I sense that the common theme in Jack Livings’ short story collection, The Dog, is the power of collectivism in Chinese society. The various protagonists in his stories deal with the pressures and expectations of belonging in a community or family. The concept of “saving face” plays a large part in these stories as characters’ thoughts seem to contradict their actions. While they may try to resist some aspects of their collectivist world, they undoubtedly are forced to accept their place.
The title story, “The Dog”, follows Li Yan, the wife of Chen Wei, a rather passive and meek man who is frequently caught up in get-rich-quick schemes planned by his cousin. When Li Yan defies him to save their prized race dog from being slaughtered, she is forced to prepare a feast for the family in exchange, despite her poor cooking skills. Though she works hard to prepare a meal, all of the fish is uncooked. Because of this shame and his earlier emasculation, Chen Wei lashes out at Li Yan in front of his whole family to defend his role as the husband.
While “The Dog” focuses on saving face in front of family, other stories are centered around status in professional contexts. In “Mountain of Swords, Sea of Fire”, Ning is an aging journalist despised by his coworkers and forced into retirement. Claire, a foreign student in China, experiences the same sense of isolation from her peers at the school in “The Pocketbook”. She describes everyone leaving to go out on a Friday night without inviting her. She mentions that she’d been saving some brown hashish with the hopes of smoking it with someone, though she wouldn’t call anyone a friend. These two protagonists are social outcasts who are more affected by the lack of camaraderie than they let on.
I thought that the themes of social pressures were most evident in “Donate!” and “An Event at the Horizon Trading Company”. In “Donate!” Yang, a factory manager is pressured by his wife, daughter, and employees to donate outrageous sums of money to help the victims of a recent earthquake. No amount of blood or money seem to appease them as they demand more and more from him:
During this time of silence, Yang came to understand the crisis in his own way: The workers would be satisfied by nothing less than strips of flesh from his back. The country would take nothing less than everything he had.
Similarly, Wei in “An Event at Horizons Trading Company” finds himself torn by the social pressures at his office when his coworkers become divided into followers and non-followers of the Hanfu lifestyle. In the end, he fails to stick up for his friends and watches them get fired as he changes into his robes. I believe that this story illustrates the collective mentality of the Chinese people as the employees follow whatever is in the majority. Only Wei’s two friends dare to be different while the others believe that it will impress their boss when he returns.
Though I’ve always known that China had a strong collectivist society, Livings’ stories represented it within the context of highly imaginative stories. Though the characters, themselves, are described the same as any Western character, the situations they find themselves in and their subsequent actions reflect the pressures of living in such an environment. China scores a 20/100 in the Individualistic aspect of Hostede’s model of cultural dimensions. The low score for China means that its people seem to “know one’s place” in life and their identities are tied to the social systems in which they belong. Though this “we-conscious” identity may not be immediately present, it is something I am made more aware of by Livings’ stories.
- Beijing-workers: Irina