In a mantra-like fashion, Lu Xun (born Zhou Shuren, 1881-1936) was called the “sage of modern China” by Mao Zedong, spurring his posthumous popularity. A modern author, Lu Xun may not deserve the appellation “sage,” usually reserved for Confucius and the like. But, like the ancient sages, schoolchildren have been required to study and memorize his texts, and as a result he is rarely read or liked. Then again, he’s proclaimed to be China’s greatest modern author — although he died before the People’s Republic was founded, and long before the PRC’s proud modernizations. That he lived during an earlier period of modernization in China, before it adopted regressive policies, usually goes unremarked. Looking back, he is an author for this modern China.

Known, after his death, primarily for his fiction, during his lifetime he published hundreds of non-fiction texts in various newspapers and magazines. He promulgated arguments against the government, tradition, conservatism, apathy, and people he simply didn’t like. Jottings Under Lamplight is comprised primarily of new translations of a wide selection of these pieces. Anyone who reads Chinese history and politics will find much to enjoy — he savages many, including himself, but his main target is symbolized by a slide show he saw in class during his student days in Japan, in which a group of Chinese apathetically watch the execution of one of their countrymen for the political crime of spying on Japanese colonists.

This look of apathy instilled in Lu Xun a deep, unshakeable pessimism, but also the conviction that good writing should be able to shake one out of one’s slumber. It’s ironic today, in an increasingly self-satisfied China, that he is sometimes upheld as a model of perfect prose as well as a paragon of behavior. For, although he eventually cast his lot with the communist revolutionaries, he took a dim view of literature bound by state sanction or any kind of morality — in particular, any kind that touted itself as a national renewal, attempting to recover a national identity or culture. He saw Chinese culture — and by extension, Chinese politics — as having intrinsic problems that couldn’t be cured by reinstating Chinese-ness.

Chinese culture is a culture of servitude to the master. It trades on the suffering of many people. Whether they are Chinese or foreigners, all those who praise Chinese culture are simply seeing themselves in the role of the master. (“The Old Tunes Are Finished,” 174)

Though his revolutionary sympathies shouldn’t be taken lightly, he didn’t see the revolution as a fix-all. In particular, he wondered about the role of the writer — a vocation he saw as synonymous with the critic — in a society that claimed to have solved its problems. In this regard, it’s tempting to read Lu Xun as one would read the ancient sages: Without an unstable situation they would have had little to write about; with stability, they would not have be allowed to proceed.

Writers of keen sensibility may once again be dissatisfied with the status quo and again be ready to speak out. The political revolutionaries had previously endorsed the writers’ words, but when the revolution succeeded, its politicians began to adopt the methods they had originally opposed. And the artists, inevitably dissatisfied, had to be barred or beheaded. (“The Divergence of Art and Politics,” 215)

He said of himself that he was “in-between”: in-between time periods; in-between styles; in-between societies. If he had not been in-between, we might not have these essays, which makes Sun Saiyin’s Beyond the Iron House: Lu Xun and the Modern Chinese Literary Field a remarkable resource for locating within the writer Lu Xun an individual pulled in a number of directions, who never settled.

Sun Saiyin looks squarely at the post-1949 deification of Lu Xun, tracing his popularity to Mao Zedong’s proclamation, and the subsequent use of carefully selected works for propaganda purposes. She notes that, although he was certainly popular in his own time, “there was no evidence of him being as sensational as literary history has told us, or indeed any evidence of his works causing any kind of public stir or interest.” (Sun, 18)

This becomes especially interesting in her discussion of contemporaries who began as Lu Xun’s allies, then became his enemies — in particular, the writer Gao Changhong (1898-1954). It has been argued by defenders of the contemporary, PRC-backed version of Lu Xun that Gao deservedly fell afoul of Lu Xun for immoral behavior and political naivety. Sun argues, however, that Lu Xun destroyed Gao’s literary career partly for petty reasons, including that Lu Xun simply feared his competition.

Sun never descends into character assassination, but offers compelling evidence that Lu Xun was no saint. For example, a book of Gao’s prose poetry edited by Lu Xun, Adventures of the Mind (1925), was partially imitated by Lu Xun in his Wild Grass (1927). While she patiently compares poems, never damning Lu Xun’s behavior — how can we really know what happened so long ago — she looks askance at those who still seek to deify him for his contemporary political relevance.

The takeaway, however, is not that Lu Xun was as flawed as the rest of us. It’s that he and his modern China are distant, and can only be understood by thoroughly researching, as well as reinterpreting what he was saying and how he was saying it – meditating on the “in-betweeness” that characterized both his life and writing. Neither essays nor prose poems are easily codified forms, and even his fiction can be difficult to understand. Its appeal is specific to the context of its composition and distribution, rather than universal. If his works resonate with us today, we are lucky one the one hand lucky, but on the other misfortunate — who would want to live in a world like his, overrun with militarism and nativist resentment?

Yet if Lu Xun was pessimistic about his times, he was also impossibly hopeful. Rather, his hope was impossible because he could not argue against it. So it’s fitting to conclude with a conversation that crystallizes his “in-betweeness” — in-between hope and despair, in-between revolution and writing — recorded in his preface to Outcry:

“Suppose there is an iron house, without a single window or door and virtually indestructible. Inside are many inhabitants sleeping soundly, all about to suffocate to death. Since they would die in their sleep, they wouldn’t feel the agony of death. Now if you were to call out, awakening those few who are dozing lightly, leading these unfortunate few to suffer the agony of facing a sure death, do you think you would be doing them any good?”

“But if a few people are awakened, you can’t say that there’s absolutely no hope  of destroying the iron house.”

Indeed, in spite of my own convictions, when it came to the matter of hope, I had no way of blotting out its existence. Because hope is something that lies in the future, I couldn’t possibly use my conviction in its nonexistence as evidence to refute his belief in it.

Jottings Under Lamplight (2017) by Lu Xun, edited by Eileen Cheng and Kirk Denton (2017) is published by Harvard University Press. Sun Saiyin’s Beyond the Iron House: Lu Xun and the Modern Chinese Literary Field (2017) is published by Routledge. Both are available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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Matt Turner

Matt Turner's writings can be found in Seedings, Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel, and Bookforum. He has translated or co-translated Lu Xun, Chan Chi Tak, Yan Jun and Hu Jiujiu, and is prose editor...