Come Winter, Let a Hundred Flowers Die

Andrea Brown

Winter comes inevitably, suddenly putting all the earth's life down for a long sleep, wiping away the colors of the summer. Night always follows day, blanketing all activity and noise. The title of Bai Xianyong's short story, "Winter Nights" (1970) is thus a metaphor for old age: the nearing of life's end, the disappearance of youthful vibrancy and passion. Through the aging characters of Yu Qinlei and Wu Zhuguo, Bai Xianyong illustrates a human's recollection of the past as put in perspective of the present situation of the world, or in this case China. The two men of the story talk about their passionate involvement as college-age youth in the May Fourth Movement of 1919 and wonder what it was all for. Their present-day feelings about their activities and values of the past are ambiguous to the reader: are they nostalgic or are they ashamed? By looking at the May Fourth Movement in a new perspective—the perspective of men in their late 60s who have had more experience living in a modern China—Professor Yu and Wu Zhuguo can evaluate it more critically and come to terms with what has become of them and China. Their values have changed in those forty years and their lives have gone in different directions than what their twenty-year old selves expected. Not exactly regretful of the behavior of their youth, the old men, especially Wu Zhuguo, can still laugh at the misconceptions they had of the world so long ago, and admit their respect for traditional Chinese culture. "We went all out for 'Mr. Science' in our time, didn't we? Now look what science has done—it's almost snatched away our rice-bowl!" says Wu Zhuguo.

The springtime of the lives of Yu Qinlei and Wu Zhuguo have long since passed when Bai Xianyong's story takes place; many of their friends have died, Wu Zhuguo is planning his retirement, and Yu Qinlei is experiencing declining health. Reflecting on their lives as excitable college-age youth and relating it to their current situations provides much entertainment for these two men. They laugh about the oath among their group of friends not to join the Government for twenty years, and the irony of how several of them ended up doing just that. Wu Zhuguo relates his experience of teaching in America during the time of Vietnam protesting and rioting when he told his anxious students about his front-running involvement in the May Fourth Movement. From this passage, it appears to the reader of Bai Xianyong's story that Wu Zhuguo is proud of what he did on May 4, 1919, nostalgic enough of his past to relay that experience to his American students. However, he later refutes that idea when admitting to Yu Qinlei that he "mentioned May Fourth only to humor them [in the midst of their excitement over Vietnam]—it was no more than a joke." Later in his life he was actually really quite bothered by the "stupidity" of that type of political rioting. Really Wu Zhuguo's awe of the May Fourth Movement had greatly diminished over the course of his life, especially upon hearing a Harvard graduate's brutal criticism of it (in which it was called a "cultural miscarriage" that stripped China of its spiritual sustenance that was Confucianism. It is obvious that Wu's belief system has changed dramatically as he grew out of his fiery, rebellious youth; he could not "muster enough self-respect to stand and speak up for the May Fourth Movement" or even teach about the Republican period at all. Even Yu Qinlei praises an old friend for dying a "Confucian man of character."

Having lived well over sixty years, these men are able to see the remarkable differences in their thinking as youth and as people much more affected and understanding of China's society. Learning by others and through personal life experience, they have gained more insight into what is good for themselves and what is good for China; they don't blindly reject Confucianism just because that is expected of them, but rather they understand how Confucianism serves as a spiritual inspiration for many. From their position in life looking backwards, they can objectively see limitations of such change, such as how their ideals chopped away at the only thing supporting them, and in the end led them to become "plain deserters" who only wished to leave China and teach to non-Chinese youth, which progresses their native country in no way. Winter forces us indoors, looking outside at the fading of life, but it is in those reflecting moments that we come to terms with reality and nature and in turn appreciate the changes of life as they come.

Lonely Winter Nights

Bryn Tulip

Winter Nights by Bai Xianyong is a critical reflection of 20th century Chinese literature just as the May 4th movement was a critical reflection of traditional Chinese values. Up to the point at which Bai Xianyong wrote, 1970, most of the literature of the 20th century was either communist propaganda or the thinkings of the liberal minded intellectuals of the May 4th movement, which Bai Xianyong examines through the characters of two of these intellectuals.

These two characters are two aged professors who were friends and compatriots during the May 4th Movement. The first of the characters is Professor Yu, a professor in China who teachers English literature, his favorite being Byron, and the other is Wu Zhuguo, a professor in America who teaches Chinese. These characters are completely different, one living in China, the other in America, one teaching English, and the other Chinese; their only similarity is their shared involvement in the May 4th movement. Despite these differences both have had the same outcome in their old age: regret.

Although both are regretful, it is for very different reasons. Professor Yu regrets not having traveled and seen the world as much as Wu Zhuguo had, and regrets growing old and seeing his friends die while he lived on. Wu Zhuguo regrets not have been home: he missed China and its people and culture and is eager to return, but regrets not having been in China while it transformed into the culture he witnessed upon returning. Both men are discontent with what they have and feel like the world would have been better if they had the life of the other.

Perhaps the characters feeling this way represent Bai Xianyong's reaction to what he felt the May 4th reformers were trying to do. He writes in his story that the May 4th movement was "overzealous young Chinese intellectuals [who] in an iconoclastic outburst against tradition completely wiped out the Confucian system that prevailed in China for over two thousand years…they were ignorant of the current condition of their country, they blindly worshipped Western culture, and had an almost superstitious belief in Western democracy and science."

Through his characters, Bai Xianyong makes the argument that the Chinese May 4th Movement was rash and over intellectualized when he says that the May 4th movement wasn't "a Chinese Renaissance, but…a cultural miscarriage." Bai Xianyong's feelings are well represented in his portrayals of the regret that both of the Professors feel for not having lead the others life, for if they had in fact lead the other's life, they would not be any more happy with what they had.

This is what I feel is Bai Xianyong's commentary on 20th century intellectuals: they are never happy or content with what they have, but rather hope to have something else entirely different. China in the 20th century was nothing but change and reform on top of change and reform, from the collapse of the Emperor, to the May 4th movement, to the prominence of the National Party, to the emergence of Mao and the communists, to the Great Leap Forward, to the cultural revolution, and finally to the steps taken towards democracy represented by Tiananmen Square. China never stopped reforming in the 20th century.