Master or Friend?
Lao She's story Black Li and White Li illuminates the relationship between two men and a humble rickshaw puller. White Li and Black Li, two contrasting brothers, represent modernity and tradition, respectively. White Li is fueled by anger, bitterness, and dissatisfaction and works towards social change, whereas Black Li honors his ancestors and follows the customs of those abiding by traditional Chinese values. What is truly intriguing however, are their relationships with their rickshaw puller, Wang Five.
A victim of a strict class structure and a slave to poverty, Wang Five has resigned himself to a life as a rickshaw puller for the Li brothers. However, Wang Five is fairly satisfied with this arrangement, for the Li brothers are good to him. "[Black Li] treats me very kindly…," Wang Five explained to a friend of the Li brothers. "On really hot days, when I'm pulling [Black Li] around, he'll always find some place along the way to stop for a little while to buy a box of matches or take a look at a book stall. Why does he do that? So I can rest and catch my breath. That's what I mean when I say he's a good boss". Black Li never overworked Wang Five, treating him as a human with limits, a being deserving of respect and kindness. Unlike Black Li, White Li worked Wang Five very hard. "No matter how hot it is [White Li] is always telling me to run like the wind," Wang Five said of the younger Li brother. "[He] doesn't give a damn about my legs". Despite Black Li's kindness and White Li's disregard for the physical welfare of others, Wang Five had a much greater affinity for White Li.
Wang Five's preference towards White Li over Black Li stems from a relationship that emerges beyond the typical relationship between a rickshaw puller and his boss. To Wang Five, Black Li is his master—a good master, but a master nonetheless. Describing his relationship with White Li, however, Wang Five says, "He is young and doesn't treat me like a rickshaw puller. He's talking about how unfair things are for us—I mean all the rickshaw pullers in the world. He cares about my heart. He's my friend". This relationship, that of friendship, allows Wang Five to feel a greater sympathy towards White Li despite Black Li's expressions of kindness.
Black Li's relationship towards Wang Five represents that of a dictator with his subjects. Although Black Li is kind, he embodies a dictator nonetheless, and Wang Five is placed at a clear disadvantage within such a system. White Li represents democracy. However, in his journey for equality, he embraces a harsh and scary, but real alternative to Black Li's way of life. Although scary and less certain, White Li represents opportunity, and this is why Wang Five is drawn to him. White Li is not a master in the traditional sense. He pushes Wang Five, but in his prodding he is giving the chance for equality, which is unavailable through Black Li's way of living as that as a master, a dictator—stable and kind, but void of possibilities for change and opportunities: all that Wang Five desires.
It is between Black Li's embodiment of a dictatorship and White Li's embodiment of democracy that Wang Five is placed. He respects Black Li in his kindness, but feels no real passion towards him, because a clear hierarchy is in place in the dictatorship that Black Li embraces. Although White Li is less understanding of Wang Five's physical needs as a rickshaw puller, White Li "doesn't treat [him] like a rickshaw puller". In the democracy which White Li embraces and represents, Wang Five is an equal and has opportunities, and it is in this which Wang Five feels a great affinity and chooses opportunity and understanding over kindness and reliability.
It is in Black Li's embracing of dictatorship and White Li's embracing of democracy that the relationship each man has with Wang Five differs. A dictator can not truly understand the plight of a laborer, but democracy embraces this plight and supports the worker. It is in this battle between modernity and traditionalism, democracy and dictatorship, that Wang Five as well as all laborers in modernizing China are faced. Should one side with kindness and stability or opportunity and uncertainty? Wang Five spoke for most all the workers of China in his affinity towards White Li, his favoring of democracy. He chose possibilities over a certain fate. He chose opportunities over the life of a rickshaw puller. He chose White Li's democracy over servitude to Black Li, the servitude of a slave in a society with an impenetrable social structure, that of traditional China. Modernity and its association with democracy presented themselves as a welcome alternative to tradition.
The Reactionary Revolution
In Black Li and White Li, Lao She shows his
more conservative ideological position, especially in comparison to other
May Fourth Movement writers such as Lu Xun. He juxtaposes the opposite
sides of the ideological spectrum by having each brother embody an opposing
viewpoint and mentality. This dichotomy allows Lao She to criticize both
views and leaves it up to the reader to decide which character and traditions,
or lack thereof, that they represent, are more favorable. From my point
of view and my own interpretation, I feel that this story is meant as
a critique of the tactics, mindset, and goals of the revolutionary movement
in China in the time period in which he was living.
Lao She's story, as already mentioned, has two main characters that are
brothers and very different from each other. Black Li is more traditional,
while White Li is more progressive and revolutionary. Black Li's personality
is a lot easier to be sympathetic towards because of several occurrences
in the story. First, Black Li gave up the woman he loved because he thought
his brother loved her too and he didn't want to make his brother upset
and in turn ruin his relationship with him. Second, he offered to give
his brother all of the inheritance left to them even though White Li was
being coldhearted towards him. Lastly and perhaps the most inspiring action
that makes the reader sympathetic towards Black Li, he gives up his life
for his brother even though his brother is fighting for a cause in which
Black Li, I'm assuming, has no great interest in or admiration for.
White Li on the other hand comes off as cold, misguided, and hypocritical.
He claims to be a revolutionary with actions such as destroying the trolley
cars, but a deeper analysis of the situation shows it to be somewhat reactionary.
The trolley cars symbolized modernization and were a sign that China had
been going down the path of modernity. White Li, however, rebelled against
the kind of technology his revolutionary compatriots had fought for and
assumed would better China in regards to the rest of the world. This gives
the reader a glimpse into the somewhat skewed mentality and perception
of reality that White Li has.
White Li also claims to care about social justice, but these words are,
in my opinion, hollow. He tells Wang Five how much he cares for Rickshaw
men and how he sympathizes with their position in Chinese society. Why
then, does he never stop and give Wang Five a rest when he is taking him
to his destination? Why does he make him work even harder on hot summer
days? It is because he has these revolutionary ideals stuck in his head,
but self-interest in his heart.
If one were to disagree with me and point to the fact that he was, supposedly,
willing to die for this cause, the self-determination of the proletariat,
as a claim that he was noble, I would have no trouble defending myself.
I would point to the fact that his actions in destroying the trolley cars
did nothing to help the Rickshaw pullers, I hypothesize that it would
only make them less free and still unequal. By destroying the trolley
cars, he is only perpetuating tradition and the status quo of subjugation.
Using the diction of Marx, only when the material forces of production
change and everyone has equal ownership over them, will the social relations
of production change. If he was really concerned about equality, he would
have organized and fought with the Rickshaw men against the ownership
of the means of production. That would effectively make the Rickshaw pullers
his equals, but I do not believe he really wants this. It is my opinion
that he is a misguided revolutionary that doesn't even know what he's
With this story I don't think Lao She is necessarily condemning all revolutionary
activity, I just think that he's saying people need to stop being so hypocritical
and think through all of their actions. Black Li comes out as the hero
because, though he is resolute in dying for a cause, I interpret it to
be a just cause and a noble action. White Li, on the other hand, wasn't
even around during the trolley destruction, which only furthers my belief
that he wasn't an admirable person.
Modern Woman: No Angel
|As China was battling itself throughout the twentieth
century over the idea of modernization, many female writers were gaining
popularity and female characters in literature were portrayed to challenge
the traditional view of women as without voice, dependent, and undeserving
of personal control and choice, as is seen in works such as "Miss Sophie's
Diary" by Ding Ling (1928). Many radical ideas about cultural and social
progress in China were being asserted in the post-May Fourth period, but
there still existed authors who argued against those progressive ideals
through their works, such as Lao She, especially in his short story, "Black
Li and White Li." The nameless female of the story is being "chased"
by two very different-minded brothers, White Li who values progress and
Black Li who values tradition. The reader never gets much insight into her
character, as she is indirectly portrayed through the narrator's dialogue
with the brothers, but it is my interpretation that Lao She uses this female
character not only as one means of conflict for the two brothers, which
is made immediately clear by the narrator, but also as a criticism of the
women in Chinese society who pretended to modernize their lifestyle, such
as enjoying the attention of men while bored by the concept of love, but
who still valued traditional relationships at heart.
In Leo Ou-fan Lee's essay on the psychological structure of "Black Li and White Li," he argues that "the love interest [between the brothers and the woman] is…but another way to get back at the interlocking relationship between the two brothers" (3). On the surface, the reader recognizes that the woman is a fairly important character because she was one of many things Black Li sacrificed for the sake of his relationship with White Li. White Li is unappreciative of this act and expresses his modernized thoughts on the triviality of relationships between men and women, and so it is he who the reader tends to want to scrutinize. Lao She is likely setting the plot up this way to express favor for Black Li, or the traditional way of thinking. Though the role of the female may be such for the sake of the plot, it is interesting to note how she is portrayed on a deeper level as a reflection of the role of the Chinese woman in society at the time this piece was written in the early 1930s.
It is difficult to interpret exactly where the woman of this story stands in terms of ideas of modernity, which is exactly how many women felt in China at this time. She is being chased by the two brothers, but supposedly can't decide whom she loves more. When Black Li tells her he doesn't want her anymore, she reacts strongly against it, and it is his interpretation that she's insulted because she's "out to get the whole world chasing after her" (2). Through Black Li's recalling of the conversation with the woman, I sensed that this was a modern woman who enjoyed male attention and did not fully appreciate love. When White Li learns that Black Li gave up the woman for his sake, he expresses his indifference to the narrator and goes on to say that men and women's relationships are purely animal desire, that the woman of the story enjoyed being kissed more than having him kowtow to her (3). It is here again that I sensed she enjoyed sexual freedom and independence more than having a sacred, loving relationship, so it seemed she fit the role of a modern femme fatale of literature.
But it is through the narrator's interaction with this woman that it is implied that she does love Black Li ("When I asked her…about White Li, she directed the conversation back to Black Li") and Black Li had misinterpreted her strong reaction to his rejection of her. Sympathy for the woman seems deserved here, but even though the narrator recognizes she may love Black Li, he doesn't play matchmaker because he's "much too fond of Black Li and believe[d] that he deserved nothing less than an angel" (6). He assumes she wants to "capture Black Li and preserve him like a specimen," though she probably just loves him and doesn't know how to tell him. There is no further mention of the woman character after this point of the story, and it's my interpretation that Lao She was making a mockery of the woman because her initial indecision did only harm to the relationship between Black Li and White Li. She couldn't decide whether she wanted a sexual tromp with White Li to prove her compliance with modernized thinking or whether she wanted a relationship with an old-fashioned Black Li who would kneel before her and worship her. If she had vocalized that she reciprocated Black Li's love, there would have been little conflict between the two brothers, especially if White Li hardly even cared for her, but because she didn't, the narrator scorns the woman whose name he decides never to reveal, and depicts her negatively to the reader. A traditional woman who toys with ideas of modernization but doesn't truly value them, as the woman in this story does, is no "angel" to Lao She or even a name to be mentioned, but rather a character whose heart should be broken and who should be dropped from the plot early on. The portrayal of this female character is Lao She's way of criticizing the hypocritical thinkers of the time.
The Effects of Modernization
Lao She's "Black Li and White Li" is a story that, unlike a lot literature written during the time of the May 4th Movement, does not completely glorify the Chinese revolution towards modernity. Lao She's story deals with how the relationship of two brothers, Black Li, the elder of the two, and White Li, the younger of the two, is influenced by their relationship with a young Chinese woman and China's journey towards modern ideals.
Lao She gives the reader an interesting portrayal of the two brothers in the sense that the reader never actually reads any dialogue that is directly between Black Li and White Li. We are only able to see Black Li and White Li's interaction through the dialogue that they share with the first-person narrator in the story, the woman that they are both interested in, and Wang Five, the Li family's rickshaw puller. Perhaps the author's leaving out any direct dialogue between the two brothers exists to demonstrate the difficulty that the brothers have in communicating with one another because of their extreme differences.
Black Li, like the eldest brother in Pa Chin's "Family," Chueh-hsin, is old-fashioned and deeply rooted in Chinese tradition. He is a good-natured man who claims that "love is a matter of doing what's right" and is willing to give up his relationship with the young woman for his brother. He does this even though it is obvious that he cares much more for the young woman than White Li does. Because of actions such as these and Black Li's sacrificing his life at the end of the story, the reader is able to look upon Black Li with sympathy and admiration for his good qualities.
White Li, like the youngest brother in "Family," Cheh-hui, is a rebel prone to modern-thinking. However, White Li, unlike his older brother, is not a very respectable or good-natured man. After Black Li gives up the young woman for White Li, White Li tells the narrator, "You think I'm really after that woman? The only reason I got involved with her at all was to cause trouble for [Black Li]; otherwise, why would I want to waste my time with her? Aren't all relations between men and women based purely on animal desire?" Lao She's choice of giving a negative portrayal of White Li could be seen as a demonstration of his disapproval towards those whose opinions do not match those of ancient Chinese tradition. The narrator claims that White Li has the ability to be a great revolutionary leader and that "the things [White Li] said would either lead you down the very path he wanted you to follow or strap you to the guillotine." However, as the story continues, the narrator begins to see White Li in a different light, as a "proud young man" who is only looking out for his own interests and not respecting his older brother.
The reason why Lao She bothers to introduce into his story the complicated love triangle involving a woman that he does not even bother to give a name to is questionable. If the theme of "Black Li and White Li" is not about love, as the author claims in the first sentence of his story, then what is the point of this complicated love triangle? I believe that Lao She introduces this love triangle in order to further show the character of the two brothers, the positive ones of Black Li, and the negative ones of White Li. I also believe that Lao She uses the woman as a symbol that represents the typical Chinese woman during the time of the May 4th Movement, one who is desperate for modernity in any form. The woman in this story enjoys the drama that accompanies having a relationship with both of the brothers and the power that this situation gives her. The narrator states that although she seems to care about, or maybe even love Black Li, "she seemed to want to capture Black Li and preserve him like a specimen." If she preserves Black Li, then she can keep him on reserve if she does not find someone else that she feels would better suit her as her husband. This woman does not really care about finding true love; she simply enjoys the chase. This modernized Chinese woman is certainly not the angel that the narrator believes Black Li should have as a wife.Lao She’s "Black Li and White Li" is a story about brotherly relations that are greatly affected and changed by China's quest for modernization and the modern ideals of a young woman. It raises many questions, aside from the aforementioned question of the young woman's role in the story, for its readers to contemplate. At what cost should one sacrifice for one's brother? Is China's rejection of traditional ideals and move to modernity a dangerous occurrence, particularly concerning the modernity of Chinese women? Should China, in fact, continue its journey to complete modernization?
The Gray of Black and White Li
| Lao She’s short story “Black Li
and White Li” can best be described as a depiction of the struggle
between tradition and the introduction of modernization in early 20th century
China, embodied in the characters of Black Li and White Li. As one may assume,
Black Li and White Li are brothers, nearly identical in physical appearance
(aside from the dark mole for which Black Li is named), but entirely different
in their demeanors, ideas, and values.
Black Li, the older of the two brothers represents, unsurprisingly, what could be considered an older China. Black Li represents a quieter China, where elders are respected to an unwavering degree, where families stay together, and where brothers should be willing to die for each other. White Li, on the other hand, represents what could be considered the threat of what a new China was going to be like, what china would become with modernization. White Li seemingly has no respect for his family, particularly his brother, in that he wants to move out of the house, and even goes so far as to sabotage the love that his brother could have potentially had, just because he can. White Li also seems to be a bit of a contradiction, in that he is concerned with modernization and social injustice, yet works to keep the latter in tact by destroying the former. The best representation of the difference between Black Li and White Li is the way in which they each interact with their rickshaw puller, Wang Five. Wang Five states that he considers Black Li to be his master, albeit a good one, and White Li a friend, which is an interesting distinction, as both brothers are technically masters. Wang Five says of the brothers “’Second Master is narrow-minded while Fourth Master looks at t he bigger picture. Fourth Master doesn’t give a damn about my legs, but he cares about my heart. Second Master cares about the little things, he takes pity on my legs-but doesn’t give a damn about this here.’ He pointed to his heart”. White Li supposedly wants to work with Wang Five and other rickshaw pullers to destroy the new streetcars, which would allow the pullers to keep their jobs. This is rather ironic, however, as to destroy the streetcar would be to symbolically destroy modernity, which White Li is mean to stand for, at the same time perpetuating the class division and social injustices he is supposed to be against. As White Li is the alleged revolutionary of the brothers, Black Li is the more conservative and is portrayed as the hero of the story, which is different from what we have become accustomed to seeing from authors of the same time period as Lao She. Black Li is the kinder, gentler brother, willing to do absolutely anything for White Li, even if it were to go by unappreciated. For Black Li, “love is a matter of doing what’s right”, and in being killed he was doing what was right, out of love for his brother.
Making Black Li such a hero and martyr of sorts, can be seen as an embodiment of Lao She’s own personal, more conservative beliefs and opinions about China’s state at the time, as well as its future. By making the traditional character in the story so likable, and by making the reader feel great sadness at his death, Lao She is also willing the reader to feel sadness for the changes China was going through at the time. At the same time, however, the fact that White Li, representation of modernization and new China, lived, however selfishly, cannot be ignored. It is my belief that Black Li volunteering himself to death to preserve White Li is a representation of traditional China moving aside and essentially dying, in order to provide for the success of a new, modern country, for good or for bad, for black or for white.
The Inconsiderate Face of Change
Black Li and White Li by Lao She is a text
that speaks to the begrudging abandonment of traditional values and morals.
Specks of change can entice desertion of historically held ideals and
replace them with new, untested thoughts that are destructive. Often those
perpetrating change become engrossed in their righteousness lose sight
of the reasons they want change, rather getting too involved with the
process of change.
A Need for Balance
|Black Li and White Li, by Lao She, is very much
the story of such a contrast in colors. The two brothers in the tale represent
opposite intensities of tradition and emotional depth. Their characters
against the backdrop of China's modernization create a sad tale of a need
for balance between old and new in China.
Black Li represents a more traditional generation than his younger brother. He finds comfort in order, which may be a reason why he is drawn to a way of living set by the unchanging principles of that tradition. Towards the beginning of the story the narrator watches Black Li arrange the teacups in front of him so that the pattern on each faces in the same direction. The narrator recounts this particular incident later when he suggests that Black Li similarly "arranged things neatly in his mind to sooth his conscience." This example points not only to why he may be drawn to tradition, but also to his compliance towards his brother. He is willing to do anything to mollify White Li because he does not like how out of place his brothers actions are.
It is fitting, therefore, that White Li says at the conclusion of the story by that his brother "must have gone to heaven; that's a perfect place for him." Black Li gave his life to save his brother. It is something completely in character for him because of his representation of maintaining order and peace. From this line of thought, one may suppose him to represent a Christ figure. He gave his life to smooth over his brother's sin and cause peace again and, as his brother said, probably ended up in heaven.
White Li, however, concluded the comment about his brother in heaven by saying that he felt that he (White Li) was still on earth "smashing the gates of hell." This comment reflects White Li's less traditional way of life. It reiterates that White Li feels the world is like hell and needs to be changed. This is the opposition to tradition shared by many youth in China of his time, including Chueh-hui from Pa Chin's Family. White Li has somewhat of a blind rage against the world. He does not seem to care much about his brother or the girl whom both brothers had fought over. He tells the author that he had been with the girl simply so that he could fight with his brother and break away from having to live with him. His total fixation on rebellion seems to keep him from being able to care about anyone. He may fool the rickshaw puller who feels White Li must truly care about his heart since White Li suggests the rebellion against electric cars, but he doesn't even show up to the riot.
I felt terribly for the rickshaw pullers because in the end no one seemed to care about their fate seriously. Black Li would let his rickshaw puller rest on hot days and harp on how cruel the fate of rickshaw pullers was, but in the end he was simply a benevolent dictator since he said such things while being pulled.
Ironically, Black Li's devotion to tradition and order leads to his demise. He tries to keep him and his brother together because of his devotion to staying a family and because of his promise to his mother on her deathbed that he would be good and watch over his brother. Unfortunately, when Black Li mentions these things, it only makes White Li want to rebel and leave his brother even more.
In this tale of contrast tragedy is immanent. Black Li removes his mole to sacrifice himself for his brother by participating in the riot White Li never shows up at. The irony that neither truly cared about the riot's cause magnifies a theme of the injustice of modernization while crying out for a medium between old and new, which each brother epitomized.
The Leap too Large
| Black Li and White Li, written by Lao She, represented
a slight twist from the usual cannon literature written about the values
held in the May Fourth movement. Usually, May Fourth writers take the side
of the liberal, democratic, let-us-challenge-tradition characters. However,
Lao She seemed to write to the side of the more conservative character in
Black Li and White Li.
Black Li and White Li were both brothers—White Li represented modern views, while Black Li represented traditional views. Right from the start, it would seem that a May Fourth writer would take the side of White Li. However, Lao She took the side of Black Li. Why would a writer who’s inspired by the views of May Fourth writers, try to bring a change in tradition, by taking the side of a character that represents tradition? The answer lies in the strength of each brother’s views.
Black Li had milder, more realistic views. He had taste and a sense of order. He treated his rickshaw puller, Wang Five, with respect. Wang Five said, “For instance, on really hot days, when I'm pulling Second Master around, he'll always find some place along the way to stop for a little while to buy a box of matches or take a look at a book stall. Why does he do that? So I can rest and catch my breath.” Black Li has a sense of humility and maturity. Black Li was a kind leader.
White Li, on the other hand, was fueled by hatred and anger. Although he represented modern views, he was a coward. White Li stirred up all the discontent and wasn’t there when it was released. He cared about humanity on a large scale. Wang Five, also White Li’s rickshaw puller, said, “I would be unworthy of Fourth Master's trust he's my friend. But when I try not to think about it I get all confused inside. In principle, you know, I ought to be on Fourth Master's side.” White Li just talks to Wang Five and is able to reach out to his heart. He shows no action. White Li does not take pity on Wang Five’s legs like Black Li. He never lets Wang Five take breaks. White Li is saying ‘Run! I have great ideas for you! But run!’
It is no surprise that Wang Five is fonder of the client that reaches out to his heart. When a person is bitter, resentful, and hateful, playing to the person’s unhappiness leaves a bigger impact than kind gestures.
Wang Five goes ahead and takes the advice that White Li gave him. He goes and destroys all the streetcars. However, revolutions from resent do not accomplish much. The only way to accomplish something is through love and happiness.
Black Li represented love and happiness. He was a mild conservative. White Li was angry and a strong liberal. Lao She was trying to show that in moving from a traditional society to a modern society, it is important not to jump into things. There has to be slow transitions into a western society. Eventually, China’s society will become modernized, but it will not happen overnight. what Lao She is suggesting is perhaps that capitalism and democracy will happen over a long period of time in which the Chinese become less traditional and more modern. But these ideas are very complicated and cannot be grasped instantly by people with little experience with industrial civilization.
The Li's as Representatives of Political Ideologies
Kyle G. Christensen
| Black Li and White Li represent different, if
not polar, political ideologies in the middle of a Chinese cultural revolution.
Black Li was far more conservative and traditional than his brother, White
Li, who was radically liberal and five years Black Li's junior. The basic
story is the two ideologies trying to cope with one another and live in
the same house. This serves as a metaphor for both of the ideologies existing
within China at the same time and the tension and friction that occur.
Wang Five very distinctly describes the differences between the two brothers: Black Li is a master, someone who would never be able to treat Wang Five like a brother; however, when the day is really hot, he is always sure to find a place for him to rest. White Li on the other hand would never give Wang Five that opportunity to take a break on the hot day, but they are friends. White Li has his mind on the rickshaw pullers as a whole, while Black Li merely thinks about the rickshaw puller directly in his service. Black Li wants to maintain the status quo and keep Wang Five working for him as it is while White Li wants to revolutionize and modernize the current status of the rickshaw pullers as a whole.
Even though White Li is a revolutionary, he does not display a complete
lack of concern for the livelihood of his older brother, Black Li. In
fact, White Li goes to great lengths to put distance between the two brothers
in the name of protecting Black Li. When the efforts are to no avail,
the plans must continue and he disappears. The remarkable action occurs
when White Li's plans are discovered: Black Li burns off his mole, the
distinguishing factor between the two brothers. Without the mole, they
are identical. It is with this dramatic change that Black Li makes the
ultimate sacrifice for his brother; Black Li goes to the sabotaging of
the trolley cars and is captured by the police.
| In his story Black Li and White Li, Lao She
reveals a growing problem within Chinese society through the comparison
of the title characters. Despite the fact that neither brother’s lifestyle
is what it should be, Black Li is still portrayed as the more admirable
of the two brothers.
Neither of the brothers seems to be a complete individual. Black Li is a kind individual and wants his brother to be as happy as possible. However, he is also incredibly weak willed and avoids confrontation even if doing so would make his life better. For instance, after Black Li gives up the girl both he and White Li want, White Li says he doesn’t want her but Black Li does not complain to him. White Li’s personality is almost the opposite of his brother’s. He is incredibly strong willed and idealistic but seems to lack the emotional depth and caring that his brother has. These differences can best be summed up by the words of Wang Five who says that he is torn between the two brothers because Black Li is a good master however still acts like a master and White Li doesn’t care about how hard his work is but cares about his soul.
However, between the two Black Li is far more admirable. First of all, Black Li is incredibly self-sacrificing and gives up the things he would prefer for his brothers happiness while his brother simply expects them. When White Li wants to break from the family and wants his inheritance he sends Black Li’s friend to tell him this and demands it. Black Li is stand-offish at first however, after a time he says it would better just to give White Li what he wants than to fight with him and gives him the money. In addition when Black Li finds out that White Li could get himself in trouble and potentially executed Black Li burns off his mole so that the two look identical and takes his brother’s place at the execution.
On the other hand White Li often lacks emotion and perhaps does not really hold on to the revolutionary values he claims to believe in. For instance, when his brother gives up his feelings for the girl that they have an interest in, White Li simply dumps the girl and says that he never really cared for her anyways. In addition he says that he did it in order to get his share of the family wealth.
Lao She seems to indicate that men with heart of Black Li are the more noble ones unlike the callous revolutionaries (represented by White Li). Making Black Li to be a Christ figure by dying for his brother, Lao She demonstrates the kind of individual that he believes China needs. China needs more self-sacrificing individuals that are willing to give up their happiness for the happiness of others. Lao She also seems to show much skepticism towards revolutionaries that claim to be for progress because all that revolution does in the story is result in destruction, unrest and the deaths of innocent people. Lao She is in support of people like Black Li not because they stand for tradition but because they seem to care more about other people than themselves.
Black Li vs. White Li
In Lao She's story Black Li and White Li, we read about two brothers who are both physically very similar – only Black Li has a black mole above his eye – hence the name Black Li. Though these brothers may appear similar, they differ greatly in beliefs. Black Li is the older brother (by 5 years) and he of course is the more traditional brother, whereas White Li is more modern. White Li is full of anger and frustration and does all he can to change social life, while Black Li valued tradition, worshiped his ancestors, and had religious views. This theme reminds me of the novel Family by Pa Chin - where the brothers' political views grow more and more extreme with age, and how tradition has to make sacrifices for modern times. In both stories, the more traditional siblings sacrificed something dear to them in order for the better of their brothers.
Their friends play a big role in this story; they are the ones from whom we get most of our information on the brothers. Not only did they share a mutual friends (Wang Five the rickshaw puller and the one narrating the story), but they also shared a love interest – only referred to as "her". Also seen in Family were that the three brothers seem to like the same woman but eventually find someone for their own. We get to know Black Li a little better than White Li because he goes to talk to the narrator more often. Wang Five has a hard time deciding which brother he feels more strongly about. He has been their rickshaw puller for a long time and was friends with both of them – though closer to the younger White Li. Both brothers treat Wang Five each with a different way to show they care for him. Wang Five talks to the narrator and voices his opinion on the two brothers, though still not sure whom he feels more strongly about:
"Second Master (Black Li) treats me well, but he doesn't give a damn about the rest of us rickshaw men…Second Master is narrow-minded while Fourth Master (White Li) looks at the bigger picture. Fourth Master doesn't give a damn about my legs, but he cares about my heart. Second Master cares about the little things, he takes pity on my legs-but he doesn't give a damn about this here (his heart)."
I feel that this quote gives quite a good depiction of who the brothers really are. Thought White Li wants to help Wang Five rebel and helps him plan to destroy all the trolley cars – which would put his good friend Wang Five out of a job, he never showed up on the day they planned to help Wang Five. In the end, Black Li sacrifices his life for his younger brother. He takes on the identity of White Li and as we see the real White Li later on, he seems to have taken on the identity of his lost brother. The story ends with a quote from White Li: "Number Two must have gone to heaven; that's a perfect place for him. But I'm still here smashing the gates of hell." While Black Li was alive, White Li often questioned Black Li's religiousness and now we see him making religious references.
This story to me was nothing different to any of the other stories we
have read in the past. In Family, Chueh-hsin, lost the love of his life
and his goals of a better education, and in Black Li and White Li, Black
Li took his life for his younger brother and "gave" "her"
to White Li. It is the same theme throughout the stories we have read
– proving how big of an impact the May 4th Movement had on Chinas
population. Many authors were inspired by the events around them and wrote
many stories having to do with modernism trying to fight against traditional
The Gray of Black and White Li
The story of two brothers Black Li and White Li, by Lao She, is a story with a very clear meaning written directly after the time of the May Forth Movement. After the May Forth Movement change was just beginning to be truly recognized and Lao She's story encourages its acceptance. Traditions fall to the new ideals and revolutionary movement is shown as a righteous act that is necessary to preserve change. Through his depiction of his characters' personality Lao She is able to personify traditional values and their supports and also those seeking change and their ideals. With this ability he is clearly sending a message of change to his audience.
These brothers, Black Li and White Li, both have completely different personalities despite looking almost identical. Black Li represents traditional views and conservatism, as these are the characteristics of his personality. He is very set in tradition and has a great deal of respect for his ancestors and their beliefs. Because of this he follows their ideals and makes them his own. Through this character alone Lao She is able to contain the whole of traditional society and give it a face.
On the other hand, White Li is very rebellious, even criminal. He is also very liberal in his thinking and because of this he represents society's need to rebel against the norm and seek a greater change. With these two characters, Lao She is able to control two major parts of China and express a message much clearer then that of any other story of the time. For example, in the case of Wang Five, Lao She is delving into the concept of each part of society by giving a general example about their feelings on the labor force of rickshaw pullers. Lao She shows traditional China's ideal that supports a coping. Aiding an individual who is in a struggle rather than looking at the problem as a whole and looking for a solution. The later reflects White Li's ideas, more like the "teach a man to fish" proverb.
The narrator closely follows Black Li rather then White Li in this story. This may be because the story is more used to appease those who believed in tradition but fell to the revolution. Black Li, after consulting religious texts, removes his mole and takes his brother's place at the chopping block to protect him from prosecution. Showing Black Li's struggle to please his brother and his ultimate sacrifice for him shows that in Chinese society tradition had to sacrifice itself so that China could continue and prosper.
In his story Lao She defends revolutionary views by allowing Black Li to ultimately understand White Li's attempts to protect him. Then Lao She shows great grace as he depicts the fall of traditional China as a righteous sacrifice. Through this story he is able to bring two sides together, both showing a respect for the past through a sacrifice for White Li (The May Forth Movement) to survive and respect the deed and also the new ideas living on.
Everything isn't Just Black and White
Lao She's Black Li and White Li is a fictional work whose ulterior motives outweigh its literary quality. As a story it is lacking in character development and the reader is often left questioning the significance of events. But I think it is safe to say the purpose and therefore the ultimate significance of this story does not lie in its quality as a fictional work but as a political, cultural and even personal statement of Lao She about China.
It becomes clear early on that the two brothers, Black Li and White Li, although physically very similar, have personalities that are complete opposites, which does more than just create conflict for the sake of the story. Black Li and White Li represent two ways of thinking in China. The five years that separate the two brothers was just enough time for Black Li to develop his faith in old-fashioned values that emphasized morals, relationships, and self-sacrifice and White Li to become enlightened by more modern ideals that discard human relationships, leaving him without ties to anything or anyone but his goals.
When two sides exist that are as different as Black Li and White Li it is tempting to think that one must be better than another. The connotations that black and white ensue do not necessarily work for this story. Traditionally the color black has to do with something evil or bad and white with the good and pure. With the help of the narrator and the rickshaw puller we see both the good and the bad in each brother.
Several years later, Lao She calls his work "absurd." Lao She did not join the communist revolution and in order to avoid suspicion he used romance to tell the story of Black Li's death but if there had not been the possible danger of being called a communist he would have been blunter about White Li's connections to that party. The story reflects how Lao She's thinking was changing but if the true nature of the story was not fully developed due to fear then the tactic of using Black Li as a scapegoat undermines the whole story and gives some truth to Lao She calling this story absurd.
However, it is still important to analyze the story in terms of where Lao She was when he wrote it. It is easy to look at any story that has historical significance and say that it is absurd but what we can hope to gain by not taking this easy way out is perspective. A perspective that is different from our own and shows us what life was like in a different time.
Lao She uses three specific instances to illuminate the basic characters of Black Li and White Li. The brothers’ treatment of women, family, and fellow citizen show us their beliefs and where their characters morals differ.
Somewhere between these two brothers is a perfect combination. What you think White Li would be ridiculed for he is not and Black Li with his devotion to his brother and family is criticized as being slow and simple. His biggest fault is not loving his family or wanting relationships in his life, it is not thinking for himself and I would like to think White Li would be more powerful and successful if he did not mock human relationships so. He talked about animal instincts…but is it not also a natural instinct to desire companionship? And is that some sort of hypocrisy…can you be progressive and powerful and still have feelings or loved ones? Maybe White Li realized that when he wanted to separate himself from his brother. He tried to save Black Li but in the end the characteristics that he fought so hard against were the ones that inspired Black Li to save him. It creates a thoughtful commentary on the coexistence of old and new values or rather their inability to coexist.
Nickolas Chase Robison
|The title of the story is seemingly self explanatory;
the story of two brothers one of whom is evil and the other who is good.
The surprising aspect of this story is who turns out to be the good brother.
The color white is associated with purity, divinity and innocence, whereas
the color black is associated with impurity, evil, and anything bad. The
author of "Black li and white li" named the elder brother Black
Li because of the brother's beliefs in keeping the family tradition. White
Li was the younger brother whose thoughts were similar to that of the Chinese
romantics that participated in the May Fourth Movement.
It is too simplistic to call one brother evil and one good. Both have aspects that are good and both have aspects that are bad. The characteristics of Black Li and White Li are best described by the rickshaw puller of the two brothers. The rickshaw puller describes how Black Li treats him well but does not seem to care about the struggle of the rickshaw pullers. Black Li allowed the rickshaw puller to take breaks when the days were hot and kept his health in mind. White Li on the other hand would constantly preach about how rickshaw pullers deserved so much and that he would support their cause. The irony is that White Li would tell the rickshaw puller this while also telling him to run as fast as the wind in scorching temperatures. What I believe to be one of the biggest misunderstandings of this story is how the rickshaw puller considers himself almost like a brother to White Li and more like a servant to Black Li. It takes a kind of person to just talk about the struggle of poor servants but it takes a completely different and possibly bolder man to back up words with actions. Black Li does the action part by allowing the servant to take breaks while White Li does the talking about how the rickshaw pullers should rise up.
In this story, it is the conservative brother that is painted as the protagonist and it is the younger brother that is the antagonist. Both whom [of them] seem to be in love with the same woman have different methods of resolving conflict. Black Li, in the end sacrifices his life for his brother in order for White Li to be with the girl he apparently loves. The ultimate irony is that White Li did not truly love her as Black Li did. This shocking revelation reflects that of the view the author has of young Chinese romantics; they talk about love and many romantic ideas, but when it comes to action and the true feelings they have, they are all talk. This piece was mainly to show the point of view of conservative Chinese. With the emergence of many romantic authors, it was crucial that there would be a story that would convey the other point of view.
The author's title "Black Li and White Li" was ironic not just because of the characters with the associated colors, but also that in life, there is no issue or conflict that is black or white, it is always a shade of gray. Each brother had their own problems. Black Li represented a tradition that was beginning to be hated by the romantic youth and White Li represented a young romantic youth with no sense of responsibility. Each has his faults but both do what they think is right. If they both had to be given a color, it would be more like Gray Li.
The Traditional and the Modern Separation
|Black Li and White Li were as different as night
and day. They are complete opposites of each other in everyway. Black Li
is old fashioned and traditional and white Li is very modern and opinionated.
They are constantly at a struggle and have quite a few disagreements. The
traditional ways and the modern ways could never mesh and so Black and White
Li are at continuous discord.
Black Li would sacrifice anything in order to keep his family together. He loves his brother dearly and would give up anything to make him happy. He has an interest in a girl but his brother took her from him and claimed that he liked her as well. Black Li let White Li have her because he believed that “brothers should not become estranged on account of a woman”. He is willing to sacrifice anything to keep his brother close to him. He would rather end arguments with his brother then pursue what he really wanted. He said in the story, “…at least number four and I won’t have anymore arguments. If this sort of thing happened between us, I certainly hope one of us would give in the same way”. As he said, he would expect his brother to do the same for him in another similar situation. As Black Li expresses his love and compassion for family, the traditional side of him appears. Traditional Chinese families spend a great deal of time caring for one another and doing the best for one another. Respect and compassion are the main goals of the traditional Chinese family. Staying together as one unit is the main idea of the traditional family.
White Li has a whole other perspective on life. He stole the girl away from Black Li just to cause problems, to cause a stir in their relationship. He said to the narrator, “The only reason I got involved with her at all is the cause trouble for Number Two, otherwise, why would I want to waste my time with her?” Causing a commotion in the brother [sibling] relationship is what White Li finds amusing and interesting. Causing a change in the traditional ways of life by stirring up trouble gives White Li a sense of pleasure and accomplishment. In the story, White Li also feels the need to leave his home. He says, “I’ve got my own life to live, my owns plans; the same is true for him. The best thing would be for both of us to go our own ways, don’t you think?” White Li wishes to break off from the traditional ways and from Black Li. He believes that it would be the best for both of them to go their separate ways. On the other hand, whenever White Li brings up his desire to leave the family, Black Li would always refer back to their mother’s request for them to stay together. This represents Black Li’s need to stay in the traditional past. His need for the conservative ways keeps him going in life. He wishes for his family to stay together through happy times as well as sad times and he would sacrifice anything for his family. White Li is the complete opposite and wishes to leave the family to pursue his own future and dreams. He has big plans for his future and plans on completing them.
Black Li is in a state of mind in which he thinks about the individual as a unit in a traditional world. That an individual should do everything he can to provide for the people that he or she loves. White Li is the complete opposite and sees, in Wang Five's words, "the bigger picture." He determines what should be done for the common good. Causing a rebellion for the rickshaw pullers is something that would make a bold statement to the public that rickshaw pullers are too human beings and need their jobs to survive. His modern way of thinking is structured by his constant determination to understand the things around him and to question what is traditional. He believes in human rights and freedom of action and thoughts. Black Li and White Li could never become one, or live together in peace and harmony. They must be separated, as do tradition and modernity.