Tradition and Modernity within Spring Silkworms
Mao Dun, author of "Spring Silkworms", was a twentieth century Chinese novelist, critic, organizer, editor, and advocate for Chinese Communism. According to David Wang, Mao Dun was one of the most versatile Chinese literati among the May Fourth generation. Mao Dun was an advocate and practitioner of European naturalism. Motivated by history and politics, Mao Dun has introduced western literary ideas to China in his novels. As a left wing writer Mao Dun focuses on the peasant's point of view and relies on his depiction of reality to evoke change. A good example of this style of writing is the story "Spring Silkworms".
"Spring Silkworms" is about the trials and tribulations of an old farmer named Lao Tong Bao and his family during the silkworm raising season. The story raises the issue of the changes occurring to the Chinese agricultural traditions due to modern influences. It is a tale that "represents Mao Dun's historical dialectic that highlights the confrontation of modern machinery with provincial handicraftsmanship; of western know-how with native values; and of capitalist money with rural struggle for cultural and socioeconomic autonomy." (Wang xviii) In my paper I will highlight several confrontations between modernity and tradition. I will also analyze how modernity and tradition were portrayed in the story.
Before I delve into my analysis of modernity and tradition within "Spring Silkworms", I believe I should give a brief overview of my ideas on what constitutes modernity and tradition. It is my opinion that modernity generally is characterized as anything that has been involved with the process of modernization in the west. Probably the most distinguishing factor of modernity would be influences of western capitalism. Tradition on the other hand, I characterize as any old Chinese values, customs, or superstitions uninhibited by western ideology.
The first example of modernity clashing with tradition occurs when Old Tong Bao is sitting by the canal reminiscing about his childhood. As he is reminded of his past an oil burning river boat passes by to interrupt his train of thought. As this boat passes through the canal, Old Tong Bao can't help but be filled with anger. While this boat passes through it disturbs the peaceful canal waters and fills the clean air with its' smoke. The boat causes a peasant in his little craft to toss from side to side and up and down like a see saw. In this scene the boat takes the form of modernity because it is a form of modern machinery. In this case the peasant and Old Tong Bao take the role of tradition. The peasant in his little primitive craft is being disturbed and tossed around by the modern boat just as tradition is being upset and tossed around by modernized western ideology. Old Tong Bao also takes the role of tradition in this scene and has nothing but hatred towards the foreign devils because he believes that they are taking money away from the hard working Chinese people. He was raised to hate the foreign influence in China and he justifies his animosity when he explains how ever since the foreign devils introduce foreign goods into their market and foreign boats increased in the canal the price of what he sold continuously dropped and the price of what he needed continuously increased. He hates the oil burning boat because the boat not only is a form of modern machinery but it is a symbol of the foreign devils influence in China. Obviously this would anger Old Tong Bao.
In this story anything labeled foreign might as well be associated with modernity. Take for example how the foreign silkworms were the only type of silkworms that were selling for a decent price. Old Tong Bao had refused to raise foreign silkworms initially because traditions always called for the use of the local variety. In this scene we see a clash between Old Tong Bao and his son A Duo, his daughter in law, and A Si. Old Tong Bao adamantly following tradition did not want to raise foreign silkworms. But the younger generation of family members taking the role of modernity wanted to raise foreign silkworms because at the time it was selling for the most. We see in this scene that even though the younger generation wanted to adapt to the modern times by raising and selling foreign silkworms they still followed the old traditions and values by respecting their elder's decision and raising only the local variety. In the story we see that this proved costly because during that silkworm season the foreign silkworms sold for nearly ten dollars more than the local variety. The poor result forced Old Tong Bao to finally compromise and raise one tray of the foreign silkworms for the next season but this would prove too little too late as Old Tong Bao's stubbornness and inability to modernize laid the seeds for the family's eventual downfall.
Mao Dun uses superstition in the story a lot and it plays a large role as a representation of tradition. There are many examples of how Old Tong Bao uses old superstitions to guide his actions. These superstitious beliefs can be attributed to traditional Chinese culture. An example from the story would be when Old Tong Bao made the entire family skip a meal to purchase a special tray pasting paper to be used to grow the silkworms. Old Tong Bao believes that last seasons eggs hatched poorly because the family had used old newspaper for tray paper. Old superstitions say that using paper with writing on them such as newspaper was unlucky for egg hatching and Old Tong Bao believed this. It is because of his belief in old superstitions that he forced his entire family to go without a meal to purchase special tray pasting paper. Another example of superstition was when A Si's wife pasted several paper pictures on the egg hatching tray. These pictures were of the "Platter of Plenty", the "Guardian of Silkworm Hatching", and a militant figure on horseback with pennant in hand. Old traditions believed that these pictures would give good luck. When Old Tong Bao smeared garlic with earth and placed it at the foot of the wall
After graduation, Mao Dun soon got his first job in the English editing and translation sections of the Commercial Press, Shanghai branch. At the age of 21, he was invitied to be the assistant editor of Xuesheng Zazhi (Students' Magazine) under the Commercial Press, which had published many articles about the new ideologies that had emerged in China at that time.
Apart from editing, Mao Dun also started to write about his social thoughts and criticisms. To some extent, he was inspired by the famous magazine New Youths. Like in 1917 and 1918, he wrote two editorials for Xuesheng Zazhi: Students and Society and The Students of 1918, those were significant in stimulating political consciousness among the young educated Chinese.
At 24 years of age, Mao-Tun was already renowned as a novelist by the community in general, and in 1920, Mao-tun and another group of young writers took over the magazine Xiaoshuo Yuebao, which translated means fiction monthly, to publish literature by western authors, such as Tolstoy, Chekhov, Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, Byron, Keats, Shaw, etc., and make new theories of literature more well known. Despite the fact that he was a naturalistic novelist, he admired writers like Leo Tolstoy, for their great artistic style.
In 1920, he was invited to edit a new column: Xiaoshuo Xinchao (The Fiction-New-Waves) in Xiaoshuo Yuebao (Fiction Monthly). He even took up the post of Chief Editor of the Monthly in the same year and was obliged to reform it thoroughly, in response to the New Cultural Movement . His young writer friends in Beijing supported him by submitting their creative writings, translating Western literature and their views on new literature theories and techniques to the magazines. Wenxue Yanjiuhui (Literature Study Group) was formed partly because of this. The reformed Monthly was proved to be a success. It had facilitated the continuation of the New Cultural Movement by selling ten thousand copies a month and more importantly by introducing Literature for life, a brand new realistic approach to Chinese literature. In this period, Mao Dun had become a leading figure of the movement in the southern part of China.
On the notion of content reformation, both the innovative and conservative parties in the Commercial Press could not make a compromise. Mao Dun resigned from the Chief Editor of Fiction Monthly in 1923, but in 1927 he became the chief columnist of the Minguo yuebao. He wrote more than 30 editorials for this newspaper to criticize Chiang Kai-shek, and to support revolutions.