Shen Congwen’s “Xiaoxiao” is set in his hometown, the western rural Hunan province where the majority of peasant farmers and ethnic minorities dwell. In contrast to most writers of the May Fourth Movement, Shen Congwen does not bluntly point out the social and political issues of this period in his story. Instead, he gently paints the realistic portrait of an innocent girl’s life to make suggestions of adapting modernization as well as gentle criticism of Confucian principles through the absurdities that happen in Xiaoxiao’s life, such as her marriage to a baby, the coeds’ complete neglect of Confucian values, Xiaoxiao’s dreams of becoming a coed and her in-laws decision to not drown or disown Xiaoxiao.
In this paper, I will be analyzing a scene from the story that I found both tragic and heartwarming. Specifically, the scene I selected stems from the last part of the story when Xiaoxiao places her hopes and dreams onto her newborn son that she could not fulfill herself: to marry a coed. I believe as simple as this scene may be, it actually reflects the whole message and key meaning of Xiaoxiao’s difficult life. First, I will provide background of what a coed is and its replication in the story. Second, I will explain what the effects and desires of becoming a coed has on Xiaoxiao as a female oppressed to the values of feudalism. Lastly, I will conclude the paper by offering a reflection of my analysis of Shen Congwen’s “Xiaoxiao.”
The May Fourth Movement ideals are present in Shen Congwen’s story and are characterized as the “coeds.” In earlier scenes, the coeds made a summer trip to the remote countryside, Xiaoxiao is instantly fascinated by them due to their difference in appearance, as well as their rejection of traditional Confucian ideals due to being heavily influenced by Western thought. Being a naive and innocent young girl, Xiaoxiao only understands coeds through their appearances and her in-laws who repetitively mock the coeds every chance they get, especially when Grandfather explains them to her, “she felt vague stirrings of unrest, and took to imaging herself as a ‘coed’” . In addition,
Motley Mutt’s own take on the coeds “inflamed Xiaoxiao’s imagination . . . all because Motley characterized them as instances of ‘freedom’” . Thus, because she does not fully grasp what a coed is and the hardship of her life circumstances, Xiaoxiao begins to dream of how her life would be like if she were one. Sadly, tragedy strikes and Xiaoxiao’s hope of fulfilling the dream herself ends when she gives birth to her son out of wedlock. However, as any mother hopes for her child, Xiaoxiao places her desires onto the next generation by telling her newborn, “’Look, look! The coeds are here too! One day, when you grow up, we’ll get you a coed for a wife” .
What is fascinating about such a scene is that Xiaoxiao was once fearful of coeds, being that the men controlled her perceptions to an extent, but eventually the modern women captured her fascination. Coeds desire for freedom and disregard of traditions inspired a conventional and dutiful girl like Xiaoxiao—who quietly kept this imagination to herself. Even when she passes upon a pond and sees her reflection, Xiaoxiao “hold[s] up her braid by the tip to see how good she would look without a braid and how she would feel about it” .
Shen Congwen purposely displays coeds as a symbol of new power. These reformed girls attend schools with male individuals and range from all levels of education. They do not feel the pressure to marry young or seek a matchmaker to determine their future spouse. Another striking fact is that coeds “are not afraid of men” since they can easily take a man to court if they feel wronged. The coeds do not cook or clean, in fact they exercise in public and sing Western songs to their hearts’ content. Therefore, from the perspective of the rural peasants, the coeds are most utterly foreign and are even seen as lazy and “weird”. “t was almost as if these people had dropped down from an altogether different world”.
Although Shen Congwen does not directly inform the readers about Xiaoxiao’s desire to become a coed, it is certainly assumed that Xiaoxiao longs for a life other than her present life as a dutiful caretaker in the village. Even when she was pregnant, she never dropped her dream and even suggested to Motley Mutt to consider moving to the metropolitan city where she could restart her life, rid of performing labor intensive farm work. To run away was a daring challenge to the traditional Confucian value of being a patriarchal wife.
Shen Congwen’s high disregard of feudalism is displayed through Xiaoxiao’s pitiful life. Xiaoxiao lives in a country where feudal ethical principles govern the thought and actions of the citizen, and thus she falls into the dilemma of becoming a child-bride. Xiaoxiao does not know what the concepts ‘freedom’ or ‘free thought’ entails, let alone women’s rights. She is trapped in the oppression of feudalism in her fate which makes her totally obedient to her kin. Ultimately, Xiao xiao doesn’t get the independence and consciousness she has wanted all her life. Thus, she tragically accepts her fate and eventually chooses an older girl as another child-bride for her child, but continues to bestow her dreams onto her kin, ending the story with a semi-happy note.
Shen Congwen’s story of Xiaoxiao encompasses the concepts of modernism as well as feminism. Another famous Chinese writer who voiced the same ideologies and whose literary works projected many unconventional Chinese females during the 20th-century is Ding Ling. Many of her short stories encompass the modern Chinese woman, such as ‘Miss Sophie’s Diary,” in which she details the conflicts experienced by a young woman who tries to secure her own personal desires, individual voice, and desire for freedom in 20th-century China still imprisoned and suppressed by the patriarchal system.
Ding ling created the character, Sophie, who lusted after a foreign man to reflect the changing face of Chinese feminism. In addition, Sophie experiences many obstacles and struggles herself, in order to find her own identity in modern China. Xiaoxiao was also challenged by the orthodox Chinese patriarchal system also shares common goals with Sophie in that she dreams of independence and freedom, but also takes actions to try to achieve them. One can claim that Xiaoxiao is an emerging modern woman, who not only dreams of independence and freedom, but takes actions to try to achieve them.
In conclusion, Shen Conwen’s “Xiaoxiao” gives readers a general reflection on traditions without him forcefully stating any political or social agenda. In the story, there is a repetitive theme of farmers against the urban individuals. Xiaoxiao seems to be skeptical of her grandfather’s traditional, yet biased judgements against the coeds, therefore she takes them as insults. However, Xiaoxiao understands that there is so much more to her life than just taking care of her young husband and in-laws, but yet she is torn due to her family’s inevitable control of her. Another theme displayed in the story is feminism, followed by enlightenment. In the past, China had a traditional system of male domination over females.
Xiaoxiao was forced to do labor work for ten years, before marrying her husband. In addition, she was spared since she birthed a boy, but if she had a girl her family would have probably drowned her for committing adultery. Freedom was also hinted within the story which correlated with the fact that Xiaoxiao was not free herself. In the end, Xiaoxiao achieves some form of enlightenment in the specific scene. From the desire of wanting to be one herself, Xiaoxiao finally understands the definition of a coed—free from Confucian values, thus she wants other females to achieve a better life and for her son to marry one out of love.
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