Chinese Intellectuals’ Moral Dilemma in Dafu’s “Sinking”


Sinking is a chef-d’oeuvre piece of classic literature written by Yu Dafu. The story revolves around an alienated and depressed nameless protagonist whose life is sinking and he cannot seem to rescue himself. However, the author’s subtle message addresses a crisis that many Chinese intellectuals have continued to face in a changing society for almost a century. While Sinking was written in 1921, the challenges that intellectuals faced then have not changed significantly in the contemporary times. Historically, Chinese intellectuals stood out for their passion concerning the nation and its people. The objective of going to school was to perform exemplary in the national examinations, get a nomination to the Emperor’s court, and ultimately rule the people under the watch of the dynasty.

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Even as dynasties fell and replaced by governments, intellectuals purposed to enter the civil service and later govern the nation under the authorities of the day. However, the society has changed and intellectualism has shifted to science and technology. In a bid to acknowledge how the moral dilemma faced by Chinese intellectuals fits into Sinking, one has to understand the definition of intellectualism in this context. According to Chen, the moral code of a “Chinese scholar was the cultivation of the self for the management of the family and finally the governance of the nation” (567). In other words, intellectualism in the Chinese context goes beyond attaining college education and working for prestigious organizations. The new battlefield for the intellectuals is science and technology as opposed to politics or social welfare of the nation. This shift of focus creates a moral predicament for the intellectuals. Therefore, this paper explores the moral dilemma facing Chinese intellectuals as presented in Sinking by Yu Dafu. A western literary work, The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath will be used to compare the issues raised in Sinking.

Synopsis of Sinking

The plot of Sinking flows sequentially by allowing the miseries of the protagonist to roll out as the story progresses. A young man, the protagonist known as “He”, leaves China for further studies in Japan. However, the new environment is not conducive to him and he suddenly becomes an alien without friends or family. The young man has to deal with hostility and intimidation from the Japanese society which makes him depressed. Due to desolation and sexual pressure, he resorts to sexual fantasies and masturbation to gratify his desires. He also uses this strategy to release the daunting depression. His education demands that he should maintain a strong sense of ethics and uphold moral purity. However, his alienated state has weakened the previous gusto with which he approached life. The protagonist loses his sense of direction and one morning while wandering in the rural area, he overhears a Japanese couple becoming intimate in the bushes. This experience breaks his remaining mental resolve and while lost in voyeurism and sexual fantasies, he boards a ferry to an unknown destination. He ultimately ends up in front of a brothel where his dampened resolve lets him in and spends some time there. At night, the young man cannot bear the shame and wickedness associated with prostitution and thus he wanders into the sea before drowning to death.

The moral dilemma

As aforementioned, the Chinese intellectualism has to be conscious of the community’s social needs, which demands one to engage in governance (Xu, 123). The unlucky group that did not enter civil service and serve the community would voice its opinions through criticizing the government. If their voices were neglected, the individuals outside the Emperor’s court would retreat to the forests and wilderness to pursue the life of an anchorite by wining and composing their poetry or simply learning through self-education by dissecting the writings of the sages. In other words, the Chinese intellectuality had two implications. First, if one were lucky enough to join the government, then he or she would serve the community. On the other side, those that did not join the Emperor’s court would embark on a self-perfection journey in the wilderness. The moral perception in the Chinese culture maintained that the intellectuals were privileged to understand societal issues coupled with translating the wisdom of the sages and representing the people. In Sinking, the protagonist leaves his country where he should be contributing to the social welfare of the community. The protagonist’s act of leaving China for Japan symbolizes the departure of intellectuals from the social obligation to technological and scientific pursuits for personal gains.

Currently, only a few Chinese intellectuals are involved in the political arena or governance. In addition, after the young man gets to Japan, instead of focusing on self-perfection, he isolates himself from the public and starts on a self-destruction journey which leads him to death. The moral dilemma faced by Chinese intellectuals revolves around the young man’s three failures. First, he did not join the government to serve the people. Secondly, he did not criticize the authorities. Finally, he failed to pursue self-perfection as dictated by the Chinese intellectuals’ moral code.

Most Chinese individuals with the privilege of pursuing higher education focus on science and technology. The popular belief is that science and technology can change humanity’s destiny. According to this assertion, the current technological revolution is shaping the future of humankind. At the top of these scholars are esteemed inventors and scientists. By virtue of having higher education, these individuals qualify as intellectuals. However, they do not fit into the hitherto definition where they are required to have consciousness for society (Xu 131). These neo-intellectuals cannot forfeit their technological pursuits and become the voice of the community. The focus has shifted to advancing one’s economic status. Before the Reform era, the intellectuals’ opinions were restricted as the majority of opportunities to progress belonged to the government. However, in the modern times, intellectuals enjoy a diversity of avenues through which they can air their opinions. Unfortunately, the battlefield is no longer in the social or political arena but in science and technology. The few intellectuals who join the government they choose to pursue their professional undertakings without criticizing the government or causing social turmoil.

Social scientists, as part of the Chinese intellectuals, are also caught up in this dilemma of whether to raise societal concerns or conform to the status quo. Social scientists in China are keen to pursue their ideologies within the confines of the prescribed communist ideology lest they fall out with the government (Denton 111). Therefore, such intellectuals have to come up with ways of popularizing the communist maxims and continually remind themselves of that truth. However, the concept of Marxism is slowly fading away and people are faced with a dilemma on which way to follow. In this mix-up, social scientist intellectuals are lost in doubts on whether to attack the communist doctrine or promote it. Just like the young man in Sinking, such intellectuals are alienated and they face constant internal battles on what to pursue.

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In Sinking, the protagonist is sickened by the brutality and intimidation that he faces from the society where he lives. Similarly, intellectuals in the field of social science are torn between advancing sociological theories and following communist principles. The protagonist in the Sinking can no longer enjoy literature. He simply picks books, reads out of sequence, and lies to himself that it amounts to crime to read a book and not its context (Dafu 33). Every time he “closed a book, he made up similar excuses for himself. The real reason was that he had already grown a little tired of it” (Dafu 33). The young man cannot understand the meaning of reading all the books because he has lost his way. The primary objective of learning is to join the government and serve, criticize bad leadership, or pursue self-perfection. However, he has failed in all these objectives. Similarly, social scientists in China cannot understand the need of studying theories that cannot be applied in their environment.

Chinese intellectuals in social science are in a moral dilemma on whether to be apologists for the truth. By choosing not to vindicate the truth as they know it, their knowledge becomes a commodity that can be traded in the market as a way of making a living or surviving (Denton 120). However, the traditional Chinese intellectualism demanded scholars in this field to exercise social consciousness. However, the price of violating social norms and antagonizing the government of the day may be paid through one’s life. Therefore, pursuing financial gains becomes the only viable option for survival even though such a decision creates self-condemnation. The young man in Sinking was faced with the same moral dilemma before committing suicide by drowning. After stepping out of the brothel, his resolve to fight moral purity was broken as he could not bear the burden of such sinful act. While Chinese social scientists may not be stretched to the limits of committing suicide, they have to live with self-condemnation for their deadened social consciousness.

Comparison between Sinking and The Bell Jar

Esther, the protagonist in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, experiences alienation like the young man in Sinking due to the unchecked sexism in the American society. She leaves home as a nineteen-year-old sophomore to apprentice for a fashion magazine in New York as an editor. Unfortunately, she finds herself in a confusing world where she cannot fit in due to status and power imbalances. She ends up alienated before withdrawing to herself. She confesses, “All the little successes I’d totted up so happily at college fizzled to nothing outside the slick marble and plate-glass fronts along Madison Avenue” (Plath 2). Esther in The Bell of Jar and the young in Sinking face alienation in foreign lands. The resulting depression affects their motivation to read.

While the young man cannot enjoy literature, Esther confesses to her psychiatrist that she no longer reads. Similarly, the two characters experience sleeping disorders. She suffers from insomnia while the young man oversleeps. However, while the young man ultimately dies through drowning, Esther survives a suicide attempt though she loses a close friend, Joan, to the same tragedy. The striking similarity between the two short stories is the autobiographical approach that the authors take. Yu Dafu left China to pursue further studies in Japan at a young age where he suffered from depression due to the hostilities and later died during the Second World War. On the other side, Plath served as an editor of the same fashion magazine that she talks of in the story (Wagner-Martin 17). She chronicles her struggles as she transitioned from teenage-hood to adulthood in an unguided journey. She later committed suicide aged 30 years due to clinical depression (Wagner-Martin 68). The two short stories are narratives of personal misery and tragedy occasioned by societal pressures.


The Chinese intellectuals have departed from the traditional demands that one should serve the society and defend it from bad governance. Instead of joining the government, the majority of intellectuals are pursuing interests in science and technology. On the other side, social science intellectuals are living in self-condemnation because they are torn between criticizing the government and supporting a system that contradicts their knowledge. Using the moral code of Chine intellectualism, these professionals have failed. They do not qualify to be classified as intellectuals because they have forsaken the social consciousness requirement of the moral code. The young man in Sinking and Esther in The Bell Jar experience the same alienation as they are constantly fighting a losing battle between their beliefs and societal pressures. Similarly, Chinese intellectuals have to suffer in silence because criticizing the government is not allowed and thus they choose to lead quiet lives for survival.

Works Cited

Chen, Eva. “Shame and Narcissistic Self in Yu Dafu’s Sinking.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, vol. 30, no. 3, 2003, pp. 565-585.

Dafu, Yu. “Sinking.” The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature. Edited by Joseph Lau and Howard Goldblatt, Colombia University Press, 2007, pp. 31-56.

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Denton, Kirk. The Distant Shore: Nationalism in Yu Dafu’s Sinking. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), vol. 14, 1992, pp. 107-123.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. HarperCollins, 2005.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Xu, Ben. “Chinese Populist Nationalism: Its Intellectual Politics and Moral Dilemma.” Representations, vol. 76, no. 1, pp. 120-140.

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1. StudyCorgi. "Chinese Intellectuals' Moral Dilemma in Dafu’s "Sinking"." April 4, 2021.


StudyCorgi. "Chinese Intellectuals' Moral Dilemma in Dafu’s "Sinking"." April 4, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Chinese Intellectuals' Moral Dilemma in Dafu’s "Sinking"." April 4, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Chinese Intellectuals' Moral Dilemma in Dafu’s "Sinking"'. 4 April.

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