Moral Dilemma of Chinese Intellectuals as Seen in Yu Dafu’s “Sinking”.

Moral Dilemma of Chinese Intellectuals as Seen in Yu Dafu’s “Sinking”.

Change is a hard thing to master and accept especially for any international student anywhere in the globe. There is always a culture shock that one has to deal with to adapt to their surrounding and in most times one may be left to feel as if they have been deserted or they are being segregated. This article takes into focus the moral dilemma that Chinese students face in their pursuit of knowledge during May fourth. The article more specifically is about getting to the bottom of the causes of this moral dilemmas as pointed out in Yu Dafu’s “sinking” and there effects to anyone affect and the society at large.

Chenlun (sinking) is a popular modern fiction Chinese story written by Yu Dafu in 1921, it one of the first psychological stories during the May the fourth period where literature was mostly characterized with a lot of primacy of an individual, glorification of the past and nature, subjectivity and emphasis on inspiration (Denton, 1992). Yu Dafu was considered to be a very prolific and versatile writer during the May Fourth period, and this is proven by his work chenlun (sinking ) which became the first ever short story collection and hence marking China’s new literature era. Although Yu Dafu had other written literature such as poems that had received praise from critics such as Lu Xun and others it was his fiction works that gave him national praise and reputation.

Yu Dafu’s story involves a young Chinese student who is the protagonist of the story; the young man is sent to Japan by his family to pursue a college education. In Japan, he feels like an alien as he is from a different country and to worsen his situation he is constantly humiliated and receives hostility. Loneliness torments him, and he feels the pressure of sexual desire this, in turn, makes him indulge in sexual fantasies and masturbation, worse so that he segregates himself from other Chinese students who could be his friends. The protagonist upbringing was more of the traditional Chinese culture which sought to uphold a sense of moral purity and strong ethics, but all these seem to have been forgotten as sexual temptation overcome him, and he is seen be fighting a losing battle. The protagonist could not bear the sexual temptations anymore after he accidentally heard a Japanese couple in the bushes making love. The voyeur arouses his sexual fantasies, and we see him taking a journey with no destination, but interestingly enough we see him pacing in front of a brothel and finally walks in and spends the evening there. That night he is unable to bear the sinfulness and shame of what he did at the brothel and hence decides to commit suicide by walking into the sea and drowning himself (Dafu, 1947).

The story “sinking” like many others of Dafu’s stories takes on the style of an autobiographical confession (Denton, 1992). The experiences portrayed by the protagonist portray a likely similarity with the authors own life, and whereby the tone is that one full of unrelenting self-condemnation. The use of this style of storytelling by Yu Dafu mainly brought about by his strong belief that “literature should reflect life” it also stems from the influence of European decadents and romantics in China. Yu Dafu is also remembered for once pointing out that “literary works are autobiographies of the writers”. Hence when interpreting his story “sinking” one should take into consideration Yu Dafu’s thought.

The main theme that is portrayed by the protagonist is that of a narcissistic self who is intolerant of rejection and is always seeking recognition and approval from other people (Chen, 2011). The narcissistic self is what makes the protagonist unable to differentiate between separation and rejection and also makes him unable to recover from personal setbacks, empathic responses and perceived insults. His anguished is caused by the feeling that he has betrayed self-deficiency and dependency and shame for failing to observe the internal ideal standards (Chen, 2011).Shame is as a result of self-fear of mockery and contempt after one’s failure, deficiency and flaws have been exposed. According to Tsu, (2000) shame was traditionally always marginalized with feminization while guilt was always thought to be more masculine advanced and more aggressive. All the stories in the sinking collection have this features where the protagonist languishes in anguish, feels inferior and is always in self-pity; all these are characteristics of a narcissistic self. The protagonists are also described as to being pale, sickly, thin and bespectacled which are all characteristics of shamed narcissistic self

Unlike most fictions where the plot uses a pattern of descending action and a rising climax Sinking is flat out it also neither uses the formula of resolution after a conflict. The thoughts and feelings of the protagonist are also laid bare as the story uses a third person narrator technique where the narrator is omniscient and omnipresent at every stage. This style of art where the narrator is ever-present begins from the onset of the story where it exposes the protagonist’s painful loneliness. Every action by the protagonists contributes to his character which can be summed up as unstable, highly sensitive, over-sentimental and unpredictable. At some point, he is so engrossed in the beauty of nature such that he sheds a tear and starts day dreaming that cupid-like angels are hovering above him. At other times he is portrayed feelings of grudge against his Japanese classmates especially when he is desperately seized by melancholy. The protagonist also shows his patriotism which is often mixed with hypochondria and megalomania.

The story of Yu Dafu sinking marked a change of what the Chinese traditions expect of one as it mainly concentrates on self and individualism unlike the Chinese traditions of collectiveness/ socialism (Chen,2011). Yu Dafu’s literature is then seen as a call for modern men to awaken and practice individualism to enjoy freedom and liberty. Denton,(1992) points out that Self and individualism are what characterized the May fourth movement and Yu Dafu’s literature a just like his counterparts of the May the fourth generation he believed that that one lives for oneself . Yu’s works are different from that of his peers as such that the problems facing the public political scope are all projected to a personal libidinal dynamic. This is probably portrayed best at the end of “sinking” where the protagonist blames his entire sexual crisis on China’s backwardness. Well, this might be true because he had left China to seek education in Japan meaning China had a poor system of education “China was backwards”.

Yu literature does not only explore self but also highlights subjects that are a taboo to talk about in public such masturbation, going to a brothel and sexual fantasies. And as such, most of the criticism towards the works of Yu more specifically sinking have always been based on nationalism and sexuality (Chen, 2011). After leaving the brothel, the protagonist starts regretting wondering how he ever went to it in the first place and claiming that he felt like the lowliest of persons. His regrets are all but portrayals of shame that he felt. As earlier mentioned when analyzing the story of “sinking” we should keep in mind that the author Yu stated that his literature is mostly a bibliography this is true as Yu’s first sexual experience was also in Japan and brothel. Yu also goes on to explain his remorse for that experience in his bibliography claiming he felt worthless as he had failed in his ambitions, ideals and devotion to his own country. Chen, (2011) Both Yu’s remorse and the protagonist’s shame were mainly attributed to the fact that they fell for Japanese women a country that had victimized China and its citizens had made them feel inferior during their stay there. Therefore nationalism sex and racism are all causes of the shame and remorse.

However so as not to go out of topic emphasis should be laid on the protagonists statements “lowly” and “that kind of place” which suggest the bad light brought about by a brothel and the action that entails going to brothel which is more disgraceful than the prostitutes nationality and is what seems to bother the protagonists. We should also not forget that the protagonist’s anguish started long before his brothel visit, and the visit just marked the tipping point. Therefore, his actions are not limited to sexual frustrations alone.It his awareness of the change from theChinese traditional and family expectations that were instilled in him such as responsibility, hard work and an abstinent scholar that bring about self-conflict and hence causing the feeling of shame and unworthiness.

Also from the author’s biography, we learn that the remorse that he felt after having sex with the Japanese prostitute, the racial discrimination that he faced, and the feeling of having failed his nation are not of extreme importance. Otherwise, the author and the protagonist would have victimized the Japanese prostitutes to act as revenge for their countries own victimization by Japan. Just like the protagonist the protagonist the author also faced certain expectations from his family, more importantly, his brother who did not tolerate the idea of Yu switching from medicine to Literature. The protagonist’s shame is as a result of indulging in masturbation which the author illustrates that it was breaking the ancient Chinese code “Thou shall not harm thy body, flesh or hair or anything endowed by thy parents” (Dafu, 1947). The shame also brings about conflict as the protagonist is aware of his failure to exert self-control, and his failure to live up to the expectations of others more specifically his family.

Some critics may argue that the protagonists self-blame may be connected to the authors need to be loyal to his mother and his sexual guilt (Chen,2011). From the story, we find that there are some connected images appearing in the same matrix such as motherland, mother, nature and lover. Take for example when the protagonist is mocked by other students he goes and finds solace in mother nature, when he is frustrated and lonely he imagines a motherly voice comforting him, and when he is masturbating, he imagines a plump middle-aged woman instead of a beautiful young girl (Dafu, 1947).. All these imaginations from the protagonist are self-object and are used by him to demonstrate self-worthiness and qualm shame. The story is full of evidence showing that what the protagonist is after are self-approval and affection. The self-pity is like a plague on the protagonist causing him to feel like the world has abandoned him, his motherland, in particular, hence causing him to burst in tears and the seek solace in his thoughts of a mother- like cuddle and mother nature.

The story describes a protagonist who was full of self-pity and shame such that he chose cowards way out of his misery when in fact his problems were just related to him wanting affection and recognition. We also see how traditions holdback a society in that they are more concerned about what other people think of them


CHEN, E. Y. I. (2011). Shame and Narcissistic Self in Yu Da-fu’s Sinking. Canadian Review of Comparative Literature/Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée30(3-4).

Dafu, Y. (1947). Chenlun”[Sinking]. Yu Dafu xuanji.

Denton, K. A. (1992). The Distant Shore: Nationalism in Yu Dafu’s” Sinking”. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR)14, 107-123.

Tsu, J. (2000). Perversions of Masculinity: The Masochistic Male Subject in Yu Dafu, Guo Moruo, and Freud. positions: east asia cultures critique8(2), 269-316.