Essay of Chen Ruoxi’s “The Tunnel”

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Summary of “The Tunnel”

“The Tunnel” beings with the story of Master Hong, a 64-year-old factory worker in Nanjing forced to retire under Maoist Chinese rule. Master Hong’s experience occurs during the Cultural Revolution, a Chinese socio-political movement that took place from 1966 until 1976, a period which forced men to retire at 60 years of age. Master Hong does not understand why the forced retirement policy applies to him. Chinese factory workers experienced forced early retirement more frequently than university professors who requested permission but “were not allowed to do so” according to Master Hong’s high-level intellectual son (290). Master Hong feels like he should work for another three years because the factory felt like home. Yet while political disruptions delayed Master Hong from retiring for one year, the Cultural Revolution forced him to adjust. Master Hong reflects fondly on his days as a factory worker and as head of household with strong ties to the CCP (Ruoxi 291). During the “purification campaigns” of 1968, in which Mao attempted to rid factories of counter-revolutionaries, Master Hong first heard of Li Mei, a woman whose husband worked at the factory and who was a vehement anti-Maoist (292). Master Hong meets Li Mei in Winter 1970 after Mao commanded that all major Chinese cities construct air-raid tunnels to protect against Russian hydrogen bombs (292, 294). Master Hong lives near the tunnel and eventually receives a draft notice to direct work. 

Li Mei, now divorced, works with Master Hong in the tunnel, and Master Hong develops an emotional attraction to Li Mei. However, a professor of civil engineering observes structural flaws in the tunnel that caused houses to collapse. The professor then calls upon the Chinese government to halt construction (294-295). Master Hong longs for Li Mei and attempts to court her. Master Hong then confesses his desire to marry Li Mei despite objections from his family (297). Master Hong’s son and daughter-in-law forbid him from meeting with Li Mei. However, Master Hong and Li Mei eventually meet every two or three weeks. One hot summer night, the two walk inside a large air-raid tunnel only to have it close on them for a week. 

Critical Analysis of “The Tunnel”

“The Tunnel” represents both the individual and collective memories of the Cultural Revolution. Many fictionalized accounts of the Cultural Revolution, including Ruoxi’s short story, however, did not appear in cultural markets until the 1990s (Yang 14-15). Considering how Ruoxi wrote “The Tunnel” in 1978, her short story presents a unique glimpse of how older adults forced into retirement understood and experienced the Cultural Revolution. Historically, Ruoxi’s short story recalls the New Gushi Movement, a literary genre launched by the CCP from 1962 until 1966, to meet political and ideological needs of socialist education campaigns before the Cultural Revolution occurred. The New Gushi Movement belonged to a political program aimed at correcting numerous cultural, ideological, and political mistakes of the Great Leap Forward that had disproportionate economic effects on rural Chinese farmers (You 262). While the New Gushi Movement initially served to re-educate CCP cadres, a campaign to focus educational efforts on class struggle eventually dominated movement activities (262). The New Gushi Movement then spread from the countryside to major cities, including Nanjing where "The Tunnel" takes place, where many younger intellectuals adopted Maoist doctrine. 

As with many nationalist political movements, the Cultural Revolution was an "invented tradition" that entrenched socio-political practices governing behaviors specific to different classes of Chinese citizens (You 261). The Cultural Revolution was an invented tradition to the extent that Maoist rule demanded rapid social transformations. The Cultural Revolution not only entrenched forced retirement for men over 60 years of age and for women over 55 years of age but also instituted social hierarchies that kept some groups from developing interpersonal relationships. While some individuals, such as Li Mei's former husband, vehemently resisted the Cultural Revolution, the forced retirement of Master Hong implies that political struggle under Mao demanded repression of individual beliefs in a right to work at any age (Yang 17). The Cultural Revolution, thus, forced many older adults to live in a state of repression that left them unable to share their stories. Summarily, Ruoxi's short story represents the individual and collective memory that draws upon a literary history of socio-political victimization.

Despite his name, Master Hong lacks the formal education necessary to make any further economic contributions through work. Master Hong’s son, a high-level intellectual, acts uncritically towards the CCP and its political actions that demanded the forced retirement of older adults (Ruoxi 298). In conjunction with forced retirement, the “New Marriage Laws” drawn by the CCP encouraged all Chinese citizens to break ties with counter-revolutionaries (298). Despite his lack of formal education, Master Hong recognizes that Maoist ideology contains a double standard. While the Cultural Revolution mandated that only revolutionaries can relate with other revolutionaries, divorce was the ultimate mark of social contamination despite how Mao himself divorced and remarried (298). While Master Hong knows that information, its discussion would likely result in charges of slander for engaging in counter-revolutionary activity (298). Considering how Mao himself was more than ten years older than Master Hong when “The Tunnel” takes place, the double standard indicates that socio-political mandates forcing older adults into retirement do not apply to those who entrench them. 

In “The Tunnel,” Ruoxi considers how the happiness of both Master Hong and Li Mei remain at stake under Maoist rule. Accordingly, the double standard of the CCP concerning retirement and marriage policies indicates how many invented traditions that emerged from the Cultural Revolution merely reinforced past social expectations (Ruoxi 298; You 261). Though Master Hong clearly expresses a willingness to face social ridicule for pursuing a relationship with a divorcee, his son and daughter-in-law do not acknowledge the importance of maintaining a happy and productive life into old age. Considering Master Hong's loyalty to revolutionary causes, the fact that Ruoxi's short story recalls the New Gushi Movement indicates further how the Cultural Revolution prohibited many factory workers from telling their personal history (You 262-263). While the Chinese collective memory of Maoist rule emphasized a connection between youth and happiness, the forced retirement of Master Hong occurs within a socio-political climate that mandated self-denial to sustain nationalist revolutionary purposes.  


The preceding critical analysis of "The Tunnel" suggested that older adults forced into retirement by members a nationalist political revolution headed by a much older individual lived under a double standard that equated youth with happiness. Chen Ruoxi's short story, in recalling the New Gushi Movement, provided a complex glimpse into how such a double standard forced older adults to live in a state of repressed victimhood. While the Cultural Revolution entrenched an invented tradition that forced individuals to establish relationships along strict party lines, the relationship between Master Hong and Li Mei suggested that no double standard applied collectively should ever determine how much happiness each individual rightfully deserves. 

Works Cited

Ruoxi, Chen. “The Tunnel,” translated by Chi-Chen Wang. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature. 3rd ed. Edited by Joseph S. M. Lau and Howard Goldblatt. Columbia UP, 2007, pp. 289-302. 

Yang, Guobin. “Days of Old Are Not Puffs of Smoke: Three Hypotheses on Collective Memories of the Cultural Revolution.” China Review, vol. 5, no. 2, 2005, pp. 13-41. 

You, Ziying. “Tradition and Ideology: Creating and Performing New Gushi in China, 1962-1966. Asian Ethnology, vol. 71, no. 2, 2012, pp. 259-280.