SUCCESS: 1,000,931 Characters Read This Year
A few days ago, I finished reading the short story collection 《樱海集》 by 老舍. This brought my reading total above one million characters, completing my goal for the year.
《樱海集》 was first published in 1935. The collection contains a funny and self-effacing preface plus ten short stories of varying lengths (from six to forty-two pages). The stories deal with classical human failings—hypocrisy, pride, envy, bitterness, cowardice, lust, revenge, greed, anger—and the consequences that arise from such failings. Though the stories are thematically related, they differ considerably in their characters, plots, point of views, and settings.
Below is a brief synopsis of each story, along with some amplifying details and concluding thoughts.
The first story in the collection, 《上任》, is about a recently promoted government official named 尤老二 and the opium-smoking thugs he employs. Much of the story is concerned with 尤老二’s inability to pay for his thugs, who show up at odd times asking for money for travel and other expenses. This story was difficult for me to get into. I found the details of the plot hard to follow and the language more challenging than any other story in the collection.
《牺牲》 is a character sketch of 毛博士, a bizarre 崇洋媚外 teacher educated in the United States.
《柳屯的》 is about a small village, a powerful Christian family, and an unrestrained woman who tries to take over them both.
《末一块钱》 is about a young dissatisfied college student who yearns for the kind of life enjoyed by his more affluent classmates.
《老年的浪漫》 is about an old man who, cursed with greedy former colleagues and a foolish son, decides to settle old scores.
《毛毛虫》 is a very short story that asks the question: What does a community think about that unenviable husband and wife who live down the street, and that husband’s former wife, and their new children?
《善人》 is about a well-to-do woman who sees herself as generous but is oblivious to the suffering of those around her.
This story was my favorite story of the collection. 《邻居们》 is about the tensions that flare up between two neighboring families after one receives the other’s mail by mistake.
The 明 family and the 杨 family are neighbors. 明家 is selfish and uncivilized. 杨家 is altruistic and lettered. The husband and father in the 杨 family, 杨先生, is described as a “最新式的中国人.”
One day, 杨先生 receives a letter addressed to 明先生. 杨太太 attempts to deliver the letter, but 明太太 misunderstands her neighbor’s intentions and rebuffs her. 杨先生 then writes his own letter explaining the situation. 明太太 refuses this letter, too. Tensions between the two families escalate. 杨先生 believes that he and 明先生 can resolve their differences like rational gentlemen, and continues to write his neighbor letters. 明先生 sees 杨先生 as a weak man and despises him for his bookishness and inaction. Eventually…
the 明家 children go into the 杨家 garden and stomp their flowers to smithereens. When 杨先生 comes home from work and sees his ruined garden, he flies into a rage and smashes every window of the 明家 house. 明先生 is not mad at his neighbor, but impressed with him. It turns out that 杨先生 is a red-blooded man of passion, after all.
《月牙儿》 is a longer story about a girl and her hard life after her father dies and her mother is forced out of exigence into prostitution.
- 《阳光》 is about the life of a beautiful, proud, and dissolute woman from a rich family. Her eventual arranged marriage to a prominent morality-promoting Daoist is comfortable, but stifling.
《樱海集》 is the second work I’ve read by 老舍; the first was his delightful science fiction satire 《猫城记》. There is something irreverent about 老舍’s style in these two works. 老舍’s stories foreground the character defects of early 20th-century Chinese people, whatever their station in life. Opioid-addicted menial laborers, wives of rich businessmen, the orphaned, the educated, the religious and the ideologically possessed—none are spared.
By pointing out character defects in such a wide-ranging way, 老舍 advances a kind of criticism of the Chinese society of his day. But 《樱海集》 is not a “critical” work, at least not in the sense that modern people use the term. It isn’t a systematic, theory-driven critique of Chinese society; nor is it especially tragic or concerned with issues of justice. Rather, 《樱海集》 is a moral work. The stories in 《樱海集》 are cautionary tales filled with negative moral examples. They are the modern literary equivalents of fables.
The stories paint a pessimistic and probably unbalanced picture of Chinese life. Readers interested in positive moral examples—the righteous government official or revolutionary, the loving and longsuffering mother, the diligent young student who succeeds in life despite enormous opposition—will not find them here. Some of 老舍’s negative moral examples are also offensive to contemporary Western sensibilities. His portraits of women are pretty unflattering. 老舍’s women are ostentatious, stubborn, and quick to anger. (To be fair, the men don’t come off much better. Most of 老舍’s male protagonists are feckless hypocrites.) Others will find 老舍’s portrayal of poor people unsympathetic. The peasants in 《樱海集》 are lazy and spend what little money they find on drugs:
It is interesting to consider 老舍’s portrayals of Chinese people in 《樱海集》 in light of then-upcoming theories about politics and art in China. In his lectures at Yan'an in 1942, Mao advocated a new pro-proletariat literature and denounced “petit bourgeois writers” that write “pessimistic literature” and “harm the people.” Were 老舍’s mid-1930’s stories compatible with the new Chinese literature Mao would soon advocate? Was 老舍’s literature “pessimistic”? [For the curious, I blogged about Mao’s Yan'an literature lectures in an earlier post on this blog.]
The Chinese language in 《樱海集》 is not especially difficult. The vocabulary is more challenging than contemporary Chinese fiction writers like 余华 and 韩寒, but far easier than writers like 张爱玲 and 莫言. 老舍’s word choices are frequently different from those found in contemporary fiction. This may confuse language learners unfamiliar with early 20th-century Chinese literature. For the uninitiated, try reading other authors from the same period. (I read short stories by 丁玲, 沈从文, and 施蛰存 before. That helped.)
My new year’s resolution was to read one million characters in books and articles in 2019. I have now reached that goal with a little over a month to spare. This year I read mostly fiction. I also read Mao’s literature lectures, an article by IBM, a undergraduate thesis on the music of American saxophonist Sonny Stitt, and a third of the Bible. It’s been a great and rewarding experience.
From time to time, people ask about the value of studying Chinese language given recent political and economic changes in China. It’s a fair question; there are many reasons to study Chinese and people differ in their motivations and goals. For me, the desire to engage in the cultural and literary traditions of a large and important foreign world was and is a main driver of my Chinese study. This desire was sustained and strengthened this year. I intend to keep reading in Chinese, both fiction and non-fiction. For literature, my near-term goals for the next couple years are to continue with works at or slightly above my current reading level; to move on to major works by 张爱玲, 莫言, and 阎连科; and to tackle tougher early 20th-century works by authors like 鲁迅. I’d like to wade into 文言 someday too, though that day is still a long way off.
I had a lot of fun writing these posts and interacting with all of you. In the future, I may continue writing posts here. For now, however, because of many pressing demands on my time, I will put this blog on hiatus and return to posting intermittently in the excellent and underutilized “What are you reading?” thread.
Thank you to everyone who read or commented on this blog this year.
Characters read this year: 1,000,931
Characters left to read this year: 0
Percent of goal completed: 100%
List of things read:
《三八节有感》by 丁玲 (2,370 characters)
《我在霞村的时候》by 丁玲 (10,754 characters)
《在延安文艺座谈会上的讲话》by 毛泽东 (18,276 characters)
《自杀日记》by 丁玲 (4,567 characters)
《我没有自己的名字》by 余华 (8,416 characters)
《手》by 萧红 (7,477 characters)
《牛》by 沈从文 (8,097 characters)
《彭德怀速写》by 丁玲 (693 characters)
《我怎样飞向了自由的天地》by 丁玲 (2,176 characters)
《IBM Cloud文档：Personality Insights》 by IBM (25,098 characters)
《夜》by 丁玲 (4,218 characters)
《虎雏》by 沈从文 (46,945 characters)
《在巴黎大戏院》 by 施蛰存 (6,181 characters)
《分析Sonny Stitt即兴与演奏特点——以专辑《Only the Blues》中曲目 《Blues for Bags》为例》 (5,483 characters)
《一个女剧院的生活》 by 沈从文 (61,154 characters)
《致银河》 by 王小波 (17,715 characters)
《在细雨中呼喊》 by 余华 (132,769 characters)
《熊猫》 by 棉棉 (53,129 characters)
《1988：我想和这个世界谈谈》 by 韩寒 (81,547 characters)
《偶然事件》 by 余华 (20,226 characters)
《第七天》 by 余华 (84,847 characters)
《圣经》 (新译本) (1,055,606 characters; 315,144 read in 2019)
《樱海集》 by 老舍 (83,649 characters)