The Stranger and the Chinese Moral Imagination

The Stranger and the Chinese Moral Imagination

by Haiyan Lee


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804785914
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 11/12/2014
Pages: 376
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Haiyan Lee is Associate Professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature at Stanford University. She is the author of Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900–1950 (Stanford University Press, 2007), winner of the 2009 Joseph Levenson Prize (post–1900 China) from the Association for Asian Studies.

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The Stranger and the Chinese Moral Imagination

By Haiyan Lee


Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9354-4


The Benighted and the Enchanted

The access to hope made me suddenly afraid. When Runtu asked for the incense burner and candlesticks I had laughed up my sleeve at him, to think that he still worshipped idols and could not put them out of his mind. Yet what I now called hope was no more than an idol I had created myself. The only difference was that what he desired was close at hand, while what I desired was less easily realized. Lu Xun, "My Old Home"

When the "I" narrator in Lu Xun's "My Old Home" returns to his hometown to oversee the sale of his ancestral home, he encounters his childhood playmate and son of a former hired hand, Runtu, now a wizened peasant. Told that he could take home whatever he might find useful among the few remaining household items, Runtu picks out some furniture as well as an incense burner and a few candlesticks. The narrator finds it unremarkable and yet disturbing that a peasant squeezed dry by "many children, famines, taxes, soldiers, bandits, officials and landed gentry" (Lu Xun 1977, 62) should need not only practical things but also the appurtenances of spiritual life that sustains him through all the hardships. In his uncomplaining passivity, Runtu is but the archetypal Chinese peasant who yields his agency to divinities and defers his hope to the hereafter. This age-old solution suddenly becomes ludicrous in the age of Enlightenment rationality and progress. The narrator laughs up his sleeve at Runtu for not letting go of his idols. With the narrator, we also laugh at Runtu for being blind to the true causes of his misery and for seeking salvation in the wrong place. But the way Lu Xun concludes his story radically suspends our Enlightenment self-confidence. In fact, the snide laughter is only confessed in retrospect and upon reflecting on his own idol called "hope": is not his "hope" for an unbroken world no more than a secular idol, one that may be even less responsive to perennial existential questions?

The modern vernacular literature that Lu Xun pioneered was born in the Chinese Enlightenment as a vehicle for the introduction of "Mr. Science" and "Mr. Democracy." It was a secular project that insistently cast religion as the "superstition" of the other—the uneducated masses, women, and ethnic minorities—and as the symptom of their overdetermined malaise: backwardness, passivity, abjection, isolation, masochism, and alienation. "Ghosts" were the master trope that signified all the dark forces that had hampered Chinese progress. As David Wang points out, modern Chinese literature was envisioned by the pioneers as a collective project to subdue the demons and ghosts of "poverty, disease, ignorance, corruption, and chaos" (Wang 2004b, 265). At the same time, writers deployed the spectral to reckon with the repressions and remainders of modernity. Wang's exhaustive account of the ghost motif in traditional and modern Chinese literature usefully tracks the textual appearances of ghosts and paranormal subjects such as possession, haunting, and exorcism, while commenting on the relationship between troubled times and the proliferation of apparitions in literature, film, and popular media. But the use of the trope of the uncanny to configure psychic dramas or traumas is necessarily premised on the retreat of religion as an allen-compassing system of beliefs and practices, or what Peter Berger calls "the sacred canopy" (1969). Lonesome ghosts (gui) may return (gui) to haunt the world of unbelief and mock its self-confidence, but they are no longer the messengers of an overarching plausibility structure that has once been the ultimate source of meaning.

In this chapter, I am concerned with the ways in which twentieth-century writers construct religion as an estranged "heterotopia" that once was and might again become an ultimate source of meaning. Michel Foucault defines heterotopia as a system of opening and closing in which the relations of proximity in a culture are represented, inverted, or subverted (1998, 178). Religion in twentieth-century Chinese literature is an estranged heterotopia in which gods and ghosts and those who worship or manipulate them are "strangers" to the secular society and the secular imagination. The mission of modern literature, as its founding generation envisioned it, is to emancipate the benighted and eliminate the alienated heterotopia from a rational, transparent, and self-same society. But more often than not, the heterotopia of religion proves not only unsettling but also peculiarly magnetic, condensing nostalgia, hope, and promise for disenchanted moderns. In the sections that follow, I examine selected texts of twentieth-century literature—"The New Year's Sacrifice," The White-Haired Girl, Soul Mountain, and "Here Comes the Ghost Eater"—in my effort to understand how modern writers come to terms with the aporias of secular modernity through the figure of an apparitional stranger who refuses to be exorcised.

The Chinese Sphinx and the Prevaricating Intellectual

It may come as a surprise that an investigation into the representations of strangers does not begin with the most quintessential of strangers: foreigners. For reasons that will be detailed in Chapter 6, foreigners, though a significant other to the Chinese psyche since the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century, became morally consequential strangers only in the twentieth century, particularly in the reform era as China opened its doors to the outside world and allowed more and more foreigners in for commercial, educational, and leisure pursuits. Tellingly, one category of foreigners—the missionaries—stand out for the marked discrepancy between their beneficent self-image and their categorical rejection by the Chinese state. Christian proselytizing has long been characterized in orthodox Chinese historiography as the vanguard of Western imperialism. The Boxer Uprising, for example, is seen as a righteous response to aggressive missionary activities in the Chinese heartland and the new inequities engendered therein. But the continued hostility toward religious proselytizing is not merely a matter of nationalist resentment. It must also be understood in light of the ways in which the Chinese state constitutes its legitimacy, in both traditional and modern times.

The dynastic state in imperial China was a quasi-theocracy in which power and authority, from the emperor down to the county magistrate, were grounded in a cosmic-moral quality known as de that is attested to through ritual and vetted through the civil service examination (keju). The bureaucracy constituted a priestly class, and much of the official duty of the scholar-bureaucrats consisted of ritual activities that performatively tapped into the cosmic Way (dao). The emperor, as the earthly representative of the Heaven above (tianzi), must enact a full panoply of rituals so as to anchor the universe and ensure its orderly operation. He was a papal figure in the state cult of imperial Confucianism in which only the morally certified had access to Heaven's Way (Duara 2015, Goossaert and Palmer 2011, Lagerwey 2010, Yu 2005, Zito 1997).

Imperial Confucianism's attitude toward Buddhism and Daoism was on the whole ambivalent, given the latter's competing claims of access to the Way. In Prasenjit Duara's (2014) account, a compromise was hammered out so that Buddhism and Daoism would be restricted to the popular spiritual domain, providing services that pertained more to human flourishing (male offspring, longevity, prosperity) than to salvation and transcendence. What resulted was a vibrant religious life of the commoners that was vertically and institutionally delinked from the state cult and that was occasionally driven underground during times of internal strife. In socialist China, Sino-Marxism became the new state cult that was nonetheless much less tolerant of a vertically separate realm of popular religiosity. This was because the official ideology was premised on the idea of historical progress according to which religion was the apparatus of class oppression and the sedimentation of an unscientific world outlook. While it made some concession to the four world-historical faiths (Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism) and indigenous Daoism (whose institutionalization owed much to the spread of Buddhism in China) as part of its multicultural united front policies, the socialist state declared war on popular religion, now labeled as "superstitions" (mixin). Ironically, the all-important distinction between religion and superstition was derived from the long-standing conflict between church and state and between vertically integrated religious communities in Europe, a historical experience that hardly spoke to the Chinese tradition of vertically divided spiritual domains with their amorphous institutions. Beginning in the early twentieth century, whatever did not fit into the borrowed category of institutionalized religion fell into the residual category of superstition and became the target of state-led eradication campaigns (Duara 1995, Goossaert and Palmer 2011, Nedostup 2009, Ownby 2001). These campaigns became all the more intense and effective under socialism thanks to the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) formidable apparatuses of mass mobilization, whereas in Taiwan the transplanted Nationalist (KMT) regime adopted the Confucian tradition of tolerance in order to play the role of guardian of Chinese culture in the emerging Cold War framework (Chun 1996). Nonetheless, how gods and ghosts and their worshipers have become strangers to the modern nation in the making must be sought at the haunted origins of modern Chinese literature. And there is no better place to begin this inquiry than the writings of its founding father, Lu Xun.

Lu Xun's short story "The New Year's Sacrifice" has conventionally been read as an indictment of women's oppression under patriarchy. At the diegetic level, religious beliefs are shown to work in concert with patriarchal kinship institutions in the victimization of Xianglin's Wife. After she returns to work in the "I" narrator's uncle's house following her second ill-fated marriage (in which she lost her husband to typhoid fever and young son to a wolf), Xianglin's Wife is not permitted to touch the sacrificial paraphernalia (a chore she used to perform while previously employed by the same household), for fear that the pollution of a twice-widowed woman would defile ritual purity and displease the ancestors. As she gradually descends into a posttraumatic stupor, a fellow maidservant terrifies her with gruesome tales of corporal punishments in Hell that supposedly await all twice-married women. She thereupon saves up a whole year's wages and purchases a new threshold for the local temple to be her "substitute," in the hopes that a myriad crossings would purge her pollution and redeem her soul. But this small assertion of spiritual agency is completely futile: she is still not allowed to go near the ceremonial vessels. In the end, she dies as a lonely and destitute beggar on New Year's Eve as a symbolic sacrifice offered up to the gods in solicitation of their blessings for the pious families of Luzhen.

In the frame narrative, Lu Xun famously describes an encounter in which the intellectual narrator prevaricates in response to Xianglin's Wife's triple queries about the afterlife: "After a person dies, does he turn into a ghost or not?" To which he dithers with a "maybe." "Then, there must also be a Hell?" Again he equivocates: "There should be one—but not necessarily."

"Then will all the people of one family who have died see each other again?"

"Well, as to whether they will see each other again or not...." I realized now that I was a complete fool; for all my hesitation and reflection I had been unable to answer her three questions. Immediately I lost confidence and wanted to say the exact opposite of what I had previously said. "In this case ... as a matter of fact, I am not sure.... Actually, regarding the question of ghosts, I am not sure either."

In order to avoid further importunate questions, I walked off, and beat a hasty retreat to my uncle's house, feeling exceedingly uncomfortable. (Lu Xun 1977, 127–28)

If religion plays no small role in women's oppression as the story shows, it is then incumbent upon an Enlightenment intellectual, a scholar who has traveled far and seen the world as Xianglin's Wife puts it, to disabuse her of her superstitions about spirits and Hell. But the narrator here is confronted with the "iron house" predicament that Lu Xun evokes so poignantly in the preface to his first short story collection Call to Arms: should one let a roomful of slumbering people die unconsciously and painlessly in an indestructible iron house, or should one rouse them up and make them die an agonizing death (Lee 1987)? Here the iron house is the social and spiritual world of small-town China that the narrator finds suffocating in his "transitory return" (Tang 2000, 79). Beliefs in spirits are the central pillar of this world—hence the elaborate ritual of the New Year's sacrifice. Representing this world as hopelessly doomed is typical of May Fourth radical writers who align themselves with a different world—that of civilization and enlightenment from which ghosts and spirits have been resolutely banished. At issue, then, is what Xiaobing Tang calls "the historical conflict between different realities and knowledge systems" (ibid., 76). Choosing not to compound the suffering of a benighted soul, the narrator gives a vaguely disingenuous answer about the existence of spirits. But when he is pressed and logic demands him to affirm the existence of an afterlife, especially a consoling afterlife, he is no longer willing to go along in bad faith for the sake of comforting a despairing woman. Hence the pusillanimous "I am not sure."

Essentially, the narrator fails the Sphinx test of the Chinese Enlightenment. He evades the task of enlightenment but tries to assuage his conscience through the act of writing, by bearing witness to the cruelty of Chinese society. He congratulates himself for having grabbed hold of "a most useful phrase" at the crucial moment and draws a line between himself and "inexperienced and rash young men [who] often take it upon themselves to solve people's problems for them or choose doctors for them" (Lu Xun 1977, 128). Indeed, "by simply concluding with this phrase 'I am not sure,' one can free oneself of all responsibility" (128). Lu Xun's trademark sarcasm notwithstanding, there is more at stake than an intellectual's shirking of responsibility. As sociologists maintain, at a fundamental level, religion is a "sacred canopy"—a plausibility structure that confers meaning and order on our experience and our world-making activity; it is what shelters us against the threat of anomie that is endemic to the human condition: illness, suffering, evil, and, above all, death (Berger 1969). Ghosts, spirits, and meeting one's loved ones in Hell are part of the plausibility structure that governs Xianglin's Wife's world and that makes it meaningful to her, even as it crushes her. If Lu Xun views it as a stifling iron house, he nonetheless hesitates to take it away from her simply because he has nothing nearly as solid or coherent to offer her in its stead. It is doubtful that she has much use for the Enlightenment brand of agnosticism, which, as Charles Taylor (1989, 404) observes, requires one to face a world of contingency and the impersonal laws of physics without the consolations of a moral purpose or divine intervention. It makes possible "a heroism of unbelief," but it offers no telos, no destiny, no poetic justice.

Lydia Liu has recently argued that "The New Year's Sacrifice" (which she renders as "Prayers for Blessing") is Lu Xun's oblique contribution to the Science versus Metaphysics debate that raged among Chinese intellectuals in the early 1920s (2009, 41–42). Unable to share the certitude of either camp, Lu resorts to an allegorical narrative to cast a religious perspective on the debate. Literature's tolerance for ambiguities and doubts affords him a receptive home for gesturing toward an ineffable "elsewhere," a certain je ne sais quoi beyond the here and now of literary realism. Liu suggests that Xianglin's Wife can be read as the reincarnation of the Brahmin woman Bhiksuni Suksma whose life story, told in the Sutra of the Wise and Foolish (Xianyu jing), is also marked by an unremitting succession of calamities. But unlike the Brahmin woman who is saved by the Buddha and instructed to use her story to enlighten the world, Xianglin's Wife's narrative produces "no enlightening effect" (47) in those around her. The news of her death reaches the narrator as hearsay, and few care to know the circumstances, as everyone is caught up in the joyous preparation for the New Year's celebrations:

I was woken up by firecrackers exploding noisily close at hand, saw the glow of the yellow oil lamp as large as a bean, and heard the splutter of fireworks as my uncle's household celebrated the sacrifice.... Wrapped in this medley of sound, relaxed and at ease, the doubt which had preyed on me from dawn to early night was swept clean away by the atmosphere of celebration, and I felt only that the saints of heaven and earth had accepted the sacrifice and incense and were all reeling with intoxication in the sky, preparing to give the people of Luzhen boundless good fortune. (Lu Xun 1977, 143)


Excerpted from The Stranger and the Chinese Moral Imagination by Haiyan Lee. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
List of Major Primary Sources,
Introduction: Talking to Strangers,
Fear and Hope in China,
Strangers: A Group Biography,
Lei Feng vs. Lévinas: A Morality Play,
Strangers: A Reading Guide,
1. The Benighted and the Enchanted,
The Chinese Sphinx and the Prevaricating Intellectual,
The Subaltern Goddess and the Crusading Party,
The Homespun Priest and the Pilgrimaging Ethnographer,
The Taiwanese Ghost and the Revenant Daytrippers,
2. Animals Are Us,
Anthropomorphism and Zoomorphism,
The Bare Life of Animals,
Animal Totemism,
Why Animals?,
3. The Power and Pollution of the Stranger Woman,
Fu Caiyun/Sai Jinhua: The Courtesan Who Saves the Empire,
Zhenzhen: The Spy Who Refuses to Go Home,
Nixi/Mrs. Samson: The Widow Who Never Was a Wife,
Li Guoxiang: The Cadre Who Terrorizes a Town,
From Parvenu to Pariah,
4. The Country and the City,
Civility, Governmentality, and the Making of Ruralites and Urbanites,
To Be a Gentleman,
Maids, Tenants, and the Comedies of Stranger Sociality,
5. The Enemy Within,
Class Racism and the Logic of Displacement,
The Water Dungeon and Socialist Horror,
The Rent Collection Courtyard and the Law of History,
The Maoist Political,
6. Foreign Devils,
"Foreign Devils" and the Unmaking of Tianxia,
Cosmopolitan Peasants in Devils on the Doorstep,
Cosmopolitan Nannies in Nannies for Foreigners,
To Be a Foreigner,
Conclusion: Literature and the Veil of Ignorance,
The Writerly and the Readerly,
What Good Is (Chinese) Literature?,

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