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  • Perversions of Masculinity:The Masochistic Male Subject in Yu Dafu, Guo Moruo, and Freud
  • Jing Tsu

The celebrated Chinese poet Xu Zhimo once compared the writings of his contemporary Yu Dafu to the sores on a leper who talks about them incessantly in order to draw attention to himself. Although physical degeneration and fascination with ailments are by no means the obsessions of Yu Dafu alone, this is one of the few instances in which one gets a glimpse into the narcissism of a shameless exhibitionist who does not mind being a nuisance, for even loathing would be a most welcomed form of attention—as Yu has just successfully solicited from his peer.

On the other hand, what can be easily overlooked in moments in which such behavior is singled out is how central this obsession with exposing one's ills is to the larger discursive framework of national survival, a preoccupation unparalleled in the 1920s and 1930s. After all, Lu Xun, the most important figure in the genesis of modern Chinese literature, frequently speaks of the rotten Chinese national character as correctable only through the cutting [End Page 269] away of festering sores. What thus seems significant is less the centrality of ailment as a metaphor for an endangered national identity than the mode of nationalistic discourse generated by such masochistic self-flagellation.

Indeed, the construction of a viable national character figures prominently in every instance of locating the source of China's weakness. National identity is obsessively dealt with in all possible venues of assessment and reevaluation, the expression of the urgent need for alternative narratives of a tradition no longer viable for either the articulation or the survival of modern nationhood. These alternatives, however, are paradoxically sought in the same West that also occasioned this felt oppression. Translations of Western literature, social treatises, and political tracts during this period reached an unprecedented volume. The conclusions to be drawn from them consistently return to the critique of the inadequacies of modern China: its failure to transmit its glorious cultural heritage, the stagnant social institutions it has preserved unchanged from the past, and the decayed character of its people.

The ability to identify and expose ruthlessly the social as well as psychological ills of China itself became, for writers and intellectuals, one of the last guarantees of a spiritual change through which a much needed cultural transformation might be possible. The demands of larger societal transformations were, however, often at odds with the desires of the individual that were also rediscovered in this process of self-examination. It is not surprising, then, that among the many competing Western ideologies available to the Chinese intellectuals, mostly through translations, Freudian psychoanalysis also became a part of this intellectual effort to inquire into the interiority of the individual. As noted in a recent work on the reception of psychoanalysis in China, publication on Freud in China increased from 1920 and reached its highest volume in the mid-1930s, shortly before its decline with the official onset of the Second Sino-Japanese War, after which the focus of psychoanalytical study shifted from problems of individual sexuality to those of national and social issues.1

A parallel development can also be discerned in the area in which psychoanalysis made its largest impact—literature. Before the overwhelming onset of war under which all individual imperatives were subsumed, the psychic life of the unconscious was a focus of tremendous interest for [End Page 270] Chinese intellectuals who hoped to renegotiate categories of self-identity from claims of history. It is not coincidental that both Lu Xun and Guo Moruo first experimented with psychoanalysis in an attempt to renarrate historical and mythical accounts from the Chinese classical tradition.2 The psychic genesis of the subject, together with the pseudoscientificity psychoanalytical discourse was endowed with, held a promising reserve for exploring the interiority of the individual, a territory that had not yet been fully exhausted by the weight of a tradition dominated by Confucianism.3

The attempt to articulate a new sense of self more in keeping with the demands of modernity inevitably entailed a preoccupation with the inner constitution of the individual. In the writings of Chinese...


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