Lu Xun the legacy

Updated: 2011-09-23 07:49

By Chitralekha Basu, Yang Guang and Mei Jia (China Daily)

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Lu Xun the legacy

Does the man who is considered a giant of 20th century literature continue to influence the current generation of writers and readers? Chitralekha Basu, Yang Guang and Mei Jia mull the issue.

Lu Xun is easily the most recognizable face of 20th century Chinese literature. He would have been 130 on Sunday (Sept 25), but in popular imagination it is the image of a 50-ish Lu Xun - scruffy-haired, mustachioed, square-jawed and imbued with a steely gaze - that has endured. In Lu Xun's case, the image becomes the writer. In fact, the role he played in public life has often taken precedence over his writing, feeding into his iconic aura.

He snipped off his queue (the braid Chinese men wore as a token of deference to Manchu rule from 1644-1911) as a young language student in Tokyo; and openly defied his boss, the minister of education, when several of his students were killed by the warlord government at a peaceful demonstration in Beijing in 1926.

Lu Xun's actions were a public example of extraordinary courage and moral rectitude.

He was feisty, a somewhat controversial lover who walked out of his marriage to be with a woman 16 years his junior, a firm believer in the politics of the Left, who fought relentlessly with orthodox members of the Communist Party of China, and a totally dedicated writer, driven by a restless moral anxiety about the country's present state and its future.

But that was then. This was a China ravaged by 150 years of foreign aggression since the Opium War (1839-1842) and riddled with internal strife, with no decent literature that might connect with the people, let alone inspire them to work toward building a national identity - as the reformist Liang Qichao (1873-1929) famously said, "Chinese novels teach us either robbery or lust".

The scene was set for the arrival of a Lu Xun. And Lu Xun, a medical student in Sendai, Japan, threw away his surgeon's scalpel to pick up the pen and respond to that call.

The rather dramatic turnaround came about after he had seen an image from the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), of a Chinese man, a suspected Russian spy, being beheaded by Japanese soldiers as a crowd of Chinese stood by, watching passively.

At a time when China enjoys relative prosperity, could Lu Xun's idea of using writing "to cure the nation's diseased mind" be past its sell-by date? Is he just a metaphor of language reform in the early 20th-century, the man who invested the language of everyday speech with the dignity of literary use? A "literary giant" against whom all the Chinese writers who followed must be measured, some times a tad uncomfortably?

Earlier this year, when asked if she shared similar moral concerns as Lu Xun about the nation's future, 20-something best-selling author Zhang Yueran said she was engaged with different themes.

Not so the writer Li Er, whose unsparing, often jarring descriptions of the macabre and predilection for fantasy are, sometimes, reminiscent of Lu Xun's style.

"While writing Truth and Variations, I did try writing about 3,000 words imitating Lu Xun's diction. It's my tribute to him," he says.

Li sees Lu Xun as a repository of pain. "He was the most pained person in modern China".

Dogged as he was by "pain, depression and nihilism", Lu Xun "never gave up hope", Li hastens to add. "This is what is worth emulating today."

Lu Xun's skepticism, says Canaan Morse, a prolific translator and a publishing consultant with Paper Republic, might be a useful tool for writers, especially now.

"Lu Xun was a thoroughgoing skeptic, which is one reason why his insight was so penetrating and his literary acumen so sharp," he says. "Nothing was sacred and no one was spared. That he also had the guts to put his insights into print was commendable."

A lot of that cynicism was, in fact, directed at himself. As Julia Lovell points out in her succinct introduction to The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: Complete Fiction of Lu Xun (Penguin Classics), Lu Xun "draws himself and his audience into the crowd of numb spectators", who seem to be in passive collusion with the ineffectual government that might be held responsible for people's suffering.

"Reading Lu Xun is actually a way of interrogating ourselves," says Sun Yu, former director of Beijing Lu Xun Museum and dean of College of Liberal Arts, Renmin University of China. "The works of Lu Xun are almost all eruptions of his innermost thoughts."

Even so, getting to the core of Lu Xun's "innermost heart" may not be an easy task. "The older he gets, the more he realizes he has departed from the old ways of expression. His translation gets more bitter and obscure. In terms of thoughts and aesthetics, Lu Xun has always been other than normal."

Lu Xun gained a wider reach with an English-speaking audience after the Penguin translation of his works came out in 2009.

"I've received letters from English professors, who've added Lu Xun to their canon of great 20th-century writers of short fiction," says Lovell, the translator. "I've also had correspondence with people without any background in Chinese or literary studies, who read the stories and found that the tableaux of his Shaoxing childhood reminded them of their own."

The youth in China, however, often connect with Lu Xun at a different level. Introduced to works such as Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk, a collection of reminiscences, as early as in junior high school, youngsters often end up naming each other after the archetypal characters in Lu Xun's fiction - Ah Q, the bumbling and mischievous village idiot, Xianglin, the whining, long-suffering, exploited housemaid, Kong Yiji, a hard-drinking wastrel and a thief, forever waiting to pass his imperial examination.

"My mother used to call me 'Aunt Xianglin', mocking me for repeating words and talking too much," says Dai Anmei, a second-year student at a senior high school in Chengdu, Sichuan province. "I always wanted to know who Xianglin was."

When she did discover her in the story New Year's Sacrifice, it wasn't a particularly happy experience. Following the listless death of the poor woman, a victim of ruthless social apathy, was anything but pleasant.

But the next time round, Dai approached the story with a better sense of perspective. "I feel lucky to be born and brought up in a new time. Chinese society has become more open and developed. We're way better than in the past," she says. "Lu Xun's works make us aware of the value of the life we have, and teach us to respect the progress this country has made."

Her classmate, Li Wei, agrees that Lu Xun offers an invaluable key to decode China's history. "By exposing darkness in the society of the past and the ignorance of people at that time, Lu Xun guides us as to what we might keep and what ought to be abandoned."

Li Shi, who has been teaching Lu Xun at the school for 26 years, has tried adapting new-age teaching methods, moving in sync with the times.

"I played a movie based on New Year's Sacrifice to complement the teaching. While previously students would giggle and get taken up with irrelevant details, they showed a strong emotional involvement while watching this movie. They understood the struggle of the hapless woman Xianglin and were fully engaged by the story."

It's a gift they are learning to appreciate early on.

Lu Xun the legacy

(China Daily 09/23/2011 page19)