Post modern literature often calls to mind the conflicts of modernization and the cultural changes that ensue. Traditional cultures are often demonstratively changed by the process of revolution and in the eastern cultures there are countless examples of the cultural changes that have occurred over just two or three generations. As a result much of the literature of the ensuing generations depicts the inherent difficulties of change through character analysis of events, and particularly with regard to major life changing events, such as the death of members of the older generations. Within Post Modern Asian Literature there are consistent themes of the difficulty of progress, these themes are usually expressed as direct conflict between the young and the old. Within the short stories, the Ancestor, Thoughts of Home and the Hateful Age as well as in other literature these conflicts are expressed differently, among literary characters but still arrive at two basic principles, old vs. new cultural expressions and generational differences in assimilation and modernity.
In the work of Sonu Hwi, Thoughts of Home there are expressions of the inability of individuals to accept change. The older generations displaced by the political and cultural turmoil of the Korean War are still displaced and longing for home. In the work the Narrator expresses anguish over recurring dreams of being home in the North, a place he is likely never to see again. Juxtaposed with the Narrator’s recurring and unsettling dreams is the story of the father of a friend who has been so homesick, for so long that he rebuilds his old home in the new land, to a level of exactness that in the end causes him to actually exhibit symptoms of dementia. “…this new building — hardly a month old-resembled the old one even in its ancient, run down appearance.” (208) the eventual death of the old man, serves as a warning to the younger man (the Narrator) of the potential of his unsettling dreams of returning home. The Narrator, discusses with this old mans son the concerns the young have for the very old, as if all their decisions are rooted in the past and potentially feeble, not as if they have lived every day of their lives, building and working to create a home and family. Indeed the actions of the old man could have been seen as feeble minded actions as he longed for his home so much that he was disturbed by any little thing that was not the same, including the lack of rats in the rafters. Yi Changwan’s concerns for his father were real, as the story closes with is death, drowning in the artificial swamp, dug in his front yard, the Narrator believing that he saw his reflection and believing it was that of his father reached for him and lost his grip on this earth.
Within Niwa Funio’s Japanese tale the Hateful Age there is a clear sense of the desperate life of the very old, as they attempt or in this case recede from assimilation into a more modern Japanese culture and from all semblance of honor and mutual love and respect. The story of Ume’ is tearfully sad, as she recedes into a world of her own and loses all sense of soul and purpose as well as propriety and love. Ume’ has lived a life beyond her usefulness and has no one in her generation, or even the generation of her only child to relate to her or remember her in her more generous and loving days. The symptoms of her dementia are those of a person who feels as if she is an outsider in her own family, and the symptoms are so severe that every glimpse of her is through the eyes of the generation, to which she has become a burden.
The Compartment was crowded, but one of the passengers, seeing Ruriko enter with her peculiar burden, offered his seat. Directly opposite her was a woman in her thirties, also accompanied by an old lady. Soon after the train started she addressed Ruriko: “Excuse me but where are you taking yours?” “I’m leaving her at my sisster’s place in the country.” Well, we seem to be in the same boat.” Said the woman, with a sigh….”How old is she?” The other woman asked. “Eighty-Six.” “Mine’s eighty.” She glanced about the carriage and went on in a lower voice. “Why on earth do they live on to be eighty? I just can’t make it out. They live on and on, until they’re of no use to anyone-until even they themselves are fed up with living. All that mine cares about these days is food, and she can’t get it into her head that rice is rationed…”They’re rice-eating spooks!” (326)
The work goes on to describe the juxtaposition of complete breakdown between the generations as the other passengers stared at the women with disdain and as if they were not exactly human but animal.
The other passengers were staring…at the two old women. From their expressions it was clear that they did not feel they were looking at human beings at all but rather at some strange species of supernatural plant or animal. Apparently it did not occur to them that they all shared a common destiny with these old women,…they two were condemned to become nothing but troublesome baggage carted along by their resentful families…requiring three good meals a day. (327)
Through the eyes of another character, the husband of the country grandchild, there is a recognition of the spiritual and what would seem like untiring patience, through spiritual awareness. Yet, in moments of weakness he questioned the condition of the culture, as the longevity, expected to be seen as a cherished gift was actually frequently a monumental burden. Stating in his mind the faithful ideas of a prophetic Master he noted that only one in a thousand individuals kept their minds and kept learning as they aged, while the other 999 became, just a body, in which it was impossible to detect the slightest trace of soul, spirit, conscience, or anything that makes human beings worthy of respect….There was hardly a family in Japan that did not suffer from the system in which old people had to be either cared for by the children or committed to primitive and sinister institutions. People had been complaining for years, but the traditional family system still lingered on, with all its insufficiency, hypocrisy, sentimentality, and injustice.” (340)
The utter disconnectedness between the young and the old leaves the very young, with no real memory of the loving and beautiful way in which the old might have lived the majority of their lives, even though there is often a sense that this was the case.
In Bi Feiyu’s the Ancestor another very old and quirky woman simply called Great-Grandmother is observed, again through the eyes of a much younger ancestor. The generational changes of culture are starkly contrasting ideals and cultural beliefs that overshadow the intentions of each member of the family. To seek eternal safety, the younger generations, fearing that the old woman will live to be over 100 with a full set of teeth, and therefore transform into a demon and haunt them for eternity, concoct a diabolic plan to pull the frail woman’s teeth, which is her undoing. The Narrator of this piece feels and acts particularly distant from his Great-Grandmother and all of the older relatives, and their superstitious ways and lives, but follows and even assists with the plan, to appease his family and maintain honor and eternal safety. Though the grandson does not directly say so within the work, he seems not to really believe in the superstitious potential outcome of the longevity of his ever present Great Grandmother, but chooses to explain the situation away by saying to his wife that this is simply the way the family is and has always been, rooted in the past. When the Narrator’s wife expresses fear and concern with regard to the relative morbidity of his family, a father who sleeps in a coffin when he needs to, an infant brother and sister buried under the floorboards of the house and the mysterious Great-Grandmother lording over the family from her Garret, where no one said she is allowed to enter he dismisses her fears. “Where are you going to sleep?” I Asked Father. “In your great-grandmother’s coffin,” said father. My wife gave me a nervous look….Once in bed, my wife said, “Why does he sleep in a coffin?” “It doesn’t matter, we’re all one family. Dead or alive, we’re all together.” (218) This is an expression of an old ideal, that he and his wife seem not to share. The descriptions of his Great-grandmother are even more telling of how foreign this familiar life has become, now that he has had the opportunity to experience more modern culture.
To this day Great-Grandmother has maintained the customs and attitudes of the Lat Qing dynasty. Great-Grandmother does not bathe. All year-round, the smells of a coffin and coffin nails hover over her. Great-Grandmother does not brush her teeth. Great-Grandmother does not believe in airplanes. Great-Grandmother does not watch television
Great-Grandmother simply stands in front of the window of her Garret, or sits in the sun, a sun that does not penetrate her but simply casts a shadow behind her. She is very pale and does her hair in an archaic fashion, and has a face that the narrator describes as a set of wrinkles with archeological significance.
Each family treats the situation with different tactics but all show an inherent disdain for the very old, to the point of seeing and treating them as if they are inhuman, and with an irreverent lack of respect that is contrary to the culture from which they came. The only piece that offers a consoling look at the very old, throughout is Thoughts of Home, but it is also clear that even though the family of the Old gentleman allow him to recreate his old home, they do so with open misgivings and question his sanity as he works. The other two works, are different in several ways, one being gender, as the very old person, figuratively and literally holding back the family from progress also happens to be a woman, devoid of all the characteristics that are prized with regards to women, beauty, a loving nature and the ability to offer compassion. In Thoughts of Home the younger characters can sympathize with the Old Man because they have seen the changes within their world, first hand and they are also men who have a strong and potentially life altering longing for home. While in the other two short narratives the culture has been so altered and the place of women has changed so drastically, from the old to the young that there is no real way that any of the characters can begin to understand the motivation of these two old and mysteriously frightening women. They were raised within a system that made them useless from the start, if they had any breeding at all and now they were even more dependant and useless, and likely angry and controlling for that very reason. (Niwa 344) This can be seen in the quirkiness of the women’s behaviors, the petty thievery, even though they are being provided everything that a restful soul would need, in the case of Ume’ the tearing of cloth to useless bits, even when the whole of Japan was in need of the scraps she was wasting and in the case of Great-Grandmother the stealing of shoes and the forceful manner in which she barred all to enter her Garret. The supernatural way in which these women were disconnected from the modern world, Ume’ looking ridiculous in the modern cut clothes that her granddaughter was forced to put on her because she tore everything else to shreds and the Great-Grandmother demanding that the home she had always known not be changed, while she was alive, even when the patterns of everything else around it was modern.
The treatment of death is also different in the three narratives, as the man has concerned relations, who support his vision, out of respect while the women are openly disdained, for living longer than they are useful and holding the family back. In Great-Grandmother’s household there is a sense of great tradition, and supernatural time, the older relatives believe in prophetic demons and act savagely to protect themselves from them, while the Narrator sits disconnected from the scene, observing the strangeness of it but powerless to stop it. Gret-Grandmother is given the simple respect of not being told openly of the wish of her death. Ume’ is treated as a child and spoken to as if she is simply a burden, and an irksome one at that and told by all around her that she has lived to long and needs to die and unburden her family in so doing. Ume’ is openly described as frightening in appearance and worthless. While the Father in Thoughts of Home is protected and cared for until his feared death arrives.
Death is treated differently, when the death is not welcomed, or when those you are among when you die are connected to you by memory of your earlier days and by some semblance of how you lived as in Thought of Home. In the Moon on the Water there is a touching scene of the widow placing a treasured possession in the coffin of her dead husband, placing the mirror upon his stomach, rather than his chest as he had died with a heaviness and pain, upon his chest. (247) While in the Brothers Shu playful young people tease one another about death, as a recourse for the predicament of their love. (50-51) Death in the stories of the very old, told by those who never knew them in youth is welcomed even longed for by those who are left behind.
Niwa Funio, Ivan Morris, trans. The Hateful Age in Goldblatt, Howard ed. Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused. New York: Grove Press. 1996.
Bi Feiyu, John Balcom, trans. The Ancestor in Goldblatt, Howard ed. Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused. New York: Grove Press. 1996.
Su Tong, Howard Golblatt, trans. The Brothers Shu, in Goldblatt, Howard ed. Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused. New York: Grove Press. 1996.
Kawabata Yasunari, George Seito’ trans. The Moon on the Water in Sonu Hwi, Marshall, Pihl, trans. Thoughts of Home, in Peter Lee Modern Korean Literature, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1990, pgs 203-215.
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