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Tradition, A Brand on the Soul

Tradition has been enshrined by the Chinese people over its thousands of years of history. Today it might seem that in the past 20 years of opening up and reform, the influence of Chinese tradition has waned. Westernization is the obvious trend in China today, and there are those who are glad, and take this as a sign of progress and modernization in this ancient country.

However the fact is that, far from dying out, tradition is actually deep rooted in the innermost recesses of the Chinese consciousness. Although Chinese costume, habits and life style have undergone great changes, Chinese traditional morals are intact, constituting an invisible rudder that steers the course of Chinese society. The interaction and inevitable conflict between westernization and conservatism, and foreign and traditional culture has made Chinese society more complex. For the Chinese people, tradition is inherent, indelibly branding them as "Made in China."

Two-year old Yin Xiaoquan toddles along the lane, unaware of an uncovered sewer in her path. Her babysitters, sisters Yin Xiaotiao aged 12, and Yin Xiaofan aged 7, watch apathetically as the toddler disappears from sight, down the sewer. The two girls, hand in hand throughout, seem to have been waiting for the curtain-fall on a play they dislike. This is a section from the Big Bathing Girl, a penetrative book about the influence of traditional concepts on personality and behavior.

The author, Tie Ning, vice chairwoman of the Chinese writers' association, is well known for her works on Chinese youth such as Xiang Xue, and the Girl in Red. In recent years she has focused on the fate of women and the antagonistic contradictions between them in contemporary society. The Big Bathing Girl is her latest work.

The book chronicles a 30 year span -- the most restless 30 years in China. The nightmarish 10-year "cultural revolution", which broke out in the mid 1960s; the 1980s when China was put back on the rails; and the 1990s when the country began to reap the fruits of recovery and development. Living through these three decades, and owing to a small disparity in age, Tang Fei, Yin Xiaotiao and Yin Xiaofan, the book's three main characters, all fare quite differently, since a few years made a big difference in those turbulent times. However, none of them escapes the grip of traditional morals. Their experience, in fact, epitomizes Chinese people of their generation.

The "cultural revolution" was a time of distortion, when, under the guise of anti-feudalism, feudal dogma wreaked havoc, and while superficially advocating benevolence, the evil in human nature reigned supreme. Apart from improper leadership, the strong feudal aspect of traditional Chinese culture is blamed for this disaster. Against such a background, Tang Fei is doomed to be a tragic figure.

Tang is the illegitimate child of a primary school teacher. Having refused to reveal the father of her child's name, Tang's mother commits suicide in shame, but her death does not save the girl from an ill fate. In Chinese culture, which accords more respect to morality than to individual life, illegitimacy is merely a synonym for "immorality," a belief even stronger during the "cultural revolution". Tang Fei, though pretty and resourceful, is excluded from all opportunity. In order to improve her situation, Tang barters her body in exchange for employment at a factory as foundry worker, and is later promoted to the post of typist. These minor improvements in her life seem miraculous to her, but her behavior nevertheless provokes still more social disdain and loathing. Attitudes towards her are unchanged, even after the "cultural revolution" comes to an end, since social prejudice is as prevalent as ever it was.

The irony of the situation is that Tang Fei, despite being ground down by conventional morals, is herself a protagonist of tradition. When, as a child, she discovers that Yin Xiaoquan is the bastard of Yin's mother and Tang's uncle, she drops broad hints of this to Xin Xiaotiao, and it is Tang who one night removes the lid of the sewer, which later swallows up the two-year old girl. Thus the victim of conventional principles is, at the same time, their defender. This phenomenon reveals exactly the impact of conventional mores on human mentality.

The friendship between Tang Fei and Yin Xiaotiao is based on a mutual abhorrence of their parents' adultery. In Yin Xiaotiao's eyes the death of her younger sister saves the name of the whole family, and atones for her mother's immoral deeds. On the other hand, Yin suffers moral torment, since according to conventional morality sitting and passively watching another's death is no better than personally committing murder. Although nobody discovers the truth, Yin Xiaotiao feels a strong sense of guilt. To atone for her crime, she grows up to be a person acknowledged as good, studious, understanding and kind-hearted. She embodies many traditional Chinese virtues, but is nonetheless far from a paragon of virtue. With the aim of changing her job, Xiaotiao wins the help and influence of the vice mayor who is enamored of Tang Fei. She thinks nothing of sacrificing her friend's dignity for her own ends, excusing herself with the thought "if the act of prostitution has been committed, it makes no difference whether it occurs once or ten times." Obviously, Yin Xiaotiao and other moral stalwarts could never renounce their bias toward Tang Fei, since it is ingrained in their cultural tradition.

Yin Xiaofan is the most distinctive character in the book. She hates her younger sister, since the baby displaces her as favorite of the family. As to Xiaoquan's death, she chooses to believe that Yin Xiaotiao held her back from going to the rescue she never really intended, thus shifting the blame on to her sister. However, in order to expiate her sins, she tries to be a "model child" from her childhood onwards. After graduating from college, Fan goes abroad, and soon adapts to life as an American citizen. She defies Chinese tradition in an effort to shake off the dark shadows of the past. During visits to her family in the 1990s, she complains about everything at home and in China, right down to the quality of the shower nozzle and water pressure. Her discontent may be attributed to the futility of throwing off formative influences, but meanwhile, her sense of superiority over tradition eventually wavers as she witnesses the marvelous changes in Yin Xiaotiao's life. The truth is that her rebellion will never succeed, because her deep yearning to refute Chinese tradition merely testifies to the extent that it is embedded in her consciousness. She still believes, " Sleeping in China is real sleep─free from care, peaceful, and watched over by family members until waking up."

Traditional Chinese principles cannot be judged simply as good or bad. They are a blend of lofty ideals and bias, inextricably lodged and deep in the heart and consciousness of the Chinese people.

(Chinatoday.com 05/15/2001)

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