Sympathy, Hypocrisy, and the Trauma of Chineseness

By Haiyan Lee

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 16, no. 2 (Fall 2004), pp. 76-122

Benedict Anderson opens his classic work Imagined Communities by pondering the contrast between the short history and boundedness of the modern nation and its overwhelming emotional legitimacy, or its ability to inspire “colossal sacrifices.” He famously points to print capitalism as the catalyst of the nationalist imagination. This essay supplements Anderson’s thesis by making a case for the intersection of nationalism and love. It demonstrates that nationalism demands and is buttressed by a universalistic structure of feeling–“national sympathy”–that is modeled on romantic love. In the May Fourth context, melancholy love stories were bound up with the quest for national sympathy and modern nationhood. National sympathy was in turn part and parcel of the global discourse of national character centering on the question of sympathetic identification among conationals.

The essay sets up the discursive context by reading two instances of the global discourse of national character–one missionary (Arthur Smith) and one colonial (Watsuji Tetsurô)–that establish sympathy as a crucial signifier of nationhood. It then turns to Lu Xun and examines his profound reflections on love and sympathy in “Preface to Call to Arms,” “Medicine,” and “The True Story of Ah Q.” The author then examines May Fourth criticisms (essays by Gu Chengwu, Tian Han et al. and “The Greatest Event in Life” by Hu Shi), which contend that the Chinese were incapable of genuine love because the Chinese family fostered hypocrisy. Lee argues that modern Chinese literature was born as a discourse of lack that portrayed grass-roots society as unfeeling and that envisioned the mission of literature as a sentimental project–to make Chinese feel for and identify with one another as conationals by replacing kinship and locality-based identities with universal, sentiment-based identities. In the final section, the author demonstrates the hegemonic effect of the discourse of national sympathy through a symptomatic reading of Yu Dafu’s “Sinking” as a narrative of failed sociability..