From the De-Based Literati to the Debased Intellectual:
Yu Dafu's "Sinking" ought to be interpreted and evaluated as a modern Chinese counter-bildungsroman, with its critical agenda embedded in an artfully contrived narrative of disease. By dramatizing the sick protagonist's failed pursuit of new learning, which involves attending new-style schools and climaxes in his studying abroad (liuxue), the story interrogates the teleological efficacy of the modern and Westernized system of education that China started institutionalizing at the turn of the twentieth century. It undermines the then widely-held conviction that the new-style education--a new way of self-formation and hence a new model of cultivating the new state citizen--could help to accomplish the grandiose scheme of national salvation. In this sense, the story registers a fear of the generation of Chinese men of letters caught in the radical transition of their social identity from traditional literati to modern intellectuals, an agony caused by an acute sense of cultural and political displacement after their being forced to abandon the Confucian model of person-making to seek re-education not just in an alien system but often in an alien land.
The author thematizes this historical sentiment primarily by utilizing the psychoanalytical trope of hypochondriac melancholia to reconstruct the protagonist's degeneration, a process of hopeless sinking wherein the new education system is seen to gradually diminish the humanity of the Chinese subject, degrading him to a creature with sheer beastial instincts as manifested in his perverse sexual desires. Thus, instead of championing Western modernity against Chinese feudalism, the story actually articulates a strong nostalgia for the lost Confucian tradition of learning sublimated in a fantasized context of the reinvigorated nation. It is from this perspective, moreover, that "Sinking" has also contributed to laying the foundation for the critical and self-reflexive tradition of Chinese liuxuesheng literature.