The humble bao, a staple of the Chinese diet, has proven to be an irresistible source of inspiration for two prominent authors, Lu Xun and Eileen Chang. Both authors, although writing in different eras and advocating opposing views on the issue of China’s modernization, maintain the symbolism of the bao as a representation of the essential nature of the Chinese people. Stripped of its seasonings and condiments, the glutinous exterior of the pastry acts as a canvas for the transitory social and political movements of China’s early modern history. However, like the bun’s filling, the essential qualities of the Chinese identity – namely, Confucian values – remain hidden inside, resisting modernity.
Lu Xun, China’s most famous author, uses steamed buns to great dramatic effect in his May Fourth era work Medicine. The story describes the traditional healing practices used to treat young Hua Shaun, who is dying of tuberculosis. Instead of pills, Shaun is given a steamed bun drenched in the crimson blood of the executed revolutionary Xia Yu. “Eat it hot! That consumption of his won’t stand a chance, not against a bun dipped in human blood!” (Lu Xun, 41) Unfortunately, the “miracle cure” does not heal, and Hua Shuan dies shortly thereafter (41).
The role of the bun is central to Lu Xun’s calls for reform. Hua Shuan is assured that the literal act of digesting the essence of traditional Chinese society will save him from his imminent mortality, but is instead poisoned. The cannibalistic act of consuming a bloody bun – “the single heir to an ancient house” – then is an allegory for the traditional China that Lu Xun proverbially (and scornfully) characterized as an “iron house” (39).
In a second passage, Lu Xun calls for reform by using the steamed bun to represent the people of his nation. Lu Xun describes the bun with the word mantou (馒头）, a phrase containing the Chinese word for head. It is clear that the bun itself represents the Chinese people, stuck in a society symbolized by the coating of blood. Incidentally, the title of the story, 药，can mean either medicine or poison; Lu Xun shows how the Qing dynasty, through repression and isolation, has literally poisoned China and kept her from adopting scientific and political reforms. Hua and Xia, the surnames of the sick boy and rebel, combine as an archaic term for China, implying that their plight is widespread. Unsurprisingly, their tombs look exactly the same, like “the tiered crowns of steamed bread with which wealthy families celebrated their birthdays” (43). The rigid social hierarchy keeps the peasants at a status equal to that of criminals. The lower classes are, in life, poisoned by the decaying Qing scientific beliefs. In death, they are consumed by the cannibalistic wealthy class.
Lu Xun, writing during the decaying end of the Qing dynasty during the inception of the May Fourth movement, uses the symbolism of the steamed bun to criticize the slow pace of Chinese modernization. In contrast, Eileen Chang’s Sealed Off describes bao a quarter-century later within the context of a China that has modernized too much. The China of 1945 is engulfed in the violence of World War II, and Chang’s native Shanghai is frequently shut down for air raids. China’s reformers had promised Lu Xun’s generation a bright and prosperous future; but peace, prosperity, and gender equality were still a long ways off when Eileen Chang came of age.
The central tension in Sealed Off is the conflict between the characters’ modern gender and social roles, and the traditional duties expected of them by their families. Lu Zongzhen, who performs the role of a western businessman, meets a young female English professor, Wu Cuiyuan, on the tram during an air raid. Zongzhen’s wife, whom he wed in an arranged marriage, has compelled him to bring home a packet of steamed spinach buns. Zongzhen takes the task of carrying the bao home as a personal affront: “She didn’t consider how it made him look – a man smartly dressed [in western fashion]… how ridiculous!” (Eileen Chang, 239) Zongzhen notices that the buns’ newspaper wrapper has transferred its characters (in reverse) onto the surface of the pastries; he can literally read the words “stock market” on a bun. “Eating,” he decides, “turns everything else, by way of contrast, into a joke” (239). This soon becomes a threat to him.
The buns, and the gender norms they force Zongzhen to reckon with, harken back for an older time and thus conflict with his performance of a modern identity. Modernity represented by his western suits and the stock exchange listings has been transposed upon the smooth exterior of the buns without changing the contents within. Zongzhen is embarrassed by his humble bao because they demonstrate the superficiality and transience of his new identity. Beneath his sharp suit and daily newspaper, the strong ties of an arranged marriage shape his life, just as the scent of sesame oil wafts out from underneath the stock listings surrounding the buns.
In the fiction of Lu Xun and Eileen Chang, bao thus carry complementary meanings. Lu Xun coats his buns in blood, the grotesque image efficiently summarizing his views on Qing dynasty China. Eileen Chang uses her spinach buns to poke fun at, and show the flimsiness of, the supposedly improved China of her upbringing. Both authors use the bun to represent the unchanging nature of China’s citizens, whether they are trapped in a cannibalistic monarchy or stamped by the performance of western modernity. Moreover, the use of bao designates the stories as exclusively applicable to the Chinese identity, tales that accomplish a specific political goal through their deployment of a unique national symbol. Finally, both stories rely on an unchanging staple to convey a message about the unchanging nature of human identity.