The intricacies that surround a narrative invites more than one simple interpretation of that account. The Past and the Punishments by Yu Hua is no exception to this phenomenon, where the short story "On the Road at Eighteen" offers more than one understanding of the meaning behind its creation. With an author like Yu Hua, who constantly subverts perspectives and shatters expectations, it is easy to see how one can garner different ideas from his short stories. "On the Road at Eighteen" allows for three distinct interpretations to be gleaned, including the idea that the narrative is an allegory for growing up, the idea that it is a representation of how communism and capitalism can be interpreted within the plot and how it mirrors China's transition to capitalism, and the idea that the whole story represents not reality but a literal dream sequence that resembles a nightmare. All three of these interpretations interact with one another, and allow for each idea to build upon the other to create a more intricate and absolved storyline.
One interpretation of this narrative is the idea that it represents the world as irrational and without a frame of reference for those who are first starting to enter it. This story can be seen as allegory for coming of age and having to start understanding the world as an adult. From the perspective of an eighteen-year-old, the world can be seen as harsh, confusing, and damning in this chronicling of growth from teenager to adult.
To start, the narrator walks for endless amounts of time despite not knowing where he is going or knowing where he will find an inn to stay the night. He says, “So even though I’ve walked all day, I’m not tired, not at all… but I haven’t found an inn” (Yu 3). This quote displays the direct connection to youth and transitioning from teen to adult. The main character shows a determination to keep walking and cites the fact that he does not tire with hard work, a quality that is most associated with youth and a new beginning. If we take him at his word, and he is not tired, then that shows the passion that is exemplified in someone who has just started his life journey. If we believe him to be lying about his weariness, the narrator is connected to the stubbornness and sheer will that comes with being young and head strong, working through pain in order to prove yourself capable.
These qualities are not the only thing that ties the narrator to a symbol of coming of age. The boy walks while unaware of his destination. The world around him is an enigma and he is confused about his future as he continues to walk on the road (Yu 3). Most young adults are confused about what they will be like when they grow older, as well as what they will do with their lives when they do become adults. This confusion is represented through the narrator’s confusion at his destination, the destination being a metaphor for life’s destinations and reaching one’s life goals.
The narrator also becomes confused by the townspeople’s lack of confusion. He cites instances of meeting people along the road, saying, “I’ve encounters quite a few people along the roads, but none of them has known where the road goes or whether there’s an inn there. They all tell me: ‘Keep Walking. You’ll see when you get there.’” (Yu 3). This lack of confusion by the townspeople can be attributed the interpretation that they symbolize adults and adulthood. The villagers are not confused by the world around them because they have grown into adulthood and are already used to society and its arbitrary rules. They can also stand in for adults who know their future plans and what they are like as adults, something the main character is still unaware of. The truck driver, who is another townsperson and therefore another adult, baffles the narrator as well. The driver’s constant change in stance, whether it be in favor or against the boy in his truck, can be a parallel for how relationships change when you grow older (Yu 5). Though the truck driver sees this bipolar behavior as normal, the young man does not understand it, just as he would not understand the change of a relationship’s status when transitioning from child to adult.
The world around you can also seem harsh to someone who is not used to living in it fully. The narrator realizes the world is unforgiving and difficult when five people bike down the hill to steal apples from the broken-down truck while simultaneously fighting the narrator and giving him a bloody nose for defending the driver’s merchandise (Yu 8). This experience, as well as the scene where the driver steals the boy’s backpack, signals his naivety due to age and his ignorance to the ways of the world. Here, the main character learns that the world is damning because his mistakes, which were due to inexperience, fate him to a night in a broken truck rather than a night in an inn with all of his resources. The analysis of his fate shows us that youth shapes adulthood and making mistakes as a child can hugely affect the future.
The narrator does not seem to understand how society works and how cruel it can be. However, as you grow, you accept your fate and your life and come to understand the world through trial and error. In the end, the narrator no longer questions where he is going or if the road leads to his desired destination because he becomes the townspeople, becomes the adult that they represented. He also stops wondering where he is going to sleep for the night or if he is going to find the inn he had been looking for so desperately. In his acceptance of his fate to sleep in the sunken, battered truck, he becomes an adult. This growth is portrayed through the narrator’s decision to climb into the sunken truck after the driver leaves on the tractor that had been sitting next to it (Yu 10). The young man states, “The truck looks miserable, battered. I know I’ve been battered too,” (Yu 10).
Over all, the first interpretation of this short story equates the narrator to the status of innocent youth, confused by the world and the arbitrary rules that seem to govern it. The townspeople around him are synonymous with adulthood and growing up because they are no longer confused by the many facets of society that perplexes the main character, such as his confusion with his destination, his relationships, and the cruelty and harshness of the context around him. As the narrator progresses through the story, he slowly transitions from childhood to adulthood, as shown by the halting of his questioning of his destination and of his journey, as well as by his acceptance to his fate of staying the night in the sunken truck.
The second interpretation of “On the Road at Eighteen” by Yu Hua involves looking at the narrative as a symbol for contemporary China’s transition from a total communist country to a country with the integration of a capitalist economy within a communist context. Within the story, communist and capitalist ideologies are critiqued and placed under a microscope. Specifically, there appears to be anticapitalistic undertones in particular scenes and metaphors for capitalism present in certain characters.
The scene within which the five men on bicycles steal apples from the truck and the driver illustrates this theme perfectly and succinctly. The narrator states, “They swarmed by my and surround the truck… Apples poured out of broken baskets like blood out of my nose. They stuffed apples into their own baskets as if they were possessed,” (Yu 8). As the children are stealing from the truck driver, the main character tries to stop them from taking the man’s commodities. However, during the process of using his own body to protect the apples, his backpack is stolen by the person he is trying to defend. The truck driver, whom he had formerly perceived to be a friend, took his only belonging and left the narrator to his own fate. This scene demonstrates a sort of steal or get stolen from mentality present within the context of society. This theme is deeply rooted in capitalist culture, creating a do or die dichotomy within capitalism. Yu Hua demonstrated capitalism to be dangerous and counterintuitive to citizens, where trying to help someone in a capitalist society can create problems for you. Putting the narrator in this situation allowed for anti-capitalist undertones to be interpreted from the storyline.
The narrative can also be seen as the society that Chinese citizens must learn to adapt to, and how they react to the transition from a full communist society to contemporary society where there are aspects of capitalism as realized through the free market economy. The narrator does not know the rules of the modern world, which leads to his backpack getting stolen, because he represents the generation that transitioned out of communism to this new economic policy. He is used to communism, where everything is shared and not stolen, where there is no need to fight for commodities, so he is therefore confused by the rules of the capitalist contemporary. The truck driver and the children on the bicycles who steal from him are all knowing of the contemporary structure, so they were able to easily spot someone who was unfamiliar with it and exploit his ignorance.
Capitalism is painted in a negative light throughout “On the Road at Eighteen”. It is portrayed as cold and impersonal, and Yu Hua seems to be critiquing capitalism throughout the narrative, as well as possibly calling for a return to the ways of the past, where things seemed simpler and more amicable for the pleasure of citizens. The truck driver, the narrator, and the children could have shared the apples instead of having to resort to stealing from one another. Creating an unequal distribution of wealth is exactly what is being critiqued, as well as the violence and unhappiness that surrounds society when there is a hierarchy that is in place. Instead of sharing, like they could under a communist regime that calls for an equal distribution of wealth, you are forced to steal under the capitalist context.
Not only can Yu Hua be seen to be criticizing capitalism and the direction of China’s future, but he can also be interpreted as commenting on the bystander effect in Chinese society. Every townsperson saw the narrator get injured and smacked down by the children in bicycles, but no one stepped in to help in him as he became steadily more and more hurt. Even the truck driver, who had not only shared a cigarette but also a long drive with the boy, decided not to help him but instead to make his situation worse by stealing his belongings (Yu 10). This experience directly parallels the many instances in modern China where children are left alone and hurt rather than being aided by adults because of their fear of retribution for helping. The narrative connects the bystander effect to capitalism, attributing the bystander mentality to the rise of capitalism and insinuating that the communist mindset would make citizens more caring and empathetic while the capitalist mindset makes citizens cold to the suffering of others as well as desensitized to the wounds people see on others.
In this second interpretation, “On the Road at Eighteen” represents the transition from capitalism to communism, and how that can be seen as a negative change in Chinese society. The narrator stands in for the generation that is not yet used to the aspects of capitalism in the country while the townspeople, specifically the children in bicycles and the truck driver, are standing in for those who already understand what it means to transition from a total communist society. Communism is put on a pedestal while capitalism is widely critiqued for its perceived negative impact on citizens, being seen as making the whole of China less empathetic and contributing the bystander effect that is now a commonality in citizens of the contemporary capitalist context.
The third interpretation of this plot is quite different from the rest, focusing not on transformation or reality but delving into the dream realm instead. This narrative can be interpreted as representing a literal dream sequence, specifically being a nightmare that the narrator is experiencing. The nightmare, in this context, is happening to him because of his fear of leaving home for the first time. The narrator is so nervous about his upcoming journey that the story becomes a literal dream following the his subconscious.
Aspects of the narrative do not make sense, much like a dream does not make sense or is often not perfectly linear. The reality of the storyline is absurd, allowing for it to be interpreted as a nightmare. The tale feels real but has levels of absurdity embedded within that creates this dreamlike atmosphere. Starting with the truck driver, his character has a duality that was made to baffle, as a character a dream would baffle the person having the dream. In one moment, he is shoving the narrator away from his truck so that he does not come in the car with him, and in the other he is graciously allowing him to be a passenger in his car, even asking for his destination (Yu 3). At one point, the driver offers the narrator an apple, in what is described as a sweet voice, and in a matter of seconds the kind offer turns into a threat to get an apple from the back of a moving vehicle (Yu 3). After the peasants stole the driver’s apples and the narrator took a beating to save his merchandise, he seemed delighted that the boy had a broken nose and was described to have had his face “[get] happier and happier the longer he looked at [the boy’s] nose” (Yu 8). These changes in demeanor are consistent with the idea that the reality of the storyline is absurd, much like the plot of a nightmare. In concordance with this, the narrator does not question the changes in demeanor, and just accepts the truck driver’s inconsistencies, something very similar to what a person does as they are dreaming. While dreaming, you do not question the world around you, but rather you perceive it as normal, just like the main character does in these instances.
Another aspect of the story that relates to a dream is this idea of having no goal, no destination, and just accepting that as fact. All of the villagers just say to keep going on the path, the truck driver does not know to where he is driving, and the narrator does not know where he wants to go. The townspeople do not question the child on his journey or the fact that there is no place for him to stay, and the child accepts the fact that he must keep going on an endless journey. He accepts and even enjoys the fact that none of the villagers seem concerned by distance or travel. The boy even states, “I think what everyone said was just terrific. I really am just seeing when I get there. But I haven’t found an inn. I feel like I should be worried about that,” (Yu 3). The narrator is not worried about not finding a place where he can stay the night, something that any rational person would be worried about. However, he is not worried because he is in a dream sequence. It is like the narrator is experiencing a nightmare where there is no end to his journey, and despite the fact that all of the villagers around him promise him there is an end, one never comes. This never-ending journey harkens back to dreams where the dreamer runs for eternity, with the finish line never in sight.
Though the narrator never questions his journey, he does become cognizant of some anomalies that are present within his context. For example, he recognizes that it is weird that he hasn’t seen a car come by throughout his entire journey. What he does not recognize as an inconsistency in his realm is the fact that as soon as he starts thinking that he has not seen a car come by and that he would like to hitch hike, a car suddenly materializes in his reality. This is something that is often found in dreams: thinking about something will allow for it to become a reality within the dream space. If you are thirsty within your dream, you will often find a water bottle suddenly materialize on the table next to you, all the while not finding it unusual nor questioning its sudden existence.
This third interpretation of the chronicle of events portrays it as being a literal nightmare experienced by the narrator. The boy’s context is a quickly shifting landscape with no rules, much like the dreams and nightmares that haunt us while we sleep. The inconsistencies in the narration allude to this fact, such as the truck driver’s changing opinion on the young man, the endless journey, and the unquestioning acceptance. In this understating of the plot, it seems to be a nightmare of a worried teenager who is about to start life on his own and his dream parallels his fears.
Though these three interpretations of “On the Road at Eighteen” may seem to detract from one another, they can actually be seen as reinforcing the other. The first two interpretations of the short story have an emphasis on transition and change, the first dealing with a transition from childhood to adulthood and the second dealing with a transition between communist China to contemporary China. This, in turn, allows each interpretation to build off of the other and make the separate arguments stronger. It emphasizes the idea that though an interpretation of the narrative is different, it still has a central theme of transition and change, which can be bring both understandings together.
As for the third interpretation, though it does not specifically center on transition, it contributes to the nuances of the first two interpretations by adding a level of perceived fear to the tale. Understanding the story as a literal nightmare allows the reader to see undertones of fear accompanied with both of the interpreted transitions: fear associated with becoming an adult and fear associated with the direction of Chinese society. The third interpretation can be applied to transitions in life and in country, and it allows for an acceptance of fear in regard to change. It shows that worry is normal in these contexts but you must also be able to connect your nightmares and your worries with your reality, which in this case would be worry about adulthood or contemporary China.
In concordance with adding complexity to Yu Hua’s narrative, each interpretation deals with a new beginning. The first interpretation sees this new beginning as a new part of your life, the second interpretation sees this new beginning as a new China, and the third interpretation sees this new beginning as a new journey that is associated with fear. Each analysis allows for a deeper understanding of the story as a whole rather than subtracting from the importance of each.
Over all, the short story “On the Road at Eighteen” by Yu Hua offers more than one understanding of the meaning behind its creation. The first interpretation of this tale equates the narrator to childhood, and as he progresses through his account of events, he slowly transitions from a child ignorant to the world to an adult who has accepted the arbitrary rules he is governed by. In the second interpretation, the tale represents the transition from capitalism to communism, with the narrator standing in for the generation unaware of the consequences of this transition and the town standing in for those knowledgeable on how the new world operates. The third interpretation of the short story portrays it as being a literal nightmare experienced by the narrator. The boy’s context is a quickly shifting landscape with no rules, much like the dreams and nightmares that haunt us while we sleep. “On the Road at Eighteen” allows for three distinct interpretations to be gleaned, with all three of these interpretations interacting with one another, reinforcing one another and allowing for each to add to the complexity of the storyline.
Hua, Yu. “On the Road at Eighteen.” The Past and the Punishments, The University of Hawaii, 1996.
Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!