Lu Xun (1881-1936), considered by many to be modern China’s most important and influential writer, was passionately engaged with the events and debates that marked the nation’s path to revolution. Though after death his legacy was mobilized by Mao and his followers—Mao himself referred to him as “the sage of modern China” —Lu Xun never joined the party. Instead, as Gloria Davies shows in Lu Xun’s Revolution: Writing in a Time of Violence, he grappled with the tensions that defined his era but remained a humanist deeply committed to the ideal of empathy. Below, Gloria Davies describes Lu Xun’s profound impact on the Chinese language, and the challenge of honestly reading the work of a writer whose legacy has never not been politicized.
My initial intention in writing Lu Xun’s Revolution was to let the essays of his last decade speak of the age in which they appeared. The more immersed in them I became, the more his language demanded continual contextualization, and the contextualization, in turn, led me inevitably to dwell on the modern Chinese sensibilities that he and his contemporaries helped to shape and define.
The result is a book that revolves around the intricacies of Chinese sense-making at a time when, under the myriad intertwined effects of war, politics and commerce, the nascent modern written vernacular, baihua, became at once creative, fluid and highly manipulable. That this language also became increasingly menaced by doctrinal utterances and slogans was a key reason for Lu Xun’s involvement in the polemics that dominated his later years. Like a large majority of educated Chinese, he saw the Communist cause as the best possible hope for a more equitable and just society at the time. However, while he professed admiration for the many true believers he befriended, whom he praised for risking life and limb on the nation’s behalf, he also loathed Communist ideologues, perceiving in them a hunger for fame and power that posed a real threat to true revolutionary change. The same ambivalence is reflected in his conspicuous avoidance of issues concerning party discipline and obedience.
Lu Xun complained that his adversaries had succeeded in wasting his time and energy “that could have been better spent on doing something of real worth.” His posthumous elevation as Mao Zedong’s revolutionary writer of choice ensured that his writings, and his characteristic defence of human empathy and intellectual independence, suffered a complicated fate. To unravel some of that complexity is an important aim of this book and all the more important because Lu Xun’s influence on the Chinese language, as it is used in the People’s Republic, is considerable.
Indeed, precisely because Lu Xun’s legacy is formidably entangled, a degree of patience on the reader’s part is essential. China’s party-state has never ceased to rely on Lu Xun as a source of moral authority, turning him into its perpetual “helper” (bangmangzhe, to recall one of his favourite disparagements). At the same time, critics of the state have also always invoked Lu Xun as an exemplary conscience. Today, disgruntled citizens are fond of quoting Lu Xun to express their own frustrations with life under one-party rule.
Great writers alert us to cultural habits and proclivities to which we sometimes become inured. Lu Xun’s caricatures of Chinese genuflections to power struck a particular chord with his contemporaries and have remained keenly resonant to this day. Thus, the mainland Internet teems with references to the maestro’s remark that educated Chinese know only to wish either for “the times when we longed to be slaves but couldn’t” or for “the times when we succeeded in becoming slaves.” Among other things, these words are now used to imply that under one-party rule a dysfunctional marketplace has turned “wage slavery” and “mortgage slavery” into both highly elusive and ambiguous goals. Similarly, the parodic retranscription of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (Zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi) as “logic with Celestial Empire characteristics” (tianchao tese luoji) feeds off Lu Xun’s insights into the dynastic habits that haunt the unconscious of modern Chinese politics.
Today, when Chinese intellectuals quarrel over his involvement with the League of Chinese Left Wing Writers, they are generally also taking sides on Communist Party rule. On the one hand, Chinese intellectual life has continually broadened since 1978, facilitating a growing pluralism of attitudes: “liberal,” “new left,” “old left,” “third way,” and many others yet to coalesce into recognizable identities. On the other, and despite this discursive enrichment, the party-state remains constitutively intolerant of any challenge to its political monopoly. Party membership has risen steadily because of the advantages it offers, with anxious job-hunting university students turning “the question of entering the Party” (ru dang wenti) into a standard phrase in campus parlance. Meanwhile, the Party itself appears increasingly bereft of genuine ideals and is widely albeit obliquely mocked as an exclusive club for the rich and the corrupt.
Amid these developments and with the ease of digital publishing, interest in Lu Xun has proliferated and soared in the Chinese-speaking world. In 1926, Lu Xun described an anthology of his essays as a “small burial mound in which lies entombed the carapace of what was once a living thing.” In the eight and a half decades since he made that remark, vast mountains of commentary, systematic and non-systematic, have built up over his corpus. Each new work enhances Lu Xun’s immortality yet threatens the vitality of his language by subjecting it to yet more commentary. With these words, readers of my book are thus forewarned: The questions his literary career and life have provoked, and the answers they elicit, are endless.