Modern fiction has often been marked by experts as being defined by the rise of first-person narration. First-person narration offers a variety of advantages to the author, but in addition to having advantages, it also offers unique pitfalls for writers who are utilizing it when they are creating fiction. The problem with the first-person narrative is that the “I”-- the speaker, the narrator of the piece-- must be compelling and believable, even if he or she is unreliable as a narrator. Everyone has an internal monologue, and if the narrator’s internal monologue strays too far from what is believable or relatable, the author can lose believability and the work itself will lose impact.
Chinese fiction has experienced a different type of growth than Western fiction, because of the issues that China has faced since the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese culture is still a culture in turmoil; the use of the first-person narrative in Chinese fiction underscores this turmoil and creates a unique voice for the author. In Chinese fiction, the use of first-person narration and identification with the narrator allows fictional narratives to take part in the formation of a Chinese national subject.
In A Madman’s Diary by Lu Xun, the use of the first-person narrator to create uncertainty in the narrative. The very title of the piece includes the word “madman,” which indicates that the narrator may not be entirely reliable. In the first section of the piece, the narrator says: “I begin to realize that during the past thirty-odd years I have been in the dark; but now I must be extremely careful. Otherwise why should that dog at the Chao house have looked at me twice? I have reason for my fear” (Lu). The casual way in which the narrator drops the idea that the dog was looking at him and that the animal for some reason fed into his paranoia is indicative of things to come in the text. The narrator, although paranoid and clearly divorced from reality, is still recognizable to the individual; he speaks in stream-of-consciousness, but his stream of consciousness devolves in a way that the average person’s does not.
Lu’s narrator’s obsession with eating people and being eaten is indicative of his fear of being absorbed into society. China experienced many dramatic and traumatic changes, and the loss of individualism was a fear of many artists at at the time. Loss of individualism potentially even contributed to the rise of the first-person narrative in Chinese literature; Lu’s narrator’s stream-of-consciousness was a unique approach to the first-person narrative, but it was by no means the only one.
In Hands by Xiao Hong, the narrator is not nearly as unreliable as Lu’s. However, the narrative is still fractured and incomplete, even though it is more realistic and tries to follow a strict linear timeline. Instead of seeing inside the head of a madman, in this case, the reader is seeing through the eyes of a school child; the child, or young teen is concerned with all the things that young teens are usually concerned with. However, she becomes concerned with the fate of the outcast in her school, and the story deals exclusively with their budding relationship.
Hands is an interesting piece because it marks a new movement in Chinese literature; unlike before, when Chinese literature was very heavily concerned with the aristocracy and the upper levels of society, Hands is written about the lower social classes of society, particularly a young girl. This was a marked difference from the feudal era in China, when young women were on the lowest rung of the social ladder, and when women were discussed in literature, they were ephemeral, almost supernatural beings without feelings, wants, needs, or ulterior motives.
The fact that Xiao Hong uses the first-person narrative structure in Hands is different from the literature that came before it, and had a markedly democratizing effect on the characters in the story. Hong tells an interesting tale of an outcast, set in a place where no man would really set foot as an equal; it provided a unique insight into the world of women during a time when China was at least superficially concerned with equalizing the classes and genders.
The secondary character in the story, Wang Yaming, would have been someone almost universally despised in Chinese society. She was a woman, and she was of the lower class; however, Hong makes her sympathetic by telling her story through the eyes of a sympathetic narrator. “My gaze was fixed on the cracks in the floor,” Hong’s narrator says, “thinking to myself that her tears were nobler than my sympathy. One morning just before our winter holiday Wang Yaming was occupied with putting her personal belongings in orderNot a soul went over to say goodbye to her” (Hong). Even after the girls are so repeatedly cruel to Wang Yaming, she tries hard to win their approval.
Wang Yaming’s goodness is a microcosm of society as a whole. Everyone can relate to the idea of the outcast; either they participated in casting out the outcast or they were the outcast. This is a common story that crosses cultural boundaries and language barriers; this is a story that is not restricted to women or men or the Chinese. Hong’s use of a female narrator is a very effective ploy to appeal to men and to put women on an equal footing with their male counterparts.
Hands reflects a growing consciousness of the Chinese in general regarding class and the issues that the lower classes faced; without this consciousness, the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward could never have happened in China. Unlike A Madman’s Diary, the protagonist and narrator in Hands does not see the absorption of everyone-- including the lower classes-- into society as a negative, but rather, she sees the distinction between the classes as a negative, an aspect of society that makes her highly uncomfortable.
The class aspect of literature is one that many authors were concerned with during the years leading up to the Cultural Revolution in China. China had very distinct social classes before the cultural revolution, and the poor were treated very badly. As socialism, communism, and Marxism began to take hold in the world as a whole, Chinese authors and artists began to experiment with the many issues presented by communism, socialism, and Marxism-- and the problems presented by the class system in China.
Conversely, other authors utilized different methods to discuss class issues in China during the pre-Cultural Revolution era, but they were not as effective as the first-person narrative. For instance, Ye Shaojun utilized a third-person narrative in A Posthumous Son, and the impact of the discussion of class and national identity is much less than in Hands and A Madman’s Diary. Instead of seeing the issue of class from the average person’s point of view, complete with feelings and thoughts, the third-person omnipotent narrator removes the reader a step from the action.
The introduction of the first-person narrator into Chinese literature made a huge difference in the ways in which class and society were discussed in China as a whole. Arguably, the introduction of the first-person narrative allowed the author to truly integrate the reader into the text in a way that had not been done before, allowing for a greater intellectual and emotional understanding of the issues that were being discussed in the texts.
Hong, Xiao. Hands. n.d.. Print.
Lu, Xun. A Madman's Diary. 1918. Print.
Ye, Shaojun. A Posthumous Son. n.d.. Print.