Traditionalism Versus a Progressive Modernized world
Throughout history, many authors of literature have made commentaries about society using stories and those stories’ characters as a launching platform. The short story by Lu Xun, entitled “The New Year’s Sacrifice” set in northern China, is no exception to this principle. When forced into a second arranged marriage, a Chinese woman tries to deal with the loss of her son and a village of unsympathetic citizens. Through its main characters, “The New Year’s Sacrifice” explores the theme of modernity versus traditionalism through Mr. Lu, who represents entrenched tradition; the nephew, who represents progressive modernity; and Hsiang Lin’s Wife, who represents being stuck between the past and the future of the Chinese culture. In “The New Year’s Sacrifice,” Mr.Lu symbolizes older and more traditional individuals who refuse to let go of customs within the changing Chinese culture. Born into the generation before the narrator of the story, Mr. Lu was accustomed to an older and more traditional time within the Chinese culture. The traditionalism of Mr.Lu’s character is demonstrated by the fact that he was an “old student of the imperial college.” In a historical context, the imperial college was an idea conceived and brought about by the Qing Dynasty. The imperial college was established as the highest institute of learning reserved for those who were highly respected within society. The college also focused on Neo Confucianism and its teachings. Mr. Lu’s educational background, therefore, shows that Mr. Lu comes from a strictly traditional version of Chinese society because he not only attended the imperial college under the teachings of NeoConfucianism, but he was probably also able to achieve the status of a sage. A sage strived to serve the community; he lived to the best of his ability. They were seen as some of the wisest within a community. Mr. Lu would have been highly thought of within the community on account of his many accomplishments. However, given his background, he would not have welcomed the evolution of societal customs with open arms, considering his much older history. When Mr. Lu’s nephew goes into his study only to find Kang Hsi’s Dictionary and a set of Chinese classics on the floor, an older time in history is being referenced. These texts further imply his Uncle’s deep ties to an earlier, more imperial China given that both of the documents found on the floor exhibit teachings and ideas that have since been amended or forgotten altogether, given the changing culture. The hostile and demanding behavior Mr. Lu exhibits toward his nephew, Hsiang Lin’s Wife, coupled with his reaction to the actions of revolutionaries in the story, hints at his belief in order and respect within society. When Mr. Lu first encounters his nephew, he launches into “a violent attack on the revolutionaries;” this implies that Mr. Liu does not support their ideas or actions in the slightest. Similarly, when Mr. Lu meets Hsiang Lin’s Wife for the first time, he is hostile toward her and does not want her to work in their household because she is a widow, and widows were considered to be outcasts in society. This distasteful reaction toward Hsiang Lin’s Wife, therefore, suggests he was concerned for his social standing. On an even broader spectrum, Mr. Lu was concerned about the social status of his house based on what the rest of society would have to say about the disgraceful situation of a widowed housewife working within what was considered a respectable home. The way Mr. Lu chooses to interact with his nephew or the lack of interaction with his nephew not only alludes to his love of order, but it also alludes to an obsession with customs. Throughout the story, each time the nephew comes to the Uncle announcing that he plans to travel home to the city, the Uncle has no objections. The interaction between Mr. Lu and his nephew is limited, which refers to the cultural context of the story. For Instance, the Chinese culture thinks highly of men and how they choose to conduct their lives; in this way, the Uncle must have high expectations for his nephew. However, it is an unspoken rule in society among men not to express their emotions, and for this reason, the Uncle may not have expressed his opinion on his nephew wanting to leave. In contrast to Mr. Lu, the nephew, also serves the purpose of the narrator of the story, functions as a representation of a progressively modernized society. The nephew is a product of a younger generation where the traditions of the Chinese culture, in some respects, no longer upheld. The nephew expresses within the opening lines of the narrative that he no longer calls the city of Luchen his home, even though it is considered his “native place.” This implies a kind of detachment from the physical location and culture of Luchen, along with the personal relatives that call Luchen home. Therefore, the detachment points to the nephew’s overall modern take on the changing world in contrast with the traditional views of Mr. Lu. The fact that the nephew is considered, among others, to be a scholar suggests that he is, in fact, a product of the modern educational system. The nephew is a part of a more “advanced” Chinese society where having religious beliefs about the afterlife is not as crucial to everyday life as it may have been in the past. The varying views about the afterlife are seen within the story as the nephew has a conversation with Hsiang Lin’s wife. When she asks him about the afterlife, there is not a direct answer given to her, and he is left uncertain about his own beliefs. The way the nephew shows pity for Hsiang Lin’s Wife, unlike many of the others in the story, suggests a progression toward a more modernized mindset in regards to the unfair treatment of women in the Chinese culture. How the nephew has a disregard for the customs and holidays such as the New Year’s Sacrifice implies a more modern way of living. The world where the old customs and traditions are thrust aside to make room for new and better ones has, in many ways, lost its true meaning when it comes to its history. Hsiang Lin’s wife in “The New Year’s Sacrifice” is a representation of those in society desiring to modernize, while one of their feet remained planted in the past. Hsiang Lin’s Wife longs to move forward with the rest of the community in the end. However, she is unable to redefine herself because of her past. She is traditional in the way that she is respectful toward her employers and her past relations. As a wife and woman subject to her society, she does her duties diligently in the way she does her housework, and she is a loving mother to her son until his death. However, Hsiang Lin’s wife longs to be modern in the way she lives after her husband’s and son’s passing. When Hsiang Lin’s Wife remarried, she spends the entire journey to the mountain home of her new husband fighting back. She only is committed to the arranged marriage after the use of significant force by those accompanying her. In the same way, her conversation with the nephew shows how she longs for a different future. The woman herself inquires about the existence of an afterlife and if whole families will reunite at the end of time. The questions she chooses demonstrates a struggle to move beyond the past into a more modern time within society. Hsiang Lin’s Wife wants to move beyond what the past had traditionally happened in her life and rise above adversity. Instead, she wants to be happy in a new life, reborn through immersing herself in her work, and unaware that she is becoming a part of the culture of her city. In the end, though, she knows that personal happiness will not come to her except in death; and this happens when she becomes the New Year’s Sacrifice, and she will live no more. On the other hand, Hsiang Lin’s Wife, in many ways, remains unaware of her situation and wants to stay in the past. This is demonstrated in the way that she continuously recounts the story of her son’s death to those who live in Luchen. Hsiang Lin’s Wife has told the story so many times that everyone in the town can recite the story from memory and, the woman behind the narrative has become an urban legend. The fact that she runs away from her second husband shows how she longs to live her life happily in the past, with her first husband, whom she loved. To cope with her loss, she throws herself at her as a housemaid and becomes the laughing stock of the town. “The New Year’s Sacrifice” provides an elaborate commentary on early Chinese culture and those who lived under its jurisdiction. Some welcomed a more modernized world, and others chose to fight against it. However, some characters still found themselves lost in translations caught between both the old and the new customs emerging due to a changing society by the end of the story.