Two Worlds: Conflict of Contemporary and Traditional in Fan Yeh’s Family Catastrophe

A fairly recent novel to the Chinese literary scene by Su Tong, called Rice, chronicles the breaking apart of a family in 1930s China due to the depravity of the family members. In this story, two ruthless people marry and begin a wanton family, their children learning their bad habits and characters from their parents. For example, their son kills his own sister, their daughter, in order to avenge her for some petty act she has committed against him (Su 148-149). However, this novel, with its focus on its dark characters and their destruction of the family unit, is not the only book in the modern Chinese literary canon to deal with the breakup of a family. Wang Wen-Hsing’s Family Catastrophe, written in 1972, does not deal with a family of dark and ruthless individuals, as does Rice, but its end result—the breakup of the family unit—is the same. In this novel the main character Fan Yeh develops from an acutely sensitive and imaginative child into a jaded and bitter young man.  He essentially traverses three stages of development throughout the novel. At first, he is enamored with his parents and the protection they provide. His world is in perfect order when he is near them; everything makes sense, and he is safe. As he becomes more educated, the old-fashioned, superstitious behaviors of his parents outweigh the intense bond of filial love that he felt as a child, irritating him and driving him further away. By the end of the novel, he has become completely alienated from them, treating them like disdainful objects with whom he has little choice but to share his life. In the case of this novel, it is the irreconcilability of Fan Yeh’s contemporary worldview and his parents’ traditional one that drives them apart. In other words, Fan Yeh’s quest for a sense of order he can approve of, one imposed by modern behavior and tradition, is stronger by far than his love for his parents, and distances him further from them with every year that passes.

Ironically, when Fan Yeh is young and most assured of his parents’ overarching authority and the order they contribute to his life, the narrative structure is also the most distorted. However, contrary to indicating that he feels that his life lacks order, the fragmentary nature of this early part of the narration is simply indicative of the young age of the narrator at this time, when he is prone to disjointed, disconnected thought. There is no possibility that he feels uncertain of his parents’ authority, for the past tense narrative begins with a segment that immediately establishes his sense of complete comfort and security when with his father. In this scene, he is walking with his father down an avenue, “his little hand” resting “comfortably in Father’s large, warm hand” (Wang 22). This imagery of Fan Yeh’s hand safe and cozy in his father’s, paired with the boy’s doting description of his father’s voice as “kindly” and “loving,” indicate the sense of complete and total warmth and love that he feels in his father’s presence (22). Later, Fan Yeh describes sleeping with his father. “His corner of the bed was a sweet haven of peace. He felt that this was the safest place on earth. Father’s body was like a fortress, protecting him from all manner of danger and invasion” (31). It is clear that he views his father as a structured and orderly “fortress,” a strong and powerful figure who will protect him from that which is dangerous and invasive, in other words, that which is chaotic and threatens the sense of divine order the presence of Fan Yeh’s father gives him[1].

Afterwards, Fan Yeh experiences a transitory phase where he becomes ambivalent about his parents’ worldview. He begins to question different aspects of their beliefs, invariably finding that they do not satisfy him. During this phase, he begins to lose his connection with his mother, which was weaker than that with his father to begin with. For example, at one point, he complains about one of his mother’s silly superstitions, of which he remarks, “…he couldn’t remember a single time it had worked” (51). Clearly, he is beginning to lose faith in his mother’s way of thinking. Additionally, he often tries to play ping-pong, a sport of increasing vogue, with his mother, but realizes to his dismay that she is a terrible player. He explains that, “this invariably made his blood boil,” which seems like a rather unreasonable reaction to somebody who simply cannot play a popular sport (70). His response therefore suggests that his resentment is for a much worse crime, his mother’s inability to participate in this modern, fashionable activity. This scene is immediately juxtaposed with a description of the mother’s religious corner of the house, depicted as a gloomy place covered with cobwebs. Fan Yeh “dreaded this corner and kept away from it as much as he could. In fact, he never dared look directly into it. Of all the corners of the house, this one aroused the worst fears in him” (70). It is evident that her religious superstitions do more than make Fan Yeh uncomfortable—they frighten him. The description of this religious corner as filled with cobwebs indicates his disdain for it as an antiquated method of thinking about the world. Because of its proximity to the ping-pong scene, and because the only connecting factor between the two scenes is the mother’s presence, it is reasonable to assume that this religious corner and what it represents is the real, underlying cause of much of Fan Yeh’s disappointment in his mother.

After this exploratory period of beginning to find fault with his parents’ way of structuring the world, Fan Yeh grows bolder, beginning to defy his parents and openly challenge their beliefs. With these actions, his parents’ traditional order becomes pitted against his own idea of what order should be, driving him further away from them. In the ninety-eighth segment, Fan Yeh agonizes about his mother’s misguided belief that the sun is bad for a person’s skin, since his classmates all make fun of him for being lily-white. “O how stupid, how ignorant she was!…she was responsible for his daily shame and embarrassment. He decided then and there to go out. See if she could stop him!…he got up and went” (116-117). He has already shown disrespect for his mother and her beliefs, but now he openly acknowledges to himself that one of the truths she holds to, one leg of the order she imposes on his world, is ‘stupid’ and ‘ignorant.’ He also defies her wishes and does as he pleases, which shows that by this point he has lost all respect for any advice or viewpoint his mother might have.

Soon after this incident, three significant events occur in a row that cause his disgust for his mother to grow exponentially. Of these, the one that most clearly challenges his mother’s way of structuring the world is the centrally-occurring one.[2]  In this instance, Fan Yeh comes home one day boldly determined to challenge his mother’s beliefs that have scared him for so long. “At school, he had heard about the need to abolish superstition, and he was already a convert to the theory of overthrowing idols and spirits” (130). Thus, the institution of school, which instructs its students in the most contemporary way of thought, emphasizes to him that the way in which his parents order their world is hopelessly outdated and pathetic. Determined to prove his parents’ traditional order wrong, he gets into an argument with his mother over the validity of the concept of ancestors, and successfully proves the idea false to his satisfaction (132). From that point on, he only continues to make half-hearted gestures of obeisance to his ancestors because his mother forces him to; this drives a deep gully between the two of them (132-134). Fan Yeh, growing ever bolder  and more insolent, decides to commit an offensive act on his father’s birthday, after having been forced once more to make an obeisance to his family’s ancestors. He complains, “This sort of superstition should never have been allowed to exist! This kind of filial pity should never have been allowed to prevail! Then an idea came to him…he slipped out of the room, headed toward the cabinet for the pair of candles, and blew them out” (134). It is a tradition to keep these candles lit for the duration of his father’s birthday, so by blowing them out he is, in the eyes of his parents, committing a hugely disgraceful act in the face of the ancestors. It is noteworthy that he carries through with committing this act, despite the fact that he is aware that it indirectly affects his father. Thus, his contempt for his mother has finally begun to spread to his other parent as well. Importantly, his complaint about ‘this kind of filial pity suggests that he does not, at this point, have a problem with the overall concept of filial pity, but rather ‘this kind’—one presumes that he means a kind in which modern, enlightened views are stifled in favor of traditional, outmoded ways of structuring and ordering the world. This flagrantly disrespectful act marks the beginning of his total disregard and outright contempt for his parents and the order of the world that they impose on him because he lives in their home[3].

As he becomes totally disgusted by both of his parents, he begins to notice that his father is a man of pattern. This is a trait that annoys Fan Yeh to an incredible extent, because these fixed, patterned habits of his father are usually empty, devoid of meaning or purpose. Therefore, to Fan Yeh, they further reflect what he perceives to be the meaningless, superstitious structures his parents have built up around themselves in their old-fashioned attempt to bring order to the world. For example, a long, detailed passage describing his father’s intricate ceremony for brushing his teeth is followed by the comment that he “was intent only on the observance of the ritual, much like the way a monk mouths his liturgies in the morning” (192). It is worth mention that Fan Yeh’s observation here reveals, though it is no secret, his disrespect for religion. He apparently views it as one of these old-fashioned institutions that go about ordering the world in what he considers to be the wrong way, consisting of those who perform ceremonies more for ritual than for the ostensible purpose for which they are held. More importantly at this point, however, his observation reflects one of his overarching problems with his parents’ belief system—he feels that many of their beliefs are rooted more in the observance of ritual than they are in the beliefs themselves. Another example details a habit his father has of brushing windowsills, an activity which also aggravates Fan Yeh. He explains, “His father did not sweep and dust for the sake of cleanliness. These activities were only pretexts, means by which he escaped from mental exercise…” (192). Again, Fan Yeh expresses his own belief that these rituals by which his parents construct their lives, from minor details like how to brush teeth to major ceremonies like the offering of foods to the ancestors, are rooted in emptiness, a mere unwillingness to devote the mind to actual mental activity. In ritual, the mind can dumbly follow a prescribed set of actions, without having to think about the implications of these actions.

Until this point, much has been said about Fan Yeh’s disgust with his parents’ worldview, but little is spoken of in the way of what kind of worldview he does respect until closer to the end of the novel. At one point, Fan Yeh meets a very intelligent man, well-read in history and international relations, with whom he begins to spend much of his time. “Fan Yeh was especially drawn to his high oratory whenever he expounded on the noble views he held” (202). This elderly man, a graduate of Peking University, represents the kind of intellectual thought and discussion of abstract ideas and principles that Fan Yeh has sought and failed to find within his own parents. At one point, his father spots Fan Yeh assisting the old man cross the street, and Fan Yeh acknowledges his father’s presence with no more than a curt nod of the head (202). This incident suggests that Fan Yeh sees in the old man an appropriate substitution for his own father, a man who has the kind of contemporary worldview that Fan Yeh truly admires. In another incident, Fan Yeh happens to visit his father at work while he is filling in for a higher post temporarily. “The moment Fan Yeh stepped into the director’s office… he felt a strange sensation come over him, a combination of disbelief, astonishment, and, indeed, delight—there sat his father behind the huge desk…Fan Yeh was…immensely grateful for this glimpse into the possibility for commanding respect that seemed to have been hiding somewhere in the wings of his father’s personality” (210). His heart leaps at this opportunity to finally bestow upon his father the respect he has always wished to be able to give him, for in this new role, his father seems the ultimate figure of authority, no longer the pathetic old man, who shuffles around the house engaging in pointless rituals. However, this respect is short-lived due to some trouble his father comes into regarding falsifying accounts. As if this is not terrible enough, his father then handles the situation in an undignified manner, so that Fan Yeh once more feels ashamed that he must call this man ‘father’ (210-219).[4]

A constant struggle between the contemporary, intellectual worldview Fan Yeh holds and the more traditional, superstitious one of his parents gradually drives them all apart. In the end, he loses all emotional connection to his family—in other words, his need for modernity trumps his desire for an emotional connection with his parents. He would rather be alone, and isolated, than have a deep connection with family that he views as steeped in backwards, outlandish ideas and perceptions. In a fairly sad turn of affairs, when his father leaves, Fan Yeh, though at first upset, realizes after awhile that his absence might actually be beneficial to him and his mother. At one point, long before his father runs away, Fan Yeh reflects that “he felt, in an obscure way, a kind of grief, but what it was, what he was grieving for, he could not say. Even stranger still was that, contrary to expectations, out of this sense of loss and sadness he felt mysteriously comforted, experiencing a kind of relief resembling gratification…” (171) Though his mother was the one in the novel who represented outmoded superstition and belief, in her older years, she does not want to provoke Fan Yeh, and so no longer imposes her beliefs upon him . His father, on the other hand, the perpetrator of pointless, meaningless rituals, which is perhaps more aggravating to Fan Yeh than his mother’s beliefs, does not give in to his son, but holds on with fierce pride to his routine (229-230). Therefore, once the father has left, the Fan household is absent of both the pointless rituals and outdated ideology that are offensive to Fan Yeh. He is able to impose his own, more contemporary and westernized order on the home, and his mother goes along with it. One has to postulate that perhaps the father, too, is better off in this new position, alone, where he can live the way he wants to, without his every movement being scrutinized by his progressive son. A more literal translation of this novel’s title is “Family Transformation.” Perhaps, then, Wang Wen-Hsing does not intend his novel to be sad, but rather wants to suggest that families should no longer be forced to remain together for until death. In other words, differences of opinion might lead to a transformation of family dynamics that, though initially sad, proves to be better for each of the family members included.

Works Cited

Su Tong. Rice. United States of America: William Morrow and Company, 1995

Wang Wen-Hsing. Family Catastrophe. United States of America: University of Hawaii,
1995


[1] For more examples of instances in which Fan Yeh praises the safety and security of his parents and his satisfaction with the order they provide for him, see pp. 51-53

[2] For the other two incidents, see segments beginning on p. 125 and p. 138

[3] After this, examples of Fan Yeh becoming disgusted by the way in which his parents and/or the way in which they order their world are quite prevalent. For some of the primary instances of his contempt, see segments 116 (153), 117 (159), and 122 (173)

[4] Other, smaller indications exist to indicate that, once Fan Yeh has fiscal control over the family, he begins to impose his own idea of proper order onto the household, which seems to mean closely approximating western culture. He replaces several outdated furnishings in his home with western implements (230). Additionally, he extols in his diary upon the virtue relationships between fathers and sons in the west (232-233).

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