Morning Sun | Moving Pictures

The Gadfly

Why does The Gadfly, a seemingly mediocre, melodramatic narrative about Italian independence fighters, figure so prominently in Morning Sun?

In the first place, the novel enjoyed an unrivalled place in the hearts and minds of the young participants in the Cultural Revolution. A famed best-seller in the socialist bloc for decades, when it was published in China it became a favourite story—and an internalised narrative—for a generation of youthful readers in the 1950s and 60s.

For these readers revolution had many faces. It did not only take the guise of indigenous hero-warriors and freedom-fighters who had opposed the oppression of the last imperial dynasty, or who resisted the encroachment of the international imperialist powers, and of the Japanese empire, or who had sent the corrupt Nationalist government and its American supporters packing. Revolution also often appeared wearing Western features (and speaking in a Chinese voice)—the revolutionaries of Germany and Russia (subsequently the Soviet Union), France, Italy and Spain, among others—and this fed into a tradition of “Occidentalism” in China. Foreign language books, films, and songs were translated not only linguistically but also culturally into the Chinese context. These works were then interpreted and used in ways that gave meaning to the Chinese revolution and its attendant social changes. Indeed, often when there were no precedents for Chinese protagonists to follow—be it in the fictional world of culture or in reality—Western, or occidental pathfinders, inspired and enriched the imagination of Chinese audiences, and revealed to them a range of possibilities that created new psychological vistas. This kind of “cultural ventriloquism” is at the heart of the impact of many examples of international culture on countries like China throughout the last century.

And so it was with the case of The Gadfly, a novel (adapted for the screen in the Soviet Union, and the version of the book that we use in Morning Sun) that to generations of young people combined the combative mythology of a Lord of the Rings with the beguiling élan of a Harry Potter.

Tales of individual revolutionary heroism inspired young people; that the revolution had an Angst-ridden and romantic side as expressed in The Gadfly multiplied its appeal many times over.

The complex and tortured figure of a hero like Arthur in The Gadfly struck a profound chord with the adolescents of China. His personal tragedy, his denial and betrayal, his final confrontation with his own past and the father-authority of the cardinal, the story of his ultimate heroic redemption, as well as the raffish humour and swashbuckling daring that he displayed, the understated, even mawkish, dialogue—all of this added to the careful balance of sentiment with steely resolve, and it appealed strongly to the Cultural Revolution generations. Their own youthful yearnings and frustrations, ideals and woolly heroism found a cultural paragon in The Gadfly. For many—as we see from the interview-participants in Morning Sun—the innocent and wide-eyed romantic Arthur who became a battle-scarred vagabond was a psychological exemplar, an idol whose deeds and words resonated with their own actions during the Cultural Revolution itself.

Readers of all ages were inspired by a sense of mission and social responsibility, it was a worldview that was inflected equally by traditional statist Confucianism and Mao Zedong Thought. People were anxious to do something with their lives, to find meaning beyond the petty concerns of the mundane and everyday.

It is also possible to identify deep cultural reasons for the appeal of The Gadfly that are particular to China. For there is much in Arthur’s persona that parallels the long-standing appeal of the “knight-errant”, the youxia or xiake, in late traditional Chinese literature and popular culture. The “knight-errant”—the quasi-mythic travelling hero whose chivalry and sense of justice motivate a life of constant adventure and (often tragic) struggle—had been a staple in Chinese culture, especially youth culture, for many decades.

In the realm of kungfu heroism, great hardships would be weathered and the hero would always achieve some measure of poetic justice. The hero would embody the ideals of the perfect historical actor: altruism, justice, individual freedom, personal loyalty, courage, truthfulness, mutual faith, honour and fame, generosity of spirit and contempt for wealth.

Communist-era novels and operas in the 1950s and 60s fed on the tradition of the knight-errant, while in Hong Kong it is the modern, rambunctious tradition of quixotic fighter that has bred the literature and cinema of the kungfu hero, from the sardonic Bruce Lee to the quick-witted cross-over star Jackie Chan.

In our film The Gadfly acts as an extended filmic metaphor. We acknowledge the profound influence of the novel and its tragic hero on socialist youth culture, and focus on how our interview-participants understand the changing significance of the Gadfly in their mental and emotional lives over a number of decades.

Through it we establish parallels between the Catholic church (exemplified by the cardinal, the closeted and treacherous father of Arthur) and the Communist Party (and the ultimate father figure of the Chinese revolution, Mao Zedong). The search for meaning and the enterprise to realized ideals through action motivates both the religious zealot and the fervent revolutionary, in The Gadfly as well as in the Cultural Revolution. One key element of Morning Sun is to trace the parallel narrative of the personal and the cultural-political trajectories of the Cultural Revolution era, and we do that by tracking the story of The Gadfly and its changing role in the mental lives of our interview-participants.

The actual fate of the novel The Gadfly also mirrors the changing temper of Chinese cultural politics. It enjoyed mass circulation and popularity at the time of the cooperation between China and the Soviet Union. After the split with the Eastern Bloc and during the period of the revolutionisation of culture (1964-66) it stood out as a work with sufficient revolutionary credibility to survive denunciations that saw most other Western and traditional Chinese works of fiction banned. Although the book was eventually outlawed, the figure of Arthur continued to play a role in the world of the imagination and revolutionary symbolism for young people as the Cultural Revolution unfolded and foundered. With the end of Maoist extremism, The Gadfly was re-released in the late 1970s. While new readers would discover that much in the book resonated with their own lives, by re-reading it many older readers found a new message. It now spoke to them about the collapse of faith in the party-church and reflected their disaffection from the “cardinal”. The message of the end of the novel paralleled their feelings at the end of the Cultural Revolution era in which they rejected the party and its paramount leader, Mao Zedong.

In Morning Sun our “characters” meditate on the cultural landscape of their youth, the political activism of the high-Cultural Revolution period and their subsequent rediscovery of The Gadfly. Their reflections give voice to an historical transformation of the story and its evolving impact on their lives, and the way they see their own histories. The Gadfly is a companion that shares their youth, survives their disillusionment and then is re-evaluated as they think through the significance of the Cultural Revolution and the meaning it has for their personal fate and that of the Chinese revolution.

An abiding attraction of The Gadfly was the ambiguities within both the character of Arthur and the story as a whole. They were attracted by the relatively complex combination of revolutionary ardour with humanist sentiment in the novel. They were inspired by the enlivening possibilities of both being a lover and a fighter. They were haunted by the suffering resulting from betrayal that is further compounded by Arthur’s own betrayal of his revolutionary comrades. These were all dimensions of the story of the Gadfly that were more nuanced than the homegrown revolutionary culture of China. Arthur seemed more real than the one-dimensional characters foisted on China’s youth by their own cultural revolutionaries.

It is for these reasons—ambiguity and complexity—that readers of The Gadfly kept returning to the story, reading and re-reading it, finding in it as they grew and changed ever new meanings and layers that they could relate to in their own lives. This is also why the story still moves many Chinese readers, why it is still often mentioned in the mass media, and also why a new Chinese feature film is being made of it.

The Gadfly, by E. L. Voynich - Available at Amazon.com
and online at Project Gutenberg


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