladed sword is likewise common in Western culture. On the one hand, a woman who embraces her sexuality is deemed a strong woman while on the other hand, her sexuality is used to steal her power as well as position her at the unfair judgment and scorn of men and society.
The theme of the pain and loneliness owing to the rejection of the beloved is another that women as well as men universally can relate to. When Juansheng told Zijun that he did not love her any more, she reacted in a language spoken everywhere: that of a broken heart. “[Juansheng] anticipated the worst, but when [he] had finished there was nothing but silence. Then an ashen pallor swept across Zijun’s face and she looked as though all her life had suddenly been drained out of her—then, just as suddenly, she revived and that childlike gleam began to sparkle in her eyes again. She looked around the room like a hungry child searching for its mother. Her frightened eyes constantly shifted her gaze as she desperately sought to avoid [his]. [He] could not bear to look at her any longer.” While she is in entirely dissimilar cultural and historical locations, every reader can relate precisely to Zijun’s experience and to the hurt that only one’s beloved can wreak havoc on one. No matter how potent one once thought of oneself, weakness invades one’s body and mind due to the agony generated by the lover.
While at first glance, Zijun as well as Juansheng encountered different experiences from real people having grown up under the suppressive Chinese traditional values, at closer examination they share the same feelings and situations experienced by people the world over.
In yet another level of interpretation and analysis, Lu Xun’s “Mourning the Dead” must be considered allegorical of the Chinese people in general in an attempt to understand the text as having been produced out of the context of a Third World country. The obvious plot of the “Mourning the Dead” is one about a young lovestruck couple who live in together. What needs to be emphasized thereafter is the underpinned factors they have and the statement Lu Xun tries to articulate via understated commentary.
One such source of influence often quoted by both Zijun and Juansheng is the statements of Western authors, specifically playwright Henrik Ibsen. The citation of Western authors is a come-on for the philosophy of Westernization that is the requirement to drift away from their Oriental tradition. The manner by which the couple will drift away from the tradition is by moving in together, although Lu Xun seems to reject this decision. It is revealed to the reader via the introduction made by Juansheng: “If I am able, I shall commit my sorrow and remorse to paper, for her sake as well as my own.” The use of that negative statement cultivates an atmosphere of negative sentiments that reappears towards the end of the story.
Understandably enough, the society around the couple does not approve of the decision: [Juansheng] was often conscious of the stares [they] attracted: some were inquisitive, others derisive, some lascivious, and still others downright contemptuous.” During this time, Zijun continues to be strong and dignified of their conduct. Nonetheless, Zijun is reduced to being a routine housewife, falling under the traditional role of women. Whereas previously, she made pronouncements on the tyranny of the family, now she has assumed a place within that tyranny yet anew, under a different tyrant. This hypocrisy, nonetheless, is Juansheng’s until he transfers it to Zijun who must carry it to her death.
Juansheng speaks recurrently of wishing a fresh start in life, and that the only “hope” to attain it at that period rests on his separation from Zijun. Juansheng wants to terminate his relationship with Zijun that has been outside the appreciation of their society and to reintegrate himself into that society. Nonetheless, he experiences difficulty in doing so. Lu Xun points out that in order to assimilate themselves in their surrounding society, they would need to possess the strength to succeed in their drift from the tradition. Since they have failed, no positive outcome came of their actions. Apart from not making an impression in the social construction of the Chinese people, they, at the end of their relationship, have no capacity of reinserting themselves into this society they broke away from. Their obvious lack of respect or concern for the values of that society merited their ostracism from that very society.
Zijun is an ideal example of Lu Xun’s pessimistic representation of a modern Chinese woman. However, the author only seemed to suggest that it was necessary for Zijun and Juansheng to take tiny steps to change their society. After all, Zijun was up against a society primarily organized around a masculine norm without giving adequate attention to the specificity of her and other Chinese women’s lives and experiences. Granted that she is an Oriental woman modernized by the West, she cannot single-handedly subvert the taboos of her society no matter how ill, rotten, outmoded and shackling these are. While Lu Xun attacked ideologies concerning women’s social position that had been unquestioned for millennia, he presented in “Mourning the Dead” a Nora figure—the protagonist in a play by Lu Xun’s much-revered Ibsen—with a hollow victory: Zijun eventually returned to her family after separating from Juansheng and died in the midst of social ridicule. Nevertheless, it could be read that Lu Xun did not produce a wild woman gone wrong to advance his propaganda: the championing of women’s rights and equality in a disdainfully traditional society, as chronicled in his stories populated by important, fondly fleshed-out female characters. As a victim of the conservative society, Lu Xun’s Zijun must be urging on the reader that some form of liberation of women as a whole should be undertaken, or their downfall will be replicated and preserved by the conspiratorial and misogynist ways of the traditional society.