The short story Sinking by Yu Dafu follows the story of a young man from China that is studying in Japan. The reader is able to look into his mind and see the main character’s true self, which is troubled by low self esteem, loneliness, paranoia, fear, hypochondria, megalomania, hatred, sexual frustration, and other self degrading traits. All of these traits that he possesses correlate to China’s condition in that particular time period. China was in a state of turmoil trying to escape from its conservative and traditional “Iron House” and evolving into a new radical and westernized nation. In a way, China was contaminated with the old teachings and conservative ways and needed to be purified with new ways of thinking and living. The new ideas of the West correlate with the fact that the main character in this story is only at peace when he becomes influenced by nature, or when he’s reading romantic literature. He appreciates nature, literature and the arts and views them as his escapes from reality.
China is unable to escape from the old ways but wants to let new ideas in. It is in a state of turmoil and even confusion. The old morals fight against the new ones. The main character experiences a similar problem. Originating from China, the main character is situated in a world where he is constantly paranoid about the people and situations around him. In school, he constantly assumes that his classmates are conspiring against him and talking about him behind his back. He is constantly on his guard when in public and has a strong resentment to the Japanese people in general. Being a Chinese living in Japan, he is unable to make any connections with the people around him. A huge part of his hatred for the Japanese comes from the historical events that happened not long before he went there. Japan defeated China in many aspects in war and in industry. Being proud of his people, it’s natural that he feels resentment to his “enemies,” the Japanese. He feels as if he’s put into a box when he’s with the Japanese and he feels suffocated in a way that is not allowing him to make healthy decisions. In one part of the book he says, “They’re all Japanese, all my enemies. I’ll have my revenge on day; I’ll get even with them.” Thus, his megalomania derives from the superiority that he feels to the Japanese. He is in a way full of himself and proud of his Chinese heritage. His hatred towards the Japanese represents the old morals or China. His ego then overcomes him and he feels the need to distance himself from the Japanese people around him. There are also points where he wishes that he could in fact converse with the Japanese students. He states, “They are Japanese, and of course they don’t have any sympathy for you. It’s because you want their sympathy that you have grown to hate them.” At times he wanted to associate himself with his enemies and in the book; some of the Japanese students did approach him and tried to initiate conversation. This represents the new morals of China. By associating with the Japanese he would be starting a new way of thinking and forgetting his old ways as well as the history. He tried to converse with them but he couldn’t. As a result, the sympathetic Japanese students respected his wishes and left him alone. As his fellow students left him alone and distanced themselves from him, he felt like even more of an outcast. When he finally wants their sympathy they ignore him, which causes even more anger and paranoia for him. He created this backward and confusing situation where he hates the people around him and at the same time he wishes for them to accept him.
On the other hand, there are points in the story where he is at peace and content. Nature and foreign literature are the two most important and effective ways for him to be his true self. In a way, he is a dreamer. He often recites poetry, reads classical works by romantic writers, and he truly appreciates nature and can interpret it according to his own theories and thoughts. He also relates himself to writers and feels a sense of closeness to them. At one point in the book he refers to himself as the famous writer, Gogol. He explains that Gogol too has had a sickness and was not able to cure himself of it. By applying himself as a famous Western romantic author, he could see himself as cured. Gogol has flaws and so could he. Whenever his illness takes effect he would refer back to the elements that calmed him, books and nature. To China, Western ideals and morals are a sense of refreshment from the old way of life. It cleanses the old China of the contamination just as the western literature and natural scenery cleanses the main character of the book of all of his fears.
It is clear that the main character of this story represents China itself. China strives to westernize and bring in a new way of thinking. The main character in this story suffers from all kinds of mental weaknesses, thus correlating to China’s “spiritual sickness.” The old conservative ways of China are a sickness that overcomes the main character. His obsession with romanticism, literature, nature, and self fulfillment represents the future that China wants to obtain.
Another correlation that this story has is with Guo Moruo’s translation
of Goethe’s work titled The Sorrows of Young Werther. It states
in Guo Moruo’s preface that emphasis on emotions is positive. The
character in Sinking has a great deal of emotional problems and he also
expresses them in the open. The idea of consciousness of the natural world
and the idea that dying is a natural positive process are also two of
the main point in The Sorrows of Young Werther. Our tragic hero in Sinking
does an excellent job of questioning or exemplifying both of these ideas.
He was truly happy when he was in the natural world. He appreciated nature
and all of the aspects and details that derive from it. His death at the
end of the book both represents a natural human process and a final contribution
that the main character makes to the world. He is in a way sacrificing
himself for China. He is making a statement of doing something drastic
to prove a point. By committing suicide, he could prove an example to
the future generations and have hoped that they could succeed where he
did not. By dying, all of the contamination would disappear as well. By
sacrificing himself he would rid the world of a very small portion of
the contamination that is carried by him. He would make a small contribution.