In internal debates for those faithful to Confucian

Topics: ArtSymbolism


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Last updated: October 1, 2019

In the nineteenth century, varying ideas of freedom and independence accompanying the spread of westernization challenged nations’ loyalty to their philosophical and ethical principles. Wu Jianren’s novella “The Sea of Regret” hones in on four young Chinese characters undergoing a test of faithfulness to Confucian values at the time of the Boxer Rebellion, while opportunities for experimentation with Western norms were at their disposal.

This questionably ‘progressive’ expansion of Western norms explored by Jianren, pertaining to opium consumption and realizations of self-governance, highlight expectations of Confucian behavior in contempt of inevitable resistance under the late Qing Dynasty. “The Sea of Regret” uses opium as a symbol of how some Chinese men and women internally questioned their loyalty to Confucianism and externally questioned influences of the Western lifestyle, ultimately addressing opium’s connection to an international dilemma of gender role development in the nineteenth century. The protagonists in  “The Sea of Regret” act as exaggerations of the ideal elite Chinese man and woman in order to enhance opium’s role in luring China into Western commonalities and in triggering internal debates for those faithful to Confucian principles.

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In the nineteenth century, Chinese women were expected to express commitment to family, lovers, and altruism, while Chinese men were expected to exhibit faithfulness to defense and preservation of the country. Dihua, the main female protagonist, epitomizes values of Confucianism, as we follow her thought process of distinguishing what was allowed, or deemed appropriate by Confucian standards, from what was not allowed. Western lifestyles labeled as freeing and liberating contradicted roots of Confucianism, yet characters such as Bohe, Dihua’s fiance, and Juanjuan, Zhongai’s fiance, conformed to opium use or prostitutional acts, as if experimenting with Western norms in this time of distress and rapid change. However, defining Bohe and Juanjuan as antagonists in comparison to Dihua and Zhongai is not appropriate.

Rather, it is more accurate to perceive them as antitheses, “upsetting the balance of life” as described by Sir Rabindranath Tagore. Dihua contrastingly holds onto this “balance of life” through Confucianism, unable to let go of her “sensitiveness to her code of honor” and “power to resist the cyclonic storm of exploitation,” defining her traditional femininity (Tagore). Bohe and Juanjuan’s adoption of Western culture forces them into “slavery of taste,” suggesting that European modernization metaphorically ‘enslaved,’ or confined, them into a state of vulnerability (Tagore). This inescapable state of weakness can be visually represented by a French cartoon criticizing the opium trade: a tall, slender British official asserting dominance over a small, round Chinese man, who is ordered to “buy this poison (opium) immediately” by the official while under the pressure of surrounding British soldiers (French Opium Cartoon). This exhibits the lack of control China had over the growing organization of opium in their market by unyielding, violent British forces, pressing opium to be more widely spread and consumed.

Thus, lures of modernization spread more rapidly, causing characters such as Bohe to lose his masculine chivalry to opium addiction and Juanjuan to replace Confucian values of chastity with lust. In this case, since modernization offers the intriguing attraction of a different way to experience independence, opium symbolizes how external influences manage to expand across borders regardless of ancient moral philosophies of men and women’s role in their country. Dihua’s role in “The Sea of Regret” showcases internal conflicts during a time of rapid change, while external forces of westernization inflict an identity crisis, causing Dihua to question her milieu.

Opium is used as a focal point of the novella, enriching the themes of morality and challenges of modernity and patriotism to connect the world at large. According to Ursula Le Guin, the greatest stories are not ones of a hero, but rather of “stuff” that bear symbolic meanings in “powerful relation to one another and to us” on a larger scale. Often, protagonists of a novel are deemed to be heroes; however, Dihua’s role is not meant to be heroic but rather meant to address moral dilemmas sparked by Westernized use of opium, and how this “stuff” related to the history of drug trade on an international scale. Jianren is thus able to explore an internal and external exchange for one’s soul that paralleled opium trade. British missionaries sought after souls, treating them as economic commodities in effort to enhance colonization in China (Lecture, 1/18). European “modern tendency inclined toward political gambling in which players stake their souls to win the game” and encouraged moral blindness as “the cult of patriotism” (Tagore).

Although Bohe and Juanjuan’s souls were not captured in a religious sense, they were somewhat bought by Western socioeconomic lures that blinded their Confucian morals, conforming them to British patriotic ideals. Boxers in the Boxer Rebellion exemplified the ideal Chinese male’s dedication to his country, driven to remove souls of missionaries and foreigners. We find Dihua stuck in a moral dilemma amidst these changing times, as she blames herself for Bohe’s addiction and her mother’s illness, questioning the validity of Confucian ways and fearing “that the ancients were lying” (Jianren 179). Dihua’s soulful, feminine dedication to Confucian standards ironically causes her to remove her own soul from society into a nunnery out of passion for commitment to selflessness and out of fear of a challenged identity by outside nations.

Zhongai’s gesture of retiring to a hermit upon discovering Juanjuan’s prostitution parallels Dihua’s actions, both exhibiting an isolation from Westernized norms after questioning their milieu.  The external threats of Western influence opened up opportunities for Chinese women to change how they viewed themselves.  They questioned their social and familial roles in Confucianism and compared it with socio-cultural currents in the West. By taking responsibility for Bohe and her mother’s death as part of her womanly duty, Dihua’s actions symbolize China’s helplessness and inability to acknowledge its vulnerability in the face of western influences. Chinese cultural identity, involving citizens’ dedication to gender ideologies, was threatened by Western political and commercial influences, most specifically through the opium trade as a representation of “the tower of national selfishness” and violent colonialist greed (Tagore). Despite an echo around the world for resistance to unfair power of British merchants, China constantly failed to wash away the poison of opium that disintegrated gender roles (Lecture 1/18).

Even after confiscating and destroying three million pounds of opium from British merchants, creating the Treaty of Nanjing after the First Opium War, and fighting for authority over opium trade in its own nation in the Second Opium War, China gained nothing more than humiliation and endured a deposition of Confucian philosophies and the accompanying gender roles. Early in the novella, Dihua’s mother placed a table in the middle of a bed to symbolize “segregation of the sexes” (Jianren 111). However, the eventual passing of Dihua’s mother is a metaphorical loss of generational authority and morality for Confucian values, as it occurs simultaneously with Bohe’s opium addiction and Juanjuan’s lustful actions. Similarly, China attempts to maintain an oversight of its milieu and economy, yet citizens who no longer limit themselves to socially constructed gender roles are analogous to a child, “who, in the excitement of play, imagines he likes his playthings better than his mother” (Tagore).

This quote epitomizes how the British advent of opium in Chinese society created a languished and seduced population of citizens whose moral upkeep and industriousness became replaced by an addiction for opium. Gender roles as well were victim to the degradation of Chinese social society as dependence and abuse of opiates allowed for complete coercion of the Chinese at the hands of the British. A cartoon of the signing of the Treaty depicts China as a cake for Britain, Germany, Russia, France, and Japan to divide and conquer, while China is forced to sit back as the opium market grows at the expense of their authority (French Treaty of Nanking Cartoon).

In this context, “The Sea of Regret” zooms in on what Chinese citizens “do and feel and how they relate to everything else in the belly of the universe” during this transition toward a more Western-controlled China (Le Guin). Lust for consumption and dominance flourished after the First and Second Opium Wars, reflecting both internal and external helplessness of Chinese Confucian gender ideals and willpower against the unstoppable drive of British imperial and economic desires.Wu Jianren’s “The Sea of Regret” creates a more personable perspective of internal and external conflicts of Chinese Confucian-oriented citizens in the face of Western lures. The symbolism of opium and experiences of the novella’s protagonists places in the nineteenth century’s dilemma of gender in socio-economic modernization from a personal to global dilemma. Exploring questions of loyalty to one’s national philosophies and values of gender sets the stage for a future of dominance and tension over how nations define modernization through symbolic history.

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