Hope Amidst Tragedy
"Xiaoxiao," written by Shen Congwen, is an insightful coming-of-age story that focuses on the child-bride system and depicts life in rural China as structured around traditional values. When the main character in the story is betrothed, she is only eleven years old and is betrothed to a two-year old baby. Xiaoxiao, a young girl who one day dreams of becoming a coed, is not betrothed in order to experience true love, but out of economic necessity. If she has a husband, nurture, food, and care are easily at her disposal. From an American perspective, a situation such as being betrothed to a two-year-old baby seems ridiculous. However, at the time that this story was written, a betrothal such as this was a norm in Chinese society. Women were often married off to men much younger than themselves; such an occurrence was seen as neither immoral nor absurd. However, this betrothal proves to be a less simple one than hoped when its purity is tainted by Motley Mutt, the farmhand on Xiaoxiao's family's property, when he seduces Xiaoxiao and impregnates her.
In Chinese society, adulteresses were either drowned by their families or sold off. If a family wanted to follow Confucian values, they would drown their daughter because she has gravely "sinned." However, if a family considers their name or money as more important, they would sell their daughter off for economic purposes, a shameless alternative to drowning her. When speaking of the choices that the family has in regards as to what to do with Xiaoxiao, Shen Congwen writes, "By rights, she should have been drowned, but only heads of families who have read their Confucius would do such a stupid thing to save the family's honor…" By this statement, the reader can infer that Shen Congwen is somewhat condemning Confucian principles. He does not agree with the Confucian way of dealing with adulteresses. Only a cruel family more concerned with their own reputation than the love that they have for their daughter would act in such a manner. However, in Xiaoxiao's case, when it is discovered that she is pregnant, she is too far along in her pregnancy to be sold off; no one will want her. Therefore, there are only two choices for the family to choose from- drown her or keep her at home until she gives birth. Xiaxiao's family, out of desperation, chooses the latter and when she does give birth, Xiaoxiao gives birth to a baby boy. Because of this fact, her family decides to keep her and she is able to raise her son and still get married to the boy that she is betrothed to.
Although Shen Congwen's "Xiaoxiao" is filled with tragedy such as rape and the possibility of drowning, compared with much other Chinese literature, it ends happily. Xiaxiao's family decides to keep her and her son and spare her life. In addition, although Xiaoxiao's dream of becoming a coed ends for her after giving birth to a child out of wedlock, the possibility of her partially living out this dream exists within her son. When seeing coeds walking by, she remarks to her baby, "Look, look! The coeds are here too! One day, when you grow up, we'll get you a coed for a wife." Her dream does not die and the opportunity for it to be fulfilled is passed on to the next generation.
In his short story Xiaoxiao, Shen Congwen gives a more hopeful portrait of life for a young woman put into an arranged marriage. Unlike most stories of the period, Shen Congwen does not seem to desire to make any striking social criticisms and strays from passing judgment on Chinese traditions like arranged marriage. Instead, he simply gives a portrait of girl's life and experiences and actually ends his story on a relatively happy note.
The central element of the story is the title character Xiaoxiao. Xiaoxiao has been orphaned since she was very young and was married off to a more wealthy family as a child bride, a system in which an older girl is married to a child. For the most part Xiaoxiao is characterized by her maternal instincts, innocence and naiveté and therefore is unable to fully comprehend a lot of the ideas that people put into her mind such as the suggestion that she will become a coed. All Xiaoxiao knows of the coeds are their appearance and that her husband’s family mocks them at almost every opportunity. Because she does not know exactly what a coed is she often wonders to herself what it would be like to be one. Likewise when Motley Mutt begins to make advances on her, Xiaoxiao is unable at first to understand what Mutt means by his words and songs, acting almost as ignorant of what is going on as her child is. Eventually Xiaoxiao begins to catch on to what Mutt is doing and is unsure how to react. Shortly thereafter, she has a sexual encounter with Mutt that leads to Xiaoxiao getting pregnant. Had she not been so innocent, it could be inferred that Xiaoxiao perhaps would not end up getting into trouble. However, in the end this does not matter because despite the initial threats on her life after the pregnancy is discovered, Xiaoxiao gives birth to a male child whom is immediately taken into the home.
Xiaoxiao could easily be seen as a representation of a generation of young girls who have no option but to enter into the child bride system, as indicated by the cycle renewing at the end of the story, but that would make her and the story too one dimensional. For everything that goes wrong in Xiaoxiao's life there tends to be something that balances it out. Even though she is orphaned she is taken into a well off farming family and doesn't have to worry about food. Even when Xiaoxiao gets pregnant out of wedlock, she ends up having a male child which means that she both gets to stay in the family and keep her life. Xiaoxiao's life is not incredibly joyous nor is it stricken with agony: though she does have her painful moments, she gets by. Shen Congwen is trying to present the portrait of a life that is realistic with both ups and downs that doesn't necessarily have to end tragically.
Shen Congwen's form of writing is clearly the result of a generation of writers obsessed with purpose and messages rather than stories.
Your Mother’s Smile and Your Father’s Eyes
| Xiaoxiao, written by Shen Congwen,
could be categorized into the coming of age/feminism genre. It is a story
about child marriage and the traditional Chinese values regarding such relationships.
In this story we are forced to examine the child marriage system and compare
old Chinese values with new westernization thought. Shen Congwen presents
many different themes in Xiaoxiao that exhibit the struggles that Chinese
youth was facing during the transitional shift away from old Chinese traditions.
The youth experienced a tear in morality and beliefs. They respected their
elders and understood that these traditional practices and ideology were
important to the family and to the preservation of sanctity in China. However,
they also saw the illogical and judgmental nature of the traditional Chinese
In Xiaoxiao there is a recurring theme of farmers against the city people. Although the Shen Congwen does not have a specific clear voice in regard to this issue, Xiaoxiao seems to be aware of the stupid biases involved in her grandfather's traditions of judgment against the "co-eds". Yet, she is still bothered by his jokes and takes them as insults. There is a clear voice of confusion: the narrator knows that there is something more to life than her current home, a rural farm, but she is torn because her elders' voices inevitably linger with her. At the end of the story, XiaoXiao wishes for her son to one day be a co-ed (a city person). This dream that she has for her son is positive in that it is going away from prejudiced traditionalism, yet sad at the same time because her dream is lost. This is another example of an over arching theme of dichotomy in Xiaoxiao.
Another theme that is present in Xiaoxiao is the traditional domination of males over females struggling with the realizations that female youth were enduring. Traditional China was filled with sexist traditions such as binding women's breasts and feet and the drowning of women when adultery was discovered. For example Xiaoxiao works for 10 years for the family before she marries her husband and the family also lets Xiaoxiao stay because she had a boy, where as if she had a girl they would have killed her for her adultery. There is also a strong theme of freedom, which is often paralleled with the fact that Xiaoxiao is herself not free. This is paralleled with the enlightenment that she achieves of wanting a better life for females and wanting her son to be married out of love.
This is a story that displays that traditional Chinese people are so dead in terms of feelings and emotion. Shen Congwen used to be a soldier. Decapitation was a form of entertainment, and since Shen Congwen was no exception to this, he was very intrigued with decapitation and death as punishment. He has an attitude of alarm and concern towards China and argues that the Chinese need to wake and realize the pathetic aspects in their daily traditions. He became very political and tried to cure the social diseases of China. He demands that his readers have multiple perspectives in his story. It is hard to realize what he wants his message to be. He is entertaining all types of positions. He is very good at giving the wonderful language of illustrating all types and sides and situations of every type of problems in Chinese social life. He is moralistic, but his moral is not the one he is willing to impose on Chinese society, which is often what other authors attempt to do. He questions the privileged way of other authors and their moral guidelines pushed on others. Shen Congwen rises above the clear dichotomy of old China and New China. Congwen insists that all problems exist for human nature in different ways. Most people want to turn in the way that Lu Xun wants to go, and Shen Congwen found himself in line with a smaller reality as opposed to a universal reality. Shen Congwen, wants to describe China for what it is and not just simply adopt all of the western ideals.
This dichotomy between the ideologies of different generations still exist today. I can relate to the confusion and struggle between wanting to please your elders yet seeing the flaws in their views and wanting to live your life according to your own ideologies. I relate specifically to the narrator's desire to break free from the restrictions placed on women, that seemed so essential to her elders' ideology. I often argue with my parents about a woman's role in society today and what new opportunities are offered to women. Having a younger brother and realizing the rules that are placed on me which he does not have to follow is very frustrating. For example I used to have a curfew of midnight in high school, where as my brother has no curfew, or I could not wear certain items of clothing, where his apparel is totally unrestricted. While I understand that they have grown up in different eras and at heart truly believe that they are doing what is right, I also see that they are imposing sexist rules and methods on me. In dealing with this struggle I have determined, like the narrator, that I will make an effort not to do this to my daughter. I also realize that my children will differ from my values and hopefully filter out some of my faulty traditions and judgments, just as my parents turned away from their parents racists ideologies and I look down on my parents sexists views. It is my only hope that one day the youth will no longer have to differ from their parents' ideologies due to embedded judgments and illogical practices due to that our society will be pure from toxic belief systems all together.