Social institutions (i.e. general mechanisms of society and patterns of behavior it supports) can trap individuals in predefined, ill-fitting modes of economic undertakings, relationships and conduct even as they establish order and preserve cherished values. In his early 19th century short stories collection Call to Arms, Chinese literary icon Lu Xun criticized the backward and “cannibalistic” practices of the oppressive, feudalistic system present in China at the time. “Hometown,” a semi-autobiographical narrative, was one of those satirical pieces that highlighted the plight of people marginalized by the system.
As the narrator, Xun, settled back at his ancestral home one desolate winter after spending the past twenty years away from it, he reminisced about a friend from his teenage days, Runtu. The son of a temporary odd-job laborer in his household, Runtu would regale him with descriptions of colorful seashells, jumping fish and fierce badger-like wild creatures at his seaside farm—stuff friends in the latter’s usual social circle did not know. As Xun noted trenchantly, while Runtu was at the seaside, he and his friends could only see the four-sided sky framed by the walls of their courtyards. With the revival of these memories, the man finally relished once more the beauty of his hometown. A surreal image of Runtu flashed across middle-aged Xun’s mind: a warrior-like pubescent charged at an exotic beast eyeing his crops with a pitchfork in a sand field while a golden orb hung above him in the deep blue sky. The beast, however, twisted its body and escaped under his legs.