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.