YU DAFU, A.K.A. YU TA-FU (1896—1945)
YU DAFU, A.K.A. YU TA-FU (1896—1945). Fiction writer and poet. One of the most talented writers of the May Fourth era, Yu Dafu was a sentimental and lyrical fiction writer. His life, with three marriages, two divorces, and a tragic death, is the stuff that makes fiction. Born to a father who was a minor county official, Yu went to Japan at the age of 18 with his eldest brother, a judge in Beijing. He stayed there, off and on, for 10 years, earning a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1922. His sojourn in Japan figures prominently in his most famous story, “Chenlun” (Sinking). He was, arguably, the most talented poet among modern Chinese writers who wrote in the classical style, though he never took his own poetry seriously.
By all accounts, his short story collection Chenlun (Sinking) was a landmark in modern Chinese literature. In addition to the title story, two other stories are included in the collection: “Nanqian” (Moving South) and “Yinhui se de si” (The Silver-grey Death). The book caused a storm and was derided as indecent for its overt sexual descriptions. Years later, Yu still complained about the “abuses and insults” his critics heaped upon him. However, when Zhou Zuoren wrote an article in the literary supplement of the Beijing Morning News defending the author, the tide of public opinion turned. The book became a commercial as well as a critical success. “Chenlun” is a medium-length story about a Chinese student studying in Japan who suffers from schizophrenia. Tormented by his nation’s weakness and his own sexual inhibition, he cannot shake off a sense of inferiority that trails him like a shadow. He tries to overcome his psychological and physiological paralysis by going to brothels, but to no avail. In the end, death is the only solution. Before he drowns himself in the ocean, he cries out in the direction of China, “Oh my motherland, you are the reason why I die. Become rich and strong as soon as possible. You still have a lot of children who are suffering there.” Yu injects into the sufferings of the individual a dose of national tragedy, turning the hero’s illness into “the disease of the age.” The semiautobiographical nature of “Chenlun” and the other two stories in the collection, and their frank descriptions of private feelings, especially sexual urges, earned the author the reputation of an exhibitionist. Yu did not deny the intimate connection between himself and his work. To him, all works of art were expressions of the self, a belief that reflects the aesthetics of the Chinese lyrical tradition as well as the influence from the Japanese Shishosetsu, the I-novel.
Yu’s writings published after his return to China in 1922, though still intensely lyrical and sentimental, are much more removed from his personal life. The financial difficulties he had helped turn his attention to searching for social and political answers. “Chunfeng chenzui de wanshang” (Nights of Spring Fever), a short piece written in 1923, tells the story of a poor and frustrated intellectual who, living in a slum in Shanghai, gets to know a female worker employed in a cigarette factory. Similarly, “Bo dian” (A Humble Sacrifice) is about the encounter between an impoverished intellectual and a rickshaw puller in Beijing. Told in his preferred first-person narrative, stories such as these put the intellectual, who evidently embodies the sentiments of the writer himself, in the company of the working class, reflecting the progressive trend of the times.
The dominant theme, however, remains the loss of youth and love. In stories such as “Guoqu” (The Past) and “Chu ben” (Run Away), a dark and pessimistic tone reverberates throughout the narrative, a characteristic of Yu’s writing that earned him the reputation of a “decadent” writer. In the early 1930s, Yu left the left-wing literary circle in Shanghai, against the advice of Lu Xun, and led a quiet family life in Hangzhou, where he wrote several stories. One of them is his personal favorite, “Chi guihua” (Late-Flowering Cassia), a lyrical tale about a man who falls in love with a vivacious woman whose unadorned beauty blends seamlessly with the idyllic environment where the air is tinged with the fragrance of blooming cassia. This picture of innocence and beauty is far removed from reality and a sharp contrast to the turmoil engulfing the author as well as the nation. The refined sensibility conveyed through the protagonist embodies the author’s artistic self: subjective, sentimental, romantic, and spontaneous.
At the end of 1938, Yu went to Singapore, and during the next three years he worked as editor-in-chief for the literary supplement to the Xinzhou Daily and the Weekly of the Overseas Chinese. He wrote many short, poignant political and literary essays, along with travelogues and old-style poems. The Sino-Japanese War took a serious toll on Yu. His mother was starved to death and his eldest brother was assassinated by the Japanese. Just before the Pacific War ended, the Japanese military police arrested and murdered Yu in Indonesia. See also CREATION SOCIETY.