Analysis of Mao Dun’s Midnight

This is an important political and cultural novel by famed Chinese author Mao Dun (1896–1985). The story surrounds the business tycoon Wu Sun-fu and his struggles in China during the great changes in the country during the 1930s. The novel begins with Wu Sun-fu and his elder sister as they arrive at a dock beside the Suzhou River to welcome their father home to Shanghai. Wu Sun-fu, a successful business magnate, had visited the United States and countries across Europe when he was young, and during those years he built his own industrial kingdom in Shanghai. He now desires to develop a Chinese national industry, but the 1930s bring much turmoil and change to the country. Peasants are struggling for their rights, while the Red Army grows stronger and stronger against the government and its own army. Wu Sun-fu has decided that it is too dangerous for his father to live in his hometown of Shuangqiao, and decides to move him to Shanghai.

Mr. Wu has not been out of his house in more than 25 years. The long trip wearies the old man and then the sight of the changed city of Shanghai shocks him. He is too old to accept this new modern life and dies suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage on the night he arrives in Shanghai.

Midnight: A Romance of China, 1930 / Chinese Edition Book Cover Via Abe Books

Wu Sun-fu holds a funeral for his father the next afternoon. All his friends attend, although they use the opportunity to exchange news and ideas rather than show respect for the deceased. They talk about battles, stock, business, taxes, and other mundane topics. Zhao Bo-tao and Shang Zhong-li persuade Wu Sun-fu and his brother-in-law to take part in their company to earn money by dealing in government bonds. Meanwhile, Sun Ji-ren and Wang He-fu suggest that he set up a bank with them. Before he can consider these business proposals, a telegram arrives reporting an uprising in his hometown. Further bad news comes that the workers in the Yuhua silk mill are intent on a strike. Engulfed in so many troubles, Wu Sun-fu feels overwhelmed by these hardships.

But he is a businessman and tries to take control of the situation. After calming down, he decides to solve the problems one by one. He first orders Fei Little Beard (Fei Xiao-sheng), the majordomo of his business in the town of Shuangqiao, to collect all his available cash there. At the same time, he promotes Tu Wei-yue in hopes of preventing the workers from striking. He also promises to cooperate with Zhao Bo-tao, as well as set up Yizhong Trust Company with Sun Ji-ren and Wang He-fu. In another move, he manages to take over a silk mill belonging to Zhu Yin-qiu by providing a loan to him and using the cocoons as security.

Zhao Bo-tao, it turns out, is a ruthless competitor supported by American capital. His nickname, the fiend of government bond, implies that he has the power to affect the rise or fall in the stock market. He goes so far as to bribe the army to lose strategic battles. He also creates false news that forces many individual investors to fall into his trap, such as Feng Yun-qing and He Shen-an. Feng Yun-qing was a landlord in the countryside and now lives in Shanghai as a respectable citizen with his concubine and his daughter. He has lost a lot of money in the stock market and desires to recover those losses. Knowing that Zhao Bo-tao’s weakness is pretty young women, he persuades his only daughter, Miss Feng, to befriend his rival so he can gain secret financial information. Miss Feng is naive and unable to fulfill her father’s plan. She has no understanding of the meaning behind the bull or bear of investments, and her misunderstanding ultimately leads her father to total financial failure. Wu Sun-fu concentrates on establishing a trust company as an economic force to help the national industry fl ourish. Zhao Bo-tao, on the contrary, seeks to control industrial capital through money markets. Therefore, Zhao Bo-tao ruthlessly attacks Wu Sun-fu and the trust company. He spreads vicious rumors that Wu Sun-fu is in financial trouble. This scandal compels Du Zhu-zhai, the brother-in-law of Wu Sun-fu, to withdraw his ownership from the trust company.

Wu Sun-fu falls into a financial crisis indeed. His takeover of the silk mill from Zhu Yin-qiu has produced a large loss of money in his hometown. He desperately tries to shore up the company’s losses by firing some of the factory workers, prolonging the work hours, and reducing the pay of other workers. This strategy fails due to the workers’ strike. In addition, Wu Sun-fu faces a domestic crisis. His younger sister is severely troubled, his wife misses her secret lover, and none of his relatives offers him help.

Nevertheless, Wu Sun-fu continues to struggle for his dream. He mortgages Yuhua silk mill and his residence, adds factories belonging to Yizhong trust company, and even takes risks in the government bond market. Unfortunately, Du Zhu-zhai takes advantage of his weaknesses and defeats him. Wu Sun-fu is amazed by the severity of his rival’s treachery and considers the future hopeless. He decides to close the silk mill and leaves for Lushan with his wife in order to flee his troubles.

Midnight is a tragic fable revealing the fate of the Chinese bourgeoisie. Wu Sun-fu is a representative of this stratum of society. He faces various conflicts. Though he is an energetic, high-spirited entrepreneur, his bankruptcy, like fate, leads to his doom, and his failure leads readers to evaluate the development and the future of China during this crucial period of the country’s history.

A Brief History of Chinese Novels

Mao Dun. Midnight. New York: AMS Press, 1979.
———. Rainbow. Translated by Madeleine Zelin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
———. Spring Silkworms and Other Stories. Translated by Sidney Shapiro. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1979.

Categories: Chinese Literature

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