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Mao Dun: 子夜 (Midnight)

Mao Dun’s novel is set in the late 1920s-early 1930s in and around Shanghai and clearly aims to show the decadence of the bourgeoisie at that time. He himself says in his introduction that he would have liked to give more prominence to the revolutionaries but was prevented from doing so by the censors. Accordingly, much of the story is told from the perspective of the bourgeoisie, even while he viciously satirizes them.

The story starts with the previous generation as represented by Old Mr. Wu. He has come to Shanghai because of the danger in the country with all the fighting. He comes with his copy of the Supreme Book of Rewards and Punishments, a religious book. He had been a revolutionary in his youth but, after an accident, had changed his ways. He is now very much opposed to the sinful ways of Shanghai, particularly what he sees as the lustful ways of youth. He does not last long. At a welcoming party, he sees too much exposed flesh, has a heart attack and dies. The stage is set for his children and grandchildren, particularly his son Sun-fu, a successful businessman.

From here on, Mao Dun attacks Sun-fu, his family and associates. They spend much of their time playing the stock and bond markets, both of which are very volatile because of the political situation. But they also own and operate various factories – particularly silk and matches – and exploit the workers to a considerable degree. Mao Dun criticises not only the owners but also the politicians who, in both the case of matches and silk, have left Chinese manufactures at a disadvantage compared to foreign ones (Swedish and Japanese respectively). But there is a lot more about the owners, who both play games with the factories and continually abuse the workers, cutting their wages on the assumption that they will not rebel (most of them are women). However, the workers organize and fight back. There is no doubt on whose side Mao Dun is.

There is a very complicated plot involving selling short and selling long on the stock market, borrowings and capitalists outsmarting one another and Mao Dun has great fun at their eventual downfall. At the same time, the workers, their sufferings and how they bravely fight for their rights, despite police and management brutality are well illustrated with the story of key individuals. The background to all of this is the military disruption in China with both bandit groups and the Communists fighting for control of the country and the capitalists trying to use information they get on the fighting to anticipate the market as well as using the conditions to justify their ill-treatment of the workers. While there is never any doubt which side Mao Dun is on, he does tell a fascinating story of a country which is about to fall apart.

Publishing history

First published in Chinese 1933
First published in English 1957 by Foreign Languages Press, Beijing