nau | english | rothfork | publications | Mo's Sour Sweet


gesha2.gif (4208 bytes)

elec_line.gif (7575 bytes)

Timothy Mo's three novels are all concerned with social philosophy, specifically with the clash between traditional Chinese and contemporary Western social values and with suggestions for resolution or synthesis in the global cross-pollination of cultures. Born of an English mother and Cantonese father, raised in Hong Kong and working as a journalist in London, Mr. Mo knows the conflicts from experience.

Clash of Values: The Monkey King

In his first novel, The Monkey King, Mo illustrated the clash of values experienced by many Chinese in Hong Kong during the 1950s: those who felt the traditional Confucian social practices (li, tradition) were repressive relics in comparison to the alluring individualism and freedom of Western life. The hero of the novel, Wallace Nolasco, proudly proclaims a faint Portuguese ancestry, experiments with a Western style of life -- which allows Mo to be very funny -- but ultimately succeeds in life when he manages to recover and practice a purified Confucianism: one grounded in The Analects and distinct from corrupt Neo-Confucian ideology and cultural dogmatism, which until recently was most likely to be the understanding of Confucianism in the minds of both Chinese and Western readers. David Hall and Roger Ames' splendid book, Thinking Through Confucius (1987), as well as Mo's fiction, is causing Confucianism, a so-called "third-wave Confucianism," to be considered a creative and potentially powerful contemporary philosophic school (Hall 326, 312, 6, 308). In The Monkey King, Timothy Mo is quite optimistic about the outcome of the clash of values in China (1978; see my essay "Confucianism in Timothy Mo's The Monkey King"), a process now occurring in mainland China which was rehearsed, in part, in Hong Kong thirty-five years earlier. In his novel, Mr. Mo suggests that ill-understood Western values do not necessarily destroy traditional Chinese (Confucian) social values, but can cause the Chinese to look at tradition (li) with new insight, recognizing what is corrupt and inessential, and thereby helping to clarify and subsequently recover the essential. Confucius called this process "The Rectification of Names" and identified it as "the starting point of sociopolitical order" (Hall 270). It is an analytic process which seeks to make actual social relations more closely approximate their ideal meanings (see Analects, 7:1; 13:3).

How Vital is Confucianism?

In his second novel, Sour Sweet (1982), Mr. Mo is still concerned with Confucianism and its central tenant, that family relations (xiao, filial deference) are paradigmatic for all subsequent social relations and that human values are first experienced and most deeply explored in the context of family life. Mr. Mo's concern in his first novel was to clarify this as the continuing foundation on which Chinese culture rests as it experiences the onrush of Western, modern culture and to illustrate that Confucian principles cannot only withstand the whirlwind but continue to produce focused, desirable lives. The philosophical action in The Monkey King and in An Insular Possession (1987) -- Mo's fictional account of the British colonization of Hong Kong -- is clearly defensive; the dramatic setting of both books is China, at the place where the West made its greatest incursion. The predatory intent of the West is glaring despite the muting expansiveness of style in An Insular Possession, Mo's historical novel reminiscent of James Clavell's Japanese novels, but with far greater irony. Operating from an English "Chinatown" in Hong Kong, the Tong agents (a secret society of unwanted and barely tolerated foreign criminals, primarily English merchants, missionaries, and the military) peddle opium and ideology (missionary Christianity) to undermine Chinese society. The editor of the fictional newspaper The Canton Monitor explains in 1939: "Once Trade [opium] has forced open the doors of the empire, there shall follow on its coat-tails the incontrovertible truths of Christianity and Christ crucified. Nor do we speak solely in a spiritual point of view, for there shall be exposed to the benighted and necessitous masses of this empire cornucopia of cheap and practical manufactures of which they may never even have dreamed [...]. The useful ware and mighty productive forces of Britain, Europe, and the civilised world [...] shall transform the mean and burdensome lives they lead in point of comfort and convenience" (337). The story of Wallace Nolasco illustrates that Western jingoism has fundamentally failed to undermine Confucian social values. Mr. Mo does not have the personal experience to know how the Chinese Communist regime has affected Confucian values; whether it has truly destroyed or merely secularized such values or whether Chairman Mao's Daoist tendencies, for example, evident in appeals to the masses for social direction, will be balanced by a resurgent form of Confucianism. In any case, we may also ask if continued tacit profession in Confucian values is caused by unenlightened conservatism, xenophobia, and ethnocentrism? How vital is Confucianism? Is it adequate to say that it can hold its own against the West in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where it has not merely been entrenched for two thousand years, but also has been formative of Chinese identity; or is it enough to say that like post-Christian values in the West, Confucian values are pervasive though indistinct throughout east Asia?

Sour Sweet Plots

Sour Sweet more radically questions the viability of Confucian values by removing the cultural support of Chinese tradition. The novel concerns the Chens who "had been living in the UK for four years, which was long enough to have lost their place in the society from which they had emigrated but not long enough to feel comfortable in the new" (1). If the Chens refuse to make any accommodation with English life, by simply retreating into a Chinatown ghetto, it will suggest that Confucianism is so thoroughly a Chinese cultural expression that it has nothing universal to offer the world and in confronting the West it only, at best, can be a conservative, increasingly artificial and diminishing force. On the other hand, if the Chens totally assimilate to English life, it will suggest that they have found nothing worth saving in Confucianism, portending that in the long term, even in east Asia, Confucianism will increasingly become a cultural affectation and may well disappear altogether.

The Chen family initially comprises, Husband, "stolid, unventuresome," but traditional head of the family, his wife Lily, her sister Mui, "a nervous young woman," and the Chen baby, Man Kee. They are involved in three interrelated plots. First there is what might be called a "sociology of the family" plot concerned with the process of cultural assimilation. The omniscient narrator comments that "Chen was still an interloper. He regarded himself as such"; two years later Lily tells her son about "the ship that will take us all back home when we are finished here. It will take you to your homeland, Son, which you have never seen" (1, 155). Not surprisingly, the Chinese family considers its residence in Britain to be a temporary expediency to make money. But Husband recognizes that "one needed a modicum of local custom to survive" and the family assimilates to different degrees (84).

The second plot contrasts the Tong or Triad, the Chinese secret society -- "we call ourselves Hung family" -- with the Chen family (70). The Triad considers itself the conservator of Chinese culture. Thus at an initiation ceremony, initiates are told: "We represent the old and true way" (71). The "family" was "founded to overthrow our foreign Ching [Manchu; 1644 -- 1911] conquerors and to restore our own Chinese dynasty, the Ming" (1368 -- 1644); 70). Considering the English to be devils and meddlesome official bandits (e.g., the police), the Hung family ironically plays the same role in Britain of the 1960s as did the "secret society" of British drug peddlers in Hong Kong of the 1830s, as portrayed in An Insular Possession. Red Cudgel, title of the local leader of the Hung family, comments on a rival Triad, 14-K (as in 14-karat gold; Asian jewelry is usually 22 karat, implying that the upstart Tong is adulterated and inauthentic), saying: "they won't be satisfied until they are the only society over here" (33). The statement is equally applicable to the Hung family vis- -- -vis Britain or to the nineteenth century British colonialists in Hong Kong. The Hung "family" is political, mercenary, rational, and aggressive. An artificial society of men, its concern is to nurture money through violence.

The Chen family also seems rational, mercenary, and formal, because it is in the grip of Neo-Confucian orthodoxy. Chen marries Lily only a few days after they meet at a dance "thrown for emigrant bachelors like himself in search of wives to take back to Europe" (4). Chen works a 72 hour week, until the family opens its own "take-out" restaurant, when they then earn "as much as Chen had [...] for three times the man --  (woman -- ) hours," without complaint (1, 139). The worst flaw of the Chen family is its formality, evident in the lack of communication between husband and wife and the anomaly in which Lily, the younger sister trained in martial arts, dominates Mui, whom she considers "an inferior to be scolded and bossed about for her own good" (277). This fidelity to Neo-Confucian orthodoxy -- which is total, because in the beginning the Chens are unaware of alternatives -- finally leads to Chen's death and the disintegration of the extended family. Nonetheless, there is a great deal of difference between the Hung and Chen families. The Chen family is the product of nature (dao), not design; it is firmly rooted in the feminine, the unconscious and procreative power of life. As a living entity instead of a fiscal or political project, the Chen family can, and does, grow and change. Whereas the Triad is doomed to a criminal opposition to English society, the Chen family is changed by its experience in England. The most graphic image of the artificiality of the Triad "family" appears at the initiation when "each new 49 [ordinary member; see Morgan for other Triad ranks and titles] crawled through the stocky, bowed legs of Elder Brother. Now they were truly reborn" (102). This yang birth into the Neo-Confucian "family" is made uglier by Red Cudgel's appearance: short, scarred by childhood smallpox, a complexion like "half-cooked batter pudding," a mutilated hand (cf. to foot-binding mutilation), and "a voice so hoarse, so brutalized that surely the surface mutilations must point to some deeper penetration of the disease" (19)

Although the second, male, birth brings the initiate into the sick, mutilated world of the Triad, some such second birth, into a culture, is a necessity for human life. The third plot is concerned with an experiential deconstruction of Neo-Confucian orthodoxy to uncover the authentic principles of Confucianism, something along the lines of demythologizing Christianity in the West. More properly, it should be called the rectification of Confucian thought. No less than Lao Tzu, Confucius spoke of the dao; it is mentioned a hundred times in the Analects. However, unlike the Daoists, who conceived the Dao as a transcendental principle, Confucius defined it as a distinctly human path of life. For Confucius, the dao is manifest when "the authoritative person, the person of jen, realizes or creates ritual (li) through personal signification (yi)" (Hall 178). Yi signifies personal judgment, existential choice and experience. In a broad sense li denotes the human landscape, the possibilities of human life; heroes, role models. People exist only in culture. Ironically, the Daoists are always forced to render conceptions of Nature or Dao through the cultured patterns of art. "Culture is the given world." In the West, this point was initially made by Descartes and the subsequent epistemological philosophy of the eighteenth century. This point continues to be crucial in today's postmodernism; that "There is no knowledge to be gained of a reality which precedes that of culture or transcends its determination. The 'world' is always a human world" rendered in language or art (Hall 67). The dao that humans know is necessarily an imminent and humanistic pattern.

Dao, Yin, Yang, Li, Yi

The dao is composed of complementary forces: yin, the female, and yang, the male. Thus realizing or following dao must always be the result of a balance of the two forces; "repeatedly Confucius describes social and political participation in terms of pursuing a harmony among differences" (Hall 165). Since Confucius, unlike Plato, does not recognize transcendentals, there can be no a priori forms, principles, or laws (cf. li). Consequently, li is better understood as "deference," the "response to recognized excellence" within a specific community context. Like a gestalt perception or shock of recognition, it is a perception that "cannot be forced" by an act of will (Hall 181). The response is largely aesthetic (see Northrop 328-37). In the plot of the novel this point has two consequences: the pattern or nature of the Chen family is not specified by an a priori form or ritual. The family exists as a balance between yin and yang forces, husband and wife, which are dynamic and developmental. At one point Lily recognizes that it is part of her husband's "function to oppose" her: "part of the natural order of things, the cycle of constant fruitful opposites" (45). Secondly, the identity and meaning of each person is achieved through the tension between the individual and family. Lily thinks to herself: "truly, the individual found real fulfillment and happiness only in his family. Impossible on your own." At this point she is better able to state the Confucian theory than to follow it. Her lack of candor is evident a moment later when she resolves to keep the fact that she can drive a car "secret from Chen" (152). At the end of the novel, Lily, "thought she had found a balance of things for the first time, yin canceling yang; discovered [...] by veering to the extremes and then finding the still point of equilibrium" (278). In contrast, the Triad, having murdered Chen, as well as members of the rival 14-K "family," continues to proclaim that "Family Hung is greater than any individual [...]. The individual is of no importance in himself" (260). Authentic Confucianism is a program of individual growth and accomplishment.

In many ways the novel centers on Lily. She is the point of balance between the old and the new, largely personified by Chen and Mui. Her father, Tang, had been a martial arts champion, unbalanced by his dedication to yang, master in "a hard-line sect which laid emphasis on brute power" (11). He and Red Cudgel, leader of the Triad, are of a type; their "weaknesses were old-fashioned ones." Expert in their well known disciplines, they "could not adjust" to new, nontraditional or different cultures (264). When Ma (whose title is Red Cudgel), learns that he has unjustly executed master Tang's son-in-law, Chen, he relinquishes his leadership and sees that Lily is paid a pension out of respect for her father. Master Tang could fell a water buffalo with "a single, crushing hammer-fisted blow," maim opponents, and it was feared, would one day kill opponents (12). Confronted with a foreign culture, he sneers. And though beat senseless by a fighter using a yin pirouetting, dancing style of fighting, "he did not think of blaming his limitations on the tradition he been brought up in" (13). Both men are military in bearing; they know only victory or defeat, yang or the lack of it.

When she was only five years old, Lily was initiated into Master Tang's "notably severe system" (11). Five years later, he gave up instructing Lily, not because of a "tardy recognition of his daughter's gender but because of a horror that her movements were becoming increasingly similar to those of the despised and feared northern stylists" (14). Nonetheless, Master Tang imparted to his daughter, not only a sense of balance and repertoire of controlled movements (li), but also a yang willfulness that makes Lily dedicated and long-suffering, but also insensitive to her sister, husband, and the English culture in which she lives. In short, she has been pushed too far in the direction of Confucian yang. Lily's formative childhood experience of siu lum boxing well symbolize both corrupt Neo-Confucian ritual behavior and authentic Confucian values. In the first instance, Lily's childhood development is warped by "the classical teaching method of blind repetition and stereotyped drilling" which was "ineffective and time-consuming," as well as illustrative of Neo-Confucian pedagogy (116). It was Lily's good fortune to escape after five years, which she knows "were no more than the shallowest initiation" into a traditional way of life (231). Had she continued to be molded by such rational techniques, she would have likely have had an honored place in the Hung "family" as does Grass Sandal, a girl brought up in the artificial environments provided by amahs and European boarding schools.

In the second instance, martial arts movement, like the slower T'ai Chi Chuan, conform to li patters. They are both comparable to dance. Hall and Ames comment that "In the Analects, music is frequently, sometimes explicitly and often implicitly, coupled with ritual action (li) to the extent that most references to ritual action should be read with music understood as an integral aspect" (278). This suggests that movements or life actions imitative of li are comparable to dance movements. In both cases the fundamental concern is aesthetic. Mo's choice of martial art movement instead of dance, is not only appropriate for the yang deviation, it also shifts the interpretive context away from Daoism and toward Confucianism with its recognition that our world is always a humanly perceived world. For in the Daoist sense, the dance of T'ai Chi Chuan occurs between the individual and the infinite (Dao). In contrast, martial arts movement occurs in controlled response to an antagonist. These are not imitative or blindly repeated movements, but the best responses (li) appropriate to a particular situation. When Lily teachers her son rudiments of the sui lum system, Man Kee is able to "put the different kinds of leg technique together in a way that could never be taught" -- in China (233). Once he knows the li, Man Kee's undisciplined movement can begin to defer to the pattern. If he finds it "natural" and useful, it becomes his style (yi). "Ritual tradition (li) is dependent upon the exercise of personal moral judgment (yi) as its ultimate origin, as its vehicle for continuance, and as its source of novelty" in response to changing situations (Hall 245). Even Red Cudgel discerns the importance of yi. Thus he says, in combat you must do "what suits you best, not what you have been taught. It is you who lives or dies, not your teacher" (118). Li is not an arbitrary action, but a heuristic. "The educating function of the model (li) is defined not in terms of imitation but evocation" (Hall 302).

Moral Continuity and Identity

The great problem, which the novel explores, is the continuity of traditional values and culture (li) in the turbulence of the modern world, which above all else refuses to defer to the past. Does Confucianism offer a viable way to live in the modern world? Timothy Mo's answer seems to be that it does; more, that if offers a valuable or desirable way of life (realizing the dao). However, it is crucial to recognize that Mr. Mo is talking about a demythologized or "third-wave" Confucianism (like that defined in the works of Hall and Ames) that has been liberated from the arbitrary cultural accretions of Neo-Confucian history. This is precisely the reason why the novel is set in London and why the Chens must be exiled from Chinatown and the Triad: to demythologize Neo-Confucianism in order to identify its essentials, which can then be used to construct a life in the West or the modern world. Of the major characters, Husband Chen, a yang "solid masculine presence," is least able to accomplish this reorientation (51). Thus, when he discovers that Lily had saved money from her household budget, he is shocked: "Whole new regions of the female psyche [...] hitherto unsuspected, opened before him." Instead of seizing on this as an opportunity to better understand his wife, "Chen did his best to put the whole thing out of his mind as quickly as possible" (85). When the family gets into trouble because they have ignored paying income tax, Mui begins to have "serious misgivings about Brother-in-law's ability to fend for them all" in this new land (163). Chen's failure of imagination (yi) is complete. Early in the novel, the narrator comments that "prejudices instilled since childhood died hard in Chen" and when he finds that his "prejudices" (a corrupt version of li) do not explain the pattern of life in Britain, he simply retreats as much as possible from any involvement in British life (29). He can offer no guidance or explanation (li) to his family for their life in Britain. Though Lily thinks it silly to leave "son to learn from his mistake by trial and error for himself instead of making him learn by example," Chen can offer nothing better (252). Chen is too bewildered by modern life and too circumscribed by orthodoxy to survive, much less to flourish as a role model (jen). Finally, Chen allows himself to be murdered by the Triad -- because he understand nothing of authentic Confucianism nor of British society. Commenting on ritual and ceremonialism in Confucius' time, Hall and Ames write: "In these ritual activities, each participant would have his proper place, his wei. If one did not understand the ritual procedures, he would literally not know where to stand (li)" (86). This exactly describes the pathetic situation of Chen who "felt at home and yet not at home. He had been more comfortable rootless" (135).

Culture Shock and Response

The member of the family most traumatized by culture shock, Mui's subsequent rapid acculturation illustrates the danger of too much yin, of compliantly renouncing one's formative culture (li) and instincts (yi) to uncritically embrace a foreign (arbitrary) culture in adulthood, which means that the adopted culture will always remain artificial and rational. Lily illustrates a better response: analyzing or deconstruction her native culture when it is challenged by the foreign culture, then clarifying values to decide on a commitment. This process is thoroughly Confucian. The foundation is provided by Lily's formative cutlure (li); one example is her training in the martial arts, on which she time and again relies; another example is her dedication to Confucian virtues, for example: "Respect for age had always been a fundamental moral principle with her" (208). Lily solves problems arising from the clash between Chinese and English customs through her own judgment (yi), which, as an expression of her character, is bound up with, but not entirely reducible to, li. Instead of capitulating to the authority of either culture, Lily believes "self-help was the way" to succeed (231; cf. Analects, 15:16).

Mui is brought from Hong Kong to London to aid Lily when man Kee is born. Unlike her sister, Mui "had been brought up as a girl" to be "compliant, dutiful [...] utterly submissive to the slightest wishes of her superiors [...] which included the entire male sex" and in the context of the novel, also includes British manners and customs. Initially suffering culture shock, Mui is "reluctant to leave the flat" where she watches television all day long in order to gain an elementary understanding of the English language and of British society (10-11). After some months, Mui began to ease "her way into a new life inch by inch" (18). Fortuitously, she meets a Hong Kong widow, Mrs. Law, who started "a new life in England at the age of fifty-five" (43). As her name implies, she becomes a role model for Mui.

Because Mui has no counterbalancing yang force, either internalized, like Lily, or present in a relationship with a husband, she is eager to assimilate. Thus she "egged her sister and brother-in-law on to move far faster than either wanted" (80). When they open a take-out restaurant, Mui deals with the customers because her "English was now incomparably better than Lily's" (94). Roles between the sisters seem to reverse: Lily "had to act as Mui's bodyguard" in China, while in England Mui "now did the equivalent of escorting and fussing" (126). Naturally, Lily resents and opposes Mui's counsel. Like her conservative and disciplined father, Lily denies what she cannot control. Her reliance on yang in this regard is not as total -- she is after all a woman and mother -- consequently not as destructive as her father or Red Cudgel. Moreover, because of the tragic loss of her husband, as well as because of several years of life in England, Lily attains a more balanced outlook. But for a time, when she cannot understand, much less control, life in the modern world, she ignores its laws, for example, driving without a license or insurance. She fails to recognize repeat customers, because all "those bland, roseate occidental faces [...] looked the same to her." When Mui admonishes her sister for referring to customers as foreign devils, bears, and pigs, Lily is "staggered" by Mui's truculence, but it never enters her head to take Mui's point seriously, because, "Really, there was no question how superior Chinese people were to the foreign devils" (137). The point is reiterated when Lily complains that the "foreign devils just try to exploit us all the time." Mui suggests that the Chens attempt to do the same thing to their customers, prompting Lily to think that "Mui had just gone too far this time. What a traitor she was to her family! As if they were responsible for anyone but their little group" (147). A Triad official expresses the same sentiment: "We have no responsibility to outsiders. Our only concern is with building our own power" (181).

The Relevance of Confucianism

The issue here is whether a Confucian conception of society is necessarily this culturally restrictive and naturally hostile to other social philosophies. If it is, it would seem to be either doomed to be a relic of the past, or condemned (like the Triad) for its arrogance, violence, and fascism. Interestingly, Hall and Ames also address this question, asking "whether the classical notion of family is a necessary or a contingent factor in Confucius' project of becoming authoritatively human." Their answer is that the family is "contingent institution" in this process and that "no specific formal structure, even family, is necessary" (120-21). On the other hand, it cannot be forgotten that "In Confucian social theory a person is irreducibly communal" (160). Arguably, China and Japan adopted Buddhism precisely because it offered a nonsocial identity in Buddha nature. Consistent with the Rectification of Names process, the point is to differentiate between loyalty or deference to a potentially totalitarian regime which controls, diminishes, or even precludes the development of the individual along the path to full realization as authoritatively human -- certainly this is the basis for the metaphor of mutilation in regard to the Triad -- from deference to loved and respected family members or other role modes whom we emulate because we feel that to do so would enrich or ennoble our lives: "A person in learning and reflecting upon these ritual actions seeks in them the yi contributed by his precursors, and in so doing, stimulates, develops, and refines his own sensitivities" (99). Mo's drastic suggestion in this area -- comparable to Hall and Ames suggesting that the family is a contingent institution, which strikes at the heart of Neo-Confucian piety (xiao) -- is that the relationship between spouses is, in the modern world, more important than the relationship between father and son in the development of jen. In The Monkey King, Wallace's efforts to succeed on his own end in failure. Only when he is isolated with his wife in a country village does he begin to discern the path of dao. By the end of the novel it is clear that both Wallace and May Ling have been immeasurably enriched by the reciprocating action of yin -- yang. In Sour Sweet this process, leading to jen, is anathema to the hidebound Neo-Confucian who perceives it merely as an attack on the system itself.

Filial Piety

It is very significant that Hall and Ames totally ignore the Confucian concept of filial piety (xiao). General introductions to Confucianism always stress this concept. Thus Joseph Kitagawa writes: "There is no question that Confucius considered filial piety (xiao) the supreme virtue and the basis of general morality" (81). Writing on Confucianism, Frederick Mote claims: "Filial submission (xiao) was the primary virtue" (45). Mote's translation of xiao as "submission" indicates precisely why Hall and Ames ignore the topic as inauthentic to Confucius' program. Submission and repression, whether of youth to age or women to men, has no role to play in a process dedicated to total liberation, to realizing every human potential. Deference to recognized excellence, a spontaneous and reverent response, is far different -- even antithetical -- to submission. We want to run and dance, not be foot-bound cripples. The paragon is one whom we love and emulate, not one to whom we submit in fear. It is the corrupt and murderous Triad, dedicated to suppressing personal growth, which preaches that "respect is always founded on fear" (261). The person exemplifying jen "achieves his status as a model by a particular manner of focusing the events of his tradition and context so as to show and transmit what is excellent about them" (Hall 192). Emulating these acts is a process of evocation and discovery, not submission. It is clear that Timothy Mo agrees with Hall and Ames on this point. For even Red Cudgel, in explaining how to nurture a great fighter, says: "You mustn't confuse the instinct of a natural fighter" by over-training him or compelling him to follow stylized patters of movement that feel unnatural. "You don't mould -- you help him find himself" (116-17). Similarly, "Confucius makes it clear that the ultimate source of ritual actions is the human being striving to achieve appropriateness in his social and natural context" (Hall 172). Red Cudgel puts it succinctly: "Your movements must be simple and efficient --  what suits you best, not what you have been taught" (118).

Neo-Confucian Submission

Chen is incapable of responding to a new culture. He personifies Neo-Confucian submission and thoughtless imitation. Having borrowed money from the Triad to care for his aged father in Hong Kong, an act of xiao praised by the Triad, Chen hopes to escape their control by disappearing. Concerned that remittances to Hong Kong can be traced to him, Chen admonishes his wife to cease sending money: "he showed real anger: 'No. This is the end of it. Who is head in our family? You think wife tells Husband what to do?'" (107). Lily feels that such negligence cuts "at the basis of everything she believe in," consequently she ignores her husband's command, thus ensuring Chen's death. If only Chen and Lily were able to confide in each other instead of submitting to the formal roles cast by marriage and tradition, they may have escaped the Triad and all it represents. There are several opportunities to grow beyond stunting formalism. For example, when Lily discovers Mui's pregnancy, she "wondered whether to take him [Chen] totally into her confidence. Discretion won" and both lives are diminished (188-89). Early in the novel, Lily experiments with different names for Chen, for example referring to him as Man Kee's father, but she reflects that "To refer to her spouse by this alias was also suddenly to look upon him as an individual, whereas his importance really consisted in his role, his rank -- if you like -- of husband" (40). This formal attitude and the inability to test it, to question and alter the relationship in a process of growth, is the tragic flaw in the novel, propagated by Neo-Confucian tradition, which destroys the Chen family.


The yang -- yin movement and growth in the novel principally takes place between Lily and her sister Mui, even more so within Lily's psyche. Chen is a puppet controlled and finally destroyed by servility to meaningless tradition. Thus he envies his son, for "Man Kee, happy child, was getting a fresh start. He had no history, no heritage to live up to, no goal to fulfill, no ancient burden to carry" (111). Preoccupied with the duties of xiao toward his father and with his pathetic attempt to escape the Hung family Triad, Chen ignores England and the potential for growth and personal discovery, even simple survival. The Triad relies on such servility. For example, Red Cudgel explains that "Chinese don't talk to the devils. They meet silence when they ask their foolish questions. This is good" (36). So, when tax notices appear in his mail box, Chen discards them unopened. We are told that "Mui would not have been so imprudent." When a tax official finally intrudes to compel compliance with the law, it is Mui who discerns how easy it is to keep books and how hopeless it is to rely on "Brother-in-law's ability to fend for them all" (163). Gaining confidence, Mui advises the family to adjust their cultural calendar to conform to English holidays: "Why don't we have a holiday at Christmas when English people do?" (174). This may seem innocuous enough, even laudatory in adjusting to life in England. However, it can also be seen in another light, as indicative of Mui's excess yin; a pliancy that suggests a lack of personal principle or belief, an acceptance of English holidays because the Chinese holidays mean little to her. There is a need for a balance between Chen's negligible assimilation and Mui's readiness to forget her cultural tradition.

Mui's character and values come into question when she is found to be pregnant. Almost immediately after the discovery, Lily muses, "what was the difference between Mui and those shameless English girls?" (186) When Mui gives up her daughter for adoption by Mrs. Law, we may agree that because "she has plenty of money and she is kind," that the child will be well cared for (203). Nonetheless, there is a ring of truth to Lily's retort, "Our house not good enough, I suppose?" (202). Mui's comparative assimilation into English life allows her another perspective in assessing opportunity for her daughter and her nephew. In short, Mui does not want either of them to grow up as Chinatown Chinese: culturally Chinese but second class English citizens largely because of their own neglect or ignorance of English culture. No doubt Mui believes she has given her child an advantage. Contrast this to Chen mulling over whether to send Man Kee to a Saturday Chinese school, which he fears will endanger his life because the Triad will be able to find him through his son: "Chen couldn't find it in him to deny his son his heritage" (167). Lily's reaction is concise. She thinks Mui's "values must have become seriously distorted" (203). Although we never learn anything about the father of the child, Jik Mui, Lily discerns "something about her cheekbones which bespoke Western ancestry" (275).

Mui removed her daughter from the Chinatown influence of the Chen family. In her mind, she has sacrificed herself to aid her family: both the children and the financially struggling Chens. When Mrs. Law invites Mui to live with her, Mui says, "No. Younger sister and Brother-in-law need me. And the business would not work without three people. Maybe when Man Kee is older [...]" (206). Mui does her best to mitigate Lily's influence over Man Kee, prompting Lily's caution: "She must avoid Mui influencing him with some of the increasingly peculiar ideas she had" (173-74). When Lily passes along the rudiments of his grandfather's siu lum boxing to Man Kee, Mui becomes uncharacteristically direct, telling Lily her instruction is "foolish interference" with the necessity for Man Kee to accommodate to English life. In a sense Mui, like other immigrants eager to assimilate, is speaking about all Chinese culture when she says, "Wicked things you teach him. Nobody should know these things" (234). However, Man Kee is Lily's son and she decides that he needs to attend a supplementary "Chinese Person School" so that he does not "grow into a foreign devil boy." When she asks Mui to drop-off Man Kee at the school on her way to Mrs. Law's house on Saturdays, Mui "point-blank" refuses, saying, "Man Kee is very important to me, younger sister" (236). Of course, Man Kee attends the school; Lily hoping that "his once-weekly exposure to Chinese curriculum, as a measured dose of radiotherapy might burn out cancerous growth" (247).

At the end of the novel, Mui's yin road of cultural assimilation seems to have triumphed over Lily's yang path of reliance on herself and the Confucian culture that created her. Chen has disappeared, murdered by the Triad for its own political reasons. His uninvolvement with British society left him an easy victim for the Triad. The Chen restaurant is defunct. In contrast, Mui has married Mr. Lo, one of Chen's friends. With a loan from Mrs. Law they plan to open a restaurant of their own, significantly a "fish and chip," not a Chinese restaurant. Finally, Mui makes her position on Chinese versus English culture clear: "I am taking out citizenship. Naturalisation. This is my home now." She even has the temerity to suggest that Lily "Come to live with my family." Lily can only shake her head and wonder "what was she talking about? She was in Lily's family, not the other way around" (276). The embodiment of yin, Mui cannot offer a family road (dao) or personal model (yi) distinct from English life. She may have won a quicker economic victory than Lily by assimilating to British conventions, but it is difficult to imagine how the Lo grandchildren would differ from the Smyths and Jones.

Assimilation and Identity

Can this be a victory? What has been won? An ersatz British identity? In fact we are sent back to the beginning the novel to consider the character Miranda Lai, known in the Triad as Grass Sandal. Her identity is "as artificial as the fine stitching under the skin by her rounded eyes" (25). She is suave and successful, but "incapable of abstraction. Her utter self-assurance was based on the solid foundation of a strictly limited view of the world." She inhabits only one context, which, because it is singular, is considered coextensive with reality. There is no yin -- yang balance here. Nor is there any Confucian nurture to become authoritatively human (jen) through deference (li) and exploration (yi), in spite of the fact that the Triad, as well as Grass Sandal, see themselves as conservators of Chinese culture.

Himself living in a period of violence and moral degeneracy, when it was felt that it had been a long time "since the Way (dao) prevailed in the world," Confucius was concerned to find the path to the full realization of human life (Waley, Analects 3:24). Accommodation, assimilation, and expediency to gain money, status, and power, however much these are rationalized in Mui's case, are not the way to live (dao). Speaking of Grass Sandal, the narrator comments: "for her to have made the imaginative projection into admitting at least the possibility of other points of view, different lives, other ambitions, would have been quite impossible" (24). In the context of Chinese culture, this is a devastating criticism. F. S. C. Northrop explains: "One loses face when one has committed oneself to a specific, determinate course of events" which may turn out very differently than imaged or as projected in one's limited vision. "A person in the Orient who put himself in such a position is covered with shame because he had disregarded what the Orient teaches man to believe is one of the most elementary facts about human experience and the nature of things generally; namely, their indeterminateness and contingency" (344). It is not difficult to image Miranda Lai as Mui's granddaughter, a young woman in whom prudence, and thus faith in the adequacy of her interpretative model or culture rather than herself, was a prime quality, "developed to the point where it was an all-engrossing cunning" (24).

In contrast, the "responsibility of the particular person to locate the old road [dao], cut it back, and make a new beginning, is a major theme of the Analects" (Hall, 230-31). Far from submission, this process requires daring, judgment, and imagination. The symbol for this process is Lily's aptitude in learning to drive. To Chen the old van the family buys is simply another inscrutable part of the modern world. Failing "to find the correct balance between the pedals" of the van, he gives up the effort. Because Mui has delivered take-out food to so many truck drivers -- the suspicion is that one of them fathered Ah Jik -- she knows the theory of driving and the English names for various controls. But it is Lily who masters the art. Her childhood training instilled the confidence to meet either an adversary or an alien culture. Lily gets into the van thinking "it can't be that difficult" to drive and when she manages to spill a good deal of petrol, which could easily ignite, Lily continues to coolly master the situation (150). She lectures Mui, "It's not hurry which makes speed, elder sister, but coolness." The narrator comments, "This precept impressed on Lily a hundred times in childhood, sometimes painfully, meant nothing to Mui" (151). It is Lily who will drive on the strange roads of the new land until she finds her way (dao). Thus at the end of the novel, when Mui announces her marriage and is concerned about leaving Lily to fend for herself, Lily says, "the first thing which came into her head: I'll drive a bus!" (277).

In Accord with True Nature (dao)

Of course the future belongs to Man Kee (cf. "key man"). Mui Jik will learn little if anything of her authentic Confucian heritage from Mui who will always be a passenger instead of a driver. At one point in the novel, when Man Kee's education is considered, his parents ask, "Should he be sent back to Hong Kong? This would ensure he was imbued with correct Chinese qualities, veneration for parents, for instance" (167). We have seen that submission to this kind of training fails to help Chen; in fact it leads him to his death. Obviously, it is Lily, who at the end of the novel feels that "she had found a balance of things for the first time, yin canceling yang," the old, authentic Confucian program applied to modern conditions -- it is Lily who will teach Man Kee to walk the path of dao in England (278). Exactly how this can be done requires another novel from Timothy Mo. (His most recent novel, The Redundancy of Courage (1991) concerns the war for independence in East Timor, Indonesia). In a deeper sense, it cannot be specified, only experienced. What he has shown in Sour Sweet is that Neo-Confucian orthodoxy offers nothing positive to either the Chinese or English. The Triad peddles drugs; Chen is murdered. Mui's life is obviously preferable, but scarcely promising of fulfillment. Her survival is at the cost of retardation with little hope for discovery, realization, or beauty. Mui has lost the path leading to jen. F. S. C. Northrop identifies what is crucial to preserve in the Confucian outlook: "Only if one realizes, Confucius believes, and the whole Orient with him, that there is a factor in the realm of the aesthetic which is not a mere sign of something beyond itself or merely transitory, but which is ultimate, irreducible, and non-transitory, will a proper appreciation of aesthetics be achieved, and a life which is good because it gives expression to and is in accord with the true nature of things, be lived" (399). There is more than a little Buddhist metaphysics in this, which is forgivable of Northrop since one of the places where Confucianism and Buddhism knot together in Chinese and Japanese culture is aesthetics. Neither Mo nor anyone else -- even Confucius -- can specify explicit rules to achieve insight and lead an elegant and beautiful life in a culturally cross-pollinated and still emerging world. Nonetheless, it is clear at the end of the novel that hope for the rectification or renewal of an authentic Confucianism, which promises to continue to lead to such insight and offer such beautiful or authoritatively human life, resides in the survivors of the Chen family: Lily and Man Kee.

elec_line.gif (7575 bytes)

Works Cited:

name00 (3055 bytes)
  glasses.gif (1729 bytes)  NAU English
              NAU Home
wpDragon.gif (1716 bytes)