Slipping Through the Cracks

Joe Basalla

Mao Dun's canonical works, such as Spring Silkworms, display a shift away from the legendary May Fourth Movement writers and provide Mao Dun with a platform to pointedly critique their works. Ultimately, he claims that the works of writers such as Lu Xun, Yu Dafu, and Shen Congwen, among others, are flawed in that they don't provide proper historical and sociological context. Their works depict individual lives separated from external conflicts outside of China and other forces that go beyond one individual's grasp and power, but have the ability to shape the individual's life. Mao Dun, however, claims that a writers must characterize the environment and understand history before they can depict individual life with true meaning. Mao Dun not only attempts to do this in Spring Silkworms, but he succeeds in helping the reader understand the external factors that influenced Chinese behavior and even the superstitions present at that given time period.

Spring Silkworms is a compelling story about life in China, which mirrored life in most third world countries at the time, in which the peasantry was growing at an ever so rapid pace and the disparity between the rich and poor was becoming extremely unequal, the antithesis of egalitarian. Old Tong Bao, the head of the family, and the rest of his family were in dire straits and in debt all over town. Last silkworm season they were not successful and ended up compounding their debt even further and mortgaging off almost the entirety of their land and possessions with the exception of their patch of mulberry trees.

The new silkworm season came around and was looking very promising for all members of the village, but especially to the Old Tong Bao family. The Old Tong Bao family did everything possible to make sure their silkworms were the best, from incubating them personally to spending more money for silkworm food than for food for the entire family. They also participated in many ritualistic superstitions that they hoped would provide a more fruitful season than the last.

Mao Dun's account of the family's struggle, what seemed to be success, and then ultimate downfall, needs to be interpreted in the context of an age in China of traditional values juxtaposed to global imperialism and global economics. China at the time was struggling with globalization and modernization because they couldn't produce goods as cheaply as the Japanese and thus retreated into poverty and a country full of peasants. Mao Dun is, in my view, showing the reader what happens when people are no longer people, but instead a means to an end, that end being the production of goods and the search for wealth even through exploitative capitalism. This can be seen in the aforementioned part of the story in which the silkworms and the potential money they could bring in was more important than the family's health and needs. They got caught up in money and economics and ruined not only their own lives, but also their social relations with others in the village.

This can be seen in their relationship with fellow villager Lotus. Lotus was not only lower in moral or tradition status, but also her economic status. Aside from being considered promiscuous, she was considered to be a person of a lower class. She was the quintessential proletariat, using the diction of Karl Marx, because she lacked the means of production and the tools in society necessary to fulfill one's needs. Again using Marxist theory to critically analyze her situation, her lack of access to the material forces of production, the materials society uses and transforms into useful goods, left her in a state of inferiority and created class division.

Mao Dun's story accurately shows the way in which third world life was adversely shaped and controlled by the global market. He portrays the capitalistic nature of the village and the Old Tong Bao family to be destructive and, ultimately, to fail. This economic situation more importantly leads to a social breakdown in which people are not equal, but instead divided and in which some don't get what they deserve even though they work hard, while others that may not work hard get more than their fill. This story, with the failure of the family to sell enough cocoons and their eventually steeper climb into debt, signifies, in my opinion, Mao Dun's view of capitalism and the fact that it leads to greater individual misery and ruins social bonds, all the while not providing the great economic benefits most are led to believe accompany it.

Local Economy and Global Market

Kaleaf James

In the story, Spring Silkworms, Mao Dun shows a small village of families, caught up in a struggle to succeed against insurmountable odds. Through this story he portrays an economic battle between families and how this struggle for success through competition among families results from the pernicious developments of a global and international market. In a situation where all could prosper, superstition and fear keep them divided. On a more general level, Mao Dun shows a cycle that is destroying the lives of the Chinese poor, a cycle that keeps the poor falling further into debt while the wealthy become even richer.

In a village, that portrays a time in China comparable to that of an impoverished nation, Old Tong Bao and his family seek to free themselves from debt through the silk harvest. For years his family had sought financial prosperity through selling silk but every year the family ended up owing more from raising the worms than they could make selling the silk. This family as all the others in the village had unrealistic hopes of a successful year that would be unlike the others and be successful.

Because the outcome of the harvest seemed out of these families' control, even if they did everything they could correctly, they seemed very superstitious of anything that could bring bad luck upon their family's harvest. The families became very cautious and continued harvest traditions and stopped all interactions between families. Mao Dun really makes these family interactions seem foolish through how seriously they take them.

Mao Dun is able to show human competitive nature and how primal and foolish it can become. At first the village was very social but as harvest season progressed families stopped talking as much and speculation and rumors became a larger part of Mao Dun's tale. Even though these families had interacted normally before a feeling of competition had come over them with the seriousness of their financial situation. Lotus even steals silkworms from Old Tong Bao only to destroy them.

These families could have worked together in harmony and sought success for all. Instead they divided themselves and turned against one another. Ultimately whether one family was more successful than other didn't really matter as no family could sell their silk at a decent price. This ironic ending really outlined the idea that these families suffered and fought for success and still could not prosper in this Chinese society. Not only does this show Mao Dun's attempt to question the tradition ideals of these families: it also expresses China's own struggle against foreign powers as foreign silk causes these families to fail.

It becomes clear that Mao Dun's story can be interpreted in many different ways and on many different levels of Chinese society during this period. But ultimately he is able to show this story of people trying to succeed and also how this success is hindered by both the beliefs of the people and forces outside of their control. Through Old Tong Bao's family, Mao Dun presents an example of tradition attempting to find financial freedom in a more modern age.